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.’

‘Don’t You Know Who I Am?!': A Look Back At The Year of the ‘Selfie’

Posted in art, criticism, literature, movies, music, stupidity, television, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2014 by drayfish

[Firstly, this is a big one, and it sprawls pretty quick.  You might want to bring a snack and call your loved ones before taking it on.  It is also overflowing with spoilers.  I shall try not to spoil anything in the first few words of any paragraph, so if you can be bothered to read on, just skip past whatever texts you don't want to see mangled through the lens of my wholly subjective nitpicking.]

tearaway selfie

IMAGE: A Tearaway Selfie (Media Molecule)

Phase the First: Wherein I Try To Get All Self-Reflexive And Fail

It’s always foolish to try to sum up an entire year as being ‘about’ one thing.

People do it all the time, of course.  Articles get written.  Cheesy montages get rolled out in news broadcasts.  YouTube even compiled a ‘What Did 2013 Say’ clip (presumably alongside its weekly ‘Most viewed cats falling into sinks’ list).  Whenever an untrammelled January rolls around everybody gets lost in a wave of nostalgia that invariably leads to a lot of tortured attempts to squeeze the newly concluded year into a neatly digestible oneness.  Usually this is achieved by referencing some pithy term or title that’s seen to capture the whole.  The preceding twelve months are suddenly labelled the year of the ‘Twerk’, or the year of the ‘hashtag’, or the year of ‘the Doctor’ (I want to go on record as saying that last one is completely legitimate)*, and once this revisionist summary is offered, everyone nods, files the year away, and prepares to watch the whole cycle unfold again.

Yes, it can too often be merely cheap pabulum used to fill up slow news days as the holidays descend, or the arrogance of a commentator presumptive enough to try and force their subjective experience of the world down the throat of their audience, but it remains the product a larger imaginative exercise at the heart of our communal experience.

See, we humans like to categorise, to segment.  We make lists, we put things in conceptual boxes.  It’s why we have terms like ‘This thing is the new black…’ or ‘This thing is the best thing since sliced bread…’ (which has really never seemed that gigantic a leap in design innovation to me, but whatever).  Millennia ago we decided to start subdividing the inexorable passage of our mortal lives into incremental beats.

We invented calendars, seasons, and years, and seconds.  We called this process ‘time’, and it helped us put things into all sorts of useful explanatory categories:  socially we had the ‘Renaissance’, the ‘Dark Ages’, the ‘Roaring Twenties'; privately we had our ‘tweens’, our ‘mid-life crises’, our ‘golden years’.

(Later we would even invent a magazine that we also decided to call ‘TIME’, and even it started getting nostalgic and naming people ‘Person of the Year.’  See?  We can’t help our little selves…)

Everything had a label, everything had a place, and these classifications helped explain one period’s relationship to everything else in the continuum: Romanticism was a reaction to the Industrial Revolution; the paranoid anti-government sensibility of The X-Files gave way to the pro-security, cowboy morality of 24; the Teletubbies and that freaky glowing baby head in the sun gave way to whatever tweaked out cocktail of amphetamines conjured Yo Gabba Gabba.

But despite being a natural impulse of our communal efforts to wrangle a rational shape onto the indifferent, chaotic maelstrom of the world around us, it is still foolish to presume that any period in time can be one thing.  Indeed, it’s asinine to think that the multitudinous panoply of human experience – a miasma of social, political, and ideological concurrence, each impacting upon one another in incomprehensibly complex, intricate ways – could ever be reduced to some pithy catchphrase, wrapped up with a trite little bow.

You’d have to be an idiot, so drunk on your own arrogance that you were wilfully blind to reality, ripe for embarrassment and derision…

…And can you imagine if that clown tried to publish such a redundant retrospective in February?

Ha.  Ha Ha Haaaaaa…

Ha.

So anyway:

2013 was all about the Selfie.

Calvin-Hobbes

IMAGE: The exquisite Calvin and Hobbes ‘selfie’ by Bill Waterson

Phase the Second: Wherein I Explain Myself – While Taking Petty Pot Shots At Celebrities I Will Never Meet

I mean, I must be right, no?

After all, if I was to use the most hackneyed tactic of the lazy debater, I would just jump straight to a dictionary definition – and this was the year that the Oxford Dictionary declared ‘Selfie’ (the act of taking a photograph of oneself and uploading it to social media) as their word of the year.**  According to Oxford, given the ubiquity of the practice (visible in the popularity of websites such as Instagram and Vine) and the explosion of usage for the word itself (which they claim has risen 17,000% in the span of one year) ‘Selfie’ best encapsulates the cultural zeitgeist.

(It is also the dictionary definition of the unspeakable horror haunting the dreams of anyone subjected to yet another one of Geraldo Rivera’s bids to put his job description in perpetual inverted commas).

So, as summaries of 2013 go, I think it’s an entirely fitting choice – though not, perhaps, for the reasons that might at first spring to mind.

