Let Me Digress

Kathryn Hore - Writer

Category: Screen Stories

Spoiler Alert

It’ll come as no surprise to anyone that my social media feeds include a lot of nerdy geeky types. You know, considering I’m one of that particular SFF loving, comic-book reading, pop-culture enjoying, fandom participating, fanfiction obsessing, book nerd crew.

And in case you didn’t notice, the world of geeky fandom has kind of blown up over the last week with the release of the latest Marvel superhero flick which kind of, well –

SPOILER ALERT

– kills everyone in the entire history of the MCU, as last as far as I can tell.

Or not. I haven’t actually seen it as yet. With two kids under 6, a full time info governance career, my own writing pursuits and the usual domestic/life/family things to be done, I don’t get to the movies so much anymore. I’m the type of person who has to schedule in downtime – I’m serious here, 3-4 nights a week between 9.45-10.30pm I have literally calendared “do nothing but stare at a screen playing mindless entertainment”. It’s probably not a good sign when you start scheduling relaxation into your calendar. It’s undoubtedly worse when you regularly skip it to get work done.

Personal life-choices aside, I will eventually get to see the latest Avengers flick in which everyone dies – spoiler alert? – but it won’t be until it turns up on a streaming or download service of some kind, so we’re talking some while away yet.

In the meantime, my social media feeds are filled with friends and acquaintances and those weird randoms I must’ve followed for some reason once, but can’t remember now who they are or why I wanted their trivia in my feed, and who are all currently posting exactly the same thing:

Just seen the Avengers – OMG! NO SPOILERS! DON’T READ ANY SPOILERS!

Because apparently it’s no longer merely a sin to spoil plot twists in pop cultural products for other people, but it’s now some kind of geek-fandom sin to just spoil it for yourself.

Hmmm.

So for all you MCU lovers, and for all you lovers of cinema in general – and books and any other story-telling medium – who like to go in fresh and unspoiled, I wanted to tell you something. Know what I did? Deliberately did within barely a few hours of the latest Avengers flick hitting the worldwide cinemas?

I googled “Infinity War spoilers” and ventured out to the internet to read every damn spoiler for the movie I could lay my hands on.

See, I love a good spoiler. I often enjoy a movie more if I go in prepared for what I’m about to see. Perhaps that’s because I like to think about the pop culture I’m consuming within its broader cultural context – blame that old cultural studies honours year of mine back in the “yay postmodernism!” 90s – or maybe it’s just because I don’t have time to waste on something that doesn’t pay out, so I want to know in advance it’s worth it. But I certainly like to go in knowing what’s going to happen.

It can be a useful thing to be happy with spoilers. I’m one of those Australians who loves Game of Thrones but who’s not prepared to give Bad Old Uncle Murdoch a single red-cent, so I won’t subscribe to his pay TV channel to see it fresh. Instead, I wait until the season ends and buy it to download, after everyone else has already watched it. But as the season plays for the first time I do read all the recaps of each episode and follow what’s happening as it happens. I’m full up with spoilers by the time I get to actually watching it for myself.

And I’ll let you into a wee secret: not once in my entire history of seeking out spoilers have I ever experienced a moment of consuming pop culture where I felt I had a lesser viewing, reading or entertainment experience for knowing what was going to happen. I enjoy it all as equally as if I’d gone in blind. Every second of it. Indeed, I’d argue I enjoy it more.

Maybe it’s just me. Going by the reams of internet “no spoilers!” obsessives cluttering up my feeds at the moment, I’m pretty certain I’m in a minority on this.

As I’m of a generation which grew up without the internet – I didn’t get my first email address until I was a post-graduate student, that’s how old I am – there are movies I have seen where I went in entirely unspoiled, and I’ve tried to recall if it made a difference. I guessed the twist to The Sixth Sense while watching it (I’m a huge fan of ghost stories and the “he’s actually dead the whole time” twist appears in several major ghost tales, so I was actively on the lookout for it), but I loved that film regardless. I grew up watching The Sting, so can’t remember a time when I didn’t know all the twists and turns of that one.

I didn’t know or foresee the twist at the end of The Usual Suspects, and I adore that film, but would I really have loved it any less for knowing? I’ve watched it, just as I have the others above, multiple times since first seeing it, and I love it the same on each repeated viewing.

