Gender politics in xkcd’s Time

This is coming way late, but I’ve been having some thoughts about xkcd’s Time comic percolating in my brain for a while. Because xkcd is a stick figure webcomic, the only gender cues available are longer hair on female characters or facial hair on male ones; characters’ genders are just not an issue, unless the storyline demands it. Women in the comic are just as nerdy and weird as men, and appear in about equal numbers overall—a couple times even outnumbering them. This is kind of a big deal, because I can’t think of any nominally gender-neutral media or space that regularly achieve that kind of parity, and makes it look so natural and normal. Which to me makes the comic a feminist one, though I don’t know if Randall Munroe would agree with that label.

In any case, I think I was primed to see the character dynamics in Time partly as some kind of statement. The story starts off with one male (let’s call him Y) and one female protagonist (let’s call her X), both interesting and nicely developed, and it seemed to me on first reading that X was more adventurous, more curious and a better scientist, and Y more passive. A third character they meet later on, a woman, is the leader of her community, which just seemed to confirm my first impression.

However, when I went back and reread it again some months later, I found the truth was a lot more nuanced. It looks like I was dealing either with confirmation bias—just a few frames stuck in my mind and coloured my entire memory of the story—or some kind of gender-based bias where a female character’s coolness jumps out at me more. Which is a weird one, and I don’t know if there’s a name for that.

For reference, here are the frames that stuck in my mind on first reading:

But, there’s context for all of these, and they tell a somewhat different story. The trees, for instance: in the previous frame X has asked if the tree was supposed to be like that; i.e.: she was worried that it might be sick. So Y’s reply reads not so much as apathy, but rather trust that Nature generally knows what it’s doing. And, the belief that plants can be both weird-looking and healthy.

Overall I got the impression that Y has a very deep curiosity about the natural world. He loves to think about big and abstract things, like the sea, rivers, logic, and physics. His world is full of mysteries, which may someday be discovered, or maybe not—but the journey’s still worth it. He’s a big-picture kind of guy, less comfortable with living things or with nitty-gritty details. That’s more X’s department.

Where Y is mostly about theory, X is all about practice. She’s the hands-on engineering yang to his abstract yin—building sand castles, dreaming of building even bigger castles, easily excited about new technology and new shiny questions. Not the big questions Y likes, mind you, but specific, concrete, answerable questions. She’s brave and a bit reckless in the pursuit of those questions, but not so much that she doesn’t empathise with her companion and the cute little critters they meet.

I felt at first that X was the driving force behind their expedition, based (I think) on one frame where Y floats the idea of going home. But that comes after many lines of him thirsting for more understanding. But I guess everybody has limits. I’m also wondering if he gets antsier the further he gets from water?

More questions and not that many answers, but that’s okay. It was an interesting exercise in unbiasing myself, and—bonus!—I found a lot of beautiful places in re-exploring this amazing story. So it was totally worth it.

The Longest Day

On new year’s day, I was in three cities: Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa.

I’d spent New Year’s Eve with my brother in Montreal, as is my wont, but this year I decided to do something a little different. I knew a friend of mine from Toronto had a non-alcoholic New Year’s Day recovery party, and he kept inviting me. Well, this time I took him up on it. So with only a few hours’ sleep under my belt I bade farewell to my brother, his girlfriend and their cats, taxied off to YUL just as the sun rose, and thence to YTZ.

It wasn’t a particularly pleasant flight. I was in one of those little propellor planes, and it felt fairly shaky. I didn’t get sick, thank gawd, but it was a bit nerve-wracking all the same.

And then… Toronto. Would you believe it had been over 18 years since I visited Toronto? Yes, for Pride ’96, shortly before moving out west. Wow, how time flies.

And the party was fun! I knew very few people and I’m not naturally outgoing, so I had the urge to glom onto my friend and his partner, or hang around the pinball machine in the Monopoly room*—but I did an okay job of being sociable. It was kind of challenging, but I did my best, and isn’t that all anyone can ask?