Sure, if one chooses to view it uncharitably, the word can appear to be a searing indictment of a culture descending into narcissistic excess.  In a year in which Miley Cyrus followed the same tired routine of nearly every pop starlet before her  and tried to ‘rebrand’ herself as a sexualised adult in the most predictably derivative way possible (Twerking!  Naked video clips!  Tongue photos!  …Can anybody even get through reading the words ‘Miley Cyrus’ and ‘controversy’ without having to stifle a yawn anymore?), in a year where Justin Bieber adamantly hoped that Anne Frank would have been a rabid fan of his, and Shia LaBeouf disappeared up his own …ego, revealed to be a egomaniacally deluded serial plagiarist, it may seem that the word ‘Selfie’ is a fitting label for a culture too concerned with celebrating the vain and self-involved; a society so obsessed with itself that simply the act of existing, possessing a face, and having the capacity to sign up to a social media account, is enough to warrant celebration.

But dig deeper than this rudimentary cynicism, and the act of taking a ‘Selfie’ offers a far more fitting metaphor for the state of contemporary culture…

After all, this is a year in which the western world has been in a constant interrogation of the nature self-hood; a year in which our news, our entertainment, our politics, all meditated upon the notions of privacy, individuality, and identity as arguably never before.  2013, it turns out, was posing for a ‘selfie’, and the result, as we uploaded it to our facebook accounts (which had just removed the option to make your account ‘Private’ in its search engine) was a spray of contradictory emoticons that are quite revealing to explore…

Insert Face Here

Phase the Third: Wherein I flatter myself to think that the NSA would give even half a damn about this blog

In the news, identity – it’s mutability, it’s sanctity, its currency – was repeatedly at the forefront of many of the stories that dominated the headlines.***

The year was littered with bizarre stories of pseudonyms and squabbles over the ‘true’ identity of some of the world’s most prominent figures.  Whereas in most years it would be difficult to know what to do with the information that the ‘real’ Richard III had just been discovered under a car park, or to make sense of why the western world should stop to observe the otherwise unremarkable birth of a healthy baby boy (a boy who, before his fontanels have even closed, had the weight of a wholly ceremonial British aristocracy placed upon his shoulders), but in 2013, it all seemed to make a deranged sense: this was a year obsessed with identity; about who you were and where you were and what (if anything) that meant.

The year began by exposing the ease with which identity can be fabricated.

In January, Manti Te’o, football player for Notre Dame, was revealed to have had an entirely fictional girlfriend.  Te’o had played an heroic year of football, seemingly in the shade of the death of both his grandmother and his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, on the same day.  It was believed that Kekua had ‘died’ the previous year, having suffered complications from her leukaemia – but was revealed later to have all been another ugly example of someone being ‘catfished’.  To take Te’o ‘s account of the story after the deception was revealed, he had believed that he was dating a woman in a long distance relationship, but was shocked to later discover that she was actually just the product of an extended prank being pulled by a man named Ronaiah Tuiasopo.

The revelation created all manner of embarrassment and confusion, but what this strange incident best illustrated – as people tried to pick through the contradictory details that had appeared in the public record over the past year – was the way in which real and fictional people had become inextricably blurred in the media’s account of Te’o’s rise to prominence.  Indeed, whatever Te’o knew of the deception, the way in which the media, in their hunger for myth-making pathos, helped calcify a false identity into ‘truth’ was something quite extraordinary – some biographical articles had even romantically described the details of their first flirtatious meeting, where apparently, against all conceivable logic, they locked eyes, and were drawn into the gravity of each other’s gaze.

Although under very different circumstances, ex-Congressman Anthony Weiner also found his bid for New York mayor scuttled by a personal controversy rooted in false identity.  Attempting to return to politics after being disgraced two years earlier by the revelation of his salacious online proclivities (is that the most round-about way ever to say that he was sending people photographs of his penis?), Weiner had been attempting to run for mayor under the pretence that he was a changed man, one who had made mistakes, sure, but who had learned from these failures and put them behind him.  He was returning to public service more honest and self-disciplined.  In truth, Weiner had continued to engage in multiple texting affairs, and when this conflict in his image was exposed, it was in the form of a whole other identity: the alias ‘Carlos Danger’.  Weiner did continue on in one of the most weirdly antagonistic, sometimes petulant runs for office ever – getting into verbal confrontations with voters, mocking reporters for their accents, flipping people the bird after his concession speech – but the cognitive dissonance between the identity that he wanted to present to the world, and the one that he shared with people over the internet (the one that he had seemingly named after watching a poorly dubbed Mexican telenovella) proved too great, and his chances at victory evaporated.

On a far more serious note, this year saw the return of one of the most heinous cases of ‘mistaken identity’ in recent history.  In June, the shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teen, by George Zimmerman, a self-appointed ‘neighbourhood watchman’, returned to the headlines when Zimmerman was brought to trial (the incident itself had occurred the previous year).  Zimmerman was eventually acquitted of all charges brought against him, with Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws cited as a primary reason for the not guilty verdict, and the outrage in response to this apparent racial discrimination (seemingly Martin could be suspected of being a criminal, be stalked, accused, and then killed,  because he committed the ‘crime’ of wearing a hoodie while black) erupted again.  The prejudice that Martin had suffered, both at the hands of Zimmerman and in some parts of the media in the aftermath of the shooting (semi-conscious moustache-hanger Geraldo Rivera, stated that Martin’s decision to wear a hoodie was as much to blame as Zimmerman for the incident), was seen to be a grim reflection of the experience many African Americans and minorities still face in contemporary society.  The protestor’s rallying cry ‘We Are Trayvon Martin’ (and later ‘We Are Not Trayvon Martin’) therefore became both a reclamation of identity and a potent statement on the universal suffering caused by bigotry.

