ALPHAS and GRIMM: tweaking tropes

Last night’s episodes of Alphas and Grimm, “Alphaville” and “Bad Moon Rising” respectively, both yielded interesting turns on genre conventions.

In the main, Alphas has been built on the fundamental structure of the X-Men universe, making being an Alpha into a choice between integration/peaceful co-existence with the rest of humanity and waging war. The one notable exception to this narrative was shown in last season’s “Catch and Release”, wherein Rosen decides to give Skylar Adams a pass on both joining the team and being shipped to Binghamton. In “Alphaville”, directed by Nick Copus and written by Michael Chamoy, we are shown a whole community of Alphas who just want to be left alone, and who have no desire to be be part of the conflict between Rosen and Stanton Parish. In fact, Rosen is pretty universally reviled for having outed Alphas to the world, an event that compelled many in the camp to seek shelter in the first place.

In X-Men, there is no prominent third way; the different alliances and political permutations in the overarching narrative have stayed within the bounds of peace vs. war. The closest analog I could think of to the community in “Alphaville” is the Morlocks, but there are important differences between the two groups.

First, the Morlocks came to be because of discrimination, or fears of discrimination, against mutants with visible mutations. While there is the suggestion that Rosen’s broadcast forced at least some to drop off of the grid, we have yet to meet an Alpha who couldn’t pass for ‘neurotypical’, to use a term increasingly in circulation on the series, or who, like Gary and Anna, could pass as having some kind of ‘disability’. Second, the Morlocks, while in hiding, are nonetheless living underground in Manhattan and in close proximity to mainstream society, including the different mutant factions on the surface. The members of Skylar’s community are trying to be as remote as possible from the world at large and while their motivations are not dissimilar from the mutants who make the Morlocks, achieving some kind of socio-political independence and making their own ‘normal’ seem more important than simply staying out of sight.

The main point here would be that very few mutants who did not feel that they had to would join with the Morlocks, while the community in “Alphaville” could be attractive to many different kinds of Alphas. In this particular episode, it rang true to me that Nina and Gary would contemplate dropping out.

Clearly, at the end of “Alphaville” the continued viability of a third way for Alphas is meant to be questioned. I can clearly see where at least some of the members of the community would decide to join Parish’s cause, but it is hard to imagine a character like Claude, at least based on the glimpse we got here, doing anything but continuing to seek some kind of independence. What the episode illustrates well is the difficulty of remaining unaligned when caught between agents in a conflict who tend to see the world in an either-you’re-with-us-or-you’re-against-us way. Rosen seeking out Skylar in the first place shows that he sees any kind of ‘non-alignment’ as purely temporary or as an indulgence, and not as a realistic choice for an Alpha. Clearly, Stanton Parish sees things the same way. Showing the similarities between those two men is, I think, an important narrative purpose of Skylar’s character and the independent community in “Alphaville”.

While Alphas addressed the dualism derived from X-Men, on Grimm last night, “Bad Moon Rising”, written by Richard Hatem and directed by David Solomon, finally provided some resolution to one of the critical sources of tension in supernatural TV drama: how the protagonist deals with their knowledge of the supernatural in relation to those who are ignorant, especially with family, friends, and colleagues.

Generally, the emphasis is on encouraging ignorance, or enabling denial, but there are always a few characters who have to be brought into the fold: Willow and Xander, later Joyce and Oz, on Buffy, for example, or Kensi (and, in some way, Bo) on Lost Girl, for another. On Grimm, Hank and Juliette are the characters around which this question has been most relevant. Juliette remains difficult and complicated for many reasons, and not just her mystical memory loss, but because she highlights many of the reasons why the protagonists on these shows want to keep all the magic and monsters, and their knowledge of same, hidden. There is always the risk that the people will think you’re crazy, or trying to hide something else with wild stories about demons and witches, or that sharing what you know will make the people you care about vulnerable in ways they wouldn’t be otherwise. Of course, that second point cuts both ways, which is one reason why, I think, Nick tried to being her in at the end of last season.

Thus far the series has been inconsistently written as to what gets treated as a serialized element, and what is played for effect in a single episode. As a result, until last night, I had not given much thought to how Hank had been dealing with what he’s seen since Nick became aware of what he is and what he can do. “Bad Moon Rising” is primarily devoted to Hank’s trauma and feelings of being unmoored and isolated by his anxieties.

