Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Feedback time...

Happy New Year, Australia! And to all of you, too, if you happen to read this on the 1st.

It's time for feedback from my players. So give the following link a little click, and let me know where you want the campaign to go next.


But Rasputin DIDN'T lead the Revolution...?

I teach a course on the Russian Revolution. Each year, my students beg me to watch the movie "Anastasia," arguing that it is relevant to the study of the revolution. Perhaps, this year, I will direct them to this review of the movie by the wonderful Nostalgia Chick.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Princess Rant #2

OK, I'll be the first to admit that Disney knows how to make a quality kids movie. And Lord knows that my kids and I have loved every film in the Disney /Pixar franchise. The princesses, though, give me plenty of occasions for doubt, though. I have already ranted about the issues I have with the lack of growth the princesses experience in their movies. Now, I'm going to rant about Ariel.

It was The Little Mermaid that saved the Disney name and revived a flagging animation industry. Ariel is the sine qua non of the Princess line. Yet I find The Little Mermaid the most objectionable of all the Disney princess movies, especially now that I have an impressionable four year old daughter.

No Princess is so overtly sexualized as Ariel (not counting Esmerelda from Hunchback, whom Disney dropped from the Princess line like a live grenade. Elitists). Given the fact that her age (16) is explicitly mentioned, ANY reference to her sexuality should give one substantial cause for heebie-jeebies. But there she is, in her training shells, looping through the cracks in coral formations in underwater dances that would make Dr. Freud marvel...

Not convinced? The catalyst for Ariel's transformation is her crush on the human Prince Eric. She cannot woo him in her mermaid form; she needs to present herself in human form with compatible sexual organs. Ariel's theme song, "Part of Your World" actually begins with Ariel's fascination with the surface world. The lyrics emphasize that Ariel wants to be "part of their world." It's only when her fascination turns to lust that the "their" becomes "your." And in the final stanza of the reprise, Ariel sings
I don’t know when
I don’t how
But I know something’s starting right now
Watch and you’ll see
Someday I’ll be
Part of your world!

And just to drive home the point, in the last measure, as the music builds to a climax, we are treated to this little visual...

Just can't wait for those legs, can ya, Ariel? Something starting, indeed...Oh, god, I feel dirty. She's sixteen, fer crissakes. But every time I see the movie, the "sexual awakening" theme puts a damper on my enjoyment of what would otherwise be an enjoyable kids movie (with great music, it goes without saying).

So what's wrong with a hidden mature theme in a kid movie? After all, my students, high school seniors, are shocked when I describe how sexualized Ariel is. If it went over the heads of these intelligent young women well into their teenage years, how much will the target audience pick up?

Too much, I worry. After all, Princess merchandise is aimed at kids still in the crib. And when the message of the core film is "Ignore your family, tradition, and common sense in pursuit of the object of your lust", it becomes high hurdle for a parent to make the case for restraint. And counter to the "good sexuality" of Ariel comes a darker side: the evil (and dare I say Butch) sexulaity of Ursula, the Sea Witch. Lust for a handsome young man is good, but lust for power is bad. The zaftig Sea Witch schemes, deceives, and almost steals the man. This, of coursse, warrants her death at the hands of Prince Eric, the prow of a ship into her giant torso in what has to be the most overt symbolic rape in cenematic history. With the villaness out of the way, Eric is thus free to impale his teenage bride with the happy sanction of her father.

Hey, Eric, what's the age of consent in Denmark?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Beowulf: A Movie Review

OK, I received my scholarly training as a student of Anglo-Saxon history. I have read Beowulf in no fewer than three college and grad sources, and I have taught it twice. When the movie came out, it was inevitable I take a class on a field trip. Here are some initial reactions:

It is inevitable that any student of the poem will have nits to pick with the movie. It has its share of anachronisms and outright silliness. Mentions of Greenland, Vinland,and Iceland are a few centuries off base, as the Vikings did not settle these lands until the late ninth century at the earliest. Likewise, the presence of Christian missionaries in Denmark in the sixth century would have been jumping the gun just a bit, as missionaries were just making inroads at this time into the formerly roman territories of Frankish Gaul and Anglo-Saxon Britain.

