Monthly Archives: April 2010

Ruminations

An observation from Harold and Maude:  Cat Stevens is the Shins of the early 70s.  Or are the Shins the Cat Stevens of the 2000s?

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Peace Corps Skill Enhancement:  Man, I hate it when prestige classes require cross-class skills!

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Types of learning curve:

New art medium = easy

New programming language = medium

New spoken language = difficult

Hamster on a new wheel = hilarious

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Image from Cute Overload.

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Review: How to Train Your Dragon

(Some spoilers to follow.)

I’ve been leery of Dreamworks Animation of late.  They have been suffering from a lot of very stock stories and a tendency to copy Pixar.  I’ve been unimpressed even with their most well-received films, such as Kung Fu Panda, which I expected to be an utterly predictable underdog kung-fu movie but was urged to see anyway, and found to be…an utterly predictable underdog kung-fu movie.  Thus, I instinctively wrote off How to Train Your Dragon. It was only after I noticed that the Rotten Tomatoes had it listed at a whopping 98% that I decided to give Dreamworks Animation another chance.  I loved it.

It isn’t that the story is so breathtakingly original.  It follows the coming-of-age and enemy-cultures-become-allies plotlines with no real departures; the only plot twist that surprised me at all was Hiccup losing his foot at the end.  For fun, try comparing the plot to Ratatouille.  The incidentals are different, but the story is essentially the same, right down to disapproving fathers and tough slap/kiss girlfriends.  Still, the story type is old because it works, and here it works particularly well.

After all, as we discovered with Avatar, originality isn’t everything.  A well-executed new take on an old story can have just as much merit as a highly innovative story, and in its execution, How to Train Your Dragon shines.  The visuals, the character design (especially of the dragons, who have the personality of cats), and the sheer heart of the whole thing add up to an immensely watchable result.  There are also several details in the way the story is carried out that make it work better than other versions of the same story type.

For instance, Hiccup the Viking and Toothless the dragon are given a long time to bond.  Toothless is caught in a valley, unable to fly, allowing Hiccup to return several times and gradually gain its trust.  There’s a montage, yes, but this part of the story could cover weeks or months.  The result is a much more natural relationship than the 10-second enemies-to-friends reversal so common in movies.  (Fridge logic sets in when Hiccup’s friends learn to ride some other dragons in a few minutes, but that’s a minor problem.)

But the best detail is Toothless’ tail.  A difficulty I have with the whole dragon-riding subgenre is the subjugation.  I don’t like the dynamic that dragons are shown to be beautiful, mighty, and as often as not intelligent and noble too, but are forced to be mounts for humans.  Why should humans get to control dragons?  The dragons seem like they don’t get anything out of the relationship*.  How to Train Your Dragon found a solution to this problem.

Dragons apparently use the fins on their tails to steer and balance.  Toothless is missing one of his fins.  He can’t fly without it.  Hiccup makes him a replacement fin out of leather, but Toothless can’t control it:  It just flaps around uselessly.  So Hiccup builds a harness that allows him to control the tail fin and, with his help, Toothless is able to fly again.

Thus, this movie becomes the only case I’ve ever seen where the relationship between dragon and rider is truly equal.  Hiccup can’t fly on his own, but neither can Toothless.  Submitting to a rider is the only way he can be free.  The end, where both dragon and rider are handicapped on the same side, is a nice addition to the symmetry.

Directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders formerly worked together on one of Disney’s most original works of cel animation, Lilo and Stitch.  They’ve brought the same freshness and vivacity to How to Train Your Dragon.  Go ahead, put aside your kids’-movie qualms and enjoy it.

UPDATE:  Gordon McAlpin of the webcomic Multiplex had a similar reaction.

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*If anyone is reading a PETA-style tirade against domestic animals into this, don’t.

Image from IMDB.

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Xenia and the Sin of Sodom

Disclaimer: This post is not about homosexuality or the Bible’s position on it in general. It is about Sodom and Gomorrah in particular.

Studying classical mythology, I can’t help but be struck by the similarities to the Old Testament.  The two are often analogous in content.  Moses’ bronze snake (Numbers 21:4-9), for instance, could have come straight out of the Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Consider the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, a favorite goto for Christians condemning homosexuality.  The relevant portion:

The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. “My lords,” he said, “please turn aside to your servant’s house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning.”
“No,” they answered, “we will spend the night in the square.”But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without yeast, and they ate. Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.”

Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”

“Get out of our way,” they replied. And they said, “This fellow came here as an alien, and now he wants to play the judge! We’ll treat you worse than them.” They kept bringing pressure on Lot and moved forward to break down the door.

But the men inside reached out and pulled Lot back into the house and shut the door. Then they struck the men who were at the door of the house, young and old, with blindness so that they could not find the door. (Genesis 19:1-11 NIV)

By the way, if the men being struck blind reminds you of a certain other legend about a sin punishable by blindness, it isn’t related.  That honor goes to a detail of the tale of Lady Godiva, which was also the origin of the term “Peeping Tom.”

But back to the matter at hand.  The interpretation that God punished Sodom for being gay, as demonstrated by the men of Sodom wanting to have sex with two dudes, is so standard it has its own noun.  Yet it shouldn’t be, because the Bible itself says otherwise:

Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.  (Ezekiel 16:49-50 NIV)

You can’t get much more straightforward than that.  God, speaking directly to Ezekiel, lists the sins of Sodom and sodomy isn’t among them.  It might have been another one of the sins of Sodom, one that happened to not be on the list.  It also might have fallen under “did detestable things,” although the parallel structure of arrogant/haughty makes it more probable that the “detestable things” refer to the failure to help the poor and needy mentioned in the previous sentence.  But either way, there’s no direct mention of gay sex, or any sexual sins at all.  If that was a concern to God at all, he didn’t find it important enough to mention.

Still, the Genesis passage does mention sex and doesn’t make any mention of being overfed and unconcerned.  How to reconcile the two?

I appeal to Greek mythology.  If the story of Sodom were a Greek myth, the sin of Sodom would be obvious, and (this being Greek) it wouldn’t have anything to do with homosexuality.  Like much of mythology, this story, viewed from a Greek perspective, revolves around xenia.

Xenia (the root of “xenophobic” and related words) may loosely be translated as “hospitality,” but it’s more than that.  It is the principle of the courteous treatment of visitors, especially those who are far from home.  It is a central virtue in mythology.  When Odysseus returns to Ithaca, he enters his home disguised as a beggar.  The suitors abuse and mock him.  This is what casts them as villains and condemns them to their later deaths, even the one who regrets his behavior: by mistreating a stranger at their door, they were in violation of xenia.

So, too, are the men of Sodom from this perspective.  They are violating xenia by trying to assault the travelers, to whom they should be hospitable.  Lot’s words support this: the reason he gives is “for they have come under the protection of my roof,” not because they’re being homosexual.  Suddenly the two verses mesh perfectly well.  Violation of xenia falls under “not help[ing] the poor and needy,” because who could be poorer or needier than a wandering stranger?  Even Lot’s offering of his two daughters, the most bizarre detail of this rather bizarre story, makes sense (sort of): they are not under the protection of xenia.

I’m not putting this forth as a serious interpretation so much as a simple observation.  After all, xenia is a Greek principle, not a Hebrew one, so there’s no reason it should feature so prominently in a Hebrew story.  Nor is this interpretation helpful in determining a Biblical approach to homosexuality, other than to further emphasize the earlier point that Sodom and Gomorrah should be left out of it.  It is, however, an interesting and different light to shine on a familiar story.

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Oddity of the Week

Not odd! Just cute!

Ohio’s Akron Zoo presents: baby capybaras!

To the uninitiated, capybaras are the largest member of the rodent family. They are the size of large dogs. They’re aquatic animals, as you can see, that live in South America.

Another excellent capybara is Caplin Rous, a pet capybara who lives in Texas. Rous, of course, stands for “Rodent Of Unusual Size.”

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Joss Whedon: What Makes Good Dialogue Good

What makes Joss Whedon’s writing so good? Is it the way he can put a clever line in the mouth of a serious character in a tense situation and not ruin the mood?

(Dominic is ranting about everything that’s happened, ending by shooting one of the bottles on the table.)

Dominic: Did I miss anything?

Dewitt: Just the vodka, thank God. (Dollhouse, “Epitaph One”)

Is it the way he can dogpile a bunch of funny lines so that they just keep coming?

(Wash is playing with his dinosaurs.)

“Yes. Yes, this is a fertile land, and we will thrive.”