So does it really spoil anything to know the twist, or plot points, or who dies in advance? I’d argue not.

Now, I’ve been talking mostly about movies here, with a bit of TV thrown in. But when it comes to books, I don’t seek out the spoilers so actively. Someone’s suggested to me in the past that perhaps I don’t invest as much in movies as I do in books, so I’m still going in unspoiled when my fiction is prose and written down on the page. But I’d argue it’s actually because I don’t read that many modern books, especially ones that rely on twists or unexpected plot points. It also takes me longer to commit to a novel than it does to a TV show or film, so I’m not as emotionally engaged when I start a novel and it’s not until I’m well into it that I’ll be interested in finding out spoilers. I also love to re-read novels, and read classic novels, that I already know intimately, so for much of my reading I’m long spoiled already.

So did I really enjoy The Count of Monte Cristo the less for knowing who was behind all those masks and schemes right up front, simply because the book is over 170 years old? (Though I did see a Spoiler Alert posted for it in an online forum once. Seriously people, I think a book dating to the 19th century is probably beyond the spoiler alert requirement.) Do I somehow have less of a reading experience as a twenty-first century reader for knowing ahead of time that Wickham is a cad in Pride and Prejudice, long before Lizzy realises? For knowing that dissolute Sydney Carton gives up his life in heroic sacrifice so Charles and Lucie can be together in A Tale of Two Cities? For knowing that Gatsby dies well before the end?

I’ve never gone into most books fresh and unspoiled. I go in knowing their plots well in advance and loving them for it. And I don’t see how that enjoyment changes just because I’m reading a modern works or watching new films, or TV, or other stories regardless of medium, where it’s technically possible to be unspoiled. I still like to know what I’m in for.

So I’ll say it, loud and proud – I love a good spoiler.

Still, one thoughtful anecdote, to end…

Many years ago, I was going out with a chap who’d grown up loathing Shakespeare. No, I don’t understand it either, and its probably unsurprising our relationship didn’t last the distance, but the fact is he’d actively avoided having anything to do with Shakespeare-related stuff all his life. Until he went out with me and I dragged him to the theatre on a regular basis. For his 30th birthday I took him to see a production of Hamlet. And because of the way he’d grown up, he had no idea what it was about. Not a single clue of any character, plot point or thematic emphasis at all. At the age of 30, this chap was watching Hamlet for the very first time and went in totally cold and unspoiled, if also cynical about the likelihood of enjoyment of it.

I have never in my life seen anyone grip the arms of their chair the way that chap did through the climax of Hamlet. He cried at the death of Ophelia. When Hamlet and Laetres are fighting, and Gertrude picks up the poisoned drink, he literally burst out loud to say “oh god, no, don’t”. This guy was the literal personification of “edge of the seat”. The sheer tension and terror he experienced watching it – and it probably helped it was a very fine production with excellent acting and direction – was amazing for me to witness sitting next to him, and the chance to watch something like Hamlet fresh, without any prior cultural knowledge, as an adult, is an experience I don’t think many in our society have.

So maybe there is something in avoiding spoilers after all.

It still won’t stop me seeking them out at every given opportunity….

So. The female Dr Who thing.

I have opinions on the new Dr Who announcement, specifically on the Dr being a chick, and just because I haven’t watched the show for some years doesn’t mean I don’t have a right to shout my opinions into the cyber-void like the rest of the geek-minded world.

So, here goes. As a feminist and as a proud geek, I have only one thing to say: I don’t give a fuck whether the new Dr Who regenerates as a man or as a woman.

As a storyteller, however, I think Jodie Whittaker’s casting is just fab. 🙂

Let’s just stop and dissect that a little:

As a feminist, I don’t give a fuck

This might seem a little counter-intuitive, but the fact is, hiring a woman as the lead in a long-running television show is not actually going to advance the cause of feminism in any meaningful way. No, seriously. Nobody is going to earn equal pay, break through any glass ceilings, gain respect for unpaid, domestic or caring vocational callings, or suffer less from systematic, structural gendered inequalities, simply because Dr Who now possesses a vag.

