Tag Archives: acting

Why superheroes anyway?

So this afternoon my dear friend and I were jawing at length about a wide range of topics, as we’re both wont to do – I have a dreadful habit of digressing from an original subject onto a sequence of tangential topics, each one related to the last but altogether forming a flimsy daisy-chain that can take a conversation parsecs away from the original subject. And she has a habit of letting me do so. (One of the many things I’m grateful for in my very best friends is this tolerance of my ridiculous digressions.) I’m not entirely sure how it is our conversation came to alight on the topic of superhero movies in particular, but such was the subject we found ourselves nattering about. Part of the conversation came from my personal state of had-it-up-to-here-ness with the fulminant rash of superhero movies that have erupted all over the Western cinema over the last ten years. If it’s not a Batman film, it’s a Captain America film, and if it’s not Captain America it’s Spiderman, and if not Spiderman it’s Thor, or the Hulk, or Wonder Woman, or Superman, or the Green Lantern, or Deadpool, or Aquaman, or Iron Man, or some ensemble cast outing in the form of the Avengers, or the X-Men, or the Justice League, or the Suicide Squad, or the Guardians of the Galaxy. I’m not against any individual one of these superheroes as a storytelling vehicle – indeed, I’m quite the fan of the X-Men film franchise in particular – but I suppose I’m feeling rather inundated by the mêlée being waged between Marvel and DC in the last few years, a clash of titans in a duel with the chosen weapons of superhero films at ten paces. Recent cinematic releases that have piqued my interest or caught my fascination have been relatively few; the last few films I saw at the cinema were Star Trek: Beyond, The Hateful Eight, and (though not by specifically my selection) Kung Fu Panda 3. Trailers for the upcoming science-fiction offering Arrival (such as this one) are also spectacular and particularly tantalising – admittedly, I do love me a good alien invasion film, and the promise of a linguist as main character, combined with an examination of the challenges of establishing meaningful contact with an alien species and a hefty dose of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, seems a wonderful opportunity to mix good sci-fi with good hard science and philosophy in a way that one doesn’t see very often in cinema these days.

But I digress again. You’ve really got to get better at stopping me from this. Where was I? Superhero films. Yes. Well, my friend and I were discussing this societal outbreak of superheroism in the cinema, and considering what the appeal of this broad genre is to the masses, if it’s not simply about cashing in quickly and effectively on firmly-established franchises – with the release of Doctor Strange later this year, even Marvel alone will have been behind no less than 21 films in the last five years – or about allowing filmmakers to engage in scenery porn on the grand scale, à la Michael Bay, while not concerning themselves too deeply with the telling of a complicated or rich story, also à la Michael Bay. (And to be honest, I do suspect both of these factors are in play nevertheless. The irrepressible grinding of Fróði’s mill, churning out gold aplenty for its owner.) At first, I joked with my friend that people watch superhero movies to get a kick out of watching awesome people be awesome in someone else’s face, or watching the overcompensation of broken people (as most superheroes are in some way or another – Deadpool’s scarring, Batman’s daddy-and-mummy issues, Superman’s isolation as a Kryptonian among humans, the Green Lantern trying to recover from a disappointingly shithouse first movie). But then the thought hit us that perhaps the brokenness is a truly important aspect of what many people relate to in the superhero genre, broadly construed. Maybe there are some people who go to watch purely for the wacky shenanigans or for particular characterisations; for Bruce Wayne and Alfred’s repartee in various Batman incarnations, for Sir Patrick Stewart’s honey-gold baritone or Hugh Jackman’s irreverence in X-Men, to fawn over Bandicoot Crumplysnitch Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange.

