Saturday, October 20, 2018

Another Non-After School Special: Hidden Kisses

In an earlier post, I comment on fiction that comes across as an "After School Special."

There's nothing particularly wrong with After School Specials; I simply prefer my literature to be less Important Topic Under Discussion and more story for the sake of story.

Hidden Kisses greatly surprised me for being very much not an after school special.

The blurb on the DVD back cover rather implied that it would be--two boys kiss at a party; someone takes a picture; the one boy is recognized; bullying ensues.

And yes, that is (more or less) the plot that runs the movie.

But that's not what the movie is about.  

*Minor Spoilers*

The movie is about the families, specifically the fathers of the two boys. The one father is rather wonderful. Stunned, at first he distances himself from his son, only to come around and rebuild their positive relationship. The other father--who nearly invites us to hate him--reacts with a passionate determination to "fix" his son.

And yet--

The movie is not a LECTURE on HOW PARENTS SHOULD BEHAVE. Rather, the movie illuminates how two fathers see themselves reflected in their sons (an only son and an eldest son), not only in terms of their sexuality but in terms of their interests and behavior. It isn't so much about good v. bad but about how a parent reacts when his or her belief about the future (my child will be . . .) is shattered.

The first father is able to more easily move on because that future always held a bit of mystery to him. The second father, whose images of his well-functioning family were more assured and definite, needs more time.

We don't get the Hollywood ending. We do get hope.

What makes the film so extraordinary is that without abandoning the boys--the movie always takes their side--it allows for the heartache and uncertainty of others. At the end of the movie, the two boys are reunited when Louis returns from his grandparents. The boys greet each other with a relieved embrace while the mother looks on.

Is she sad? Thoughtful? Resigned? Accepting? Did she think the time away would "cure" Louis like his father hoped? She decided to take her son away before her husband did him irreparable harm. Does she feel guilt? Relief? Shame? Exhaustion? Does she bemoan her marriage? Does she have hope for it? Is she confident in her decisions?

We aren't told.

This is story, not a lesson.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Allowing for Reality: K.J. Charles's Band Sinister

K.J. Charles does it again!

One of my favorite aspects of Charles's plots is her refusal to adopt easy answers. It is frankly common for many romances to fall back on the assumption that all the people who are trying to keep the lovers apart are bad while all the people who want to get them together are good.

Jane Austen and Shakespeare each point out the futility of these assumptions. As does K.J. Charles--though she wends a more difficult line (Austen and Shakespeare had unified cultural moralities to fall back on or at least, as unified as their individual class systems allowed for).

In sum, Charles tackles the moral quandary: What is the line between thumbing one's nose at the world, doing one's own thing, being an island--and being a responsible, social human being?

*Spoilers*

In Band Sinister, Philip may have good reason to go his own way, to shrug at society's strictures and moral coding. But then, Philip can afford it.

The clothes are wrong but the expressions are right.
As sweet, thoughtful, and level-headed Guy points out, many women and some men can't afford the same indifference (or studied indifference). They need social support. They need good reputations, so they can get decent employment or make decent marriages or receive allowances from relatives so they can, you know, eat.

In addition, he points out that Philip's disregard for social niceties has made things difficult for Guy's sister. In a tribute to Georgette Heyer (which I think Band Sinister may very well be), Amanda breaks her leg on Philip's property and cannot be moved from his house. It is practically impossible to entice a decent nurse to stay as her companion due to Philip's notoriety.

Guy's perspective isn't the final say, however. Charles plays fair! Philip has good reason to protect himself and his friends. In any case, Philip and his friends are philosophical bohemians, not alcoholic libertines. And frankly, who cares what the neighbors say? At some point, everybody has to decide a future course based on his or her own integrity, not the world's views.

It's a problem that applies to more than romance. I work at a job I am reasonably good at, yet I am surrounded by people, from college administrators to relatives, who act as if my job is so much wasted time and space. I would be a fool not to admit the impact and reality of that social pressure. I've done my share of crying into my pillow. Yet I still have to ask myself, "Do I give up something that matters to me, something that I'm good at because of social pressure?"

This is the narrow line that Charles is attempting to tread. Where does personal fulfillment end and social needs/compromise take over? And vice versa?

Guy's solution: "I dare say I can learn not to mind being talked about, if you don't mind trying to be talked about a bit less."

