Thursday, January 28, 2016

Godspeed Challenger

In which our Diva remembers

Thirty years ago today, about ten minutes into chemistry class, the phone rang.

Before that moment, I don't think any of us had really noticed that there was a phone in the science room. We all stared, bewildered, as our teacher walked over, picked it up, listened silently for a moment, and put it back down. Then, still without a word, he pulled out the TV cart and turned it on.

I don't remember hearing a word spoken for at least an hour that didn't come from that TV. There might have been an announcement over the PA at some point, but if so I didn't really register it.

It took several minutes to grasp what we were seeing, that somewhere in that enormous plume across the sky -- too big, all wrong -- were the atoms of what had been seven brave, excited people.

He never said, but I can't imagine Mr. Underwood didn't apply for the seat Christa McAuliffe sat in that day. The man who hosted the Science Club at his own house, playing an old 45 of "They're Coming to Take Me Away" at the beginning and end of each meeting, presiding over discussions of when we would next take the Van de Graaff generator over to the elementary school to raise little kids' hair or how one might build a working lightsaber. The one who nominated me for both my Society of Women Engineers awards, even as I was realizing my career path led through all the stories I had to tell.

But I knew that plume was all wrong, too big, because I had watched so many of them rise into the sky before. Most of us in that class were born the year Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. None of us remembered a time when the countdown and the ignition and the rising column of smoke weren't events to look forward to on TV, to hope they fell on teacher in-service days during the school year, to tape when VCRs became a thing. The "send a civilian to space" idea happened because the public was losing interest, a fact that was utterly baffling to me when I read about it.

When I was a little girl (big enough to know that "pirate" and "Jedi" weren't actual options, but before I figured out they came under the heading of "actor"), I wanted to be a ballerina or an astronaut. Preferably both. By 1986, three years into a twelve-inch growth spurt that threw my center of gravity so far off I didn't find it until I was about 25, "ballerina" was pretty firmly off the table. But "astronaut" was still very much in the mix, alongside a few other options that had cropped up over the years. I was even considering applying to the Air Force Academy the following summer, for the sole reason that it was how you got to be an astronaut. (Well, one way. But Annapolis was two time zones away while Colorado Springs was at the foot of a mountain I could see from atop the swingset in my back yard. Besides, I was an Air Force brat, and "Navy wings are made of lead." *g*)

When this anniversary comes around, there's a lot of talk about how the loss of Challenger and her crew changed NASA -- made it more cautious, made people start questioning even more whether we should be doing all this in the first place. It wasn't the first accident, but it was the first I remember seeing with my own eyes. The first to to happen when space travel had become so seemingly routine that we were sending a social-studies teacher up there.

That caution was, and is, all to the good. As much as we might yearn to stand on Mars tomorrow, we need to be careful.

These people should be celebrating this anniversary with their families. They should be telling their children, nieces and nephews, grandchildren what the Earth looked like from orbit on that January morning.

They are immortal, but they should be home. Our pioneers should not be martyrs, not if we can avoid it.

But we still need our pioneers.


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

To the Safe Zone!

In which our Diva faces off against some gnarly zombies

It's time for Nightmare on Chicago Street again, and that means more webseries goodness from the fertile mind of Jeff Kelley!  I had a great time working with Jeff, the ever-hilarious Jason Pawlowski, and some skeeeery zombies in this year's videos. Here's the first episode:



Be sure to subscribe to the NoCS YouTube channel to keep up with Ed and Rebecca's adventures leading up to Saturday's big bash. If you're in the area, check out the official website for info. I'll be on hand in my Rebecca duds, so if you see me there, come up and say hi!

Nightmare on Chicago Street takes place in downtown Elgin, Illinois, on Saturday night, October 24.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Welcome (back) to Fright Night

In which our Diva gets to revisit an old friend on the big screen

Thirty years ago this summer, I got my dad and then my friend Kathy to drive me to Aurora from the booming metropolis of Bennett, Colorado (population ~1800) for three separate viewings of a movie with the dubious title of Fright Night. Once I got my hot little hands on a VHS copy, I systematically wore it out over the next couple years.

It's the tale of a teenage horror fan who happens on unusual nocturnal activities next door and quickly discovers that his new neighbor is a vampire.  It sounds like the setup for a joke, and there's no shortage of humor. But, as with so many stories that seize my little fangirl heart in their fangy jaws and run away with it ("A vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost share a house," anyone?), there's a whole lot more going on too.

All these years later, I'm gratified to know that I'm not the only one who thinks so, and that it has taken its rightful place as a horror classic. Its cast is in high demand at conventions, two limited-edition Blu-ray pressings have sold out in a snap, a forthcoming documentary blew its Kickstarter goal out of the water, and mere mention of the 2011 remake can elicit the kind of vitriol usually reserved for those who dare meddle with beloved childhood icons. (I'm secure enough in my fan cred to assert that said remake is perfectly serviceable, albeit nothing special.  But that's not a course I recommend undertaking lightly.)

