Breaking down Unbreakable: The greatest statement on race that never mentions it

Published November 10, 2015 by immaterialideal

Obviously, major spoilers ahead. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, knowing the twist beforehand will lessen its impact. For those who have, here’s a refresher:

You know what the scariest thing is? To not know your place in this world. To not know why you’re here… That’s… That’s just an awful feeling.

A lot of critics have dismissed Unbreakable’s big reveal, thinking it hackneyed and trite in the vein of M. Night Shyamalan’s other movies. It’s not. For one thing, it didn’t come out of nowhere; it was foreshadowed in Elijah’s creepy fixation on David’s superpower. Wasn’t it unsettling the way he talked so casually about hundreds of people dying in the train accident, or his obsession with disasters in general?

More crucially, how you interpret the ending depends on whose perspective you’re seeing it from. Sure, by itself, the mentor really being evil isn’t a particularly original trope. But that’s the thing about tropes; it’s how you use it that counts, and here, it’s all about the characters. From David’s perspective, up until the events the movie, he was living a hollow, satisfaction-less life, and throughout the movie, he learns of his desire to help people and his newfound potential to do so. And then, in one fell swoop, the rug gets yanked under his feet. It turns out he as a hero was, in a sense, created from the lives of hundreds, and it was all just one sick game played by the person he thought was his friend and mentor. The ending shot of him simply walking away reflects how the audience feels: horrified, guilty, disgusted, conflicted, trapped.

But what’s truly brilliant (and often overlooked) about the movie is Elijah’s side of the story. And this is where the title of this entry comes in, because while the movie never once directly talks about his race, it’s no accident that he’s black to contrast the white David, and the unspoken commentary on race relations only makes his final speech all the more powerful.

Elijah is the first character we are introduced to. The opening scenes show the limitations imposed on him by his brittle bones; unable to participate in physical pursuits, he instead turns to more intellectual activities by becoming a comic book nerd and interpreting the world from that metafictional perspective. The perspective then shifting to David, he is seemingly relegated to becoming a supporting character: the magically disabled negro archetype. Throughout the movie, he acts like your typical stoic Samuel L. Jackson character; despite being bullied as a child, he seems to take it remarkably well, sparing little a thought to his disability.

But as it turns out, he was bottling up all that sadness and resentment all along, and the ending finally gives him the opportunity to let it all out. Like comic villains, at no point did he ever have to reveal his grand scheme to the hero, but he did so as a matter of pride. He’s not the magically disabled negro, and in fact, his tearful, heartfelt speech accompanied by bittersweetly triumphant music spits in the face of that burdensome expectation. He’s something greater: the true instigator of the plot’s events. And though the audience was led to believe they were following David’s story, it was really Elijah’s story all along, and he’s going to relish that fact, consequences be damned. The fact that it’s Samuel L. Jackson playing the character only adds to the shock of seeing his emotionless demeanour break apart; we’re so used to seeing him as a badass that it’s incredibly moving to see him cry.

From a minority perspective, Unbreakable’s ending especially resonates to my heart. We’re so used to being neglected in favour of the white lead characters, especially in nerd media and its fandom. Most of the time, like Elijah, we can only expect to aspire towards the sidekick role (though Marvel is starting to change that; still wish original minority superheroes would get more focus though). And fandom is so white-dominated that even a minor character being black, like Blaise Zabini from Harry Potter, is enough to start a ruckus. I instinctively get attached to Chinese or Asian characters with a prominent role, because despite the fact that we make up about half of Vancouver and 30% of Seattle and San Francisco, it’s not easy to find such characters to relate to outside of anime. When I see the ending of Unbreakable, I see a man defying his fate; becoming a greater character than the role he was given. Sure, he does it in the most horrible way possible, but that’s makes him such a great tragic villain.

Because we all want to be told we aren’t a mistake, that our life has meaning.

I should’ve known way back when, you know why, David? Because of the kids!

They called me Mr. Glass.

Legacy of Elm Street: A series review

Published October 31, 2015 by immaterialideal

It’s Halloween, and what better way to commemorate the season than with the legendary dream stalker himself, Freddy Krueger? I can credit the Nightmare on Elm Street series for solidifying me as a horror fan, and I think what makes it special is just how personal and relatable it is. Far from the throwaway schlock outsiders to the genre usually associate with slasher movies, Elm Street has a surprising amount of depth in deriving its true scares from the experience and anxiety of growing up as a young person in the suburbs. Freddy Krueger himself resembles a modernized version of the malicious, child-stealing fairies of Celtic folklore* (you can read more about them here and this is an article specifically about the Irish changeling legend); at first, you think he’s getting revenge for the kids’ parents burning him to death, but really he just gets sick pleasure out of the job with his black humour and strongly implied paedophilia (and yes, the classic fairies were just as fond of disproportionate retribution). But it’s no longer medieval Scotland or Ireland, but suburban America in the 1980s, so his punishments have changed with the times.

