Not Quite Christmas Movies

I admit quite a weakness for the Christmas movie genre. Whether it’s The Santa Clause, The Muppet Christmas Carol, or the latest by-the-numbers Hallmark tearjerker, I am a sucker for movies themed around “the most wonderful time of the year.” So every year around this time, I find myself watching every Christmas movie I can get my hands on. And every year I am reminded of the surprising number of movies that contain Christmas and yet aren’t quite Christmas movies. Today we’re going to talk about two of my favorite “Not Quite Christmas Movies.”

Gremlins

Gremlins is a movie that traumatized a generation. The trauma it inflected on families who thought they were going to see a cute holiday movie about a boy who gets a Mogwai combined with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom convinced movie-makers that the PG-13 rating needed to be invented. Thus most people remember Gremlins as a movie about breaking rules and the horrible things that can ensue. Any if you’re like me, you often forget it’s even a Christmas movie.

And yet, it is. This movie takes place at Christmas. That is why Billy gets Gizmo in the first place. He is a Christmas present.

Gizmo_Christmas

This movie isn’t really about Christmas at all. There isn’t a particularly Christmas-like moral. There is no Christmas miracle that saves the town. Santa doesn’t show up at the end, and there is no mention of the religious implications of anything. So why was it that the creators of this film chose to set it at Christmas time when Billy could have just as easily gotten Gizmo as a gift for his birthday?

I’m not really sure. Personally I think it’s to contrast the destruction of the gremlins with the expectation of a Christmas “silent night.” But other than that, there is no particular reason for this movie to take place at Christmas.

Iron Man 3

I always forget this movie takes place at Christmas. I’ll be marathoning Marvel movies, this one will be up next on the list and suddenly Tony Stark is dancing to Christmas music. TonyStark_dancing

And every time I watch this movie I ask myself one question: Why? Why does this movie take place at Christmas time?

The answer is I have no idea. I have watched this movie innumerable times and I have yet to figure out why exactly it takes place during this festive time of year. It’s rare that I can’t even begin to hypothesize why a Marvel movie does what it does, because breaking down Marvel movies to their smallest detail is what I love to do, but frankly I’ve got nothing. Other than I suppose watching Tony Stark dance to Christmas carols is pleasant.

These are just two examples of not-quite Christmas movies. From Die Hard to Edward Scissorhands, there are a fair number of movies that take place at Christmas but have nothing to do with the holiday itself.

Personally I think not only is this a good thing, but it’s an important thing. Movies like Iron Man 3 and Die Hard show us that life doesn’t stop just because it’s the holidays. Our lives don’t magically transform into romantic comedies where Santa sets us up with the person of our dreams. Life still goes on as normal, and heck, sometimes life gets harder. Because sometimes we’re dealing with the drama of Christmas while Aldrich Killian is blowing up our Malibu mansion.

And this is why in the midst of all my sappy movies about matchmaking Santas, time traveling Scrooges, and claymation characters, I still find time for Gremlins and Iron Man 3. To remind me that while Christmas is important, sometimes it’s nothing more than a backdrop to an even grander adventure.

NaNoWriMo

It’s November, a time of turkeys, thanks, and unseasonably early Christmas decorations. And if you happen to be a writer it’s also means National Novel Writing Month.

NaNoWriMo

For those who don’t know National Novel Writing Month is a time of year when writers across the world try to write 50,000 words in a novel. (For reference, 50,000 words is approximately 2/3 the length of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.) To reach that goal amount, a person has to write an average of 1,667 words per day.

Some people use NaNoWriMo to write their very first novel. Others use NaNoWriMo to start new novels or to refocus their work habits, sort of like a New Year’s Resolution for writers. Personally I enjoy NaNoWriMo for the sense of community it builds. It’s the time of year when I can drag my friends to coffee shops and diners for write-ins.

This is my third year participating in NaNoWriMo (and non-coincidentally my third November out of grad school). While I may not make 50,000 words every year, I do tend to write more in the month of November than I do in the average month. And I do find it immensely refocusing. While I tend to write every day, and do take my craft seriously, sometimes writing can get lost in the hub-bub of life–family stress, the day job, and social commitments. November is a time when I have an excuse to prioritize my writing and be the hermit-like introvert I am at heart. And it’s wonderNaNo_cful.

