Monday, May 21, 2007

What do you care what I do in my free time?

Another minor detail that bugs me. This one came up in the Heroes marathon I was watching this weekend, but it's a perennial theme in Charmed. Now, I'm not claiming that the latter is literature, and I'm withholding judgment on the former for now, but people do watch these things, and gain life lessons from them, so this has impact. The phrase and concept I take exception to is the taboo against "personal gain". Now, granted, if you're only using your powers for selfish things, with no regard for who you hurt along the way, you belong in Arkham Asylum. But if you're generally fairly selfless, and help people as much as you can with your powers, what's the harm in making your own life a little easier or more pleasant too? I guess part of it is that TV tends to be a little simplistic, but out here in the real world, anyone who gives and gives and gives and never gets anything back gets burned out on giving pretty quickly. Ask any hospice worker or Child Protective Services official- you have to take personal time, and do nice things for yourself, at least once in a while. Of course, friends and family can also pamper you, but the idea that you cannot do anything for personal reasons or personal benefit is patently ridiculous, and possibly dangerous to those who would follow the advice of these shows.
Furthermore, Charmed presents its three main characters as Wiccan, and there is nothing in Wicca to say that magic cannot be performed on yourself, for whatever reasons. In fact, if one were seeking, say, love, Wiccan tradition frowns on performing a love spell on someone else, and instead advocates performing magic on oneself. You would perhaps start with a bath with essential oils and/or herbs to boost confidence and allure, then do a candle spell to make yourself receptive to love, and to be able to recognize and embrace it when it comes along. This might include a stone or other good luck charm which you would then carry with you to attract potential lovers, and also to remind yourself of the confidence of the bath and the receptivity of the candles. All of this could easily be considered personal gain, but Wicca has no problem with this, as long as you are improving yourself and not coercing anyone else. I suppose a superhero code might be a little different, but Superman is always saving Lois Lane, which may well put him out of position to help others in the city, or those in other countries. Batman may not actively get anything out of his crime-fighting activities, but there is a definite sense that he does it more because he's bored than out of any goodwill towards humanity. Selflessness over selfishness is always a good choice, and I can't condemn these shows for advocating it, but I do feel that they go a little far in pushing the idea down people's throats.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Something odd

OK, so it's a little thing, but it bugs me. Most of Babylon 5 is so well thought out, and all the alien cultures are so internally consistent, that little lapses in logic really stand out. The one that really bugs me is as follows: they live on a space station. All resources, like water, must be shipped in from planets. Food must either be grown or shipped in. Therefore, one would think that they would hoard these things, make sure to finish every crumb on their plates and every drop in their glasses. But no! People walk away from meals all the time, often in public cafes and such. Sometimes they order drinks, including alcohol, which I would assume to be expensive and difficult to obtain, then leave the room entirely before taking more than a sip. Sometimes they are mostly done with a drink or a meal, and they have a reason to leave, but don't take the last couple of bites or last gulp of drink as they go, which seems incredibly wasteful, especially out in space. I've seen people do that last bite/gulp thing a lot, in real life and in other shows, and its lack here disrupts my suspension of disbelief to a distressing degree.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Beware the shift in technology

In reading Landow’s talk of digitizing print books, I think immediately of a Buffy episode which articulates the turn-of-the-millennium conflict between print and digital media. Landow asks why we would do it, why retype a book or scan it onto a computer, and Buffy and her friends provide some, if not all, of the answers why, and one reason why not, though that might not apply in the real world.
Mr. Giles has a job as the school librarian, but that is just so he can be close to Buffy all day, since he is her mentor, trainer, and information source, known as a Watcher to her Slayer. (Also so he can be near the Hellmouth, which is located directly below the library, but that’s another issue) He has an enormous collection of rare and ancient books, codices, and manuscripts, dealing mostly with demons, spells, and other magical subjects, of which he is justifiably proud. The Slayer and her friends are not nearly as careful with these tomes as a scholar would like, and so he decides to scan them into the computer for searchability. If Giles had been less secrecy-conscious, or Willow more independent-minded, they could have made a website and database from this information, and helped other demon hunters around the world, possibly even other Watchers and their Potential Slayers. Giles himself has said that many of his volumes are unique or the only surviving copy, and certainly his girlfriend, computer teacher and self-professed “techno-pagan” Ms Calendar, has done online research to help them with cases. However, I understand that such things were left out to streamline story, so I can't really object.
The problem must come, of course, and in this case it is that one of the texts is a powerful summoning spell, and the process of scanning it acts like reading it, and the demon materializes within the school network. It is unclear whether or not it can get to the rest of the Web from there, but he concentrates on Willow anyway, so it seems to be a moot point. He woos her and nearly kills her before Buffy rescues her and banishes him. The overt lesson is that people you meet on the Internet are generally not what they appear, especially if they won’t send you a picture or talk to you on the phone, but there is another lesson. Knowledge is power, and the Internet makes it very easy to share both, so you have to pay attention to what you put on the computer, because it can take on a life of its own very easily.

Culture, not just pop culture

If you ask a Literature professor what separates an airport pulp novel from a Classic, generally the answer involves some or all of the following: layers of meaning, allegory and metaphor; truth about the human condition; characters we can identify with, that we root for and suffer and struggle with; and story that holds up over multiple engagements (readings, or, in our case, viewings), even years apart. I contend that the same holds true for audio-visual media like TV and movies. In Buffy, for example, the characters certainly learn. Their whole lives are a process of learning more about the world and themselves, and in watching them, we learn about the world too, often without even realizing it. Through them we remember (or anticipate) the pangs of young love, the thrill of graduation, the trepidation of college, moving out, one’s first job… In short, the characters stand in for us. They are fully-fleshed, complex- even one-note jokes like Larry the football jerk turn out to have unexpected depth. Larry is using his jerkishness to cover his fear of coming out of the closet, and after he admits to someone that he is gay, he becomes a much nicer person, a transformation a friend of mine went through in high school too.
Babylon 5 likewise has something to say about humans and how they interact with each other and the larger world (or universe). There is deep poignancy in the choices the characters must make- there is never an easy, black-or-white choice, but rather a range of shades of grey and even a rainbow of colors. Some characters make what seem like the best choices, for the best reasons, only to have terrible consequences result, and be aware of their own culpability. Others make choices recklessly, with no concern for their own or others’ safety, and find that they have made a positive difference. Most commonly, however, on the show as in life, there are only the bad choices and the worse choices, and the characters have to find a way to make it work out decently well. Friends die or leave, and the survivors have to get on with their lives, but there is life and hope and good times as well. Love can blossom in the most unlikely of situations (and pairings), and acquaintances or even enemies become dear and trusted friends. Misunderstandings occur, but eventually grievances are aired and everyone basically likes everyone else again.
In some ways, TV shows are actually a better way to tell a complex, nuanced story. Aside from the elements actors bring- a face and voice to go with a personality- we can get to know the characters better over twenty-two 45-minute episodes than over 350 pages. There can be stories of greater depth, and larger scope, stories that take time to build and flesh out and foreshadow.