Wednesday, July 28, 2010

To Infinitus... And Beyond! (Part IV)

The Night of a Thousand Wizards took a lot out of us (it lasted 'til 2 a.m.!), so Brianna and I decided to skip the early programming, sleep a little later, and head to the convention around 11 a.m. or so. Once there, we decided to split up, she attending a "Writing Wizard Rock!" workshop given by her friend Lena, about whom I've already told you much.

I chose to see a presentation just a few doors down the hall: The Better Man: The Morality of Youth in the Harry Potter Series. The speech was given by a guy named Garreth Fisher, who "teaches religion and anthropology in upstate New York". He was a fascinating and well-informed speaker, and I was intrigued by many of the points he argued. Unfortunately, I can't remember the most of the things he said, which is what happens when you're lazy and don't write down your experiences quickly enough. (What I wouldn't give for a Pensieve right now...)

As it ended, I turned around to go and saw Brianna waiting for me at the door. It turned out that Lena had massively overexerted herself the night before, and was sleeping in, trying not to succumb for a second-time to a stress-induced illness which she had picked up, as a result of her overbooked schedule and musical debut. Brianna was understanding of Lean's desire to not get sick during the convention, but at the same time disappointed that her friend had failed to show up for a crowd of 90 people, all eager to speak with her about Wizard Rock.

But the next presentation I remember quite clearly, because it was about an undeniably awesome subject: Werewolves! I won't quote you the entire presentation (My, What Big Eyes You Have! Lupin, Greyback, and the Modern Werewolf Revival), but she managed to work in stuff like AIDS, homosexuality, pedophilia, witchcraft, and social justice issues addressed by Rowling through the characters of Fenrir Greyback and Remus Lupin.

From there, it was off to a speech given by a woman majoring in a field of criticism so obscure that I had never heard of it before: "Fat Studies"! She had some interesting points, but not much in the way of eye contact. She basically read us her dissertation, verbatim. After her, in the same room in fact, came a 15 year old girl from Chicago, who gave one of the most animated speeches I had heard all weekend: Snape, Dumbledore, and the Power of Love and Choice.

Next up was a round-table discussion on The Problem of Hermione. Too often, round-table discussions devolve into either pointless banter or flame wars, but this was stayed remarkably on-topic. Brianna maintained, as she often does, that Hermione should have gone with Viktor Krum, on the basis that he is much more responsible and honest about his feelings towards Hermione; that Ron simply "isn't good enough for her." I countered that Ron may not be the most responsible person, but his heart's in the right place. Ron has friends who care about him; it is unknown whether Krum has any close friends at all. My money's on Ron.

After sticking around for Snape, Dumbledore, and the Power of Love and Choice, there wasn't really anything we were dying to see, we decided to go back to the hotel and take one last swim in the pool. (Did I mention that this pool had a little beach of its own? Made of actual sand? And a water slide disguised as an old castle? It was freakin' sweet. The nicest hotel pool in which I've even had the privilege of swimming.)

When the time came, Brianna and I went back to our room to change into our formal-wear. She wore a white silky dress which she bought specially for the occasion, set of by an adorable little black hat with feathers. She looked extremely glamorous. I wore a bright blue shirt, pinstriped gray slacks, and a deep blue velvet cloak which used to belong to my Dad. And a wand holster on my hip, of course (courtesy of Brianna's skill with a sewing machine.)

We arrived a little late to the Night of Frivolity Ball, but we had time to dance to a few Muggle songs, before the start of the Wizard Rock Comedy Slam (again, I find it bizarre to think of Wrock as having subgenres, but there you go.)

The first band, The Quaffle Kids, were pretty bad. I didn't like any of their songs, I'm afraid. The next group, Hawthorn and Holly, were slightly better, but not by a lot. The Blibbering Humdingers were pretty funny, though they needed to work on less repetitive lyrics. I enjoyed Fred Lives, but by the time they got onstage, Brianna and I were both falling on our faces, and annoyed that the star attraction of the evening, The Parselmouths, wouldn't be plying till well after 3 in the morning.

Fortunate that we did decide to cut out when we did, or we would've stayed up late for no reason! We learned the next morning from other convention-attendees that The Parselmouths had been canceled, and were going to perform at breakfast (a.k.a. the Leaving Feast), as a way to make it up to their many fans. At least we got to hear them play, and on the bright side, we got our picture taken with them! So we didn't miss too much.

The trip home was largely uneventful, except for a somewhat serious delay in the bus that was supposed to take us from the hotel to the airport (it was more than an hour late!) But we didn't miss our flight, we got home safely, and we had a great time doing it.