So this November you will find me with my nose to the grindstone, lurking in the corners of coffee shops, chatting about fictional characters, and writing during lunch breaks. For every 500 words I put a sticker on my handy-dandy chart, (I find there are few things more gratifying than a shiny sticker in reward for a task, but your mileage may vary on that methodology), and I expect by the end of the month to see close to 100 stars on it.

Anyone else out there doing NaNo? Do you find it helpful and refocusing or stressful and distracting? Do you use the website, charts, or some other method to keep track of your success?

The Holiday of Imagination

I love Halloween.

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What you’d see if you walked in my house right now

Halloween is without a doubt my favorite holiday and has been my entire life, a fact that has often been at odds with the subculture I was raised in. I had friends who weren’t allowed to celebrate Halloween. I grew up in a community that looked at Harry Potter askance for its evil, witchcrafty ways. But to me, my love of Halloween (and Harry Potter) has never been at odds with my faith.

While it’s true that Halloween has its roots in non-Christian celebrations, so do all of the big holidays. Saturnalia turned to Christmas, Lupercalia turned to Valentine’s Day, etc. Like every holiday that started in ancient times and has survived until today, Halloween has changed from its Samhain roots. And to me, even as a child, Halloween was always the greatest of holidays because Halloween celebrated the one thing I prized above all.

Imagination.

The year I was a "pumpkin fairy" (aka, the year we had no money for costumes)
The year I was a “pumpkin fairy” (aka, the year we had no money for costumes)

Halloween is the time when we’re encouraged to tell stories and watch movies about things that most of society views as not real: ghosts, goblins, vampires, and other creatures that go bump in the night.

Halloween is the one day a year when you can literally be whatever or whoever you want to be, from a supernatural creature to a historical person to a fictional character. There are no limits. On Halloween I could be Belle, Marie Curie, Tenel Ka, or a fairy.

Halloween is the one day as a culture that we say “Today the rules of reality are suspended. Today homes are haunted, magic is real, and you are whoever you wish to be.”

So others may tut about the holiday–whether because of religious reasons or because it’s merely a “children’s holiday”–but personally I’m going to live in Night Vale, be Nova, queue up The Nightmare Before Christmas, and reward every caped crusader, princess, witch, and goblin who comes to my door with a piece of candy.

Because I believe in imagination.

How about you guys? Do  you love Halloween? What does the holiday mean to you?

“Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”

I’ve been known to describe myself as a member of the Tamarian species.

Castiel_dontunderstandreference

There is an amazing episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “Darmok.” In this episode, Captain Picard meets the Tamarians, a species that the Federation has had absolutely no luck learning to communicate with. Because though the Universal Translator translates the alien language to English, the Tamarian’s word choices make no sense. The Tamarian Captain keeps using the phrase “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” which means literally nothing to Captain Picard.

Throughout the course of the episode, it’s discovered that the Tamarians essentially speak using references. Everything the Tamarian Captain says is a reference to some story in his culture, and that’s why Captain Picard couldn’t understand. Because he didn’t know the reference.

I have a habit of speaking like this in every day life. Of filtering thoughts and experiences through stories. This sometimes makes it hard for my friends to understand me, and sometimes I have to stop and explain myself. And that’s fine. Because conversations are a back and forth. I get a chance to explain myself.

Books, movies, and other media, however, do not.

I recently read Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. This book is fantastic. I devoured the entire thing in one sitting, needing to know what happened next. However, the entire time I was reading the book I felt like I was missing something. Why? Because the entire book was one long 1980s reference. And as someone who was barely alive in the 80s, most of the references went over my head. Ready Player One isn’t just a SF story about virtual realities. It’s a love letter to the 80s, and that’s something I just couldn’t appreciate like it was meant to be.

In this case the references didn’t throw me out of the story, but they did make it clear that no matter how much I enjoyed the book this book was not written for me.

