Friday, 5 September 2014

The internet? TV? Joan Rivers? Exploding Daleks? Feminism.

The internet. It's a funny old thing. I have a blog post to write about how the internet (and internet friends) not only kept me sane but helped my PhD to be written. But that's another day. This week I've been tearing my hair out and asking 'Why?' a lot.

Why you ask? Well in the course of a week I've been accused of being a troll, being trans-phobic, being homophobic, and being anti feminist. If you've met me please let those sink in and reconcile that with who I am personally and what I do professionally. But I'll come back to that. First a detour to Joan Rivers, which if you bear with me, illustrates my point.

Joan Rivers sadly died last night. Personally I found her to be a smart, sharp funny woman. I also have a great deal of respect for a woman who paved the way in an notoriously misogynistic industry and did well. Without Joan Rivers we wouldn't have the female comedians we have today. We wouldn't have a lot of women in entertainment today. And that woman worked hard. 81 years old and until recently still working. If nothing else acknowledge a hard working woman as well.

I recognised that she said some problematic things in her time. Show me a comedian who hasn't, I'm not excusing that, but putting it into perspective. Hell, one of my favourite comedians, Adam Hills has a famous rant where he lays into Rivers for her comments on Adele, and rightly so (google it it's worth a look). Yes last night Hills joined in the condolences for Joan Rivers. It's about perspective. There is nobody in the public eye who has never said anything wrong, particularly comedians who yes, sometimes make their living sometimes off the misfortune of others. It's a rare comedian who hasn't been nasty about someone at some point. It's a rare human. I think Michael Palin, nicest man on the planet is the only one. And I'm not sure he's human, he's a teddy bear.

Immediately after the news broke I had to get off twitter because someone I follow was tweeting all the hate about Joan Rivers he could find. And I get it, you might not like her. But a woman just died. Call me old fashioned but I like to think keeping any hatred you had for her to yourself for the moment is respectful. I also think that telling people they shouldn't like or express sympathy for her passing is also wrong. I liked the woman, I had respect for her, and I am sad for her family that they've lost her. There is nothing wrong with that.

But this is the particularly nasty end of a long internet stick. A stick that's used to beat people for liking the 'wrong' things.Or for not engaging with them in the 'right' way.

Now to one degree I get that. I'm an academic after all. I live to analyse. My last review of 'The Crucible' talks about not being able to turn my brain off and just see the emotional story. However the accusation that I'm 'not interested' in aspects of representation (of queer people, and of women specifically) would be laughable if it weren't so insulting.

Perhaps I need to state, for the record as it were, that I am a feminist. I am a scary loud proud feminist. Being a feminist is complex. There are many feminists that will tell you 'how' to be a Feminist. What you should and shouldn't do. I've gotten to the point (old and grumpy as I am) where I will no longer be told how to be a feminist. In the words of Caitlin Moran, I have a vagina and I want to be in charge of it. Therefore I am a feminist. But then I can already hear the cries of 'You can't like Moran for x y or z reason because she did or said x y or z' and therein is our problem dear internet. I'm not telling anyone to like Moran. I'm again not saying she's perfect. I'm saying that what she says there is a succinct and fitting definition of Feminism in my eyes. I can't reconcile any Feminism with telling women what they must think or do, surely that, albeit from men, is in part what Feminism is designed to fight.

Likewise I cannot reconcile being told liking or not liking something as indicative or my stance on women's issues gay issues etc etc. Here I'd like to reference my friend who at a recent conference spoke on 'being a fan of problematic things' and discussed how we can both learn from problematic television, film, theatre and that doesn't mean we can't enjoy it. I agree 100% with this stance. There's also the side that you are occasionally allowed to turn your brain off and enjoy it for the sake of it. I refer to this as 'The Gossip Girl' argument. My oh my how I loved that show. I was addicted. I know it's awful. I know it has problematic depictions of anything you like to mention. But I enjoyed watching over dramatic pretty people in pretty clothes for 45 minutes a week. So sue me.

Part of the accusations I got this week stemmed from 'Teen Wolf' a show I have never seen. I'm good but I find it hard to formulate an opinion on something I haven't' seen. But if I'm pushed, what I've seen from the internet it seems to be about two gay teen wolves. Which logic tells me probably isn't the actual show. I'm sure it's a great show. Maybe it isn't. I have no opinion as I haven't seen it. There's a lot of internet bullying (and I don't use that lightly either it's nasty out there) to hate Doctor Who too, as it's anti Feminist, because Steven Moffat is the spawn of all evil etc etc. First of all, I do like Steven Moffat. He's got issues, no doubt about that. But he's also got talent. And I'm very interested in having those discussions. What I'm not interested in is discussion that is 'Steven Moffat is evil, all the female portrayals are problematic and that's all there is' So I have these discussions privately, with people I know will have constructive things to say, even when we don't agree. But also people who respect and often share the belief that we can discuss such things, and still enjoy a good old fashioned Dalek exploding. Similarly it's about perspective, and picking your battles. It doesn't make me less of a Feminist, less interested in those issues, it just means we all draw our own lines in the sand.

And the ironic thing in all this? TV and fandom taught me to be a feminist. I have no problem saying that being an X Files fan was formative in my Feminist point of view. You don't spend your teenage years wanting to be Dana Scully and not learn a thing or two about Feminism. And I see the Feminism I have in everything Dana Scully is. She's a clever, strong independent woman. She is a Doctor who made it through the FBI academy. She's not afraid to stand up for what she believes in, or to kick some serious butt. She can stand up for herself and hold her own in a debate with her male partner. But she can also let him hold the door open for him without it invalidating the above. She has fabulous hair, but she's not afraid to get her hands dirty or literally fight. She won't let her partner get away with anything, but she loves him (and falls in love with him) she's a fighter and a mother. And oh so clever. These are the things I want when I want feminism to be all these things and more at once. And these are the values I've had, from television since I was 13 years old. So don't tell me I don't think about feminism on television, and don't tell me I don't engage with it. It has in part made me the Feminist I am. (And Things I learned from Dana Scully is now a new blog post of its own!)