Well, I'm afraid I don't have anything more to tell you. It was a wild ride, and the tale was long, but I've nothing more to say. I hope that you had as much fun reading about Infinitus as I did writing about it.

Mischief managed.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

To Infinitus... And Beyond! (Part III)

Ah, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Where should I begin? Well, I caught my first glimpse of Hogwarts Castle from Seuss Landing, which, let me tell you, was a surreal sight.

The park was crowded, hot, and noisy. It must have been at least 95 degrees, eighty percent humidity, and not a cloud in the sky. The place was packed to the gills, as the photos will demonstrate. I've gotta say, if I'd had to wait 40 minutes in that kind of weather for for all the rides in the park, I don't know if I could've made it. You can't even get indoors for a relief from the heat; they only allow twenty people in the shops at a time, in order to preserve the atmosphere (and probably to comply with fire regulations). But I think the shops were probably so crowded because everyone else was trying to get out of the heat, too.

The shops were great. Asides from the heat and the Muggles, it just like being a Hogwarts student out for a weekend excursion to Hogsmeade. But I've gotta say, the fake snow on the rooftops felt enormously, wildly, ridiculously out-of-place. There was just no way to suspend my disbelief, even for a moment. It was just. too. HOT!

Probably the first (and longest) line you'll notice is the one for the Butterbeer wagon. They serve it chilled, in either a free plastic cup, or a souvenir glass (which costs a lot extra). The foam on top is not a product of the drink itself; rather, it's a separate fluid, which is plopped on top of your glass when it's almost full. It never dissipates, it just floats in the center of your glass, even after you've finished it. It tastes good, like butterscotch with an aftertaste like the butter they put on popcorn at the movies. It's good, but extremely sweet. It's definitely designed for the palette of small child.

The same goes for Pumpkin Juice. It tastes like a like pumpkin pie, even though (according to the ingredients) it's mostly apple juice. It comes in a nice bottle, with a lid shaped like a pumpkin, but I recommend that, if you're traveling in a large group, buy one bottle, and let everyone take a sip. It's too sweet for one person to finish the whole thing. Brianna and I wound of throwing away half a bottle apiece.

The park was full of robe-wearing employees, who acted as shopkeepers, security guards, and emcees for special events like the Durmstrang and Beauxbatons Dance Extravaganza. We saw them forming a line as we were leaving the "Flight of the Hippogriff" ride, and decided to follow them. They went to a little shaded area beside Olivander's, where they performed a modified version the dance number from Goblet of Fire.

But the star attraction, the real show-stealer, was the ride within Hogwarts castle itself, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. We didn't even bother with that one while it was still light outside, because the wait was 90 minutes long. Sure, we could've bypassed all that with out Express Passes (courtesy of the convention), but I knew it would be special, and wanted to save it for the Night of a Thousand Wizards.

In reality, it was mostly Witches, not Wizards, and there were more than two thousand of us! It was an incredible experience, one I'll (probably) never duplicate. For one, the trip costs too much, and for another, I don't know if they'll ever hold a convention like this again. But man, oh man, am I glad I was there to see it, to be part of something so big.

And I believe that every single one of us rode the Forbidden Journey that night. I don't have any pictures, but I don't think they could do it justice. It was all about the experience of actually being there. I think that is was the only theme park ride I've ever been on where the line was almost as exciting as the ride. It was packed to the rafters with HP memorabilia, props, sculptures, and audio. It was all incredibly immersive. For example, there were tons of portraits, but it wasn't immediately apparent which ones were static, and which ones would move if you looked at them long enough. Sometimes, they would even converse with each other. There was one room where the Hogwarts Founders bantered back and forth with each other. Their dialogue was so well-written and snappy that I suspected that JKR herself had a hand in its creation (though I could be wrong).

The ride itself was a head-spinning, stomach-twisting thrill which blurred the line between real, physical motion, simulated flight, and animatronic wizardry. For example, in one scene, we chased (and were chased by) a Hungarian Horntail, which led to us crashing through a bridge. We were jerked to the side, and all of a sudden we were inches away form a giant robotic dragon head, which opened its mouth and shot a blast of artificial, underlit fog and hot air at us, producing a shockingly real facsimile of fire-breath. There were Dementor attacks, giant spiders that spat water (supposed to be either drool or poison) on the riders, and even a hair-raising brush with the battering branches of the Whomping Willow! For a moment, all I could think was "Oh shit, what if they've got the timing on this ride wrong? We'll all be crushed!" That's what amusement park rides should be like! I was (literally) transported to a world of magic, and brought safely back. Just like the books!