On the other hand, we have The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. It’s not not quite as littered with references, but Harry Dresden lives in the real world and is something of a geek. Everything from the name of his car (the Blue Beetle) to his Mickey Mouse alarm clock (which is adorable) is a reference.

Steve_referenceIn the latest Dresden File book, one of the climatic moments is a fairly obvious (and very purposeful) Star Wars reference. And every one of these little geeky gems has only served to endear the entire series to me. It makes me feel like Harry Dresden is someone I could be friends with, and above all, I am the intended audience of these books.

That is the danger of references. References are like an inside joke between the author and the reader. When the reader gets that joke, it feels brilliant and special. It’s an instantaneous connection. But when the reader doesn’t, it’s alienating.

And this is why every writer must think carefully before using a reference. We have to ask ourselves why we’re using it, if it’s a reference our audience will understand, and whether the reader will be lost if they don’t understand the reference. Because a lost reader is a reader who may set down a book and never pick it up again, and that is something no author wants.

Issues, Trades, and Volume! OH MY!

Sorry for posting this late! A crazy schedule got the best of me. 

With the popularity of superhero movies, there has been a rise of interest in comics among people. For someone who has never read a comic, everything about it can be intimidating. On my personal blog, I started a series on Where to Start in Comics. This post is cross-posted from there. I hope you enjoy it.

Like any medium, comics come with it’s own terminology, and it can be confusing. You might have heard people talking about their “pull lists” or distinguishing between Young Avengers volume 1 vs. volume 2, and maybe you have no idea what those things mean. Well, never fear! I am here for you!

new 52 Batgirl #1

Issue: This is the term that most people are probably familiar with. Issues are the flimsy, magazine like books that are numbered, like Tales of Suspense #57 (the first appearance of Hawkeye in a Marvel comic). In this case, Tales of Suspense is the “title” or “series,” and #57 is the issue number (i.e. up to that point there had been 56 other individual magazines). Issues are what comic fans are buying on Wednesday–the day that new comics are released to the public.

Pull List: Speaking of comics coming out on Wednesdays, you might often hear comic fans refer to their “pull list.” A pull list is something you can set up at your local comic book shop. Basically, it’s a way to guarantee you get the issues you want. If you want to read Hawkeye and Nova, and you want each new issue when it’s released, you go to your local comic bookstore, and you tell the people who run the store that. You list all the titles you want. Then they’ll have the new issues waiting for you on that day. Otherwise, they may not order your comic (especially if you like something obscure) or they may run out before you get there (like Hawkeye). So it’s basically a form of pre-order for issues.

Comic store owners use these pull lists to know which issues they should order. And then publishers use these pre-orders to determine how well a comic title is doing. It’s a system that depends on people buying hard copies of issues, and it’s slowly evolving to take electronic comic sales into account.

Trades for Hawkeye, Avengers Assemble & Young Avengers

Trade: You may on occasion hear comic fans say something like “I’m interested in that title, but I’m going to wait until the trade comes out.” What the heck does this mean?

A trade is a collection of six-ish issues. It can be more or less, but six is usually the average number. These collections are then published in a book that you can often buy at places like Barnes and Noble.

I find it helps to think about trades and issues like this:

Imagine each issue is a segment of an episode of a TV show, the breaks between issues are where the commercials would go. The trades combine all the segments into one whole episode.

Run: When a certain creator writes several issues in a row, those issues collected are referred to as a “run.” I myself have referred to Keiron Gillen’s run on Journey Into Mystery here on this blog. Keiron Gillen’s run is all the issues of Journey Into Mystery that he wrote, which happen to be issues #622-645.

Volume: I wish I could say that volumes were a collection of a set number of trades or issues or even that a volume was defined by a run. But none of these things are true. As far as I can tell, volumes are completely arbitrary and a volume can be anything from twelve issues to 100. Sometimes issue numbers are re-started when a new volume is created, and sometimes they’re not. Really as far as I can tell there is no rhyme or reason. (If you know the rhyme or reason or rule, please share in the comments and I will update this post accordingly.)