And yes, I know, I know, “representation matters”. Sure. It’s nice. We all like it. I just don’t actually think it matters that much. I grew up watching Ripley, Sarah Conner, Buffy, even Leia held her own, despite being like the only woman in the entire damn galaxy.

I don’t think these fictional characters taught me women could kick-arse. I already knew women could kick arse. But I loved seeing it on the screen, I loved seeing me – or an idealised, wannabe, fantasy me, because let’s face it, I was never going to fight terminators or vampires or aliens in reality and if I did, I wouldn’t be the one still standing at the end of the night.

I am really happy there’s another awesome strong female lead on the tele for today’s young girls to watch and cheer for. Woohoo, cool, you go girls. I just don’t think that makes much of a difference when it comes to breaking down the systematic and structural gendered inequalities inherent in our culture, politics and economics.

As a proud geek, I don’t give a fuck

As a geek, all I want is to see someone awesome in the role of the Doctor. Peter Capaldi was perfect. And Jodi Whittaker looks like she’ll be awesome too. Excellent. I think they chose well. But as a geek, I didn’t care right, left or centre if they hired male or female or beyond the binary for the role. There were some excellent male possibilities who, as a geek, I would’ve been quite happy to see in the role of the Doctor. That’s all I have to say on that matter.

As a storyteller, the Dr being a woman is the Best. Thing. Ever.

But as a storyteller now, making Dr Who a woman is a wonderful, long-overdue, awesome move that I am cheering to see.

It’s like this: any fictional character who’s physical presence is not in any way inherent or permanent, does not need to be bound by binary gender concepts, and should absolutely not be tied down to a single gender type. And considering the Doctor’s personality has altered with every regeneration, so his character changes every time, there is absolutely no storytelling reason for the Doctor not to be a woman.

But more – not only does it make storytelling sense for the Doctor to be a woman in some regenerations, by not having a female Doctor at least once or twice in the show’s history, a huge storytelling opportunity is missed.

Why do we tell stories? Why do we consume (watch/read/listen) to them? One of the reasons must be to explore, who we are, individually, collectively, and what makes us so, internally, also externally, our broader context and our self. Subjectivity and objectivity. All that jazz. A character like the Doctor, who is not tied to a specific physical presence, who regenerates into someone new every few years, offers immense scope to explore and investigate such concepts. Indeed, every time the Doctor regenerated back when I watched it, there was always a sense of discovering who this new Doctor was, and him working this out through his interactions with others. It’ll be interesting to see how this is influenced by the change in gender.

It made me think of Richard Morgan‘s Takeshi Kovac’s series, of which I am a huge fan (far more so than I am a Dr Who fan, actually). In Kovac’s world, digitised personalities slip on and off ‘sleeves’ – physical bodies – with startling ease. Only once, in the first book, does he wear a female sleeve, and it’s a pretty brutal end to that physical presence, but I always thought Morgan did that switch in gender exceedingly well, and I always wished he’d have explored this more.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a criticism of that book series. I don’t think it was necessary for Morgan to go down that path and it wasn’t really the point of the books. He chose not to, no problemo. But for me personally, I would have found it interesting to explore Kovacs as a female. To explore, too, gender post the binary in a world where physical presence is fleeting and sexuality potentially fluid. It’s fleetingly touched on, when Kovacs pretends to be a hetero woman in a male sleeve, but he chooses not to go there in any major way. For me, that leaves a whole host of storytelling territory untouched that would have been fascinating.

Anyhoo, there’s no law that says an author must explore the storytelling territory I personally find interesting, and maybe that’s why I’m a writer, because I have interests and areas I want to explore in fiction, so I write the stuff myself. And I will always, *always* adore one of Morgan’s other books, Black Man, (Thirteen in the US) for it’s final few pages (well, for lots of reasons, but its ending too), when the hyper-masculine 13 meets a female 13 and is totally thrown to understand that his gender perhaps does not necessarily make much difference.

Anyway. I’ve digressed. Again.

In short, I love that the new Doctor is female, but not for the reasons you might think. Or maybe they are. Either way, I might just give it a watch again.

Or I might just go read Morgan’s books again.

Or maybe go write something of my own to explore issues of gender and sexuality when not tied to a single physical presence.

