Five Things I Love about… The Nightmare Before Christmas

Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is one of my very favorite Disney films. It is without question my favorite Burton film, only Corpse Bride and Ed Wood (and maybe Beetlejuice, though I haven’t seen that one in years) offering it any serious competition. And it’s a Halloween tradition for my husband and me. This year we watched our Blu-Ray with the commentary turned on, and we heard auteur-producer Burton note that of all the movies he’s made, this is the most widely beloved, the one whose merchandise he is most often asked to sign. I might dislike some of what he’s done, but even if he’d made no other worthwhile film, he should still be remembered for this one.

My five favorite things about The Nightmare Before Christmas:

The songs. At least 50% of the movie’s running time consists of songs. Haters of musicals will want to stay away, but I’ve loved musicals nearly all my life, and while the melodies are hardly on a par with the best of Richard Rodgers or Jerome Kern, the songs do just what a good musical’s songs should do: illuminate character and advance plot. Each song is just what the story needs it to be. Which is my favorite? The tone-setting “This Is Halloween,” with its ominous driving beat of low strings? The exuberantly tongue-twisting “What’s This?”, inspired, as composer and lyricist Danny Elfman says in the commentary, by Gilbert and Sullivan? The yearning “Sally’s Song,” the emotional core of  the movie? “Kidnap the Sandy Claws,” with its sadistic black humor? “Oogie Boogie’s Song,” with its villainous jazzy swagger? You want me to choose? Nope. Can’t do it.

The look of the film. No “prerequisite” viewing is necessary to enjoy The Nightmare Before Christmas, but those who know a bit about the German Expressionist films of the 1920s should get a special kick out of the weird and wacky designs of Halloween Town, with its crooked twists and angles. By contrast, Christmas Town, into which our disillusioned Halloween hero Jack Skellington stumbles, is a riot of bright colors reminiscent of the happy Who-Ville of Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas — appropriate, since this movie offers an alternative take on Seuss’s story.

Jack Skellington. This movie asks its viewers to identify and sympathize with the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, whose job it is to terrify people and orchestrate all the nightmares and horrors associated with his holiday. Against all expectations, Jack turns out to be a charismatic and engaging hero. We can appreciate his weary boredom with his life, his longing for something new, as he sings in “Jack’s Lament.” Likewise, we share his child-like joy as he explores Christmas Town and believes he’s found just what he’s been missing (“I want it, oh, I want it,” he sing-spiels in “What’s This?”). We can see why the denizens of Halloween Town adore him, because we come to love him too. Yet Jack is unique among movie heroes in that, while we understand his zeal to claim Christmas for himself, we know he’s traveling a wrong path. We don’t want him to succeed. He can only triumph in the long run by failing to achieve his short-term goal.

Sally. Burton’s films are known for their unorthodox, innovative, often iconoclastic male leads, a class to which Jack belongs. Yet the heroines in his films, with the notable exceptions of Emily in Corpse Bride and Lydia in Beetlejuice, tend to be cast as the representatives of convention, regrettably dull and passive. Sally, however, is a Tim Burton heroine I can actually love. True, she does represent “convention” to a degree, but it’s a Halloween Town kind of convention that’s automatically quirky. She’s a ragdoll created by a mad scientist, and she can break herself apart and stitch herself back together when the need arises. She loves Jack, worshiping him from afar, but while a lesser heroine might say, “My man, right or wrong,” when he forges ahead with his plans to take over Christmas, she challenges him and tries to thwart him. What I love most about Sally isn’t so much that she’s the voice of reason as that you won’t find an inch of Quit in all her stitching. Like Jack, she craves freedom and new experiences, and she escapes on a regular basis from the scientist who would like to keep her prisoner. When one plan fails, she comes up with another. She does need rescuing at the climax, but by then she has solidly established herself as an active heroine. She only finds herself in trouble because she alone has the sense and courage to try to rescue Santa Claus from Oogie Boogie’s lair.