But volumes are important, especially in cases of re-numbering situations. For example, the current Hawkeye comic, which is Matt Fraction and David Aja’s brilliant run, is Hawkeye volume 4. So if someone refers to Hawkeye vol. 4 issue #1, you know they mean the Matt Fraction/David Aja run, and not any of the previous Hawkeye comics.

 All these volumes are in Volume 1. Cuz they’re really trades.

Because volumes are so vague, I don’t pay that much attention to them. I tend to pay more attention to creators and their runs. But they can be very useful when talking about titles where a creator spent many years writing the comic. Ed Brubaker wrote Captain America for 8 years, so his “run” is very long. But Captain America vol. 5, which he wrote, is the groundbreaking “The Winter Soldier” storyline, that the upcoming movie of the same name is based off of.

It’s important not to confuse volumes with trades. Sometimes trades are numbered, and sometimes they are referred to as “volumes.” But trades and volumes are not the same thing. Volumes are (most of the time) collections of trades. But this is why you’ll occasionally see, when a trade is released (especially in e-form), that you’ll be looking at Runaways Volume 1, vol. 1. They’ll publish a trade and call it volume 1 when really it’s just the first trade of volume 1.

I hope that wasn’t too confusing for you, but if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask them in the comments!

Putting Our Money Where Our Mouth Is

In less than two weeks, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy will hit American theaters.*

In case you are unaware, Guardians of the Galaxy is a space opera starring a team of prisoners who band together to save the universe. This team consists of a human, two humanoid aliens, a talking tree, and a machine gun wielding raccoon.

The Guardians of the Galaxy: Gamora, Peter Quill, Rocket, Drax, and Groot

I’ve found that people generally have one of three reactions when it comes to hearing about this movie:

(1) Extreme excitement. These are the people like me who love cosmic Marvel and are excited to see some of our favorite characters (*cough*Rocket Raccoon*cough*) come to the big screen.

(2) Trust in Marvel. These are the people who are skeptical about the movie but are going to go see it anyway, because with Marvel Studios’s current track record of awesomeness they will pretty much see anything they produce.

(3) Complete Disbelief. These are the people who hear the idea of a talking tree and a gun-toting raccoon and think that executives at Marvel have gone completely off their rocker. These people have no intention of seeing this movie.

Needless to say, this movie is a bit of a risk for Marvel. Will people accept Rocket Raccoon as a compelling character? Will they understand Groot even though he can only say three words? Can the average superhero movie watcher handle a movie where Earth is only ever mentioned but not actually a place that is visited?

Marvel doesn’t know. Honestly, I don’t know what the outcome of this movie is going to be. I suspect it’s going to be amazing, but I don’t know if the box office will reflect that, because I don’t know if the average person is willing to take a chance on it.

People complain all the time about how formulaic fiction has gotten. They complain about how Hollywood only produces sequels anymore or how Hollywood won’t make movies with female action leads. They complain about these things and then they only see sequels, they only see movies led by men, and they only buy formulaic fiction.

Money talks. Ultimately money is all that matters in a capitalistic society. YA fiction will continue to be dominated by heterosexual romance until people start putting their money where their mouth is and buying books like Malindo Lo’s Adaptation. Action movies will continue to star men unless we all start buying tickets to movies like Lucy or The Heat. Women, PoC, or non-heteronormative couples will continue to be ignored and sidelined until we start actually paying for stories that focus on these characters.

And it’s happening. Slowly yet surely it’s happening. This week Ms. Marvel, a comic book starring a Muslim teenage girl in New Jersey, reached it’s sixth printing–something that rarely ever happens. The Hunger Games and Frozen are teaching Hollywood that women are a force to be reckoned with, both on and off the screen. But we can’t stop there. We can’t relent. Don’t just talk about how interesting having a female Thor or a black Captain America would be. Buy the comics.**

This is why I’m going to see Guardians of the Galaxy, and regardless of how good it is, I’m going to see it multiple times. Because as a cosmic Marvel fan, I want to do everything I can to say to Marvel Studios, “I want to see more of this. And please for the love of Loki give me a Nova movie.” And the only real way I have to tell Marvel that is with my money.

