Hot Guys in Helmets

adam driver rolling stone

The cover of this week’s Rolling Stone

So because we’re total pop culture junkies and apparently sheep, the hubs and I have already subscribed to Disney +, and we’re watching The Mandalorian. And yes, we love it, and yes “Baby Yoda” is the cutest darned thing ever, and yes I think it’s a great addition to the Star Wars canon, and I can’t wait to see how it comes out. But as a romance novelist, I have another reason for liking it that has absolutely nothing to do with any reasonable consideration of story or production.

The Mandalorian is really hot.

Which is crazy, right? I mean, we’ve never seen his face. If his vows to his compatriots are to be believed, we aren’t ever GOING to see his face. Setting aside that this story has no room for any kind of romantic subplot and that sexuality is almost certainly a non-issue in the first place, why should a guy in full armor with his face completely covered make me want to start pricing helmets as a Christmas present for my husband? Consideration of this burning question made me start thinking about all the masked and helmeted heroes that have given me the vapors over the years. Some of them, like the Mandalorian, stay masked all the time. Others use the big reveal as a signpost to character or purpose; with faces bared, they become someone else. But in every instance, the mystery of the mask adds hugely to their love monkey appeal, whether they mean it to or not.

1 – The Other Star Wars Guy: Unlike my little sister, Alexandra Christian, I’m not really a Kylo Ren fangirl. He’s a little too damaged, a little too controlling, a little too brat-prince batshit crazy to work as an object of my vicarious desire. But I must admit, that big moment in The Force Awakens when Baby Vader takes off his mask and reveals the soulful eyes and misshapen beauty of Adam Driver hit me right where it was meant to. That’s the moment for Rey and for the audience when we start hoping he can be better. And how well his story works for us going forward depends very much on how effective that reveal continues to be every time he does it–you’ll notice that by the end of The Last Jedi, he’s barely ever wearing his mask at all. If we’d never seen him in the mask, if we didn’t have that contrast, he would be stripped of a whole lot of his seductive power. I’ll be very curious to see how the mask as fetish is played out in The Rise of Skywalker.

2 – The Stig: I had never heard of the TV show Top Gear until I married my husband. I don’t even drive. And yes, the lead host of the show’s heyday, Jeremy Clarkson, was an absolute horror show of white male privilege; his own co-hosts referred to him as “the orangutan.” But in every episode, their “tame racing driver,” The Stig (a joke about how all the best racing drivers seem to be Scandinavians named Stig) would test drive some incredibly exotic and impractical dream car around the track and set a best possible lap time. He never appeared without his helmet; the mystery of his identity was a running gag throughout the run of the show; they sold promotional teeshirts that read “I Am the Stig.” When the real live guy in the helmet, Ben Collins, finally outed himself in a book, he was fired from the show and pilloried forevermore by the rest of the presenters. Collins is a pretty nice-looking guy. But The Stig was Hot As F*ck. He never showed his face; he never even spoke. But he drove, better and faster and harder than any other human on the planet, all with perfect calm, perfect cool, perfect efficiency. And I think that was what did it for me, just watching this man perform at the absolute top of the game he had chosen without ever breaking a sweat. If I had seen his facial expressions changing, heard him talking about engines or describing the thrill, I don’t think I would have been nearly as affected. The mystery of the man inside this magnificent machine was what flipped my switch completely, and I doubt very much I was alone.

3 – The Dashing Rogues: These are the kind of guys Errol Flynn used to play, guys like The Scarlet Pimpernel and Antonio Banderas as Zorro and, more particularly, Cary Elwes as The Dread Pirate Westley in The Princess Bride. (I know, I know, the Dread Pirate Roberts was his secret identity; Westley was his real name.) Elwes was playing the Platonic ideal of this archetype for laughs, but it worked as more than just a joke because he looked and sounded amaaaaaaazing doing it. And he works the transformation; he fully embraces the power of the mask. When he leaves as the Farm Boy, he’s serious, determined, and blandly besotted–the male version of his beloved Buttercup. But when he returns in that black mask with that ridiculous little mustache, he’s snarky Superman. It isn’t just that he can out-fence, out-fight, and out-wit all comers. It’s that he takes such obvious delight in his powers. Hiding his identity frees him to embrace his inner bad guy even as he saves the girl. And it’s very, very sexy.

