Moore Nitpicking: The Killing Joke

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 11, 2014 by drayfish

batgirl new costume pic

IMAGE: Batgirl’s New Costume (DC)

Last month I wrote an article on Batgirl (published over at PopMatters). Inspired by her new costume redesign, it was really just an excuse to talk about how fantastic the character of Batgirl is, despite being too often overlooked as just an extension of the Batman franchise.

As an opinion column I guess it was serviceable – if a little shambolic. To use a truly tortured analogy, it was meant to be much like the new outfit itself: all concise and sleek lines. Clean. Clear. Snappy. I was going to bring up the outfit; use it to talk a bit about why Batgirl is profoundly cooler than she’s traditionally been given credit for; try to resist the urge to make snotty comments about Aquaman; sign out. Bip bop boom.

Instead (as so frequently seems to occur with my work) it became rather more rambling. Not necessarily in a bad way, it just took a few indulgent meanders. To continue stomping the outfit metaphor to death, I mentioned the character of Spawn in there at one point (I held back on the Aquaman, so he got a blast), and the further I got along, the more it felt like what I was actually writing was a version of his ensemble: all extraneous cape, superfluous chains, and over-stylised logos all over the place.*

And ARGH! Lookit! I’m doing it all over again! Apparently I can’t help my little self.

In any case, the point is that there was a section I cut out of that piece that I wanted to quickly discuss here. During the article I reference one of DC’s most famous graphic novels, The Killing Joke, by Alan Moore, a near-universally beloved work that has had an indelible impact upon all subsequent depictions of the Batman mythos, and the character of the Joker in particular.

Except… I’m not its biggest fan.

I don’t think it’s bad, or anything. I can absolutely see why it retains such special place in people’s hearts. But there are elements of that book that do bother me, that ultimately get in the way of me considering it one of the great Batman tales. And yet for some reason it keeps drawing me back, keeps asking me to reconsider it as something more.

As I explain in the article, foremost amongst my issues with the comic, is the problematic way in which it treats its female characters. The Batgirl character in particular is completely marginalised, turned into a victim to be savaged, thereby ‘motivating’ the real heroes of the story: her father Commissioner Gordon, and her vigilante ‘father’ Batman.

For fairly obvious reasons, I’m not a huge fan of how that narrative mechanic takes a strong, proud, capable and autonomous character like Barbara Gordon, and reduces her to a casualty – particularly so as she’s not even punished for being Batgirl, but rather just Jim Gordon’s daughter. From serving her father tea and complaining that he’s getting his laundry dirty, she’s paralysed, stripped naked and photographed; literally turned into a gruesome art-object to titillate the Joker, torment Gordon, and (although the Joker doesn’t realise it) enrage the Batman.

And when you dig further into the tale, she is not even the only woman cynically discarded to further the plot progression for its principle male cast. In flashback, the Joker is shown to have had a wife and unborn child. It is presumably for them that he gets involved with some mobsters who want him to help them break into a chemical factory, to ‘prove [himself] as a husband … and as a father’. However, both Joker’s wife and child die, unseen (an electrical fault in a baby bottle heater), only to be reported dead after the fact. They become just plot beats used to legitimise the fracturing of his psyche – even though, weirdly, this new widower’s response isn’t shown to be much more than, ‘Well, I don’t need to pull that heist anymore, guys…’ In an uncomfortable way, it almost feels like, in death, the narrative is blaming his wife even more for his circumstance, since he was only apparently turning to crime to support her.

That might well sound like petty nitpicking – he is the proto-Joker, after all. Human empathy may have never been one of the principle features of his personality. And it’s also true that if indeed this is indeed all meant to come across as psychologically devastating, I would prefer quiet understatement to him throwing his head back in a William Shatner-style roar to the heavens. But it does consequentially undercut exactly how far he ‘falls’ from grace if you are trying to read his narrative arc as a tragedy. If this is a guy who can slough off the decimation of his entire family with little response (only later that day while going through with the robbery anyway, albeit against his will, he remarks how surprising it is that he should still be remembering his wife) then it is difficult to empathise with him or feel much pity. It’s only after he takes a bath in a toxic soup and he is personally, physically effected that his psyche seems to snap, which risks making him seem all the more selfish, and his family all the more redundant.

Of course, the other, far more interesting interpretation (the one that I prefer to believe) is that none of this is true anyway. This curiously emotionally subdued back story of lost love and a reluctant descent into crime is just a fantasy that the Joker himself has made up, one of the many lies that he has told himself to graft some semblance of self onto the twisted, irrational void of his personality. It would explaining why the wife and child are so peripheral and disposable; they are just ciphers in his playacting. ‘Jeannie and Junior’, names so rote and alliterative that they really are just (imaginary) baby steps away from the real, unwavering focus of his egotism: Joker. We don’t see or feel their deaths because they are just manufactured excuses for his behaviour. And we wouldn’t want them drawing focus away from the real star: the guy wandering around in the bright costume and permanent stage-smile.

But if that is true, if Joker’s ambivalence is a sign of his blind selfishness, then it makes the treatment of Barbara even more important. And sadly, she too is dismissed when its plot convenient. In the present, real world of the story, when Batman arrives on the scene to save the day, Jim Gordon doesn’t even ask about his daughter – who as far as he knows might well be dead. At that moment, as far as Jim knows, his daughter has been shot through the gut, brutalised by sociopaths, and left to bleed out on their carpet.** Literally the last time he saw her she was naked, surrounded by a gang of lunatics, and screaming in pain. And yet as Batman swoops in, his first line is not ‘Barbara?’ (indeed, we never see him ask that); instead he’s preoccupied with warning Batman not to step over the line, insisting, ‘I want him brought in by the book’. Although trying to tamp down his shock, his primary concern is that Batman not lose his composure, do something crazy and prove the Joker’s crazed pessimism right.

Now, that may just be some heretofore undiscovered Jim Gordon superpower – Mega-Stoicism? Emotion-dampening? Hyper-suppression? – but for a human being, the whole ‘Don’t let the Joker win this moral debate’ would probably take a momentary backseat to, ‘Hey, is my daughter – you know – alive?’ Particularly so if this final confrontation, as Gordon’s dialogue suggests, is about disproving the Joker’s dispassionate narcissism.

The response to much of this criticism will be, of course, that this is ultimately not a story about these women. Barbara, Joker’s wife, the ‘Fat Lady’ who recurs throughout as a background gag (a poster featuring her at one point even reads ‘Gals, Be Glad It Ain’t You’ – which for all the women in this narrative seems profoundly true); they are all, by necessity, subservient to the psychodrama being played out amongst the three leads. But again, if the point of the story is to draw a distinction between the Joker and Jim (if not the Joker and the Bat), then having them both seen to be forgetting their loved ones in pursuit of some ethos seems an odd, counterintuitive choice.

But, again, I freely admit: I’m being fussy. It’s a powerful story, even if it has to sideline or undermine characters I love in service to its end.

And speaking of that ending, I guess before I go I probably should offer my opinion of the issue of its contrary interpretations. Because in recent years, whenever the subject of The Killing Joke arises, the inevitable question of what exactly is happening on that final page rears its head.

The debate, largely fuelled, as far as I can tell, by writer Grant Morrison, is that the traditional reading of the story – that Batman catches the Joker, restrains himself from enacting revenge as Gordon implored him, and then the two of them, Clown and Crusader, share a morbid laugh over a deranged joke that the Joker decides to recount – is wrong.

The Killing Joke end

IMAGE: The Killing Joke (last page) by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland (DC)

Morrison believes that this is a misunderstanding of the ambiguity Moore intentionally left in his story. For him, and for those who share his reading, when the comic panels tilt focus down to the glistening puddles in the street, Batman actually does finally snap and strangles the Joker to death, ending their perpetual war in a ghoulish failure.

To be fair, the pun title of the book can be seen to lean toward this interpretation. The Killing Joke – not just a joke that cracks up its audience, but a joke that kills, that finally sends Batman over the edge.

But I just don’t see it.

Firstly, more than anything else, it would just seem like lazy plotting in service of a cheap shock tactic; after all, Batman spends the latter portion of the book rubbing it in the Joker’s face that he didn’t win, that the Joker is the only broken savage in the story despite inflicting the worst that he could on others. To then arbitrarily change his mind and kill him anyway not only undermines the agony of that stoicism and proves the Joker right, it seems weirdly antithetical. The reason that grim denouement exists is because they’ve both already lost. The Joker failed to drag anyone else down to his level; the Batman realises that he’s never going to be able to pull his enemy out of this inevitable death spiral; so faced with the inescapability of their intractable, unchangeable path toward ruin, they share a laugh – a joke about two other lunatics trying to escape, but too lost to madness to help themselves. Killing him after they both came to that realisation would not only be cheap, it would actually make the opposite, less tragic point.

