Sunday, January 21, 2018

Erotica: When It Works, When It Doesn't

Apparently, sex education has been spoofed for . . .
forever. E.M. Forster gently spoofs it at the beginning of
Maurice, and 3rd Rock from the Sun spoofs it (see above).
After all, human beings use humor to alleviate discomfort.
Erotica--artistic works that deliberately and directly address sexuality--falls into at least four categories, from least successful to most successful.

1) Boring. 

This form of erotica is exceedingly common in romance paperbacks. The sex is so pedestrian, it turns into a recitation of mechanical parts in a car manual. Monty Python cleverly spoofs this approach in The Meaning of Life: sex education reduced to the tedious standard of, well, most high school courses.

Often "it's boring" is linked to . . .

2) Filler. 

In many paperback romances, even I'm sorry to say M/M, the sex scenes have a "tacked on" feel. There are even times when the sex scene feels not all that dissimilar to the extra death in a murder mystery (as Agatha Christie would amusingly admit): a way to up the word count.

As a writing exercise, I have edited pages of erotica in order to bring them down to manageable and frankly more interesting proportions. The original problem was not simply a lack of character development or plot. Nor was it the immorality. It was the utter lack of anything. Car manuals at least have some sort of climax: I figured out what that light on the dashboard means! 

3) Integral to the story.

Erotica that aids the plot is the type of erotica that people who pour scorn on erotica will mention when they discuss sex scenes: "I don't approve unless it's part of the story."

Truthfully, however, good erotica is not only part of the story, it is the story. That is, the story is as much about the sexual relationship as it is about the spiritual and emotional relationship. Consequently, "being integral to the story" doesn't automatically make the erotica good since a stupid story will by default have stupid erotica.

When it is good, it can be very good. Apple & Honey: His Rose-Colored Life is a strong example. The story is about college students in love and since they are modern, secular college students, sex is part of the equation. The outcome is not judgment. The outcome is a reflection of human behavior.
Phil Farrand: "In the standard uniform, Troi becomes
a serious professional woman of the same standing
as Crusher . . . Certainly, Troi's physical beauty is not
diminished by clothing it in a standard uniform. Indeed,
I find it enhanced--for there remains room for subtlety."

Likewise, Starting with a Kiss by Yuka Nitta is quite bluntly about the use of sex as a power--both to subdue and entice. And Twittering Birds deals successfully with the end run of a sexual masochist (he's rapidly burning himself out).

4) It's about what isn't there.

I consider this the most powerful form of erotica, mostly because it is so understated and
underappreciated. Deanna Raybourn's Lady Julia Grey suspense romance series falls into this category: the sex is hot . . . at least one assumes it is. She allows the implications of "what happened next" to stand without detail.

Anyone who doubts the potential hotness of the "unshown" or unspoken, never watch old-time movies. Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious don't fade to black; rather, they walk away the viewer: what they do next is nobody else's business. Privacy becomes a form of passion.

Charlie Cochrane's M/M Cambridge Fellows Mysteries utilizes a similar approach. The writer deliberately leaves things up to the imagination, which delivers a far more charged response. It entails clever writing and, to be honest, clever readers.

Less clever readers can fall back on boring filler.

Related posts:

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Venice: City of Romance (in the Imagination)

Except it isn't really.

In reality, Venice is apparently full of pollution. It smells. And it's sinking. And it's overloaded with tourists.

I've always had a soft spot for Venice, mostly because I love water-related worlds. And I also get a kick out of its history. When the Fourth Crusaders showed up in the thirteenth century, Venice went along with the political decision to sack Constantinople entirely out of self-interest. It was a business-oriented viewpoint and explains much of the Venetian way of life up through the Renaissance (and possibly even now).

When I researched Venice for my rewrite of The Merchant of Venice--which never entirely took off--I learned that the treatment of Jews in Venice was not altogether positive (there was a Jewish "ghetto") but tentatively better than elsewhere in Europe.

In many ways, business is far more moral than "principles."