4 – The Superheroes: Some superheroes take the idea of a dual identity way beyond Clark Kent’s glasses, guys like Batman and Ironman and my favorite lover of the bunch, Deadpool. Unlike Ironman and Batman, whose disguises are weapons in themselves, Deadpool is hiding a deformity. The mask is his beauty look; underneath he’s the monster. It’s a very Byronic, Phantom of the Opera-kind of character, except that he’s also a total smartass. He hides from his beloved because he fears her rejection, and when he takes off the mask, it’s funny (I dearly love the Hugh Jackman mask gag), but it’s hugely romantic, too, the ultimate display of vulnerability. Batman scores points every time he shows his true face to one of his many love interests; Ironman hides from no one, but the moment Pepper discovers the suit is a big step in their relationship. But for me, Deadpool takes the prize.

5 – My Favorite: Anybody who knows me at all knows I dearly adore me some Russell Crowe. I don’t care how old or fat he gets or what kind of role he might be playing, just watching him makes my heart go pitty-pat. And I can tell you exactly the moment that unbreakable bond was forged:

Holy moley mooley moo. When Gladiator came out, my gal pals and I spent much time and breath exclaiming over that helmet. My story, “The Dragon,” in Eat the Peach, functions quite nicely as Maximus fan fiction, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. But why does that moment make such a difference? What is the deal with the helmet?

When Max puts on the helmet, it’s to hide his face from the Emperor and kick ass. He proves himself a killing machine without equal and a leader of men. Max in the helmet is the ultimate war machine in the same way Deadpool is the ultimate assassin and Stig is the ultimate driver. But when he takes it off, he reveals his fearsome broken soul. He is “the father of a murdered son; the husband of a murdered wife.” The helmet doesn’t just function practically as armor; it functions as a buffer between his anguish and the world. When he takes it off and reveals that anguish … well, all I can say is, it works a treat for me.

And I think the Mandalorian is a version of the same thing. We don’t see his face, but we do see his behavior. We see him fight and win; we see him fight and lose and keep trying. And we see him with The Child–his body language, his decisions. We see the tenderness behind the warrior. And because of the helmet, we can project onto that any face we choose. So yeah, not a romantic story. But a very romantic hero all the same.

 

 

 

 

AHS: Ready for the end game . . . .

FX_AHS_ImageGallery_0000_03Last night I was laid low with a migraine and didn’t live tweet American Horror Story: Coven, though I was watching and shrieking right along with everybody else.  So I’m thinking maybe now, as we go into the long dry spell that is the holiday break, might be a good time to stop and take stock of where we are in more than 140 characters.

Regular readers of the blogness might recall that I started off the season after the premiere saying that I loved this new story of the New Orleans witches and the voodoo queens who loathe them even though it punched nearly every button on my hate list for horror.  Poisonous poontang, crazy church ladies, rape rape and more rape, and anal atrocity when all else fails to shock – those tropes are all still there in almost every episode, and I don’t like’em any better now than I did in October.  But the good still outweighs the bad, and even if it didn’t, I couldn’t give up this story without finding out how it comes out to save my sanity.

So, the bad:

  • When Queenie begged the Minotaur to “love” her in the garden shed and ended up with even lower self esteem and obvious internal injuries.  They almost lost me with that one.  Queenie deserved better as a character, and though she did a fantastic job of playing the scene without flinching, Gabourey Sidibe deserves better as an actress.   In a recent episode when Queenie slaughtered a would-be rapist, I saw what they did there, contrasting the old Queenie with the new.  But it still felt clumsy, cruel and unnecessary.
  • All those damned crazy mamas.  What. The. Fuck, Y’all?  Did Mare Winningham lose a bet?   And unless she’s going to rise up with something brilliant in the final act, the Patti Lupone character is a waste of space put in for no better reason than to make mean fun of Christian fundamentalism in all its repressed, Lysol-wielding glory.  All I can say is bleah.
  • The way nobody on the voodoo side of New Orleans has any personality except Marie Laveau.  Over at Miss Robichaux’s Academy, even the portraits hanging on the walls have an intricate backstory.  At Marie Laveau’s, people just come in to get their hair done and get shot.
  • The pacing on the witch hunter plot.  While the writers may have known about Hank’s family history and the big bad Delphi Trust from the beginning, it felt like this was a great big daemon ex machina brought in last night to push everything to a crisis for the final act, a brilliant notion that occurred to somebody over their Thanksgiving turkey.  I like it; it works; it just seems like too big a plot point to have been a secret until this point in the story.  But I’m willing to be talked out of this one; this may just have been a slow reveal on Hank.