When it comes to fight scenes, Bruckheimer favors coolness over historical accuracy. While the swords, spears, axes, and armor with which we see Geats and Danes armed themselves rang true, the bows firing massed volleys at the dragon belonged to another era. Even worse were the heavy siege engines, unknown in unromanized Denmark, with which the Danes fought the dragon. Even if they had existed, it is unlikely that these oversized crossbows would have been accurate enough to use against a swiftly flying creature. But the biggest groans of all should be reserved for the soaring stone castle Beowulf builds for himself, half a millennium out of date. The more authentic hearth-lit wooden rafters of Heorot give way in the second half of the movie to the ridiculous castle which suggests that the art designer was seduced by Peter Jackson’s aesthetics in the Lord of the Rings movies.

The medievalist in me was most disappointed by the representation of Germanic art in the film. Surely, this should have been one of the easiest aspects of recreating a past world to get right. Early Scandinavian design favored abstract, interlacing design that would have covered most exposed surfaces. These same motifs would have appeared in jewelry which, along with wood carving and textiles, the favored medium of the early Germanic peoples. Yet the surfaces in Heorot are raw and drab. The jewelry, with the exception of the golden dragon horn which serves as the plot’s MacGuffin, is drab, tacky, and uninteresting, looking more like props to a Wagner opera. The treasure of Heorot, so central to the social world of the poem, becomes a pile of souvenir trinkets from a Renaissance Fair.

I was prepared to be shocked by the nudity in the film, of which I had been forewarned. Instead, I was amused and vaguely embarrassed. The poem has Beowulf forswear weapons before the Grendel-fight. The decision to make him go into battle naked was entirely Bruckheimer’s. And yet, to keep the film from an NC-17 rating, the audience is treated to an endless series of “Austin Powers”-inspired gags, in which Beowulf’s manhood is shielded from sight by an array of strategically-placed props. It turned what should have been one of the key dramatic moments of the movie, in which the young hero forges his reputation, into a slapstick laughingstock, if the audience’s reaction is anything to judge by.

If Beowulf’s nudity was comical, the portrayal of Grendel’s mother was downright puzzling. I was dubious about the decision to cast the lovely Angelina Jolie as a creature described by the poet as a “slaughter-wolf,” but if Grendel’s Mother represents male anxiety about female power, then the decision to emphasize her sexuality over her savagery merely shifts the locus of that anxiety to a more modern part of the psyche. But if this was indeed the director’s intent (and not a shameless attempt to harness Jolie’s star power at the box office), his decisions in putting her on the screen are puzzling. If she is meant to be a sexually voracious predator, then why neuter her by airbrushing out her nipples and labia? Angelina becomes not the primal succubus, tempting generation after generation of men into selling their souls, but rather the ultimate trophy wife for aging warriors, ornament rather than ogre, Barbie doll rather than Eve. Her heels, bent forever into organic stilettos, only reinforce the comparison to Barbie.

More to come as I get my rant on…

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Princess Rant #1

OK, I'm a 41 year old man writing about his issues with Disney Princesses. What about that isn't just a little bit unsettling. However, I have a four year old daughter, and like any parent, I worry about the influences that will shape her into the adult she is going to become. In some ways, she has it easier than my wife and I did at her age. There are many more opportunities to expose our kids to positive media that is enticing enough for them to pay attention. My daughter and her twin brother have recently discovered the charms of PBSKids. Good for them.

Anyhow, I'm hardly the first to gripe about the Disney princesses. I've read countless times about the Borg-like way they assimilate young girls into a media empire, consuming little minds with their consumerist mandate. I have encountered critiques of the princess that center around their message of acquisition (honestly, when was the last time you saw Cinderella portrayed in her servant rages? For all that Disney tries to preach 'it's what inside that counts', they certainly manage to define the Princesses by the pretty things they wear). And recently I read a feminist take on the Princesses that convincingly traced their descent to the cult of domesticity in the nineteenth century (head always bowed demurely, eye contact is always indirect, idealized figures (more curvy in each incarnation).

But few seem to consider the message kids receive from the Princess narrative. Individual stories and plot elements might be critiqued (ie the eagerly assumed domesticity of Snow White, the petulance of Ariel), the topoi which seem to inform every Princess film go unchallenged.

