Friday, September 22, 2017

Trans Merlin: Legend of the Headcanon

The character referred to only as "the Mage" in Guy Ritchie's 2016 film KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD, portrayed by Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, is in all likelihood neither trans nor Merlin. I know this full well.

The text of the film is ambiguous about her backstory: she claims to have been sent by Merlin to help the exiled Arthur (Charlie Hunnam, of course) to reclaim his throne from his uncle Vortigern (Jude Law). Said uncle had, at the start of the film, entered a secret alliance with evil mage Mordred (Rob Knighton) to overthrow Arthur's daddy Uther Pendragon (Eric lollin' Bana).

This is told to the audience in a montage (Ritchie gonna Ritchie) with a VO split between the Mage and Sir Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou), one of the late Uther's knights turned resistance leader. The montage details the origins of Excalibur, Arthur's magic sword forged by Merlin from the KING OF THE MAGES' staff after Mordred's hostile take-over.

This is an ADR'd-up montage that FOLLOWS another montage of Arthur proving himself in THU DARKLANDS, after Arthur had an exceedingly long section of "I ain't no King, mate..." call-refusing. In short, it absolutely reeks of re-shoots.

In this montage wherein Merlin forges Excalibur (which in no way resembles the creation of the One Ring), his face is obscured. The only visible feature we see is long, brown hair.

Considering the movie hadn't been terribly concerned with the tenets of fluid-at-best Arthurian myth (Vortigern as the big bad, Mordred relegated to a prologue, cutesy 'ard lad names for everyone), I was starting to get my hopes up for a proper mix-up in the reveal that one of the most famous greybeard wizards of all time was a girl in this one, kind of like the Liam-Neesons-isn't-just-working-for-Ra's-Al-Ghul twist in BATMAN BEGINS.

No such reveal came. We never learn her identity, even after a scene where the cutesy nickname 'ard lads are revealed to be such-and-such recognizable Knights of the Round Table. The movie follows this with a swooshin' helicopter shot to a mounted Mage mysteriously looking down upon Camelot from a nearby hilltop.



No "And I am MERLIN!" reveal here? After like five "btw this guy is this guy" reveals? Nope! Just a mysterious/ominous gaze upon newly liberated Camelot and credits.

No doubt this would-be franchise launcher would have delved deeper into the Mage's identity* and perhaps gotten a Big Name for Merlin (Size of Name dependent on box office performance of the first one). But yeah, that didn't happen and this is the only one of Guy Ritchie's King Arthur movies we're likely to be getting.

Given all the above information, the Mage being Merlin herself is not a reading that contradicts anything the movie presents. Why trans? Well shit, Merlin is a long-lived magic-usin' motherfucker, and since the movie posits that times are dangerous for mages in general and Merlin in particular, so in a pre-HRT world a cool person like Merlin would be like "time to present femme for a few centuries!"

I don't even particularly think that the Mage is a super cool character -- she's a pretty standard mysterious powerful mage. She does some cool shit, but she's "stoic and silent" mostly.

Why do I choose to read the movie like this then?

Think of all the trans characters you've seen in recent popular media. Chances are:

  1. You haven't.
  2. Their story** was about
    1. discrimination
    2. dreamin' of THE SURGERY

You will probably not see them as powerful wizards like my personal reading of this movie.

Nor as special forces operatives, brilliant scientists, scumbag CEO villains, ... any old stereotype that our genre movies are full of.

Remember when the lead characters in Star Wars for decades were:

  1. white
  2. cis
  3. straight
  4. male
  5. traditionally attractive
  6. able-bodied
  7. neurotypical
And then they COMPLETELY flipped the script on THE FORCE AWAKENS by having a lead that was:

  1. white
  2. cis
  3. straight
  4. female
  5. traditionally attractive
  6. able-bodied
  7. neurotypical

Holy shit, what a complete inversion of expectations of what a Star Wars lead looks like! I sympathize with all who felt discombobulated about everything they thought they knew about this saga... and I applaud the incredible risk Disney took when they relaunched one of the most succesful (critic-proof) sagas of all time with a lead that was SO DIFFERENT from the standard. 

All jokes aside, I thought Daisy Ridley did a great job as Rey and I cried a little the first time I saw a girl fire up the lightsaber in the climactic duel of a Star Wars.  