 

 

Reading post-kids

When I was preggo for the first time, I got a lot of tips and warnings and advice on what my life would be like after the baby came along. None of which prepared me in the slightest, by the way. Anyway, the one thing nobody actually bothered to warn me about, but which I could have used the warnings for, was just how dramatically having kids would impact on my reading choices.

Seriously, it’s like I’ve done a complete 180 here. I’ve always been a lover of dark fiction, right? Horror, noir, the uncanny. Now I head into such reads with significant trepidation, because there be monsters, you know… But not just any monsters. Very particular monsters. Narrowly defined, tightly specific monsters.

I’m talking about the “hurt children” monsters.

And I can no longer cope with them.

It’s not an uncommon thing, so I’m told. The inability to read about or watch anything that involves children being hurt, or in my case, children being hurt or missing or damaged or vaguely anguished or mildly disappointed or occasionally distracted from perfect blissful peace, because ffffffffuck me if I haven’t become a sensitive soul in my middle-aged motherhood.

You might think this is a small thing. And it is. It’s not exactly geo-political-cold-war-negotiations level significance in the world. But it’s also the thing I was least ready for from motherhood and considering the dark and horror fiction is supposed to delve into uneasy, disturbing and confronting subject matter, then dear innocent children are often excellent subject matter for creators of such fictions to use as story fodder, and suddenly I find myself cut out of a good many reading experiences.

It’s driving me more than a bit batty.

Like the other day. There I was, trawling audible.com – as one with a significant driving commute tends to do – and coming across a rather well-reviewed horror novel with an interesting premise. Goodo, just let me download that and try it out.

So I start listening to Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt and by about half a dozen chapters in I can say the premise remains interesting, even if the execution thus far isn’t entirely to my taste. But that’s okay, not everything is, and the reviews are pretty good, so it’s the kind of thing I’d probably keep reading (or listening to, as is the case) and I suspect after getting a bit further in I’d forget about the fact the prose style doesn’t really do it for me and just be caught up in the story.

All good. Except. The very early chapters set up a premise that’s clearly intended for pay off later in the novel – teenagers teasing their parents with rhetorical/philosophical questions over which one of them they’d save and which one they’d let die if forced to such an awful choice. And one of the spoiler-free reviews I stumbled across happened to mention that the 300 year old evil witch haunting figure in the novel cursed the town after being forced to make just such a choice, kill one child to save another. And…

Nope. Sorry. Not going there. Won’t do it to myself. Six very short chapters in and I’m done.

This is no reflection on this particular book. While the prose style didn’t grab me, the story may well have if I’d given it longer, and it’s not the fault of the book I can’t cope with the idea of children being hurt by their parents, or parents forced to such horrific choices. It’s horror, people. It’s meant to disturb and upset in a safe, fictional kind of way. That’s the point of the genre.

But that’s the thing about this kind of subject matter. Since I had kids of my own it’s no longer so safe, or even so fictional. The real world intrudes of the fictional one for me now, to the point where I can’t read about a family in a small town with a  300 year old ghost that hangs about and everybody is just used to, without thinking about my own kids. And as soon as that happens, bam. It’s not fictional upset anymore, it’s genuine, real-world anxiety.

And I am not likely to deliberately up my real-life anxiety levels just for the sake of finishing a novel that didn’t really grab me to begin with, know what I mean?

All of which makes me a pretty selective horror-genre reader these days. My social media feeds went a bit nuts when the teaser trailer for the remake of It hit, because apparently it looks like a good adaptation of the book. Not that I’d know, because I’m not going to watch it. I’m not even watching the trailer. The inciting incident of that novel is the death of the protagonist’s younger brother at the hands of Pennywise, so no, not for me, not anymore. Despite the fact I loved that novel back when I was fifteen and based an entire Genre vs LitFic debate with my far more literary English teacher around it.

The acclaimed new adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, which all of my feminist friends are going nuts over? Yeah, I’m not watching that either. You do know they steal her kid off her, right?

I have made myself read through this block, when the book is good enough. David Mitchell’s Slade House opens with a doomed child. His The Bone Clocks also involves the disappearance of a child. I’m a fan of Mitchell from way back and I wanted to read both those books and I did. I am glad I did. I loved both of them. But it took some dogged determination to work through the hurt-kids bits.

