Letting boys be boys: Trans misrepresentation in 3 Generations

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I watched and am about to discuss a mediocre coming-of-age transgender male dramedy that nobody saw so you don’t have to: Gaby Dellal’s 3 Generations.

Let’s get a couple things out in the open beforehand. First, I am a cis queer white male. I do not identify as trans and as a result have no authority to speak on what is or is not valid as a trans experience. I have been culturally conditioned to be transphobic and, despite my best efforts, will likely falter in one manner or another in my engagement with transgender representation. That said, I think that while this movie is worth critiquing, it isn’t something that any transguy should be subjected to. Trans male representation is so scarce to begin with and 3 Generations, good intentions aside, doesn’t add much to the canon with its reductive melodrama and paper-thin characterization. So I’d like to be here to wade through the trash in your stead.

Second, 3 Generations was widely and justifiably criticized for casting a cis woman, Elle Fanning, as the trans male lead protagonist Ray. The director cited as reason that Ray still looks like a cis girl because he is pre-transition. What that means for Ray, whether pre-testosterone, pre-top surgery, pre-bottom surgery, and how the film doesn’t get into that, is a problem in itself, but more to the point pre-transition transgender male teens exist. What’s more, pre-transition transgender male teen actors exist. The director said that the decision was made because they needed guaranteed stars for a small budget production like this, but that’s ignoring the buzz that a breakout trans star would cause. (Or not cause, it’s still the right thing to do and a risk worth taking.) Even if you kept the entire rest of the movie as is, I think trans communities would have rallied for 3 Generations a lot more. Because even if the content of the film rightly stands to face harsh critique, at least we know on a production level that their hearts were in the right place. Because at least on the casting level they would have had genuine trans representation.

As it stands, it was a mediocre movie that nobody saw and is now already mostly forgotten. I do believe that the filmmakers had good intentions in mind (though their refusal to listen to casting criticisms is infuriating), and in fact I would expect at least a handful of transgender teen boys to watch this and feeling validated. (Certainly more than the only other young transguy film I can think of, the brutal PSA announcement Boys Don’t Cry.) But praising such a dubiously progressive movie just because it could have been worse and just because it is one of the very slim offerings in trans cinema, that doesn’t mean it can get away with what it does. 3 Generations is an unsubtle coming-of-age film that tries to bring forward a message of wholesomeness and acceptance, but in getting there it manages to perpetuate a lot of deeply problematic gender and identity politics.

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Review – Harbinger Island by Dorian Dawes

2017-08-15 09_44_09-Amazon.com_ Harbinger Island eBook_ Dorian Dawes_ Kindle Store

Review by Bryan Cebulski (@BryanOnion)

Harbinger Island is available on Amazon Kindle for $6.95.

Recently I’ve felt that, as a critic, I have an obligation to approach critique differently when dealing with small-scale content. I know I should allow that people have thick skin and can handle criticism, but when the creator has a high chance of actually coming across my response to their work, my writing shouldn’t be as detached as it might be for a book printed by major publication. I want to be and know most creators would want me to be honest, even if that honesty means declaring that I didn’t enjoy the work. But on the other hand, I want these small-publication or indie creators to thrive and feel motivated. Even if I’m critical, I want it understood that if I’m taking the time to write an in-depth review of something, that means I feel deeply enough about it that I think it deserves attention, if not necessarily unanimous praise.

This in mind, I start by saying that I did not enjoy Harbinger Island by Dorian Dawes. Some parts worked better than others, but in its entirely it didn’t work for me. I thought the setting was underdeveloped, the atmosphere thus lacking. The short stories collectively working into one larger narrative arc didn’t work for me either (though to be fair I haven’t been thrilled with this structure in any novel, as with Lovecraft Country and Everfair). The writing felt in-your-face when it should have felt subdued. There was little mounting tension. I liked the characters but wasn’t convinced by their dialogue and behavior.

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Sumiko Saulson’s Black Women in Horror Writing #21: Valjeanne Jeffers

Mona Livelong

Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective by Valjeanne Jeffers

Review by Bryan Cebulski (@BryanOnion)

I think too often we expect our books to be extraordinary. We expect them to play with genre in unexpected ways, to subvert our expectations of language and narrative. To tell something inimitable in a way that no one has ever told it before. This is a noble goal for a writer, but if you establish it as the basis for your concept of quality, you risk losing sight of why people love stories for their familiarity, their ordinariness.