Obviously the focus shifts away from the action and the noise fades out, but that just seems more about Moore trying to evoke that sense of cyclical quietude than an implication of murder. The reason that the panels tilt down, returning us to that very same image of the light reflected in the rain puddle, the image with which this whole story begins, is because is it, ultimately, about these two lunatics in their irresolvable cycle. It becomes a narrative ouroboros, starting all over again – Batman and Joker, trapped together forever. The people around them continue to get chewed up, but the heroism and tragedy of their circumstance likewise continues to fuel more stories. Neither of them can change, but neither will stop trying to change the other either.

It’s no doubt why I keep coming back to this tale myself, despite my reservations. Because there really is a marvellous magnetism to these two characters that is perhaps best encapsulated in this gloomy vignette. It’s just a shame that an arguably even more interesting character had to be sacrificed in order to render that portrait in its most potent form.

Batman and Joker laughing

IMAGE: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland (DC)

* And even then I left out a cranky old man rant about how the youngins today don’t know what it was like before comic book films were legitimised. What with their Captain America: Winter Soldiers and Guardians of the Galaxies… They never had to live through the nightmare of Steel or the artery-clogging cheese of Superman 4: The Quest for Peace or f**king Batman and F**king Robin. And don’t even make me bring up Howard the Duck! That’s a whole other parcel of emotional horror I dare not unpack. …Although I guess they did have to contend with Green Lantern and X Men Origins: Wolverine, so maybe we have all seen some soul withering stuff.

** More specifically, he actually shoots her in the pelvis, which opens up a whole other potentially loaded assault on gender riff that I shall leave unexplored.

24 Lives: Another Day Another Dolour

Posted in criticism, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 11, 2014 by drayfish

24-Live-Another-Day-TV-Show-Images

IMAGE: 24: Live Another Day (Fox)

It seems like every other day there’s a story in the news – always with some hyperbolic headline – about either the wonders or the dangers of wine.

One week a ‘recent study’ will say that it’s bad for you: acid reflux, heart disease, liver damage.  The next week it will be all good: it’ll help your cholesterol, your circulation, your brain function.  Sometimes it robs years off your life, others it extends your sunset days exponentially.  It stains your teeth; or it gives you better skin.  It raises you risk of stroke; it stops you getting fat.  It gives you cancer; it stops cancer.  It gives you unicorns; it gives your unicorns cancer.  Back and forth, on and on, each time backed by some half baked clinical trial and a photogenic white coat technician from the University of Overzealous Press Releases (Go UOPRs!)

They do it with coffee too.  And beer.  Sun-tanning.  Videogames.  Always some pleasure that rational thought would dictate is probably fine in moderation, but that would be a mistake to overindulge.  But it’s all part of the dance.  That fluctuation that has always been at the heart of headline journalism between ‘Hey, psst… Wanna know the ultimate secret?’ and ‘OH MY GOD WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!’

I bring this up because I just watched the last episode of 24.

More specifically: the finale of the latest season of 24: ‘Live Another Day’.  The series had returned from cancellation* in a truncated form (12 episodes instead of the eponymous 24), picking up the story four years after the previous season’s whimper of an ending.

And while 24 is hardly an addictive chemical substance (even if that ticking clock does trigger some kind of Pavlovian response in my brain chemistry), whenever I watch the show it reminds me of all those news reports – the way they vacillate so wildly with such predictability.  Not just because 24 itself frequently becomes the subject matter of such debates in its often cavalier depiction of torture and insensitive portrayals of other cultures.  It’s because that flip-flopping is precisely the way that I personally feel about the show; those are the wild swings of emotion and sniping voices in my head as I watch each season play out.  One week it’s ‘the greatest thing evah!’ the next it’s ‘the worst crap I’ve ever seen!’, and I can never resolve whether I think it’s a text that’s ultimately transformative or utter trash.**

But as this latest, more condensed miniseries has shown: it’s like wine.  It’s both.  And neither.

It all depends upon your taste, and what you’re using it for.

24 publicity shot

IMAGE: 24: Live Another Day (Fox)

I remember watching the first season of 24 back in 2002.  At the time I was so enamoured with the conceit that not only could I forgive the necessary extra suspension of disbelief – the portals in spacetime Jack had to exploit to navigate LA in the time allotted him; the fact no one ever grabbed a sandwich on the fly, napped, or had a functioning bladder – I flew headlong into the adventure with rollicking abandon.

Hey, lookit!  The split screens!  The multiple angles!  The that-guy-said-it-would-take-five-minutes-and-then-it-took-five-minutes!  The ticking clocks that actually real-time clock ticked!  There was Dennis Hopper doing the crazy eyes.  There were ‘splosions – sometimes just ’cause why not?  There were outrageous, status quo shattering twists (how could Nina be the traitor?  She’s one of the cast members?!)  And there was the final, sombre sting in the tail: the needless death of Jack’s wife, just to disabuse the audience of the notion that this was all just some big, swaggering hero fantasy.

Yes, it sucks that in some ways Teri Bauer’s death could be seen as a variation on the woman-in-the-freezer trope (a sorry well that the writers would pathetically revisit again with the character of Renee Walker), but here it didn’t seem to have been done to motivate the ‘hero’, or even to further the story.  It was a sign that in this world, no one was safe.  Good people – resourceful, useful, loved people – could die; because in this narrative’s universes there are unforeseeable consequences for those who strive to do good.

It was exciting.  And it felt fresh.  It was willing to do slow burns and frenetic mayhem.  And in a network television landscape of formulaic action fare, it was like a revelation.

Then season two happened, and after starting strong – chasing a nuke through the city streets?! Yikes! – the formula that the show had traded up for started to bite into the narrative.  From that season on stories suddenly began chasing themselves into redundant side alleys just to fill up screen time: double crosses and secondary villains, agents with personal problems and loser friends/family members/ex-boyfriends that would re-enter their lives to inject predictably tedious complications into stories that already contained the potential end of western civilisation.

I know she’s become a bit of a punching bag in criticism of the show, but perhaps the worst casualty of these treading water plotlines was Jack’s daughter Kim Bauer.  In her several years of involvement it is difficult to identify a single moment in which she profitably forwarded the narrative.  During season two in particular she became like a walking farcical game of ‘good news, bad news':

Good news!  She escaped the child abusing guy she was babysitting for.  Bad news!  She’s caught in a bear trap…

Good news!  Did we mention she’s caught in a bear trap so she’s not going anywhere?  Bad news!  Now there’s a hungry cougar lurking over her shoulder…

Good news!  She gets saved by a loner weirdo in the middle of nowhere.  Bad news!  He’s a survivalist nut job who’s going to lock her in his dungeon…

On and on and on.  Poor Elisha Cuthbert having to work overtime to sell the audience on her plight as she’s tasked with staring into the middle distance at unconvincingly mountain cat stock footage or reacting to cheap soap-opera peril.  She got some marginally better material in her later seasons when she joined CTU (she joined CTU!), and yet it still seemed she was relegated to the role of most-hapless-intern, with corny ‘Don’t tell dad his partner is my boyfriend’ nonsense she had to sell.

Similarly, as the series continued, the shock value and theatrics overall were ramped up.  Perhaps chasing the visceral jolt of the death of Jack’s wife, or the nuke blast mid season two, the show just kept piling on the carnage, dialling up the threat.

It made for compelling viewing.  At any given moment, any of the characters could be sacrificed.  Just because you had a familiar face on 24 was no guarantee you were going to make it through the next commercial break (unless you were Kiefer Sutherland, naturally).  One year, just to get things rolling at frantic pace, three of the principle characters were assassinated within the first hour.***  In another season starter a nuclear detonation went off in Los Angeles.  And those were the opening salvos.  From that point on it felt that the story could go literally anywhere.

24 was white-knuckle stuff; rambunctious and rollickingly paced.  It might meander down ultimately extraneous narrative back alleys, but there was always the sense that things could kick off at any moment.  Anyone was expendable (and almost without exception, they proved to be); everything was wired to explode.

24 nuclear explosion

IMAGE: Quietly raising the stakes, 24 (Fox)

But it became cartoonish.  Only a couple of years in and Bauer had literally died and been brought back to life multiple times.  Multiple.  More than one.