To see the romantic vision of Venice, the Venice that sits in the imagination if not in reality, watch the remarkable Bread & Tulips.The story of a woman who walks away from an unsatisfactory life, it shows Venice at its best: all the idiosyncratic hidden walkways, friendly stores, and remarkable views. The movie is sun-filled and thoughtful and quite witty. It is what Venice should always be--imaginatively.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Ennis in Brokeback: The Ultimate Show Don't Tell

One of the weirdest encounters I've had in the world of popular culture is with film critics who rate verbiage over visuals.

I've encountered this issue with reviews of manga, where I consider it odd. With films, it is positively bewildering.

Ennis from Brokeback Mountain is a good example of this larger issue. Apparently, when the movie came out, a well-known critic accused Jack of being a "predator" re: Ennis. This caused some fall-out since "predator" is a loaded term within any relationship and particularly within the gay community.

I came across this accusation shortly after seeing the film for the first time. My issue wasn't with the rhetoric. What threw me was the reading of the characters: had I misread them that badly?

So I watched the film again and came away with the same reaction I had the first time plus the additional reaction that film critics don't use their eyes.

Ennis is the ultra introvert of the film. Jack is the relative extrovert. Jack is far more likely to argue his case with Ennis, to speak his affection and desire. In addition, Jack is searching for a relationship; he is what sociologists call an affiliative rather than agentic extrovert. Jack isn't interested in awards or leadership--he isn't a "go-getter." He requires social interaction and daily affection.

In one of the most remarkable scenes in the movie, Jack tentatively flirts with a cowboy in a bar. What is remarkable is that the audience sees the scene not from the point of view of enlightened city-dwellers (Jack's behavior in a gay bar in any city would appear not only innocuous but unreadable--he is a reserved cowboy). Rather, the audience sees his behavior from the perspective of the culture in which he resides. Jack's behavior appears incongruous--and Jack as an outlier--because of his context, not his personality.

Jack is not the pursuer--he simply appears that way. And Ennis is not the pursued, as his actions (not words) betray.

Ennis is an intense, duty-oriented introvert. That doesn't mean he doesn't feel. As a pained Elinor explains in Sense & Sensibility,
"If you can think me capable of ever feeling—surely you  [understand now] that I have suffered. The composure of mind with which I have brought myself to consider the matter . . . did not occur to relieve my spirits at first. Then, if I had not been bound to silence, perhaps nothing could have kept me entirely . . . from openly shewing that I was very unhappy." (my emphasis)
Ennis's lack of verbal acknowledgement (his silence) is continually trumped by his "openly shewing" behavior: his willingness to take Jack's place on the mountain; his request for different food--that Jack likes--from Supply; his willingness to talk (dead giveaway):
Jack Twist: Friend, that's more words than you've spoke in the past two weeks.
Ennis Del Mar: Hell, that's the most I've spoke in a year.
Even more telling is Ennis's body language: his physical ease with Jack; his amusement at Jack's antics; his agitation on the days that Jack is supposed to arrive; his wrenching sobs alone (one of the most painful parts of the movie) when he and Jack are brought back from Brokeback early. The comparison to Elinor comes full circle since Ennis refuses to show his despair (other than in the fight with Jack, which Jack mostly correctly interprets) to anyone.

Ennis is no victim or un-involved partner. And although I am aware that extroverts often misread introverts (understandably since so much interaction relies on reading between the lines), I expect more from film critics. If one cannot read visuals, one might look for a different job.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

When Romeo & Juliet Works

Alex Beecroft's M/M Shining in the Sun is a good example of when Romeo & Juliet (or, in this case, Romeo & Romeo) works.

Despite generations of heart-sick teenagers taking Romeo & Juliet as a blueprint for "success," Shakespeare likely meant it as a cautionary tale--directed more at the parents than the teens.

Nevertheless, Romeo & Juliet remains the classic example of love-against-all-odds. Variations on the seminal couple show up all over the art world (and did before Shakespeare). Sometimes the relationship ends in accordance with its most celebrated example: lots of death. Sometimes it ends with sacrifice and acceptance (Casablanca). Sometimes it ends with an utter lack of realism. And sometimes, if handled correctly, it ends with a sweet, romantic resolution.

The first two are not the focus of this post (despite Casablanca being a great movie). The focus is the last two: what separates the positive romantic unbelievable ending from the positive romantic believable ending.

The difference lies in acknowledgement of the accompanying problems.

