Archive for August, 2012

Why Don Draper Is: Season Five of Mad Men

Posted in criticism, literature, television with tags , , , , , , , on August 27, 2012 by drayfish

IMAGE: Mad Men (AMC)

[Spoilers!  Spoilers Everywhere!]

I’ve spent five years stunned by the exquisite slow burn of the AMC drama series Mad Men.  Few narratives have the elegance, the poise, the thematic self-awareness to exhibit themselves with such mindful, tempered pacing.  Mad Men gives its characters time to breathe, time to evolve, sometimes even time to utterly wallow.  There are characters within this fiction that – despite watching with enraptured awe – one cannot even come to understand until five years into the run of the show.  Indeed, this most recent season alone has provided several character-defining moments, organically peppered into the narrative, that have fundamentally altered the way in which we view these personalities, that provide telling new insights into their behaviour as it has played out over the entirety of the series’ run.

And this has been nowhere more evident than in the fluid identity of the series’ central protagonist, Don Draper (played masterfully by Jon Hamm), a man who in the past has lived multiple simultaneous lives under oppressive veils of secrecy; who has literally changed his very identity; and who, in the final scene of this latest, profoundly transitional season, is once again left at a crossroads in his development, potentially about to tumble into old self-destructive ways and re-enter a pattern of infidelity, deceit and self-loathing that has already cost him a marriage, friendships, and years of psychological peace.

Don Draper is a man who has been haunted the majority of his life with the perpetuation of a falsehood that eventually ate into every facet of his existence.  Indeed, in the first season Harry Crane declared that Don could very well be Batman for all anyone actually knows about him.

Born Richard ‘Dick’ Whitman to destitute parents – a prostitute mother who died in labour and a drunken, violently abusive, emotionally unstable father – ‘Dick’ grew up in a cycle of abuse and poverty, eventually going to war to escape his life.  While fighting on the frontlines, he watched a superior officer named Don Draper die and decided to steal his name in order to get the hell away from the carnage.  And so, returning home in the guise of another man’s identity, awarded a purple heart for a heroism that mocked his own cowardice, he lived that deception for the remainder of his life, working, marrying, raising children, superficially excelling in every avenue of his experience, all under the weight of a fundamental disguise.

In the first three seasons of the series we therefore watched this man – a charming, debonair, effortlessly successful advertising executive; father to two healthy young children, husband to a beautiful wife – chafe under the enormity of this deception.  He drank too much; smoked until his lungs spilled over with tar; whored around with numerous women; letting each one glimpse only a fraction of his rigidly compartmentalised life.  And it was killing him.

As the divisions between each aspect of his identity segmented even further – father; husband; lover; roguish workmate; mentor to an aspiring female copywriter in an oppressively patriarchal environment – Don seemed to be wholly detached, play-acting through it all, only finding the most transitory moments of solace in the slivers of self he let break through the facade.  And he remained extraordinarily talented at his job, for precisely the same reason he was torn up inside: his whole life a lie, he was a natural at the advertising industry’s world of artful deception, running for his life to deadlines just as he sprinted to keep ahead of his inevitable exposure.

Because, throughout it all, he remained terrified of losing everything at any moment.  His colleagues thought him a war hero, not little Dick Whitman, scrapper from nowhere.  His wife, a woman of means and elegance, was wholly unaware she had married an abandoned pauper made good.  And so, when the biological brother he left behind decades previous appeared, hoping to reconnect, Don rejected him – both fearful of exposure and no doubt reluctant to once again confront his own suppressed history – unwilling to yet fold those disparate selves back into a final oneness.

This season, however – for the first time – Don was able to exist in the relative truth of himself.  Having had his deceptions exposed at the end of season three, having fallen in love with a new woman who was willing to accept him for who he actually is, Don could finally live in a unified selfhood: at last, through Megan, he was known in a way that no one else in his life ever had, no longer strangled by deceptions but freed to simply be.

Just down the hall from Don at Sterling Cooper Draper Price another character had likewise pursued this sensation of unified experience.  For much of season five, Roger Sterling has re-examined his life under the effects of LSD.  Having shared a controlled dosage with his wife, he believed himself to have looked into the ‘truth’ of his existence, into the clarity of all life.  And the impact of this experience reverberated through his imagery this season: a geometric pattern that reminded him of the drug’s effects hung on his office wall; and his final appearance in the concluding episode presented him naked, again tripping out of his mind, and staring out into the night through a hotel window.

