Hogwarts Housing

I’ve been on a bit of a Harry Potter kick lately. One reason is that LEGO revived the sets based on the movies so I’ve been seeing a lot of it at work. Another is that my girlfriend’s parents got us tickets to see Cursed Child (which is amazing) so there’s that too.

Having recalled that J.K. Rowling detailed a magic school based in the US — Ilvermorny — some time ago, and that she described the houses in that school into which students were sorted, I decided to look up what those houses were and what they represented. Frustratingly, they’re pretty simplistic; one is emblematic of the scholar, one the warrior, another the adventurer, the last the healer. They’re archetypes, but almost too much so.

The original four houses of Hogwarts are Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin. Each house is less archetypical and more a set of traits, each with their pros and cons. Gryffindors are courageous and brave, but can be foolish and brash. Those in Slytherin are known to be willy and cunning, even to the point of being manipulative. Belonging to a Hogwarts house is less about subscribing to an archetype (scholar vs healer, or even chaotic-good vs lawful-evil), but more a question about what traits do you see in yourself and value in others. To Rowling’s credit, no house is inherently bad (even if Gryffindor gets all the good press), they’re all different facets of human nature.

Sorting yourself into a house, whether it be by some handy online quiz or through your own self assessment, offers for a fun form of engagement with the Harry Potter books. No matter which house you’re in, the implication is that you’re still a student (or alumnus) of Hogwarts and thus someone with magical inclinations (and probably heroic). Within that, there is also a healthy sense of tribalism that comes from being part of a group. I’m a Gryffindor, I’m one of them, for better or worse. I’ve something of an identity there; I fit in.

It’s interesting that something as ‘basic’ as a which of these four houses you’re in could inspire such a spirited and personal sense of belonging (just take a look at all the house swag on Etsy). It’s not nearly as in-depth as, say, an MBTI which kinda puts a pin on your personality. If anything, it’s closer to a horoscope, but not nearly as vague and as all-inclusive as to apply to anyone born within a certain timeframe. It’s still specific, but not alienating.

I said before that I’m a Gryffindor (or, in the words of my girlfriend: “No, no; Gryffindor, definitely.” Which isn’t to say I’m not smart, or have the capacity for cunning, or a good friend; rather that some of my more obvious traits include my tendency to rush headlong into things without thinking them through, or an innate brashness that borders on cocksureness. Some people, upon hearing this, are content to nod and tell me that, yep, that makes perfect sense. Which is fun, because, like I said, I belong somewhere.

As people, we want to belong. We want to have some tribe, some home, some foundation for our identity. The fun thing about Hogwarts houses is that they offer one for you, one that’s as arbitrary as it is fictional — after all, Hogwarts doesn’t really exist and there is no real Sorting Hat to determine your friend group for your next seven books years of education. But having that House, that place of people Kinda Like You, adds to that sense of magic of the Harry Potter books. You know that if, if, that place was real, there’d be a spot for you. One which doesn’t limit you; Cedric was a loyal Hufflepuff, but also incredibly brave; Hermione a Gryffindor and still the smartest in the room. There’s still room to be yourself.

I checked recently what Pottermore told me my Ilvermorny house was. Apparently I’m a Thunderbird, that is, the house of Adventurers. Which, I’m okay with. Doesn’t sound quite as fun (or as rife with potential) as a Gryffindor, but hey, I can live with it.

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Artistic Stratification

So the Oscars announced a new category. Is it something like Best Stunt, to acknowledge some of the crazy cool things stuntpeople and Tom Cruise do? Could it be Best Choreography for beautiful fights or films where the blocking of camera and actors plays like a dance? Maybe it’s for Best Color Scheme, which sounds totally arbitrary but you’ve movies like (500) Days of Summer and Pacific Rim that use colors masterfully. The correct answer is none of the above, but rather a category that recognizes popular movies. As in what’s the best popular movie.

Like many people who purport to not really care about the Oscars, I have a lot of opinions about them, both the awards awarded and the whole thing as an institution. For starters, recognizing a movie as being ‘the best’ is incredibly difficult, as my own consternation over my annual Top Nine lists serve to remind me every year. There’s also the thing that ‘best’ is incredibly subjective; is a movie deemed better than another by its quality or by how much it entertains you? Isn’t whether or not it entertains you really the ultimate litmus test? Can you like bad movies? (Yes.)

