Movies: I Know That Voice, Incredibles 2
For the Love of Men: From Toxic to a More Mindful Masculinity by Liz Plank
This is the 2019 self-help book about toxic masculinity is bad for men, with advice for men about how to avoid those deleterious effects.
And with that, you kind of already know most of what this book has to offer. Not that that's a bad thing — it feels like it's gathering up all the twitter threads and TikToks you've seen about toxic masculinity and presented them in a single large-scale argument — but you'll mostly find yourself nodding along. Yup, the patriarchy hurts everyone.
I learned a few new things when the book went into the scientific literature — for instance, detailing a war game where women bombed enemies less than men when they had to include their gender in their profile, but slightly more than men when everyone was anonymous. I especially liked the clever experiments that hint that testosterone may not prompt violent behavior — it may instead prompt status-seeking behavior, and if you've told all your men that violence is how you gain status, welp, there you are.
I appreciated the short interludes where the author steps aside, so to speak, to focus on interviews with a variety of men and how they personally related to their masculinity. The interviews mainly reiterated the points from the main text, but it added detail and a sense of authenticity.
The sporadic Trump-bashing annoyed me — not because I disagreed with it, and not even because it was irrelevant. Trump's behavior as president, and his overwhelming support from American men fully aware of that behavior, bluntly illustrates how far American men have to go. I think I'm just exhausted with talking about 45 — one of the few blessings of 2021 has been the privilege of ignoring him.
And occasionally I find myself picking at the logic of the book. For example, Ms. Plank makes a great point that countries with lower gender equity have men who die sooner. Her conclusion that low gender equity *causes* premature death for men makes sense. But as a reader you want at least a quick acknowledgment that this could be a correlation/causation fallacy, and some evidence to head off that interpretation.
It's not a bad book. It's a nice, solid primer about this topic. On balance, though, I'm not sure I got a lot out of it.
I Know That Voice
This is John DiMaggio's 2013 documentary about voice actors.
Is "kickstarter documentary" a genre now? Because it's definitely a thing. You definitely know it when you see it.
It's always about some impossibly-niche topic somewhere in the nerdosphere. It's always relentlessly positive about said topic — how excellent and meaningful the thing is, and what a great community there is around it, and how cool the fans are. It's overwhelmingly built out of new interview footage, competently shot — maybe there are little indie animations that get you from one interview section to the next. It doesn't dive a lot into historical detail, and there isn't any original research: this isn't here to teach you anything somebody conversant with the field wouldn't know. It's mainly there to celebrate the thing, and maybe get some newbies on board with that enthusiasm.
So it is with I Know That Voice, a charming documentary about the world of voice actors, with a focus on animation. (I checked afterwards, and found that it was actually an *indiegogo* documentary, so my bad.) In a way, this 2013 time capsule is something of a victim of its own success: it's designed for a world where hardly anybody knows about voice actors, and we need some explanation of who these people are and what they do. Now in 2021, I feel like I have more friends who know who, say, Rob Paulsen is, and fewer friends who say, "I have a cool voice — I should be a voice actor! After all, how hard can it be?"
Side note: I am perhaps more humbled by most on this last point. Some years ago I Zeliged my way into a voice-acting session for a video-game company. Afterwards I watched my friend Jordan, a *real* actor, record a session. At one point the director suggested, "Jordan, try making the voice halfway between Randy Savage and Peter Lorre."
I thought, "Wait, what the hell would that even sound li—" and that was the point when Jordan started doing that voice. So it went for a half-hour or so, fully demonstrating that yes, this is a skillset, and you can be amazingly talented and practiced at it.
All of which is to say, the documentary is surprisingly heavy on assurances that voice acting is a real job that requires actual talent and effort, which may have been more of a surprise back in 2013, and might be more of a 'well, duh' cliché today. I was also surprised to see the film give a lot of advice on how to break into the industry — but I suppose, back then, a larger percentage of people watching a voice-acting documentary would be 'people who want to be voice actors' rather than 'people who like cartoons'. And I suppose, too, the doc reflects the questions fans were always asking producer John DiMaggio.