Generic books can be a joy to read precisely because they don’t defy expectations, because they play our comfortable narrative straight. It’s why we read Stephen King novel after Stephen King novel, Agatha Christie after Agatha Christie, James Patterson after James Patterson. How many Dresden Files novels follow the same structure? Discworld? These books aren’t the ones we reach for when we want to broaden our intellectual depth—sometimes we just want a great story.

Works likes these by and featuring minorities are something of a scarcity though, which is an important (if not central) aspect of Valjeanne Jeffers’ first Mona Livelong novel. It should be appreciated as the straightforward piece of genre fiction that it is, but also acknowledged for filling the lack of representation in these kinds of books. It doesn’t do anything too extraordinary but adjust the identity focus. Instead of the predominant white male perspective, we have a supernatural detective tale featuring a black woman. Throughout my reviews in this series I’ve mostly latched most onto what these authors do differently, how they play with and subvert genre expectations. But Mona Livelong reminds me of the value in making fun, simple, straightforward genre novels.

Valjeanne Jeffers’ Mona Livelong advertises itself as a steamfunk horror novel. A story about the eponymous paranormal detective solving, well, paranormal mysteries, the novel has much in common with what we might classify as urban fantasy. Set in an alternate history where the United States has truly divided into two countries post-Civil War, the “steamfunk” trappings are mostly contained to the setting’s aesthetic shell: Livelong’s bodice-centric wardrobe and the quirky locations she finds herself in, mostly. Livelong has two intertwining cases to take on in this book: A haunted house and three connected murders. The novel features ghosts, violence, mysteries, voodoo, psychic powers—all the stuff one expects and hopes for in a horror-mystery narrative.

The plot, again, isn’t the most mind-blowing thing in the world, but entertaining exactly because of its familiar tropes. The shift in identity causes some welcome thematic and character development adjustments, and these are all for the better—subtle variations on tropes remind us of how to revitalize said tropes. I’m reminded of Alan Yang’s Critic’s Choice TV acceptance speech for Master of None, where he states: “Thank you to all the straight white guys who dominated movies and TV so hard, and for so long, that stories about anyone else seem kind of fresh and original. Because you guys crushed it for so long, anything else seems kind of different.” So it is with Mona Livelong. It’s a straightforward urban fantasy novel in a lot of ways, but gives off a different vibe due to its centering of “anyone else”.

This book has typos, has pacing issues, but that is almost beside the point because it’s good at simply being enjoyable. It has a compelling, reasonably interesting plot that is familiar enough to breeze through but not predictable enough to be boring. It isn’t a big publisher book, so much of the writing’s downfalls can be chalked up to a lack of intensive editing.

It’s far from perfect, but it could be exactly the sort of entertainment someone out there is looking for. Again, the importance of representation in James Patterson-tier novels is just as important as it is for the high literary canon. Many out there need to read pulp novels with black women protagonists, whether as a source of reflection for black women or for the realization of some white man going “Oh, I didn’t know black women liked steampunk too.” Mona Livelong isn’t sophisticated because it doesn’t need to be—it’s simply pleasurable.

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Sumiko Saulson’s Black Women in Horror Writing #20: L. Marie Wood

Crescendo

Crescendo: Welcome Home, Death Awaits by L. Marie Wood

Review by Bryan Cebulski (@BryanOnion)

L. Marie Wood’s Crescendo: Welcome Home, Death Awaits is a “spiral into insanity” story. Its protagonist James is dealing with an ancestral curse, either paranormal affliction or mental illness (or both). He is wracked with paranoia and instability since the strange death of his best friend Peter’s wife, Susan, with whom he had a longstanding affair. James’ wife, Andrea, is caring but increasingly fearful of James’ volatile behavior. As if this were not enough, after revealing the truth to Peter, who knew all along but kept his feelings under close guard, Peter becomes bitter and vengeful toward James. Soap opera exchanges of allegiances and resentment occur between the three in the novel’s more grounded plotline. Meanwhile, James is experiencing increasingly horrific, gory flashbacks from his father’s past and seeing disturbed visions of what may be an inescapable destiny.

My view of Crescendo is that it is A) well-written insofar as good prose is concerned, but B) could have been about 50 pages long. I had to skim a great deal of this novel simply because very little actually happens for a great deal of it. The story doesn’t so much progress as go back and forth, between those chaotic bloody passages and the soap opera love triangle, and little of substance develops between the two until the very end.

The characters are just flat, which wouldn’t have been a problem if, again, the novel had been significantly shorter. Peter, in particular, has quasi-sympathetic motivations but becomes something of a cartoon villain in his actions. Andrea doesn’t really do much but offer a connection through which the two men tug-o-war, more plot device than character. James has the most backstory, but not much sense of personality. He’s more of an onlooker, someone to whom things happen rather than someone who makes things happen.

