Beyond the Wall

The next generation of dreamers--Amanda and Devon dig into Stardust for themselves.

The next generation of dreamers–Amanda and Devon dig into Stardust for themselves.

“You can’t go beyond the wall. No one goes beyond the wall.”

So speaks the shallow Victoria Forrester to idealistic young Tristan Thorne when he declares he will cross from their small village into the mysterious faerie realm across the wall along its border in Neil Gaiman’s delightful story Stardust.

Stardust has long been one of my favourite modern faerie stories and, though it diverges from the tone of the original book quite a bit, I even love the 2007 film based on it. (And I will confess the quote above comes from the film, rather than the novel). What’s there not to love in the story of a young boy who crosses into an unknown world to capture a fallen star, ostensibly to win the favour of his fancied lady? Along the way, Tristan discovered a world wilder and more wonderful than he could ever has believed. He discovers things about himself he never knew before, and he realizes the true love of his life is not the simple Victoria but the sarcastic, occasionally insulting, fallen star Yvaine. Through the narrative of Tristan’s growth, Gaiman weaves lively, often satirical, images of wonder, adventure, and self-discovery. Themes summed up nicely when Tristan and Yvaine cannot assume their rightful rule of Stormhold as they have been “indefinitely detained by the world” (a detail sadly lacking from the film).

As you might have guessed, Leeman and I perhaps rewatched Stardust this weekend. Possibly because I needed some more epic comedy adventure in light of my recent Galavant-obsession. Possibly because we had both just read Gaiman’s new graphic novel The Sleeper and the Spindle, a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty tale. Whatever the reason, it has gotten me percolating over the past few days on why I love books and movies and TV (media and stories in general) that are often quirky and far-fetched. And why, in particular, I have such a soft spot in my heart for the works of Neil Gaiman. My conclusion is this: I do not want to be Victoria Forrester scoffing at the notion of crossing the wall into a world that defies expectation and the status quo. I want to be Tristan–willing to step out into the unknown and see possibilities with joy and expectation, not simply with fear.

Stories which we might rightly label as “speculative fiction” naturally afford such glimpses into our ideas of what the world *might* be, not just what it currently is. What if our world pushed up against the border of the Faerie realm? What might that mean for us? But such narrative speculation need not be limited to the merely fantastical. It can and should have ramifications for how we interact with the actual world around us. For example, Gaiman’s afore-mentioned The Sleeper and the Spindle does not merely retell the story of Sleepy Beauty. It retells Sleeping Beauty with Snow White as the protagonist who saves her neighbouring kingdom, defeats the witch who placed the sleeping curse in the first place, and rejects the expectations of those around her to head off on adventures of her own. Gaiman thus asks a number of probing questions: Must it always be a prince who saves the day? Can a woman be the protagonist of her own story? Does a fairy tale have to end with a “happily ever after”? Just because it’s “always been that way” … does it have to “always be that way.”

That is a handy challenge to embrace from stories and narrative all too commonly written off as frivolous. They teach us to believe that the world can be different than what it is. That has real impact. I would argue that many of the grass roots activist movements we see are a result of passionate individuals declaring “No, we can be better than this” to a host of social challenges. Whether that is the #blacklivesmatter movement in response to the growing instances of young black men (sometimes children!) dying at the hands of white police officers. Or simply the assertion that there is room to see more diverse faces and hear more diverse stories portrayed in Hollywood (#oscarssowhite = also worth checking out on Twitter).

The fact is, social change, from the early 20th century suffragettes to the anti-Jim Crow activism under Martin Luther King, Jr only happened because certain visionaries said no to the short sighted challenges offered by those people who claim “no one goes over the wall!”

What might the world look like (and, indeed, what might the church look like) if we all lived like we were the protagonist in an adventure story. What unforeseen challenges and possibilities might be in store for us if we have the courage to see beyond the walls we collectively put up around us. And what opportunities might we let pass us by if we insist on seeing those walls as impenetrable.

Also, lets be honest, fantasy stories are just more fun than the alternative. Go back to my post from last week to revisit my thoughts on that!