In each version of the Princess story, there is a girl who considers her circumstances unhappy. She wishes for change, and through her determination and the intervention of magical friends, she achieves her desire. In no case does the princess have to undergo any transformation or personal growth. Compare Jasmine (unhappy because of her confined circumstances, achieves happiness through being wooed) to Aladdin (unhappy because of poverty, achieves happiness not only through magic but from the realization that character counts more than wealth). In the Disney mythos, personal growth is for boys, wish fulfillment is for girls.

Pixar, in my opinion, gets it right. In every Pixar film made to date, the hero and the characters around him (usually a him, isn't it?) has their assumptions about the way things work challenged. They have to undergo significant loss and discover new depths of maturity to achieve the happy ending.

Hear that, princesses?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Top Five comics about gaming

Here are my top five comics about gaming. Tabletop, that is, not computer gaming, which I do not find as inherently funny. Lots of comics have gaming as a side theme, but these deal directly with it. And each one has made me pee my pants laughing at one point or another.

5. Yet Another Fantasy Gaming Comic is one I stumbled across. You can't beat seven updates a week, a wry sense of humor, and a deeply involved storyline that makes one care about goofy characters.

4. DM of the Rings. This strip makes me wish Tolkien had penned a fourth LotR book so Seamus Young could have continued this wickedly funny parody. What if Lord of the Rings were a gaming campaign? Well now we know.

3. Goblins. Yes, it has moved from parody to melodrama. The art is awsome, and MinMax is priceless.

2. Dork Tower. The great granddaddy of gaming comics. John Kovalic understands the psychology of gamers better than anyone. He mocks from a position of deep sympathy, and he makes us laugh at ourselves.

1. Order of the Stick. Man, it's almost cliche to have OOtS occupying first place. But know what? It deserves to be here. Closing in on a thousand strips, and it's still fresh and funny.

OK, no sooner did I finish this list than I began to regret omissions. My apologies to Nodwick/FullFrontal Nerdity, Action Figure Theater, and even the Wotch, all of which deserve to be here. The sadly-on-hiatus Elf Only Inn also deserves a shout-out.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Impulse

My little brother Adam, who used to play in a band called Dirt Bike Annie, now is in a band called The Impulse which plays out of New York, even though he lives in Florida. That's dedication.

Anyhow, check them out.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

On the suspension of disbelief

One of the few college courses that I can say without hyperbole changed my life was in my sophomore year. I had pretty much ruled out medieval studies as a major after a bad first-year historiography course. On a whim though, I enrolled in Old English and Beowulf. After all, it was what Professor Tolkien had studied, wasn't it? I didn't have the slightest clue what Beowulf was about, only that it involved barbarians and that most English majors were scared of it.

As it turns out, only five other students were enrolled. I was the only non-English major. I immediately fell in love with the history of our language, and that love invigorated my passion for medieval history. The professor was Howell Chickering, a turtleneck and tweed kind of guy with a quirky sense of humor and a lot of patience for me and some of the other nerds in the class.

I remember that we were reading the passage in which Beowulf was preparing to dive into the mere to confront Grendel's mother. The poet notes that the hero girds himself with a chain byrnie before diving into the water. I put the brakes on the discussion.

"Wait a minute," I said. "Do you mean that Beowulf put on forty pounds of metal armor before he goes into a lake? Is he stupid or something?"

"That's exactly what he did," Chickering replied. "Why do you object?"

"It's just so unbelievable," I said. "It's that last thing I would do before I went in the water."

Chickering smiled, as if he were given an opening for which he had waited all semester. "Mark, you are willing to accept magic swords, dragons, and enchantments, but you draw the line at swimming in armor?"

I don't think I had a good answer to that. It was useful to remind me of the genre. After all, by doing the last thing any normal person would do, the poet was emphasizing how extraordinary the hero was (and, as it turns out, it was a wise decision, as the armor saves Beowulf from the dagger of Grendel's mother).

Still a part of me was not satisfied. Yes, I was willing to accept dragons as part of the reality of Beowulf, but allowing one fantastic element does not give any poet or author license to throw out all of the rules. Too much fantasy, and we as readers are lost to the reality the author creates. Lewis Carroll's Wonderland and its inhabitants generate no affection from us. Creatures and twists appear as they are needed to serve Carroll's satirical needs, and we never really enter Alice's world. On the other hand, millions have been absorbed by and Middle-earth, partly because there are enough familiar elements and internal consistences that the introduction of a fantastic element leaves us with a sense of wonder but does not threaten our willingness to accept what the author offers.

