Oh, How Things Have Changed

On September 22, 2004, I had been living in New York for just under two months, after graduating from college in June. I had always wanted to move to New York, so I found a job and did it, without really knowing anything about the industry or field I was getting in to—or, for that matter, without googling my future boss (a major error that would become obvious within hours of starting the job)—and without any friends other than my boyfriend, who had moved the month before. I had found a 6×10 room above a Mexican restaurant, which featured a giant light-up sombrero directly below my window, and I didn’t get along particularly well with my roommates.

Me and the sombrero and the bottom corner of my window, 2004

That day, I watched the premiere of Veronica Mars.

I distinctly remember why I sought it out: A capsule review in the AV Club’s fall TV preview, which I just spent half an hour searching for and does not appear to exist any more. It said something about teen detectives, and hardboiled noir, and that it had snappy dialogue. Sold.

Somehow, in the age before DVR, I managed to get home from my stressful job in time to turn on UPN every Tuesday at 9 PM. Plus I had to make sure my roommate didn’t want to watch TV at the same time. She had her own TV, but since we were splitting the signal, things got wonky if we were trying to watch separate shows in different rooms. It was a different time. No DVR. No pausing. Waiting a week between episodes. The fact that I was the only person I knew who had heard of this show, let alone watched it, seemed like another symptom of the general loneliness and out-of-place-ness that I associated with post-college life.

Here’s an email I wrote to my college roommates a month later, on October 20, 2004:

i’ve recently decided to take up Veronica Mars on UPN (the one network actually worse than the WB!).  it’s brand new, not bad, a sort of buffy the vampire slayer meets twin peaks meets clarissa explains it all, and since it’s UPN, there’s way more drugs and sex than on the regular networks.  who can say no to that?  the first episode featured a weird pseudo-lynching, a flashback where veronica is given a roofie and (presumably) raped, a preppy asshole caught with a buddha-shaped bong in his locker, and a mexican biker gang generally shaking shit up.  and it’s funny!

(All capitalization and double-spacing [sic].)

It’s obvious to me now that I was trying not to overhype the show so that I wouldn’t scare them away. I really, really wanted them to watch, and I blew that carefully faked nonchalance by following up only five days later, on October 25:

btw, I will pay someone–metaphorically speaking–to start watching Veronica Mars.  It’s no fun without having fellow fans.

It didn’t work. Not right away, at least. Ten years later, I’m pretty sure all six of the recipients of my 2004 emails eventually did watch it. But the first evidence I have that someone I know watched the show is from October 7, 2005, soon after the second season premiere. This was my response:

AAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!! Finally! Someone! Has! Watched! Veronica! Mars! Quick, someone get my inhaler.

Of course I read the Television Without Pity recaps; back then they were the only recap game in town, and they were especially important before I got a DVR. The write-ups helped me notice and remember things, and they assured me that I was not a crazy person hallucinating an entire show. But I’ve never been much of a social person online, so I didn’t comment, and I didn’t join in discussions, and I didn’t seek out livejournals or other fan outlets. Veronica Mars became something that existed almost entirely in my head.

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This post is supposed to be a defense of Logan Echolls, since the rest of SportsAlcohol.com is heavily invested in #teampiz (or team anyone else). I am also forgiving and understanding and generally fond of poor Piz, but I am here to tell you why, from my personal experience, the Logan Thing became so overwhelming and satisfying, at least in that perfect first season.

(I call it a perfect season, and narratively I think it’s a thing of beauty, but we should never forget that Paris Hilton was in an early episode. That was something I was careful not to mention in any of my pleading emails to far-flung roommates.)

Watching the show week by week, I (and, I suspect, the other early watchers—and probably even the writers) found my/ourselves genuinely surprised by Logan Echolls. Jason Dohring gave a sociopath a heart in just a few smoldering glances, and the quick-witted chemistry between Logan and Veronica worked.

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If anyone had been around to ask me my opinion of Logan Echolls 2004-2005, I would’ve said he was a monster until after episode 6. Episodes 6-13, he was still a jerk, but one I could understand. Then by episode 18—bam. I loved him. This was pure magic. Alchemy. How on earth could they have managed this transformation?

I think it’s because Rob Thomas and the writers didn’t know what they had until they had it. They watched their own show and they saw what was percolating beneath the surface, and they exploited it. I don’t consider this fan service. First off, no one was pressuring them; practically no one was watching. Secondly, we (the fans) didn’t know we wanted it until it happened, or perhaps right before. How could they have bowed to “pressure,” with the schedules of network television being what they were, and the feelings of the audience changing practically week by week, based on they were giving us? It was smart, savvy storytelling; it was paying careful attention to not just the larger arcs but also the small, charged moments that only happen when the episode is actually shot and performed and edited.

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Logan surprised us all, including Veronica. If Veronica wasn’t able to allow herself to be surprised, she’d have been a bad detective and a boring character. Noticing Logan like this made her three dimensional. Yes, she could be rigid in her judgments, and sometimes let that blind her to the truth, but she wasn’t a robot. The world hurt her, but she hasn’t closed herself off from it completely. She felt things and noticed them and eventually acknowledged what they meant.