Which brings us to the humans. One thing that makes the series still as relevant in the millennial age as it was in the 80s is the enduring theme of generational conflict. With a few exceptions, the adults in the series are not only oblivious to Freddy Krueger’s threat, but inadvertently help him out by overruling the teenagers’ concerns with their condescending, know-it-all attitudes. Elm Street is a world only young people understand, and outside the context of the films, something that speaks to us, something we can call ours. Sure, the D&D, comic, and video game references may be cheesy, but they’re an admirable attempt to connect with youth culture (and everyone references Now I’m Playing With Power decades later, so it obviously worked). Overall, the teenagers’ concerns are treated seriously, whether they be substance abuse, bulimia, or paternal rape. Even if they’re the target of Freddy’s quips, that highlights just how vile he is and makes him more memorable as a threat; because he has no boundaries to his vindictiveness.**

But a villain needs hero(in)es to oppose him, and Elm Street certainly delivers. The strong-willed, resourceful female leads are not only emblematic of how feminist the horror genre can be, but frankly, most mainstream movies could learn from the horror genre in that regard. One of my favourite aspects of the overarching story told by the movies is the succession of survival skills from one girl to another, with everyone bonding over their shared misery in being stalked by an evil child rapist. It’s a morbid take on the power of friendship, but that’s horror for you. There’s a lot more to say about Nancy and co, but I’ll have to get into the individual movies for that.

So far, I’ve talked about the series as a whole. Yes, that includes the sequels. I know outside the fandom, they’re seen as cheap, lazy cash-ins to a masterpiece, but if Never Sleep Again is anything to go by, they were anything but lazy; the sequels suffered primarily from being rushed to come out every year or two and the production crew had to work their butts off to get them out in time. Still, the original film’s premise was solid enough a framework to support the sequels, and they all bring up interesting ideas at the very least, even if they weren’t explored as much or as well as they could have been. Besides, Dream Warriors and The Dream Master seem to define Freddy in the public consciousness more than the original movie, and for all of Wes Craven’s brilliance, I attribute that to the characters being more likable and relatable.*** I guess they’re like the Godzilla or other classic monster movie sequels; you have to be an aficionado to appreciate them for what they are.

So, what about the new Elm Street movie coming out? Honestly, I’m tired of remakes in general. If they wanted to do a new Elm Street movie, they should come up with an original story. It doesn’t even have to be connected to the original canon at all. The basic premise is a teenage girl and her friends fending off Freddy Krueger in their dreams and dysfunctional life problems while awake. You can do a lot with that framework, so why just copy what already exists? If I wanted to see the old movies, I’d watch the old movies. If only the movie business wasn’t so risk-averse in general….

So in conclusion, Elm Street is awesome. It’s more than just a slasher series; I’d go as far as to call it a modern young adult fairy tale. And in a weird way, it’s cathartic seeing teenage girls triumph over a demon who preys on your insecurities. The series even helped me understand my family problems better and improve my relationship with my parents, so I also have a vested emotional connection to the series. So hats off to Wes Craven, Robert Englund and the rest of the Elm Street crew, and may the man of our dreams remain as immortal as Dracula.

*I’ve never heard Wes Craven or anyone else specifically mention fairies, but I see a strong resemblance motif-wise.

**Aside from actually killing a child on-screen as opposed to a teenager. Even the opening of Freddy vs Jason makes it a discretion shot. Impressive that after everything else, the very act in his job description is what’s going too far for people’s tastes, though I too would be pretty uncomfortable seeing that on-screen myself.

***I think of Dream Warriors as the Elm Street answer to X-Men and The Dream Master as a magical girl anime with Freddy Krueger as the villain. And now I am obligated to explain what I mean by that.

Commentary: Fake Geek Girl Adventures

Published October 27, 2015 by immaterialideal

So, fiction writing. It’s been an interesting experience. It’s akin to being an illusionist in which your illusions take on lives of their own and your role is limited to to suggesting where they should go. It’s also hugely nerve-wracking, like wondering if that person you have a crush on will like you back. Most likely, it’s not going to end with you getting dumped head-first into a vat of ice cold water, but you always fear that worst case scenario being a probability.