Many modern readers reject all fantasy out of hand, or else they relegate it to children's literature. I got into an argument a few years back with one of the brightest students I have ever known, who rolled his eyes at the mention of fantasy literature. I will grant that 95% of all fantasy literature is crap, but I suspect that ratio holds for all published material. No, his real objection lay in the fact that fantasy and science fiction do not tell stories that people can relate to, since they do not take place in the "real world." I asked him about the works of Allende, Orwell, Borges, Eco, and Garcia-Marquez. Again he rolled his eyes and said "That's different. They write literature." This student clearly had a line where he was willing to suspend disbelief, but it had less to do with the lengths to which the author's stretched our expectations than with the authors' reception by the literary establishment. Call it 'Magical Realism,' and you don't have to consider yourself slumming in fantasy.

After the conversation, it dawned on me that all of the great works of ancient and medieval literature contain fantastic elements, whether the tale is told by Dante or Homer. The Arabian Nights are no less moving and elegant because they contain djinn and magical transformations. Even Shakespeare had a healthy respect for the supernatural. Yet somewhere along the line, mainstream society lost its tolerance for the fantastic. In the English tradition, Austen and Dickens came to define 'important literature.' Marxists and deconstructionists had little patience for works which did not carry an obvious social message. Critics wonder at the popularity of movies about hobbits, Hogwarts, and superheroes without realizing that they are in no part responsible for the void which those movies help to fill.

So, fight on, Beowulf. Just take off that damn armor.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

I am so ashamed for both Spock and Bilbo Baggins...

Honestly, did no-one involved in this number have even the slightest pang of dignity? Even if I tell myself "It's's camp," I find myself wincing when the goblin dummies get flung around in the background.

I wish there were a better-resolution version of this so I could read the buttons that members of the GoGo Hobbit Dance team are wearing.

Top Ten '70's TV Theme Songs

Holy Moley. I tried to come up with a Top 10 list, but so many possibilities made it impossible to limit myself. To rank them, I used the following criteria:

1) Does the song stay in your head? The '70's were a great time for TV themes. After Seinfeld, we get lucky if a song has a 10-second riff to introduce it, let alone a song. And, honestly, of the current shows with themes, how many are even remotely memorable?

2) Does the song capture the spirit of the show? Good songs can be adapted to incidental music throughout the show, capturing all sorts of moods. To make this list, the song and show have to have become intertwined in my memory.

And so, the list:

10) The Six Million Dollar Man. A song to inspire a generation of nerdlings. The preamble will live with the themes to "Star Trek" and "Battlestar Galatica" as one of the great all time sci-fi introductions.

9) Taxi. Melancholy and bittersweet, just like the humor in this character-driven sitcom.

8) Good Times. OK, Norman Lear sitcoms are going to have a prominent place on this list. Few theme songs have aged as well as this uplifting soul anthem.

7) Happy Days. A tip of the hat to the use of Bill Haley 's "Rock Around the Clock," in the first season. The original song used to replace it did a great job of capturing the innocent doo-wop spirit of the show.

6) Welcome Back, Kotter. Right. I'm a teacher who is working at the same high school from which he graduated, so this show has a special place in my heart. But even when I was a student, this song was the epitome of cool, with the snappy beat and laid-back swing.

5) The Jeffersons. How many people still know all of the lyrics to this song? Honestly, it still makes me want to get up and dance.

(redubbed soundtrack, so don't say I didn't warn you, thanks to youtube's antipiracy policy)

4) Sanford and Son. How many shows today would be brave enough to use Quincy Jones' funk as a theme? The music was a great counterpoint to the grizzled obnoxious funnyman Redd Foxx.

OK, not the Quincy Jones version, but a remix that starts a few bars in. Damn you, Youtube!

3) MASH. In the movie, this song, with its ironic key change, is one of the better jokes in Robert Altman's classic. The soft somber tones that the TV show uses for its theme set an entirely different tone. It took several seasons for that tone to be fully realized by the show itself. And the tune was versatile enough to serve as a comic sting when the need was there.