Where you have a cast of characters divided between those who know about supernatural creatures and forces and those who don’t, the tension that creates is one that ultimately needs to be released. There are only so many ways to have one character hide these kinds of things from another before the situation starts to seem ridiculous. More to the point, the fun and drama that can come from this tension largely comes from wanting to see when, and not if, the characters out of the know get to be in on the action.

When that moment finally comes, this is what typically happens. After witnessing something that is hard to ignore, the main character, or some other already initiated figure, tells or affirms to the other character that monsters and magic are real. The formerly ignorant character is either so cool that they just readily accept this fact (see Kensi or Oz) or they accept after an initial denial (“Have you tried not being a slayer?”).

In the context of these kinds of shows, these responses work because the world tends to make more, and not less, sense once you know that there are vampires, demons, and whatnot. Again, the drama and humor comes more from the build-up than from the resolution.

The one exception I could of think of to this pattern is Kate Lockley from Angel. In that case, Kate ends up feeling betrayed by the one person who should have been her guide, Angel, and the fact that Angel is also the same kind of creature as the one who tries to kill her casts her revelation about the supernatural in a different light that the other examples, where this is a certain detachment from what the character learns or where the person who guides them to the truth is clearly seen as an ally or protector. For the balance of Angel, up until her final appearance on the series, Kate accepts what she now knows, but would prefer not to know it (later, in the IDW comics, she is a committed monster hunter and fairly well adjusted).

What makes Hank’s learning and acceptance of the supernatural different is his sense of relief. “Bad Moon Rising” shows us a character who is falling apart at the seams and who feels alone. Knowing that he isn’t alone, and that there is a strange, but straightforward, explanation for the images he has in his head is not just “cool” or “ok”, but is actually therapeutic for Hank.

The reason that Hank finds himself in this position is that Nick has spent very little time even thinking about him and what he might have seen. Whether from insensitivity or from inexperience, it seems likely that Nick just assumed that Hank was willing to accept whatever sloppy explanation he came up with for some of their recent cases because who, in their right mind, would believe the truth. As it turns out, Hank hasn’t been in his right mind and the fact that Nick wasn’t ready for this moment is another way in which last night’s Grimm twisted convention.

This turn in the narrative is new, and there is still potential for a lot of tension between Nick and Hank, and we’ll see where the series goes from here, but having both characters in the know opens up all kinds of possibilities. It should be easier to work cases, and as suggested last night, to bring Wessen into the justice system. On the other hand, the stakes are raised in other areas, notably involving Captain Renard, as well as with cases that are less easy to present as normal crimes, and with Nick’s family, especially mom. I’m also looking forward to Hank learning specifically about Monroe. In short, as is often the case, bringing more characters into the loop should be good for Grimm.

ALPHAS Season 2: “Alpha Dogs” & “When Push Comes to Shove”

The X-Men have always been used as metaphors for difference, opening discussions of discrimination and fear of the Other that can be refracted back onto the positions of different identities in ‘the real world’. Mutation is a complicated and heavily negotiated category in the Marvel Universe. A good argument can be made that the social significance of that category is the primary theme of the X-Men across all media. Less commonly explored is mutation as a form of personal identity, or what being a mutant means for the individual. There are hints of this in some stories involving Rogue, her decision to take the ‘cure’ in The Last Stand, for example, but overwhelmingly the concerns that animate stories featuring the X-Men are about how mutants are regarded by non-mutants.

The personal aspect of identity, what being different means for me, is emerging as a central theme in the current season of Alphas, and is a good example of how the series not only appropriates from X-Men, but also spins in different directions. The issue of personal identity and Alpha-ness is central to both episode three of season two, “Alpha Dogs”, and episode four, “When Push Comes to Shove”.

The narrative in “Alpha Dogs” revolves around the idea of a fight club for Alphas. This premise is repeated across science fiction and fantasy television. In just the last year, I’ve seen episodes of Lost Girl and Grimm founded on some version of a fight club for super-natural or super-powered beings. Invariably, these clubs are shown to be wrong somehow, either because bloodsport is inherently inhumane or because the event is corrupt. “Alpha Dogs”, written by Eric Tuchman and directed by Nick Copus, surprises by departing from this formula.