So if I learned feminism through television, how can I not be interested in how television depicts women and their issues? And if I spent 4 years writing a PhD about how theatre responded to the AIDS crisis, how am I not interested in culture and Queer issues? I think the issue here is I'm not being interested in it in the 'right' way. And that's my problem with how things are 'policed' I can't be passionate about every single cause, every single representation, every single remark. There are too many of everything to do that. It doesn't mean I don't care.

It's also about how these things are talked about. There is a problem with people being so insularly caught up in their internet discussions about things that they forget that the rest of the world doesn't think or talk that way. People who spend a lot of their time discussing people online (and lets face it arguing online) forget that the way they talk online doesn't always translate to the real world. Because not everyone is versed in internet speak. This used to be a pet peeve of some friends in Uni who would say things like "oh noes" and "teh"out loud in conversation. Because I wasn't part of that kind of internet world (mainly live journal I think) where those phrases and memes came from I was left out of "real life"encounters. I see it now on Tumblr too when social justice type arguments flare up there's a certain way of talking sometimes, use of certain phrases where I think "you may be right but you couldn't t have that argument in that way in real life, because people outside of certain internet bubbles don;t use that language that approach to this discussion, its the same as having an in-joke and being offended when someone doesn't get it, if they aren't part of the group they won't? What I mean is a lot of the words, and lets face it accusations, thrown around online, all the nuanced definitions or labels or ways you are allowed to talk about things don't exist outside of certain bubbles. This makes for a frustrating argument. And it's about realising your audience doesn't always speak the same language. It's also about realising that not every person in the world can afford to be concerned with such debates. People have multitudes of problems of their own and just because they cant be a campaigner for your particular issue, or they have a slightly different take on it doesn't mean they are attacking your issue, or that they aren't basically a good person.

All of which is lost on the kind of people arguing this. But I felt for the record I needed to get this out. Because to say these things, that I'm not interested in depictions within film, television, theatre or culture not only insults me personally, but it insults my professional work too. And I'm frustrated, so frustrated with being told how to be a fan, how to be a Feminist, how I must or mustn't support queer rights or any other rights. As I say above, we all have our own line in the sand. I will shout from the rooftops about how important 'The Normal Heart' was. I will analyse to death the theatre I saw (and just take a look, 2 reviews that include big feminist arguments) but at the same time, I'm happy to look at how pretty Gillian Anderson and Richard Armitage are. One doesn't invalidate the other. And neither makes me a bad person. We all have our own line in the sand, we all have our 'Gossip Girl'. Now excuse me I have some exploding Daleks to re-watch.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Review: The Crucible

Then how did he die?

They press him John.


Great stones they lay upon his chest until he plead ay or nay. They say he give them but two words. “More weight,” he says. And died.

I could actually quote that entire scene (I looked it up only to check I'd gotten the wording right) verbatim, without checking. I have, if memory serves played both Proctors at some point, and I have clearly had the play etched into my brain via GCSE drama and other delightful studies. Add to that a specialism in Cold War History (more on that shortly) and 20th Century drama, it's possible to get a little Crucible-ed out. However in all that I've never actually seen the damn thing performed live. So with the Old Vic doing a production, while I was in London, and with Richard Armitage in the role of Proctor, I decided to finally see it.

Despite knowing the play so well, I found this production to be engaging and almost thriller like in it's pacing. I had been concerned given reports of its length, but it felt well paced and never seemed to drag or as long as it actually was. Yes the lengthy scene changes which were carefully choreographed moving of the minimal set on an off stage, did add time to the already substantial length. However they added atmosphere and allowed for transitions between scenes that actually at times added to the story.

The staging itself worked really well. Staged in the Old Vic's new 'in the round' set up, it helped bring the action in closer to the audience and added a sense of claustrophobia that fits with the premise of the play. Much like 'Other Desert Cities' before it, the intimacy between actors, set and audience helps to draw into the play, making it more intimate than I'd ever imagined it as.

I have a difficult time with The Crucible as a play generally. Having studied it to death for a start, makes it difficult to disconnect and get lost in the performance. But the performances, the staging and the atmosphere created here was enough to draw me in and keep me locked in the story for much of the time. I do find it difficult to completely  lose myself in the story though, my historians brain gets in the way, and the metaphor gets a little lost on me. My brain always resets to the contemporary setting that Miller was writing about with The Crucible (the 'witch hunt' of his era, the Army-McCarthy hearings) and as any historian will tell you there's such a thing as knowing too much when it comes to fiction. In the case of this play I know too much about the fictionalised Salem version and the present day that Miller was writing to. So for me it's a true testament to this play that I did find myself lost in the story and at times even though I knew all to well what was next, waiting in anticipation for it. The other aspect is just how terrifying the group of young girls is. I don't mean in their witchy personas but actually the deeper point about mass hysteria or mob mentality that Miller was making. Anyone who has had any association with teenage girls knows en masse they are a scary lot, but I found myself making allusions to Mamet's Oleanna in which people in authority are brought down by in that case a young woman, but in the case of the Crucible, a group of women. I'm sure there's a more detailed analysis there, and I may be off track entirely but it's a thought that occurred. What also occurred to me which my 1990s education certainly didn't touch on was the inherent sexism of the play, all women are mad, the idea of women as a righteous man like John Proctor's downfall. However, Miller is not exactly known for being devoid of sexist content. And that is a lengthy essay for another day. As it is I can accept The Crucible more than his other plays in terms of sexism as he was drawing on the historical tales of Salem. And well, if I wasn't able to turn off my sexism radar and enjoy a play for what it is now and then I'd have major issues going to the theatre. And this production also doesn't overplay or make worse the inherent negative images of women, if anything they became more rounded, more real women. They are still a terrifying force, and a problematic one in some respects, but I also understood them more as individuals, even when acting a scary 'coven'.