Well, it's late, and I need to sleep, but there's more to come. Tomorrow, I'll try to give you my final account of the trip, and sum it all up, as well as incorporating anything else that I might have forgotten.

Friday, July 23, 2010

To Infinitus... And Beyond! (Part II)

Friday morning, we overslept (hur hur hur!), so we missed most of the early-morning programming, including a really interesting-looking talk on gender stereotypes and the female Shadow. But we did arrive in time to see "Shining Light into Shadows: Canon Clues to Seeing Snape", which consisted of four smaller essays, entitled "Snape Through Adult Eyes," "Bullies, the Bullied, and the Bystanders: In Just Seven Years You Can Unmake a Man," "The Bravest Git I Ever Knew," and "Developmental Alchemy: The Transformation of Severus Snape."

These essays frequently mentioned that JKR seems unwilling to accept alternative interpretations of her canon. I mean, I know she wrote the whole thing, but is it really that impossible to see why someone would find Snape intriguing, even deeply sympathetic (besides what she dismissively refers to as the "bad-boy complex"?) Is it so hard to see why someone might think that Dumbledore should have done more for Draco, instead of standing on the sidelines as the poor boy was ensnared by the Dark Side? I say that the fact that fans insist on wanting to comfort the flayed-baby Voldemort-soul thing in King's Cross, even though Dumbledore explicitly says "You cannot help", shows that her message shines through in every page. The fact that people feel attraction and sympathy towards even villains she has tried so hard to make "irredeemable" shows that she is an uncommonly truthful and sensitive writer, perhaps even more so than she gives herself credit for.

But, moving on...

I'm not quite sure where we went after lunch. I think it was "We, the Jury, Find the Following Characters... Redeemed?" (I'll have to ask Brianna.) After that, we skipped the rest of the programming, in favor of attending the Islands of Adventure. We wanted to get to see the rest of the park, and our passes only worked for that particular day, from 2pm to 2am. And we had to get back to the Convention by 5pm, so we could get our reserved seats for... the world premier of The Final Battle!

That's right, folks, it's a(nother) Harry Potter musical! It was directed, composed, and written by Brianna's friends Lena Gabrielle (a.k.a. "The Butterbeer Experience") and Mallory Vance. The two of them conceived the idea just nine months ago! They recruited dozens of actors, stage crew, and orchestra members, and rehearsed the entire thing, from beginning to end, over Skype. That's right: not one person in this entire play had ever met for a live, in-person rehearsal until two days before the actual premier. And they moved mountains!

And it was AWESOME! I mean, I don't think it would appeal to non-fans, especially because of all the in-jokes, but to anyone who has any fondness for the series, you'll have a blast! The musical numbers are great, the costumes are incredible, and everyone enjoyed themselves immensely! I got goosebumps when the whole cast gathered behind Harry, to pledge their undying support for him.

Now we come to the true subject of my tale: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter itself! It's so awesome, to utterly immersive and mind-blowing, that I feel it deserves a post all to itself. So, keep your eyes peeled, everyone! I'll have it up ASAP!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

To Infinitus... And Beyond!

What a weekend!

Brianna and I left on Wednesday at about noon, and just in two-and-a-half hours, we were on the other edge of the freakin' continent! (Air travel never ceases to amaze me. Just a hundred years ago, that journey would have taken the better part of a week! But I digress.)

When we landed in Orlando, and stepped out into the hot, wet air, I felt like I was stepping into the Bird House at the Detroit Zoo. Even so, it was a welcome change from Michigan's perpetually-overcast skies. The sun was shining every day, all day long, with only a few clouds, and one brief thunderstorm. But it stayed hot all the time; the night brought only a little relief form the heat, and it was just as humid as daytime.

But the heat is irrelevant if you've got an air-conditioned fourth-story room with a view! Our hotel, the Portofino, was a sprawling complex of faux-Italian architecture, based on the real-life Italian town of the same name, which was a popular destination in the 1950s for Hollywood royalty. Our hotel was so posh, it had three pools, one of which had its own beach! Real sand and everything! It was incredible.

The first day of Infinitus 2010 began at 10am on Thursday, when the Common Room opened. I didn't buy anything from the vendors, though I did try on some robes and sweaters, and Brianna considered buying a wand.

After that came the Live Wizard Chess Demonstration, which was half chess-game, half witty banter, and half swordplay (in total,150% nerdy). Every time one "chess piece" tried to capture another, they would have a choreographed sword fight to see who won. There was a lot of back-stabbing, double-crossing, and gratuitous spanking (courtesy of Fred and George, visited upon Umbridge).