(* Really, they had a whole room devoted to Monopoly collectibles: games, coasters, pillows, candles, and an actual, fully functional, pinball machine.)

Socialising aside, Toronto’s an interesting place. I was only able to take in a bit of the downtown area, but it feels very different from Vancouver and Ottawa. It feels like I imagine New York City would feel: loud, bright, kind of oppressive, and architecturally a neat mix of the very old with the very new. Also it’s got streetcars! And Dundas Square, which is like Times Square, except 1/50 as big! Fun times.

Then, the bus back to Ottawa. Leaving at 9PM, arriving at 2AM. This was… different from being on a plane. On a plane you’re high up in the sky, and even if you can see landmarks around you, you’re completely separate from everything. Sure, it’s fun to take pictures of prairie lakes and towns and such… but on a bus you’re part of it. You’re ever so briefly within touching distance of homes, stores, some with familiar names and some without. You get to peek into people’s living rooms, just for a split second, see the Christmas decorations they still haven’t put away, ponder what kind of lives they lead, in these tiny-ass towns… and then you’re off again.

The bus had wifi, and an outlet to plug my phone, so I spent a lot of time on Twitter and Facebook, but there wasn’t a lot going on, so I also followed the bus’s progress on Google Maps. It felt a bit wrong to filter my perception through satellites and fancy software, but it was dark, and I just couldn’t see anything out the window most of the time. So, fuck it, hooray for technology if it told me the names of these towns and rivers, and how far I was from civilisation.

But every once in a while, I did turn off the phone. Not to look, but to ponder. To think about my choices and my life in these last 18.5 years. It’s been a somewhat uneven road, and I have a few regrets, in addition to spending far too long between Toronto visits. And also thinking about the day, which I mostly spent travelling alone. I felt uprooted and dislocated, but in a good way. Not lonely, but cool and adventurous, blazing new paths—or re-exploring very old ones, which was almost as good.

Got to Ottawa a bit late, and I decided to walk back to my parents’ place. No need for a cab, it wasn’t that far. I did come to question that decision a couple times because I was dead tired, and it was really cold. But I enjoyed the empty streets, the quiet. Gave me time to navel-gaze some more. Soon enough, I’d go back to Vancouver, back to real life, put all my new resolutions into practice. But for just one more day, I could relax.

I went to bed around 3AM, almost 21 hours after waking up. Not a bad day at all, if I do say so myself. And a good omen for the coming year.

2015: Movin’ On Up

2014 was better than 2013. In February of that year I took the plunge into full-time freelancing… and failed. I didn’t get enough work to make a living, I wasn’t proactive enough in finding new work, and to bring honest I wasn’t disciplined enough to effectively work from home. So in October, when my old boss offered me my old job back, I accepted. Part of me didn’t want to, but I had to face facts: I just wasn’t ready for the freelance world.

Since then I’ve been slowly building up my skills, both technical and non-, and working on a few smaller freelance projects in my spare time. It’s been good, but I need to take it to the next level: practice my communication skills. First, dust off this blog of mine and write regularly. Also, stand up in front of people to do a presentation. Maybe at a WordPress meetup? True, it wouldn’t technically be my first time but my one ultra-brief meetup talk wasn’t too great, and this whole public speaking thing is way outside my comfort zone. But I’m confident I will improve.

Speaking of freelance projects, so far they’ve all come my way through word of mouth. And that’s fine for now, I can’t handle any more work right at the moment. However, I also can’t rely just on word of mouth, so I need to think about being more proactive in finding work—there will be no repeat of 2013, either this year or any year after that.

More proactivity: working out. Yes, I’ve been going to the Y every weekday for… what, a couple years, now? But I’ve gotten into a routine, I could use more discipline, and I haven’t seen much progress. Got to shake things up, track my food intake consistently, and get out of this rut. Sign up with a trainer if necessary, even if it’s just for a session or two to point me in the right direction.