The ending. In case anyone reading this blog hasn’t seen The Nightmare Before Christmas (what are you waiting for?), I’ll keep the details vague. I’ll just say this movie has what may be the most sweetly romantic final shot in any movie of its decade. Sigh.

I’ve heard the movie’s detractors complain that it sends a conventional, even reactionary message not to depart from the routine, not to try new things. I suppose if that’s the message you’re looking for, you’ll find it. But I see the movie as a redemption story. Only by departing from convention, by stepping out of the comfort zone that has become more burden than comfort, can Jack re-discover himself and come back home. Taking a risk, even if the risk brings about chaos and results in failure, can yield great rewards. Despite the scares, the movie’s conclusion is a happy one.

My Carolina Renaissance Festival Photo Album

In the wake of my recent blog in which I share my love for Renaissance festivals, I post some pictures my awesome husband took at the Carolina Renaissance Festival on Saturday, October 17.

CARF Entrance The entranceway. We got there just five minutes before the gate opened.

CARF Statue Self Here I am in my blue gown (courtesy of Holy Clothing.org) and cape (sadly can’t recall where I bought that).

CARF Matt and Angel Statue My husband, Matt, poses with a Renaissance stone angel. Don’t blink!

CARF Hey Nunnie Nunnie pic A poster for Hey Nunnie Nunnie, a favorite act of ours.

CARF Me and Zilch Here I am with Zilch the Torysteller, master of Spoonerisms.

CARF Ima and Peanut Ima Nutt, the female half of Fool Hearty, introduces me to the youngest member of her and her husband’s dog family, Prince Peanut the long-haired Chihuahua.

CARF Ima and Marquis Ima and her husband Marquis juggle in their first show. We would return later for the Untrained Dog Show.

CARF Fool Hearty and WingnutAnd this is the Untrained Dog show. The gorgeous creature in the middle is Wingnut, who is so smart that she can get her own treats from the bubblegum-machine style treat dispenser.

CARF Marquis and PolkaDotHere is PolkaDot, the third member of the doggie troupe, dancing with her daddy Marquis.

CARF Lissekeole dancersCARF Musicians Dancers and musicians welcome visitors in a tent just inside the Fair.

Five Things I Love about… Renaissance Festivals

In the eyes of pop culture, Renaissance festivals are distinctly uncool. Pop-culture sound bytes from TV shows like Gilmore Girls and The Daily Show to advertisements for Free Credit Report present Renaissance festivals as places where only “losers” work or hang out. But one of the chief geek virtues is that we have never allowed mainstream disdain, born of myopic misunderstanding, to come between us and the things we love. My husband and I are proud Renaissance festival-goers. We make our pilgrimage to Georgia’s festival at least twice each spring, once with dog in tow for Pet Friendly Weekend (which my husband wrote about earlier this year) and once without. Last year we went to the Carolina Renaissance Festival in Huntersville, NC for the first time, and this year we went back; it promises to become another tradition.

So what draws us? Five things I love about Renaissance festivals:
Costumes. As a child I loved to play dress-up and I’ve never outgrown it. For the Renaissance Festival, as for DragonCon, I clothe myself in my most comfortable period garb (half purchased from the festival itself at various times, and half from Holy Clothing) to enter the other world. And here, as at DragonCon, I get a kick out of seeing legions of fellow time-travelers getting their geek on in flowing gowns, pirate coats and boots, kilts, chain mail, and fairy wings. I have a soft spot for the fairy wings, as they serve as one of many reminders that the Renaissance Festival depicts not the gritty, grimy realistic past full of rampant disease and infrequent bathing, but the past of fairy tale and legend where fairies and dragons take wing. When I don my gowns, I become part of the fantasy.