The Romeo & Juliet trope rests on the premise that two people from opposite sides of the tracks meet and fall in love. Maybe their families are enemies. Maybe one is a liberal and one is a conservative. Maybe one is poor and the other is rich. Maybe one is a spy and the other is his/her mark.

In Frasier, Niles meets Daphne's lay-about
brothers and still wants to marry her.
The tension arises from (1) outside forces stating, "You must not be together." And (2) inner forces stating, "I don't really get you."

Unrealistic Romeo & Juliet tales focus only on (1) rather than accepting that (2) will have impact.

That is, people cannot be instantly stripped of their familial/cultural/monetary expectations. There is a reason that most people do, in fact, marry within their "class" (even in America). It is less popular to admit to these realities than it was in Austen's day. I argue that one reason Austen is so popular even now is that she verbalizes issues that have become taboo in our own culture (every culture has, as Tom Wolfe argued, its own Victorian Gent): the impact of money and background on relationships.

Elizabeth can argue fiercely with Lady Catherine de Bourgh that she equates to Darcy since she is a gentleman's daughter. Yet Austen never allows any of her heroines to contemplate marrying a farmhand or a minor clerk in an office (there were writers of her generation that did--Austen is not being na├»ve; she is deliberately narrowing her scope). Love conquers all within a specific social milieu.

Again, Austen is not being prejudiced; she is being realistic. Money, where people want to live, how people want to live, their friends, their families, their social settings: all these things are factors in a relationship. To pretend they are not is to leave the door open for worse problems.

Austen perfectly encapsulates these "worse problems" in Sense & Sensibility. At the end of the book, Willoughby--who married for money--regrets that he didn't marry for love. Elinor wisely reflects that if Willoughby had married her sister, he would have ended up resenting their mutual poverty.

So how does a Romeo & Juliet tale end without the couple, in the long run, hating each other's guts because "you estranged me from my family . . . you buried me in poverty . . . you forced me to live in a horrible city/country/town . . . you prevented me from accomplishing what I could have accomplished . . . "

Beecroft's answer is for Alec and Darren to acknowledge, upfront, the stressful differences. When Darren has to meet Alec's well-to-do, Lady Catherine-like mama, he resents being "put on display" as well as the subtle ways in which the mama and the waiters at the fancy restaurant make him feel uncouth. Likewise, when Alec goes to meet Darren's grandmother, he is appalled by the woman's poverty.

The latter scene is fairly brilliant. Darren wants Alec to meet his grandmother; Darren himself has always been impressed by how clean she keeps her tiny house; how hard to works to wear matching slacks and pullovers. Then he sees his grandmother through Alec's eyes. The house is clean but shabby (and lacking in basic amenities). His grandmother's dress is presentable yet threadbare (and Walmart cheap, not haute couture). He resents Alec for this new perspective.

Both Alec and Darren have to overcome their judgments and resentments in order to move forward. 

Without an acknowledgement of these differences, Romeo & Romeo or Romeo & Juliet cannot move forward. Instead, the reader is left with the awful instinctual knowledge, "This relationship is doomed--even if nobody dies."

Austen's Persuasion handles its Romeo and Juliet class differences through Mrs. Croft's monologue at the Musgroves. The tension here is between a squire's daughter (Anne is further up the social scale from both Elizabeth and from Darcy) and a captain from a gentleman's family. Since the Napoleonic Wars began, sailors have risen in people's estimation. Several years earlier, Anne's albeit pompous father would never have deigned to address a navy man. Now, Anne and Captain Wentworth's courtship is acceptable. But there is still a sense of two people from two different worlds trying to find common ground. Would Anne truly be able to adjust to a non-manorial, sea captain's lifestyle?