For many recent years, the Oscars has, on a whole, come down on the side that there’s art and then there’s Art. Logan is a good movie, but it’s not a Good Movie like Birdman. So there’s been furor aplenty, especially amongst moviegoers who are more likely to be described as fans rather than critics, about the snubbing of more pulpy fare by the Oscars, with the inference that the Academy only considers ‘serious’ movies’ scripts, direction, and actors to be worthy of recognition. Sure, those visual effects and sound design are neat, but, honestly, The Last Jedi with its magical space knights isn’t really Oscar worthy. That’s the divide between art and Art that the Academy has typically enforced.

Creating a separate category to recognize ‘popular movies’ is really just more of the same. Sure, it looks good that Black Panther actually has a shot of winning an Oscar, but it’d be Best Popular Movie. It’s not Best Picture, it’s a movie that’s really good — for a popular one. It formalizes the notion that there should be different criteria for quality, that we’re willing to accept a movie as being good enough or one of its sort, rather than recognizing the art inherent in even, yes, ‘popular’ movies.

Because why on Earth shouldn’t Logan and Black Panther be viable candidates for Best Picture? There’s masterwork in both of them, not just in technical things like sound editing and effects, but in direction, storytelling, and acting. Both Hugh Jackson’s performance as Logan and Ryan Coogler’s vision of Wakanda and the story of an isolated king deserve recognition by the highest court of cinematic opinion.

No matter how much I don’t want them to, the Oscars do matter. Like it or not, they’re an established institution that have a great deal of import put on them. People care about who wins Best Picture and the decisions and taste of the awards tend to set the trend for the industry as a whole. My fear regarding the creation of a category for ‘popular’ movies is that it creates a ghetto for movies that are good, but thought not serious enough to be considered really good. It means that Black Panther could be nominated (and win!) that category and thus, technically, have all the recognition of an Oscar; there’s a space for blockbusters and offbeat films to be shunted off to so that Best Picture can still be those True Art movies.

I don’t think there should be a divide between one sort of movie and another. A movie that’s really good is really good, period. I lament a category like this, because it reinforces what’s already a current of thought, and rather than the establishment acknowledging pulpy fare as art, it lets those movies go off and play in the yard while keeping all their toys indoors.

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Of Movie Subscriptions

As I said last week, I have a real soft spot for not-great movies. I’ve also really enjoyed having a MoviePass in no small part because it alleviates me of some measure of financial responsibility for poor choices. The subscription nature of the service means that it’s not gonna cost more to watch a silly movie in addition to something I do really wanna see. And now with the service going sideways, I’m really gonna miss it.

It is an odd sorta idea. $10 a month gets you unlimited daily movies. Which is dope. Though it does raises questions as to how exactly it’s profitable. My theory’s that they’ve been selling my data to studios so they can analyze the viewing habits of a dude in his late-twenties in New York to better optimize the funding of potential movies. Which could be a whole ‘nother issue about studios making their stuff over-specific and edging out room for wonderfully weird fare that no one expects like Sorry To Bother You. But as it is now, it seems that MoviePass couldn’t  quite figure out a way to monetize it and now some movies aren’t eligible for the pass.

Unless MoviePass finds a way to turn its whole thing around, it’s starting to look more like its golden days are over (in the last few months the service stopped allowing repeat viewings, introduced a surcharge for certain showings, and now, after a series of outages, decided not to support some major blockbusters). I could be wrong and, hopefully, they’re able to bounce back and I can continue to watch movies with abandon, though it’s looking more unlikely.

All this does raise a question about movies and, along with it, my own willingness to spend money on, well, art. It’s easy to have reckless abandon with choosing a movie when you’ve already paid a flat fee. The bar for going to see a movie in theaters rises from being curious to having to actually be interested. Take the upcoming Crazy Rich Asians as an example. I’m certainly curious about the movie, what with it having an all-Asian cast and being set in my sometimes-home of Singapore, but I’m not terribly fond of the book and don’t really find the narrative to be one I’m super into. So whether or not I see it is certainly up in the air.

I can get a pass to buy a movie ticket for around $10. Which isn’t that bad, given that a regular ticket in New York runs around $16. And I like movies, so $10 is certainly worth it. The question that’s begged, however, is why don’t I think it’s worth it? Because the debate inherent in this rant essay is the semi-arbitrary demarcation of value produced by comparing a subscription based service with the standard model. Am I more entertained by, say, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom knowing that my viewing of said movie was effectively free, given that it was included in the same fee that allowed me to see Sorry To Bother You and Eighth Grade that same month? Is part of my enjoyment of ‘bad’ movies due to the lack of attachment that comes with the background knowledge that this movie isn’t affecting my budget in anyway?