2) All in the Family. All you needed to know about Archie and Edith was there in the opening duet. And they performed it themselves. How cool is that?

1) The Rockford Files. If ever there was music that would make me want to become a seedy private eye who lived in a trailer, this is it. I mean, James Garner is cool enough, but with this song behind him, he became a legend.

A montage. Sorry, it's the best I could do.

Runners Up (in no particular order): Three's Company, Love Boat, Barney Miller, WKRP In Cincinnati, Bray Bunch, Laverne and Shirley, SWAT, Charlies Angels

Monday, December 1, 2008

3rd edition vs. 4th edition

If you have to ask, you have no geek cred.

I'm talking D+D, of course. I've played many roleplaying games in the past (Click here for a list), but I always end up coming back to Dungeons and Dragons. It was this game that got me into the hobby. D+D serves like a common language for gamers all over the world. It is D+D more than any other game that my students want to play. There are better games on the market: more realistic, more fun, more involved. D+D was born as a wargame, and it will always appeal to the wargamer in me as much as the role-player. Yet I can't seem to leave it for long. Perhaps it is nostalgia for the sense of wonder and excitement I felt in my first years as a gamer.

At any rate, I was ambivalent about the emergence of a fourth edition of the rules. From where I sat, the Third Edition rules (which did mark a vast improvement over earlier versions, IMO) were not broken, and they still had a lot of life left in them. Another edition, just eight years after 3.0, seemed like just a lame attempt to separate me from my money.

I gave it a shot, though, and I was pleasantly surprised by much of what I found. I liked many things:
1) The powers available to each class meant that everyone had something meaningful to do in every round, even at first level.
2) The skill contest rules provided a fun way to get all players involved in non-combat situations.
3) The simplification of skills made more options available to each character.
4) Ritual spells give the right flavor for more complex magics

I didn't like a few things, but they did not warrant immediate rejection.
1) Given that all powers touch upon combat, it is clear that the emphasis is on action over other forms of problem-solving.
2) The efforts to make multi-classing more balanced leaves characters with fewer options. Add all the paragon paths you want, I still feel like most characters are channeled into a narrow career trajectory.
3) Magic seems too one-dimensional for the initial eight character classes. If I want a spell-caster who is NOT a flash-bang combat monster, well, tough. To me, classical fantasy magicians are enchanters and shape-shifters. Fourth edition doesn't give me much hope that those types will ever fit elegantly into the system.

And so...

I downloaded a copy of the Pathfinder rules last week. Honestly, despite the hype, I don't see it as much more than a tweak on the old 3.5 rules. A very good tweak and one I would definitely prefer to play, but nothing too revolutionary. I guess that's the point, no? Anyhow, seeing those rules again made me re-evaluate my commitment to 4th edition. I had converted my student campaign into 4e, with the thought that the streamlined mechanics would allow newbies to concentrate more on character development and allow them to explore some of the more esoteric aspects of the rules.

I have reached the conclusion that 4e is a very good skirmish-level wargame. That's cool, and sometimes, that is all I want to play. However, the group I have now is more interested in storytelling than mechanics. 4e seems to hold them back in a way that 3e never did. I find it hard to explain why the ranger cannot have an animal companion, or why the wizard cannot learn a charm spell that lasts longer than a combat.


Well, this marks my fourth blog. But while the other three were all tied to specific games, this one is reserved for my reflections on geek life. I am a forty-one year old teacher in a prep school in the Philadelphia suburbs. As a matter of fact, it is the same school I used to attend, so I have that whole "Welcome Back, Kotter" thing going.

I was a geek then, and I am a geek now. Several years ago, some students asked me to teach them how to play D+D. One thing led to another, and I am not the faculty adviser for not one but two gaming clubs (one for RPGs, one for wargames). One of those early students decided to give me a nickname "The Mad Doctor." Since that time, I began my second life as "Mad Doctor Mark" online.

I made my initial entry into geekdom in 1979, when I picked up a copy of The Lord of the Rings. I have read that book at least a dozen times since then. Tolkien led to D+D, which led to wargaming, which led to a medieval studies major in college and a Ph.D soon after. It has taken 30 years, but I am finally over the social anxieties which led me to keep my gaming life a secret for so long.