For many of these reasons, overall 'The Crucible' doesn't make me emotional in the way 'Streetcar' did the night before. In some ways its the way I engage with the playwrights, for me Williams speaks poetically and to the heart, particularly in Streetcar. Miller on the other hand speaks to my head, which I can't turn off. That isn't to say I wasn't moved, when finally in the scene I quoted at the start, Protor and his Elizabeth are together. In fact the two scenes they share alone across the play were both incredibly moving. And both Armitage and Anna Madely give stand out performances.

And though it's being sold as Armitage's play (well if you can put him on a poster why wouldn't you?) and though Proctor is a character who binds the piece it's real strength is its ensemble piece. And the ensemble for this production is incredibly strong. From the group of girls who at time scarily move and seem to think as one, to the supporting group of male village elders-particularly Adrian Schiller and Michael Thomas as reverends Hale and Parris respectively, are all standout performances of their own. Armitage is excellent as Proctor, his booming voice and physical stature dominate the early scenes making it all the more affecting when, in the final scene he is broken down, his voice and stature reflecting this. There is no doubt in his abilities and he brings the ensemble together effectively but there is no doubt this production is a team effort.

Despite my doubts, and my inability to turn off my brain usually, I felt myself sucked in and taken on a thrilling engaging ride by The Crucible. Armitage is a stand out performer and it is impossible to take your eyes off him (well ok it is, but why would you want to?) within a strong, well directed piece of classic theatre. More than enough to blow off the cobwebs of GCSE drama.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Review: A Streetcar Named Desire

"I have always relied on the kindness of strangers"
"Well that's a stupid thing to do"

.....or so goes the famous line in my head. I blame Tony Kushner who appropriates Tennessee Williams' most famous play twice in his own most famous play. And that's the trouble with famous plays, we all think we know how it goes. We all have our own version of them in our minds. Whether it's the film version or Marge Simpson appearing as Blanche. However actually this production made me think about how well I really knew the play, which is always a good thing.

As a side note, for me it was particularly interesting, having spent far too many years looking at Kushner, to return to Williams. Kushner talks often of his love and influence by Williams and I would even say that I see Kushner as one of Williams' worthy successors in American drama. Seeing Williams performed after spending so long with Kushner then I could see the influences on his drama. Oddly in knowing the playwright he influenced so much so well, made me appreciate the smaller nuances of Williams' drama more. And has made me love Williams' work more also.

Overall this is an excellent production. The acting talent in the central trio alone would take even a dire production to new heights. Even though I have some issues with the production, it's anything but dire but the three central actors take it to another level.

Firstly the set. Yes this will go down in theatre lore I think as the spinning Streetcar. The set, an open rectangular kitchen/bathroom/living room of the Kowlaski house is on an almost permanent revolve. I'll be honest, I wasn't keen. Firstly the advantage of the Young Vic's in the round (or technically octagonal) space gives an intimate setting regardless of how you stage it. This strangely shaped rectangular room seemed to needlessly restrict space for the performance. The rotation, which I can see the motivation behind, it gives alternative views on each scene dependent on where you are situated and the revolve was put to great use in emphasizing Blanche's state of mind. It is a clever, interesting theatrical device and I appreciated what it was being used for, and to some extent what it achieved. The idea that some parts of the performance were hidden from, and in turn revealed to different sections of audience is an interesting way to play it. The idea that the revolving direction and speed are linked to Blanche likewise clever and interesting. However, these clever and interesting elements negate the fact that a constantly spinning set is a little irritating (not to mention as Les Mis proved to me, sea sickness inducing) I was glad to have a seat upstairs as my view was largely uninhibited up there. Overall though not a set or design choice that appealed.

However the modernised set, to reflect the contemporary setting of the piece did work for me. I've seen reviews and comments that as a result certain lines in the play, or certain aspects of it no longer work. To an extent yes, certain references may not stand up to scrutiny in the contemporary setting. However this is an issue with playwright copyright and what is permitted to change. I'm fairly ambivalent and lenient with such things anyway. In watching it what actually struck me is, in the second half when we realise how judged Blanche is for her behaviour with men, is just how shockingly contemporary that still feels. We still hold women up to such standards, and women still understandably unravel under that pressure. For me the contemporary setting worked then and the world of Blanche, Stella and Stanley doesn't seem that far removed from our own. Even the military references obviously more indicative of Williams' time, don't seem in a re-militarized America of today that much of a stretch (really, has America ever been anything other than militarized?) And though some might find Blanche's 'Southern Belle' routine 'dated' and not in fitting with today, I'd disagree, I could envisage someone of her circumstance falling back on such cultural models or moulds. In fact once she starts to truly unravel in the second half the slightly incongruous nature of that 'act' makes the disintegration all the more tragic.

Overall then I loved the direction, the staging though problematic for me, I could see motivations for, and the updating worked. I had some issues with pacing. The first act rockets by and this works quite well, feeling like these characters are sort of crashing into each other and the world being turned on its head a bit. In the second half I could have done with a bit of slowing down a lot earlier. Things grind to a devastating halt in the final scene where the moments are finally given space to breathe and to great affect. Before that there are scenes I wanted to slow down, to allow the characters and the audience to catch up a bit. Lord knows nobody wants to make this play any longer but there is something to be said about taking your time in some scenes- 'moments' as one of my favourite acting teachers was fond of. And though there are substantial moments that make you pause as an audience and catch your breath at times the careering pace felt a bit much to allow audience and characters to really be present. That said, when it does stop it's devastatingly effective.