But consider the reactions to her: I'm not talking about "SJW bullshit not my old Star Wars", nor am I talking about the backpatting about representation. I'm talking about the nominally progressive reactions that say "Oh well, representation is good and all, but this is just a rehash of Old Star Wars... soulless..."

I didn't particularly care for the 2016 GHOSTBUSTERS, but I acknowledge that it is rare to see movies that feature four women in action/adventure situations, two of which are fat, one of which is fat AND black. As sure as I cried when that girl fired up that lightsaber and started flailing against that gut-shot goth, I'm pretty sure many big gals (of color) had that same feeling of empowerment when they saw the new Ghostbusters cleanin' up the town.

I don't believe in my lifetime I will see a canonically identified trans wizard summon and telepathically control a giant snake*** to attack an evil king's castle. So I read that into it, and it made an alright movie a little more special to me. 

Music was real cool, btw!  

*early reports on the movie listed Bergès-Frisbey being cast as Guinevere, but nothing in the film states that, and she isn't credited as such

**if they have a story and aren't just present to make the cis characters look good 'n liberal

***that's what happens in the movie, forgive the subtext

Thursday, September 14, 2017

9 Worlds Con Report V: Inferno

It is a complete coincidence that "Inferno" should be the subtitle for this long-delayed con report from Nine Worlds 2017, and has no bearing on it also being the subtitle of the fifth entry in the Hellraiser series - the point in which they all seemed to be films made from unrelated scripts, retrofitted into a Hellraiser setting to get them made and/or distributed.

When it comes to Nine Worlds con reports, I have talked in the past about learning to realize what privilege is, and how best to check yours; how social justice is more than just pointing at The Bad Thing and going "I Have Spotted A Racism!"; how narrative tropes shape a common consciousness and can reinforce outdated modes of thinking; the necessity of feminism despite it having been the 21st century for quite a while now. 

On a more personal level, it has been where I met (and was introduced to) quite a few dear friends, and slowly but surely started questioning my own gender identity. Nine Worlds has been, no kidding, quite a formative experience in my life. 

This year, however, the very concept of "privilege" was addressed in a far more meta sort of way than I could have guessed. Ever since the first con in 2013, my partner and I had been flying in to help a friend out who was part of the organization. For the first few years, content was organized along "tracks", themed rooms that had a person/persons at the helm. Our friend Andrew (of The Lost Cat fame) had a screening room and was in charge of the "Cinema" track. Though the categorization of content into tracks was already a thing of the past by that year, 2016's edition still saw our friend in charge of a screening room and generally being left alone.

2017, however? A full reorganization of all content into purely crowdsourced material. More democratic and in the spirit of the con, absolutely. But on the other hand, also a far bigger risk for my (romantic) partner Ella, (writing) partner Travis and I, who put some effort -- financial and otherwise -- into getting to London from THE CONTINENT and THE COLONIES respectively. As a result, we wouldn't have a screening room to fall back on in case nothing in a particular timeslot appealed to us, showing stuff organized by a close friend and therefore somewhat catering to our tastes.

In other words, the system was no longer rigged in our favor. In other, other words, our privileges were REVOKED! I cannot deny that we actually left with some trepidation this year because of this, which just goes to show how quickly one gets used to being a privileged party in even the slightest of ways.

Strange as the experience was, we did get some proper good stuff in front of our eyeballs. Howard Hardiman's BSL interpretation of ancient Greek myth was a surreal and eye-opening (no pun intended) simulation of media experience by deaf people. A reading of a text fragment was followed by a clip with deaf actors portraying the snippet we'd just heard, so the (mostly hearing) audience would know what was going on. Besides the empathy for deaf people, another goal of this project was to recontextualize the level of distance we usually take for granted when ancient Greek texts are translated into English.

Privilege lulz: one of the first audience questions was a chap who wanted to ask if they would be putting these out with subtitles. Cuz frankly hearing people want to enjoy this too!