There's a section of the doc that hasn't aged well, where voice actors (mostly white) talk about how lovely it is that, as a voice actor, you aren't limited to playing your own age, or gender... or race. In light of a sensible sea change of "can we *not* have white people playing black characters in blaccent?", this feels icky, especially when they interview black voice actors who seem like they're just trying not to rock the boat w/r/t this charged topic.
But even that's interesting — it sets some context for why white voice actors were so reluctant to giving up any shot at playing characters of color. It's not *just* problematic clumsiness — it's also something voice actors thought of as their identity, as part of their job.
Apart from that, the film is light and fun. It won't change your mind about anything, and you won't learn much you didn't know.¹ If you're already a fan of voice acting, it's worth checking out.
This is Brad Bird's 2018 sequel to his 2004 adventure comedy about a superhero family.
This is a hard movie to write about.
It is immaculately crafted. Brad Bird might be the best director now working when it comes to creating action set-pieces — for timing, clarity, tension, and complexity, I can't readily think of any director working at his level. Holly Hunter as Elastigirl is one of the best animation vocal performances, full-stop. The film's aesthetic is gorgeous and detailed and perfectly self-consistent. The jokes work, and the family conversations are astonishingly well-observed.
I loved watching this. And yet, it never really landed with me. I watched it, I had fun watching it, I turned off the TV, and I didn't think of it again.
My guess is, Mr. Bird had set himself an impossible task with Incredibles 2, because the first movie is so perfectly self-contained. It centers the story on Bob Parr, and he learns to embrace being a superhero again, and he re-connects to his family. And that's it — his story is over. Likewise everyone else in the family works through their own issues, and their stories are over. Sure, the film ends with the appearance of the Underminer, but that's basically just an "and they all lived crime-fightingly ever after" flourish.
Thematically, Incredibles 2 has nowhere obvious to go. You see the film burn every piece of fuel it can find: okay, what happens when Violet asks out Tony Rydinger? what happens when the parents discover that Jack-Jack has powers? But deep down, it's hard to find a new emotional through-line that has to be explored.
So instead we're inventing a story where Bob is inwardly reeling from his wife getting to do the superhero exploits that are at the core of his being. It feels like a retread of the "Bob needs to do superheroing again" storyline from the first film. It feels uncomfortably sexist, both in terms of "a man feeling a sad because his wife is successful" and "what? a MAN caring for CHILDREN? HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE?" I don't think Mr. Bird was aiming for either icky idea, but those nearby targets intrude on the viewing experience.
It's like how you can make a strong argument that the first film does *not* espouse a libertarian-bro take on Objectivism ("'LET THE POWERFUL DO WHAT THEY WILT' SHALL BE THE WHOLE OF THE LAW"), but it gets close enough to make you wince.²
So I honestly tried not to think too deeply about what I was watching, and the film did nothing to demand deep thinking. I grimaced a little at seeing Edna Mode shoehorned into a story that 100% did not need her, but it was fun. I worried tremendously about a raccoon put in physical danger. Mainly I just sat back, smiled, and enjoyed the fabulous designs and delightful hero fights. Like, good lord, Mr. Bird can run circles around the MCU as far as showing us cool ways for powers to creatively complement each other, or fight in mind-bending ways. The Elastigirl/Voyd fight belongs in a museum.
But I just feel vapid writing about Incredibles 2. I don't have nearly enough of a command of animation or design to really *assess* how the film looks, beyond "zomgwow it looks amazing". And I don't see enough *there* thematically to dig into what the film is really about. I suppose the movie is almost unique, in that it's an absolute must-see that you shouldn't expect to be very moved by.
For next week: I'm watching season one of Lovecraft Country, the Headspace Guide to Meditation, and a documentary about tacos. I'm reading a book about agribusiness and (finally) reading One Hundred Years of Solitude in the original Spanish (so so many trips to the dictionary). I'm listening to Blank Check's miniseries about Brad Bird.
¹ One point I really loved: we all accept that Bugs Bunny sounds smug, wise-ass, and has a thick Brooklyn accent. We rarely think about how *easy* it would be for that character to sound insufferable, and how precisely Mel Blanc had to define that voice to get the audience on Bugs's side.
² I can't blame Mr. Bird for hammering this point home in the sequel, where Helen earnestly tells the world how the heroes intend to help, and then hypnotized-Helen gives the Dollar-Store-Ayn-Rand take on the same idea.