le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Graveyard Book

Since my "thanksgiving" day was spent comfortably nestled, alone, in my little house in the woods, I was able to lounge about and read to my heart's content (okay: i have NEVER read to my heart's content, since I have an ongoing, insistent, persistent, insatiable desire to read). Due to the nice perk of working at a bookstore, Wednesday night I borrowed Neil Gaiman's new(ish) book, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK.
and read it all today (after finishing the last, unfinished, pages of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and before taking up Harriet the Spy for a re-read).

I've read some of Gaiman's books - Neverwhere, Stardust - and loved them, and I've tried others (American Gods) with no luck. I'm intimidated by graphic novels, so I've never done more than peek in an odd copy of The Sandman here or there. But on the strength of Neverwhere alone, I'd say I'm devoted to Gaiman. I'd heard good things about The Graveyard Book, and on a whim, decided to give it a try.

And it was marvellous. Truly marvellous. What a wonderfully brilliant, clever, weirdly moving, book.

I've got nothing to compare it to, really. The only think I can come up with is the half-ghost boy in China Mieville's Un Lun Dun. But this story, of the live boy Bod who is given Freedom of the Graveyard after being orphaned, then adopted by ghosts (The Owenses, last living in the 18th century). Gaiman's cleverness in his cast of graveyard characters is wonderful; I particularly like his habit of citing a name, followed by its tombstone inscription. Like Eva Ibbotson's, Gaiman's ghosts are largely benevolent. Even the vaguely scary Silas, (vampire? i think?) is also an emotionally rich, intriguing character, and much loved by Bod.
The villains of the story, the Jacks of All Trades, are cleverly conceived, as well. Gaiman's obviously interested in story, and stories; in characters, in folklore, in quirks of the language - and I can't say I'm NOT also interested in these things. The way he combines and recreates these various elements is truly inspired.

The story of a live child raised in a graveyard is certain to be harrowing, at moments; hilarious, at moments; mysterious, at moments - and The Graveyard Book is all of those things. But it's also sad, and touching, and wondering, and wondrous, and courteous, and charming.

Bod himself is fantastically drawn. His interactions with everyone - with Liza Hempstock, with Silas, with Miss Lupescu, with Scarlett Amber Perkins, with Nick and Mo - are genuine and revealing. Bod makes mistakes, but - unlike many obnoxious characters in the world (both fictional and real) - he learns from them. He is able to admit mistakes, apologize, and refrain from committing them again. Instead of seeming cowed, weak or unadventurous, Bod seems intelligent - wise, even. Because of the danger of the man Jack (who murdered his family, and wants to murder Bod), Bod is not allowed to leave the graveyard. When he does, he inevitably falls into grave danger, and must be rescued by Liza and Silas.
But instead of persisting in seeing the world beyond the graveyard, Bod realizes he's in danger, and that his danger endangers the "people" he cares about. It's a striking difference from headlong heroic fools like Harry Potter; Bod never makes the horror-film mistake of opening that door, or going down that flight of stairs, and that is a testament to Gaiman's craft. Bod behaves the way a real human would - he learns, he changes, he grows. He makes mistakes, but he does some things beautifully right. The world of the graveyard is a wonderfully interesting one, and Bod learns an incredible amount, about everything (his teachers, all ghosts, have all died before 1900 or thereabouts; the graveyard's oldest inhabitant is Caius Pompeius, who came to England about 100 years after the first Romans. Bod's curriculum is thus wideranging, though admittedly weak in areas like "the modern world.").

Truly, this book makes me wish for more in a series - the Graveyard is such a compelling place, such an inspired setting, and Gaiman (of course) handles this setting brilliantly. The characters - especially Liza and Silas - are fascinating in their own right, and makes me want to read more about them. The possibilities of a graveyard "populated" by people ranging so far and wide across history and class are incredibly exciting.

This is a book to read again and again; it is one that I will have to purchase for my own library. I can't give a book much higher compliment than that, since - out of necessity - I strictly limit my new-book-buying.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

making the stage safe for boys everywhere

Tonight I finally saw High School Musical 3 in the theatre. I've been trying to coordinate this with a friend from my department for awhile, and finally, we made it (along with four other people - a mom with three kids).