What I’m trying to say with all those similes is: so many ideas have been whirling around my head that I’m mentally dizzy.

Rather than a piece-by-piece commentary on how I came up with Fake Geek Girl Adventures, I’ll just explain my mentality behind it. In other words, what was I thinking?

a.k.a. Stacy

This is Fake Geek Girl. My mind instinctively went into Rorschach test mode. I see a sarcastic expression that says, “What-ever!” She’s the kind of girl that flippantly brushes off those stupid memes insulting her intelligence, while writing NerD on her hand just to rub it in. It’s like she’s saying, “I’ll make you eat those words!”

Which is how Sonic the Hedgehog interrupted Shadow when he was called fake. So now, I can never see that meme ever again without being reminded of that video. Because it’s way more funny that way.

But for some reason, I wasn’t satisfied with Fake Geek Girl being just some silly Sonic reference in line with Rachel Edidin’s article about taking back the meme. My mind started coming up with a back story, since her personality seemed interesting. Her name became Stacy, because it sounded like an every girl name (and only after finishing the original script did I realize its deeper meaning), and as Spirited Away pointed out, names have power. Fake Geek Girl became Stacy, transforming from an Internet meme into a person.

And then I remembered Manic Pixel Dream Girl by Elizabeth Simins, since it was a story about geek culture that reminded you; hey, there’s a person with feelings behind the “faker” label. So it became the basis of Stacy’s character. Also, I was disappointed that the human girl in Wreck-It-Ralph never got any dialogue, so that was more motivation to do my own version of the nerd girl story. Throw in an underdog plot reminscent of Karate Kid and even the Pokemon anime, and a whole pack of references to the media I enjoyed as a kid growing up around the turn of the millennium, and I had my basic storyline. Now the only problem was writing it: how to best resolve certain situations, how do I twist people’s expectations to make things more interesting, and so on. And I’m still prepared to continually revise the script, particularly to maintain continuity with my future plans.

Originally, I was planning to have a sequel script up for Halloween based on A Nightmare on Elm Street. I had a first draft written up, but it was bad, so I tried to fix it by thinking more carefully about the characters. At some point, their respective back stories expanded well beyond the scope of the script, and since the horror tone clashed badly with the first part, I decided to scrap the idea and make it into an anthology series instead, with a multiethnic ensemble cast in the style of Hey Arnold! instead (in the sense of coming up with a story that more accurately reflects the racial demographics of Vancouver compared to the typical lily-white cast). Still, it wasn’t a waste of time, as it helped me come up with ideas I could incorporate into that series. Also, I would like to revisit the idea of writing a cult-themed horror story some other time.

In the original story, I kept the characters simple so that people could extrapolate their own experiences onto them, but for the anthology, they will have more defined personalities and back stories. The concept also went through its own transformation. At first, it was going to be independent stories with a game-of-the-week feature and a vague sense of continuity, but it drifted further away from just being about games to becoming more character-focused and, as a holdover from Nightmare on Elm Street, focusing on their aspirations in life. In the end, I guess my primary motivation for writing all this is to serve as a metafictional time capsule of the millennial geek experience. To my recollection, this is not a commonly explored topic. There’s Dramacon, and the infamous My Life Me, and I can’t think of much else. I would greatly appreciate recommendations, though.

I have finished a few chapters already, but I’m delaying posting them partly for the sake of revision, and partly because I want to finish first 5 chapters, trying to make a good impression so that people will be interested in sticking around for how everyone’s respective story lines develop. Like I said, the idea of showing people my writing is pretty nerve-wracking, especially with such an offbeat premise. But I do appreciate any feedback for coming up with a better story overall.

On fantasy and reality: The power of unlimited imagination

Published October 11, 2015 by immaterialideal

I’m no expert in writing, as I’m just starting out myself. But based on the stories I have absorbed, the first advice I’d give to any aspiring fantasy writer, or writers in any genre for that matter, is this:

Go outside.

Whether you’re interested in a world-spawning politically charged epic or a more personal, psychological fable, the best inspiration is the world around you. Planet Earth’s rich ecosystem, from the lush rainforests to the wide open countryside and towering mountains. The magnificent landmarks and cities crowning human achievement. The people and other animals we share the world with, legends passed down across generations, or the hidden stories they rarely reveal except to those they deem trustworthy. It’s no accident that the stereotypical Tolkien fantasy setting resembles the European countryside, since that was his very inspiration. Or that the Kanto region in Pokémon closely resembles the real-world Kantō.