Neither Veronica nor Logan changed who they were at their core when they got together—they only added layers. Logan was an entitled monster and he wanted to protect her. Veronica was bitter and paranoid and she cared about him. Things got more complicated in later seasons, but I believe this relationship stayed central because it showed Veronica’s humanity and vulnerability, and reinforced the idea that even if we thought we had everything figured out, people could surprise us. What had seemed shallow showed depth.

A show on UPN could bring us just what we were looking for.

###

My first year in New York, the first year of being an “adult,” I became obsessed with a show about a teenager solving crimes. Why? I probably would’ve gotten obsessed with it whenever I found it — it’s just the type of thing I like — but perhaps the show’s willingness to show change and evolution as scary but manageable made it particularly appealing. Veronica’s life had changed dramatically. It was still changing. Those changes were rarely good. Inevitably, surprises would come — not just (arguably) good ones like Logan. Things sucked, often, and people were jerks. But Veronica could handle it — she would be okay.

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In the summer of 2005, I moved out of the apartment above the Mexican restaurant and left the ridiculous job for one I loved. We got a DVR. I started making new friends. My old friends started watching Veronica Mars. My new boss at my new job was a fan. Veronica Mars got canceled, but love for the show would continue to spread. I fell in love with other shows; I discovered ones I’d missed. (I didn’t start watching Lost until the summer of 2006—and it premiered the exact same day as Veronica in 2004. There’s always new stuff to discover! Hooray!)

And now ten years later I get to revisit Veronica Mars, this time in a movie theater with hundreds people (including over a dozen close friends) and tens of thousands more across the country. People listened and watched and noticed. People fell in love.

Veronica Mars has surprised me again.

#TeamDuncan

Today kicks off Veronica Mars Week at SportsAlcohol.com. It was never our intention, but all of our feature weeks to date have been about little-seen genre films. It’s exciting to cover a movie we think will actually be good for once.

As fans of the show, we will post  a variety of thoughtful, well-written pieces throughout the week. There will also be multiple posts by yours truly on the topic of shipping. Marshmallows, as fans of Veronica Mars are known, have strong opinions about who Veronica should be involved with romantically. With the characters being revived for a movie, these debates have been renewed in full on the internet. Fans have taken to social media declaring themselves #TeamPiz or (more commonly) #TeamLogan in support of their favorite paramour for Veronica. They are even selling shirts.

Not Pictured: Teddy Dunn, who could use the work
Not Pictured: Teddy Dunn, who could use the work (Source: Instagram)

Absent from this debate almost entirely is Duncan Kane, Veronica’s first boyfriend. Being written out of the show in season two, there were no shirts for him (until the fans made some). This makes very little sense, as Duncan and Veronica are great together!

[From this point down, there will be a lot of SPOILERS. Consider yourself forewarned.]

Continue reading #TeamDuncan

The SportsAlcohol.com Hit Piece: Lorde

Witch-ay Woman

In a move that pays off approximately one Beyonce per decade, I decided to give Lorde a listen. I’d heard a lot of good stuff about her, and I try to occasionally branch out from my indie-rock geekery. It’s super fun to actually like a popular music artist because those albums are super-easy to find at Best Buy or used-CD bins (note to the youngs: used CD bins are boxes of CDs… wait. CDs are things with music you can buy on Amazon or in in stores where… wait. Stores are places where… oh, fuck it, look it up). Contrary to the indie-rock stereotype, I am always in the market for stuff that is easy to like. I was so excited when I thought that maybe Nicki Minaj would be really good.

I was a little skeptical about Lorde because of the praise she’s earned in publications such as Rolling Stone, but then her album (albums are like mp3s, but like, in an order and stuff) was two dollars on Amazon. I would buy almost any popular album for two dollars. I’m often tempted to buy albums I know for a fact I don’t like if they’re two dollars. Plus, no matter how big-boxy it is to buy an album from Amazon for two bucks, I can know for sure that the royalty Lorde gets from that single copy Amazon-discounted copy will be roughly a thousand times higher than what she’d get if I listened to her album on Spotify three or four times. Never say I never did nothin’ for ya, Lorde, he said, when tossing her the equivalent of two quarters, or: the total amount of money your twenty favorite artists have earned from you listening to them on Spotify, total, in their and your lifetimes.

Anyway, I bought the Lorde album and listened to it a bunch of times and now I have an opinion about Lorde and the dominant opinion is: Lorde needs to be taken down and also I shouldn’t listen to this album very much anymore except maybe “Royals” and perhaps “World Alone.”

It’s not that Lorde or Pure Heroine are all that bad. But the cred Lorde seems to be accruing needs to stop or at least slow down a little. Yes, I will acknowledge the coolness of Lorde being a (a.) seventeen-year-old (b.) female (c.) from New Zealand (d.) who looks sort of like a witch and (e.) helps write her own songs that are then (f.) only marginally overproduced in that trendy faux-minimalist sort of… OK, now it sounds less like I’m acknowledging her coolness and more like I’m writing a takedown! Now we’re in the spirit! The general problem with Lorde is that she gets instant cool cred the same way that the record industry embraces anyone who is successful.