I've been a fan of HSM for awhile now. What I like about these movies is their queerness, a queerness that is unmistakable to even a semi-trained observer. Though the veneer of hetero courtship covers all three films - Troy and Gabriela, after all, are the "stars," - the emphasis of the movies is consistently NOT on their relationship. Troy and Gabriela are incredibly chaste, only really kissing twice in all three films. It's a rated-G movie that still manages to bring a wonderfully queer subtext.

HSM3 pushes that subtext to the forefront. This one is really the Zac Efron show; word on the street is that old Zac was a little too big for his wildcat britches, and had to be paid WELL and catered to for the show to go on. Troy is the star of this film, and - though I am no Zac-maniac - Efron rises to the occasion admirably. There's a genuineness to his scenes that I don't remember from the other movies. He's not just there to be a heartthrob, although I lost track of the number of times he peels off a shirt or two (only once going totally shirtless, and then only seen from the back).

The plotlines, of course, center around the angst of senior year: where to go to school, how to deal with moving away from friends and girlfriends. for Troy, the bigger problem is: how to follow his heart and his dreams when for a very long time, his pushy dad has been pushing him along a certain track? What, exactly, ARE Troy's dreams?
This is not a bad theme, and it rings true for a lot of people well beyond high school. The intermingling of real life with the school's senior musical is a brilliant trick: we never actually see the prom, only the musical's re-creation of it. The senior musical is about senior year, literally, and the two - stage and real life - become twins of each other.

Because at its heart, this is a movie about musicals, and theatre. Sharpay and Ryan's big number comes early on, and shows them paying homage to a number of classical musicals in costume and choreography. The importance of living life in, on and around the stage is paramount to the movie, and it showcases this in an absolutely joyful, unrestrained way.

The girls are the weakest links of the show: Gabriela, Sharpay, the others have weak voices and are bad actors. For Sharpay, this suits her character; for Gabriela, it's simply obnoxious. But the boys in the film are in their absolute glory. Chad (Corbin Bleu) and Ryan (Lucas Grabeel) bring it like they haven't before. Chad and Troy do a surprisingly touching (but also pretty damn fierce) "duet" in a junkyard, and they are both amazing. Ryan is made choreographer of the senior musical, and he glows in purple argyles and white fedoras. Ryan is the most obviously queer character in the movie; he is never set into a hetero relationship (nor, alas, is he given a gay relationship). But the movie, I think, is honorable in not compromising on Ryan's gayness; he IS the Gay Drama Boy, a dancing queen, with a massive amount of talent. His talent is respected throughout the films, and Ryan is very rarely made a figure of fun. He's a pansy for sure, but not one we want to laugh at; we LIKE Ryan, and so does everyone else.

The movie's greatest gift is in its shrugging off the restraints of traditional masculinity. There's a broad spectrum of options represented here, all of them viewed as good and right for the characters who choose them. Ryan's pink-plaid-pants flaming choreography is at one end of the spectrum; Troy's dad, the basketball coach who antagonizes the drama teacher in HSM1 and has nothing but contempt for theatre, is the marker of truly butch masculinity. Chad, who sings and dances along with his friends, but not as enthusiastically, and who is a dedicated athlete, hovers at the traditionally butch end of the scale as well. But the others are more ambiguous; there's the basketball guy whose real passion in life is pastry-making. And of course - Troy, who struggles through three films to come to grips with his talents and love of basketball and jock life, AND singing, dancing and theatrical life. He hides his artistic talent, keeping himself "closeted" from his jock dad, but ultimately, Troy has to make a choice to be himself.

Choosing to be yourself, to be who and what you love, is a fundamental in queer activism, no matter how it's couched in theoretical terms. That these movies choose to push this message - one that can often feel terrible cliched and stale in any movie for younger audiences - is made fresh and new and exciting by the fact that being yourself sometimes means being a drama queen. or a masculine, straight boy who loves to sing and dance. And that all of these choices are okay, and that sometimes you don't have to choose: you can be a jock and a dancer.

I feel excited and inspired by this movie; it's full of cheesy highschool cliches, and everytime Gabriela opens her mouth I want to scream. But the junkyard dance, and Troy's big solo, when he has to figure out what he wants (basketball court or stage?) are powerful moments that feel real.

The film ends with graduation, with the characters dancing and singing and whooping it up as wildcats one last time. but part of the lyrics they sing is :
"I Wish My Life Could Feel Like A High School Musical"

and that's really what the movie's all about: making life feel like a musical.