While there is corruption at the heart of the procedural part of the narrative in this episode, it is not shown to be intrinsic to the fight. Rather, the arena is shown to be a place where Alphas gather to be with other Alphas and to explore their abilities. For Bill, the effect is therapeutic and the episode ends with him showing up to throw down even after the case is closed.

Bill’s ability to do this is rooted in whatever mediation technique it is that he learns from Kat, a technique that frees him to use his powers without his usual fear of debilitation or death. The return to the fight club is a way for him to see what this freedom means, not for Rosen, or for his job, but for himself.

“When Push Comes to Shove” focuses on Nina, and the way that she has been written up through this episode reminds of how Grant Morrison wrote Emma Frost for New X-Men, at least in her willingness to work her will on others. However, whereas Emma Frost acts with a casual confidence about her abilities, and station, Nina is acting from insecurity. For her, her Alpha powers seem to carry the paradoxical fear of both getting and not getting what she wants from others.

It isn’t uncommon for super-powered characters to have personal tragedy come from, particularly, not understanding their powers when they manifest. Again, Rogue is a good case in point, Bo in Lost Girl is another, as is Liz Sherman from Hellboy/BPRD (there’s probably some significance to all of these examples being women, but I’m not prepared to think that through here). In most of these cases, the incidents tend to involve quick and deadly results. While Nina’s dad ends up killing himself, what I appreciate about how writer Adam Levy and director Omar Madha handle this story in “When Push Comes to Shove” is the way that Nina is not directly responsible for the outcome, but indirectly through her naive use of her power as a kid who just wants her parents to stay with her.

The revelation that Nina has been pushing herself is interesting, but I’m glad that the episode does not dwell on this notion as it opens a lot of questions about how her power works that I’m not sure the series is prepared to answer. As a metaphor for how deep her sadness and insecurity goes, the single shot of her engaging this move is effective.

In “Alpha Dogs” we also learn more about Stanton Parish, and while narratively he is primarily the Alphas analog to Magneto, making his personal story and power more like Wolverine’s is an interesting idea. There is clearly some significance to his being, in effect, the ‘first Alpha’ and how he responded to learning of his difference from others. This story, however, brings us back around to the social significance of Alphas. There are other indications, such as Kat’s awareness of being an Alpha before encountering Bill and Cameron, that the series is building toward more of an exploration of the social as well as the personal aspects of otherness.

In regards to the latter, I could also comment on Rachel and her efforts to cope with her heightened senses, or Gary and his mother, as well as looking at Bill and Nina. What I appreciate about Rachel’s and Gary’s stories is how they show Alphas as perhaps having been grown from Chris Claremont-era X-Men in dealing with the interpersonal relationships of the characters and incorporating aspects of soap opera into a superhero story (the kind of love triangle between Nina, Cameron, and Danielle also, obviously, reflects this influence, too).

Thus far into the second season, to the extent that Alphas can be read as an X-Men clone, it is at least being made from the stronger parts of the latter’s DNA, while also showing itself to be something other than just X-Men by another name.

See also: “On ALPHAS and X-MEN“.

I’d review THE BOURNE LEGACY, but I didn’t see the movie I was meant to see

It is easy, maybe even fair, to see The Bourne Legacy as cynical, as superfluous, or as a sign of ‘what’s wrong with Hollywood’, but, equally, I think that writer-director Tony Gilroy, who also scripted the films in the original trilogy, had a clear sense of what he wanted to do with this extension of the franchise: dig deeper into the intertwining of science, the state, and private enterprise, explore certain aspects of the risk society as experienced by many in post 9/11 America, trace the lines of economic globalization through one particular industry. However, I feel ill-equipped to move beyond these initial thematic observations because the film that I saw at the Regal Cinemas on ninth street in Corvallis this past weekend was so poorly projected that it is impossible to separate my response from the problems with the image.

The flaws in projection were noticeable from the first preview and advertisement: text and background elements were blurry, giving a fuzzy impression to the whole. In addition, the image was small, with empty screen space along both axes. It seemed as if everyone in the theater was taking note of these problems, and one patron in front of us eventually got up to complain to theater staff. When s/he came back, they told their companion that they had been informed that there are different projectors for previews and the film. So, we waited.