I might sound like a cranky Generation Xer here — and I seriously don’t know if I’m in the Generation X or the millennial boom or maybe, just maybe, a sub-generation I just invented called the Third-Greatest Generation (the top two are NOT the ones you’d expect) — but we need to stop giving young people awards for just showing up. I’m not complaining about, like, Participant ribbons here. Participant ribbons are reasonably honest. They say PARTICIPANT and are given to people who participate! I would be happy if Lorde showed up on the cover of Rolling Stone wearing a ribbon that said PARTICIPANT.

But Lorde gets way more credit than that, sort of like how Taylor Swift gets infinite cred for kinda-sorta writing her own songs — even for lyrics that other people have basically already written. I’m not suggesting that Swift wrote “so casually cruel in the name of being honest” after hearing Paul Simon sing that “there’s no tenderness beneath your honesty.” Actually, I’m suggesting quite the opposite: I’m sure Swift hadn’t heard the Paul Simon song. And that’s fine. But you don’t get full credit for re-discovering and re-phrasing that idea. And you certainly don’t get credit for not phrasing it as well.

But that’s another story for another post that tries hard to reconcile how much I love “We Are Never Getting Back Together” with Taylor Swift’s authenticity, which I do not question so much as classify under “authentic self-regard” (see also: Roberts, Julia). Let’s get back to Lorde.

Lorde’s voice is weird.

I don’t mean weird like truly eccentric or wild, like Bjork or Corin Tucker or Nicki Minaj in-character. I mean that somewhere between her native accent and her vaguely American-accented singing, her tongue starts to sound heavy. Her vowels are rounded and some of her consonants come out muffled together, like she’s only singing out of the very front portion of her mouth. It has a weird slurry-baby effect and yeah, it’s a little unnerving to hear a teenager drop truths while sounding like a drunk baby.

Lorde’s songs pretty much all sound the same.

Everyone loves “Royals” for the way Lorde rolls her eyes at music-industry materialism…

Actually, hold up. Let me clarify something.

Lorde is overrated but not racist.

There was a big internet thing recently about whether “Royals” is secretly or not-so-secretly racist because it dismisses elements of culture that are coded as black. But while several of the images in “Royals” seem to be derived from hip-hop videos, the idea that no one is allowed to mildly bag on perceptions of hip-hop culture strikes me as enormously ridiculous. Not least because hip-hop covers a far broader spectrum of songs and styles than what Lorde describes — fair to say that when she says “every song’s like,” she’s referring to a rhetorical “every” song on Top 40 radio, not “every” song in hip-hop, which is not mentioned in her lyrics.

Of course, a lot of “every” song popular in 2014 does have some kind of hip-hop influence — which is exactly why trying to parse out some racism “Royals” seems like a fool’s errand. That complaint misses how mainstream the culture the song describes actually is. It makes sense that Lorde, as a teenager, focuses on that kind (that is to say, hip-hop-influenced) materialism and consumption, rather than, say, Old White Male materialism and consumption.

In fact, despite the rap-video imagery in the lyrics, a lot of what she’s singing about also recalls the flood of the we-invincible-cause-we-drunk party anthems of the last few years — songs that have further mainstreamized a sensibility that might have once been more identified with a particular strain of pop hip-hop, but is now pretty much pop culture at large, especially in the music industry. I get that these trends are often most exploited and encouraged by an old-white-male offensive line up at the executive level, but does this make any artist or any song further down the food chain automatically above reproach? You could call Lorde a hypocrite for appropriating hip-hop-lite beats in a song that seems to knock hip-hop culture, or you could admit that it is, in fact, OK to say that 200 songs about swigging Cristal are not necessarily that interesting without throwing the artist babies out with the shitty music bathwater. Look, a lot of mainstream music made by black people fucking sucks as bad as a lot of mainstream music made by white people. It’s part of the universal law of music suckage.

Anyway, back to:

Lorde’s songs pretty much all sound the same.

Everyone loves “Royals” for the way Lorde rolls her eyes at music-industry materialism. On her album, a few tracks after “Royals,” in which we learn that she’s “not proud of her address,” “we’ll never be royals,” and that she’s not interested in what “every song’s like,” there’s a song called “Team,” in which we learn that Lorde and her crew “live in cities you’ll never seen on screen, not very pretty but we show them how to run free,” and that she’s “kinda over gettin’ told to throw my hands up in the air.”

I, on the other hand, am kinda gettin’ over what an iconoclast Lorde is and now wondering if maybe she is a little racist. (Still probably not, but still.)