(To disappear onto another tangent for a moment, what is it about Bumblewump Cambrian that people are so desperately enamoured with? He’s certainly a good actor, it’s true; his portrayal of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game was wonderful, I thought, and while his Smaug in The Hobbit trilogy was a little too campy to hold a candle to the Sméagol of Andy Serkis – whose failure to garner even one Oscar nomination for the role is, I believe, the greatest shame in the history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – Busticle Candygram’s dragon was nevertheless well portrayed. But still, I’ve seen roles in which his acting left me cold, such as his Khan in Star Trek: Into Darkness – or should I say, Star Trek II 2: Electric Boogaloo. In fairness, although I was grateful as always to see more tlhIngan Hol depicted on screen, fuckin’ J. J. Abrams and his fuckin’ lens flare are partly to blame for that for doing a blatant Wrath of Khan retread that neither needed to be nor should have been done, and even with great direction, Ricardo Montalbán is a hard Khan to follow. But the Khan of Into Darkness was a cold, implausible, cardboard cutout of a villain. Ultimately, I just don’t see the extraordinary actor in Bulbasaur Charizard that puts him so far above the rest. I’m sorry to all his fans for that. Anyway.)

But instead, what we came up with was a more serious idea: perhaps there are many people that go to superhero movies not to be entertained by watching awesome superheroes do awesome-superhero shit, but to watch broken people rise above their brokenness and use those very qualities that set them apart from society to do what they can towards making life better for the very society that they are separated from. This is one of the reasons I love the X-Men franchise so much: it’s focused very firmly on serving as allegory for people who are different, people who are ostracised for being strange and bizarre and threatening and dangerous, but who still work hard at using their peculiar set of talents to make the world a better place not only for those like them, but for all people. Do some people go to superhero movies for precisely this reason? To take their brokenness and their damage into the theatre and use them, subconsciously or no, to relate to the hero? To help them relate to the possibility that their own brokenness and their own damage may become a source of their own strength as well, if they can learn how to harness it? I can’t say that I know the answer to this question, but it strikes me as a thoroughly intriguing possibility, and gives a new perspective – that I hadn’t previously given thought to – on the value of the superhero movie as entertainment.

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22 Days of Musing: 21

21. It’s okay to not be okay.

Hoookay, folks; tonight’s reflection is going to be a relatively short one, I fear, as I’ve come down with a rather nasty case of cellulitis on and around my left elbow and resting it on the arm of the chair to type is causing it to ache rather unpleasantly. I’ve already been prescribed a good heavy dose of erythromycin, though, so don’t worry about me (at least, not until my arm turns black and falls off entirely – let’s try and avoid that, shall we?). Nonetheless, I’ve just found out that this week, from the 9th to the 15th of October, is National Mental Health Week, and focused upon the now-passed World Mental Health Day on the 10th. This is a week in which to reflect on mental health as a phenomenon, as an experience, as a burden, and try to ask ourselves what we can do or improve on to help both ourselves and others to move closer to a state of mental wellness, and I think it’s apposite, then, that I reflect on that. This kind of awareness campaign is incalculably valuable, I believe, because such a powerful stigma still exists even now against talking honestly about one’s less-than-ideal state of mental health in a public arena. People are in varying degrees content to ask a friend how their treatment for cancer is going, how their broken arm is mending, whether their cold has cleared off; but when it comes to mental illnesses like depression and schizophrenia and PTSD, we really lack the cultural ability and social framework within which to engage with those kinds of conversations. There’s a feeling pervading almost every niche of society, even now in 2016, that feeling mentally ill is still something that it’s proper manners to keep the fuck to yourself, as tightly wrapped as a pharaonic mummy – to the point where I even found myself apologising to my psychiatrist when I burst into tears during my last session with her. Prima facie, this should be completely ridiculous, the idea of apologising to the very person I should be opening my feelings to for the very act of opening my feelings to her in what felt to a part of my brain like it was an excessive, if not outright shameful, manner. I fight this feeling every day, battling hard to maintain a matter-of-fact attitude towards my own mental illness (while not being cavalier, of course) when I discuss my health issues with others. Awareness campaigns of the sort we’re seeing in the National Mental Health Week give me great heart for this reason. It’s one thing for me to model the kind of approaches I’d like to see when it comes to engaging with mental illness more generally (and even here I’ve been told at times that I share too much, that it’ll hurt my future career prospects, that it’ll scare people away from me, et cetera – ironically, mostly by an ex-partner who herself was at the time suffering from rather serious mental health issues that were at the time going undiagnosed and untreated), but having the backup of organisational-level efforts like National Mental Health Week, the It’s Okay To Say (If You Don’t Feel Okay), and the R U OK? campaigns to normalise the discussion of mental illness in public is truly cheering for me. It’s a big public display of support for the mentally ill in general, and for me in particular it helps to reinforce the small, serene voice in my head that tries so very hard to convince me that I’m allowed to speak up while being constantly drowned out by the other voice in my head, the shouty Don Rickles-impersonating motherfucker on the megaphone. So if I can make a request of you, dear reader, I’d ask that you please do something this National Mental Health Week to show your support for those with mental illness, even if all that is is to ask a suffering friend if they’re okay, and listen without prejudice. And if it’s you that’s suffering, please look to those around you to try and start building a support network. There’s a wonderful quote I like from, of all places, Tumblr; some time ago, a user going by the alias tahtahtahtia posted this to their Tumblr blog, which I reproduce here verbatim.