At the Welcome Feast, they served Mexican, buffet-style, and everybody ate way too much. After lunch, they held the 141st Merlin's Cup Quidditch match. I watched for a bit, but the brutal humidity drove me inside before the end.

Form 3pm to 5pm, we attended formal programming: speeches and lectures given by really smart people. Brianna and I saw "Casting Your Patronus: Representations of Psychological Processes in Harry Potter" (by David Martin), and "Our Own Rita Skeeter: Muggle Media Mishandles HP" (by Connie Neal). The "Rita Skeeter" one talked about how so much empahsis is placed on Christians who still object to Harry Potter, despite the fact that they are a tiny, tiny minority among American Christians, and that several major Chrisitian publications (including Christianity Today) have already publicly stated their support for the moral lessons contained in the Harry Potter saga.

Then, we attended the "Classic Wrock Show" (stronge to think that the genre is already old enough to be divided into "new" and "Classic"), featuring The Butterbeer Experience (Brianna's friend, Lena Gabrielle, who also directed/wrote The Final Battle [more on that in the next post!]), The Moaning Myrtles, Justin Finch-Fletchley and the Sugar-Quills, The Whomping Willows, and The Remus Lupins.

So that's Day One. I'll have more later, but right now I gotta get to work. 'Bye!

(P.S. Brianna and I even got a lot of work done on our respective novels! I added more than ten pages to mine, over the course of two flights.)

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Protocol

Have you ever seen someone you know in a public place, and you haven't really talked in a while, and you're not sure if you should say hello?

So you act like you don't see them, give yourself a moment to get your thoughts together. Will they be miffed that you haven't said anything to them in so long? Will trying to be friendly make it worse?

But then, to your horror, you realize that if you've seen them, then they've probably already seen you! Now they've already seen that you're not responding to their presence, and they must think that you've already snubbed them. Oh no! The whole encounter is ruined, before either party has openly acknowledged the other's existence! NOOOOOOOO! How could it all go so wrong?!?!


So yeah. Has that ever happened to you?


Me either.

Friday, July 9, 2010

A Walk in the Woods

As I was biking back from the pharmacy, I was possessed by a whim to see a small park on Eisenhower, which I hadn't visited in more than a year (I don't remember the park's name, just its location). I knew that there were some lovely nature trails, and a huge tree, just like the one Totoro lives under, but I didn't realize that they had paved some of the walkways. They used wooden planks, raised a few inches off the ground to prevent muddy shoes, and to avoid obstructing the flow of rainwater.

I set off down the path, though I didn't know where it went, determined to follow it until I came out somewhere. There were a few times when the bugs and the heat and the humidity almost made me turn back, but I stuck with it, knowing that I'd never rest if I had to keep wondering where it led.

In the process, I became deeply lost.

I don't mean that I couldn't find my way back. The fact that I'm writing this now is proof that I could. I mean that I completely lost my bearings, by sense of relative position within the city as a larger whole. And that felt awesome. i felt like an explorer searching through new lands, or a traveler on a journey to a strange country. It wasn't until I emerged from the woods that I saw a single living soul. The sense of isolation and mystery was delicious. It was like living out a childhood dream.

In the process of getting lost, I discovered several previously-unknown features of my immediate area, including a disc golf course; a basketball court; a very modern-looking playground; a footbridge over I-94; and a runoff pond that's home to ducks, geese, egrets, heron, and even a swan! I even picked some wild raspberries, sun-ripened and delicious, and ate them right there on the trail. They were better than any I could ever buy in a store, because I picked them myself, using my knowledge of local plants for practical reasons.

So the next time you see a path in the woods, and you don't know where it goes, go ahead and walk it. You just might have an adventure of your own.

Robin Hood: A Real American Hero

With all the hoopla surrounding Russel Crowe's new Robin Hood movie, I've been hearing a lot about how the beloved hero is nothing more than a socialist thief, a tool of the New British Empire to weaken America's defenses by draining our coffers with needless welfare programs. A quick Google search reveals that there are quite a few people, mostly on the conservative side (though there are exceptions), who share this view of Robin as a wealth-redistributing traitor, stealing from those who had the Ayn Randian courage to "risk their financial well-being", cutting checks to layabout hog-farmers and welfare widows.

Now this made me mad. Robin Hood, unamerican? Please. How could you find a folk-hero more American than Robin Hood? Sure, his origins are English, but so are mine, if you want to get technical. He's very much a part of the American pantheon. He's our trickster-god, a cultural hero as precious to us as Jason to the Greeks, or Beowulf to the Saxons.

It is my contention that Robin Hood, by word and action, by thought and by deed, supports every single one of the ten amendments in the Bill of Rights.