Friday, October 12, 2018

Dysfunctions Again: Challenging the Cliches

From the cover for Short Stay
In Cullinan's Dirty Laundry, the lovers--Adam and Denver--engage in bondage. Adam is slight, short, and bespeckled while Denver is a huge, muscled guy who works as a bouncer for most of the book.

Their relationship is not dysfunctional. At least not problematically so.

Both characters lay their cards on the table. They are honest about their needs (and when they aren't, they work it out). They know exactly where their boundaries are and exactly what they are each getting from the relationship.

As the Dom, Denver never makes the mistake of believing--or even imagining--that this role makes him "better than" his partner. His added height, weight, and job don't make him inherently abusive (although other people in the book make this assumption).

Where Dirty Laundry gets really insightful, however, is the depiction of Adam's ex (who I will refer to as Ex). He is obviously slim, though taller than Adam, even graceful. On paper, he would seem the appropriate companion to the slight Adam.

Ex claims to "care." He claims to want to make things better, to "take care of" Adam. He goes overboard trying to persuade Adam that he can't survive on his own. Adam is such a mass of problems, the only one who can put up with him is Ex!

Ex is all about control.

When Ex breaks up with Adam, he expects Adam to come crawling back. The break-up was supposed to be a "lesson." Instead, Adam takes the opportunity to break free, to move out on his own. He can't entirely explain to himself why Ex's "niceness" is so totally disruptive to his own ability to function; he just knows that it is.

I consider this brilliant characterization. Because of course, Ex is furious. That's not the way the script was supposed to go. Adam was supposed to realize what a mess he was and be grateful that someone, anyone, is willing to date him. He certainly wasn't supposed to go off and find himself a complementary mate who satisfies his needs without making him feel like crap.

"Consenting adults" has more than one layer. (Which can't be solved by legalities or by reliance on appearance.)

Monday, October 8, 2018

Bulldog on Frasier: Sometimes the Static Character Can't Change

On Frasier, Bob Bulldog Briscoe--chauvinistic womanizer--became a member of the main cast from Seasons 4 to 6. He appeared regularly in the earlier seasons and returned for several episodes in the later seasons.

Dan Butler is a talented comedian. Still, I've always puzzled about why he was brought in as a regular cast member. Frasier is a remarkably tightly structured show, despite the variety of its plots. Frasier, Niles, Martin, Daphne, Roz run the show quite effectively with assistance. The arcs don't require more major players.

I've wondered off and on over the years if Bulldog was meant to be Roz's "Niles." They were supposed to be the next romantic duo. If so, like with Larry Linville on M.A.S.H., the writers were too good at making him a static character.

I am not opposed to static characters! I'm not one of those culture lovers who demands that all characters be well-rounded. I don't get tetchy about "stereotypes" or "cliches" or whatever. All good comedy requires characters that grow and characters that remain exactly as designed. To a large extent, comedy relies on some flatness, even on cliches. We laugh at what we recognize.

Sometimes, static characters can become well-rounded. Howard, on Big Bang Theory, is a remarkable example of a character who grows beyond his origins. But then, Howard's over-the-top girl-chasing in the first few seasons was largely self-effacing, even ironic.

Self-knowledge seems to be the key to transitioning from static or flat to well-rounded and dynamic. Bulldog is never given that. Larry Linville's Frank Burns might have been able to pull it off. The self-reflecting Winchester, however, arrived with self-knowledge already present (though not yet fully operational).

I guess if writers want a character to become dynamic, they should keep self-knowledge as an option, even if not fully displayed until later.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Falling for the Same Type Constructively: Hide & Seek Review

I recently collected the quiet, charming, insightful Hide & Seek by Yaya Sakuragi. I confess, I prefer it to the mangaka's better-known Bond of Dreams, Bond of Love.

One aspect I greatly enjoy about Hide & Seek is that the doctor has a type. He tends to fall for laid-back, seemingly que sera sera types. The problem: laid-back, que sera sera types sometimes come with extra baggage, such as not paying bills or caring all that much about how the other person feels.

So the doctor falls for Shuji Tanihara (the blond, who is literally blond in the manga), a representative of this type. Shuji takes things as they come. He is not hugely ambitious. He is divorced and tends to party but in a desultory way that suggests he could be persuaded to do something else.