today my anthro professor said something kindof really beautiful:
“you all have a little bit of ‘I want to save the world’ in you,

that’s why you’re here, in college.
I want you to know that it’s okay if you only save one person,
and it’s okay if that person is you”
– tahtahtahtia

Erdős, Bacon, Sabbath

It can often be challenging for me to come up with positive, funny, or at least interesting ideas to write about out of the blue, but after a rather extensive conversation and some laughs with my brother a few days ago about the concept of an Erdős-Bacon-Sabbath (EBS) number, I think I might ramble about that. It’s deep, deep into extreme nerd territory, don’t get me wrong, but such geekery gives me pleasure in some ways. Perhaps it has something to do with the passion for seeing large-scale relationships that drives me to continue my work in the field of archæology (and I’ll write more about that in future posts): drawing connections between small and superficially disparate pieces of information, gathering seemingly unrelated trivia together until a beautiful, regular system of correspondences and linkages rises out of what was a featureless sea of data, like suddenly having the hidden sailboat appear from the fractalesque background of a Magic Eye poster. The idea of the Erdős-Bacon-Sabbath number also gives me a small feeling that I’ve achieved something worthy of generating a degree of self-confidence on the one hand, and on the other, a feeling that I’m connected to a much larger network of humanity, all living their own lives and doing sometimes extraordinary things themselves. I’ll talk more about that presently.

For what the EBS number is, essentially, is a cross between an objective metric of the small-world phenomenon, a complicated Internet scavenger hunt, and the party game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon; it’s this last part that’ll allow me, hopefully, to explain what the EBS number is. If you’re not familiar with the game, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon is based on the supposed idea that Kevin Bacon turns up not only as a lead, but as a supporting actor or indeed bit part, in so many movies. The goal of the original game is to pick a screen actor, at random, and attempt to build a chain linking that actor – in six steps or less – to Kevin Bacon, via films in which actors have collaborated. So to take Jennifer Aniston as an example, a chain you might be able to come up with is something like this:

Link 1: Jennifer Aniston was in Leprechaun with Warwick Davis. (Yes, really.)
Link 2: Warwick Davis was in Willow with Val Kilmer.
Link 3: Val Kilmer was in The Saint with Elisabeth Shue.
Link 4: Elisabeth Shue was in Hollow Man with Kevin Bacon.

You can make shorter or longer chains, naturally – Jennifer Aniston and Kevin Bacon appeared together in Picture Perfect – but the ideal with the game is that you’re doing it based upon movie trivia you personally know, and that you construct the chain to be as short as possible without relying on a search engine or the like. (My brothers and I have particular fun with this game, although usually what we do is challenge each other with a pair of random names, and attempt then to link the two to each other, not necessarily to or via Kevin Bacon. It’s a great trivia challenge, if you’re a bit of a movie buff or have a good memory for names and faces, as I’m fortunate to do.) So what the Bacon number is, in essence, is the lowest possible number of links in such a chain. I won’t bore you with too much more detail, except to note that the Erdős number is essentially the same thing within mathematical and scientific research (where the measurement is of co-author partnerships), and the Sabbath number the same again, but within the field of music (where the measurement is of performance collaborations). So it goes without saying that to have even a single one of these numbers to be defined as finite – an Erdős number, a Bacon number, or a Sabbath number – is rather uncommon; such a number is a sign of having done at least something within a field (mathematics or science research, screen acting, and performance music, respectively), and a sign also of a degree of connectedness within one of those fields, of forming a relationship that adds to a much wider network of interaction between fellow researchers, actors, or musicians (for instance, my brother, through the fortune of some televised work with a top-flight Australian show choir, has both Bacon and Sabbath numbers: 4 and 5, respectively). So by adding one’s Erdős number to one’s Bacon and Sabbath numbers, the result is an Erdős-Bacon-Sabbath number, and to have a finite one is exceedingly rare.