As costume is one of my personal obsessions and bugbears simultaneously, I couldn't let this production go by without mentioning costumes. Costume is obviously a big part of Blanche's character and much is made of her outfits in the text. This production I felt got this pitch perfect. From her neat suit at the start echoed in the final scene, to her outlandish dresses. The moment she changes into a Southern Belle-esque ballgown is a brilliant piece of costuming that gets a laugh but is also heartbreaking. Even her 'exotic' coloured dressing gown is pitch perfect. My favourite clothing elements were however the shoes. Not just because, well they are a mighty fine collection of shoes. Constantly Blanche is in huge heels, like Dolly Parton is rumoured to, she steps from bed or bath directly into fabulous heels. Practically this of course helps the tiny Gillian Anderson gain a few inches, but in terms of character I thought this was a wonderful touch. Blanche is so obsessed with appearances, of being put together and right, that having her never take off those heels unless she was unseen behind the shower curtain-the only time she is un-heeled, was to me a marvelous touch to the character. If I'd taken notes I'm sure I could have read something into each shoe choice-certainly the sparkly shoes are saved for dramatic purpose. But the outfits for Blanche were so meticulously constructed, including and especially the shoes, they might just be my favourite part of this production.

Overall it's the performances that make this play. Ben Foster and Vanessa Kirby make a strong Kowalski duo. Stella in this production is as strong and important a character as Blanche, Kirby not overshadowed by Gillian Anderson's Blanche. In fact Kirby's performance is that strong, that engaging I found myself wanting more of Stella than Williams' play gives us. Of course the evening belongs to Gillian Anderson. As much as I can be objective about the production, I find it difficult to be objective about her in most instances. However, I don't think I need to be in this particular instance. Her Blanche is nuanced and despite her exaggerated character feels very real. She's so very controlled in the role, bringing a slick, quite barbed but quick-witted Blanche to life in the first part of the play. When her cracks begin to show although the character unravels Anderson is an actress in complete control of the nuances of the character. I saw things in Blanche I'd never considered across the performance and there's an emotional centre to it from the moment she steps on stage. When she breaks down a little to Mitch there is a sense of what is further to come at the end of the play but she knows how to measure it out, to return a little to the earlier character before the final scenes. When the play finally reaches its climax it is truly devastating.  If you don't know the play, through the realisation of what has been happening in the final scene. When the famous line is delivered it has stopped being the line we all know, and becomes about this Blanche in this moment. And if nothing else that's when you know a revival has worked, when those famous lines take on their own life again. And if that fails to move, Anderson's slow final walk around the set, looking into the eyes of audience members as a broken lost Blanche is truly a devastating end to an emotional production.

On a personal note, seeing Gillian Anderson on stage again was a magical experience. I've said above that I find it hard to be objective, and I think I've been fair in my review here, my thoughts echoed by the press and other audience members. There are very few actors I love I'm quite so enamored with though, I suppose 20 years of fangirling will do that to someone. What I do realise is that I am still hopelessly in love with her as an actress (and a person) and I'm kind of ok with that. I couldn't have asked for a better way to spend my Birthday.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Turning 30

Well what kind of blogger would I be if I didn't blog about a landmark birthday?...I'll tell you a secret about turning 30...are you doesn't really matter.

Admittedly I'm typing this while still 29, so I could be wrong. By the time you read this I may have turned into a scaly green monster or something. I doubt it though. The thing is, I'm quite looking forward to being 30. It's never seemed that old to me, it just seemed 'nice'.

My 20s I wasn't that bothered about. Turning 21 in true rock star style I er, went to see 'The Producers' in London I think...I saw something anyway. And overall, my 20s weren't all that. I mean they were fine, but not being inclined towards all that 20-something behaviour you see on TV from the young 'uns. I'm actually more suited to the sensible 30s. (pah, sensible that's overrated too)

There's a lot of rubbish talked about what you 'should' do by a certain age. I think, if I'm to beleive society (and quite possibly the Daily Mail) I should have a dull job that I'm not interested in but have been doing for at least 10 years, I should own a house-it doensn't matter that the debt will be crippling and the house probably an utter dive-owning properly is one of the key markers of worth in society. I should (obviously) be married and have popped out at least one kid by now, or at the very least have the decency to be pregnant before 30. And if I haven't even got a boyfriend by now, or if I'm not in a job I forsee being in for 20 years, well frankly Lord help me. That's not to say there's anything wrong if you HAVE done any of them before 30, but why do I need to do them in an agreed timescale...or even at all? Writing it down all seems terribly arcaic and silly, but they are all thing's I've heard thrown about either personally or in the media.

News flash, I haven't' done any of those. Some of them I don't intend to do soon, others ever. And you know what? I'm perfectly happy with that too. I'm also pretty happy with where I am at 30. I spent my 20s finishing my education, generally pottering about with my life, cultivating a good group of friends and I arrive at 30 fairly content with that.

Are there things I wish I'd done? things I'd like to have done by now? Sure, but they'll get done. And if they don't well, probably nobody is going to die as a result. I can honestly say there is nothing on a pre-30 bucket list that can't be achieved post-30. Honestly, ask yourselves, is there anything that might be on such a list that can't be done next year? the year after? I can jump out of an plane just as well at 50 as at 30 if I desired (I don't desire but that's not the point)

I jokingly made a Facebook post last week about being told 30 was too old for going to theme parks. And bless him a 25 year old friend of mine genuinely thought that. To him, 30 was some far off grown up point where going to theme parks was a forbidden thing, you are too old at 30 to have fun it seems. And bless, I'm sure that by 29 maybe the goalposts will shift and 30 won't seem so ancient after all. I really hope so, because I'd hate for anyone to think that 30 is old, the end of the line. It's just the beginning.

At 30 I know who I am, I know what I want out of life and I know what makes me happy. I know who makes me happy as well, and I'm more particular about the people I surround me with. I'm more particular about my career choices. I'll still do anything to earn a living in the short term, but I'm no longer willing to 'make do' when it comes to the big career choices. I am more particular about some things, I know what wine I like and what chocolate best goes with that wine. Yes I'm more grown up. But I also have Doctor Who toys on my bookshelf. And I WILL be making friends stand by the promise of an Old People's trip to Legoland. Just to prove we can.