I really enjoyed the establishment of the plot in Crescendo. The mystery of what the hell is going on with James is compelling, his visions are creepy, and the suburban erotic problems just enough of a complementary conflict to James’ insanity that it works. I just don’t think it was executed as well as it might have been. The novel just goes on and on without much plot development. Bits and pieces of the secret behind James’ curse-thing are revealed, when they could have been dropped in much more quick succession and gained a lot more plot momentum as a result. It felt like L. Marie Wood was uncertain about how to proceed with the novel, perhaps unconfident in making a huge shift in the story’s rhythm, and so kept things going pretty much on a flat repeat till the finale.

The writing is again quite good, repetitious though it may be. About the first 25-30% of the novel I was wholly absorbed. Shame then that it lost me from there, made it a struggle to proceed. Not enough changed. We started with marital strife and creepy visions and continued to get marital strife and creepy visions. These plotlines didn’t interweave and complicate. Rather, it was James going back and forth between being sympathetic and losing his mind, some show of Andrea being worried, and Peter being broody and violently resentful of James. Too much of the novel just ran with this cycle of moods and thought bubbles with minimal progress toward anything.

I’d love to check out L. Marie Wood’s short fiction (in fact, her piece in the black horror fiction anthology Dark Dreams, edited by Brandon Massey, is fantastic), because when this novel was superb only when it didn’t overstay its welcome. It just didn’t bring enough to keep my attention for a full length novel.

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The Evil Within was undone by its nonsense setting

2017-04-05 14_48_43-The Evil Within Walkthrough Gameplay Part 1 - Psychobreak (PS4) - YouTube

The Evil Within is a worthier successor to Resident Evil 4 than 5 and 6, but I wouldn’t say it’s actually a good game. Not at all actually. Despite all the years between the two, everything TEW does RE4 did better. The narrative pacing is absolutely wacked. Giant swaths of the gameplay are straight-up ripped from RE4 with little elaboration, innovation, or deviation (that whole town section near the beginning especially). The upgrades/leveling system adds little to your sense of character progression. And really, the game throws so many batshit instadeath scenarios at you wall-to-wall it’s hard to feel that you’re getting any stronger, unlike how it felt gathering your arsenal in RE4.

The thing that bothers me most about The Evil Within doesn’t have much to do with how it plays, though. Like, there’s nothing inherently wrong with finding a formula that works and running with it. It’s not going to be as revolutionary or even as fun as the first to pull that formula off, but, hey, people like familiar things.

2017-04-05 14_49_24-The Evil Within Walkthrough Gameplay Part 2 - Remnants (PS4) - YouTube

I think a more insidious but important part of the Evil Within works to its detriment: Its setting. Or lack thereof. You never really feel connected to anywhere you get thrown into in The Evil Within. It all feels like a set of random setpieces, cliches and tropes, without a lot of cohesive thought behind what leads one to the next. With no history or connective tissue between any of the game’s various levels, The Evil Within fails to offer the player a sense that they’re present within the game. It makes it so hard to care about learning more.

The Evil Within uses a great deal of old time-y generic insane asylum imagery throughout the game, much the same as what we see in a game like Outlast or the film Grave Encounters. It’s sprinkled throughout the loading screens, the safe area where you save and power up. But in the actual game, the asylum setting doesn’t last very long. It starts beautifully, with a trio of cops out to investigate a crime at the local city mental hospital. It’s rainy, there are cop car blue-and-red lights flickering, and it is eerily absent of people despite dozens of cars around. Inside, the hospital a bloody mess. A bit too much too fast, but okay. Then our mystery antagonist sees us through a security cam, teleports to our location, and flings us into a nonsense nightmare that lasts the entire rest of the game.

2017-04-05 14_50_52-The Evil Within Walkthrough Gameplay Part 5 - The Sadist Chainsaw Boss (PS4) - Y

You never get a sense of place in The Evil Within, which takes away from both the player’s enjoyment and the scare factor. The imagery and the creatures all just kind of become filters, not adding anything to each locale’s lore or history, because there isn’t any per se. Again, no connection. The first sequence, for instance, in which you are escaping from a chainsaw wielding maniac, barely makes any sense as a place. Does this dude live here? Does he actually have a backstory or did he just come into existence? Why does he hang you up before chopping you up? In addition to how the gore and violence are turned up to such an extreme that it barely registers, there’s this sense that you’re playing through horror movie scenarios with absolutely no context. From here you jump back to the city, to a pueblo/fortress sorta place (again ripped straight out of RE4), to various bizarre crypts, urban buildings drenched in blood and random traps, a decrepit mansion, anachronistic medieval castles with modern-ish machinery, etc. etc. After a while I have to ask: Why am I here? Why am I supposed to care?