One of the effects of LSD is said to be a dissolution of divisions between the self and the objects one observes.  The mind looses itself in non-spatial, non-temporal sensation – Roger saw himself aged and youthful at once, even witnessed himself playing Major League baseball in a game concluded years previous.  Under the influence of the drug the delineation between inner and outer dissolves, and one simply is.

Aldous Huxley in the paper ‘The Doors of Perception’*, spoke of his experimental experience taking mescaline in 1953 – over a decade earlier than Roger let a laced sugar cube dissolve on his tongue.  (Mescaline, of course, is different to LSD, but for the purposes of this discussion it evokes similar effects.)  When Huxley verbalised the visions and observations that swam over him, he spoke of objects shining with their own, pure, undiluted light.  He became, he said, alert to the ‘is-ness’ of things, able to discern an object’s reality, it’s singularity of purpose – sign and signifier unified as one whole unutterable truth:

‘[Plato, who separated object from idea] could never, poor fellow, have seen a bunch of flowers shining with their own inner light and all but quivering under the pressure of the significance with which they were charged; could never have perceived that what rose and iris and carnation so intensely signified was nothing more, and nothing less, than what they were – a transience that was yet eternal life, a perpetual perishing that was at the same time pure Being, a bundle of minute, unique particulars in which, by some unspeakable and yet self-evident paradox, was to be seen the divine source of all existence.’

Like Huxley, Roger appeared to have experienced a similar dissolution of divisions; viscerally alert to the is-ness of the world, although only by chasing it down a pharmaceutically induced rabbit hole.  In contrast, for the first time in his adult life, Don appears to be at last truly living this kind of singular unity.  Freed by Megan’s acknowledgement of the many sides of his identity, finally seen, affirmed and loved by another human soul, Don is finally able to embrace his own, newly unified, is-ness.

And yet…

In that final scene, Don still seems poised to slide back into a life of pretence and betrayal.  A beautiful woman leans in to ask if he is ‘alone’ – a flirtatious exchange that brims with potential – and we are tempted to read into Don’s momentary pause a genuine moment of consideration as a new fissure in his identity looms.  His relationship with his wife – something he had held sacred for the span of the season, is suddenly revealed to be at genuine risk, with the question of why reverberating back through the narrative.  And it can be seen to lie in that notion of deception that has haunted Don his whole life.

Despite being a predominantly healing presence in Don’s life, Megan herself has, over the course of the season, struggled with the nature of Don’t career; and he in turn had baulked at her seeming dismissal of his chosen profession.  Megan was revealed to be effortlessly talented at the advertising industry – imaginative with the concepts; good with the copy; at ease with the delivery; and a master of the soft sell to clients – she was a natural, excelling at the job despite the inherent sexism of her workplace (a success that Peggy, who had worked so hard for so long, seemingly both envied and vicariously celebrated).  But Megan rejected this calling, unfulfilled by the profession that Don had devoted himself to, instead seeking to make her mark as an actor.  Advertising for her was not a dream – it was an easy, shallow enterprise, one that she felt, ultimately, to be empty.  At times in the season Don even felt judged by her attitude toward his career – one glaring example being the hilariously anti-consumerist play she took him to see, a performance against which Don bristled.

However, while he was clearly hurt by her decision to abandon this calling, and at first reluctant to ever let her travel far from him, there is a sense in which Don truly did want her to succeed, to be invigorated by her chosen pursuit.  In that final episode, sitting awash in the series’ signature haze of cigarette smoke cut by a flickering projector, Don watches Megan’s screen test, warmed by her innate luminescence, drinking in the is-ness of her drive and purpose.  A heartfelt smile breaks on his lips.  He seems to want success for her – to see her shine with contented joy.

Only minutes later however and that bliss was soured.  Megan struggled to excel at acting, and becoming frustrated with numerous rejections she pleaded with Don to give her a role in a commercial (even stealing the idea from her friend).  Don, not wanting her to go on suffering, agreed; but in his heart, he knew he was perpetuating a lie.  Seeing her embrace egotism rather than effort, to be rewarded by placation rather than validation, seemed to diminish the truth that they had celebrated in each other, and weaken the bond both shared.