It became a show where oil barons try to blow up Los Angeles (a city with no public transport system) to convince people to buy more oil.  Where Jack’s father and brother are revealed to be villains, supplying nerve gas to Russian terrorists, because… something about ‘legacy’?  Where the central conceit of an entire season (which I enjoyed, but that everyone else seems to have panned) was a previously assassinated character coming back from the dead (with an evil-Spock beard so that you know he’s not to be trusted).  Even at what is widely considered its best, it was still barking nuts: the season that won the Emmy revolved around the President of the United States being a scheming, murderous, moustache-twirling tyrant!  The President of the United States!

…I mean, I know the obvious gag to make is ‘Nixon’, but come on.  That’s a big card to play.

On a smaller scale, it was a kind of mugging for the camera that even seeped into the production – my gods, the product placement!  When Ford was sponsoring, you knew which vehicles Jack was going to go out of his way to hotwire (which, now that I think about it, is kind of a strange feature to advertise: ‘Look at how quickly someone can steal your car!’)  Dell computers get to show you how accessible all of the country’s electronic infrastructure truly is.  This latest season, when they switched on a Sprint mobile phone (in close up of the logo) uplinking directly with the president (who, wouldn’t you know it, is also on a Sprint plan!) to find him flashing a toothy smile and declaring, ‘You’re coming through loud and clear, Jack’, I thought perhaps I had entered into some weird Home Shopping Network co-production:

‘This is great coverage, Chloe.  And at such an affordable price!  I wonder what those terrorists are using?’

‘Probably AT&T – the freedom-hating bastards.’

The show’s only restriction was to its central time conceit – but in a striking irony, it was this concession to ‘reality’ that led it so astray.

24 had trapped itself in a rigid order – 24 hours, chronological, unbroken.  And to begin with it wore this convention as a guiding principle: this is what will evoke tension, this will give immediacy and weight to the premise.  And it did.  The only thing is – like a moral code – when you lose sight of why those rules are in place, why they are necessary, they can feel too much like a chafing restraint, like some shackle arbitrarily applied.  And that’s what happened.  Whenever 24 lost sight of the purpose of those rules, it reacted to them by piling on the gore, by ramping up the peril until it reached an hysterical pitch.

For a show thematically obsessed with how poised upon the precipice of ruin the western world perpetually stands, constantly flirting with how easily anarchy can overtake order, it is fitting that their narrative seems to play out in precisely the same way.  Locked into the restrictive real-time conceit, with multiple characters to juggle and impending deadlines unavoidably ticking down, it became clear that the writers really were just making it up on the fly, desperately trying to lay down the next piece of track before the oncoming train rolled over it – a fact they later confirmed.

Presumably there were broad arcs mapped out – characters earmarked as moles; revelations to spring – but for the most part, week to week, it was a giddy, long-form improv.  There were minutes to fill, corners they wrote themselves into and from which they had to claw their way free.

And what they proved was: it’s impossible to live like that, to tell stories like that, without making mistakes.

When it works it has a thrilling immediacy; but when it doesn’t, when you let your resolve slip, it swiftly descends into nonsense.  A character will get a convenient micro-amnesia; a President can be poisoned with no lasting consequence; a nuclear bomb can detonate in Los Angeles (a nuke!) and then after literally only a couple of hours never be mentioned again.  It becomes a gruesome pantomime – skittish and flailing, illogical and desperate – where nothing matters anymore because all sense of substance and consequence is gone.

It becomes a meme about a bear trap and a cougar.

And it’s here that we have to mention the torture porn. Because it’s hard to not be revolted by the sometimes fetishistic way in which 24 presented the act of torture.  Not merely because it was so willing to show some quite graphic material, but because it would so frequently go there, and with so little nuance.  It became the last great hope of plot progression: We need this guy to talk and he won’t.  It’s regrettable, and we’ll show characters looking remorsefully out a window as though mourning the death of innocence – but don’t worry, because it always works, it’s reliable, and Bauer is the maestro of pain.  I’m glad that they took occasion in the last few seasons to inject a little more nuance to the presentation of torture – it didn’t always work, and can be inflicted on the innocent, but it did always seem to remain a lazy plot standby whenever the writers ran out of ideas.

24 is meant to be a show about how vigilant one must be – how stoic – to maintain order; and it’s narrative through line and structure consistently proves this true, exhibiting, even in its failure, everything wrong with slippery slopes.  If you take your eye off the big picture, start chasing momentary indulgences, the whole thing can fall apart.  Let the nutso Jack’s-a-junkie storyline slide and suddenly you’re knee deep in a he’s-got-terminal-radiation-poisoning story that has to be solved with magic.  Let the torture get you the information one time, and soon your hero is a tweaked-out rage-monster, and the idea of personal liberties and the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is rendered meaningless.

It’s a highwire balancing act – one that the show could never consistently pull off.  And that’s why viewing it became such a war in my head.  Because – to return to an already laboured analogy – 24 ultimately feels like one big contradictory argument about wine.  Endlessly fluctuating between sublimity and slop.

One season it’s like all great spy and suspense fiction, offering a sobering portrait of our contemporary paranoias; the next, it shamelessly leaps into hapless shock tactics and bombastic theatrics.  One week it’s a portrait of the thin veneer of social order that is only held in check by clandestine, morally grey, watchdogs; the next it’s a flag-waving soap-opera with a cartoonish understanding of biology, physics, and basic human behaviour.

Compulsively watchable?  Of course.  But good for you?  It was impossible to say.

And so to ‘Live Another Day’ – a subtitle that at this point probably sounds like more of a threat than a statement of resolve.  Because for me, that was what made this season was so good: not only the fact that it’s half-episode order allowed the writers to streamline their seasonal arc, but because it owned its own history of histrionics.

Firstly, the story didn’t summersault into a series of endless nonsensical doublecrosses – the one inevitable CIA traitor was so obvious from his first appearance that you didn’t have to play the tired guessing game (Benjamin Bratt plays stalwart lead and sneaky scumbag so well that the moment he sagely warned Kate not to dwell on her husband’s betrayal it was clear he was the one who’d sold her out).  There was no Russian doll of escalatingly superfluous villains – or rather, the connections seemed a little more organic this time around.

Even when the show risked feeling like just a greatest hits package, each familiar set piece had an imaginative new twist.  Jack could still hotwire a car in under three seconds and schematics of every building on the face of the Earth were once again being called up out of the ether, but this time Jack and Chloe were on their own, having to negotiate wi-fi hotspots in local pubs and scamper through the London Underground.  The signature car chases were elevated by being stalked by drone cameras and missiles.  Even the torture interrogation scene was actually just a bluff with a nice misdirect; Jack wasn’t the unhinged ‘bad cop’ for once, as it was new agent Kate (played magnificently by Chuck alumna Yvonne Strahovski) got to flip out and wave her gun around.

Sadly, the series does revisit an unfortunate trope that it would be nice if it could grow beyond: the woman Jack Bauer loves has to get murdered.  While thankfully not as distasteful as season 8’s assassination of Renee Walker (literally moments after she and Jack had slept together, just so the ‘tragedy’ really sinks in), Audrey Raines is killed in the final episode during a failed rescue attempt.  Her death acts as a revealing catalyst both for Kate’s resignation, believing that she no longer has the dispassionate resolve necessary for the job, and for one of the most revealing moments of quiet and motionlessness in the entire span of the series.  Because while her death does ‘motivate’ Jack in a sense, what it actually does is expose just how unhinged he has become.  Hearing the news that Audrey – the woman he loved from a distance – is dead, Jack collapses.  He takes out a pistol, and for a lingering, static moment seriously contemplates just blowing his own head off.

And this, finally, was the best thing about the season: that it seemed as though the writers were finally prepared to deal with the creature they had created by sacrificing themselves to an eight-year slippery slope of narrative.  Here, in this condensed season we finally got the clearest portrait of the weathered, broken patriot, Jack Bauer.

And it wasn’t pretty.

24-live-another-day-finale

IMAGE: 24: Live Another Day (Fox)

Because this Jack was terrifying at times.  And not in a ‘Yay!  Goku’s so mad he’s going Super Sayan!’ kind of way.  This Jack was deeply unsettling.  This Jack’s history genuinely seemed to weigh upon him, to twist him into a darker creature, which previous seasons had flirted with by using cheap gimmicks (he’s a drug addict now! his girlfriend died! he’s been tortured up good!) but never quite nailed down.

(Although it should be said that it’s a mark of how masterful and layered Kiefer Sutherland’s performance is that he was always able to stand at the centre of the show’s sometimes extremely silly frenzy and give it all a dignity and weight.)