Shows. We go to the Renaissance Festival not only to step into the fantastic but also to revel in enthusiastic silliness. The performers we love to revisit present themselves with unflagging energy and good-natured humor that ranges freely from groaners to zingers. We delight in the randy antics of the Tortuga Twins (all three of them), the playful songs of Hey Nunnie Nunnie (e.g. “Five Constipated Men in the Bible”), and the agile feats and winking camaraderie of the Barely Balanced acrobatic troupe. Last year at Carolina we discovered London Broil, Don Juan and Miguel, and Zilch the Torysteller, whose Spoonerisms and sharp sense of humor quickly won him a place among our favorites. This year we got to know the husband-and-wife jester duo Fool Hearty; in their “Untrained Dog Show,” a treat-snatching Border Collie named Wingnut ran away with my heart. What engages us most is the very obvious love these people have for their work and for their audience.

Music. Music is everywhere at the Renaissance Festival. Talented instrumentalists and singers abound, offering a variety of tunes from sea shanties to Celtic folk songs to rock music with a Renaissance flair (the Lost Boys!). Some of my favorite musical acts are the most unorthodox; last year we heard a mini-concert on the glass harmonica, and several years ago we were treated to a performance by a masked master of the carillon, which planted the seed in my imagination that would eventually grow into my Novel no. 2, The Nightmare Lullaby. Like the acrobats and comedians, these musicians love their work, and one of their most delightful aspects is their authenticity. No AutoTune in sight!

Food. All right, nobody expects to eat healthy, or cheaply, at the Renaissance Festival. Yet all of us regular festival-goers have our favorite fair cuisine. My husband loves a good turkey leg and a chocolate-covered banana. I enjoy a concoction called a “strawberry pillow,” a fresh croissant topped with a layer of whipped cream topped with a layer of fresh strawberries. So far I’ve only found this drool-worthy treat at Georgia’s festival, but Carolina makes up for the lack with a bakery that serves super-moist cakes worthy of a high-end restaurant’s dessert menu. My sweet tooth is throbbing even now.

Shopping. I have to be careful with this one. Each time I pass a clothing shop I have to tell myself, “I don’t need another one.” My mantra is, “Look, don’t buy.” But looking has pleasures of its own, with all the gleaming, gorgeously-designed swords, adorable feathered dragon-puppets, bewitching incense, detailed and colorful fantasy art, and classic tapestries on display. And of course we have the sky-chairs. Matt and I try to get in at least five minutes in the sky-chairs each festival visit.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of my favorite parts of our first 2015 visit to the Georgia Renaissance Festival: the Pet Costume Contest, where Pomeranian princesses in conical hats and Golden Retriever knights in black armor strut their stuff. This year one of the winners was “Thor,” a tiny brown dachshund clad in the cape, armor, and helm of the Son of Odin. His black-and-tan brother “Loki” didn’t make it onto the podium, but Matt and I both got a kick out of his Harley-Davidson leathers.

Coming soon: a Renaissance Festival photo album!

Five Classic Horror Films I Love

(This blog was originally titled “Five Things I Love about… Classic Horror Films,” but I decided on another approach.)

With the emphasis on ghosts, witches, monsters, and other things supernatural, October is a fantasy lover’s dream. When October comes, I know it’s time to turn to my DVD collection of classic horror movies for some quality entertainment.  That makes October my favorite month of the year.

I have a love/hate relationship with the horror genre. On the one hand, I loathe to my very core the “slasher films” in which casts of nubile teenagers are set up for indiscriminate slaughter in the most gruesome fashion. Such movies are distressingly unimaginative, not to mention misogynistic, as most of the victims are young women and their painfully protracted death scenes qualify as torture porn. Yet classic black-and-white horror films intrigue me with their play of light and shadow, their aura of the unexpected. They aren’t slaughter-fests; in most of these movies the body count, at least of recognizable characters, is fairly low. They have ideas at their root. Plus, they feature some wonderful performances.

Five classic horror films I love:

The Mummy (1932).

