Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Why So Many Gay Guys Like Barb From Stranger Things

Heads up: This will spoil the first season of Stranger Things. If you haven’t finished it and don’t want it spoiled, don’t read this yet. Also, what are you waiting for? It’s only eight episodes. Call in sick today and finish it.

I’d been stoked for Stranger Things, and I felt gratified once it went live on Netflix that other people seemed to enjoy it as much as I did. However, all the social media posts about the show seemed to be echoing back to me one observation in particular that I didn’t expect: that Barb was awesome. I liked her a lot, despite her scant screen time, but I’m a weirdo who always roots for the underdog girl. In this instance, I was not alone in pulling for Barb. It also happens that most of the people posting about Stranger Things in my various feeds happened to be gay nerds of one stripe or another. So what is it about this mom-jeaned wonder that made gay dudes dig her? (You know, aside from her on-point-for-the-era fashion sense.)

After all, Barb (Shannon Purser) vanishes before the opening credits of episode three, when the shambling horror that is the show’s big bad pulls her into the swimming pool of doom, never to be seen again… save for a particularly nasty shot of her in the penultimate episode, when the viewer learns that yes, she’s completely dunzo—a corpse in the Upside-Down with a hell leech squiggling around in her mouth. It’s brutal to learn, especially if you, like me, had been hoping that she’d be rescued.

We gay nerds like our genre heroines, but Stranger Things actually offers four other female characters who get to do a lot more than Barb does. There’s Joyce (Winona Ryder), a small-time Sarah Connor who’s just the latest in a long line of fearless, strong moms in sci-fi works. There’s Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), the telekinetic marvel who actually takes down the bad guys. There’s Nancy (Natalie Dyer), the Lisa Simpson-level goody two-shoes who finds an inner courage to become a hero in her own right. And there’s even Nancy’s mom (Cara Buono, a.k.a. Dr. Faye from Mad Men) who gets more to do than Barb does just by virtue of the fact that she survives through all eight episodes.

So why the hell would we like Barb so much? My theory is that for gay guys—and maybe also non-gay guys who had similarly difficult high school experiences—Barb reminds us of the selves we left behind back in the day, the not-yet-fully-realized versions that we want to go back and help or save or maybe just hug.

Based on the little we get to know about Barb in the first two episodes, we get that she’s Nancy’s smart and loyal best friend. She has a flair for fashion, but that doesn’t really put her on the radar of any of the popular kids, and she’s literally out of focus in the background of some of the shots in which Nancy is interacting with them. (If there’s a he-Barb lurking around somewhere, who can see her for the radiant, ruffled flower she is, we never get to see him.) She only gets invited to the party at the home of BMOC Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) because she is Nancy’s plus-one, and again, the boys don’t seem interested in her to the point that no one even reacts with much concern when she cuts her hand—and even then, she only cuts her hand in a vain attempt to shotgun a beer, just to prove to these cretins that yes, she’s like everyone else and can party like a normal kid. That felt familiar.

To paraphrase that great poet of our generation, Katy Perry, she’s a plastic bag who has yet to realize her status as a firework. Watching the second episode in particular, I wanted to tell Barb that it would be okay—that she’d get in to a good college where a bunch of art fags would celebrate her prim but daring style, and that everything would be okay in the end.

Only that doesn’t happen. It doesn’t get better for Barb. She dies without anyone aside from Nancy realizing how great she is, and even then, Nancy’s last interaction with her is shooing her away while she goes to make penis-vagina with Steve. Yes, even that is telling of the kind of relationships a lot of closeted gay guys had with their ladyfriends of choice back in the age of raging hormones. We’d be there, steadfast and protective, until the prospect of a more deeply realized male-female relationship presented itself, at which point we’d be left to wait downstairs while some people’s virginities were lost and others remained intact.

I’m projecting, sure, but I feel like for this gay guy in particular, the horror of Barb’s death wasn’t just that it seemed like if anyone should have been safe, it would have been her. No, it’s the weird “what if?” of never moving on from the Upside-Down of high school life and never having people finally appreciate you for the things that make you special. She has glam hausfrau style down, for sure, but I’m certain that’s not the only reason we gay nerds are rooting for her in a fashion way out of proportion to how much we see her onscreen.