Likewise with volleyball. Once again this year, I disappointingly did not make it into the Competitive division with VGVA. My game is getting better (and it’s not just my opinion), but maybe I could give it a little nudge, make it get better a little faster? Yes, I think I could. Watch YouTube videos, learn from the pros. It would be awesome to get into Competitive next year, wouldn’t it?

2013 was the year I started travelling a little bit, going to Calgary and Regina for volleyball tournaments. Also Ottawa, though being my hometown and all, that doesn’t really count. This year there wasn’t much traveling, but I did get to see two cities in a new light. With Montreal in April, I visited the gay village for the first time. With Toronto on New Year’s Day 2015 (which I still count because it’s part of the holidays) I visited a place I hadn’t been to in 18 years, not since I moved out west. I’ll write more on NYD soon.

I don’t know where I’ll go in 2015, but I do want to keep expanding my horizons.

In 2014 I got myself tattooed. Twice. I’d been planning it for a long time, but I couldn’t work up the nerve to do it until spring of this year. My first idea was to tattoo the number “42″ on my back when I turned 42 (ie: in 2013) but I soon got better ideas. Now that I caught the tattooing bug, I’m planning several more inkings over the coming year. More on those later.

This hasn’t been an easy post to write. Partly, it’s the frustration at seeing myself in ruts. Partly, it’s that I get hard on myself, and focus too much on the flaws, on the mistakes, instead of looking towards the future. So that’s another resolution to add to the list.

And in conclusion, my three words for 2015: Mindfulness. Trust. Motion.

Vancouver Queer Film Festival 2014: final thoughts

Right, another festival under my belt! Let’s do a recap, by the numbers.

Number of shows I planned to see: 20. Which I realised was insane unless I took the entire week off or something.

Number of shows I actually saw: 11. Last year I saw 17, fell way behind on my reviews, and then felt guilty and stressed out about it. It looks like this is about the optimal number if I want to balance the festival with work and non-queer-film-related life.

Favourite feature film: A tie between The Way He Looks and Drunktown’s Finest. Honourable mention goes to Children 404.

Favourite short film: A three-way tie between Stop Calling Me Honey Bunny, Orbits / Orbitas (shown in Grrls in Space) and StandStill (shown in The Coast is Queer)

Movies I wanted to see but didn’t:

Drunktown’s Finest would have been listed here, but some movies pulled out of the festival at the last minute, and the Monday night late show was graced with an additional showing of Drunktown’s Finest.

There were a couple other movies I’d planned to see, but I’m not that broken up about missing.

Percentage of subtitled films I saw: 5 / 9 feature films, or 55%. (6 / 9, I guess, if you count the Navajo dialog in Drunktown’s Finest.) Not as high as last year, but still respectable. I managed to see films from Argentina, Brazil, Morocco/France/Switzerland, the Netherlands and Russia. Also Australia, Spain (no dialog) and the United States.

Percentage of films I saw that were directed by women: This year, over 50% of the festival feature films are directed by women. This is a big, big deal, since the percentage in mainstream cinema is apparently 8%. Dropping to 6% if you only look at Hollywood. How does my festival experience add up? Well, out of the 9 feature films I saw 4 were directed by women, so that looks about right at 44%. Incidentally, I had to look up the name of Boys’ director, Mischa Kamp, but it turns out she’s a woman. Counting short films, the percentage is 17.5 / 33 (Trenchcoat Lesbians was co-directed by Ryan Steele and Amy Goodmurphy) which just edges it over the 50% mark.

GIRLTRASH: All Night Long

This is an awesomely hilarious movie about sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, lesbianism, heartbreak, fantasies and lies. It’s silly and over-the-top, knows how silly and over-the-top it is, and just merrily rolls with it. And rocks with it. (See what I did there?) And did I mention it’s a musical? With some really catchy songs?