Even on the songs that don’t repeat themselves lyrically, there’s a very clear sound on Pure Heroine that gets very clearly exhausted. The album’s basic formula, moody but accessible beats plus Lorde’s voice, is reasonably appealing but even after a mere ten tracks, it feels a bit like an extended remix of itself. Basically, she sounds like a sassier Lana del Rey, but less self-consciously lush and “cinematic.” As it happens, this makes her somewhat more tolerable than Lana del Rey (GATSBY EXCEPTION INVOKED, by the way). But it does not make her a major sonic adventure. I don’t know a lot about production, but the Postal Service Lite beats on this record don’t seem like the height of electrosophistication to me. “World Alone” is particularly Postal Service-y in its vocal melody and multiple beat kick-ins. And it’s easily one of the best tracks on the record. I also like the way she uses the phrase “like yeah” in “Tennis Courts” because I’m always in favor of people using that phrase, but when she sings “it’s a new art form/showing people how little we care,” I don’t even think I’m learning about how today’s seventeen-year-olds think, because millennials seem, if anything, to care a lot, sometimes about good things and sometimes about bad things. Showing how little we care, on the other hand… isn’t that back in Gen-X territory again?

(I couldn’t tell you; I’m a Third-Greatest.)

I’m not sure if Lorde’s rediscovery of Gen-X and Postal Service beats is more or less impressive considering that…

Lorde is a music-biz lifer.

Lorde RS

Here is a quote from the Rolling Stone cover story on Lorde:

“I think my whole career can be boiled down to one word I always say in meetings: strength.”

Feminists, rejoice! Lorde says the word “strength” at meetings! I wonder if these meetings literally begin with Lorde sitting down at a big conference table and just announcing: “Strength.” And then the marketing execs have to go from there? Or does she follow it up with other key words that she only sometimes says in meetings, such as: “robust.” Or: “disruptors.” Or: “low-hanging fruit.”

I don’t mean to bag on Lorde for taking meetings. But it is funny just how little difference there is between her career arc and, say, Katy Perry’s or Justin Bieber’s.

The Rolling Stone article goes into matter-of-fact detail about how Lorde won a school singing contest with a classmate, the classmate’s father sent their recordings around, and Lorde’s voice caught the attention of the head of A&R at Universal Music New Zealand. Her development deal “went nowhere” after three years. As Rolling Stone dramatically phrases it: “The idea of a music career could have floated away.” (NO, I imagine we are meant to cry out. LET NO IDEA OF A CAREER FLOAT AWAY!) But in a turn the magazine terms “fortuitous” but seems more like “what happens when you have a development deal with a major label,” a local manager heard Lorde and offered her his songwriter client as a collaborator. Then they made some songs that the label wasn’t crazy about, but despite the label’s disinterest they took it to the internet, guerilla-style, which is much easier to do when you are guerilla-style disseminating professionally written and produced songs with major-label backing.

If you haven’t done the math yet, this means that crazy from-nowhere success Lorde has been doing this since she was twelve years old. This makes her slightly more of a novice than Miley Cyrus. Slightly.

That’s not to say we should get hung up questions of authenticity. Miley strikes me as enormously mannered and self-conscious, from the Lady Gaga school of explaining why what you’re doing is subversive and interesting, but I still like “Wrecking Ball.”  But I think pretty much everyone would agree that Lorde is hyped as the real deal because of her age and hairdo and ability to think in complete sentences. If we’re talking about music, she has about as much good material as Miley or Katy Perry or anyone else with one or two good songs and a lot of stuff that sounds like those other songs but not as good.

In other words: “Royals” is a pretty good song but it’s nothing you couldn’t say at meetings.

The Fuzzy Math of Winter’s Tale

Warning: This post contains major spoilers about Winter’s Tale. Even more important warning: If the previous warning scared you, it means you might be considering watching Winter’s Tale. Having seen it, I say: maybe just don’t? 

So, I didn’t take my own advice. I saw Winter’s Tale on Valentine’s Day. To say it was full of nonsense about good and evil, angels and demons, and star-crossed lovers and terminal illnesses, would be to make it sound way more interesting than it is. The lesson: Always listen to SportsAlcohol.com.

It is fair to say, however, that it is full of nonsense. Vulture‘s article, “6 Ridiculous Things That Happen in Winter’s Tale,” doesn’t even really begin to cover it. Yet even in a movie filled with spiritual mumbo-jumbo, flying horses, hokey miracles, and Will Smith doing a cameo as a devil in a Hendrix t-shirt, one thing—which I haven’t seen discussed too many other places—struck me as more preposterous than the rest: its willful misunderstanding of how time works (at least how it is perceived by humans, setting aside any flat circles for now).

With respect to Pushing Daisies (RIP, Pushing Daisies), the facts are these:

  • Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) is born in 1886.
  • Most of the movie takes place in the “past,” in 1916, when Peter is 30 years old. It’s during this time that he meets Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay), his true love 4eva.
  • There is time skip, and Peter wakes up in? is transported to? miracles??? finds himself in the “present day.” I haven’t read the novel, but I assume the “present day” of the novel is 1983, when the book came out, meaning the skip is 67 years. The “present day” of the movie is this present day, meaning 2014, or a skip of 98 years.
  • The movie treats the ensuing years, between 1983 and 2014, like they just don’t exist.