I love you, Barb. I wish it had been different for you.

Miscellaneous notes:
  • I keep accidentally referring to the Upside-Down as the Underwhere, which I think should be the name of something.
  • I can’t stop listening to the previous compositions by Survive, the band that did the show’s soundtrack. Survive is the Disasterpeace of 2016.
  • Variety had a good interview with the Duffer Brothers that offers, among other things, some rationale about why Barb and Barb alone should have been the one character to get offed in the show’s first season, as well as the tidbit that Shannon Purser had never professionally acted before this series.
  • If you haven’t yet, check out my fucking up of the Stranger Things trailer in the style of footage from a decayed VHS cassette.
  • Cole Escola did a less-than-one-minute bit about Barb’s mom learning about what the fuck happened to her daughter, and it’s gold.
  • I was born in 1982, but that doesn’t mean I understand how women dressed in the first decade of my life. Consequently, it’s hard to tell if Barb’s style would have read as avant-garde in 1983 or just plain dowdy. I have similar issues with Jane Fonda’s wardrobe in 9 to 5.
  • Just in case you wanted a closer look at our last image of Barb, you can see it here. It’s awful. Barb deserved better.
  • I maintain that Barb is equal parts Martha Plimpton’s character from The Goonies and Lucca from Chrono Trigger.

Homo culture, previously:

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Generation of Pixels and VHS Static

I had one of those weekends where plans just fizzle away, because your friends have conspired to cancel appointments jointly and consecutively, all in an effort to make you appreciate the joys of staying home. And with my newfound free time, I accomplished two things: I watched the bulk of Stranger Things on Netflix and I learned how to use After Effects. These two things are actually related.

Nearly every review of Stranger Things has noted that it plays out like some Steven Spielberg fairytale we might have watched in the ’80s, only with a dark twist that in my mind is exemplified by the John Carpenter jolt of how the title arrives at the end of the series trailer. (I can’t explain why the appearance of the series title gives me goosebumps, but it does—every time I’ve watched the trailer. Maybe that font is haunted?)

As for After Effects, I used it take crisp, clean footage and fuck it up in the style of footage from a damaged VHS tape. That may seem like a pointless skill to acquire, VHS having long gone the way of the typewriter, but I assure you it’s not, because VHS has gone the way of the typewriter. I was doing it for a larger project, but in damaging my first chunk of footage, I was surprised by my emotional reaction to seeing something rendered in the flickers and saturation bleeds of an old medium. I miss them, it turns out. Those errors became hallmarks of movie-watching back in the day—and, along with pixels, hallmarks of childhood escapism as well—to the point that on some level I will always associate them with how a movie should look.

This is not my theory. In A Year With Swollen Appendices, Brian Eno lays it out very clearly: “Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit—all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: So much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart.” This has implications way beyond the pop culture I grew up with, but I think it does help explain why I continue to noodle around with pixel art from the 8- and 16-bit generations, as well as why it felt so satisfying to introduce all that distortion to a perfectly good chunk of video. It felt right.

It helps that the footage in question came from Inferno, the sequel to Suspiria. My introduction to Dario Argento came from my hometown video store—no, not Blockbuster, but still long-shuttered all the same—and while I never actually saw Inferno until the age of DVD-quality video, it seems like I should have.

Here is the scene in question in its original, clean form. (Fair warning—there is a corpse that appears in this clip, just after the 3:30 mark, but I feel like it’s a PG-13 corpse at worst. It also features Irene Miracle, whom I feel is a strong PG in and of herself.) I believe it comes from a DVD rip.

And here is the same scene again—improved by virtue of being made worse.

