Tag Archives: mask

Self Indulgence

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It’s Friday, the sun’s out, and I’m feeling good about myself. So here’s one of my poems. Feel free to not read this post!

OVIDIAN

A night at Venice Carnivale, court of Fate and Chance.
The swirl of rainbow silks, the flashing jewels, and over all
The masks, the masks, the paper people playing at the Fool.
A night to fall in circled arms – come, stranger, shall we dance?
A crimson violin is singing tangos to a star;
The gondolier is crooning as he slides us from the street
And into shadowed ways. In shadowed passages lips meet;
A sweeter dance, my painted one. Ars Amatoria.

But, thoughtless as a diamond, dawn will not withhold its light.
I wake and she’s already gone. I never knew her name.
Our masks can’t last forever – all that glitters is not gold;
The music dies, the shadows fade, and fantasy takes flight.
Do I feel tears upon my hand? A kiss? Or only rain?
The streets are paved with rubbish, and the gondola is old.

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I See Dead People

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Funerary masks are cool. I used to think that they were so the living would remember what their friends and relations looked like, but it turns out that’s got nothing to do with it (except possibly as a side benefit).

I started reading around the famous Mask of Agamemnon, found near Mycenae by Schliemann and dated to 1500 BC. Unfortunately Schliemann had something of a history of, ahem, fudging the facts (aka Making Stuff Up) and the Agamemnon mask has been largely discredited as a forgery.

The Mycenaeans did use death masks though, although it had nothing to do with either remembrance or honouring the spirit of the dead. Only the wealthiest families had them made, and they got rapidly more extravagant once the fashion started. It looks as though it became a status thing – a bidding war between the nobility for who could hold the best funeral. Kind of a PR stunt, in a way.

The Egyptians had some pretty awesome ideas about funerary masks. They believed that the spirits of the dead had a tough journey to reach the afterlife and needed some reinforcement. The mask strengthened the spirit and warded off evil spirits. If it was designed to include divine elements then it was believed to embue the spirit with divinity, and the gods would recognise them as one of their own.

It wasn’t really until the late Middle Ages that people started making accurate copies of the corpse’s face, and these were then kept in libraries and museums as historical records, rather than used as part of the funeral proceedings.

The actual word ‘mask’ is pretty recent too. According to Wikipedia – that font of all knowledge – it didn’t crop up in English until the 1500s, and is derived from the Medieval Latin word masca which means ‘specter’ or ‘nightmare’. Given how the masks used to be used, I find that quite funny – turning something that was meant to glorify or help into something unpleasant.

When did the dead become scary, anyway? There’s a lot of noise at the moment about the zombie apocalypse, but it’s not that long ago that offerings used to be made to the spirits of the deceased to honour them and ask for their blessings. In fact, that’s what the Dia de los Muertos still does, and the Chinese practice of ancestral veneration. Where did the nightmare aspect come from?

The Face of the Supervillain

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Masks in comics are very common. They are an essential part of the superhero’s equipment, protecting their identity so they can lead ‘normal’ lives. The mask is so intrinsically linked to heroism that the hero rarely uses their powers without it. Although it’s never taken that far (that I’ve seen, anyway) it’s almost a direct link between mask and power. Without the mask there is no hero.

Conversely the villain hardly ever wears one. Granted, I’m not that well versed in comics, but the only masked villain I can think of off the top of my head is the Joker in Batman and, by the time he starts wearing one, there’s no private identity left to protect. Oh, and Spiderman‘s Green Goblin, where the evil personality (at least in the film) is portrayed as being IN the mask.

I’ve been trying to think of reasons for this division. Do we believe that people have the ability to be villainous at any time, with no need for assistance from a magical mask? Or is it simply that we want them to be caught and so never hide their faces?

If you turn the question on its head, you come up with a much more interesting answer. Why are most heroes portrayed with masks? The protected identity thing is a narrative convention. I think the real reason is that it makes them more relatable. Bear with me on this. By making superheros anonymous, they become a kind of Everyman. Regardless of who is actually under the mask, it has the potential to be anyone, even the reader. The mask enables us to project our own faces onto the hero.

By keeping villains bare faced, we define them as that specific individual. We cannot therefore be the villain, because we don’t look like that.

In comics, this need to define the villain as ‘not me’ can result in extreme caricaturing. This makes us feel safer – after all, we will never risk meeting such absurd people in real life. The really scary ones are those that aren’t that different. The Everymans who think at only 10° from us. It is all too easy to believe that we will meet them or, worse, could be them. When you’re playing the ‘what superpower would you like’ game no one ever says a villain, because you don’t want to be associated with that kind of behaviour. But let’s be honest – Dr. Octopus was cool.

This division of ‘self’ and ‘other’ is an important key to understanding, well, rather a lot of things. International politics for a start, but I’m not going to go there. In writing, it is vital to give your readers a villain. Your hero has to be someone that the audience can relate to in some way – without empathy, there is no interest. That means your villain must be ‘other’, and that delineation usually needs to be fairly obvious. Otherwise there’s a risk the reader will go off piste and decide on an antipathetic character for themselves. You don’t want to lose control of the reader that much – there’s no telling what else they might do.

But how do you define ‘other’? Well, an excellent place to start is by making sure you have properly defined ‘self’, aka the hero. And this brings to light another point that should not be neglected – heros and villains exist symbiotically. Without one, the other is meaningless. Elijah Price in M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable put this rather well:

Now that we know who you are, I know who I am.

The Masquerade

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Apologies for the weekend’s silence – I was off in a field pretending to be a goblin. No, that is not a euphemism. I do live action roleplay, popularly known as LARP. It’s the best form of escapism I’ve ever found, and a fantastic method of storytelling.

One key thing that’s used in LARP is masks. These allow people to portray different races, or multiple different characters played by the same guy. It takes a certain suspension of disbelief, true, but it’s the added factor that helps tell a story. The better the mask, the easier it is.

The role of masks throughout history is really interesting. In the Regency era masquerade balls became hugely popular due to the romanticism of anonymity, which led to raunchy behaviour and a reputation for immorality. Sounds fun.

In Greek theatre they were essential props. They may look ridiculous to us but the exaggerated features and huge mouths weren’t made to be seen close up. From the back of an amphitheatre they look fine. They allowed men to ‘convincingly’ play women, meant that three actors could play all the parts (early Greek tragedy traditionally only had a protagonist, and then expanded to two supporting actors), and – most importantly of all – could portray the gods.

This is actually where the derogatory term ‘bare faced’ comes from. When the masks first began to fall out of fashion, portraying the divine with one’s own face was seen as blasphemous. ‘Bare faced’ was an actor who had the arrogance to show his own face on stage rather than use a mask.

Of course, it’s not just physical masks that are interesting. There’s also the internal masks for different social situations. I see this most starkly in LARP when people are actively trying to be different but it’s equally true in everyday life. Mostly it’s done subconsciously but it can be made to work more powerfully for you if you think about it. I can summon up my inner bitch or socialite when I need it, even if I’m not in the mood or wouldn’t necessarily play that role because of nerves.

It’s not all good, though. Certainly it led to an awful lot of bad emo teen poetry, whilst I was trying to work out what the whole internal mask thing was about. And for that I can only apologise.