When Don walked away from Megan as she was preened and prepped for her performance, there was a sense of encroaching darkness.  As the happy, fairytale scene (literally, she was shooting a ‘Beauty and the Beast’-style commercial) faded behind him, Don suddenly seemed overcome with a sense of mourning: something perhaps had died.  She had embraced the fantasy of the advertising deception, rather than the truth of her passion, and although she was back in his advertising world she was image now, not substance; an object and idea divided against itself.

This season has entirely been about change, about growth into a new state of being.  Socially, a new generation of thought, opportunity, and culture has started to spread into the world.  The season began with the hiring of an African American woman to the firm (albeit somewhat unintentionally); new music disseminated itself into the communal consciousness (in what has got to be the greatest use of music in film ever) with ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ by the Beatles swirling inexorably into the social sphere before being somewhat ominously silenced prematurely by Don; a rising European intellectual and artistic sensibility has begun permeating conversation and culture (we might miss the subtle shifts in ideologies and fashion, but no one will be forgetting Megan’s provocative birthday dance).

On the personal scale characters were likewise burgeoning and evolving (sometimes at a terrible cost): Peggy finally sought to step out from under her mentor’s shadow, taking a job with another firm where she can finally express her autonomy; Joan finally left a husband who thought of her as little more than an appendage and negotiated herself into a partner position (although she had to bargain off her body to do so); the penultimate episode even ended with Don’s daughter starting her period, herself entering a new, unfamiliar phase of life.

But the question of exactly how far Don Draper has changed, or in what direction this alteration will lead him, awaits a definitive answer.  When the woman at the bar asked him if he was alone, his face – his eyes – seemed to spark with a familiar old fire, but what that moment meant still awaits revelation.  Maybe we saw flicker there that old self-destructive sexual opiate that would numb the division in his soul; or perhaps, more hopefully, he was just stalled for a time, collecting himself before declining and returning home to his wife and his life – the place where for the first time he has found acceptance and truth, and the tranquillity amongst all the haze to simply be.

Only season six will tell…

* Guess where Jim Morrison got the name…

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John Tranter: He’s great. That is all.

Posted in literature with tags , , , , , , , on August 25, 2012 by drayfish

IMAGE: The Floor of Heaven (HarperCollins)

The poet John Tranter is a bit of a hero of mine, and recently I have been revisiting his brilliant verse novel The Floor of Heaven.

For those unfamiliar with the work, I cannot recommend it enough.  A clusterbomb of narrative play and a musing upon the glistening miasma of high and low art, it is a work of striking depth and genuinely dizzying fun.

…And yes, I said ‘glistening miasma’.  I’m comfortable with that.

While I would definitely recommend buying a copy to savour (is it sad that I have three copies? one signed?), if you’re reluctant to trust the word of a faceless blogging nerd on the interwebbies, you can check out the entire book, which Tranter has kindly posted to read (completely free), on his homepage: http://johntranter.com/00/the-floor-of-heaven.pdf

Tranter was also the founder of the fantastic (also extraordinarilly freeJacket electronic journal.*  There you can find a fantastic analysis of the book by Kate Lilley (originally published in the journal Southerly), a reading that engages much of the intertextual commentary Tranter produces through his swirling narrative layers.

* The original journal appears here: http://jacketmagazine.com; it’s sequel Jacket2 (no longer edited by Tranter) can be found here: http://jacket2.org/

Show Us Your Human Bits: Play and the Shifting Paradigms of Art

Posted in art, criticism, video games with tags , , , , , on August 22, 2012 by drayfish

pacman2_0

IMAGE: Pacman installation Art by Benedetto Bufalino and Benoit Deseille

(Website: http://benedetto.new.fr/)

Everyone ready for a self-indulgent rant? Because I bought this soapbox in from the car, and they only let you hire out these megaphones for the day. So, ready? Excellent. Testing. Testing. Is this coming across self-righteous enough up the back there? Can you hear me being all judgmental? Okay. Here goes.

I’d like to take a moment to dive back into what I admit are the thoroughly fished-out waters of the film critic Roger Ebert’s now infamous declaration that videogames cannot be Art. I want to explore this premise again, briefly, because I think that it is still in this presumptuous, ill-conceived dismissal that we can see many of the most pervasive misconceptions that continue to stifle the discussion and celebration of the videogame medium in its relative infancy.