It doesn’t seem like there should be any contradictions. Dude is in the past, then he’s in the present after an absurd amount of time, meaning everything and everyone he knows should be gone and not cause any problems. But there’s so much magic in Winter’s Tale that it ties itself into knots creating time-travel problems.

In the movie, Beverly has a younger sister, Willa (Makayla Twiggs). They don’t say how old she is, but she looks about 7 or 8 to me. She’s certainly not an infant. Of course, since life is beautiful, after the time-skip, Peter is somehow reunited with Willa, who in the interim became the editor-in-chief of a daily newspaper.

Let’s do the math here. It certainly seems possible if we’re using the book timeline (if, in fact, Willa is a character in the book). Willa would be 7 in 1916, making her 74 in 1983. It’s unusual, but not impossible, for a 74-year-old woman to be a spry editor-in-chief of a newspaper.

But that’s not the timeline in the film. According to the movie , Willa would be 105 years old. She’d be one of the oldest people on the planet. Yet with all of the dwelling on all of the awe-inspiring things in the film, not one person seems amazed that the world’s oldest woman is running a daily paper in New York City. No one addresses it at all, really. (The actress playing Old Willa is Eva Marie Saint, who’s actually 89 and doesn’t look like 105—though it’s hard to tell what 105 looks like since so few people make it that far, let alone people growing up in the 1900s with consumptive sisters.)

You can say it’s an aberration and explain Willa’s existence away with miracles!!! fuzzy math, but she’s not the only one who doesn’t realize what year it is.  Peter finds Willa through a newspaper reporter, Virginia (Jennifer Connelly). Viriginia looks up some old articles on microfiche to figure out who Peter Lake is and where he comes from. She quickly finds a photo of Peter and Beverly in front of the Penn’s lovely Hudson Valley estate. Her jaw drops in amazement and she asks: “Is that your father?”

Father?! If I were Peter, I’d be incredibly offended. It’s a good thing Virginia is a food reporter and doesn’t cover economics or anything that has to do with numbers. I don’t know how she thought that someone who looked like he was 30 in 1916 could sire someone who looks like he’s 30 in 2014. Perhaps she thought Peter Senior sired Peter Junior when he was 98?

I know it’s a little silly to look at the flying horse and look at the time-travel timeline and say that the horse is believable but the time-travel timeline is beyond the pale, but details are important. Especially if you want people to lose themselves in your love story, and not just snicker at it.

 

 

 

The State of the Modern Vampire

Bona fides

By day, I am an editor of young adult fiction. I have read all the Twilight books (including the unreleased 100-page version of book one from Edward’s perspective), seen every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and attended a midnight singalong of “Once More With Feeling”), and I am straight-up OBSESSED with The Vampire Diaries and how BADASS AND AWESOME it is. I have read what feels like thousands of paranormal unpublished and published books. I have a working familiarity with all popular vampire lit, in that, if pressed, I could plausibly fake having read/seen them at a cocktail party. (Super cool cocktail party, bro.)

Caveats

I have not read the Vampire Academy books or seen any of True Blood. I was never in to Anne Rice.

Context

Let’s throw out some dates: Buffy the Vampire Slayer ran from 1997-2003. The first Twilight novel was published in 2005. True Blood and the first Twilight movie premiered in 2008; The Vampire Diaries premiered in 2009 (based on a novel published in the early 1990s). Anne Rice wrote about Lestat for decades before any of this—starting in 1976. Count Von Count has been enumerating since 1972. Bela Lugosi did this shtick for a long, long time. And of course Bram Stoker was on the cutting edge of the repurposing-folktales trend with Dracula (1897).

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So young!

Vampire Academy the book series became popular on the heels of Twilight—the first Vampire Academy book came out in 2007—but it’s more a descendent of Buffy than Bella. (Which from a publishing perspective makes sense. Books take a long time to write. It’s extremely unlikely Richelle Mead had read Twilight when she wrote her book.) Unlike Bella, Rose kicks ass and is sarcastic as a Guardian—a role similar to Giles’s Watcher. Unlike in Twilight, romantic complications are secondary to a mystery plot. These vampires are “different,” like Twilight vampires, but each vampire story must distinguish itself from the previous ones in some way, and the time was right for more vampires of any stripe.

In tracing the popularity of the books, it doesn’t hurt to add in a dash of being sent to “special school,” a la Harry Potter—but it’s also, I will self-righteously note in a futile attempt to get everyone to stop comparing everything to Harry Potter, one of the foundational tropes of children’s literature forever and ever, from What Katy Did to A Wizard of Earthsea to Sideways Stories from Wayside School and beyond.

So that’s the world that brought us these books. The zenith of vampire hype. Readers were desperate for more, publishers scrambled to fill the demand (see the resurgence of The Vampire Diaries, a 20+ years old series), and a great rush of books filled the void. The world into which this movie was released is very different than the 2007-2010 vampire heyday. We’re inundated with them (see first paragraph). Twilight is over, and we’re looking for the next Hunger Games instead (see future SportsAlcohol.com post on Divergent). Vampire Academy feels out of its time from the get-go, from its straight-up title to the slightly-but-not-quite parodic tone.