In short, there's nothing you HAVE to do before 30. And 30 isn't a cliff you fall off into adulthood. I'm looking forward to being 30-something. It's grown up, in a good way. But not that grown up. Just like me.

I leave this post with a better, funnier version of this attitude from Mr John Finnemore.

And if I had one wish for my Birthday....well if John Finnemore fancied a date sometime...

X Files Series 1 Re-watch.

First in a series of X Files season by season reviews as I work my way through them. This could take some time (though I've done S1 in about a month, so you new know)

Before going into Series 1, some context. The X Files was my teenage obsession. It was my first fandom, my first online engagement with something I was a fan of, the first thing I read (cough wrote, least said about that the better) fanfiction for. It was the gateway to my love of a lot of other Sci-Fi and cult TV. The X Files ended on British television fittingly during my last term of University, and I think the last time I properly watched a lot of it was at the end of my Undergraduate degree. I was still a fan, I still followed the careers of those involved-not just the lead actors, but writers, producers etc but I stepped away from watching the show, I guess it was just time for a break. Over the last couple of years I've revived my fannish interest by poking about online and coming across bits and pieces of fan engagement-a gif or two here, fan videos and of course David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson appearing at Comicon for the anniversary last year. So The X Files has never gone away for me. Much like the show/films it's just been a really, really long hiatus. As I write these season by season reviews I'll probably dip into a bit more about why I was a fan and what it meant to me, and probably other long tangents as well. But here goes...

For me series 1 is book-ended by two episodes that sum up early years X Files for me; The Piolet and The Erlenmeyer Flask. Both of these have probably the 'classic' X Files content, and in the case of the latter the real beginning of the show's overriding mythology arc.

Across series 1 there were a number of 'classic' episodes that more than lived up to my memory. Particularly 'Ice' in which an arctic research station becomes a centre of mysterious deaths, and 'Darkness Falls' where a trip to the woods...yup results in mysterious deaths. These two were among my favourites of the 'stand alone' episodes across the whole of 'The X Files' and they still are among my favourites on re-watching. This kind of dark and spooky episode that weds a traditional murder mystery with a supernatural element is among the reasons I loved the show. As a big detective fiction (in any guise) fan, it was these whodunnit elements wedded with a dark slightly warped edge that despite my love of the conspiracy/mythology side always were among my favourite episodes. It is that despite being slightly dated now, these episodes retain their original mystery and stand the test of time.

Of all the episodes in Season 1, my hands down favourite has to be Squeeze/Tooms two parter. Innovative in placing the two parts of the story across the season, the episode which sees a stretchy liver eating mutant murdering people every 30 years is classic X Files. Taking a creepy monster (he can squeeze down the chimney, up the toliet, through the heating grates) that looks like a traditional murder, having Mulder come up against 'proper' FBI agents, it's at once quite a playful episode that sees traditional murder mystery spun on it's head with, well liver eating hibernating mutants. What isn't to love? With some classic Mulder and Scully dialogue such as "Is there any way I can get this off my hands without betraying my cool exterior" and a slight nod to one of the inspirations behind The X Files in the Hannibal Lecter stories, Tooms remains one of my favourites.

I enjoyed rediscovering episodes I'd all but forgotten, and others I'd actively avoided. I loved 'The Jersey Devil' and discovered that 'Conduit' and 'Miracle Man' were also strong episodes I'd forgotten. Special mention also to 'Fallen Angel' and the appearance of Max Fenig a character I was always fond of, and to 'Deep Throat' and Seth Green as a stoner kid watching UFOS. I finally made myself re-watch 'Beyond the Sea' an episode I knew was a great one, but that I'd avoided due to a weird phobia around anything with capitol punishment in it. And it really is one of Season 1's greatest episodes, showing how effectively that the show balances it's 'spooky' elements with human drama and emotion (in this case the death of Scully's father).

There were a few episodes that fell a bit short, that I did if I'm honest find a little boring. Something to be expected in any season of American TV in particular (by which I mean by the sheer numbers game compared to UK shorter seasons) and in the early seasons again, while a show is finding it's feet. For me the latter end of the season contained more episodes I wasn't as enamored with Gender Bender, Shapes Born Again (the only one I did turn off before the end) and Roland aren't the greatest hours of television ever filmed, but still aren't by any stretch truly bad.

And yes, early X Files does seem a little dated now. It's over 20 years old, give it a break. The clothes, the hair, the cars all have a particular early 1990s feel that it's hard not to have a giggle at (Mulder, please, a suit that fits!) And yes, anyone under the age of 20 will be shouting 'just google it' about 10 minutes in. But that's part of it's charm. And yes, there are problematic episodes-Roland mentioned above takes an attitude to disabled people that probably wouldn't make it to filming today. And across this re-watch I'll probably talk in more depth about the issues of representation, or problematic episodes I come across. But as it's not the sole purpose of the re-watch blogs the time I spend on it will vary. That said I stand my my approach to problematic television (or film, or books) that just because it's problematic doesn't mean you have to stop watching-indeed watching and engaging with it is probably more useful. It doesn't mean also that I can't still enjoy these episodes that back in the late 1990s I didn't notice as problematic. But back to the point of this paragraph, if you want a time capsule back to 1990s hair and power suits, pick any episode and check out Scully's look. Poor Gillian, at least we know it gets better. In fact her and David Seem to have a magical makeover around series until now let's enjoy the awful ties and suits...and giant cell phones.