In many ways, it’s a sunk cost fallacy in another form. If I’m paying x amount of money for something, it had darn well better be worth the money. Does the knowledge that some of my hard earned cash was paid for this movie in particular affect my enjoyment of it? Or, if art is inherently worthwhile because folks put time and effort into it, shouldn’t I respect that and be willing to pay the money since, well, I’m supporting creators?

I don’t really have a good answer to any of these questions. In many ways, this is me rambling and exploring my own attitudes towards entertainment. I don’t know where this self-introspection will lead. I don’t know if it even should lead anywhere. What I do know is that, should MoviePass go sideways, I’m really gonna miss the reckless abandon with which I’m available to enjoy movies right now.

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Good Bad Movies

I like bad movies. I really do. Take Outcast as an example; its plot is pretty simple: Former crusader Hayden Christensen winds up in China where he’s protecting the rightful prince from said prince’s vengeful older brother. Also, Nic Cage is in it as Hayden Christensen’s old mentor-turned-hermit who’s acting in a very different movie from everyone else. All this to say, it’s an utter delight. Not that it’s a good movie; Outcast has a host of issues, ranging from being unable to decide what accent the Chinese characters should have when speaking English (the same family has one with an English accent and another with an American) to the fact that it really reinforces the whole White Savior narrative, what with the best summary of it being “Hayden Christensen and Nic Cage save China.” Yet it’s an enjoyable mess, and Nic Cage’s performance alone is worth the couple hours in front of the tv.

It’s really easy, especially in cinephile and filmmaking circles, to get caught up in the whole idea of Quality. Like, is a movie Good, is it Important? There’s a canon of sorts for what’s allowed to be considered The Best (woe unto you if The Godfather doesn’t crack your top ten list). For the most part, though, a lot of these movies rightly deserve their hallowed spot; The Godfather is indeed excellent and holy crap is Casablanca a masterwork of film. In light of this, more pulpy fare like The Avengers or Scott Pilgrim get relegated since, sure, they’re entertaining, but they aren’t that Important.

But why isn’t entertaining enough? I’m very partial to both The Avengers and Scott Pilgrim for telling really interesting, well-wrought stories that despite a flashy exterior, touch on deeper themes (sacrifice and unity for the first, self-respect for the second). And most of all, they’re really fun. There’s no denying that Whiplash is an excellent movie, but it’s not one I’ll pop in while hanging out with friends. Though Ant-Man and The Wasp is undoubtably a movie worse in quality and critical reception, it remains a movie that’s just plan fun. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is a movie that I’d call aggressively stupid, but I was grinning ear to ear for just about the entire film.

There’s much to be said for that. I could spend a very long rant essay discussing all of the fallacies and nonsensical plot developments of Fallen Kingdom, but, really, does that even matter? I had fun watching the movie, more fun than I had watching, say, Molly’s Game or even Deadpool 2. It’s why Fallen Kingdom is a movie I can recommend wholeheartedly to anyone in it to watch dinosaurs wreck crap rather than a treatise on the sublime majesty and horror of those extinct terrible lizards. And really, that’s all the movie sets out to do. It has no assumptions about itself as something more than that; it wants to be a really fun movie and it succeeds. Heck, look at Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, a movie with a tangential grasp of narrative consequence and character development, but it’s such darn fun and a great way to spend a couple hours.

I don’t deny that there are bad movies (and good grief, there are some that are truly awful), but I think there is still a delight to be found in movies that aren’t great and yet are enjoyable all the same. Not even necessarily movies good in their badness like The Room or even the aforementioned Outcast, which are enjoyable for how poorly they missed the mark set out for themselves, but rather ones that have low aims and succeed wonderfully. There’s a movie about a giant killer shark coming out, The Meg, and it looks incredibly silly, but also super fun. And if I’m going to the movies to chill out after work, why not be willing to turn off my brain and enjoy a fun, bad movie?

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Tasty Words

If you’ve ever played the Pokémon Trading Card Game or Magic: The Gathering or really any trading card game, you’ll have read the little bit of text on the bottom. Not the copyright information, but rather the flavor text that tells you a little about what the card is and how it fits into the bigger world. Stuff about where that character might come from or what the geopolitical situation in the world’s like. These are usually really small blurbs, probably not more than a sentence or two at most, but they’re usually enough to conjure up images of entire worlds.