Last night, at an anniversary screening as part of Bruce Campbell's Horror Film Festival at Wizard World, the Chin himself opened the festivities by asking who had seen it in the theatre. I raised my hand and confirmed that I'd done so three times, when I didn't yet have a driver's license and the nearest movie theatre was 25 miles away.

If you've ever seen Campbell in action at a fan event, you're probably not too surprised to hear that this resulted in a solid five-minute interrogation about just what was so special about this particular movie that I went to those lengths. Trying to be concise (yeah, I know, good luck with that!), I first mentioned what really was most important to 15-year-old me: "Teenagers who made more sense to me than the ones in the John Hughes movies." Pressed for further reasons, I mentioned the gorgeous production design, and how there always seem to be more details to notice in both the visuals and the characters. (Just last night I registered for the first time that the pendant worn as part of Peter's "Great Vampire Killer" outfit is a hamsa.) I didn't mention the balance of horror and humor -- so commonplace today that it's hard to remember just how groundbreaking it was in 1985 -- partly because it's so intrinsic to the film that I no longer consciously think about it, but mostly because I was thinking back to why it was so compelling to me then.

Fifteen-year-old me didn't really think much about the uniqueness of the horror/comedy thing, as much as it's gone on to become part of the DNA of so many of my favorites. She just knew she was in love with these characters and this story.

Thankfully the Groovy One finally moved on to quizzing another fan, though heaven knows I could babble for an hour about why I love this movie. About how it was a lightning strike, exactly the movie I didn't know I needed at exactly that moment in time, that might or might not have made the same impression on me if I hadn't been fifteen and smart and bouncy and weird and living in a small town that seemed hopelessly limited and limiting.

When writer/director Tom Holland did his introduction, I didn't even need to ask the one question I'd brought to the Q&A, about why he chose to make this particular story about teenagers. As he explained before the screening, his original brief for Cloak & Dagger was a sort of juvenile update of Rear Window, but the final form of the screenplay didn't go that way. Still, the idea persisted, and he reached the conclusion that the only way for it to make sense for a modern kid to see a murder through the neighbor's window and have nobody believe him or do anything about it would be if the murder he witnessed was supernatural. And the only adult he could turn to would be the horror host he watched on TV... and thus a classic was born.

They said "Be crazier than that!" I'm in the fourth row center, obliging.
Charley, Amy, and "Evil" Ed are ordinary kids living ordinary lives until they're forced to deal with something extraordinarily dangerous. We don't know what the social pecking order of their school looks like, except to infer that Ed has been bullied and that he and Charley have bonded over horror fandom. All three are just a little awkward, drawn not as stereotypical nerds, just regular kids navigating the bumpy transition to adulthood -- heightened emotions, stilted relationship talk, and all.

Amy is bouncy and optimistic and compassionate and enthusiastic and adorkable. She also bears the perpetual Hollywood onus of being "the girl" (and thus damned to represent all girls), and has taken a lot of flak over the years that -- as someone who strongly identified with her, flaws and all -- I sometimes have to remind myself not to take personally. Four years after the remake, I still bristle at dismissals of her as a flimsy damsel-in-distress in the process of praising the more assertive characterization in the update. Now, don't get me wrong -- I love Amy 2.0. Heck, when the promo stills were released, my first comment was a gleeful "Amy gets a gun. I could be on board with this." And the character we eventually saw lived up to those images and to the promise of a Marti Noxon script.

However. You don't get to say "only hung sweetly by Charley's side" about the girl who steps up save him before he ever needs to save her. (Well, it's a free country; you can say whatever you want. But I'll take umbrage.) When, according to all evidence available to her, he's having some kind of mental breakdown and is determined to do something that will get him locked up for the rest of his life.

Ed turns to her and says "What are we going to do?" It's Amy who immediately comes up with the tactic of asking Peter Vincent for help, thus buying time in which Charley promises not to take action and marshaling the resources of the only adult he's currently prepared to listen to. If they had been living in the world they thought they were, if Dandridge had not in fact been a vampire, then Charley's sanity and future would have been saved entirely on Amy's initiative.

I babbled something to that effect at Amanda Bearse during a Q&A at a convention a couple years back. It wasn't the most coherent thing in the world, but she seemed pleased, and I hope she's rightfully proud of the character she created, particularly having now raised a daughter herself.

On a related note, another aspect of that article linked above that irritates me: "until she was turned vampire by Jerry and became the typically sexed-up evil female. Evil because she is sexual, as has been the case in vampire narratives since Carmilla and Dracula. Contrastingly, in the remake Amy has far more sexual agency–and is not demonized for it."

Here's my problem with that line of reasoning: The original Amy had an agency that was immensely important for 15-year-old me to see, the agency to make her own choices and have them respected.