Secrecy

Part of the fun of the classic vampire story is the process of learning that vampires are, in fact, real. There’s a period of creepy suspicion, where things might be normal-ish, and then the fangs come out. That’s 80% of the first Twilight book. It takes Elena around six episodes to piece things together on The Vampire Diaries (and it is so satisfying to see her ask sensible questions and not allow Stefan to get away with half-answers). It’s the thrill of arriving in that creepy old house and wondering what secrets your host is hiding.

Once the information is out, the story automatically becomes much more complicated. Are there other vampires? How do you become a vampire? Are vampires people, or are they some sort of other? Do they have a conscience/soul? Why doesn’t everyone know about them? Do they have enemies? (Often the natural enemy of the vampire is the werewolf [Twilight, TVD]. Which can lead to things like Underworld making a tiny amount of sense. Note: There’s no such longstanding tradition of gargoyle/Frankenstein conflict.) How do you kill them? Sparkle in the sun: y/n?

For the most part Vampire Academy dispenses with the thrills part of this formula and starts answering the questions, thus leading to Jesse’s complaint that the movie is all mythology. But I see this less as a complaint with the actual movie but a problem with the medium of this particular vampire story. After a while, things get complex in every story, if the story’s going to remain interesting, and books and TV shows have a lot more time to develop their rules and backstories than movies do. The Vampire Diaries has one of the most dense and complicated backstories I’ve ever experienced. (For example, here is how you become a vampire: 1) ingest vampire blood, 2) die, 3) re-animate, 4) grapple with your life choices and bloodlust, and 5) ingest human blood. The process can take days and there are multiple opportunities for interruption. Narratively, it’s a goldmine.) AND YET all this mythology is also amazing and flawless in every way. They can afford to feed us the mythology a morsel at a time. A movie doesn’t have that luxury, so it’s straight to spelling things out in voiceover and on-screen text.

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Flawless

In most of the vampire stories I’ve mentioned, the vampires have some interaction with the outside world. That’s where the primary tension comes from: Who knows/who doesn’t, who’s hiding/who’s hot on their trail, which innocent people are likely to be slaughtered if our heroes don’t get their acts in gear. Vampire Academy, with the exception of one scene in a mall, does not feature with normal people at all. This means that the story has to rely on the mythology and the politics of the world for tension.

Granted, stories like Twilight and The Vampire Diaries and Buffy eventually, somewhat inevitably due to the murderous nature of vampires and the danger of their worlds, dispense with “normals” and become just as internally-focused as Vampire Academy. Twilight is taken over by the Volturi. The whole world fills with Slayers. There’s like one normal human being left in The Vampire Diaries and even he’s been possessed occasionally. But again, that’s a more understandable place to end up when we’ve seen hundreds of hours or read hundreds of pages about these people.

The Soul

What makes a person “good”? This is an essential question of most vampire stories. Vampires must drink blood to survive, and certainly, cutting people open tends to lead to their demise. But it doesn’t have to. There are plenty of ways to feed without becoming a killer: stealing from blood banks (questionably moral, but not intentionally murderous), animal blood, synthetic blood, and just taking a sip.

For most vampires, though, it’s not that simple. The state of being a vampire and needing blood to survive is often physiologically (and metaphysically) different than you or I saying “I’m hungry and would like a sandwich.” I’m talking about bloodlust, the extreme desire for human blood. Deeper than a craving, and uncontrollable, and definitely sexual. Moroi in Vampire Academy don’t appear to have bloodlust, but Strogoi definitely do. And Strogoi, not coincidentally, seem to have been stripped of their soul.

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Kitty!

The soul! The thing that makes us “human” and “not murder-y.” In The Vampire Diaries, the cleverest show that ever was, vampires can choose to switch on and off their “humanity.” If they switch it off they do not give a fuck and will murder you where you stand, and it takes a ton of convincing to get them to turn it back on again. In Buffy, vampires (with two exceptions) don’t have souls at all, so it’s usually okay to dust them.

In Twilight, the lines aren’t as rigidly drawn. Vampires who drink human blood tend to be more soulless and cruel than those who only drink animal blood, but the red-eyed ones still have a full range of emotions, and they’re able to decide not to murder whenever they want. And even the animal-blood “vegetarians” are totally ruled by bloodlust—they’re doing their best to repress their desires, but they can’t change who they are.

It’s not just the vamps that enjoy bloodlust. I don’t know what the word is that would be equivalent to bloodlust, but there’s something definitely… enjoyable… for humans getting their blood sucked. They never cry, they never seem to be in pain. They seem quite content (wink wink). Vampire Academy uses this idea to talk about slut-shaming—a good dhampir would never ever let a moroi feed off her. Though Lissa saying the words “slut-shaming” in a public speech makes this subtext way too obvious, it’s a pretty interesting idea–how do we get these ideas of morality and purity? Do they make any sense?