Boris Karloff isn’t just one of my favorite horror movie actors; he’s one of my favorite actors, period. 1931’s Frankenstein made him a star, and with 1932’s The Old Dark House his star rose a little higher, but in both these films he played mute characters. By contrast, in The Mummy he makes full use of his slightly lisping and wonderfully resonant baritone voice. Unlike the mindless priest-controlled bandaged corpse who shambles through the “Mummy” movies of the 1940s, Karloff’s millennia-year-old undead Egyptian thinks and acts for himself, and he’s a fascinating character. The movie does have flaws, most notably the pacing. My husband doesn’t care much for it because he finds it moves too slowly, and I can’t say he’s wrong. Yet I get caught up in the idea of a 3,700-year-old man suddenly reborn into a modern world he couldn’t possibly recognize in any way. What would such a man live for? Why, the same thing he died for — forbidden love.

(One side-note on The Mummy: I was watching this movie back in 1995, at the beginning of my Auburn University days, the night Hurricane Opal blew through town. I went to the bathroom during a commercial break, and while I was in that windowless room with the door shut, the power went out. The “flashback-to-ancient-Egypt” scene, with its dirge-like score, had just aired. I was trapped in total darkness with that music in my head. I won’t forget that experience anytime soon.)

The Body Snatcher (1945).

A case can be made for Targets (1968), as well as for his voice work in 1966’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but many would assert that the great Karloff gives his best performance in this grim historical drama about a grave robber who resorts to murder so he can continue supplying a renowned doctor with cadavers and thus maintain his diabolical hold over the man. (Ubiquitous classic-film character actor Henry Daniell, who plays the doctor, also gives an excellent performance.) One of the masterworks of producer Val Lewton, directed by Robert Wise, the movie has atmosphere to burn. It also includes one of the most chilling murder scenes in the genre’s history, one that takes place entirely in the shadows (we hear the crime rather than see it) and is over very quickly, all the more unnerving for its brevity. This one scene offers an exemplum of why the classic black-and-white horror film is ten times more compelling than the modern slasher film.

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

Oddly enough, this sequel to Frankenstein is more faithful than the original film to the letter and the spirit of Mary Shelley’s novel. The moving sequence involving the Monster and a blind hermit (brilliantly parodied in Mel Brooks’ 1974 masterpiece Young Frankenstein) has its roots in Shelley, though the relationship works out differently in the novel. The movie also includes a bit straight out of Shelley, in which the Monster rescues a shepherdess from drowning and is rewarded by her terrified screams. Yet what really distinguishes this movie is director James Whale’s black sense of humor, best displayed in the character of Dr. Pretorius, played with maximum camp by Ernest Thesiger. He has a bitterly dark soul, yet he’s the only (sighted) person not to react in terror to the Monster’s approach. The movie is funny in the right places, but the brief encounter between the Monster and his newborn bride is downright heartbreaking. Again, unlike the modern slasher film, the classic black-and-white horror film can make an audience care.

The Invisible Man (1933).

Any true classic movie buff should admire this one at least a little bit, since it introduced the public to Claude Rains, who appeared to faultless advantage in Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Now, Voyager, Notorious, and countless other classics. Rains was James Whale’s only choice to play mad scientist Jack Griffin, who is turned invisible by experimental drugs but then discovers he can commit crimes almost with impunity. Universal Studios was pushing Whale to cast Karloff. I don’t doubt that Boris would have been awesome, yet thank God Whale won the battle. Equipped only with his unique voice, Rains turns in a marvelously manic performance. He’s the central character, with no stalwart hero going up against him. We see society grapple with him, but a part of us can’t help being on his side, since he’s by far the most dynamic individual around. He is brought down for the greater good, yet we feel something tragic in his loss.

The Uninvited (1944)

Can a horror movie be romantic? Actually, yes, as this film demonstrates. It has all the right horror-movie trappings: a haunted house, an abundance of dark secrets, an insane asylum that’s terrifying in its squeaky-cleanliness, beautiful light-and-shadow interaction, and the threats of madness and death. Yet it also has a lush, lyrical music score by Victor Young to set a romantic tone, and it has Ray Milland, perhaps the most charismatic of all horror-movie heroes, paying court to the beautiful, mysterious Gail Russell. Milland’s equally charming sister, Ruth Hussey, is also a welcome presence. So often the “good guys” in horror films are bland ciphers, but these are horror movie heroes we can actually root for.