As a fan, part of the charm is knowing how far the characters still have to go in many different ways. In terms of maturity, in terms of approach and yes in terms of each other. Whichever side you fell on in terms of Mulder and Scully getting together, there is no denying that their relationship was a central part of the show. And I mean that in terms of their FBI partnership and their personal friendship. Their dynamic was what made the show in many ways, and seeing it again from the begining warms my cynical heart all over again. Not least because the classic moments that have become enshrined in Mulder&Scully fanlore are being for me discovered anew. So from the moment Mulder says 'Nobody here but the FBI's most unwanted' in episode 1 to Scully saying 'I wouldn't put myself on the line for anyone but you' at the end of the season, it feels a bit like re-living a love affair all over again. Which let's face it, it is. I'll be talking a lot about Mulder and Scully's relationship as I go through, because to date it's still one of my favourite television relationships. Watching them develop over the years was inspiring to me as a teenager, as a young woman, and watching it again is sure to throw up some interesting thoughts. Right now I'm enjoying baby Mulder and Scully and thinking about just how far they have to go.

This looking ahead actually sums up my overall thoughts on season 1. There are so many classic moments, so many forgotten gems. And it's the start of everything, which as a fan is fantastic to delve back into. To be able to go back to where it all began. The characters are only half formed so far, the mythology is a vague suspicous looking man smoking in the background and a few green blooded aliens (some will argue it never got much beyond that but that's another discussion) Skinner is just the bald headed grumpy man, and we haven't even met Krycek yet! And currently Mulder and Scully really are just friends (though Mulder has already conceded it's 'plausible' she's hot) It's still all to play for, it's wonderful and exciting to almost reset my fan brain. But at the same time, I know what's coming. I know there are far more exciting things to come. That feels wrong to say, that I should love each season equally as a fan, that I should say yet but if it weren't for season 1 we wouldn't have x or y or z. Which is true, but knowing some of my favourites are still ahead makes me excited to keep going...

So, on to series 2....

Monday, 18 August 2014

Loncon thoughts or being a black sheep at a convention

This Saturday I went to Loncon3 or Worldcon.  Confusing enough that it has two names I know. For those who don't (and there are plenty of people who read my blog who won't I realise) WorldCon is the World Science Fiction Convention, it tours, moving location annually, therefore Loncon refers to where it is (London) still not sure what the "3" in the title refers to.

I'll lay my cards on the table at the start, in a nutshell, I'm glad I went but I wouldn't go again. I will also say I didn't have a bad time, I had a great time with existing friends and meeting a couple of new people, I saw interesting things and my friends and I had interesting discussions. However the whole experience was, if not unpleasant, still not entirely pleasant. It was, for want of a better word odd. I felt also that this clearly was not the place for me.

I don't say that, or any that follows, with any personal disrespect to either the organisers of the attendees (with a few notable exceptions that will be clearly highlighted) and I'd like to stress to anyone who goes to an event like this, or even the organisers, sometimes it isn't for everyone who walks through those doors. Sometimes that's because of things that happen there, sometimes it's just not a right fit.

I went to Loncon out of curiosity, it doesn't come to the UK often (I think the last time was in the 70s in London and it's been in Scotland since) I've also never been to a real fan convention, and this one that was combining academic panels with fan panels and fan activity seemed a good place to start. What I will say is it's made me curious to try other purely fan conventions that are fixated on areas I am more interested in.

That was part of the problem for me, that I clearly don't fit into the demographic of fan in any way that Loncon is aimed at. I knew it was a literary sci-fi focus, and therefore I knew that's not really my area of interest/academic expertise. Which is fine, I've been to plenty of conferences that sit a bit outside my areas of interest and learned lots and had an interesting time. I had a feeling across the time I was there, and through stories from others, that this was just not for me. It felt, what I'd always feared about conventions actually, that 'local place for local people' feeling, and that you are clearly wearing a neon sign that says 'not local' (weird analogy but the fact that I can't resist a League of Gentleman metaphor further illustrates how I didn't fit in I think)

As an academic I also felt there was something that maybe wasn't gelling. I say this as an observer not a participant. But I was curious about putting academic style panels in a fan space. I was a fan before I was an academic and I'll continue to be a fan and an academic. I feel fans have as much intelligent contribution to give to discussions about the things they love, more so in fact because if you aren't doing it as part of work, there is often a level of dedication and passion that sometimes we lose as academics. I felt strongly that there was a real respect from the academics present to the fans, however I'm not sure that was entirely mutual. Maybe it was just a convention thing and a way people are used to behaving in their relative spaces, but I didn't feel fans were giving the academics the time of day at times. Not all the time, but I did also witness some pretty shocking behaviour first hand. Coupled with what I also heard from friends these clearly weren't isolated incidents, so I think dissuading it here is warranted.

During panels there was at times no sense of decorum, I'd even say a lack of respect for speakers. There was shouting out and shouting over panelists. This firstly is downright rude, not matter what the context. But there seemed to be a lack of understanding that, if you attend a panel you are attending to listen to the speakers. The speakers are chosen, whether academic or not, for their expertise in the area under discussion. While there is space for Q&A and debate, these people have been invited to speak, and in attending that panel you as an audience member have agreed to listen. If you don't like it, there is always an option to leave. On particular panelist found himself rudely shouted at because his microphone wasn't working. The man wasn't deliberately trying to make it difficult for the audience to hear, and still people shouted at him abusively. In the same panel I also witnessed a woman use a racial insult that I'm pretty sure actually falls under British law about racial abuse.

Now, there is no accounting for people frankly being dicks. And obviously at any massive event there will be a certain dick-quota. (I tried to find a more eloquent way to put that but failed) However, anecdotal evidence suggested this sort of thing was being seen across academic panels. And not so much the outright dick-behaviour (of which I have a few more examples that I didn't personally witness so don't feel I can relay here) but also of a general attitude against the academic analysis or engagement with the topics. I understand resistance to academic analysis in some respect-something that was discussed in the 'Researching Fans' panel. But there was a feeling overall, of the academic track not being quite welcome or engaged with.

Perhaps it was something about the scheduling, perhaps it needed to be clearer for people going into those rooms just what kind of panel they were attending. Perhaps it was also something about the organisation of the academics into their panels too-I know a number of people were put into panels, particularly as moderators that they were either uncomfortable with or felt they were't knowledgeable about. It's a mammoth task, I realise but equally with a conference/convention this large, this sort of thing needs attention.