There’s not a lot more I can say. I mean, you don’t really care about the plot, do you? There’s a battle of the bands that must be won with pluck and determination, one girl’s in love with another who’s in love with a third but it turns out she really isn’t and actually bonds with girl #1 and in the end they totally do it. And we all learn valuable lessons about how wrong (or at least, really inconvenient) it is to lie to get what you want.

A great way to conclude this year’s VQFF! You always need to start and end on a high note, and this film absolutely delivered.

Salvation Army / L’Armée du Salut

This is the story of a man forever stuck between worlds: men and women, Morocco and Europe, rich and poor. The movie is based on an autobiographical novel by Abdellah Taïa and recounts the author’s adolescence in a small town in Morocco, followed by his emigration to Switzerland.

It’s a beautiful and fascinating look at conservative Muslim North Africa: a place where men and women are very much segregated, where public homosexuality does not belong but single men can still find action with a fifteen-year-old boy if they know how to look. Teen Abdellah is very much a cypher: he’s very stoic, hardly ever cracks a smile, quietly going through the motions: running errands, cleaning the house, meeting adult men for trysts… It’s not clear what he gets out of it: they’re never shown giving him monet or gifts, except for a fresh watermelon from the fruit merchant, just once. Abdellah seems very disconnected both from his emotions and his sexuality, and though I appreciate that this is probably true to the book, I’m not sure it works in a purely visual medium.

Fast forward 10 years and Abdellah has moved to a pretty touristy seaside town, still in Morocco, and shacked up with an older, rich Swiss gentleman. Though he’s taken up speaking French and has his eye on Western culture, it’s clear his sugar saddy does not see him as an equal and hasn’t cared to integrate at all in Moroccan society, not even speaking a word of Arabic. The locals do still call Abdellah “brother” and don’t mind that he’s a kept boy, but again it means he doesn’t quite belong in either world, and the space he occupies is a lonely one with no room for peers.

Four months later Abdellah has arrived in Geneva to begin his studies. Unfortunately he has arrived early and his grant doesn’t kick in for another month, so he has no money and no place to stay. After wandering around the university for a bit, he runs into his ex-sugar daddy. It seems their breakup was not a friendly one, and they have a very bitter argument. Abdellah gets called a heartless whore but doesn’t let it get to him, proudly claiming he’s free, both of Morocco and of his ex.

Free or not, though, he still has no place to stay. Happening upon a Salvation Army homeless shelter, he decides this is as good a place as any. His new roommate is another Moroccan man who offers to sing a song while sharing a snack; Abdellah chooses what I assume is a traditional Moroccan song and as the roommate sings, Abdellah starts crying.

Cut to credits.

Really, it was that abrupt. I guess it was a deliberate artistic choice, and I’m guessing also that it reflects the novel, but it was extremely jarring and took me out of the story right at the wrong moment (talking to other audience members later, I wasn’t alone).

What I’m getting out of that last scene is that Abdellah isn’t nearly as free of Morocco as he’d like to think he is. He doesn’t have to live by its rules anymore, true, but the culture is still with him, for better or for worse (depending on how much he wants to assimilate in mainstream Swiss society). And we’re left with the unhappy thought that this may be his lot in life: to never really belong anywhere, to always have bits of his past calling to him in the present, clouding his future.

Or that’s what I’m getting out of the film, anyway. I can’t be sure because, as I said, it’s hard to get into Abdellah’s head. I found the look at Moroccan life fascinating, but without a personal connection to ground it, I felt as detached from most of the story as Abdellah himself. Maybe this is the kind of story that works better as a book.

The Third One / El Tercero

The Third One is not exactly a deep movie, but it is definitely engaging and steamy.

This is the story of Fede, a young college student who starts chatting online with older, suave Franco. It’s going well, and Franco bringing his boyfriend into the chat just makes things better. Fede plays the part of the hungry bottom perfectly: showing off in his underwear, talking about sucking both their dicks at once, claiming not to be scared of anything.