When the movie proper started, nothing changed. The same patron got up to point this out to staff and after a few minutes, someone did enter the projection booth. The size of the image was adjusted to fill the width of the screen, but not the length. The problems with image quality also remained. Eventually, I went out to the lobby to talk to someone about this problem and the manager went into the theater with me. We watched for a few minutes, and while s/he acknowledged that s/he could see the blurriness, s/he also told me that the there was nothing anyone on staff could do about the problem. An outside tech would be needed to make the necessary fixes. S/he also told me that the empty screen space at the top and bottom was left to preserve the wide screen presentation.

One thought that I shared with Anne-Marie was that the image looked how a 3-D film looks when you remove your glasses. After doing some research on this topic, it appears that there may be a reason for this.

Last year, Ty Burr, film critic at The Boston Globe, conducted an investigation into reports of overly dim projection in area theaters and discovered that in many places the problem was use of 3-D hardware configurations for 2-D movies. While dimness is the predominant issue when this happens, in a follow-up piece by Roger Ebert, the word “muddy” is also used to describe the effect, and this is a perfect word for what we were viewing on Saturday.

One of the hints that Burr gives for determining whether a theater you are in is using the 3-D set-up for a 2-D film is to look for two beams of light coming from the projection room, which there was during our screening of The Bourne Legacy.

According to Burr and Ebert, the powers that be at many theater chains have determined that changing the projection hardware is not worth the time and effort between films or screenings. And in the broader picture, the shift to digital has accelerated the de-skilling of film projection. Indeed, I have my doubts that the theater manager had any clue as to the nature of the problem, nor any sense of urgency about correcting the issue. After the film, the patron who made the original complaint advised the manager to look at the film during the closing credits where the flaws in the image were most visible. S/he nodded and proceeded to sell popcorn to the next group of customers.

It seems likely that the issue of image quality and that of image size were unrelated, unless the muddiness was more an artifact of compression than hardware configuration (or some other bug in either hardware or software). But assume that what the manager told me is true, and that the unused screen space was the result of, essentially, letterboxing to preserve the original aspect ratio of the film. The entire time I felt as if I was watching a really big television, and not a movie in a theater. The unused space made me conscious of the screen in a way that the makers of films like The Bourne Legacy undoubtedly do not want for viewers. If this kind of presentation is going to be a feature of digital projection, that would seem to have profound implications for how movies are seen and read. The immersive experience that defines mainstream Hollywood filmmaking and moviegoing will become more elusive, and the separation between home viewing and theatrical presentation will narrow even further, and not because of an increase in the quality of what can be viewed at home, but from making the theater experience more like being at home.

The irony here is that Regal has started to run this promo during previews, the main point of which is to see movies in the theater because watching them at home diminishes the work.

We were shown this promo not once, but twice before The Bourne Legacy.

Later that night, feeling like more of the same, we watched The Peacemaker (1997) via Netflix streaming. Image quality was better and, in context, the blank spaces on the screen made sense and are a welcome adaptation to smaller screens. I do believe that even the most small scale and intimate of films made for the big screen are ideally seen in the theater, but that ideal is undermined when exhibitors don’t take their responsibilities seriously.

Struggling to launch a qualitative methods course

For the past few years, I have been alternating a course in qualitative research methods (even years) with one in making digital video for the social sciences (odd years). The latter has started well in terms of enrollment, and, I think, is steadily improving. Significantly, I think that the good enrollment is related to the improvement in that having an adequate number of students gives me a clearer, and more reliable, way to see what’s working and what’s not, what’s an individual problem and what’s more systemic, and where I need to find more resources or better patches for what the university lacks in capacity to support the course.

The qualitative methods course has been a different story.

The first year I voluntarily pulled it from the schedule, early, when it failed to attract any students during initial registration. The next time I offered the course, I netted three students. So far this year I am looking at four (progress!).