In season one, Bauer was a fluffy-haired, true-believing patriot.  A loving husband and overprotective father trying to rebuild his marriage; a man who trusted his colleagues, had faith in his country, and believed in all the gooey clichés of liberty and freedom.  Over a decade later and that man is almost unrecognisable; scarred and beaten and brutalised.  He’s a pariah.  His family is lost, the country he gave his personal life to protect now labels him a traitor, and almost everyone he ever knew or cared for has died in service of a system that itself has become corrupted.

Whereas once he had personified a fantasy of cowboy righteousness the western world wanted to invest in after the shock of 9/11, now he reflects the cynicism that has overwhelmed today’s political discourse.  America is now a county known to spy on its own people.  It sends drones to bombard foreign countries.  It tortures its prisoners.  It demonises and threatens figures like Edward Snowden or PFC Bradley Manning, charging them with treason to frighten whistleblowers into silence.  ‘Live Another Day’ might eventually sully its Julian Assange-cypher by turning him into a cookie-cutter terrorist wack-job, but they never resolve the outrage that a character like he, and by extension Chloe, are reacting to.  Whether acting in the public interest or not, America has revealed itself to be a country whose rhetoric and actions do not align.

And so, when called back to service, Jack still responds, but this is not the same true believer.  He now embodies this wounded, self-loathing, and contradictory world-view.  After savagely interrogating a injured prisoner – the assassin daughter of a murderous zealot – he admits that part of him likes the torture.  The punishing of bad people.  He’s not doing it just for information, or to avert greater disasters; in part, he’s doing it for himself.  When he captures the principle antagonist Margot Al-Harazi (a woman who, despite being a mass-murdering psychotic, was seeking revenge for a US drone strike that massacred her entire family), rather than take her into custody he becomes her judge and executioner, kicking her out of a window to her death.  When he raises himself back up after hearing of Audrey’s death, when he focuses the rage and guilt that’s overwhelming him, he’s no avenging angel – he’s a maelstrom.  He wipes out an entire boat of people in an ugly, vicious rampage.  It’s not played as heroism – it’s slaughter.

In perhaps the most revealing moments of the series, when he is handing himself over to the Russians in the final scene, he seems to almost relish the thought of such punishments being inflicted upon him in rerturn.  For all the pain that his actions have wrought, for all his collateral damage, there is a peculiar note of penance as he is led off to his fate.  It’s quite a statement about Jack’s tainted moral compass that this is how he now sees himself.

He’s a monster.  And perhaps the only comforting thought is that he’s our monster.  At least for now.

At the end of the season, one of the most haunting notes was the sight of President Heller watching his daughter’s body being loaded onto Air Force One.  He notes that the one virtue of his encroaching Alzheimer’s disease is that eventually it will wipe the horror of his grief away as he forgets her death – as he forgets her altogether.  It’s a chilling pronouncement – but again, one that is tragically representative of this season’s larger themes.

For the first time it felt that 24 was remembering all of its past sins, using them to warn its viewers and itself of how easily incremental compromise can destroy an ideal.  24 hour narrative conceits are nice, but they have to be respected or they churn you up.  Words like ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ are grand, but if they are eroded away by surveillance states and ‘acceptable’ collateral damages and the persecution of the press then they lose all substance.  As Heller intones: forgetting your past, wiping away all that you’ve done and embracing a convenient lie might be comforting, but that just replaces reality with a hollow fantasy.  A meaningless nothingness.  Owning your actions, and the contradictions that they engender is the harder, but more consequential thing.  Because it is only by viewing the complexity of our own behaviour that any true discussion about the serious political issues facing contemporary culture can continue.

I still don’t know whether wine is good for you – I’m still not sure that 24 is a good show – but at their best I like them both a great deal.  And the way that they are spoken about and reacted to says far more about us as a culture than we are perhaps willing to admit.

24 cougar

IMAGE: ‘You want me to what?24 (Fox)

* Or from ‘resting’ or ‘hiatus’ or whatever euphemism networks use now when they cancel shows.

** All except seasons 6 and 8 – just personal opinion, but to me they were garbage front to back.

*** Okay, so only two of those people were successfully assassinated, one returns all Winter Soldiered up.  But you know what I mean.

Verb Yourself: The Naming Of Gaming

Posted in criticism, literature, stupidity, television, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 11, 2014 by drayfish

Scott Pilgrim Gamer pic

IMAGE: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Universal Pictures)

I’ve been reading a lot of Shakespeare these past few weeks, which means I’ve also been reading a lot about names. Not surprisingly, as the most talented and prolific writer of the western world (this is a fact; the end), Shakespeare, was particularly obsessed with language – how it functions and alters over time. It means that he can go a little nutty for the puns at times, but it’s forgivable, because ultimately what he’s exploring is the way that we can take our language for granted. A crappy pun about ‘maiden heads’ or ‘country matters’ – aside from being surprisingly smutty – is a way of forcing us to re-evaluate the associations that words carry with them, to stop and compel us to examine the way that we use words and invest them with meaning.

As a consequence, he interrogates the nature of names and naming repeatedly throughout his work. In Julius Caesar, Antony, while giving a eulogy after the murder of Caesar, calls Brutus ‘an honourable man’ for his actions in the scheme; but by the end of his speech he manages to load the phrase with so much irony and contempt that when he repeats the word ‘honourable’ it translates to pernicious, traitorous killer. It is a compliment that becomes, effectively, a sneering declaration of war. Meanwhile in Richard II, when Richard has his throne usurped, he spends the remainder of the play mulling over what the name ‘King’ – previously an inextricable element of his very being – now means. He is King. Or was. And if he’s not King anymore, then what – if anything – remains of the man underneath?

We can still see the kinds of grammatical concerns with naming play out today. There are certain names that carry so much baggage with them that merely their utterance entirely derails a discussion. The most obvious examples of these, the ones that first spring to mind, come steeped in asinine partisan politics, or preloaded with bigotry and offence – hackneyed, racist, and prejudicial terms that carry with them the idiocy or ugliness of their past. For obvious reasons I don’t want to talk about those (despite how pertinent such a discussion might be while the Washington Redskins continue to be a thing).

Instead, I want to wade into the shallower end of the semantic swimming pool, to pick a target of lesser consequence, but one with a similarly loaded connotations. Because over the last few years, in the midst of its ongoing struggle for artistic respectability, the videogame medium has had a curious relationship with one such name:

Gamer.

It’s a word that looks innocuous enough.

Gamer. (Noun.) A person who plays games.

Simple.

But in practice, the word ‘gamer’ raises a number of problematic connotations that often muddy or complicate meaning – questions of what does or does not determine who is allowed to call themself a ‘gamer’. It’s a word that has evolved beyond ‘a person who plays a game’, to take on a whole new dimension, one where the amount of time spent playing, and the intensity of these sessions, are somehow being implied by the use of the term.

A ‘gamer’, from this perspective, is not a dispassionate descriptor, it delineates a kind of player of games. A ‘gamer’ plays the ‘HARD MODE’. A ‘gamer’ knows what ‘animation cancelling’ is in fighting games. A ‘gamer’ can get a twenty plus killstreak with only the throwing knife. A ‘gamer’ gets to say things like:

‘Oh, you’ve played 20 hours of Skyrim, have you? How quaint. Maybe you get to have an opinion when you’ve logged 300…’

Candy Crush becomes cited as the trash ‘non-gamers’ play; Dark Souls is for the ‘serious’ ones; Pokemon games are for hoarding, animal-blood-sport enthusiasts on acid. (By the way, Twitch Plays Pokemon was profoundly cool.)

Suddenly these kinds of exclusionary statements imply (or outright declare) that there is a self-evident division between what constitutes a real gamer and a fake one. It sets up a dichotomy of ownership of the medium in which only those devotees decreed to be in the inner circle can be considered the true audience, and everyone else condescended to as just along for the ride. It’s from this kind of classy system distinction that terms like ‘casual’ and ‘newbie’ and ‘gamer girl’ and witless garbage like ‘girlfriend mode’ spring.

It’s not clear where all of this started. Perhaps an attempt to engender some kind of tribal mentality (a spill over from the ridiculous brand loyalty wars of the Nintendo versus Sega days, and the current Xbox versus Sony age*); maybe the unintended result of the competitive nature of some games and the communities that support them; or the unfortunate, if natural, extension of the enthusiasm that inspires all fandom (we’ve all felt that; as for me, if you do not love Firefly then I regret to inform you that you are not a real person) – but whatever the cause, ‘gamer’ has come to represent a subcultural, elitist divide.