Trayvon Martin

IMAGE: US Protests Over Trayvon Martin Verdict (Reuters)

As the year drew to a close, squabbles over identity, and how best to categorise a person’s life continued on, often in the most asinine of ways.  The passing of Nelson Mandela was met with several critics bickering over whether he should be remembered as a beacon for hope, forgiveness and change, or as a ‘terrorist'; and not even Santa  Claus was immune, dragged into incoherent disagreements over whether or not he was white.  Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly took the time to indignantly insist to her audience that Santa was indeed Caucasian, thank you very much – no matter what a Slate article by Aisha Harris might have playfully mused.  Kelly later claimed that she was trying to inject ‘humour’ into her broadcast (something one might argue is already impossibly redundant for a show on Fox), but her declaration that ‘for all you kids watching at home: Santa just is white – Santa is what he is‘ seemed far more spiteful and territorial than it did festive and jolly.  (Although, to be fair, she makes most everything sound that way.)

Inarguably, the most glaring example of this new concern with identity surfaced at the midpoint of the year, however, with the revelation that the United State’s National Security Service was no longer only tasked with targeting potential security threats, but was methodically spying on foreign leaders (such as Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel) and routinely gathering the mass telephone, email and search data of all of its own citizens.

The scandal broke after Edward Snowden, a previous CIA employee contracted to the National Security Agency, became alarmed by what he was seeing at the NSA and decided to expose what he believed was a massive systemic overreach in their intelligence gathering operations.  He gathered together sensitive documents, and taking a leave of absence, leaked them to the press, subsequently fleeing into hiding where his passport was revoked, he was charged with espionage, and was sought by the US government for extradition and trial.

The central program with which Snowden took issue was labelled ‘PRISM’ (because all of this didn’t sound enough like a Bond film plot already…)  It was a system that gathered together into one database the user information and online content of any person who had any contact with the services of several major American companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Google.****  Emails, phone calls, Skype chats, browsing histories, documents, all were seemingly available for perusal; and given that the only requirement for accessing this private information was a ‘three-hop query’, which meant that it could monitor the information not only of a suspect, but of anyone who might have had contact with that suspect, and then anyone who might have had contact with them, and then anyone who might have had contact with them.  It was like a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, only with less eighties nostalgia and more potential for invasive governmental overreach.  (Also, it made that town from Footloose look positively anarchic by comparison.)

It was now possible for people to be implicated and scrutinised not because of who they were, or who they associated with, but because they might once have had contact with someone who knew someone who knew someone…  Singular identity risked becoming so dispersed as to be meaningless at a time in which, ironically, a system had been designed to isolate the individual from the cacophony of the crowd.

In the process of bringing PRISM’s existence to light, Snowden’s own identity became currency as he traded obscurity for international notoriety.  He effectively became a human Rorschach Blot in the process – a ‘hero’, a ‘traitor’, an ‘anarchist’, a ‘patriot’, all depending upon who was describing him.  Meanwhile his revelations prompted a fierce, worldwide debate about the appropriate balance to strike between personal liberty and communal safety, between America’s proclamations of valuing freedom of speech and thought, and a potentially overriding duty to public safety.

The world has, of course, been witness to debates such as these in the past – the fallout from the McCarthy hearings and their hunt for communists being but one such example – but never before has the scope been so wide, nor the potential for personal invasion so absolute.  Consequentially, Snowden’s revelations have sparked a philosophical quandary that continues to rage, and it is proving itself to be one that has far-reaching ramifications for the heretofore uncharted landscape of cyber identity in a borderless digital age.

Edward Snowden

IMAGE: Edward Snowden (The Guardian)

Phase the Fourth: Wherein I Talk About Authorship …Sort Of

In 2013 the world of entertainment was likewise obsessed with identity at every level of the communicative chain: characters scrutinised their selfhood as never before, authors used the truth of themselves as another narrative tool, even audiences were compelled to consider their own place in the way texts make their meaning.

Perhaps most notably, the year saw the unveiling of a new generation of videogame consoles.  One of these new platforms however was almost sabotaged by issues of identity before it had even launched.

There were many nails in the coffin of Microsoft’s original tone deaf and aggressive design policies for their new Xbox One – when the phrase ‘#dealwithit‘ is inextricably linked with your product you can probably surmise that there is a corrosive disconnect between company and consumer – so to select one blunder amongst their cavalcade of PR missteps made would be all but impossible.  Certainly one of the most publicised though was the ‘always on’ requirement of the Kinect peripheral.  Microsoft were demanding that people who wanted to buy their console had to also purchase the Kinect (it came bundled with the machine), a camera and microphone attachment that remained constantly connected to the internet, that was capable of reading intricate body behaviour and recognising speech, and which the owner was never allowed to switch off, cover, or disconnect from Microsoft’s servers.