The story eventually explains why things are so chaotic and mismatched, but it doesn’t really matter. Again, there’s no cohesion from one place to the next. The damage is done because we’ve already spent most of the game with no connection to where we are. Characters, sure, but not location. There’s no significance to where you are, so it’s tough to feel compelled to explore, to learn anything.

The Evil Within is more confident in what it wants to be than Resident Evil 6 was, but not by much. RE6 didn’t know what kind of a game it wanted to be, where to focus the scares and where to focus the combat, how to incorporate both those elements, and thus ended up gluing four mediocre games together. The Evil Within knew it wanted to be a loosely more freaky RE4 clone, a return to true “horror” horror, but it failed to pin down its setting. And while this lack of a definite setting doesn’t make the game completely fall apart entirely, it’s still the biggest lost opportunity for me. The thing I couldn’t really forgive the developers for dropping the ball on.

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Wandering the horror hotel of Galerians

2017-04-01 14_17_19-[Walkthrough] Galerians (PS1 & German) [(#Part 14)] - YouTube

Galerians is a 1999 PSX survival-horror game. It is bizarre in the greatest ways, embracing the more wacky elements of 90s Japanese cyberpunk and taking advantage of its graphical limitations to make it as uncanny and stylish as possible (a la Hell Night). It tells the story of Rion, a young boy who wakes in a research hospital with no memory. He has visions of a girl and hears her calling out his name. With no other option in the mix, he elects to seek out this girl. He soon learns that he has telekinetic powers, and uses these to escape from the dangerous people keeping him hostage in the hospital. Rion soon learns that his captors have something to do with a great scientific project to breed a powerful psychically-powered human evolution known as Galerians. What’s more, he may likely be a Galerian himself.

It’s a mishmash of a game as a whole, with repetitive corridors and unfair deaths, short but feeling like a chore to finish. The telekinetic combat is unique for survival-horror, but in practice it is woefully clunky, especially aggravating in the boss battles. Yet Galerians also has some of the most original setpieces I’ve seen in survival-horror. The dreary world, which we only see in glimpses, is so delightfully strange. You don’t meet a single ordinary, non-deranged human the entire game. Everything is technologized yet nothing seems to really work. It’s a Blade Runner universe in sharp decline. The late 90s CG shines with this kind of universe.

Nowhere is this atmosphere more evident than the game’s 3rd chapter, which places you in what might be videogames’ strangest hotel level. By this point in the game, Rion has discovered that not only is he part of the Galerians breeding project, but that the other Galerians are hunting him down. You’ve already fought off one, Birdman, in the 2nd chapter. But here you are facing two more. They track you down soon after you arrive at the hotel.

2017-04-01 14_17_33-[Walkthrough] Galerians (PS1 & German) [(#Part 14)] - YouTube

Just an ordinary hotel room with a well-adjusted resident.

Thing is, the only time Rion actually runs into these villainous Galerians is near the end, when you actually fight them. Before that, you go back and forth between the multiple levels of the hotel, talking with the hotel’s various guests, collecting info and solving puzzles. There’s a depressed ballerina, a Jesus freak, a man bent on blowing up the building, and an arms dealer, to name just a few.

2017-04-01 14_20_15-[Walkthrough] Galerians (PS1 & German) [(#Part 17)] - YouTube

After running back and forth a number of times, the horror at last begins. It’s a slightly tedious but overall satisfyingly creepy experience. As you go from room to room, you slowly begin to discover each of the hotel’s off-kilter residents brutally murdered in their rooms. Even the hotel staff don’t get out alive. Using your psychic powers, you can get a glimpse of the act of each killing. You get a snapshot of the Galerians hunting you, but again you don’t actually see them until much later. This process goes on until every single resident and employee has become a victim.

This whole section in Galerians is unusual for a survival-horror game. For one, there is little fighting going on. Enemies start to appear in the hallways and in a couple rooms, but only gradually and in small numbers. For the most part, it’s just going back and forth between the hotel’s many rooms. In this way it reminds me of P.T. or one of its many derivatives, an early version of the stripped-down horror game, minimalist in mechanics but heavily relying upon environmental interaction.