Now to the overall feeling of the convention side. Although a literary bent I'd expected in my nerdy/geeky self to feel like I was a part of the worlds represented. Sadly I didn't. I just felt like there was nothing for me there. On two levels, firstly that as a media/television/film consumer that I was not the target audience, even a little bit not welcome. It felt like, in a very old fashioned way, TV and film was looked down upon in favour of the more 'serious' mediums of written word and comic books. Secondly, the type of fan I am, and my age certainly played a part. There was much derision of online fandom, and a lack of open mindedness about how young people engage with culture today. I think older fans would find a lot of respect from younger fans if they engaged with them, but sadly there is a lack of mutual respect the other ways. I say that as probably an 'in between aged fan' I LOVE the young fans, I love that they can use online resources better than I can and I love that they produce fan works and have encyclopedic knowledge that I can't keep up with. I want to talk to the "kids" older fans it's time you did too, you might learn something.

Feeling that sense of if not quite hostility, but certainly not quite belonging dampened my experience. It didn't mean I don't greatly respect other people's fandoms, and I was curious to learn more about the literary sci fi and fantasy world that I perhaps don't know much about. It felt like a closed door however. I do regret not getting chance to engage with the Tolkein society, because even as the most casual of Tolkein fans I feel like there I might have felt welcomed, engaged with. Overall there was a weird mix of 'gatekeeping' in a 'what do you mean you don't know that' way, combined with a shocking seeming omissions to the consensus of knowledge. If I as a very casual/peripheral  fan feel that some authors were missing from discussions that's a weird position to be in.

If I had to sum up my experience it would be "an experience" or simply "odd" as I say I had a great weekend overall, I got to spend time with friends and met a few new ones through those friends. We had great academic, and fannish discussions inspired by the panels we attended or spoke on, but perhaps not in the manner intended by the conference/convention.

I have the greatest respect for Loncon organsiers, and attendees, it's a massive event and well done all for pulling it off. There are many for whom it's their convention of choice and while I can't understand their experience I'm sure it means a lot to them, and that's great. Whatever my expereince I'm happy that events like this exist and are so popular. I'm also happy that there is continued work to engage academic experience, particularly fan studies into such events. My experience this weekend indicates that it's a tricky process and there's still a long way to go, but at least it's going, at least academics and fans are coming together and talking. And that's a great thing.

As for me, I'm glad I went. I won't be going back to Worldcon but I will I think venture to more conferences that are suited to my tastes. I look forward to engaging with like-minded fans, and perhaps being an academic at a fan conference to.

Oh one final thing, we talk a lot about Cosplay, and how to behave towards people in cosplay, however, to people in Cosplay too: being in a costume isn't a pass to act like a complete idiot. Being in costume doesn't mean you no longer need to have basic manners. Being in a costume doesn't mean you are better than the rest of us. Behave yourselves.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Always starting over (or what happens when you're friends screw you over, you fall apart and get back together again)

I've wondered whether or how to write this blog post for a while now, but I think the time has come. Also I think I need to say a few things. I'm a writer that's what I am it's what I do, and writing it all out is the only way I'm going to get it out, and resolve a few things in my head. So here goes.

A while back I posted about losing my job, that blog post is here.

I'm proud of how I handled that then. I stayed on the side of polite, professional, reserved. Some time has passed now, and while I'm not interested in a public mud-slinging match, I also feel like I want to tell the truth about just how much all that affected me.

Firstly there was the fact I'd gone from having a job(s) and a small but steady source of income to see out the PhD to nothing. I'm not going to dwell on it here, suffice to say it's had serious impact. Not only through not having income but the impact worrying about not having money has had. Instead of focusing on my PhD I've been panicking about "how long I have left" until the money runs out (clue: it already has) so rather than being driven by when it's ready academically, the PhD is now driven by "I can't go on any longer"

But that is that, it still means that the PhD is finished faster than it would have been had I been working full time, so that at least I can be grateful for. And I'm sure in the long term this is indeed a blessing in disguise. But that's the thing, I'd probably have gotten two months into that full time job, decided the sacrifice of the PhD wasn't worth it and quit. Probably, maybe, who knows. What matters is that would have been on my own term. I'd have had control and weighed up that decision.

But that's all the practical stuff, the direct effect of her cause. What she probably didn't think of is the wider implications. I'm feeling evil enough to think she knew exactly what she was doing in the above. She knew my financial and PhD situation and I have a hard time believing causing me these problems were anything but deliberate. The why is another thing. I'll come back to that.

What I'd say however is did you know what you did to me? you destroyed me. You didn't just take my job, you took my friends, you took the theatre from me, you took what confidence and self esteem I had and trampled all over it, and you stopped me trusting people.

A story (or two), to illustrate. A few weeks ago I had a job interview. The morning of the job interview I was sat, on my sofa sobbing (I mean that description literally) and shaking. I couldn't make myself get off that sofa, because I was honestly scared of going through the same thing with a job again. It sounds ridiculous I know, but I honestly felt like somehow something equally terrible would come of going to that interview. I cried all the way to the station, but I made myself go to the interview because I couldn't just couldn't let her win again. I didn't get the job, I didn't want the job, but at least I got there. But I realised, I'd been applying for jobs and being genuinely relieved when I didn't get an interview, because I was so scared of what would happen if I got the job. Irrationally that it would all somehow happen again. And that I wasn't good enough anyway.

As a curious aside, I went to an academic interview that week too. But I felt none of that. It's like, I knew I could do that and nobody, nobody could take that away from me. I didn't get the job, which for other reasons was also a relief, and an irritation. But that's an entirely separate issue. I do take some solace in that at least I still have that. The whole experience has made me reassess my job thoughts, but I shouldn't have to reassess them because someone has made me so scared of what will happen if I go into a similar job(s) again. I know it's irrational, but it's how I've ended up thinking.