But enough nitpicking; on to the Very, Very Good:

  • Kathy Bates, Kathy Bates, and ever more Kathy Bates.  No other actress could have played the character arc of The Education and Dismemberment of Delphine LaLaurie and made it not only make sense but be genuinely moving.  We know she’s a monster, the worst on display here, and yet we’re rooting for her; we want her to get better; we want Queenie to save her soul.  Last night watching her disembodied head weep to hear Odetta sing about freedom should have been Grand Guignol comedy, but it wasn’t.  Intercut with the horrific images of Hank’s massacre in the hair salon, it made me cry.  And that’s the thing about this whole story, the thing that makes it better than the first season.  It’s not just cool and edgy and scary and shocking – it’s human and heartfelt, too.
  • Every little thing about Fiona.  Speaking of touching scenes, nothing has gotten to me more all season than Fiona helping the grieving mother in the hospital resurrect her stillborn daughter.  I love her twisted love for Cordelia; I love her desperate love for herself; I love the way she loves the Axe Man and the way he loves her back.  This part was obviously written purely as a love letter to Jessica Lange, and she’s proving she’s worth every word.
  • The weird-ass love triangle between Zoe, Kyle (better known at our house as Frankenwiener), and Madison.  It tickles me to see these two teen-age girls, one outwardly shy and inwardly certain, the other just the opposite, create their own version of Prince Charming and share him like a toy.  Extra points for the way Fiona has taken him up as a pet.
  • Every moment between Queenie and Delphine.
  • Every shot of Angela Bassett’s exquisitely beautiful face which somehow manages to be stony and expressive at the same time.
  • Myrtle, the most specific and cuckoo version of the classic crone figure I’ve ever heard tell of.
  • All the incredible visual details and layers of gorgeous horror, from Madison’s outfits to the sight of Myrtle burning at the stake – this is what gothic should always look like.  For once, a piece of art lives up to its title sequence.

So now we wait until January 8.  Truth be told, I don’t really care who the new Supreme is; I just want to know what happens next.

From one scary magnolia to another . . . American Horror Story: Coven

AHSCovenOkay, my kittens, it’s not going to sound like it, but I promise you from the bottom of my twisted heart, I really, really loved the premiere episode of American Horror Story:  Coven.  I hate stories about torture, people being burned alive, gang rape, and that most misogynistic of symbolic horror tropes, the deadly vagina dentata (or as my extremely clever baby sister, Alexandra Christian, described it in this incarnation, Black Magic Pussy).  I  hate stories where every woman is either a mealymouthed victim or a murdering bitch.  I hate stories about the South where pretty much everybody native comes off as a f*cking crazy person.  Coven;  Episode One was oozing with all this nastiness like pus oozing out of a boil; by all rights, I should have hated it.

But I didn’t.  Because the one doing the torturing was Kathy Bates, playing Delphine LaLaurie, a real life psychopathic southern belle who would make Annie Wilkes cry for her mama.  And the girl who was burned alive by crazy Loo-Zee-Anna fundamentalists is gonna come back and kick ass.  And the girl who was raped blows up a whole bus to get even. And that Black Magic Pussy is attached to a character with potential to be either a sensitive witness or an avenging angel,Ophelia or Medea or both, and I can’t even begin to predict which it will be.

And maybe that’s the point.  So much of what we saw is so familiar, archetypal, plugged straight into my own Southern gothic woman’s sensibilities that I felt immediately at home, but nothing is how I would have written it.  It’s like watching the story my evil twin would write on a steady diet of tabloids and absinthe.  That bitch is crazy, but I gotta know what she’s gonna show me next.

Other goodies that make it all worthwhile:

Jessica Lange dancing to Iron Butterfly and firing off killer one-liners like Bette Davis run magically amok.