No doubt convinced that they could weather the birthing pains of entertainment’s shift toward all-digital media (or so they thought), Microsoft were insisting upon this intrusive requirement (amongst numerous others), because they knew that identity itself is profitable.  After all, regulating the sale of a game to an individual’s nametag stood to make far more money than allowing that person to own the game without restriction (to sell or pass it on to others); being able to monitor how many people were in a room about to watch a downloaded new-release movie had a potential for further revenue; collecting data on each individual member of your audience’s entertainment habits allowed the dashboard advertising to be more effectively targeted to their specific interests.  Identity was currency – a guaranteed future earner after the initial sale; and by better understanding who their audience were (and retaining complete control over what and how they consume), they stood to be far more profitable.

But coming as it did in the immediate wake of the NSA spying scandal, amidst accusations that several prominent companies – including Microsoft – were willingly supplying the Prism program with information, to many this promise of compulsory intrusion into one’s private space seemed rather distasteful.  The expressionless, unblinking eye of the Kinect suddenly became the symbol of a rally against the company’s other proposed draconian policy changes: the licensing  rather than the ownership of games; the alienation of the indie market; the requirement to always play online; the inability to lend or re-sell games; the start button demanding that you to sacrifice three kittens to a golden altar of the Master Chief’s head, etc.

xbox one kinect lens

IMAGE: Xbox One Kinect Peripheral: ‘Look Consumers, I can see you’re really upset about this.  I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.’

Thrust into the public’s consciousness, the Kinect and the Xbox One became a referendum on the right to preserve one’s identity (their gaming and viewing habits, their personal information, and even their personal space) from corporate exploitation, and Microsoft watched as it was voted on by consumers in real time – even before the point of purchase.  Pre-order sales floundered, pre-release press turned sour, and when Microsoft’s only reply to the concerns of its audience was to have the (not surprisingly now replaced) head of their Xbox division, Don Mattrick, petulantly tell them that they had to either except these impositions or just keep buying their old last-generation machine the mood became even darker.

Eventually, when it was clear that their closest competition, Sony, was romping away with victory, simply by treating their customers as adults who could decide for themselves how to use the products they owned (ironic considering Sony’s own controversy with a similar, but less invasive issue on the PS3), Microsoft was forced to walk back every one of their policies in response to the ‘candid feedback’ of their fans.

In a different way, identity was also at the heart of several of the year’s biggest literary scandals.  In Australia, two award-winning poets, Andrew Slattery and Graham Nunn, were revealed to be serial plagiarists, rather shamelessly trying to elevate their own name by stealing from the work of others.  Only after their works had been revealed to be Frankenstein’s monsters of unattributed, verbatim quotation did either of them attempt to explain them as pieces of ‘pastiche’ – until that moment they were happy enough for people to read it as the sole product of their singular imagination and labour.  Thankfully, the exposure turned out to be the puncturing of some rather inflated egos rather than a validation of their eleventh hour claims of uncredited ‘homage’.

In the world of popular fiction, an anonymous tip off to a reporter exposed J.K. Rowling as the real author behind the nom de plume ‘Robert Galbraith’, author of The Cuckoo’s Calling.  Although anyone’s sceptical spider sense would have suspected that this leak came from the publishing company itself, who stood to make millions in the fallout – alongside the poetic symmetry of the book being titled after a ‘cuckoo’, a bird that deceptively lays its eggs in another bird’s nest – the outing was subsequently revealed as a slip up with lawyers.

cuckoos calling

IMAGE: The Cuckoo’s Calling cover (Little, Brown & Company)

The fact that Rowling had a pseudonym was ultimately nothing surprising.  Having penned the blockbuster Harry Potter series, the author faced a daunting level of expectation and scrutiny for any future projects (just as her first post-Potter book, A Casual Vacancy, had received), so shedding her identity must have been enormously freeing.  The book could live or die on its own merits – or at least be read fairly by the lowered expectations.  Unfortunately for Rowling, what happened next was not very surprising either…

‘Robert Galbraith’ had been introduced to the world as a retired military police investigator who had decided to pen his first fictional novel, and the result was a critically well received but moderately selling work of crime genre fiction.  Whatever his next book was going to be was looked forward to with a small but growing anticipation.  However, once Rowling’s name was in the mix, not-surprisingly, the work blew up.  Stock ran out, reprints flew into production.  A novel that had done little more than be commended as an admirably solid first attempt was suddenly a sensation, with readers combing through the pages looking for clues and grammatical tells.

Whether or not Rowling’s intention was to reveal Galbraith’s true identity in future (again: ‘cuckoo‘), for now it was torpedoed, and the curiously tenuous interrelationship between audience and author was vividly exposed.  Rowling’s masquerade had allowed her a restorative creative refuge that enabled her to speak to the reader in a wholly unique, more intimate way, with no preconceptions or expectations weighing down their discourse.  With that mask stripped away, the cache of her name proved enormously successful for the sales of the book and garnered her plaudits from those who had been duped, but it ultimately undermined her intent.  The story is by no means a tragedy (again, she was commended for her skill, and her publishers are hardly crying), but it was a curious reminder of how an artist can feel trapped by their own public image, and how success can be so enmeshed with personality.