(As a [long] side note, romance with a vampire is pretty much always disturbing when you consider how young a human is compared to a vamp, and Edward’s constant bloodlust makes Twilight’s romance even more chilling. At least in Buffy, Angel isn’t seconds away from ripping Buffy’s head off. Without bloodlust, the non-blood-drinking 24 year old falling in love with the 17 year old in Vampire Academy seems positively tame, though it gave me an icky feeling at the time.

It’s become a cliché to pile on vampire stories for their icky age issues, and that’s all true, but I think it’s important to be able to define why it is that people enjoy watching vampires and humans fall in love in the first place. It’s not simply some weird obsession that only silly teen girls fall for, and to pretend that there aren’t real and interesting reasons for the popularity of these stories is to discount something potentially interesting about why we keep reading and watching these stories:

1) The vampire must change his life for her and go against his nature to be with her
2) The vampire has known hundreds of women over hundreds of years and this one is special
3) The vampire is mysterious (see section on Secrets)
4) The vampire is very handsome

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Kiss or murder?

Look at that: Vampire Academy has none of this!)

The obsession with the soul and what it means to not have one shows up in a lot more than vampire fiction. Why else are there so many TV shows about serial killers? As a society—maybe as a species—we’re deeply afraid of a creature as smart as us (or more so), as attractive as us (or more so), but who have no conscience, and who really, really want to see us dead. Because you can’t tell by looking at someone if they’re evil. And that’s true of everyone, not just vampires.

At least in Vampire Academy, everyone’s role is very clearly designated. It’s comforting to be able to assign rules to psychopathy, and to be able to identify and fight psychopaths with your personal guardian (or slayer or witch or werewolf). That might be the true appeal of vampire stories, beyond the sexy sparkliness of it all: They give evil a reason for being, they invent backstory to understand cruelty and loss, and they tell us how to fight it.

I was going to write an “In Conclusion” header but I have no conclusions, just more random thoughts, and this is a million times tl;dr, so I’ve got to stop now.

Recommended Reading

For unusual takes on sex/death, bloodlust, love, psychopaths, rules, and more.

Holly Black, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

Robin McKinley, Sunshine

Scott Westerfeld, Peeps

A. M. Jenkins, Night Road

Chvrches Is Right

Vampire Academy (2014) ends with a cover of Bauhaus’s “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Scottish pop trio Chvrches (reportedly enraging SportsAlcohol.com co-founder Sabrina Lauzon).

Arguments over the recording’s merits aside, the song’s central message remains as true today as it was on the day it was written. Bela Lugosi is indeed dead. Continue reading Chvrches Is Right

What Do Teenage Vampires Watch on TV? CW Shows About Teenage Vampires?

Creating an imaginary world is a tough gig. I’m pretty sure that’s why, when it’s done perfectly, that world becomes a beloved classic. But there are so, so many places where it could all go wrong.

We’ve already covered what happens when the mythology is too complex. (In short: It sucks.) But there’s another place where I often get tripped up as a reader or viewer, and that’s the intersection of the imaginary world and the real one.

Continue reading What Do Teenage Vampires Watch on TV? CW Shows About Teenage Vampires?

Vampire Academy Is in Session

And the folks here at SportsAlcohol.com are team-teaching for the rest of the week, before the long Vampire Weekend. Keep an eye out up top for our full coverage. Your schedule:

First Period: Major Cultural Event: Vampire Academy (2014) 

Second Period: What Do Teenage Vampires Watch on TV? CW Series About Teenage Vampires?

Third Period: Chvrches Is Right

Fourth Period: The State of the Modern Vampire

Major Cultural Event: Vampire Academy (2014)

Before I talk about Vampire Academy, let me get some stuff out of the way:

Vampire Academy is about an academy for vampires so obviously during the movie you wonder if Vampire Academy has rival schools that play them in sports and stuff, and think of additional schools such as:

Mummy College

International School of Werewolf Studies

Frankenstein Country Day

The Gill-Man Institute of Technology

The Mortal Instruments: Campus of Bones

Unicorniversity

But apart from that train of thought, I went into Vampire Academy ready and willing to take it as seriously as I needed to take it. Most of the movie, as it turns out, is an exploration of how seriously you should be taking Vampire Academy and, by extension, the life you’ve lead that resulted in you sitting in a movie theater on a Monday night watching Vampire Academy.

The presence of who are now billed, apparently, as the Waters Brothers, suggests that one should take the movie itself seriously (because a team-up of the guy who wrote Heathers and his brother who directed Mean Girls seems so natural that it also seems like some kind of a trick) while allowing the movie itself to not take it too seriously (because Heathers and Mean Girls are both very funny movies that puncture high school melodrama with non-vampire fangs). Daniel Waters and Mark Waters are ideally equipped to make a movie that casually and charmingly tear down the romantic dopiness of the Twilight series and replace it with snappier expressions of adolescent angst.

If they ever go back and make a movie about smart-mouthed vampire teenagers at a boarding school, I still think that could happen.

But Vampire Academy is not so much a movie about smart-mouthed vampire teenagers at a boarding school as it is a budget would-be franchise-starter based on a series of popular YA novels. So yes, some of the vampires are smart-mouthed and some of them are teenagers and there is a boarding school involved, but those easily understandable descriptions are too meager for the complex, multi-generational, heavily detailed and completely fucking pointless mythology that this movie is built around.