The gorgeous way everything is lit and framed and filmed, no matter how ugly the action.

Frances Conroy’s red hair and cigarette.

The feeling, for the moment at least, that everything means something, that everything has a point, that the story is going to hang together and make some kind of awful sense.  Season 1 of AHS fell to tatters by the end, and I hear Season 2 was plagued with a swampy middle.  But watching this first episode, I can still have faith.

Lex and I are live tweeting every episode (@LucyBlueCastle and @LexxxChristian), so by all means, come watch with us next week.  In the meantime, what did y’all think?

 

Sleepy Hollow: All I expected and just enough more

sleepy hollowNot that anybody cares, but Washington Irving’s original “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was not a scary story.  Not remotely gothic beyond some lovely travelogue-like description of the Hudson River Valley, it’s an early American satire, a comedy about how the salt of the earth manly men of an American wilderness town turn an artistic, intellectual, woman-stealing nancy boy’s own poetical imagination against him to run him out of their territory and away from their potential mates.  There was no headless horseman, and Ichabod Crane was nobody’s idea of a hero.  Disney did a pretty straightforward cartoon adaptation as far as story, but the imagery of the Headless Horseman was so deliciously scary, nobody remembers he was a fake.  Johnny Depp, with his portrayal of “Ichabod Crane, Girl Detective” (his words, not mine, and utterly perfect), hit close to Washington Irving’s original skittish schoolmaster in his mannerisms, but he was a forensic detective who pushed past his fear to kick ass when courage was required, saving the day in the end.  And oh yeah, the Horseman really was an evil Redcoat from beyond the grave.  And there were witches.

FOX’s new series, Sleepy Hollow, seems to pick up where Tim Burton left off, adding a time link element to this new Horseman mythology.  Ichabod is a Revolutionary soldier/spy who looks like he stepped off the cover of a nicely-designed 1980s romance novel.  He finds himself in the Sleepy Hollow of today, a fish out of water with Oxford diction, allied with Abbie, a gorgeous lady cop in mannish clothes that show off her cleavage, a pretty pro straight out of the Dana Scully playbook.  Watching the promos, I anticipated one more network supes show where the Magic Man spends half his time trying to convince Miz Pragmatic he’s not crazy and Miz Pragmatic spends half her time with her head in her purse.  But they’ve got sexual tension and a pile of corpses to explain, so gosh darn it, they better team up.  <yawn>  I mean, just look at that promo picture – could those four characters look any more focus group ready?

But  . . . . I watched the first two episodes.  And while yeah, it starts out very much as expected, it veers straight off that rail and into fun stuff almost immediately.  Ichabod (Tom Mison) is stalwart and intense and handsome, yes.  But he’s also snarky and warm and ready to fight back not only against the Headless Horseman but against the modern day skeptics who think he’s delusional and possibly dangerous.  Abbie (Nicole Beharie) is smart and capable and rocks the hell out of a scoop neck teeshirt.  But she’s also kind and vulnerable in a genuinely womanly way (not the “she goes in the bathroom and cries for ten minutes every day about her ticking biological clock just to prove she has a uterus” way writers of this kind of show usually fall back on) with her own connection to the supernatural events that’s just as real and strong as Ichabod’s.  Plus we have Orlando Jones as the usual doubting cop in charge – except this time, he may have a secret of his own, a reason for roadblocking our protagonists that goes beyond the “I’m too cynical for this shit” cliché.  And John Cho is wandering around as a zombie cop with connections to the Horseman.  And best of all, Clancy Brown haunts the warmest corners of the story as the ghost of Abbie’s mentor, the late sheriff and the Horseman’s highest profile victim.  Any show that uses Clancy Brown as a good guy pretty much has me at hello.

There are problems – I’m not convinced yet by the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” angle (must the stakes ALWAYS be the end of the world?), and Ichabod’s witch wife, caught between worlds, seems more like a plot complication created to keep the leads from smooching until sweeps month than a necessary element of the story.  But of all the new shows I had hope for this fall (I’m looking at you, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D), this one has been the happiest surprise.

Watch tonight at 9 o’clock on FOX – and come over and live Tweet with me (@LucyBlueCastle)!