2017-04-01 14_18_28-[Walkthrough] Galerians (PS1 & German) [(#Part 15)] - YouTube

2017-04-01 14_20_34-[Walkthrough] Galerians (PS1 & German) [(#Part 17)] - YouTube

2017-04-01 14_20_57-[Walkthrough] Galerians (PS1 & German) [(#Part 17)] - YouTube

It’s not a perfect section, to be fair. As mentioned before, it’s tedious. The unexpected arrival of enemies – many of which are unavoidable encounters – can result in numerous gameovers due to the game just not warning you of the sudden gear switch. But really, how often does something like this happen in survival-horror games of its era? The only thing that comes close is perhaps small events in the Silent Hill series, light interaction feints or creepy but safe areas that disrupt the flow of puzzle-solving and abomination-killing. But these aren’t quite as drawn out as what happens in the hotel in Galerians.

The 3rd chapter of Galerians was an admirable attempt to do something different in a survival-horror game in the late-90s, where everything was nearly 100% resource management and puzzles. Galerians decided to cut out of chunk of its ~5 hour length to send you through a darkly comedic, psychotic hotel tour. A similar, elaborated-upon technique would later come to dominate horror games with the blow-up of Amnesia: The Dark Descent and other similar titles, who have stripped down horror game interaction to its simplest elements and highlighted environmental storytelling and exploration instead. It was a unique little experiment in Galerians itself, and it’s interesting to look back and trace the history, to see how the ideas behind this section have blown up into an entire genre of “walking sim” horror games.

Check out this part of the game on this Youtube walkthrough here.

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Review – Human Acts by Han Kang

Human Acts Han Kang

I have never understood the idea that structure could somehow supersede content in writing. The two can work in tandem (a la Pynchon) of course, but I just can’t get behind praising a work’s structure if it’s still otherwise weak. Han Kang’s Human Acts is far from a bad book, but it seems to me like something you can’t totally appreciate if you don’t appreciate structure above content.

Human Acts is an introspective take on the Gwangju Uprising, a South Korean student movement in 1980 in the city of Gwangju. During this revolt, city residents took up arms in response to South Korean troops firing at, brutalizing and killing Jeonnam University students demonstrating against the government. Kang’s novel is then historical fiction – as it describes the plights of many fictional but representative individuals involved in the uprising. At the center of the novel is Dong-ho, whose narrative takes place in the first chapter of the novel, which is itself told in a unique second-person POV. Dong-ho is killed, and the reverberations of the “human acts” of killing and being killed temper the minds of the rest of the novel’s POV characters. There is an editor struggling against censorship demands, Dong-ho’s friend, Dong-ho’s mother, a prisoner and a factory worker. Each character offers a different perspective, in a different storytelling style, painting a cruel and tragic picture of the Gwangju Uprising.

Truth be told I could only make it halfway through this novel, up to the end of the editor’s chapter. Now, as just described there’s demonstrably good content here. A worthwhile historical subject and an author who, as a South Korean woman, has a cultural as well as personal impetus behind writing about it. But as a reader I found it difficult to engage with. To get to the heart of it. The structure of the story isn’t even that experimental, but I often found myself distracted by the writing itself. It felt overly lyrical and verbose when it should have been crass and blunt. The images of burned corpses and dried sweat and misery and oppression really didn’t come through to me at all. Which took something away from the experience for me. Many readers describe the book as “unflinching” or “brutal” or other similar adjectives, but I couldn’t really get where they were coming from. The actual historical event upon which the book is based was certainly brutal, tragic, etc, and any sincerely committed historical account of it ought to be unflinching in its gruesome detail, but the novel itself? Maybe I’m desensitized (I thought large swaths of Blood Meridian were more tedious than horrific, to be fair), but I don’t think the novel itself communicated well the full horrible range of emotions that the uprising brought to light.

It felt like there was a dissonance between content and structure here that I think you could cast aside more easily if the way one writes is just as important to you as what one writes about. Which I feel like a lot of “literary” readers can do, but I can’t personally get a handle on. Historical fiction as a genre in general is fraught for me though, as I tend to read and then wonder why I shouldn’t read a nonfiction historical account instead. I had similar issues with, for instance, Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc.

But maybe that isn’t quite it either. Human Acts is not originally in English, so the problem could very well come from the translation. The second-person narration in the first chapter, for example, was hard to read for me. At first I thought this was just because it’s second-person, which is typically a little gawky. But I happened to have just finished reading Kiese Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, which has a very compelling essay told in the second-person. Laymon’s work was told in his voice despite being second-person, and it really allowed you to get into his head. Something likely got lost in translation here, because I don’t think the same can be said of Dong-ho. Maybe it felt more personal in Korean, but here all I could sense was a literary author or translator trying to play with structure. Which just didn’t affect me the way it seems to affect many other readers.

 

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