On a smaller scale (by in my opinion far more tragic), one of my personal favourite podcasts, Yeah, It’s That Bad, was seemingly undone by the need to preserve their anonymity.  Yeah, It’s That Bad was a marvellously improbable product, one that consistently defied expectation in order to create something fantastically enjoyable, and, ironically for a show built around the premise of reviewing bad movies, refreshingly unique.*****  Indeed, if you were tasked with writing down a list of all of the most clichéd elements that any derivative amateur podcast always seems to contain, what you would end up with is a bare bones description of what Yeah, It’s That Bad, in essence, turned out to be: A bunch of guys (check), sitting around together talking about a bad movie (check), reviewing what they had just seen while cracking jokes (check).  And yet…

Yeah Its That Bad

What elevated Yeah… (besides its brisk editing and deceptively high production value) was the hosts’ appealing chemistry.  Joel, Martin and Kevin each had distinct personality, and had clearly known each other for years, giving them a natural rapport that was inviting rather than alienating.  Unlike the innumerable other pale imitations that littered the field of crappy-film-reviews, they weren’t simply reading off pre-written gags, no one was calling-in on a temperamental Skype connection; they were three people, sitting around a table, involved in a conversation – one that was brightened by their quick wit, penchant for exaggeration, and ability to build upon each others’ observations.  There was no pretention, no forced guffaws, and they treated both their subject matter and their audience with respect.

In contrast to a podcast like How Did This Get Made? which begins with the presumption that the film being watched is garbage and thus a cheap punching bag, the hosts of Yeah… all clearly shared a genuine love of art and film (and the pleasures of a cheesy film done right), and were legitimately interested in debating whether the material they had viewed was unjustly maligned.  Consequentially, amongst the jocularity, there was thoughtful discussion of narrative conventions and cinematic pitfalls, the diminishing returns of anodyne sequels, the scourge of the Mary Sue, problems with pacing and characterisation – their analysis of the film Sucker Punch (a piece of cinema that I found grotesque) remains one of the most interesting and considered that I have yet encountered.

But best of all for those who decided to follow these three on their journey, Joel, Martin and Kevin understood radio as a theatre of the mind, and knew how to propel and expand upon a comedic riff without tipping over into lazy catchphrase.  By the time the show was brought to its premature end the ‘Yeah It’s That Bad Headquarters’ was said to be an orbital satellite circling Earth, Dennis Quaid, doyen of contemptuously wooden acting, was the patron saint of a swollen congregation of actors who phoned in their performances having barely wiped the craft services lunch from their mouths, the Beef-O-Meter was a meticulously calibrated gauge of an actor’s hotness (the Rock almost broke the scale), Joel’s never-ending quest to ‘follow the money’ was reaping damning results, and the Twilight films were one mumbled, dead-eyed Kristen Stewart performance away from killing them all.

It was an adaptive production, one that evolved with the needs of its audience and the benefit of the discussion (even the podcast’s name and premise weren’t locked in for the first handful of shows as they found their rhythm).  They took fan requests, they invited feedback, they grew and honed and streamlined; but the one feature that they maintained, that ultimately turned into their Achilles heel, was their anonymity.  It was never a secret that they were using fake names – indeed, it was repeatedly cited, without fanfare.  They weren’t industry insiders, or famous faces, or gossips with dirt to dish, they were just three friends producing a free program, who weren’t interested in becoming famous if it meant impacting upon their daily life.

The story was left necessarily vague (and I freely admit that the following account may be riddled with inaccuracies), but for those who followed the drama in the show’s final weeks, it was heavily implied that an online blogger had discovered who the three leads of the podcast actually were, and was going to reveal their names to the world.  Why anyone would want to know this completely irrelevant information, or what it’s exposure would even achieve, was left a complete mystery.  Those already familiar with the program had no interest in who these people ‘really’ were; those unfamiliar would care even less.  The trio therefore appealed to the blogger not reveal their identities, but apparently the idea that someone would not welcome fame was too much to comprehend, and the blogger intended to do so anyway.

But their anonymity wasn’t a bluff.  It wasn’t some playful game that they were inviting their audience to participate in uncovering.  Even in such a whimsical and mischievous format their privacy was a necessity – ironically, it allowed them to be more open with their fans, to carve out a space in which they could speak honestly and engage freely without impact upon their occupations or personal lives.  So the damage was done.  One blogger’s desire to publish a scoop that no one wanted, revealing identities that were irrelevant anyway, destroyed the very thing that they were misguidedly trying to intrude upon.  And with that, identity was shown to once again have a price – even for a free podcast.

Yeah Its That Bad Fan Art by Dan

IMAGE: Yeah It’s That Bad fan art by ‘Dan’

Phase the Fifth: Wherein I Get Pissy With Man of Steel Yet Again

The content of much of 2013’s entertainments seemed obsessed with identity too, exploring and overanalysing humanity’s sense of self.  Iconic characters were scrutinised, reintroduced, redefined.  Famous figures were repeatedly dismantled, separated into their constituent parts, and reconstructed.  It was a year of origins, and tales of stripping characters down to their core, the results of which were sometimes highly profitable, at other times incoherent trash.