A few runners-up:

The Wolf Man (1941). This film establishes the big-screen werewolf mythology and features memorable performances by Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi, Maria Ouspenskaya, and the priceless Claude Rains.

The Walking Dead (1936). Karloff is at his most sympathetic here, playing a wrongly convicted and executed man brought back to life. This one has a higher body count than most horror films of the day, but here the victims have it coming.

The Devil-Doll (1936). Lionel Barrymore does the revenge thing disguised as an elderly lady whose “dolls” he can psychically animate to do his bidding.

Dead of Night (1946) and The Curse of the Demon (1958), two hauntingly atmospheric horror films from England.

Things I Would Like to See More Of In Fantasy Fiction, Part 4

Heroines who are rescuers.

I’m well aware that every person, however strong, occasionally needs to be rescued. Getting in trouble and needing a bit of help to get out of it does not necessarily make a character weak, and may go with the territory because said character is willing to take risks. Nonetheless, when I’m browsing Goodreads in search of titles I might find worth reading (despite my To-Read pile already being higher than Mt. Everest), I tend to shy away from books with female leads in which some variation of “…is kidnapped by…” and “…is rescued by…” appears in the plot blurb, and I’m particularly leery when the blurb indicates the kidnapped heroine will at some point fall in love with the hunky vampire/werewolf/bandit/pirate who has captured her. I find it distressing to see so many books with plot blurbs like this, especially in YA fantasy.

This may seem a tad hypocritical of me considering my first novel, Atterwald. I’ve been fond of calling it, “‘Beauty and the Beast’ meets The Secret Garden, with shape-shifters,” and people seem to like that description. But “Beauty and the Beast” has been decried, not groundlessly, as a “Stockholm Syndrome” story, and the main thrust of my plot does involve my heroine, Nichtel, falling into the hands of a villain who demands she complete a task in order to free herself. Yet I can say, without giving too much away, that while Nichtel might seem a distressed damsel at first glance, she proves in the fullness of time to be something I feel the genre could use: a rescuer heroine. On occasion she may need saving, but she is also a savior. This is the kind of character I want to read about, as well as showcase in my own fiction.

I have to be sparing with the detail in order to avoid too-serious Spoilers, but I can recommend some good books in which the heroine is savior rather than saved (or at least, as well as saved):

Django Wexler’s The Thousand Names and Ben S. Dobson’s Scriber both showcase female soldiers who preserve and protect those under their command. When danger rears its head, they are quick to face it down.

Barbara Hambly’s Stranger at the Wedding features an outcast older daughter who has scandalized her family by becoming a wizard, but who risks her life and health to save her imperiled younger sister.

Juliet Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest is a retelling of the fairy tale “The Six Swans.” In the novel, as in the tale, the heroine endures great pain in order to save her brothers from an evil enchantment. Physically weak but incredibly brave, she proves a heroine need not be a warrior or even a powerful wizard in order to be a savior. (A YA retelling of the same tale, Zoe Marriott’s The Swan Kingdom, is also good.)

Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake features one of the most impressive rescuer heroines I’ve read about in the past five years, a healer who may not be able to save everyone she tries to help, but nonetheless never stops trying. Also impressive is the heroine of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, who starts out by saving a friend and eventually saves her whole world.

To learn just how all these rescues are accomplished, read these books and get to know the heroines in them. It will be time well spent.

Five Things I Love about… Brooklyn Nine-Nine

It’s the new fall television season, so it’s time for me to pay tribute to some of my favorite shows. I’ll start with the one that took me the most by surprise last year, Sunday night’s “cop comedy” Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Five things I love about this funny, good-natured show:

The characters are engaging.