You don’t even have to go far. In fact, writing about the place you live in rather than copying the bog-standard fantasy world is a good way to stand out, since you can explore what makes your area unique. After all, the suburbs turned out to be an ideal setting for the supernatural horrors of Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street. And as a Canadian, this especially rings true since few stories set in Canada get international attention. Inspiration can come from anywhere, and with billions of people on the planet, everyone has a different experience to tell. So why limit yourself to a template?

Famed anime director Hayao Miyazaki said as much:

You see, whether you can draw like this or not, being able to think up this kind of design, it depends on whether or not you can say to yourself, ‘Oh, yeah, girls like this exist in real life.’ If you don’t spend time watching real people, you can’t do this, because you’ve never seen it.

It’s ironic then that the fantasy genre, which intends to highlight the outer limits of human imagination, is full of fans who are so imaginatively limited. Rather than seek out inspiration from the outside world, they confine themselves; these fictional worlds being all they know. One of the primary joys of fantasy fiction is in exploring its hidden meanings and secrets; what led the creator to imagine such things, and yet the only meaning too many derive is consumption. Buying lots of products to superficially imitate their favourite stories. Jedi is often listed as a religion, with no regard for the fact that it’s a fictionalized version of Taoism. Incidentally enough, Shigeru Miyamoto, despite his boundless creativity in making video games worlds, rarely plays them himself. Production and consumption are two different hobbies, which are worlds apart.

I’m not saying it’s wrong to like something obsessively, or even to reference nerd culture. Without fans, we wouldn’t have such great tributes such as Adult Wednesday Addams, Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld or even the hilarious Sonic Shorts. But that’s the thing; it takes a great deal of understanding and respect for the source material to pay tribute in this way, and that’s something money can’t buy. And when obsessiveness leads one to denigrate anything outside your narrow interests, that’s the worst lesson one can take away. I still vividly remember one of the worst reviews I had ever read:

“Endless Ocean gives you a sailboat and a stretch of the South Pacific to explore at 10 fathoms. What it doesn’t give you is danger, conflict, enemies, a story, obstacles a health bar, bosses… you know, game stuff.”

“Your goal here ultimately is to catalog as many fish as you can get in petting distance, stopping along the way to give dive tours to tourists who want in on the hot fin-petting action. And if that sounds more like work than a game, then bingo”

I should let you know that the deep sea is one of my richest fascinations. As you go down further into its dark depths, the more the creatures there exhibit appearances and behaviours that even science fiction could never imagine. For crying out loud, there’s an octopus that can accurately mimic other animals to avoid predators! And the vast majority of people could never visit the abyss due to its extreme water pressure, so getting to live this dream through a video game would still be an amazing experience. But nope, it doesn’t follow the typical game template, so who cares about all that? This philistine attitude is sadly all too common; not only confining oneself within a box, but denigrating those that dare to explore beyond.

But don’t let that stop you. It doesn’t take a writer to appreciate the splendor of the world and human condition, but it does take an open mind. And while this entry focused on the power of imagination with respect to writing fantasy, this message applies to anyone.



New blog feature: It Doesn’t Suck!

Published September 12, 2015 by immaterialideal

What is this?

This is a blog series in which I take on a widely despised media work and argue in its defense; emphasizing the good, or at least redeemable aspects of a movie, TV show, video game, etc.

Why am I doing this?

Because Internet personalities mocking things (e.g. Angry Video Game Nerd) are a dime a dozen on the Internet, but series defending things are much rarer. Still, people tend to root for the underdog, and that’s why the main characters of Ace Attorney are on the defense while prosecutors tend to be the antagonists. My goal is not necessarily to change people’s minds, but I hope at least people will see things from a different perspective. I am convinced that there’s no one-size-fits-all measure of quality, but it depends largely on how well a media piece resonates with a person’s lived experience. In other words, not bad, but misunderstood. Also, it’s precisely because of the fun of defending things that I often find controversial media more interesting than popular media, and I learned a lot from reading people arguing in favour of things I don’t care for.

At the same time, I understand why media prosecutors tend to be more common. It’s cathartic to rip into something terrible, and I know that as a bad movie fan. Prosecution is easier because it is more often aligned with popular opinion. Also, it’s easy to dig up obscure bad things to review, but defending things is unsustainable for a series because eventually, you run out of stuff you feel passionate about. Still, there are a lot of bad “angry” critics out there, and often, exaggerating the negative makes you look like an asshole (Confused Matthew is the best example of that). Even AVGN has lost appeal over time since James Rolfe ended up being a more likable character as his humble self. So I guess part of this is trying to bring a more positive balance to the Internet Force or something.

