Thursday, January 23, 2014


Last weekend we attended MarsCon in Williamsburg, Virginia, for the first time. I’ve hesitated to go in the past because of the date, when travel can be hazardous. We picked a good year for it, luckily; the weather for the drive down and back was as nice as could possibly be expected for the middle of January. Having lived in Williamsburg for almost four years as married college students in the late 1960s and early 70s, we always enjoy revisiting the town and don’t do it often enough. To my surprise, all but one of the historic tavern restaurants are closed in January! Oddly, we’d never before eaten at the one remaining open, Shields, which didn't disappoint in any way.

MarsCon, which had a fairy tale theme this year, turned out to be a bit bigger than our November con, Darkover, with a larger dealers’ room. MarsCon attendees seem to be heavily into hall costuming, and this con has a substantial costume contest. Winners consisted of a little girl dressed as a “My Little Pony” character, a group presentation of “Coal Black and the Seven Deadly Sins,” and a couple beautifully dressed as Sarah and the goblin king from LABYRINTH. Musical performers included a duo called Blibbering Humdingers, who sang a lot of Harry Potter filk as well as a cool and funny piece about famous captains (Kirk, Picard, Janeway, Sparrow, et al) from film and fiction. A Celtic duo, Picti, performed after the masquerade on Saturday night. From what I could understand of the male vocalist’s lyrics, I think I would have liked the songs very much if they’d been intelligible to me. (I know it’s not “just me,” because I’ve heard many other soloists and groups whose articulation comes across as perfectly clear.) Also, the amplification was too loud for me, and the flashy light show accompanying their concert was almost painful to look at directly. So I left early, but my husband stayed and enjoyed it. He also attended a comedy improv show on Friday night, which he said was very good.

This con includes a science track. My husband watched a lecture, with slides, about space transportation. I would have liked to hear the talk on Mars exploration, but it conflicted with a panel I didn’t want to miss. There were also several sessions on costuming, a full children’s activity track and, of course, video rooms. I attended panels on fairy tale films and literature as well as one on Disney—“Evil Empire” or not? That one kept veering disappointingly off topic, with heated exchanges in which audience and panelists practically shouted over each other at some moments. I’d expected detailed discussions of specific Disney characters and films, which the panel never got around to. One area of consensus seemed to be that it’s not wrong in itself for the Disney animated movies to change the plots and characters of fairy tales, since many variants of the traditional tales have always existed, and theirs can be seen as simply other versions. What’s objectionable is that the Disney “corporate juggernaut” dominates popular culture to such an extent that children grow up believing the Mouse’s version is the only or “real” one. The topic of Disney heroines, which I expected to occupy a lot of the hour, never got more than a sentence or two of attention. Most of the discussion centered on one subject, Disney’s “sugar-coating” of the tales and whether children should be shielded from the more violent details from Grimm, et al, that the animated films omit (such as Cinderella’s stepsisters’ eyes getting pecked out by birds). There was much argument about happy endings versus a more “realistic” picture of life—not really relevant to the panel topic, because most of Disney’s happy endings come directly from the originals. The only fairy tale they altered in that respect was “The Little Mermaid.” (They also gave THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME a happy ending, but otherwise they couldn’t have produced it for children at all.) It isn’t so much that Disney’s adaptations “sugar-coat” their source material as that they simplify it. Snow White’s witch-queen stepmother tricks her only once instead of three times with the apple as the climax of the triad. Hera becomes the mother of Hercules rather than an adulterous god’s wife out to destroy a bastard child. (Well, okay, that counts as sugar-coating.) Hades becomes a Satan analog rather than merely ruler of the realm of death. In HUNCHBACK, the villain is actually worse than in Hugo’s novel, where Frollo has good intentions at the beginning, and Hugo’s charming but amoral Phoebus becomes a hero in the cartoon movie. The prince’s prospective bride in the animated LITTLE MERMAID, rather than an ordinary romantic rival as in Andersen’s story, has to be the malevolent sea-witch in disguise. Disney’s overall tendency seems to involve making plots and characters more “black and white” than in the source materials.

I sat in on a round table discussion of Tolkien and the Hobbit movies. I’ve never run into a session like that before. Instead of a panel, all attendees got an equal chance to speak. We sat in a circle, with a moderator to get the conversation going, and went around in turn introducing ourselves and our opinion of the movies. Then discussion became general, with many intelligent comments and a consistently cordial tone despite disagreements. I would like to have participated in the “Game of Thrones” round table that followed, but we had to eat lunch. The perennial quandary of cons—they always offer more appealing events than one person can take in. I want a time-turner!

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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