It’s a shame, because it risks taking something that should be inclusive, something to be celebrated, and turns it into a tedious pissing contest. Say to someone that you are a ‘gamer’ and suddenly a sense of judgemental snobbery threatens to overwhelm. They worry that you’re looking upon them as a Farmville barnacle; you worry that they think you’re a foulmouthed, teabagging thirteen year old on Call of Duty. And even if none of that disapproval is actually going on, it’s still in the atmosphere, stirred into being by the endless clogged forums and comments sections that do mean it all as an insult.

The answer, one might argue, would be just to not use the word anymore. We could say ‘people’ instead. Or ‘audiences’. Or ‘external biological reactive input interfaces’. Anything to let ‘gamer’ fall into that junkyard of sorry, formless terms we’ve abandoned, left to burn itself out on its own asinine steam – like jeggings, or Rob Schneider. The most logical choice would be to say ‘player’ – people who play videogames would be ‘players’, just as people who listen to music are ‘listeners’, and people who read books are ‘readers’ – the verb dictating the title.

Shakespeare’s Juliet would probably agree. For her a name was completely arbitrary. They literally didn’t have to carry around the stink of their past associations; a ‘rose’ by any other name would still smell as sweet. But what did she know? She was hopped up on adolescent lust. And as far as most research suggests, never even had an Xbox Live account.

But for the very same reason, using a different word seems like a needless concession. It is, after all, just a word; and when removed from its funk of juvenile competitiveness, it’s an entirely fitting one. A ‘gamer’ is just someone who wants to play a game – which is perfect if only it can be rescued from all that grammatical smog.

It’s not even like this kind of linguistic restoration would be anything new. Years ago, the idea of a television audience was observed with cynicism. A viewer? People would scoff. A ‘viewer’ was just whoever happened to be plonked on the couch willing to soak up the half-baked pabulum being spewed at them from the screen. Probably they were ironing and not really paying attention. Maybe they would fall asleep half way through, or flick over during the ad breaks and not return. Being invested in whatever the networks served up week to week was a waste of time. Next week Jeannie would still be misunderstanding Master’s orders (how was that show ever okay?); Magnum would still be P.I.ing; Gilligan was never gonna get off the island. The shows were only there at the behest of the advertisers anyway – yes, those are some smooth cigarettes, Fred Flintstone – so the viewer could just lap it up and call it ice cream. Of course, just as it is with videogames, this was all a gross oversimplification – but it was an opinion that for a long time continued to hold sway.

And yet.

Over the past couple of decades the notion of a viewer has been reclaimed. Redefined. In part this was aided by the surge in prestige programming that could not so easily be dismissed as cheap televisual distraction (your Mad Mens and Buffy the Vampire Slayers and The Wires), but it has also been a product of the empowerment of the viewership. Only a decade ago a network program sitting on 10 million viewers would be dismissed as a failure (remember Newsradio? NBC hopes you don’t); now it would be considered a smash hit event of the year.

Audiences are not, and never were, passive sponges for whatever is vomited their way; and the ubiquity of the medium, and our myriad ways of interacting with it, have shown this acutely. Shows can be time-shifted, recorded onto DVRs, bought through iTunes and watched on Hulu. What were once ‘water cooler’ events are now dispersed through circles of influence – people sharing programs with friends and loved ones.

‘Viewers’ are now something to be wooed. Cultivated. Treasured. Viewing is not just a passive act. ‘Viewers’ can bring shows back from the dead (Chuck, Star Trek, Futurama), they can crusade for programs they believe in (there is no way that The Wire would have run for five seasons on its relatively small ratings were it not for the rightful adoration of its loyal audience – many of whom, thankfully, were television critics**). In just the past few weeks Community, abandoned by NBC, announced it will be resurrected on the new broadcasting platform of Yahoo (huzzah!), largely because it carries its loyal fans in its wake.

There’s no reason ‘gamers’ need to be seen any differently. Sure, some might scoff that they ensure derivative FPS franchises keep chugging along (a fact far less offensive than the realisation that Transformers 4: Greasy Shouty Shiny Smash is set to become one of the highest grossing films of all time), but that lazy cliché is hardly the whole picture. They also foster and support the smaller, experimental games. They invest in Kickstarters and keep online communities alive. They help conduct gene research in order to find cures for cancer.***

Again, as Juliet would suggest, maybe the word ‘players’ would get this variety of interaction across just fine – just as ‘viewer’ can equally mean someone yawning their way through an episode of Two Broke Girls or an academic writing a dissertation on the Faustian descent of Breaking Bad. But it seems a shame if ‘gamer’ can’t be reclaimed as well. It just needs to be hosed off a little. Scoured of all that exclusionary us-versus-them drivel that, in a sad irony, has tried to turn it into a badge of honour by souring the very thing it is meant to celebrate.

For me anyway, to be a ‘gamer’ should just mean that you play games; that you see something of worth in the medium. It could be that you view them as a competitive sport, a work of interactive three-dimensional architecture, a narrative with which to invest yourself, a challenge to overcome, an auditory and visual stimuli, or all of these things at once. Whatever. All that matters is that you see them as something worthy of exploration. Something deserving of the attention you pay them when you pick up a controller, or tap a screen, or waggle your hands fruitlessly in front of an aggressively non-responsive Kinect sensor.****

You are a ‘gamer’ if you bother to play a game. Simple.

Because making that choice – for whatever reason – is a worthy act in itself. We don’t have to feel guilty, or territorial, or turn a definition in to some twisted, competitive point of pride. We could just be ‘gamers’, and be content that there is a medium as expansive and idiosyncratic as we are, where everyone is welcome if they just agree to all play along.

Heh.

Play.

How’s that for a pun, Shakespeare?*****

gamer-life_img2

IMAGE: Gamer Life (Mimo Games)

*Personally, I was a Sega kid by circumstance (Go, Alex Kidd!), but looked on longingly at my Nintendo compatriots (Go, Tanooki suit!) …Atari I could take or leave (Go, Faceless-Man-Jumping-Over-An-Alligator-Onto-Underground-Swamp-Ladder!)

** Just to put it out there: The Wire never won for best drama series. Way to keep proving your utter critical irrelevance, Emmys.

*** In contrast, Michael Bay spends multimillions to film a robot pissing on John Tuturro. And he makes sure that the camera angle is so overdramatically low that the splash off hits the audience; a more fitting metaphor for his asinine directing style I have yet to find.

**** At least until game stores and publishers perfect that process of segmenting and merchandising every component of a game behind preorders and pay walls, finally reducing ‘gamers’ to the cash-spewing compulsive magpies they have always suspected we were.

***** Yeah, okay, I know it was terrible. Shut up.

 

 

Sequel Corpsing: Comedy Zombies

Posted in movies, stupidity with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 9, 2014 by drayfish

anchorman 2 cast

IMAGE: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (Paramount Pictures)

Ahem.

You’ll have to excuse me. I just need to scream for a little while.

I just fell down a rabbit hole of filmic trauma.

See, these past few weeks I was writing an article about Anchorman 2 – a film that, despite arguably not being as funny as the first (which would be near impossible), I think is in many ways far more impressive, particularly for the way in which it exploits its own comedic legacy to a thematic end. Sure the first film might have that element of surprise that can never really be replicated, but the second – almost unlike any other sequel I can think of – builds upon that history to elicit both grand nonsense and pointed social commentary.

If you’re at all interested in seeing how quickly I can swing from playfully recollecting ‘I love lamp’ to scrambling up on a soapbox to shout at the sky about the infantilised redundancy of the real world 24 hour news media, then you can read the article here.

But that’s for another time, because right now I want to talk about pain. And horror. And the gnashing of teeth. Because hopefully amongst my fog of blatant self-promotion you caught that admission that is the cause of all my recent agony – the sentence that has caused me so much distress:

‘Almost unlike any other sequel I can think of…’

That’s right. Because in order to talk about Anchorman 2 and the way it deals with the fact that it is a sequel, I actually had to let myself think of a couple of examples of other comedy sequels to give the discussion some context.

You know:

Here I am, typing, typing, arguing that comedy sequels are usually hard to do… Gee. I guess I’d better cite a film just to establish that there is some truth to that claim. What could I use? Ah, yes. Of course. The Hangover.

Done.

…But I guess I need another one, just so it doesn’t seem like I’m picking on a specific franchise. Okay, how about Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blue? Waste of a film; suitably stupid name. Perfect.

Done and done.

And then the screaming started.

Because suddenly a trapdoor in my mind kicked open, and I was inundated with memories. Tragic, harrowing, flooding memories. I was astronaut David Bowman staring into the cryptic abyss, maddened by the chaotic, unfathomable sprawl.