And yes, at this point you might be thinking to yourself: but why? Why bothering referencing Ebert again? I mean (you will probably ask) does it even matter if some film critic foolishly tries to wade into utterly foreign territory? Hasn’t he already revealed his own ignorance by superimposing foreign rules upon an artistic medium in order to point out how it has failed to live up to criteria under which it was never intended to function? And is this just because he recently (vaguely) slagged off Naughty Dog’s upcoming release The Last of Us,having neither seen nor played it, because he believed it would ‘leave absolutely nothing to the imagination’?

You might even inquire whether this is all just my petulant, thinly-veiled jab at a cantankerous, nay-sayer because he disregarded a medium that I hold with genuine affection. ‘You’re not that petty, are you?’ you might very well ask.

…Well, yes. Yes it is. And yes. Yes, I most certainly am.

In 2010, after belittling the artistic merit of videogames, it was suggested to film critic Roger Ebert that he should watch a TED presentation by game designer and cofounder of thatgamecompany Kellee Santiago. It was hoped that he might get a greater perspective on the medium, even a vague respect for its potential, and its new breed of auteur. Ebert viewed the talk, but rather than gaining any insight, he instead responded by immediately doubling down on his comments, offering a condescending opinion piece in which he declared that videogames could never in his opinion each a point at which they might be considered Art. He dismissed them as wholly devoid of any relevant narrative, tonal, or thematic potential; finally aligning them (at best) with intellectual sport:

‘Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art? Bobby Fischer, Michael Jordan and Dick Butkus never said they thought their games were an art form. Nor did Shi Hua Chen, winner of the $500,000 World Series of Mah Jong in 2009. Why aren’t gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves? They have my blessing, not that they care.’*

He effectively likened them to time wasting amusements such as Jenga or Hungry, Hungry Hippos – mere exercises in rote memorization or reflexes – and waved them away as not worthy of serious consideration.

He then went on to make several attempts to classify what Art actually was, arguing in each example that games do not and cannot fit any definition he could cite. In one notable instance he even referenced Plato’s discussion of mimesis. (Although if a philosopher who called all artists mad and who advocated the most draconian censorship of literature in history was his go-to for such classification, he might not want to throw stones: there’ll be no more watching Taxi Driver or Singing in the Rain in the Republic either, Ebert…) Believing he had seen off the possibility of their being confused with ‘real’ Art, Ebert then antithetically attempted to dismiss some examples as not even being games – at least by his extremely narrow, antiquated conception – arguing that he failed to see how a work like Flower could even operate in the absence of a scoring system or ‘win’ state.

As one might imagine, Ebert’s satisfaction at disregarding games he happily admitted not being bothered playing soon grows tiresome – he even goes so far as to describe a handful of examples ‘pathetic’ despite having only glimpsed seconds of them in action and without ever holding a controller in his hands. Reasoned, contextualised criticism at its finest this was not; indeed, using Ebert’s logic, if someone hadn’t seen Citizen Kane it would be okay for them to arbitrarily bin it as a dreary, pretentious, ill-lit bore – an undergraduate mess where people draw lines on their faces to indicate that they have aged. …And how come the dude likes roses so much?  It’s probably some dumb reason. Best not bother finding out.

When responders inevitably called nonsense on Ebert’s ignorant proclamations he swiftly bowed out of the debate – although conceding nothing – admitting that he was still unwilling to play a game to explore the experience for himself. He effectively shrugged, passive-aggressively asserted that some people just evolve their artistic perspective differently, and clamoured back out of the  mire to return to the higher ground of novels and film, where the once hotly-contested battles for artistic integrity have already been fought and won long before he appeared on the scene.

But it was in this, his tactical retreat from the discussion, that Ebert revealed the fundamental disconnect at the heart of his position: he argued that in every conception he could conceive Art must remain static. His issue with the videogame form is that the very element of interactivity that gives them identity renders them too fluid to be artistically expressive. If one could re-spawn and replay the ending of Romeo and Juliet again, he said, it would render the tragedy and pathos of their original deaths meaningless. But this line of argument is, at best, misguided, at worst, wholly disingenuous: of course one can’t get a do-over on Romeo and Juliet. It’s a play. It obeys different conventions. Just like you can’t see a song, or listen to a painting. They necessitate entirely different engagements with their audience. And to demand that new media be dictated by the limitations of the old is a fatuous, knee-jerk response mired in outdated thought, one that stifles rather than elucidates artistic innovation.