Charley, with his "we've been going together almost a year" outburst, very nearly disqualifies himself as a hero before even starting to become one, then saves it by apologizing in the next breath without prompting. He was clearly parroting the script he's been force-fed by popular culture about what he's supposed to want and how he's supposed to get it, and he's instantly ashamed, probably without fully understanding why he even said it. He admits to being scared too -- a cardinal no-no in the teen-movie guy code! -- and the ensuing earnest discussion of what level of physical intimacy they're ready for is funny without being played for laughs at their expense. They have all these feelings -- and yes, they both have them -- but not the experience to deal with them in any way that isn't all kinds of awkward. So they talk about it awkwardly, and healthily, and with the understanding that it's important to talk about what they are and aren't ready to do. In the teen-movie landscape of 1985, this was nothing short of a revelation.

So it's all fine until Dandridge comes along and uses Amy's sexuality against her, manipulates feelings she has explicitly stated she is not ready to act on, with the aim of overwriting her identity and turning her into someone else entirely. Not even the long-dead woman in the portrait, but merely his image of her. She's not "evil because she is sexual." She's dangerous because Dandridge is using her as an extension of himself.

At the end of the movie, when she's free of that influence, we're nominally back where we started, with Charley and Amy making out -- fully clothed -- in his room. But it's comfortable in a way that it wasn't at the beginning. They've survived shared trauma and come out stronger, but they're not adults, and they're refreshingly not in any hurry to be. They've decided what they're ready to do, and there's no tension about whether that should change. It will come in its own time, and we're left with the sense that they'll decide it together.

So... that's Amy. One character. That's not even getting into Charley and Ed and brilliant creepy-charming-predator Dandridge and the treasure that is Roddy McDowall as Peter Vincent. A blog post only has so much space.

Anyone still wondering why I love this movie so much? :-)

Monday, August 17, 2015

The accidental filmmaker

In which our Diva took a walk and made a thing

I love where I live. To wit, where I can, on a Friday morning whim, walk two blocks, shoot for about an hour with a consumer DSLR and zero crew, and by Saturday afternoon have made this:



Even before I went to VidCon, I've been pulled up short more and more often recently by the ever-expanding array of creative tools accessible to the ordinary person. Did you know you can download full-blown 3D animation software for free? I didn't until last week. And those hand-drawing-on-a-whiteboard videos you see all over the place? Sparkol VideoScribe is only free once, but isn't terribly expensive after that, and it's super easy to use.

Cross-pollination of ideas from tech to arts and back again drives evolution of both at a merry clip, with concepts like open source and Creative Commons benefiting creators and consumers alike.

Next thing you know, you've made a thing that can quite properly be called a short film, starring a gorgeous pocket of nature that happens to be down the block.

Nature and technology conspire.

It's a pretty fantastic time to be a storyteller, y'know?

Friday, March 20, 2015

Shakespeare Week!

In which our Diva has a little classical fun

Shakespeare Week is a UK-based educational initiative (put together by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust), but enough of it happens online that it's pretty inevitable people would pick up on it overseas.

Like me.

To that end, in lieu of my usual trying-to-be-weekly vlog efforts, I've been posting a short "mono-vlogue" each day. You can check out my full Shakespeare playlist over there, or begin at the beginning with Monday's take on Portia's famous "quality of mercy" speech from The Merchant of Venice.



Hope you enjoy! Do give a nod to the Bard this week in celebration, will you?

Saturday, March 7, 2015

#DearMe

In which our Diva sends a message in an imaginary digital bottle to her teen self

Dear Me,

You are a Smart Kid, and a Pollyanna, and a nerd, and a skinny girl, and getting taller seemingly by the minute, and watching people flip out about this sex thing with no small degree of bafflement.

This is for you.

Love,
Val



In celebration of International Women's Day, take part in YouTube’s global #DearMe initiative to inspire and empower young girls everywhere. We all know that growing up is tough. But if you could go back in time, what wisdom would you share with your teenage self? It all starts with two words. Dear Me. 

**Share your advice by making your own #DearMe GIF at http://youtubedearme.com **

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Remember the ladies

In which our Diva impersonates the Founding Mother of smarts and sass

A couple weeks ago, a friend alerted me to Drunk History's "Stumble Into History" contest, which called for videos of fans posing as historical figures to react to their portrayal on the show. It sounded like fun (and getting flown out to warm, sunny LA to do a walk-on in Season 3 sounds particularly good right about now!), but I've had other priorities, so it wasn't until this past weekend that I did anything about it.

At which point, I pulled it together in less than a day, with resources I had around the house, and uploaded my entry a comfortable three hours before deadline. I'm pretty pleased with myself for that. :-)

I spent a fair amount of time waffling among the awesome ladies on the list -- Mary Dyer? Dolley Madison? Nellie Bly? -- but ultimately Abigail Adams and her legendary letter-writing were always going to prevail. (I am rather sad nobody represented for Nellie, the original intrepid girl reporter.)

So, interspersing some of Mrs. Adams' famous words with a few of my own invention, I took pretend quill pen in hand and threw my mob cap in the ring.

You can check out the results here and (if you feel so inclined and if you have a Facebook account, on which the voting mechanism unfortunately depends) vote for me once a day until next Monday, March 2. Comments and sharing are also most definitely welcome, and thank you!!