Yes. That’s how traumatised I was; I couldn’t even think up a better analogy to use than 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Suddenly there was Mannequin: On The Move, the Big Momma’s sequels, Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo, Weekend at Bernies 2 (although to be fair, the originals of each of these films were abominable already). There was Be Cool and Shrek The Third and Look Who’s Talking Now and Men in Black 2 and Ghostbusters 2 and Evan Almighty and Teen Wolf Too (poor Jason Bateman) and Father of the Bride 2 (poor Steve Martin) and Blues Brothers 2000 (poor John Goodman) and Son of Mask (you think about what you’ve done, Jamie Kennedy!) and Caddyshack 2 and Dumb and Dumberer.

And in case those don’t quite fit your definition of emotionally traumatic assaults on good taste: did you know that there was even a sequel to The Jerk? A sequel without Steve Martin.

No – I’ll say that again. I want that to sink in.

Without. Steve. Martin.

The Jerk.

Sure, it was a TV movie, and history has largely forgotten about it; but a crime is still a crime. And if I have to know that, then you do too.

So I apologise if it feels, at this point, like I’ve just been punching you in the heart with each of these film titles. If it helps, just think how hard this was for me to recollect them all. To see them come flooding in to my psyche all at once. I was starting into the abyss. Into a hellscape of franchise fatigue and overstayed welcomes. A bunch of half-animated corpses, shuffling through the motions, each dragging its wasted potential and rote redundancy along in its wake.

In the case of sorry re-treads like Blues Brothers 2000 or Dumb and Dumberer I just keep thinking of that Simpsons joke where Homer, dressed as Krusty the Clown, misunderstands a bit of playful pantomime and tackles a man dressed as a burger-thief to the ground. As you hear the wet thud of Homer pounding the burglar’s face repeatedly, the camera pans across the faces of a gaggle of horrified onlooking children to find one boy sobbing:

‘Stop… Sto-o-o-o-op… He’s already dead.’

…And yes, I’m aware of the sad irony of using The Simpsons to criticise the beating of a franchise into a sorry, unrecognisable pulp. Dear gods – has it really been 25 years? Over half of its lifespan it’s been unwatchable?

I mean, I understand the impulse. I get the motivation. Audiences loved the first film, and they instinctively want to revisit that world – even if the joke they loved has already been told. I can even see why the creators of the original work, either wanting a victory lap or with some leftover ideas that they still want to try out, might want to risk taking a second plunge. And there are – as I say in the Anchorman article – the occasional exceptions. The ones that work. Anchorman 2 is definitely one of them. The second Austin Powers also manages to stick the landing (although the third is rather more shaky and indulgent). From everything that I am hearing (and I want to make clear, I am not speaking with any authority, as I have not yet seen it myself) 22 Jump Street is apparently a delightful surprise – which seems fitting, since that first film was far, far funnier than it had any right to be.

But too often you get Grown Ups 2 (sigh …or for that matter, Grown Ups 1) which at this point in Adam Sandler’s career may has well have been advertised with a poster of a stick, a dead horse, and a whole lot of tacky product placement splattered with gore.

I just think it’s a shame that we don’t see more examples like Hot Shots Part Deux or the Muppet films, which have a central premise, a cast of returning characters, and the same creative team, but that are willing to spin out in wild new directions – to try whole new genres and styles.

After all, one of the most interesting examples of a film sequel that I can recall is actually only a pseudo-sequel: the follow up to A Fish Called Wanda called Fierce Creatures.

Fierce Creatures cast

IMAGE: Fierce Creatures (Universal Pictures)

Now, I’m by no means holding up Fierce Creatures as a great sequel. In fact, it defies that definition both as a technical ‘sequel’ and by virtue of not being universally considered ‘great’. But it’s good. It’s funny. It’s made by talented people, and most importantly in a cinema landscape lousy with derivative regressions: it feels fresh.

Perhaps the happy product of John Cleese and Michael Palin’s sketch mentality days in Monty Python, although staring the principle cast of A Fish Called Wanda, and with largely the same creative team working on the production, Fierce Creatures is a film set in an entirely new time, location, and narrative. The script and conceit is different; the actors play different roles. Whereas the first film was a heist caper with a lot of social satire about English class consciousness and American cultural stereotypes – a collision of stuffy Brits and uncouth but passionate Americans (with some accidental Terrier assassinations thrown in) – the second is a wild farce about a zoo becoming despairingly over-commercialised and compromised – the crush of amoral corporatisation upon a gaggle of fervent, but disorganised caretakers.

And yet, despite their superficial dissimilarities there are some notable thematic ties between the two. The Cleese and Jamie Lee Curtis disproportionate romance returns. Kevin Kline gets to play a another (albeit less charismatic) swaggering dullard. Palin returns with an alternate take on a socially dysfunctional figure with accidentally murderous powers. It is still fundamentally concerned with non-conformity and constraint; with greed and deception. It plays out a continuation of the familiar tropes and tones of the first film, just delivered in a new, and by virtue of their revitalised format, unique way.

It also contains a scene where Kevin Kline assaults a panda.

So there’s that too.

Again, Fierce Creatures will never be heralded as one of the all time comedy classics (nor does it strive to be). In comparison to its forbearer Wanda it’s more a broad, playful jaunt. But it finds something novel to say while still retaining the idea of a sequel, not stripping the original of its lustre by shoving its way back into a world that had already reached its natural comedic resolve.

It does what comedy is meant to do. It takes risks. It’s willing to look at things from a new, unexpected angle. To surprise.

Because it’s a whole lot harder to surprise your audience if there’s a numerical symbol beside your film’s title already telling them exactly what to expect.

Fierce Creatures panda

IMAGE: Fierce Creatures (Universal Pictures)

Vale DrawQuest: CTRL ALT DELETE

Posted in art, stupidity, video games with tags , , , , , , , on May 15, 2014 by drayfish

Whats sizzling in the pan 1

IMAGE: ‘What’s Sizzling In The Pan?’ by DrawQuest and Me

Only late last year I was bleating on about how great DrawQuest was.

A free program designed to offer the canvas, tools, gallery, and daily inspirational prompts for aspiring artists and procrastinating doodlers to express their creativity in an encouraging environment, DrawQuest was like a sweet, supportive oasis.  It was a place where pop culture and classical art, established and original characters (and the occasional shamelessly redundant request for followers) mingled in blissful, free-associated abandon.

At any moment you could be scrolling through a five-year old’s adorably slanted drawing of a house with puffy smoke coming out the chimney, a near photo-realistic portrait of Beyonce, or a fresco of Princess Bubblegum dissecting SpongeBob SquarePants in a soundproof lab.*

So naturally enough, when I spoke of the program I compared it to the birth of all art and imaginative expression: humankind’s very first cave paintings and the revolutionary conceptual evolution that they continue, to this day, to represent.

Yeah.

‘Cause that’s not an overreach.

In any case, while I have to admit that it’s been a month or two since I’ve dropped in on DrawQuest, my fondness for the program has remained strong.  So I was greatly disheartened to hear earlier this month that DrawQuest had closed down.

As their announcement states, the program had been the target of a hacker, and while it was unclear whether any sensitive information had in fact been gathered, the owners and operators of the program decided in the wake of this breach to protect against further intrusion into their clients’ privacy by closing down the whole production.**

Aside from being a loss for those who used the platform to feed their creative spark, it’s also a sad reminder of just how transitory the world wide web can be as a means of archival preservation.  In my previous post, I spoke of the way in which the internet gave we desperate, expressive humans the opportunity to spread ourselves even further beyond the limitations of this our mortal, corporeal form.  No longer were we constrained by the need for physical space and temperamental mediums – suddenly we could reach into the nebulous, wild expanse of the digital eternal…

Except of course that now, with all of DrawQuest’s galleries and social functions shut down, we instead see hundreds of thousands of users discovering that material they had poured countless hours of love and effort into could be dissolved in an instant.

Bet those cave walls don’t seem to ‘antiquated’ now, huh?

…Wait, who am I mocking?  Me?

I’m confused.

Although to their great credit the creators and curators of DrawQuest have promised to try and restore those galleries somewhere, somewhen in future, the truth is that they appear to be a small handful of very kind, very underfunded volunteers, and a library of that magnitude will probably be cumbersome, and prohibitively expensive to wrangle.  Ideally, they will indeed find a way to return, but at present, all of that work – months of labour, passion, and effort; a testament to the enthusiastic community DrawQuest had fostered – is gone.