But more than that, than destroying my financial security, my confidence in jobs, I lost a whole chunk of my life with that job. I left my other theatre job on good enough terms (after a rocky patch last year) but there's so much overlap in staff and patrons that with one went another. I haven't set foot in a theatre in Cardiff since March. When you figure that even without working I was at the theatre at least once a week, that's a massive loss. I cut a whole community of people, of friends out of my life, because it's just to painful to think about, to be associated with. I write about location and Cardiff in film and TV, and I realised I hate looking at that building now, I hate it in the TV shows it's in, I hate walking past it, I can't bring myself to go inside. I used to love that place. In terms of not being a part of that world, or even losing some acquaintances, perhaps  no great loss. But I miss that part of my life. Perhaps it was time to move on, but not like this, none of this like this.

The same with friends. In everything else I lost my friends. And not just those directly involved, a whole set of friends and things I did, because I've had to cut people out of my life. I'm not proud of that, I'm not pleased about it, but it's a self preservation thing. In running into this person either in real life or online, or anyone associated it was just too much, too upsetting. I also felt like I'd spent so many years banging on the door of theatre in this part of the world only to have the door slammed in my face one final time, I could no longer take any association with those involved. So I've cut myself off. And that makes me sad, but I think in the long term it's what I needed to do. Walk away.

And what of those directly involved? When this happened I was asked by the manager talking to me about the other girl involved. What I said, and what I said to her, was I'd have said she was one of my closest friends. If I'd been asked to name my five closest friends, she'd have been on that list. She agreed. But you don't do that to your friend. And if you did, and you didn't mean it, you make amends, you don't just disappear. Silence speaks volumes.

And this, this is the thing I can't get my head around: why do it? why get someone you were that close to fired from her job? a job that had no bearing on you, no impact on your life. And more importantly, why lie about it? I have so many questions still. Did you know what you were doing? did you know how it would impact my life? did you think about that? regret it later? do you even think of me at all?

Because when it happened I was lied to, I was led to believe it was a mistake, something that got out of hand. And I was able to forgive that. But then holes appeared in the story. I began to question. So I thought, what if I don't get in touch, what then? Then nothing. I've not heard from her since. Silence speaks volumes. Not only of the person responsible, but of another friend who I trusted, who showed their true colours and  the minute it happened. I'm sad, I'm sadly not surprised.

And the truth is, that I'm better off without . Looking back it had been a long time coming and not having the courage to say "Enough now, enough" when people you consider friends were not making life better, quite the opposite. I'd felt judged, used, unwanted. I made friends with these people due to similar fan-interests. When I started being judged for my continuing engagement with fan practices, or for outright being a fan, I should have known to step away. My friends who aren't fans, my real friends, don't treat my fangirl tenancies for the contempt these girls did. Never mind that I'm beginning to cultivate an academic portfolio of fan studies work, that for me it's both fun and work never mind also that I lost out on a professional opportunity linked to fan studies because of one of these people. And of course, as fandom and dealing with small children has taught me, was double-edged. It was silly and childish and beneath them when it was me, if it was them, that was ok. It's been a long time since I felt mocked for being a fan, and by people I'd befriended because they were fangirls? a sad state of affairs. But still you carry on, because you're friends and friends are hard to come by.

The best two pieces of advice came from two people whose opinion I trust unquestionably. My friend Amanda simply told me "These people are not your friends." and it's true, sometimes it takes someone else to tell you with. My friend Deborah, who lives on the other side of the world and knows nobody in my life told me "Making friends as a grown up is hard, but these people are bad news"

But it still hurts. There was so much history there. Yes, things were already clearly amiss for this to even happen. But there was still a friendship, a history. If there wasn't it wouldn't hurt half as much.

This blog barely touches on the hurt and upset I've felt over the past few months. I'm not writing it as an attack, as I say at the start I'm writing it to try and make sense of my feelings, of what's happened. It really was 'just a job' to me, until this happened. If I'd got fired in a reshuffle or deemed not good enough to do the job I wouldn't have given anything but the money a second thought. That job was a confidence boost in three years of confidence and soul destroying PhD, and losing it and the way it's happened has really affected me. More that that, the loss of friends, and the loss of trust in friends is profound.

More than anything, I just wish I knew why? if I could say one thing to the girl who did this I'd say why? why did you do this, and why did you do it the way you did? At least then I'd feel I had some answers.

Moving on, I've learned a lot. I've thought long and hard about jobs and what I can and can't do. I'm still terrified of going back to work. I've decided short term to do some supply teaching, I'm scared of that but in a different way. I know I can do that job.

In the longer term, I know a 9-5 office role is not for me. I can't do it, I just can't. What then? I'm good at 3 things: writing, research and teaching. In that order, answers or job offers on a post card for what I could do.

And as for friends? I have good friends, good trustworthy friends who I can rely on who have proved that to me time and time again. But I'll be more guarded with new friends. I won't work with friends either-not in the same way-I'm happy to collaborate with academic or creative friends. But I won't make friends in a job, or work somewhere with friends. I've learned a lesson there.

I've been listening to this song a lot lately, and it seems appropriate to end with this. The lyrics that strike me in this situation are this:

Am I always
Starting over?
In a brand new story
Am I always
Back at one
After all I've done?
‘Cause I've burned all of my bridges
And learned every last lesson too
So how can I start new?

However the song ends with this:

But love, I’ll make you one last vow
To start over
And over
And over somehow
My new life starts right now!

I have been so hurt, so broken down by this situation in the last few months. And the thing that does it is, I'm tough I expect it from my PhD, my chosen (difficult) career choices. I don't expect it from firstly what should have been a 'pay the bills' job, and more importantly from my friends.

But, I'll start over, and over and over again. Because what else can you do? But I needed to say it. But defiantly, I will start all over again. And again and again if I have to, because I won't let someone like that win.