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In Praise of Silliness

I’m not going to lie –I’ve needed some silliness this week. I mean, I always need some silliness, but this has been a particularly rough week. Thankfully, my need for some serious therapeutic intervention coincided with the broadcast of the new limited-run series Galavant. The antics of a washed-up narcissistic knight seeking to rescue his lost love (who has no interest in being “rescued”) from the bumbling King Richard, complete with snarky musical interludes has possibly saved my sanity. I may or may not be writing this blog post while listening to the soundtrack.

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Amanda gets silliness. It’s serious business.

There are a handful of TV shows which make me feel as though the creators reached into my brain and produced something perfectly crafted to my sensibilities. Seriously, don’t mention Pushing Daisies or Farscape around me unless you have an hour or so for me to sing their praises. I think I might have to add Galavant to the list: medieval comedy musical? Yes, please! What do these three series have in common (beyond their ability to be almost saccharinely sweet and cynical at the same time)? A total embrace of silliness.

Now, admittedly I have come across some Galavant nay-sayers online–why would anyone want to waste their time on such ridiculous drivel? In this glorious golden age of scripted television, we should all be watching series of substance–like the upcoming season of House of Cards. (For the record, I have not, nor will I ever watch House of Cards, or Breaking Bad, or anything else so nihilistic about the human condition). Is there any worth to seemingly frivolous entertainment, aside from offering a temporary relief during otherwise emotionally draining moments in life? I think there is. And I think its something that has been sadly lacking in popular culture for far too long.

It seems that some point during the early 2000s, we as a society fell in love with anti-heroes and ironic detachment.  We became obsessed with Walter Whites and Tony Sopranos. In comedies, we laughed at the antics of the Bluth family in Arrested Development and Ricky Gervais’s David Brent (later Steve Carrell’s Michael Scott) in The Office. Even in superheroes, we embraced the gritty ambiguity of Christian Bale’s Batman. Everything was … very cynical and dark. And we collectively lapped it up. Now as objectively good as each of these pop culture specimens might be (although I stand by my refusal to jump on the Walter White bandwagon), there’s something that doesn’t quite sit right with me when everything we consume and the media produced is always aimed at deconstructing tropes and highlighting what is worst about people. It rips down, but it never builds up.

This is why I love Galavant, and why it gives me hope that we might be moving out of the decade of ironic detachment. Certainly, Galavant is itself a send-up of everything from hero stories, to fairy tales, to musical conventions. Through its six episodes that have so far aired, it continually rolls its eyes at its own genre. While at the same time, totally embracing the conventions that it mocks. Early in the series, Galavant encourages his squire, Syd, to be himself, collect his dolls (“Figurines”, as Syd insists) … that is what Galavant loves most about him. We shouldn’t be afraid to be silly — that is what real “authenticity” is, after all. And isn’t “authenticity” the vague idea that hipsters with their ironic detachment are ultimately trying to achieve.

Yes, Galavant winks at the audience, but it is a self-deprecating sensibility that says “we know this is ridiculous, and we are going for it anyway.” It is hard not to get caught up in the fun, and it is delightfully refreshing.  It’s hard to beat the two leads finally confessing their love for one another in a triumphant ballad that itemizes all the characteristics they find most infuriating in one another.

I guess the point I am trying to make is that there is an inescapable honesty and openness to silliness. Silliness doesn’t try to be “cool.” It doesn’t try to hide behind a veneer or respectability. It is itself. And maybe musicals are the silliest of genres because expressing emotion is song is the most open, honest, and genuine thing anyone can do. And shouldn’t we all be striving for that?

(PS: For all the ABC executives who are most certainly reading this — Please don’t cancel this show. I need it.)

Out of the Woods

I went to see the new film version of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods with some degree of trepidation, for two good reasons. The rather unfortunate mess that Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter made of Sondheim’s Sweeny Todd a few years back had made me a little dubious of Disney’s attempt to translate this twisted dark fairy tale to the big screen with any sense of nuance. On a deeper level, however, since having a kid I have found myself less and less able to handle movies with anything less than a happy ending (while recently visiting my family I had to explain to my three year old nephew that I was not in fact prepared to take the emotional journey required by Toy Story 3 with him). Into the Woods does not, to say the least, have an uncomplicatedly happy ending. Thats … kind of its whole point.