Mrs. Croft's speech addresses and resolves the issue. In Persuasion (1995), this speech is delivered by Fiona Shaw. As she speaks, her husband (played by the excellent John Woodvine) listens with an intimate smile on his face. One comes away convinced that yes, a marriage between someone as matter-of-fact as Mrs. Croft (like Anne) and a rough sailor like Admiral Croft can work, no matter the differences:
I have crossed the Atlantic four times, and have been once to the East Indies, and back again . . . and I can safely say that the happiest part of my life has been spent on board a ship. While we were together, you know, there was nothing to be feared. Thank God! I have always been blessed with excellent health, and no climate disagrees with me. A little disordered always the first twenty-four hours of going to sea, but never knew what sickness was afterwards. The only time I ever really suffered in body or mind, the only time that I ever fancied myself unwell, or had any ideas of danger, was the winter that I passed by myself at Deal, when the Admiral (Captain Croft then) was in the North Seas. I lived in perpetual fright at that time, and had all manner of imaginary complaints from not knowing what to do with myself, or when I should hear from him next; but as long as we could be together, nothing ever ailed me, and I never met with the smallest inconvenience.

Friday, January 5, 2018

The Climax of the Story: Murder Mysteries

When I took a play-writing course in college, the most important principle of writing I learned was "pay-offs."

If a character is introduced in the first scene/chapter in a notable way, that character must be paid off at some point. (Hence, my argument, that Die Hard is the best action movie ever made because all of its set-ups are paid-off).

In novels, characters and ideas can be more easily dismissed (left to the reader's imagination)--less so in television and movies, which are intensely visual. However, even in books, a lack of pay-off can disconcert, especially the second time around.

The Nevermore series by C.S. Poe is well-written. I enjoyed the first book and purchased the second. Unfortunately, although I rate the romance/relationship, conflicts, and writing in both books quite high, I cannot rate the mysteries as high.

Regarding the first book, the problem isn't the obviousness of the bad guy; personally, I don't read mysteries to "guess," so I don't care if the bad guy is obvious. And the detective/collector's investigation of Poe's first published work is quite interesting

The problem is I could never completely grasped (even after the second reading), how the bad guy got into the detective's apartment.

Really. That's a problem.

I don't know if this is true--but it is hilarious.
Murder mysteries rely on empirical evidence and logistics, which can, quite obviously, be a pain to solve. (I'm reminded of a Poirot episode/short story in which a man writes to Poirot for help--Come at once! It turns out the man wrote a novel in which he created such watertight alibis, none of his characters could possibly be the murderer. He needs Poirot to figure it out for him--solve the mystery!)

A failure to solve logistics is not dissimilar to, though not as devastating as, Lee forgetting the logistics of food supplies when he entered Pennsylvania to fight at Gettysburg. Whether or not he won (whether or not the detective figures out the bad guy), how on earth was he planning to feed the survivors (how is the detective going to explain someone entering a locked room)?

A locked room is a locked room. Someone has to steal the keys from somewhere--or dismantle the hinges--or use a bump-key. Not a difficult fix, but it does need to be explained. And quite often, the fix will elucidate character: if, for example, the victim of the broken-into apartment is brilliant but absent-minded, having the villain filched an extra, forgotten-about key from the victim's workplace is a simple--and character expanding--solution.*

Advice For All Writers: Don't forget to explain how your characters got from A to B. You may know! That doesn't mean the reader does.

*In the 2nd book, C.S. Poe does back-write such an explanation regarding the 1st book's locked apartment, only to turn around and create ANOTHER unexplained locked room in the 2nd. Unfortunately, the author seems to believe that saying, "Of course, security professionals can figure out how to get in anywhere" is enough. It isn't. The excellent Encyclopedia Brown books could leave the reader to do the leg-work. Most mysteries can't.  

Perhaps, in her third book, the locked room puzzle will be "un-locked."  

Monday, January 1, 2018

Collection Review: Yugi Yamada Oeuvre

There are books, movies, video games, artwork that everyone goes to when they've had a bad day or week. For me, those works include Moonstruck, Joe versus the Volcano, The Princess Bride, Bread & Tulips.

With manga, that go-to-place is Yugi Yamada's oeuvre.

It isn't so much that these works are Pollyanna "pick me ups" (All is Right with the World!). Rather, they come from a place of hearty realism (even The Princess Bride). Without being maudlin or even overly optimistic, they carry within them a joie de vivre that results, by its nature, in happy endings.