(as Stegosaurus) “We will rule over all this land, and we will call it… ‘This Land’.”

(as T-Rex) “I think we should call it…your grave!”

(Stegosaurus) “Ah, curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!”

(T-Rex) “Ha ha HA! Mine is an evil laugh…now die!” (Firefly, “Serenity”)

Is it the precision he applies, even when characters are at a loss for words?

Mal: You wanna run this ship?

Jayne: Yes!

Mal: Well…you can’t! (Serenity)

Or the way he can convey real meaning through silly nonsense?

Penny: Sometimes people are layered like that. There’s something totally different underneath than what’s on the surface.

Dr. Horrible: And sometimes there’s a third, even deeper level, and that one is the same as the top surface one.

Penny: Huh?

Dr. Horrible: Like with pie. (Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Act 2)

I think the main factor that makes his dialogue good is how purposefully he uses it. He doesn’t waste dialogue, stuffing in meaningless lines to fill slack moments. Every line is a joke or character development or plot explanation or a setup for something later, or, most commonly, several of the above. He layers the meaning deeply, even in seemingly frivolous moments.

Take the Dr. Horrible quote above. Yes, it’s silly. The flawed illustration, as if the existence of pie proved something about human character, is cleverly written. Then there’s the double meaning. Dr. Horrible is referring to Captain Hammer, who to all appearances doesn’t have any layers at all. But the line also applies to himself. The shy guy in the hoodie is a cover for the mad scientist in the lab coat, but–as revealed in the final moment of the show–underneath that, he’s still a shy guy in a hoodie.

And every line is like that. As a writer who often finds myself inserting filler dialogue and scenes that happen simply because I didn’t know what to put next, I am rather in awe of this skill. The viewer never feels like his or her time is being wasted, because every line is a reward. It’s the essence of what makes his shows so fun to watch.

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Pictures found here, here, here, and here.

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Sir Integra Hellsing Is Awesome

That is all.

If you haven’t read or watched Hellsing, I highly recommend it.  It’s a dark and decidedly adult-oriented story about vampire hunters, centered around the trenchcoated turncoat vampire Alucard and featuring some pretty awesome music.

But I’m not here to talk about Alucard.  I’m here to talk about Sir Integra Hellsing, leader of the eponymous Hellsing Organization and awesomest character in the show.  And that’s competing not only against Alucard, but also against a bayonet-wielding Scottish paladin with regenerative powers and an ingenue vampire who carries around guns bigger than she is.  (Understatement is not a major theme in this show.)

Sir Integra (full name Sir Integral Fairbrook Wingates Hellsing) is the biggest badass in the show–in large part because she has no powers.  She can’t regenerate or create armies of ghouls, but she can assert her authority over them.  Alucard has virtually limitless powers, but he stands quiet before Integra and calls her “master.”

Her character design is also interesting because of its combination of prudery and masculinity. She comes from a very traditional British family and keeps her suit buttoned up to the chin, but she’s androgynous enough that Jordan had to ask (granted, this is mostly due to the Japanese phenomenon of bishonen; Sir Integra isn’t the show’s only slender,

One of these characters is male.

deep-voiced character with long, straight, blond hair and perfectly round glasses).  Her outfit, while conservative, isn’t particularly feminine.  Neither is her cigar-smoking habit.  Most of all, her attitude–stern, collected, and unquestionably in charge, but prone to fits of righteous anger–would archetypically belong to a male character, not to mention a much older one (her canon age is just 23).  She’s given the title “Sir” because even the other Protestant Knights recognize that she’s just as good as a man.

Integra and Alucard

Finally, for a prudish character, she manages not to become Ice Queen fetish material.  Contrary to the standard in both Eastern and Western media, where female characters who don’t put out are sexualized all the more, Sir Integra is portrayed the way she would probably want to be portrayed: as a serious, competent, respected leader.  And she deserves to be portrayed thus, because she is awesome.

 

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Oddity of the Week

You know what’s lame?  Movie trailers that make the movie look like something different.

You know what’s awesome?  Fan trailers that intentionally make the movie look like something completely different.  Such as:

Mary Poppins (as a horror movie)

The Shining (as a romantic comedy)

The Ring (as a romance)

10 Things I Hate About Commandments

And this list simply wouldn’t be complete without:

Titanic: The Sequel

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