Lara Croft spent the beginning of the year being re-birthed into the world in Square Enix’s Tomb Raider reboot, a bombastic origin story (which, despite a few issues, I enjoyed a great deal, actually) that had her both physically and metaphorically doing battle with the weight of her already established legend.  Alongside the shift in genre – from the straight 3D puzzle platforming of the old to the rollicking, sometimes horrifying, survival action of the new – a design that literally has the player participate in growing her skills up from rudimentary quick-time-events into the assertive, capable adventurer that we remember – the story seems to play out a meta-narrative of fighting against the weight of Lara’s past as a videogame idol.

tomb raider lara croft

IMAGE: Tomb Raider (Square Enix)

In the fiction, Lara is stranded on an island in which a tribe of homicidal worshipers are devoted to an ancient demigoddess that they are trying to revive in a new body.  As a metaphor for the foreseeable backlash of fans who wanted a straightforward remake of the old game, the imagery is particularly potent.  This crazed armada of zealots (seriously: despite this island being presented as a mixture of LOST and Gilligan’s Island it is like Spring Break for unhinged sociopaths) are trying to wholesale resurrect the idealised female figure that they adore – but as Lara exhibits, that creature no longer belongs in this fiction.  Instead, literally fighting her way out of the shadow of that history, Lara manifests the franchise’s new female protagonist: a resourceful, plucky, weathered young warrior, eager to do a bit of archaeology if people will stop trying to bury a hatchet in her face for five minutes.

When she stabs the reanimated statue of the demon that would seek to reclaim this world, it explodes in an eruption of pixels, the sun only then breaking through the cloud cover to restore life to the land.  Lara’s existential quest of self-discovery is finally at an end.  The ethereal power and beauty of the dead queen is never disputed, but the act of clinging to her memory so slavishly is shown to result only in stagnation, disappointment and decay.  Lara sloughs off the expectation of the old to resurface as something familiar, but new.  What exactly that turns out to be awaits to be seen in future instalments, but for now I am certainly looking forward to following the journey.

(I should also briefly clarify: I am in no way exaggerating when I use the word ‘re-birth‘ in describing this reintroduction of Lara Croft.  Replay that opening sequence in which Lara has to scramble and claw her way out of a cave that is convulsing and collapsing around her, only to emerge into the world wet, and crying, and blood-smeared, and the game creator’s intent to show how ‘A survivor is born‘ becomes quite (perhaps rather too) overt.)

Batman: Arkham Origins, as the name implies, likewise tried to embrace the possibilities of a prequel – although a cynic might suggest this was more an attempt to disguise a filler entry into the franchise by a B-team of coders, rather than a crucial addition to the overarching narrative.  Proving to be by no means a bad game – the foundations upon which it was built are too strong – it’s narrative does seem a little overstuffed with first meetings and introductions, attempting to cram the seedlings of an entire mythos into the span of a single evening gauntlet.

Batman Arkham Origins

IMAGE: Batman Arkham Origins (Warner Bros. Games Montreal)

This promise to dig into the core of Batman’s identity was so central to the game’s theme that even its advertising slogan was intent on calling it out.  ‘Your enemies will define you’, it declared – a potentially dangerous gambit for a narrative is so riddled (not a pun) with players from Batman’s B and C level rogues gallery.  Clearly this was actually a reference to the predictable reveal of the narrative’s actual big bad, and the establishment of their yingy yangy brand of co-dependent mental instability, but until that moment, Firefly, Copperhead and Black Mask are some pretty weak tea that don’t say much of the man behind the cowl.  …But again, perhaps that was ultimately the point.  Until Batman’s true antagonist emerged he was just going through the motions.

In cinemas, Man of Steel – one of the most divisive pieces of mass market entertainment of the year – was an attempt to likewise re-establish an icon, to explore the identity of the ‘man’ behind the legend of Superman.  …I say ‘attempt’, of course, because all it ultimately managed to offer was Zack Snyder’s biggest budget version of the same tediously adolescent nihilistic torture porn he has been reproducing ad nauseam throughout his career.  The fact that he managed to turn one of fiction’s most hopeful, inspirational figures into a mopey, selfish, irresponsible manchild, with an unchecked messiah complex, is so grotesque that (if it appeared in any way that he’d done it intentionally) it might almost be interesting; but the sycophantic way that Snyder depicts the perennially idiotic people of Earth unconditionally loving our new alien overlord, despite his wanton destruction, despite his psychotic mood swings, despite becoming an unapologetic law unto himself, makes the whole film crumble into a lazy, emotionless void of themeless, characterless carnage.

…I did not enjoy the film.  You probably couldn’t tell.

Iron Man 3 (which, going by the reaction on the internet, I alone on Earth seem to have liked), bucked the prequel/reboot trend to actually advance a plot, but even it did so by still choosing to break down the character of Tony Stark (yes, in a way a little too reminiscent of Skyfall …and The Dark Knight Rises …and The Avengers …and The Care Bear Movie, probably), and rediscover the man beneath the suit (…or the several hundred progressively inferior suits, as the case may be).  It even flashed back to the years before Tony had learned to take responsibility for his actions, fashioning a proto-antagonist, apparently of his own making, that he had to overcome in the present to reclaim his life.