Thankfully, for those users (like myself) who were egomaniacal enough to link up their tumblr feeds and facebook histories and twitter twoots and flickr whatevers (why do none of these programs use capital letters, inquired the very old man typing this post?), their pictures live on, however ephemerally, in other internet galleries.  These echoes of what DrawQuest was remain, the artworks given life through its collaboration preserved – likewise, no doubt, all tremulously poised upon the precipice of another encroaching oblivion…

So to mourn the loss of a truly wonderful little community and its lovingly generous original mission statement to ‘foster a community of budding creators’, I offer some more of of my own stupid pictures.  As you scroll down this gallery, feel free to imagine me weeping, blurting the lyrics to ‘Memory’ in your ear…

Let the memory live again
Every street lamp seems to beat
A fatalistic warning
Someone mutters and the street lamp sputters
Soon it will be morning…

Wait. Those are the lyrics to that song?  Those are some of the stupidest lyrics I’ve ever heard.  Forget it.  Pretend I’m singing The Black Eyed Peas:

My hump my hump my hump my hump my hump, my hump my hump my hump my lovely lady lumps.

That makes about as much sense.

But all my stupidity aside, thank you for everything, DrawQuest.  You provided people a great deal of joy, and you will be missed.

 What are they learning today

IMAGE: ‘What Are They Learning Today?’ by DrawQuest and Me

Whats In The Wardrobe

IMAGE: ‘What’s In The Wardrobe?’ by DrawQuest and Me

Finish Building the Pyramid

IMAGE: ‘Finish Building The Pyramid’ by DrawQuest and Me

What's inside the shell

IMAGE: ‘What’s Inside The Shell?’ by DrawQuest and Me

put up a notice on the bulletin board

IMAGE: ‘Put Up A Notice On The Notice Board’ by DrawQuest and Me

* I never actually saw this one, but suddenly want to draw it immediately.  And yes, it is soundproof because of the screaming.

** In truth it appears to be the proverbial final straw for the company.  As the creator of DrawQuest, Chris Poole, recounts in a heartbreaking post from January of this year, the program was already running at a loss.

Losing the Plot: Or How I Learned To Love Making LOST Puns

Posted in television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 25, 2014 by drayfish

lost_a

IMAGE: The Cast of LOST, season one (ABC)

It’s been ten years since LOST burst onto our televisions screens making bold promises that its writers now admit they never intended to keep.

I don’t say that to be a jerk or get pissy about it; that is literally what the showrunners, Damon Lindeloff and Carlton Cuse, have themselves described in several interviews and statements in the years since the show’s controversial conclusion. It was the very point of the show, apparently. For them, LOST was always a narrative about people searching for meaning. And searching – as the narrative went on to prove – is very different from discovering. Searching, for example, doesn’t necessitate that anyone actually finds the answers they seek.

This past month I wrote a long, convoluted article about the ending of LOST (because the world needs more of those, right?) for the PopMatters journal. You can read it here. Weirdly, despite being decade-old news, it seemed the thing to do. The ending of How I Met Your Mother was foremost in pop culture’s communal consciousness (and went on to provoke a good deal of audience dissatisfaction itself*), and the creators of LOST had just appeared at the Paley Centre to celebrate the ten year anniversary of the their show, once again referencing their controversial conclusion as the definitive statement that they wanted to make, even if in their opinion it still appears to be misunderstood.

It all got me thinking. Firstly, about what it is that makes the ending of LOST so controversial – why it still enflames audiences, for and against it, even now. Plenty of shows have ended poorly, and yet the ending of LOST still remains the punching bag of narrative letdowns. Meanwhile, it’s by no means universally despised: it has quite a vocal group of supporters who cannot themselves see what all the fuss was about. In many ways it’s the Vegemite of television: there are those who love it, who will never understand those who don’t; while those who despise it, who will stare in bafflement at anyone that could find it edible. I guess I wanted to know what was in the ingredients.

Secondly, I was curious to understand why one of its creators, Damon Lindeloff, seems intent on repeatedly revisiting this argument – in the reviews he writes about other programs and films; in his (now defunct) Twitter account; in interviews – almost as though he legitimately doesn’t understand why people would not appreciate (or at least respect) the authorial decisions he made in closing his opus. Lindeloff can be delightfully self-depreciating about his work, but this seemed like a peculiar form of self-flagellation, actively inviting further criticism by constantly bringing the topic up, even when it wasn’t part of the conversation.

So I set about wildly speculating about why all of this was. Why some fans found the ending a violation of trust, and a complete abandonment of the show’s entire premise; why others found it an ideal, even inspired resolve for their characters’ journeys; and even why Damon Lindeloff, understandably, seems unable to let go. Hopefully I teased out an answer. Almost certainly those who read it will disagree. In any case, it’s done, it involves a minimal amount of snark, and for some reason contains a faked up poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

‘Cause that makes complete sense.

For the sake of neutrality, I tried (and undoubtedly failed) to leave my own personal history with the show out of the article. But I did want to talk, briefly (ha!) about it here. Not because I think it will be particularly revealing, not even because I think anyone else shared my experience, but just to get it out.

Because I have a complicated history with LOST. One filled with a lot of conflicting emotion. I loved LOST. I hated LOST. I loved to hate it, then hated to love it. By the time the tenth anniversary rolled around I told myself that I now mostly just think of it as a cautionary tale about buying into too much marketing hype …and yet I go and write a several thousand word article about it, trying to constantly tamp down the rising emotions that are rekindled with just the mention of its name…

I think, much as I say in the article, it’s because I really was enamoured with its potential. So for me it remains one of the most frustrating, contradictory, and aggressively wasteful uses of an extremely fertile premise ever conceived. It wasn’t offensive in the way that something like the end of Mass Effect 3 was. It wasn’t gaudy pretentious drivel that lazily milked religious iconography the way The Matrix sequels had (although the hero of LOST was a ‘Shephard’, with a father called ‘Christian’, who led them all to an afterlife in a church… so it was certainly pushing it). It just felt as though it was actively and continuously dishonest with its audience, so that when it concluded not only was I left let down by the ‘resolution’ it offered (not a big surprise, this is television after all), I felt as though it had actually robbed me of the opportunity to enjoy the program for what it always was – not what it had constantly purported, falsely, to be.

It is a particular personal shame, because I would have had no problem had they been up front to begin with and just admitted that there was no overarching plan – that it was all just an experiment in storytelling in which the writers too were on a ride – just as the audience were. After all, I’m one of the viewers who drank the Ron Moore Kool Aid of the Battlestar Galactica remake, happy to follow that narrative wherever it led, accepting that (despite the first few season’s naff pronouncement that the Cylons ‘Had a plan’) it was less of a tightly ordered tele-visual novel and more an excursion into reactive, evolving, serialised plot. Just as the human race’s familiar conventions and structures had been decimated, leaving the survivors to eke out new social orders and an endlessly renegotiated status quo, so too was the narrative racing to keep up, testing its character’s hopes and fears and faiths.

Sure, it plunged into some pretty nutty mysticism, and swung for the fences on a central theme of cyclical technological singularity and self-destruction that it struggled to always fully articulate, but this kind of urgency, of desperately trying to find meaning in the face of incomprehensible loss, to rebuild belief structures in a vacuum, was always thrilling. You just weighed the wins (’33′; ‘Unfinished Business'; ‘Exodus’) against the losses (whatever the hell ‘Black Market’ was meant to be), and you ended up way, way ahead. And when resolve was finally reached, and a new Earth founded (although many, many, many people no doubt disagree with me here), the peace was earned. The gauntlet of struggle and bewilderment along their journey revealed to be the chrysalis for a necessary change.

But LOST was always a text irreconcilably torn between its intent and its execution, seemingly unsure of what viewership it was trying to serve.

If you were watching for the mystery, what you finally discover is that there isn’t actually a puzzle to unpack. All that fan investment, all that effort to parse out the clues, all the theorems and hypothesis and projections into the text to give it meaning, all risks being revealed a waste of time. That’s not to say that such fan imagination is itself invalidated, or pointless; but it is, ultimately only a projection onto a text that is trying to remain wilfully abstruse.

If, on the other hand, you were watching the show for its characters, and for human drama, then this too was constantly swallowed by the plot’s overriding infatuation with mysteries. The characters were obsessed with searching for answers. The episodes invariably revolved around big honking questions: Who are the Others? What’s under the hatch? Who is Jacob? So what’s going on in that weird room with the –

AHHH!!! POLAR BEAR!!!

Consequentially, I’ve often wondered what I would of made of the show if I had not followed it as it first went to air; if I’d not (for the first few seasons at least) actually believed the writers when they assured their audience that there was a grand narrative they intended to unveil. Perhaps if I was instead seeing it all for the first time on DVD, fully aware the entire time that there would never be any fundamental answers coming (ever), then maybe I would be able to enjoy it all a great deal more. To actually see it for the courageous, oddball mesh of genre tropes and bombast that it attempted to be.