Flavor text adds depth to a world. It turns Charmander from some fire lizard thing to a creature who would die if the fire on its tail is extinguished. It’s a small thing, but it’s enough to create some kindling for your imagination. What do Charmander do when it rains? Since their life can be a little fragile, it stands to reason that these Pokémon would be defensive and non-trusting, right? It doesn’t really matter what’s actually canon or not, what is important that it’s enough for you, the reader — or player, in this case — to have an insight into this world and, by crafting a narrative around it, to make a connection.

What’s really interesting about flavor text is that it really only shows up in games. Sure, books will offer little tidbits about characters and places, but those are usually fleshed out by the rest of the book. Scripts typically have a short blurb about characters and places when introduced, but, like books, there’s a lot more going on than just that. The flavor text offered through the images on the cards in Settlers of Catan (and really, flavor text can be pictures too) offer us the only glimpse into what Catan is ‘really’ like beyond the little wood abstractions with which the game is played.

XCOM 2 has you as the Commander leading a resistance against an occupying extraterrestrial force. Your team is comprised of my Mostest Favoritest Trope (a ragtag multinational team) that you recruit from around the world and who can, if you turn on the option, speak their native language. Now, XCOM is infamous for its brutal difficulty, and if a soldier gets killed in a battle, they’re dead for real. They don’t respawn, they’re not just injured (that’s a whole ‘nother thing where it can take weeks of in-game time for them to recover); they’re dead. Gone. You can’t use them anymore. Even if they’ve survived a dozen combat missions and been promoted equivalent times. Dead. Gone.

On the one hand, you’re already invested in these characters/soldiers by virtue of them being of strategic importance. But XCOM 2 has ways of making you more attached to them. You can give your soldiers nicknames and customize their appearances (why yes, I think the Archangel the Ranger needs a pair of aviators) and, when recruited, soldiers have a little bit of flavor text in their bio saying where they’re from, why they joined the resistance, stuff like that. It’s small stuff, generated from a preset bunch and nowhere near as wonderful as what you see in some other games, but it does add an additional measure of personality to the game.

Look, games are just rule systems dressed up in some theming or some other. It’s how you have Star Trek Catan and Game of Thrones Catan and a friggin’ Mega Man themed Catan that all have the same ruleset and all arguably work equally well. Theming is what makes Mario whimsical and makes Pokémon child-friendly and not a game about dogfights. Flavor text is part and parcel to theming. Think of it like a flash fiction on steroids: it’s a sentence or two that can somehow suggest a bigger, complete world. And you get to play in it.

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Where Do We Go From Here? (Or Infinity War Part Two)

This post is going to be about what just might happen in the next Avengers movie. And about what happened in Infinity War too, so if you’re not a fan of spoilers, this is your warning.

I lost my voice when I saw the Infinity War’s stinger the first time. Seeing Captain Marvel’s symbol appear on Nick Fury’s space pager elicited quite the roar/scream from me for quite the obvious reason; she’s long been my favorite superhero and finally, finally getting a movie so even getting a hint of her is Really Exciting. It also essentially confirms that, yes, Captain Marvel’s gonna be in the next Avengers and I cannot wait.

Because Captain Marvel, or Carol Danvers, has the epithet of “Earth’s Mightiest Hero” in the comics and is one of the strongest superheroes. 2013’s Infinity event’s climax saw Captain Marvel and Thor duking it out with Thanos in a really epic fight. So bringing her in for round two against Thano (which is the most likely direction the sequel’s going) makes total sense. Now that the Avengers have lost and they’re on the off-foot, they’re gonna need all the help they can get.

Of course, it’s not gonna be that easy, because where’s the fun in that? The whole nature of narrative is needing twists, turns, and obstacles to keep things interesting. Nathan went to the store is a dull story. Nathan went to the store but they were out of milk is a better story. Nathan went to the store but they were out of milk but there was a mysterious man in a sombrero who offered to sell him milk out of the back of a car is an interesting story. Infinity War Part Two or whatever it’s gonna be called will need some of those buts.

As easy as getting the Time Stone off the Gauntlet and rewinding things so all the dusted Avengers come back to life would be, it’s not interesting. We know that Spider-Man and Black Panther and the others aren’t gone for good, in no small part because there are sequels to their movies coming out and, uh, they need to be in said sequels by virtue of the fact that the actors are in them. So they’re coming back. And Thanos needs to get his ass kicked because, well, he’s the bad guy and we need our triumphant moment of the heroes winning. But we also need catharsis, and so that happy ending needs to be earned.