Iron-Man-3

IMAGE: Iron Man 3 (Marvel/Disney)

No doubt the year’s most baffling attempt to explore this theme of selfhood came (predictably) in the form of a misguided film adaptation of a classic novel.  The Great Gatsby, a story that gnaws at the impossible fantasy of ever knowing the truth of another human being – what motivates them, what drives their every action, even in spite of themselves – was turned into a fidgety music video that mostly chewed the scenery and hyperbolically bloated every moment of subtly that gave the original work such lean, haunting grace.  Instead of a melancholy character’s reflection upon a defining, if inexplicable time in his personal history, we had Nick Carraway going insane and desperately writing the book from within an asylum.  Because that adds… well… absolutely nothing, besides being mawkish and stupid.  But hell, why not?  We’re already filming in cinema’s most pointless 3D, with dance routines that feel like acid trips, and a whole recreation of Long Island that looks like a surreal day dream slapped together by the work-experience kid at Industrial Light and Magic – so go nuts.

the great gatsby

IMAGE: The Great Gatsby (Warner Bros.)

It’s a great shame, though, because if director Baz Luhrmann had not turned the narrative into a shallow cartoon, it could have been a chillingly prescient summation of the themes of identity, presumption and self-delusion that have echoed throughout this year.  Had the film managed to capture the glistening nostalgia of Gatsby’s unattainable dream, or the suave facade that obscured his ineffable truths, it could have had much to say.  Instead all it exhibited was how hollow a film can become when its creators repeat the same mistakes its characters do: Gatsby puts on a big display to get Daisy’s attention and consequentially gets chewed up in the maelstrom of her and her husband’s vapid recklessness; Luhrmann, mistaking spectacle for substance, does much the same, overburdening his work with gaudy tricks and distractions that eventually smother its central, sober conceit.

‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’

Well he was right about one thing.  The audience certainly felt beaten.

In the land of television, show runners, like filmmakers, seemed obsessed with returning to the formative years of familiar characters, reintroducing them in unfamiliar contexts under the presumption that this interrogation of their genesis would somehow reveal something new.  Hannibal invited viewers to experience the reptilian grace and gastronomical proclivities of Hannibal Lecter before he got all orange jumpsuit-y in Silence of the Lambs (and yes, I know that Red Dragon was a prequel too).  Meanwhile, anyone who ever wondered what Norman Bates got up to in the years before his mother became the world’s most judgemental rocking-corpse could watch Bates Motel and live out the excitement of seeing an awkward pubescent boy turn inexorably into a sex-crazed sociopath (arguably something most already are).

Dracula tried to recast fiction’s most flamboyant, dead-eyed bloodsucker (no, not Robert Pattison; the other one) into a newly industrialising London, deciding that the best way to capture the inconceivable menace of a character who necessarily remains in the shadows of a novel shrewd enough to reveal him only in glimpses and half-truths, was to slap him in the centre of a serialised melodrama that revolved around him, that attempted to explain his motivations, and that stripped him of his portentous obscurity.

Almost certainly the year’s biggest television event however (aside from a certain rouge wedding), was the conclusion of Breaking Bad, a show that offered one of the most compelling, absorbing depictions of a human journey descent into moral compromise and abject evil.  Vince Gilligan’s Faustian descent was so deeply invested in questioning its protagonist’s fractured identity, and the consequence of his incremental conciliations, that it ran to its conclusion with the focal character’s darkly ironic demand ‘Remember my name’ resounding through every scene.  Whether anything really was left of Walter White beneath the overwhelming monstrosity of ‘Heisenberg’ haunted the show’s final episodes.  Was White still the man he believed himself to be?  Was he the sum of his crimes?  Are we our intent or our action?  Are we what we hope to be, or the legacy others write for us?

Breaking Bad

IMAGE: Breaking Bad (AMC)

Phase the Sixth: Wherein I Explain What This Tedious ‘Phase’ Conceit Is All About

At the end of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (spoiler warning for a century-old novel), the heroine Tess has been killed – seemingly sacrificed to the whim of a hostile universe that has finished its sport with her.  Meanwhile, her lover, Angel Clare, is ironically punished by the author for his earlier abandonment of Tess with the suggestion that he will now go on to marry her younger sister, having promised Tess in her final moments that he would do so.  Initially it seems like a strange penalty.  Earlier in the book Angel had been mortified that the young, virginal beauty he had fallen in love with, having been the victim of a sexual assault, had already borne and lost a child, so in theory he has now been ‘rewarded’ with exactly what he desired: a younger virginal beauty, more divine than even her deceased sibling.  Indeed, Liza-Lu is described at this point as:

‘a tall budding creature – half girl, half woman – a spiritualised image of Tess, slighter than she, but with the same beautiful eyes.’ (p.488)

But the clear, lamentable truth that hangs over this conclusion is that of course Tess cannot be so easily replaced, cannot be substituted.  Clare gets what he once wanted, but it will forever be the most vivid reminder of the irreplaceable individual he once callously rejected.