I would be remiss not to use that to segue into Travis' solo-outing at Nine Worlds, namely "Ghostbusters Forever"; a celebration of all things Ghostbusters from the earliest show to carry the name to whatever crossover fanfic IDW Comics is currently paying licensing fees to publish. A fine, light-hearted sort of history of Ghostbusters with one awkward moment*: one male audience member asking if anyone didn't like the new movie? I actually didn't particularly like it myself, but I like to think of myself as someone with enough presence of mind and lack of ego to not start that discussion in a room where a good 30% probably has a crush on Holtzmann. Let people have their safe-space fun. Luckily Travis nipped this in the bud by heartily saying they weren't going to go there and to keep the atmosphere fun and light-hearted. The chap defended himself by saying "Well, I liked it!" which admittedly changed the tenor of the question. Hilariously, another guy piped up with "What if you thought it was good but not as good as the old one?" because it's important to get your not-sexist cred reinforced. Some more watermelon-watermelon grumbling and shit was moved past. Kudos to mah boiii Travis for navigating the dangerous waters that Ghostbusters has become in 2017!

A talk about Jordan Peele's debut "Get Out" and the horror of race was among my favorite items of the whole con this year, with the lady holding it reducing many in the room to tears with her righteous screed on the tragedy of Grenfell Towers, wherein she had lost people.

For sheer laughs, the absence of the Duke Mitchell Film Club was somewhat softened by a nice little grab bag of VHS oddities, hosted by Bunny Galore (last of the UK horror hosts!) and Ash Fairbrother, whose name I remember cuz he was also relatively involved with previous years' cinema offerings. If nothing else, it introduced me to RESSHA SENTAI TOQGER -- a Super Sentai show focused on trains, and one of only two Super Sentai shows that were not imported to the West to form the basis of a Power Rangers show.


Conservationist Avery Delaney talked about the Jurassic Park series (and World in particular) from the perspective of nature preservation and drew many a parallel to the heart-wrenching doc Blackfish about abused killer whales at Sea World. I enjoyed helping maintain a lively discussion, as the young lad was on the spectrum, and requested any questions to be submitted via #consroarvation. It was also one of those quietly giggle-inducing moments where a lot of time was spent talking about the emotional torment of the Indominus Rex, whereas my opinion of it was always "Cool! They made a proper HEEL dinosaur! Let's shoot it with bazookas!"

Strangely enough, I was also rather fond of the talk on MST3K, a show I've never seen an episode of, nor am I super inclined to. As a bit of sociology, it was pretty interesting, however! Seeing intelligent, well-spoken fans articulate what brought them to the fandom, and what they enjoyed (or didn't) as it evolved and changed was absolutely endearing to me. I suppose that 2017 is the year I understood one can enjoy a fandom without really caring too much about the thing they are fans of!

2017 was also the year where I felt that, besides on political matters, my friends and I are fairly divorced from nerd culture in general. Being pushed out into the wild more, we were all rather taken aback at the uproarious laughter greeting what we often felt were no more than mildly amusing statements. Hit upon a reference or apply a meme template in conversation and you'll get the laughs. I guess it's the age-old adage of looking for security in nerddom translated into humor. "I recognize this thing, I can control it, I feel safe, therefore my emotions are positive! Ha ha!" 

Maybe 2007 me would have been condescending about it, but 2017 me is all "The world is a fuck, enjoy your things, friends!"

This did, however, result in a couple of moments where my friends and I would look at each other and shrug. We discussed our alienation from the non-political side of nerddom over drinks in the evenings, and felt that we were all in the same boat. Were we just... getting old...?

I mean, undoubtedly we are! But here Travis and I are doing a sequel to last year's pretty darn successful Kaiju Kavalcade which... drew less than stellar numbers (probably also due to the fact that we were scheduled late Sunday afternoon and most people were probably packing already). Little did that matter, however, since we had return customers -- the two little kids and their family that won our contest last year had specifically come back. How lovely to know that two people's giant monster related idiocy touched the hearts of some! 

By attending Nine Worlds truly as guests, we had a different -- and not always more pleasant -- experience.** But it did, as usual, bring us all to some realizations. In this case: getting knocked off a pedestal to have the everyperson experience can be valuable and eye-opening. 

And yes, we are working on content submitted via channels like everyone else for next year (ex. "Whedon Was Always An Asshole" and "Captain America & Hydra: Everything You Like Is Fascist Anyway"). See you in 2018!

*Two, but I didn't see this: during his explanation of what Hi-C Ecto Cooler was (European audiences!), Travis joked that it may have single-handedly caused the American epidemic of diabetes and obesity. This caused one person to walk out and quietly flip him off! If that person is reading this, he felt quite bad about it for quite a while but didn't run into you again. Sorry!

**One good tip if you find yourself somewhat recognizant of my feelings above: talks are better than panel discussions.