The First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law... prohibiting...the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." When King John makes it impossible for Robin to live and operate within society, Robin simply uproots himself and his men to Sherwood Forest, where they live (mostly) unmolested by the State or its agents. And of course, the whole thing started because there was no way for Robin, or the people in general, to obtain redress for their grievances."

The right to bear arms and form militias? Oh, yeah. What are the Merry Men if not a militia formed by concerned citizens, working to overthrow a corrupt system?

Amendment three? That's a tough one. The quartering of soldiers wasn't really a problem in the middle ages; they just slept in tents and bought or stole what they could from the locals. But in Mel Brooks' Robin Hood: Men in Tights (yes, it counts as part of the mythos), Robin arrives home just in time to see the repo man hauling away his castle, so in a sense he's being deprived of his living space in order to finance the king's coffers. This ties nicely into Amendment Four, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure.

The Fifth Amendment is kind of a sprawling statement, but it guarantees, among other things, that "private property [shall not] be taken for public use, without just compensation." Robin and his Merry Men personally enforce this law for the benefit of the downtrodden commoners, protecting or compensating them for this unreasonable confiscation, often with arrow and sword if need be.

Frequently, Robin's death-sentence is handed down from on high by an authority (King John, or the Sheriff of Nottingham) who is anything but impartial. After the warrant for his arrest is issued, the legal system skips over all that boring "trial by law" stuff (which is guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment) and jumps straight to the execution. Often, anyone who meets Robin is empowered (and even encouraged!) to kill him on the spot. This lack of a trial also violates Amendment Seven, which insists that "the right of trial by jury shall be preserved."

The Eighth Amendment protects against "cruel and unusual punishments," and torture, that confession-extraction method favored by medieval monarchs, certainly falls under that category.

Amendments Nine and Ten deal with powers denied to the State, and reserved for the people. Isn't that what Robin was always fighting for? The right of the common taxpayer to stand up and be heard by Big Government?

The fact that Robin's tale addresses the same issues as the American Bill of Rights, almost four hundred years before the Americas were even colonized, speaks to the timelessness and universality of Robin's crusade for freedom. His influence on the English-speaking mind is profound and long-lasting, and reminds us all of the need for brave men who will stand up to corrupt systems, and rally people with their words and their actions, to throw off corrupt rulers, and remind us that we're only as free as we make ourselves.

And if that's not American, I don't know what is.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Why I Refuse to Watch M. Night Shyamalan's "The Last Airbender"

I liked Nickelodeon's Avatar: The Last Airbender. I won't say I was a die-hard fan, but I thought the writing was funny and clever and heartfelt, and I enjoyed myself a lot whenever I got the chance to watch it. I liked how the characters grew realistically, how they bantered with one another, how they felt like people I'd enjoy knowing in real life.

It is for this very reason that I refuse to watch M. Night Shyamalan's new live-action adaptation.

Shyamalan has thrown away an excellent opportunity. He could have used this as an opportunity to introduce unknown Asian-American actors to the movie-going public, in a fantasy setting which celebrates Asian culture; instead, he specifically requested white actors, and put them in what amounts to yellowface for their roles.

The few actors in the movie who aren't white are Middle-Eastern or Mediterranean, and they're all cast as villains. Zuko and Uncle Iroh were my two favorite characters in the series, and I loved watching Zuko's personality unfold, discovering the hurt and need for acceptance which drove a talented young man like him to such rage and self-loathing. I feel like it's a slap in the face, that they can't be played by Asian actors, that they can't even be played by white actors, but they're reduced to mere caricatures of "terrorists", an insult to Middle-Eastern people, and the American audiences whose buttons Hollywood thinks it can push.

And lastly, the cartoon is just fine as-is. I have no need to pay eight dollars to see the same story retold, with different (less-talented) actors, compressed and edited into a fraction of the time. Part of the joy I got from the original series was its blend of Asian and American storytelling styles. Like an American TV show, any episode could be watched on its own, in any order. But like an Asian series, the show had a unified story arc which stretched across the season, allowing those who watched regularly to gain a deeper understanding of the characters.

In conclusion, I borrow the words of Angry Asian Man, a much better blogger than myself, who quite eloquently summed it all up in a few words, during an interview with Mr. Shyamalan himself: "...[T]his is not about a bunch of fanboys being upset about how you’ve messed with their favorite cartoon. This is about an absolute failure to acknowledge and understand the broader context of race and representation, and how it’s being played out, once again, in this movie — a project many believed would be an unprecedented opportunity for Asians in a major Hollywood project."