It’s an absence symbolised by the description of Liza-Lu’s unsullied perfection.  Tess, in contrast to her sister, was flawed, marked by a physical blemish that once enraptured Clare.  Earlier in the novel, when he first becomes smitten with Tess, she is described thus:

‘How very lovable her face was to him. Yet there was nothing ethereal about it; all was real vitality, real warmth, real incarnation.  And it was in her mouth that this culminated. Eyes almost as deep and speaking he had seen before, and cheeks perhaps as fair; brows as arched, a chin and throat almost as shapely; her mouth he had seen nothing to equal on the face of the earth.  To a young man with the least fire in him that little upward lift in the middle of her red top lip was distracting, infatuating, maddening.  He had never before seen a woman’s lips and teeth which forced upon his mind with such persistent iteration the old Elizabethan simile of roses filled with snow.  Perfect, he, as a lover, might have called them off-hand.  But no — they were not perfect.  And it was the touch of the imperfect upon the would-be perfect that gave the sweetness, because it was that which gave the humanity.'(pp.208-9)

Already a story fundamentally concerned with the nebulous nature of identity – Tess Durbeyfield’s life is tragically upended when it is believed that she is actually a descendant of the d’Urberville line of ancient knights – the conclusion of the novel reveals itself to be a condemnation of Angel’s earlier sanctimonious judgement.  For Angel, Tess proved to be an idea – a fantasy upon which he could project his own longing.  Upon discovering the truth beneath his pretty lie he fled, only later realising his mistake.  Consequentially, the truth of that mistake will haunt him the rest of his life.  He failed to see the woman beneath the image until it was too late.

Because we are all our ineffable faults and flaws and failures, all marked by our history.  And the way we carry our imperfections define us – just as Tess, resolute, carried her maddeningly imperfect lip.

In this, the beginning of a new millennium, our popular culture seems to be depicting us all in a burgeoning state of adolescent self-awareness, already striving to learn the lesson that Angel Clare ignorantly missed.  Whether a reaction to the fears of terrorism and global war that have hung over the 21st century, or a natural progression of our growth into a more immersive digital age, modern culture has seemingly reached a point of necessary personal reflection.  We’ve turned the lens back upon ourselves, saturating the world with an onslaught of pop-cultural ‘selfies’.  But it’s not quite the narcissistic act of self-aggrandisement that it might at first appear.  Instead it is an attempt to try and make sense of ourselves and our circumstance, to define who we are and what we believe in, through introspection and self-analysis.

Sometimes it is as all-encompassing as dissecting the invasion of a clandestine global spy program; sometimes it is wondering why Batman never used those shock gloves again in the following games.  We might be grinning inanely into a camera; protesting unjustifiable personal tragedy; playing with our audience’s expectations with a false persona; or dressing up our paranoias in superhero theatrics; in any instance, the questions remain universal: it is a meditation upon who and where we are, and what all of that means going forward.

What are those indefinable imperfections that give us our humanity, and how can we best preserve them in the daunting, unknowable age still to come?

tess of the durbervilles by D A Wehrschmidt

IMAGE: Tess of the d’Urbervilles illustration by D.A. Wehrschmidt

* On the plus side, previous, artificial attempts to name the year (such as ‘The year of Luigi’) are excoriated by the reality of lived experience (revealing instead ‘The year of people-are-still-releasing-stuff-on-the-Wii-U?’)  …Sorry.  That was a cheap shot.  I still love you, Nintendo.

** Apparently the origin of the word ‘Selfie’ is Australian, having been traced back to an Australian forum post (in which a young man took a photo of some damage he had done to his face while extremely drunk) in 2002.  As the Oxford summary states, we ‘Strayans do like to add ‘-ie’ to the ends of words – barbie, cossie, sickie, freebie, pressie, symbolic interactionismie (okay, that one’s less popular).  So let’s all take a moment to acknowledge that we have a young, drunk ‘Aussie’ to thank for this year’s expansion of the English language.  You’re welcome.  …Now please forgive us for Baz Luhmann.

*** And yes, I said ‘Headlines’, so let’s just take it as read that I am going to be shamefully skipping many of the most tragic and genuinely significant global events, such as the ongoing conflict in Syria and the massacres in Egypt – after all, that is sadly what the news media far too frequently seems to do.

**** It was also the year that Katy Perry released an album called Prism, which caused a different kind of rightful public outcry.  I’m being facetious, of course, but just so that it doesn’t seem like I’m taking a lazy pot shot at a recording artist that bores me desperately (I am), here’s a fun bit of trivia to justify the snark: Perry’s new record was literally banned here in Australia.  Not because of the content of the music (that would require there to be content – BAM!), but because she had woven living seeds into the album’s paper sleeve.  The idea, I believe, was that you plant the album and it would grow into flowers.  Unfortunately for Perry, the flowers are listed as a biohazard here in Australia (so are her lyrics – BAM BAM!), meaning that listeners can’t take her advice and bury her latest album underground (no matter how much they may want to after listening to it – And it’s a Hat Trick!)  …I want to take this opportunity to apologise to any Katy Perry fans reading.  I really don’t know what just got into me.

***** You can read a lovely elegiac summary of Yeah It’s That Bad that catalogues its hosts, its format, and its demise here.  Vale Yeah It’s That Bad.  In a world of weak weak weak men, you did good.

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