Here is a little tip for screenwriters and YA writers and pretty much anyone putting pen to paper about teenagers and magic, years too late to save Beautiful Creatures or The Mortal Instruments or any other movie I’ve seen in the past year-plus that chokes on mythology and then turns blue and purple on screen as the mythology stays lodged the throat of its corpse:

Mythology is not cinematic.

It sounds cinematic, I know! Mythology! Maybe you picture Greek Gods or centaurs or minotaurs or Middle Earth when you hear the word! But mythology is not just the fun of centaurs and/or minotaurs. Mythology, if it is made into a crucial component of your movie, is actually just a form of exposition, or at least requires a fair amount of it. And exposition is usually non-visual information. And movies, at least in theory, are a visual medium. So while mythology may make your movie sound grand and epic, it may actually weigh your movie down with information about something that is so clearly made up that no one really needs additional information about it.

Of course, as with mythology, there are ways to cleverly work exposition into your movie. I to this day cannot believe that people have a problem with Ellen Page’s character in Inception, supposedly because she exists to have the rules of the Inceptionverse explained to her and to ask questions on behalf of the audience. But the thing is, Ellen Page’s character asks way smarter questions than I would ask about this stuff, and is also a character with thoughts and opinions, and who moves the story along quite handily. She is the proverbial new kid being shown around the cafeteria on the first day of school. Hey! Speaking of that: Mean Girls! Mark Waters directed a movie that used voiceover, exposition, and a high school version of mythology (more like anthro, I guess, but still) very, very well.

Vampire Academy goes as far as to actually tee up a cafeteria-intro scene and call attention to it, and then, I guess because Daniel Waters imagines he is poking at convention here, then doesn’t actually have that scene where we meet a bunch of Vampire Academy students, organized by lunch table. I guess he thought that would be too cliché, or beside the point, or maybe there is so much goddamned mythology in this movie that there is no room for anything else that takes up more than half a minute. It engages in a lot of “world-building” while ignoring just how much world-building the title has already done: it’s a school for vampires! Got it! Done! But this movie would rather explain the hierarchal process by which Vampire Academy administration happens to be formed than, you know, have anything to do with vampires going to boarding school.

Here’s what I was able to glean: there are three types of vampires at and around this academy, except one kind aren’t really vampires. There are the bad vampires, who are presumably not welcome to matriculate, who want to kill the pretty good royal vampires (who don’t kill humans, at least as far as we can see), and the non-vampires who protect said royal vampires. This movie is about Rose (Zoey Deutch), a non-vampire protector who has bonded with pretty good vampire Lissa (Lucy Fry). So a semi-reverse-slayer, basically. Rose can sometimes see what Lissa sees, a power that allows her to both better protect her and absorb even more exposition, in part concerning a mystery about who is trying to intimidate and/or kill Lissa and/or Rose. There are also, by my rough estimate, forty to fifty boys in the movie, subject of various crushes and entanglements that the movie finds far less interesting than the (again, by my rough estimate) one thousand different types of royal vampire families who blah blah blah blah arrrrgggghhhh. There’s one who looks like a lil’ Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, one who got my attention by also being named Jesse (SUCH a hot name right now), and then Rose naturally, by which I mean creepily, falls for the one who’s actually an adult man. In general, the I-hate-high-school backstabbing and gossiping and hooking up feels like an afterthought as Important Mythology Characters jostle for screentime with characters who might actually be funny or affecting. The gossip in Vampire Academy conceals itself within the elaborate mythology, which could be a sly joke if the delivery was remotely interesting.

Vampire Academy 2

The most disappointing thing about Vampire Academy (the movie, not the higher-ed institution) is that Zoey Deutch, who I’d never really heard of before, is quite good in it. She’s the one who displays the most frequent signs of Daniel Waters wiseassery; at least fifty percent, if not closer to seventy percent, of her wisecracks don’t really land, but they come a lot closer to landing than they should because there’s something appealingly brusque and no-nonsense about Deutch’s delivery. I may have mentioned Ellen Page earlier because Deutch has a similar fast-talking vibe, and she looks like Page crossed with Rose Byrne. Her performance and character in this particular mythology-flooded enterprise left me with the odd sensation of thinking, boy, I’d like to watch a whole movie about her instead — during a movie where she is, in fact, the main character.

So Vampire Academy isn’t painful to watch, mainly because of Deutch and the stray good lines Daniel Waters feeds her and a lucky few. But it plays uncomfortably like a pilot for a show that gets better seven or eight episodes in, shortly before its cancellation. It also gives the distinct impression that I could read Vampire Academy books all day every day and still not learn a goddamned thing about Vampire Math, Vampire Art, or Vampire Biology. I guess it’s off to Vampire Summer School for me. In related news, be sure to check out SportsAlcohol.com Presents: Vampire Summer School, coming to an e-reader just as soon as we can make up a bunch of stupid backstory.