Let’s not just be talkers. Let’s put our money where our mouth is and actually support the kinds of stories we want to see.

Are there any books, movies, or comics that you love, which feature minority groups, and you wished got more support?

*No one here should be shocked that I’m talking about a Marvel movie in a post. What can I say? Everything in life relates to Marvel.
**I am very aware of the Remender problem, and personally I’m torn as to whether or not to pick up the first Sam Wilson as Captain America comic. I want to support Sam as Cap but I don’t want to support Remender. Alas. It’s a dilemma.

On Subjectivity

One of the first things a writer learns is that the business of writing is a subjective one. It’s something we’re constantly told by other writers, agents, and editors, and it’s why so many rejections contain words like “this project wasn’t right for me” with the implication that it could be right for someone else. I know, at least for me, it’s often hard to accept that as a response, especially when we feel like we checked every box. Likeable protagonist? Check. Hottie love interest? Check. Compelling plot? Check! And yet…despite all that, they still say no. It’s not right for them.

I might occasionally look at the shelves in the bookstore and despair. I think, “but how did that get published! I write twice as well! My characters are three times as awesome!” or some other over-exaggeration of my writing prowess, and I don’t understand how something so objectively better can be subjectively worse.

When my mind starts down that crazy path, when I get lost in the difference between subjectivity and objectivity and how it all seems ridiculous, I stop and think about the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Iron Man is by all accounts a fantastic movie. It is acclaimed, embraced by fans, and the movie that launched an extremely lucrative franchise. An objective and detailed analysis of the movie reveals a complex character played be an extremely talented actor in a tight and well paced story.

Tony_JerichoMissiles
Tony Stark, nearly blown up by his own awesomeness

Despite this, I have never particularly liked the movie. The first time someone sat me down to watch Iron Man, I hated it. I didn’t connect with Tony Stark, I was bothered by the impossibility of the Iron Man armor itself, and for all its tight-paced plotting I was distracted and bored. This is a movie lauded by millions–if not billions of people–and I didn’t like it.

Though I now have a greater appreciation of the movie and the character of Tony Stark, I can still count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen the movie. And I rarely if ever think to myself, “man, I really need to re-watch Iron Man.”

On the other hand, we have the movie Thor. This is a movie that is often panned by critics. A movie that I didn’t see for a year after it came out because so many of my friends told me how bad it was. And objectively, yes, this is not Marvel’s greatest story. Thor’s character development is too rapid and sudden to be believable. The split between Asgard and Earth is often jarring. The chemistry between Thor and Jane Foster is not strong. The plot is confusing and weirdly paced. And yet, this is my favorite Marvel movie, a movie that I have watched innumerable times. (Literally innumerable. I can’t even begin to give you an estimate of how many times I’ve watched this movie.)

Thor_another2
This movie! I like it!

Because where Iron Man fell flat for me, Thor resonated. The story of Loki felt like my own story, and for all of it’s Asgardian trappings it felt like I was watching my life unfold on the screen.

When I first watched Iron Man and the credits began to scroll by, I rolled my eyes. When I first watched Thor and the credits began, I cried.

Loki_crying
My tears probably weren’t as pretty as Loki’s

Iron Man is objectively a better movie than Thor, but if I had been an agent, and Iron Man had been a novel that had been queried to me, I would have rejected it, despite all of its objective goodness. And if Thor had come across my desk, I would have accepted it, warts and all.

It doesn’t matter how well written my story is. It doesn’t matter how awesome the characters are, how great their chemistry is, or how tight my plot is. All of those things give my story a better chance, but ultimately if my story doesn’t resonate with the reader than those things are meaningless.

And that’s what people mean when they say this is a subjective business.

I find this thought both disheartening and comforting. Disheartening because there are no amount of boxes I can check to ensure that my novel will be published. But comforting because that means my story doesn’t have to be perfect to succeed. After all, we can’t all be practically perfect in every way, like Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

The Winter Soldier, blowing up the box office like it's Nick Fury's car
The Winter Soldier blew up the box office like it’s Nick Fury’s SUV

So how about you guys? What is something you love even though you objectively recognize it’s not the best?