They meet for dinner at Franco’s superb apartment, and the cracks immediately start appearing: Fede is excited but visibly nervous, Franco and his boyfriend bicker a bit, but they all sit down to eat and get to know each other. Over dinner and a couple bottles of wine, the couple talk about how they met, Fede shares some of his family history. These are some very intimate scenes that humanise the participants after all that chatroom posturing, but what’s remarkable is how they’re filmed: the director chose to set this part up as a few very long static shots, but they don’t feel static. Thanks to the dialog and the actors’ body language, I was completely captivated by the conversation and didn’t even notice the direction in hindsight. That’s great work right there.

And then they have sex. It’s very hot. Fede heads off to class in the morning after a nice shower, and a promise to get together the couple again. The last scene had no subtitles so I was forced to guess at the content with what Spanish I remembered from high school, but I think the topic was trigonometry. There was talk of talk of angles, variables (A, B, C and D), and I think the teacher said something like “point of focus”. Probably a lot of jokes about Fede’s new situation; since he was smiling, I think I guessed right.

The Third One was a good movie; not great, but very well done and definitely got my interest (the hot guys certainly didn’t hurt). I was a little disappointed by the sudden shift in tone from conversation to sex; I wish they’d kept talking a little longer because in hindsight, that part was a lot more interesting.

Children 404

Children 404 is an online support forum for Russian LGBT teens that was created in reaction to Putin’s notorious “gay propaganda” law. Kids who access it get to connect with their peers; they learn that they’re not crazy, they’re not sick, and most importantly that they’re not alone. There’s also a private area where teens can get help from professional counselors donating their time.

This intensely moving documentary focuses on two people: Elena Klimova, the site’s creator; Pasha, an openly gay teen who’s moving to Toronto to study journalism. They talk about their hopes and wishes: for a better future, where Putin-fueled homophobia will be as unimaginable as segregation; for a family, kids, a house, just having a normal life, something that would never be possible in today’s Russia. They never asked to be activists, but what choice do they have? As Elena points out one one scene, even hiding won’t ensure your safety, and you’d constantly be looking over your shoulder anyway.

Interspersed with their scenes are several dozen short testimonies from Children 404 teens—anonymous, of course: we just hear their voices, and see shaky homemade footage of their schools or neighbourhoods. They talk about getting bullied, beat up, having to hide relationships from classmates, growing up believing they’re sick or abnormal or sinners. Hearing those voices drives home what a difference the site makes, every day, for hundreds of teens.

What surprised me about Children 404 is how positive it is. Yes, things are terribly hard now, but these amazingly brave souls are truly making a difference, changing hearts and minds. Not just queer ones, either: in an April screening of the movie in Moscow, the audience successfully resisted protesters’ and police’s attempts to shut the event down. To the straight audience members, this was a wake-up call that the hate is very real, and it does affect them too.

In the post-film Q&A, director Askold Kurov told us of more happy endings: Pasha is now in Toronto, and doing well in his studies. There’s been an uptick in refugee claims from Russia by GLBT people, but it looks like they’ve all been accepted. And best of all, the site’s legal troubles are over: the charge of containing homosexual propaganda that was laid against it, has been dismissed. They’ll keep on helping queer teens for a while to come.

Hope springs eternal. Russia will need a lot of it, but it looks like some people are moving it in the right direction.

The Coast is Queer 2014

I missed out on the last day of grass volleyball to see The Coast is Queer, that’s how dedicated I am! I would never miss this wonderful showcase of local queer talent.

Sissy

As fun now as when it first showed last Saturday. Sissy power!

Trench Coat Lesbians

Hilarious and weird flirting between two “lesbians”, in the style of a 60′s B movie. Bonus: I learned more slang terms for “vagina” in those five minutes than I ever have in my entire life.

A Love Story

Michael Vonn fondly reminisces about her relationship with Billy, a drag queen who died of AIDS in 1988, and how it continues to haunt her (in a good way) to this day.