Because for all of its floundering around** – trying to gesture towards arguments about free will and determinism, about the nature of the metaphysical, the impossibility of human comprehension – LOST was ultimately just an elegantly made, exceptionally well-acted, rollicking adventure story. Nothing more.

And that’s nothing to be ashamed of. It actually rescues the whole enterprise. It makes all its efforts to tie inconsequential puzzles into one another a fun quirk that propels its eccentric momentum. It makes the whole adventure fun, rather than pretentiously obscure. And if I had have known all that going in, rather than getting incessantly distracted by the aimless magic trick of ‘mystery’ perpetuated by its writers, I suspect it would have been a far less aggravating, and infinitely more satisfying ride.

It certainly would have justified the mawkish, totally-illogical-but-feel-good ending they eventually bowed out with. Because, ‘Thanks! We love you! And we appreciate you hanging out with us for six years!’ is a lot sweeter a message when it’s coming from a show that was just trying its hardest, every week, to take you on a big, fun giddy ride, instead of from a text that just called you a gullible idiot for making you believe it could ever be anything more.

Lost ending

IMAGE:  The Sensation of Watching the End of LOST (ABC)

* I was never a viewer of How I Met Your Mother, so I can’t speak to its ending personally, but I did have the details of it spoiled by a particularly irate friend who had always adored the show and needed to vent his frustrations to someone. …And yikes. (He rechristened the program ‘How I Met Your Disposable Plot Device’.) For whatever it’s worth, in his opinion the last few minutes of the finale would have worked well after a season or two; but once several years had passed, once characters had moved on and the mother herself had been introduced as a legitimate, likeable character, he felt that the way both she and the emotional growth of the other characters were treated, all to service a trite ‘happy ending’, was not cool. …But again, I haven’t seen it, so I have no idea.

** The second and third series are particularly guilty of this: can anyone explain why the survivors of the back of the plane were in any way relevant to anything?

Yeah… So I Guess I’ll Just Write A Pulitzer Prize Winning Novel Then

Posted in creative writing, literature, stupidity with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2014 by drayfish

Writing writer stuff

THE PLAN

An award-eligible masterpiece by drayfish

The first sentence grabs them. The second proves it wasn’t by accident. The third sentence fleshes out the subject matter, maybe alluding to the inherent ironies and minor twists of the absurd that will litter the work. The forth is just along for the ride. The fifth sentence, while being completely practical, and serving certain fictional necessities, perhaps fleshing out the mimetic breadth of the work, maybe developing an empathetic tie that allows the reader to invest in the protagonist’s journey (whether providing further description, or entering deeper into a character’s psyche to unveil the deeper motivations of their social, surface behaviours), is entirely too long and convoluted. The final sentence should tie up a neat little metaphor begun in the opening line.

The second paragraph expands the story in a new direction. Perhaps the introduction of a new character, or a small contradiction to the previous few lines of thought. The next sentence says something subversive, or quirky, or just gosh-golly fun, dangnabit. The next one introduces a crisp new simile so as to sound rather more poetical – but like the hand-made pottery of a giant praying mantis doesn’t really make any sense.

This sentence is just boring exposition. Unfortunately, so is this one. This one is a little more lyrical; punctuated, paddling in the penumbra of a point; it fools the reader into overlooking any previous sloppy storytellinglyness…

‘Maybe you could put in some dialogue?’ you say. ‘To flesh out the characters some more?’

‘And squeeze in a little underhanded exposition while we’re at it?’ I say. ‘Well, I may be just a poor sap from the country, with a slight limp and a handful of broken dreams, but I say we go for it. Gee, I need a cigarette (which has always been my one principle vice and is perhaps symbolic of a deeper, destructive self-loathing).’

Now comes a perfect opportunity to enter the mind of a character. Using italics will make it look artsy. But it can be cheesy, so it’s kept short. And refer to sex somehow.

This sentence is a thinly veiled admission of the writer’s own prejudice. The next one contains a missstake that spell-check missed. This one is punchy. This one frantically slam-dances around with wildly elaborative, excessively worded description, and too many adjectives. The final diadem of this paragraph makes an indulgent reference only the writer and a forth year mythology major can share.

Then there comes the padding. Every story has to have padding. A bit of padding anyway. But padding can be good. Actually, no, it is good. Padding is good. Everything needs some padding. That’s how houses stay warm, after all. Y’know, in winter? With padding. But not too much.

NOW the story jumps back into motion with a tacky shock-tactic. Maybe it has some fucking swear words in it too, so it sounds all gritty and real. It might even mention a celebrity in a really negative way, so the writer can seem caustic, and uninterested in fame.

This sentence is witty, and memorable; it has that unnerving ability to silently slip behind you and glide its hands over your eyes, so that when you guess the ending you feel as though you had a part in writing it. It can also show that the writer is manipulative, and tediously self-involved.

‘This bit doesn’t make any sense at all,’ you say. ‘It seems completely unrelated.’

‘But it will later,’ I say. ‘It’s foreshadowing.’

The format of the story widens here, introducing a new character or moving the narration to another scene. Perhaps the description of a guy the writer saw once at a bus stop. He gets an additional quirk though, that makes him unique in a metaphorical way – like Ahab’s leg, or the imperfection of Tess d’Urberville’s lip. But then he does something unexpectedly, unremarkably normal, like picking his nose, or reshuffling the cards in his battered wallet; something the reader can relate to. Something to help them empathise.

That character gets screwed over. Quickly. Sadly. It proves to be a chilling portrayal of the bleak unfeeling void of existence. It shows that the writer read Camus and went through adolescence.

Then this part. This part is action. Each move is fast. Each sentence quick. No lingering description. Cause and effect. Like stylised journalism. With imbedded onomatopoeic words like thud, and crack, and waaaaahh…KRA-SHANG! With commas, and full stops… and exclamation points as far as the eye can see!!! And when it’s over, an elongated line to cool off the frantic writing, to soothe and slow the speed of the story to something resembling normal.

It’s ripped off from a television show, this sentence. But it sounded better when the angry cop snarled it to the fidgeting junkie.

This bit wins over the literary types again. It shows, but doesn’t tell. Then comes the part where the atmosphere is truly evoked. It’s a recipe for the senses. A dabble of visualisation, with a simile or two for spice; a dash of aromas, stirred in for measure; perhaps the zest of a distant sound drifting in from the ether; and if someone rubs their arm across the texture of something and murmurs a sigh: et Voila!

This one confuses the present tense by having been wrote in the past tense.

Eventually the protagonist picks up an object, or maybe notices something, a smell perhaps, and it triggers a memory. This is a lazy dissolve to their past, but helps flesh them out, gives their journey motivation, and is blatantly stolen from a passage by Virginia Woolf.

This sentence wasn’t meant to, but halfway through its meaning starts to stir, it swells, hardening, rising, and suddenly enters into a whole different kind of imagery, it pushes through the mind, waits a moment, and then begins to grind a little, testing, developing a rhythm, until increasingly a desperate, insistent thrust takes over and the sentence continues, committed, unstopping, moving on, going on, keeping on, until finally it peaks, and at its climax, in the calm, once the frenzy has gently cleared, the reader is left unsatisfied, wondering if it was all a mistake.

Perhaps a child walks in here. At the exact moment an adult is doing something ghastly, obscene, or immoral. The child symbolises innocence. It is freedom; it can still pick its nose. When the child speaks, their words are so profoundly naïve they fill the room like a diamond splitting light. This lets the writer toy with the corruption of purity, of growth and the blessing of ignorance; it makes the light points lighter, the dark points darker, and flips the morality of the story on its head. If you actually bother to think about it though, it has little more substance than a fortune cookie mantra.

The narration at this point lingers on an image that seems entirely unnecessary; completely unknowable, like the bottom of an undrained coffee cup, or the depths of the human eye. The protagonist is haunted by the vertiginous spaces and incalculable immensity of the world. In their mind they use words they would never understand out loud. When they speak, only the reader hears them.

Because here – if there can be said to be one – comes the point of the story, the moral unearthed from this play of shadow puppets:

‘It’s brief and it’s curt, and when the character speaks it, it’s uttered as though unwillingly believed.’

It will be quoted on the dust jacket.

Then this part seems oddly familiar.

‘Oh, now I understand that bit from before,’ you say.

‘The foreshadowing?’ I ask.

‘Yes, but it hardly seems worth it.’

‘I know,’ I say. ‘But it rounds it all off neatly. And everything needs to have an end.’

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