What am I not doing?

Stuff I enjoy because of their flaws rather than in spite of them: e.g. Plan 9 from Outer Space, Neil LaBute’s The Wicker Man.

Devil’s advocate entries. The intent is to be sincere, so I’m not going to attempt making The Star Wars Holiday Special look good.

Things that do not have a sufficient level of backlash against them. In other words, if I cannot verify “Wait, X is hated?” then it doesn’t count.

Things in which I have nothing new to add. In other words, things which I can simply link to someone else’s article and call it a day.

Things which I like, but generally agree with the criticism, including the redeeming aspects. For instance, my enjoyment of the Star Wars prequels pretty much boils down to “Palpatine,” and that’s hardly an uncommon opinion.

Suggestions. I need to have a personal history with something in order to defend it. That being said, everyone is free to write their own reviews.

What am I planning to feature?

Tentatively, and not in chronological order:

Cardcaptors (the Nelvana dub)

Glen or Glenda (Yes, the Ed Wood movie)

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the live-action movie; Christmas special)

The Nightmare on Elm Street sequels (Halloween special; also, RIP Wes Craven; his original movie was responsible for converting me into a horror fan)

Pokémon (the main anime)


Yeah, short list, but the conditions above filtered out a lot of things. I may add more things as I think of them.

Future direction of the blog

Published August 28, 2015 by immaterialideal

Been a while since I wrote in this thing. Part of it was because I was having trouble deciding on what kind of blog I wanted it to be. For my early posts, I wrote a lot of sociopolitical stuff, but truth be told, I’m kind of burned on that. Eventually, you end up coming off as a broken record, or worse, it makes you more bitter and vindictive. I’ll still be writing about that when I feel like it, since the election’s coming up, and also because issues such as cyberstalking (most prominently with the Amanda Todd case) don’t get the attention they deserve, but I resolve to be more constructive from here on out. That’s going to be challenging to keep, since deep resentment towards my suburban upbringing tends to lurk into my posts, especially some of my more vindictive ones, but I’m trying to get better at avoiding stereotyping and dropping grudges. I’m not deleting anything, since it’s a personal blog, but I’ve had changes of heart regarding some of my posts. For instance, I realized some things such as oil pipeline protests transcend political boundaries, and individual situations can’t be simply classified as liberal/conservative/socialist/etc. Meeting people in campaigns and protests makes a difference for your political views, as solving real-world problems necessitates being more pragmatic.

Also, I have other interests, and I feel emphasizing politics too much tends to make those topics look frivolous in comparison. Yeah, I know any field with celebrities such as Rob Ford and Donald Trump can’t be too serious, but I feel that going from Ferguson to children’s cartoons tends to alienate people who aren’t adapted to such a tonal shift. Sure, I treat it as my diary, but it’s still out in the open for people to read. Though being under-the-radar has the perk of making topic transitions easier, since I don’t have the baggage that comes with being scrutinized as a celebrity. In any case, I prefer the freedom of not being locked into any particular subject, so the blog can better reflect my thoughts.

Speaking of that, I have been wanting to get into writing stories, hence that Fake Geek Girl Adventures thing. The idea came to me partly from being inspired by Elizabeth Simins’ personal story in Manic Pixel Dream Girl, and consequently, wanting to do a pseudo-adaptation of that story. Also, I wanted to give Fake Geek Girl a name, to show that there’s an actual person on the face of that meme (would be interesting to meet the girl in the photo someday). Originally, I envisioned her as someone who tends to make witty comebacks at those questioning her credentials, but in the end, Stacy turned out to be more of a Disney protagonist, not only because it better fit the Manic Pixel Dream Girl story, but because I felt she was more relatable that way (kind of like how Po from Kung Fu Panda was originally conceived as arrogant, but Jack Black made him more innocent for the final movie). She still got to reference Sonic the Hedgehog, though. I may write a full commentary at some point, especially because it would be interesting to bring the story to life on the stage (if I ever get a clue of idea of how to get started with producing such a thing).

I have one other story planned for Stacy and friends, but other than that, I would be interested in seeing other people write Fake Geek Girl stories, with Fake Geek Girl being a title rather than referring to any one person. I’m not sure what people thought of this story, but I felt it was a good starting point experience-wise, and I have a few other ideas floating around waiting to be written.

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