Still, refusing to give Peter Jackson more money for the unnecessary existence of a third hobbit movie, off we went Into the Woods. And you know what? Both my fears were unfounded. Not only was the cast quite fantastic (Who doesn’t love James Cordon? In my mind, the baker’s baby is named Stormageddon, Dark Lord of All) … But something about watching the story unfold this time around made me realize that Sondheim’s mix of unravelling fairy tales is not exactly as grim (ha! see what I did there?) as it might initially appear to be.

If you’re not familiar with it, Into the Woods intertwines the stories of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel with a new story about a Baker and his Wife trying to have a child. As it turns out, Rapunzel’s witch has cursed the Baker’s family to be barren and the couple have three nights to collect ingredients she needs for a potion and she will lift the curse. The items? The cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the slipper as pure as gold, the hair as yellow as corn. Not hard to figure out where they find these items. In the end, the Jack finds his giant, Little Red is saved from the wolf, Cinderella and Rapunzel marry their princes, and the Baker and Wife have their child. That is, however, only the first half of the story. And Sondheim’s real work is in unpacking the “happy endings” seemingly afforded all these familiar characters. Cinderella’s prince is self-defined “Charming, not Sincere,” the Baker and Wife find having a child is not all fun and games (to which I say … ha!), and Jack’s antics bring about the wrath of a giantess on the village.

It is easy to write off the second half of Sondheim’s play as an astounding piece of cynicism — there are no “happy endings” and we are at our most un-happy when we get exactly what we want. What’s so wrong with the fantasies of the happily ever afters?

As I’ve been listening to the soundtrack far more than I should probably admit over the last week, I’ve come to a conclusion. It’s not the second act of Into the Woods that’s depressing. It’s the first. What happens in the first act? Every character is out to achieve their own wish. The Baker and his Wife are perfect examples. They desire a child and they have an opportunity to get one. All their actions — how they cheat Jack out of his cow or try to steal red riding hood’s cape — are justified in their minds (particularly the Baker’s Wife) because they are just trying to get their wish. And everyone at least nominally wins. But is that exactly a happy or uplifting view of humanity? Everyone is out to get their wish, on their own, for their own agenda? Are the Baker and his Wife any more sympathetic than Cinderella’s step-mother or step-sisters who cut off parts of their feet to achieve their own selfish dreams of marrying the prince?

Sondheim’s darker second act brings to light that simply getting what we want doesn’t necessarily make us happy. Having a child has put a strain on the Baker’s marriage. Cinderella is unhappy in the life of the court, and her prince is not exactly the most faithful husband. Simply going after our own agenda (even when we have the purest intentions) is not necessarily the best recipe for happiness. Not to mention the destruction that is brought about as a result of careless, seemingly inconsequential actions by characters throughout the first act. Ultimately, though, our characters whose stories merely bumped into eachother without truly intersecting come together to care for one another and create a kind of community and realistically happy ending.

There are many complicated themes and images running through Sondheim’s lyrics, but for me the heart of the musical (and film) comes in the Act II song “No One is Alone”, sung primarily by the Baker and Cinderella, with the great lyric:

People make mistakes,
Holding to their own,
Thinking they’re alone.

But, as Sonheim’s lyrics go on to both remind and warn us “no one is alone.” The characters find destruction when they look to their own wishes, “thinking they’re alone.” They find redemption, of a sort, when they remember they are not in fact alone. They have people to rely on, and they have people who rely on them. They have a community for support, and a community to whom they must be accountable. Life is complicated and messy. Witches can be right. Giants can be good. But we travel through these messy woods of life together.

There’s something to that for everyone, including those of us who muddle along this Christian spiritual journey. We face so many temptations to fulfill our own needs and our own desires everyday, often in ways that have detrimental impact on others that we do not take the effort to acknowledge. Increasing numbers of people in affluent, well-educated communities choose not to vaccinate their children, oblivious to the impact their actions have for those who cannot be immunized for various reasons. We all finished a festive holiday season, marked by giving and receiving … yet more stuff! Which we don’t really need and surely exploits workers in the developing world. And yet, I still gave my child her cheap plastic toys.