Yugi Yamada's works often include a full cast of
lovers, friends, cousins, friends of friends--
who fight, play jokes, lend support, and share taxis.
Yugi Yamada's characters are not perfect or in any way less than human. Sometimes they are even angsty and depressed. Their most consistent characterization would probably be . . . ordinary. They fight and tell jokes and get mad and fall in love and get confused. They have friends and babies and neighbors and cats and aspirations. They have normal lives where they don't become movie producers or do become accountants. They plan trips for two which turn into a trip for six because everyone else invited him or herself along. They feel outraged when a best friend is hurt even if they can't go anything about it. They feel outclassed in their chosen profession but keep trying anyway.

They also show up in more than one manga. One of the delightful aspects of Yugi Yamada's work is not only the illustrations, in which people actually look like they have flesh and bones, but the "guest" appearances of characters from other manga. The world feels real, full of people going about their everyday lives, falling in and out of friendships, maintaining relationships, and so on. Naoki, for instance, shows up in a number of manga and Yugi Yamada short stories, both as a main character and as a minor character.

Yugi Yamada's manga short stories were the first I encountered that struck me as fully developed (more than mere premises). Her stories are also the first I encountered which even when unhappy, avoided the sinkhole of despair. Because short stories have to resolve quickly, short story writers too often capitulate (in manga and other mediums) to death, despair, and a lack of resolution.

Yugi Yamada, however, manages to end stories, even if sadly, without implying that the world has also ended. Because often, the world doesn't end. Icarus falls from the sky, and the shepherd keeps plowing his field.

Naoki's story "Glass Sky" and later his part prequel, part sequel story "Wildman Blues" revolve on this idea. He is sad. The loss of his friend was sad. The loss of what-might-have-been (which is underscored by a sense that what-might-have-been might not have gotten better) is sad but not defeating. Life does go on.
Life goes on for the troubled antagonist in Dry Heat as well.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Soap Opera in Manga and Television

Re-post from Votaries:

Speaking of Ross & Rachel . . .

I mention in an earlier post that it helps a manga if the characters have jobs. I've decided that, at least for me, it also helps if there are actual difficulties for the romance characters to overcome.

In Library Wars, Kasahara has to give
up her memory of the perfect guy
and deal with (grouchy) Dojo as he is.
She learns to do this as they work together.
This criterion creates an instant conundrum because I despise the soap opera romance, where the difficulties explode across every page to the utter disbelief of even the most accepting of readers.

So romance ("luv") by itself shouldn't run the story but neither should the crazy events (she had his baby, then he lost his mind, then his long-lost sister with whom he has an incestuous relationship returned after which the heroine was kidnapped by a nobleman with a fetish for twins, of which she was secretly one . . .)

On the other hand, I find Tail of the Moon--with its unstoppable adventures--immensely charming. In fact, most manga series rely on continual external problems for their middle books. (And some manga writers are so good at continual problems, their series' endings fall a little flat.)

So, what's the difference (and I maintain there is one) between the romance run by a good problem and the soap opera romance run by (rolling my eyes) complications?

I think the difference is a direct heir of "the characters need jobs" motif. The soap opera romance is run by whether or not the couple will fall into bed this time and is less effective (in my eyes) than the romance which is run by how the characters get along as they tackle a specific problem (murder mystery, haunted house, social conundrum).

Falling into bed happens in some of the better romance/manga; when handled correctly, it takes place within a context that allows the characters to bond and grow, not simply shriek, "You never told me that your long-lost father is my uncle!" Bones and Castle rightly determined that keeping the main characters' relationships unconsummated through increasingly manufactured interference was rather pointless, especially since the consummated relationships offered far more story potential.

I've said it before. I'll say it again: no one did "romance
while a story is going on" better than Mulder and Scully.

Now, the unconsummated romance of Darcy and Elizabeth IS the point of Pride & Prejudice but the issue on the table is not whether or not Darcy and Elizabeth will be kept apart forever (oh no, Lady Catherine de Bourgh just burnt down the Bennetts' house!). To an extent, their union is a given. The question is HOW Darcy and Elizabeth will come to understand each other as they tackle balls and errant sisters.

Increasingly bizarre and wild complications that separate a couple are far less satisfying than increasing understanding between two characters who face a single obstacle together. Such an approach also convinces the reader that the characters will survive as a couple. All the soap opera approach does is convince one, "Man, that relationship is doomed."