This show took me by surprise because I don’t normally care for sitcoms. Too many of them, I’ve always thought, rely on one-note characterization and snarky put-downs, allowing little room for character or relationship development. I can recall an Entertainment Weekly article pointing out that sitcoms exemplify the charm of stasis; since the characters don’t change in any meaningful sense, the audience can rely on them to be funny in the same ways, week after week. Good for you, EW; you put into words why I prefer to avoid sitcoms.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s first couple of episodes might not show much departure from that norm. The show needs to establish its characters’ principal traits. Jake is the wisecracking clown who rarely takes anything seriously. Boyle is the foodie nerd with the huge man-crush on Jake. Rosa is the humorless tough gal. Amy is the ambitious overachiever whom nobody in the office likes very much. Holt is the dour, deadpan authority figure who happens to be gay. The one most fleshed out from the get-go is Terry, the iron-strong sergeant and devoted family man. But in the course of the first season, the show carefully broadens these characters beyond these primary identifying traits. Jake is very good at his job and cares about his colleagues. Boyle is smart and observant. Rosa does have a sense of humor; it just manifests itself in unusual ways. Amy earnestly wants to do the right thing and can be a loyal, giving friend. And Holt… more on him in a minute.

Andre Braugher shows he has major comic chops.

Before Airplane!, Leslie Nielsen had never made a comedy. That one film showed he could be brilliant in the genre, and it changed the direction of his career. Likewise, Andre Braugher, who plays Captain Holt, has always been known for serious roles, and acclaimed in those roles even when the movie or show around him isn’t up to his level. To my knowledge he has never given a bad performance, but apparently up until Brooklyn Nine-Nine, it hadn’t occurred to anyone just how he might excel in a comedy. It turns out that Braugher succeeds in being very, very funny by playing Captain Holt absolutely straight. He rarely cracks a smile. He speaks in a deep, serious monotone. He never intends to be funny, or even amusing — an effective contrast to Andy Samberg’s Jake, who is quite self-consciously funny. Holt is hilarious because he has no idea he’s hilarious. One of my favorite moments from last season: Holt in tears as he sits in a theater watching his favorite movie, Moneyball. “Statistical analysis… it’s so beautiful!”

The cast is wonderfully diverse.

Jake and Boyle are white guys. Holt and Terry are African-American. Rosa and Amy are Latina. Holt is in a happily stable marriage with his husband, Kevin (played by Marc Evan Jackson, whom I also know as “Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars,” from the Thrilling Adventure Hour podcast). I’m hard pressed to think of a more diverse cast on a current TV show. Yet the show never sets aside its comic storytelling to hand down any heavy-handed sermons about diversity. It simply sets its characters in motion and lets them be who they are — which, in the end, may be the best message about diversity we could hope for.

Two of the main male characters are happily married.

One of the most disheartening features of current and recent comedy, on the big and small screen, is the prominence of the “boy-man,” the male character(s) locked in a state of permanent adolescence, unwilling to commit to a job or a romantic relationship or anything that smacks of responsibility. The Brooklyn Nine-Nine character who most nearly fits the “boy-man” type is Jake, the young dude who likes to flirt and can’t stop with the one-liners — though even he departs from the type, through his dedication to his job, and he may be settling down on the romantic front as well. Two of the show’s most significant male characters, Holt and Terry, go further than that. Mature, sensible men who are committed to both career and spouses (and, in Terry’s case, children as well), they offer sorely needed proof that male characters can be honest-to-goodness adults and still be very funny.  And, for bonus points, Terry’s children are named Cagney and Lacey.

It’s funny and good-natured.

The show isn’t perfect. Some of the elements I see as flaws have been praised by others, most notably Kyra Sedgwick’s Madeline Wuntch, whom many of the show’s fans see as a worthy nemesis for Holt but who comes across to me as an unpleasantly stereotyped caricature of the Evil Boss Lady. (Honestly, how many of those do we need?) Yet when we leave Wuntch out of the equation, we see a cast of characters who actually like one another, help one another, and support one another. Even Gina, Holt’s narcissistic assistant who seems to be around to fill that apparently necessary “snarky put-down” quotient, can on occasion be generous and helpful, usually when interacting with Jake or Holt. It’s clear the show’s creators like these characters, and so, even when they’re at their most mistake-prone, we like them too. It’s good to see a show that does not rely on mean-spirited hostility for its humor.