Up and Down

The story of a tomboy learning how to play the yoyo and hang with the boys. It’s not actually queer since she is interested in one of those boys, at least until her girlier older sister swoops in. But in a refreshing twist, the happy ending was not to end up in a couple, but rather to make friends and keep doing what she loved best.

Body.Cake.Lake.

A naked woman. By a lake. Eating a cake. Smearing all over herself. A fun little short by Michael V Smith.

Queer Arts Festival – SD Holman interview

Artist, photographer and Pride In Art Society Artistic Director SD Holman talks passionately about her work, the Queer Arts Festival, and why it’s so important to make space for queer / trans creatives.

StandStill

In this moving documentary, Joella Cabalu turns the camera on her gay younger brother and her devoutly Catholic parents, bringing them together in one room for an interview. It’s hard to watch, since it’s less a conversation than people talking at each other… but it’s a start.

Interestingly, Joella narrates that she feels responsible for mediating between her brother and parents. It’s good that she brought herself into the documentary as more than a dispassionate observer because she is part of the story.

StandStill is tied for favourite with Orbitas and Stop Calling Me Honey Bunny (shown in Saturday’s Grrrls in Space.

Whispers of Life

An intriguing little short of a mysterious man who talks a bullied teen out of suicide. Gorgeous visuals and delicious hints of magic.

A Message

Who else but Clark Nikolai would do a short movie about an apocalyptic deluge of ejaculate from a distant galaxy threatening life on Earth? I hear he’s doing a sci-fi movie, too. Can’t wait!

Exempli Gratia

Clark Nikolai’s second offering, and it kind of went over my head. Found footage with lists of mental disorders? Maybe I need to watch it a second time for it to make sense…

Hall of Mirrors

A manically mysterious short. I don’t think I got this one either, but I still enjoyed it!

All Good Things

You start out both laughing and squirming in your seat as these two hilariously incompatible guys try to have sex. but the very last bit was disturbing since Guy #1 did not appear to consent to being fucked. There and gone, and honestly it’s only in hindsight that it started bothering me. Is this what the filmmakers were going for?

Punch My Tammy

A catchy little song about anal love…

Pierrot Lunaire: Butch Dandy

A bit of history: in 1884, Belgian poet Albert Giraud wrote a collection of poems based on the Commedia dell’Arte figure of Pierrot, the sad clown always pining for Columbine. 21 of these poems were adapted into an operatic melodrama by Arnold Schoenberg in 1912. And then Bruce LaBruce got his hands on it.

What we end up with is a deliriously weird movie that as far as I can see only has the slimmest of connections with the original material: a black-and-white silent movie that feels like an experimental art-house piece, juxtaposed with the complete operatic score (with subtitles, since it’s in German), with a plot that has to be seen to be believed. I enjoyed the hell out of this movie, but not everyone did. I could hear some audience members fidgeting during slow bits and some straight up walked out halfway through. I get it, though: the (very fake) gore and murder might have crossed a few lines, and the whole thing was probably way too out there if you weren’t in the right mood.

In this reimagining Pierrot is a butch lesbian, already going out with her lady Columbine. But Columbine’s fat capitalist pig of a father susses out that Pierrot (who actually passes pretty well) is in fact a woman! Much drama ensues as the fat capitalist pig drags Columbine away, and Pierrot operatically curses her female body. If only she could change it, and show the fat capitalist pig she can be a man worthy of wooing his daughter! Cutting off her breasts is easy enough, but that’s only half the job. So Pierrot decides to check out strippers and hustlers in order to find the perfect penis to steal. A few attempted murders later Pierrot finds her prize, and shows it off to Columbine and her fat capitalist pig of a father. She’s horrified, but he seems to approve. The film ends on this ambiguous note.

Weird enough for you? On a scale of 1 to WTF, it still doesn’t beat gay zombies fucking each other’s open wounds, but the operatic dimension as well as the old-school film atmosphere puts it in a class of its own. Superb.

Fun fact: Susanne Sachsse, who plays Pierrot, also sings the operatic vocals. That’s damn impressive.