He also owns the candy/convenience store that he has always wanted to own. It doesn't get many customers, but he plans to hold onto it. He also cares for his daughter. Sure, he shows up at her school looking like a member of the Rat Pack, but hey, he shows up!

The best indication that Shuji is the doctor's type without the negative baggage is when he tells off the doctor's ex. The doctor's ex is currently dating someone else (actually two someone elses). He descends on the doctor to mooch.

Shuji is appalled. Why should the doctor be paying for someone else's mistakes? Why should the doctor be responsible for someone else screwing up? Why should he help out an ex who is an "ex"?

Shuji is partly jealous, but the interaction between the three of them indicates that despite being the doctor's "type," this time, the doctor has fallen for a guy who won't mooch or leave or use him for his own ends. This time, the guy, Shuji, will be loyal, will stick around, will invest himself.

Excellent character depiction!

Monday, September 24, 2018

The Hollywood Romance Subgenre and Why It So Seldom Works

It's a rocky ride--if a writer is willing to tackle the rocks.
A number of romance novels center on Hollywood, as in Hollywood stars falling in love, ordinary citizens falling in love with Hollywood stars, directors falling in love with actors, etc. etc.

With few exceptions, the romance-set-in-Hollywood (or with Hollywood characters) seems to generate more failures than successes. Why?

I came across one possible explanation when I recently read a Hollywood romance by an author who also writes military romances. The Hollywood plot was strained where the military plots are usually not. The reason why was obvious.

In both the Hollywood romance and the military romance, a character's livelihood is placed on the line by the romance. This can happen in Hollywood, a reality that Blue Bloods tackles in one episode. In the military, despite the repeal of DADT, certain rules against fraternization still remain.

Nobody ever writes a romance like this. Disillusionment
is the name of the game.
In the first case, the characters rail against "the man" (the studio) and the public and their desire to work without being hampered by social disapproval. It's hard to feel any kind of sympathy, NOT because I think those forces don't exist. Or because I believe a person should give up everything for love but precisely because I don't think so. Make the hard choice. Decide whether the relationship is worth the career. Move on.

In the second case, with the military, the characters can rail all they want. The military ain't budging. So they don't. They have more than their egos to worry about: dependents, retirement, long-term career options.

With the military romances, the author does a good job pointing out that people can't simply flush their lives down the toilet. You enter the military at age eighteen. Deciding to throw it away at the age of thirty-five for love, especially when retirement is a possible option, is seriously stupid. Some of her characters do make that choice, but they make it with their eyes wide open.

This serious consideration can happen with Hollywood plots, and the same author produced a second Hollywood romance that did work. But it worked precisely because the actual sacrifices and gains of the lifestyle were acknowledged. Is constant scrutiny by the press, which neither one of us can prevent, worth being together or not? Can we learn to play the game? Or should we ignore the game and leave this lifestyle behind? 

Be clever! Use the rules!
No point in complaining about the conditions of the game--not when the characters signed up for the game in the first place.

I've deliberately left the plot details of these books vague. Based on reviews I've read, the Hollywood sub-genre romance is problematic across M/M and M/F. That is, using Hollywood to create conflict between romance characters is problematic, no matter who those characters are. It can be done. Generally speaking, it might be best to leave it alone.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Classic Romance: Love Boat

I vaguely remember Love Boat from my childhood. I think I watched it at my grandparents'. I recently decided to rewatch it and was surprised at how fun it is!

Is it great writing? Nah. Superb acting? Eh, the acting is okay. Hey, notables like Leslie Nielsen and Ruth Gordon show up!

Some of the stories, like the couple who recently lost a child, are surprisingly thoughtful. But honestly, it's mostly a bunch of tropes on top of tropes. Or guest stars being asked to re-enact what they are known for. Gary Burghoff shows up and tames a dog. John Ritter shows up and cross-dresses.

And it's tons of fun!

Nearly every episode, at least in the first season, is a set of three to four vignettes: the Tennyson reader who falls in love with a plumber, the captain's father who falls in love with a woman who works in the galley, the twins who want to take the voyage on one ticket.

The show is late 70's to mid-80's, and the first season episodes have this weird, soft laugh track. It's not exactly a sitcom (the laugh track is barely noticeable after the pilot), so the jokes don't run the episodes, which is good because they aren't that funny. Rather, the little stories do. And they are successfully paid off--which is quite impressive.