We can’t treat our lives or our spirituality as individualistic endeavours. Our highest value cannot be simply to go out an pursue our wishes, however well-intentioned they might be. A hard lesson in an extremely consumeristic era. It is not going to lead to a healthy world. And it will not ultimately lead to our own satisfaction. We’re never going to get it all perfect–that’s why we spent most of Advent with the prayer “come, Lord Jesus.” But the more we can think less of ourselves and more of how we can give of ourselves to others and the good of our broader communities, the more I think we can avoid the giants and the witches that would seek to bring us harm.

Have Fun Storming the Castle!

I love The Princess Bride. It’s been my favourite movie almost as long as I can remember. It was the first DVD I ever bought. Amanda’s nursery has a huge Princess Bride poster on the wall that I’ve carted around with me from dwelling to dwelling since my first year of undergrad. My copy of the novel is falling to pieces I’ve read it so many times. And, like everyone else in my undergraduate fencing club (yes, I am a nerd, and proud of it) I took up the sport inspired by the epic duel between the Man in Black and Inigo Montoya.

Why do I love The Princess Bride so much? Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

One of my most vivid early childhood memories is watching The Princess Bride on VHS at the home of some family friends, circa (I guess) 1987/8. I would have been 6 or 7.  I so clearly remember being captivated and terrorized in turn by the film. I kept watching it but (anxious child that I was), I was terrified by the ROUSs, the creepiness of the 6-fingered man, and, especially, the climactic scene when Andre the Giant comes out in flame impersonating the Dread Pirate Roberts. Years later, early 90s perhaps, I caught half the movie on TV and have been obsessed ever since.

So, you can imagine how delighted I was when Leeman gave me Carey Elwes’s memoir on the making of the film, and it was every bit as entertaining as I thought it would be! There’s something very satisfying about learning everyone involved in making such a special project feels genuine love for said project, even when it seems said project has arguably overshadowed the rest of their careers.

While stories of Cary Elwes attempting to hide a broken toe from Rob Reiner or Billy Crystal’s amazing improvisations on set made for a compelling read, what most intrigued me about Elwes’s retrospective was the discussion about how hard it was to sell the concept of The Princess Bride to a studio in the first place and, later on, the hard time producers had marketing the film. What do you do with a genre-bending film that’s a little bit comedy, a little bit romance, a little bit action/adventure … even a dabble into horror? Studio marketers like clear-cut stories that lend themselves well to a 30-second TV promo. Apparently the first posters released for the film avoided genre elements completely and showed only an image of the grandfather and grandson from the ancillary framing story. Curious indeed. So no one went to see the film and The Princess Bride was destined to fall by the wayside of cinema history–until the home video market picked it up. Suddenly, people watched it … and shared it with their friends … and gave it as gifts to unsuspecting family members. And so the little film that could rose to the cult status it has today–twenty-five years later.

It’s an intriguing bit of film history, and it makes me think about how prone we are as part of our human nature to categorize and demarcate everything (and everyone). We like to put people in boxes, marked off with clear labels. We want to be able to assess things quickly. Celebrities and politicians fall from grace the moment they make a “gaffe.” I feel this is particularly insidious in the church. We are quick to question the “brand” an individual or a community belongs to. Are you suitably conservative/progressive? Are you too evangelical or not evangelical enough? Do you conform the party line on x/y/z issue?

Both inside the Church and more broadly in our culture, it is so much easier to identify those we meet by the labels they claim for themselves (or the labels we assign to them) than it is to actually take the time to get to know them in all their complexities and contradictions. And, yet, when we live in a world of clearly drawn boundaries and easily affixed labels, we lose something of the dynamism and richness the diversity of individuals the world has to offer us. More importantly, we lose the presence of a variety of voices in our day to day lives that might not always reflect our own, but who challenge us to become more nuanced, rich, complicated, and interesting people ourselves.

What a boring movie The Princess Bride might have been it it had conformed to the guidelines of just one genre. What boring lives we lead when we only play it safe and know people by their labels and not by all the quirks and foibles that make them tick.