That staticky mess? That sloppy color? It looks beautiful to me in a way I’m not sure someone else would understand if they didn’t have the mid-’80s-to-early-’90s frame of reference that I do. Who knows? Maybe you’re pining for Ted Turner-mandated colorization or the shaky monochrome of a midcentury TV set with rabbit ears. But this brings me back to Stranger Things. It truly is a lot like something we might have watched twenty-five years ago, except for the darker elements and the fact that it looks like a million bucks. Were there a way to watch it with a filter that emulated a VHS tape that had been left in a hot attic for too long, I would. Again, it would feel right. In fact, someone with more technological savvy than I have should invent that app right now—Instagram filters for your TV, so you can recall the pixels and noise and V-hold blips from whatever era most suits you.

Someone born in 2000 might never have watched anything on VHS. I wonder what they’ll pine for. Crisp but slightly less than high-definition video? Polygons? Maybe they haven’t figured out what they’ll miss yet. But I know. Give me VHS static and pixels, please.

And if there were a way to layer TV static onto this, I think I’d die happy.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Where Is the Video? (A Short Play About Journalism)

Journalist: Hi. I sent you the piece on the finance committee meeting. Let me know what you think.

Editor: I saw that. I saw that. I’ve got one question for you, though: Where is the video?

Journalist: The video?

Editor: See, you’ve sent me a lot of text, but I don’t see a video attachment.

Journalist: I… don’t have a video for it.

Editor: Well, then we have a problem. No one reads news articles for text nowadays. They want a motherfucking video. So where is the video?

Journalist: I’m not sure the piece needs a video. If you read it, I think everything is there—like, in the text.

Editor: [takes off his glasses] People don’t want to click onto your story and just see goddamned words. They want an auto-loading video to show up and immediately push the words down. They want preroll. They want an ad jingle. They want a video that covers a huge chunk of the text and they want to wait for it to play through—just sitting there staring at it. Then they want to scroll down a few inches and see another video. They want videos in the sidebar. They want the related videos to have related videos. And do you know what they want when they get to the bottom of your fucking Stephen King novel of a news article?

Journalist: A video?


Journalist: Well, I didn’t take a video of the meeting, so there is no video for this story.

Editor: See, that’s where you’re wrong. We have a policy of including videos on all stories we run, regardless of whether they actually have anything to do with the matter at hand. In fact, our policy is to embed a short video about Kate Bosworth in all stories that don’t come with a special-made video asset.

Journalist: Kate… You mean the one from Superman Returns?

Editor: KATE FUCKING BOSWORTH. Yes. Have you seen this video? It’s amazing. She throws a milkshake at a seagull. It’s ace content. It’s our all-time most-viewed video.

Journalist: I don’t think—

Editor: One word for you: PULITZER.

[Angry seagull noises come from the editor’s computer.]

Editor: And I’ve got even better news for you. Your piece is running with our Charmin ad package.

Journalist: The toilet paper?

Editor: Thirty seconds after the user loads your story, those fucking Charmn bears are going to come dancing onto the screen. You know them—the ones with toilet paper stuck to their dirty fucking asses? And they keep dancing their asses toward the screen, and the user has to click all the toilet paper bits off their butts or they won’t go away.

Journalist: [stands with mouth agape]

Editor: I don’t want to hear any fucking complaints about it, neither. Those dancing bears and their dirty fucking shit asses are sending Bitsy and LaDonna and the rest of the new media team to SXSW this year.

Journalist: Did you read my piece?

Editor: Sure, seemed great.

Journalist: Did it have everything in it that it needed?

Editor: [snorts] You wrote it. You tell me.

Journalist: Have you seen Enid? I usually get copyedits back from her, but she’s not picking up her phone.

Editor: Canned her.

Journalist: What? You fired the copyeditor?

Editor: No, I fired the assistant to the video editor. We moved her over to the video team. Thought she might be productive there. Did you see the videos she made? Garbage. Fucking garbage.

Journalist: Well, she’s a copyeditor so—

Editor: They only got 50,000 views. Absolute fucking garbage. We fired her on the spot—and then broke her fingers to make sure she got the message.

Journalist: I think I’m going to go home.

Editor: Periscope it. We’ll put it on the main page.