I still haven’t read Helen Garner’s This House of Grief. I adore Garner’s non-fiction work. I’ve been a huge fan since first reading The First Stone back int he 90s, and not just because I was at Melbourne Uni through that entire period and lost track of the number of arts-undergrad arguments I got into because I agreed with Garner’s take on things at the time. But I can not read her take on the Farquharson murders. I can’t bring myself to do so.

Oh, and I’m so glad I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved all those years ago, because no way could I cope with it now, and it’s just one of those books that should be read.

So what’s the point of all this?

The point is that I don’t just read for escapism. If you do, that’s cool, more power to you. Sometimes escapism is what I want, and if that’s all I was after, all the time, then no probs. I’d just read that which doesn’t challenge me too much and relax into it and have a good time.

But I also read – or watch narrative screen stories – because I want to be challenged and provoked and unsettled. I want to be made to think in a way that hadn’t occurred to me before. I want to engage intellectually and emotionally with the fictional narratives I’m consuming. And horror and dark fiction is meant to turn our common fears upside down and shake them around, pull them apart, dissect, slash, tear and ground them into pieces, then stick those pieces back together in a grotesque imitation of truth.

Fiction is meant to confront and challenge and provoke. I read it for those reasons. But now I’m finding myself actively avoiding the most confronting variations of it.

Which annoys the hell out of me, because I’m not the kind of reader to avoid confronting fiction. Or at least I wasn’t before. But post-parenthood me turns out to be quite the sook when it comes to selecting reading matter.

And that is probably the most unexpected change becoming a parent has brought to my life. Just how big a sook I can now be.

 

Review – Film: The Baader-Meinhof Complex

Film: Der Baader Meinhof Komplex / The Baader-Meinhof Complex
Director: Uli Edel
Writer: Bernd Eichinger
Based on the book by Stefan Aust

There’s a scene in The Baader-Meinhof Complex where Andreas Baader, the charismatic and hypocritical, not to mention borderline psychotic, leader of the Red Army Faction chucks a tanty in the middle of a Middle-Eastern training camp. Standing up amid the barbed wire he and his comrades have been crawling under, he literally stamps his feet and screams about the hard work. They weren’t fighting a desert war, they didn’t need this, they were urban guerrillas. They needed to know how to rob banks.

The moment epitomises, not without humour, the capriciousness and superficial rhetoric constantly employed by the RAF in this explosive film from Uli Edel and Bernd Eichinger (Downfall). The Baader-Meinhof Complex is a detail packed, two and a half hour movie charting the rise of the RAF, otherwise known as the Baader-Meinhof Group, who were responsible for violent robberies, kidnappings, bombings and assassinations throughout 1970s cold-war Germany.

Beginning in 1967, we’re introduced to a generation of German youth struggling to understand how their parents allowed Nazism to rise. A peaceful student protest is set upon by pro-Iranian Shah thugs, with the support, then active participation, of police. It’s a scene of heart-thudding brutality, visceral and frightening in its confusion and quick edits, with the audience placed right in the middle of the chaos. Yet such sympathetic motivation almost immediately gives way to political posturing and empty dogma as the RAF are formed. They speak constantly in awkward utopian statements – indeed, the dialogue is so staged at times, one can only wonder how they ever managed any coordinated action at all – as they co-opt such real causes to fit their own doctrinaire prejudices.

Based on Stefan Aust’s non-fiction book, the film shows its journalistic roots. Ultra-realist in style and with an emphasis entirely on narrative fact, this becomes both its greatest strength and its biggest weakness. Somewhere in the long, detailed portrayal of violence and hypocrisy, something of the human emotion becomes lost. We are never given any insight into Ulrike Meinhof’s emotional trajectory from successful journalist, wife and mother, through to violent revolutionary and terrorist. Such things are hinted at, but never explored to the same depth as the violent action, and other characters are given even less emotional presence than she is.

Ultimately, this is a powerful film, brutal and confronting. However, without the human emotional journey to accompany the sharp, realist fact, we are still left wondering what exactly it was which drove these people. It is a fatal flaw in a film professing to answer just that. Political causes can be documented, but it is the human drivers underlying it all which are far more telling, and it is this which is unfortunately missing from what is an otherwise excellent film.

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