In the earlier cases, I was working in a context where university administrators were at least playing at waging war on “low enrollment” sections. I volunteered to pull the course the first time in part to earn some credit to use later, and in part because the only person affected would be me. I imagine that this choice paid off the next time when I only had three students, but wanted the course to go (I don’t pretend to understand the economics of closing “low enrolling” sections, particularly in the case of my department where all of our courses are taught by full-time, tenure track faculty; the only adjuncts we’ve used in the last ten years have been to cover sabbaticals and course releases).

I’m not being pre-emptive this year because administrative discourse has shifted from being concerned primarily with individual sections to being concerned with numbers of majors. This isn’t “better”, especially from the perspective of the geography faculty where we typically graduate between nine and twelve majors each year. But it does mean that there is less pressure to account for every section.

Both the digital video course and qualitative methods course were added to the catalog as part of a revision to the geography major that instituted a capstone requirement and reorganized the elective part of the program into different streams or concentrations, e..g, “Cultural & Political”, “Physical Environment”. All majors are required to take a certain number of credits in “geographic thought and practice”, ideally from courses that make sense from the perspective of their chosen concentration and capstone plans. The changes to the geography major prefigured similar changes to the social science major at Western Oregon, which now requires students to complete a “theory and methods” requirement as well as take at least half of their credits in one field.

And yet while the DV course has met or exceeded the cap each time I’ve taught it, the qualitative methods course does not seem to be getting any traction with students.

While frustrating, this isn’t too difficult to understand. It isn’t the kind of course that presents as an exciting elective for non-majors. Furthermore, not only is the geography major relatively small, but the majority of those students concentrate in areas other than cultural and political geography, for which this course is primarily designed and most appropriate. In fact, I suspect that the students I currently have will turn out to be social science, and not geography, majors (one reason I know this is that none of the students on my list are currently my advisees).

Being able to understand why my numbers are so low is one thing. Trying to build a course while teaching such small numbers is another. I did get some good feedback from the last (small) group I taught, but all of those students were novices when it came to social science research methods, and none were especially sophisticated or grounded in social theory before starting the course. Based on my experience with other courses, including the DV course, if I had had at least nine to twelve students instead of three I would have had a wider range of individuals to work with in terms of experience and aptitude and would have ended with a more refined picture of how the course works for students.

As it is, assuming I end up teaching small numbers every time, it may take years to get a better idea of how to run the course. Right now I feel like I am stabbing in the dark and having to rely on my own impressions, which I do anyway, but I prefer to have more input from students in assessing my own thoughts than I have for this course so far.

Courses that involve scientific practice are challenging to teach in any case, particularly, I think, in a quarters system where you only get ten weeks to work with students.

I made the case for the class to go last time with three students because it seems obvious that in order to develop the course I need to teach it. I tried to split the difference between reading and field/project work. That worked ok, but the students, all three of them, told me that the one thing they wanted was more time in the field. So, this year I’m going to experiment with making individual projects the focus of student work, including what reading different students do. In effect, I decided, if the class is going to be this small, I might as well leverage that smallness into highly individualized instruction. There will be a few common readings, but mostly I will be working with students on different methods according to their interests and what they want to, or should, be practicing.

What I need, what I hope, is that somehow, in this group of four, I have at least one student who is fully invested and engaged by the material. There’s a risk of overvaluing what you observe or hear from those students, but I also think that there is value in a perspective that is above the common denominator. When I proposed the course I certainly envisioned, ultimately, having students who are prepared to dig deep into the doing of geography, both during the term and into their capstone work.

Interesting, and interested, students make for interesting teaching, and, on the whole, I think that the less engaged students benefit from the ways in which the more engaged push me to think more seriously about the material. This is one thing I think I’m missing with the methods course. On the other hand, I also don’t think I have a good sense even of “the students I have” as opposed to the “students I want”. Maybe that will become more clear this term. And maybe I’ll just keep adding one student each time I offer the course. At that rate, I can look forward to having the course take shape around the time I begin thinking about retirement.

An academic’s perspective on film festival submission: take two

Earlier this week Peter D. Marshall, via Twitter, linked to Elliot Grove’s post at the Raindance Canada site on, “16 things that film festivals hate about filmmakers“. Reading Grove’s list I gained some additional insight into some of the mistakes I have made in submitting Comic Book City to festivals, but also how the culture from which I am working, academia, is different from that of film as an industry.