I figure the remaining of Avengers are gonna have to do some sort of rescue mission to get the others back so they can fight Thanos. Whether that means heisting the Soul Stone and making some sort of sacrifice to bring back everyone who’s presumably trapped in there, I don’t know. If the climax is gonna be all the Avengers and Guardians and everyone else in a big showdown with Thanos, which it should be (because we didn’t quite get that Epic Team Up in Infinity War), there’s a lot of work to get there, no matter what it is exactly will happen.

For starters, Cap and Iron Man are both at their nadirs. Everything they tried was for naught. To get to the point where they’re up for a rematch against Thanos (whatever form that might take) they’re going to not only need to be dragged back into the fight, but also to make amends. Given how disillusioned they are at the movie’s end, it’s gonna take some work.

Enter Carol Danvers. In the comics, she’s always idolized Captain America as someone who she wants to be; she wants to be that sort of hero. But she and Iron Man have always had a bit of a connection; both tend to be foolhardy asshats, and both struggled with alcoholism (Tony was Carol’s sponsor when she got sober). Come Infinity War Part Two Carol could be the third point of the triangle that has Tony and Steve. She’s the potential to be a foil for both of them; someone who believes in what Steve can be and represents but also with the snark of Tony. She’s the Kirk to Tony’s Bones and Steve’s Spock. The dichotic relationship between Steve and Tony is now fleshed out into a Freudian idea of an ego, id, and superego. So not only do the Avengers get a hell of a heavy hitter, but the dynamic of the ostensible leaders is going to be upset in enough of a way that will give Tony and Steve (and the others) enough of a kick in the pants to rally against Thanos.

I’ve been hyped for a Captain Marvel movie since it was frickin’ announced. It’s taken a frustratingly long time to get here, but, given the when she’s being introduced and all that could be done with her, I really can’t wait.

Unless all this turns out to be bunk, in which case, hey, my failure will be preserved right here on the internet for all time!

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Global Vessel

I’m not really a sports person.

But once every four years I get really hardcore into a sport. I am, of course, talking about the World Cup.

Which should really come as no surprise. For starters, it’s got my mostest favoritest trope; the ragtag multinational team. They may be in competition, but there remains the fun of watching countries as disparate as Belgium and Japan share a stage.

Then of course there’s the fact that soccer/football is the sport I know best. I didn’t move to the US until I was fourteen and so grew up around the sport that just about every other country cares about. I played it during recess in primary school and on the landing outside my apartment in Singapore. We played it on the quayside and in the confined rooms aboard the ship. Not only is soccer a sport I know how is played, but it’s one that’s familiar. The World Cup is a convenient reason to get invested. 

Never mind I have no horse in this race, that none of the four countries that make me up (Singapore, the US, China, and Norway) are represented – that’s half the fun! Whoever you support can be completely arbitrary! Spain gave us papas bravas and sangria, pull for them! I once had a crush on a German girl, good enough for me! Messi’s hot; go Argentina! Japan has a half-Asian on their team, I’m in! But more than anything else, it’s great to see so many excellent games played.

Soccer (or association football, I never know what to call it) is as close to contained narrative perfection as you can get in a sport. Unlike American Football, which stops every play for planning and commercials, soccer keeps on going. Not only does this make for a sport more reliant on on-the-fly teamwork, but it creates an atmosphere of sustained tension throughout the game — with very little chances for catharsis. See, basketball, like soccer, doesn’t stop, but it’s also a game where goals come very frequently. We quickly find out if a play results in a goal and the points keep climbing. The somewhat more spaced out pacing of soccer makes for a more tense experience, at any moment an offensive play might succeed. That the score in soccer is typically lower also means that comebacks always seem within reach.

Therein lies so much of the narrative excitement inherent in a good game of soccer. The pathos and excitement of stories are built on the almost-theres and could-have-beens. Every run on the Death Star is exciting for all the times the proton torpedoes could have hit but didn’t; thus making Luke’s success so much more cathartic. The downbeat ending of Infinity War is due in no small part to how darn close the Avengers came to beating Thanos. And so with soccer, every time a goal almost happens but doesn’t just adds to the excitement. Because when a player finally scores, the pent-up tension of however long it’s been pays off, either in relief or tragedy, depending on who you’re rooting for. But no matter what, a good game is exciting.

I probably could get invested in non-World Cup soccer tournaments if I really bothered, but I’ll always love the multinational appeal when this particular series of games rolls around. We’re down to the semi-finals and most every team I’ve pulled for has lost. At this point I’m rooting for France and England, because I’m all about reigniting the Hundred Years War in the finals. But more than anything, I’ve got eight days left of caring about sports, here’s hoping for some really good exciting matches.

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