I, however, do have one. It’s no more than 14; a shorter chain might be calculable, but 14 is the same as Douglas Adams’s and I’m reasonably happy with that (the lowest known is 7, and an EBS number below 10 is exceptionally rare even among those who have them). Without going into the fine and tedious details here of who published with who, suffice it to say that through my archæological publications I have an Erdős number of 7. While playing baritone saxophone for the Stage Band back in high school, I had the great good fortune to have a performance and masterclasses with the great jazz musician Don Burrows for a Sabbath number of 4. And finally, I played a featured extra in a pilot for a short film series called Chill Factor, a series of short psychological thrillers, back in the early 2000s – it never got off the ground, so unfortunately you can’t find info online any longer – but I acted opposite Aash Aaron, a Gold Coast actor and acting coach (quite a lovely person, too; he gave me his card and suggested I call him if I was thinking about taking acting further), for a Bacon number of 3.

Actually, that gives me some pause to reminisce about that time a little. Because I was taking a dual degree and consequently took classes across several distinct disciplines, I made few true friends during my first few years of undergraduate study; consequently that time was one during which I was entirely uncertain about myself, about where I wanted my interests to develop, where I felt my skills lay, or what I felt my passions were, and while I had high school friends who were of course wonderful, I didn’t have very many other people with whom I could diversify my interests. I’d always been interested in culture and languages, but have been intrigued for many years by a range of subjects both diverse and peculiar. I dabbled in both gemmology and vulcanology when I was in primary school, for crying out loud. In high school I played music – guitar, clarinet, baritone sax – and upon finding the school Stage Band, whose focus was more jazzy and swing than the Symphonic Band, finally I was able to settle upon something that I found true joy in (and thereby earned myself a Sabbath number, to boot; we had a lot of good times, the Stage Band, and I’ll talk more about those in future posts as well). Once I left school, though, the first years of my university career were a period of some discovery and exploration of myself, at least in some small ways; I did many different things, sampling this and that. With this tiny foray into the incredibly vast and daunting film industry, by finding a ‘featured extra’ role advertised on a forum for budding actors, I sought to dip my toe into the water of something entirely new and different, and determine whether it was something I enjoyed enough to pursue as an extracurricular activity. And I confess, my failure to continue with it had very little to do with an absence of enjoyment. The single evening of filming, quickly though it passed and minor though my part was, was a thrill and a joy, one that stands clearly out in my mind even now. The faces of Tony Teulan, the director, of Aash who I shared my scene with, of the female lead Tiziana Simonelli, I would still recognise even if I passed them in the street today. I simply had insufficient money at the time to own a car, felt guilty about asking my parents to ferry me to acting opportunities when payment was unlikely, and consequently never went further in that sphere.

But nonetheless, it always brings me pleasure to remember that one night; as I mentioned before, even if it is little more than a dip of the toe into a deep and turbulent ocean of an industry, it was something entirely new, utterly outside of my usual experience, in a new and unfamiliar place with new and fascinating people doing something new and creative that gave me new and lasting enjoyment. Such is it also with the knowledge of my finite Erdős-Bacon-Sabbath number. To me, in a single integer score it serves as a reflection of some of the diverse experiences my life has brought me, of a series of accomplishments in several fields that, though perhaps small from an objective viewpoint, still position me within a much larger network of researchers, actors, and musicians; within this network of people dedicated to their craft, it’s comforting to know I’ve still been able to contribute, to add my small tesseræ to a much larger mosaic of human experience and achievement. Though I’m particularly outstanding in none of the relevant fields, I still have a feeling of belonging to something greater because of the contributions the EBS number represents. And because of that, it does bring me a sense of cheer, and of accomplishment, however small.