In general, Grove’s advice reads as pretty sensible, essentially telling filmmakers to, “be professional, don’t make a festival’s job harder than it needs to be.” Substitute “article” for “film” and “journal” or “publisher” for “film festival” and, with some minor changes for context, the advice would still make sense.

At the same time, there is a clear implication that a film festival is necessarily an industry showcase, that the purpose of holding a festival is to provide films and their makers with exposure to people looking to buy and hire. When films and filmmakers are “discovered” at a fest, the festival solidifies its position in the industry. What unites everyone is this commercial purpose (see Grove’s comments to “#14: Filmmakers who don’t understand the role a festival”).

As someone who undertook filmmaking as part of my scholarly work, I do not share this commercial purpose. As a result, my submissions are lacking in areas related to publicity (see Grove’s #10 and #12). I do not have PR skills, nor do I have the resources to hire people to do that work, and I did not think about publicity during the making of the film anymore than I would have with a journal article, which is to say, I didn’t think about it at all. The area where this has put me in the most awkward position in relation to festivals is in provision of high resolution images for catalogs and advertising (#10). I have done what I can with the online press kit function in Withoutabox, and I have an IMDB page, but both are minimal. When it comes time to announce screenings, I do have social media I can use – like this blog and the production blog, for examples – but my social network, and networking, is likely not up to the standard advocated by Grove (see #11).

In one sense, lesson learned. On my next project I will at least know to produce a few high quality stills for use by festival organizers. In another sense, while I want my film to be seen, I do not see my film as an entrée to the industry. For me, festival acceptance constitutes a form of peer review. Whether and what an “industry person” might do with Comic Book City is beyond me, but that doesn’t make a festival screening meaningless either. It just doesn’t have the meaning assumed in Grove’s advice to filmmakers.

This would seem to make me guilty of #14, but I’m not sure that a festival’s purpose can be reduced to, “Together, the festival and filmmaker hopes that you get ‘discovered’ ie: that someone gives you a cheque. That way, we can both say ‘this is the film that was discovered at Raindance – enhancing both of our press kits.”

For one thing, many festivals include categories of films that would not normally be seen as ways to break into the industry or to have someone cut you a check. There clearly is a function of festivals that relates to filmmaking as art, and not as commerce, to access to audiences, but not necessarily access to the industry.

I think that these distinctions matter in terms of the performative aspects of festival submission that Grove focuses on. The advice in his post seems most relevant to filmmakers who have commercial aspirations, but are more curious for those of us without such expectations.

I still agree with the general sentiment that it is in a filmmaker’s best interests to not make a festival programmer’s job harder than it needs to be, but the limited resources that Grove points to for why filmmakers should have good publicity materials, and thick social networks, would seem to apply equally to, if not have more salience for, individual creators, especially those working with minimal personnel and finances, if not as, essentially, one-person shops.

As I discussed in my previous post on submitting to festivals, I am learning to read between the lines when looking at how a festival is represented. Many festivals, as implied by Grove, place a heavy emphasis on the idea of “discovery” and on connections to industry and industry celebrities. I have decided to sidestep such events, even where they would seem to be promising in other respects (size, location). Others frame what they do more in terms of providing an audience, and bringing films to communities that otherwise miss out on, particularly, unusual or less commercial offerings than in terms of being places where filmmakers can “make it”.

Obviously, Grove is on-point for most festivals when he writes, “Your job is to deliver a pleasing and entertaining film, and if you attend the festival, to be available for interview and Q&A sessions after your screening.” On the other hand, there should be room for a film to be, “challenging and interesting”, too, or where what constitutes “pleasing and entertaining” has a wider meaning than “commercial potential”.

July “Worlds in Panels”: Brian Wood’s New York

My latest column posted to PopMatters yesterday. I look at Brian Wood’s New York after the conclusion to DMZ.

New York is more than a backdrop for these characters, it’s a specific context, one where the sheer number and variety of other people, and possible ways to be, is both empowering and also ensnaring. Young people, when presented with choices, do not always make the ‘best’ ones. The breadth of opportunities in New York sets traps and opens doors. Wood’s work consistently shows all of these sides of being young in the city.

Read the full column.