Ultimately Ebert’s comments reveal that it is he and not videogames that had failed to meet the standards of Art. With the proliferation of games that flaunt expectation and convention, that provide innovative and immersive experiences that expand our understanding of communicative possibility, anyone arrogant enough to dismiss the possibility of games being Art based solely upon their personal failing to wrestle the medium into some preconceived notion of what Art must be, or what it needs to contain, exposes their own incapacity to adapt to the shifting dynamics of expression. Such categorisations are based upon outmoded, ill-conceived notions that have remained nebulous since humankind first applied colour to cave walls; and Art should never be shackled by the expectations of the old. Art is innovative, progressive. It manifests human experience; and if we are nothing else we are creatures of adaptation and evolution to new stimuli. A contemporary Art that remains mired in old thinking loses the capacity to meaningfully reflect anything of our existence back to us.

And if the purpose of Art is to articulate something of the human condition; then it must acknowledge that we are creatures of play. It is through play that we develop language; is how we learn social structure; how we develop our motor skills. Storytelling is a manifestation of imaginative play; theatre is an expression of imitative play; music; visual art; dance; all have their basis in the freedom and modulation of play. And it is arguably only now, in the birth of this new medium of videogames, that we can see one of the most natural and engaging forms of crafted play in our history.

Massive multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft or DayZ allow for explorations of play and social organisation on unprecedented new levels; game like Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire provide an immersion in genre arguably more striking and intimate than film can provide; an adaptive game like The Witcher 2 allows us to play out moral ambiguity and consequence; and this is all before even calling upon the more nebulous gaming beasts like Heavy Rain, Journey, Braid and Fez. To dismiss all this as childish fancy (as critics once did with graphic novels); or merely a tacky commercial product (as they once did with cinema), or a thoughtless leisure activity (as they once did with the novel form), only further perpetuates the same tired reactionary fear of the new that has consistently plagued all Artistic development.

Todd Howard (of Skyrim) spoke in his keynote address at the 2012 D.I.C.E. conference of the way in which games are the only form of artistic expression capable of evoking the sensation of pride in an audience. Because we as the player participate in the activity of bringing the game’s narrative to life, he said, we invest in an expression of the game that has the capacity to inspire triumph at our successes; and it is a form of satisfaction that is only possible because of the unique interplay between player and text. Games therefore don’t just communicate in new ways: they have the capacity to evoke whole new emotions and experiences; sensations that film, fiction, music, by the limitations of their form, cannot.

So while I’m sure that in many other discussions Ebert has some profound things to say (although lest we forget the man gave Speed 2 a glowing thumbs up), in his foray into the debate over videogames he has proved himself to be a critic staring at the precipice of something altogether new, but remaining utterly blind to its significance. His comments are a stark reminder of why reviewers have the capacity to be such dangerous creatures; his arbitrary definitions of Art are so ingrained as to have already begun the steady decline toward intellectual stagnation.

Ultimately, the final word should probably go to another critic, Anton Ego (a character from an animated film; yet another medium once patronisingly dismissed as being only for the frivolous delight of children) who said:

‘In many ways the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and themselves to our judgement. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critic must face is that in the grand scheme of things the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something: and that is in the discovery and defence of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent. New creations. The new needs friends.’

– Anton Ego (Ratatouille)

I believe that we need to acknowledge that games can be Art (even if, as yet, not all of them are), because that sad truth is that if we players do not take it upon ourselves to defend the new against those who would ignorantly malign it: no one else will. If we, like Roger Ebert, rely upon trite, reductive patterns of analysis, striving to draw categorical lines around the expressive potential of gaming before it has even grown into being, we risk strangling the most experimental and dynamic medium to emerge in human history, missing perhaps the finest opportunity, through the Art of play, to better understand ourselves.

* here

‘Lord, What Fools These Mortals Be’: Batman and the New Gods of the Super-Heroic

Posted in comics, literature with tags , , , , , , , on August 20, 2012 by drayfish

In the wake of the release of The Dark Night Rises the popularity of the world’s greatest detective is currently at its peak.  Earlier this year a copy of the first issue of Batman (Batman no.1, 1940) was sold in Dallas for $850,000.* Two years ago, the comic book in which the character Batman first appeared (Detective Comics no.27, 1939) was sold for over $US1 million.**  And only days earlier, the first issue of a comic in which Superman appeared (Action Comics no.1, 1938) sold for exactly $US1 million.  Aside from answering, once and for all – and forever – which hero is the greatest (psst: It’s Batman…), I think these extraordinary sales can be seen to say something of the significance that these characters have as legitimate social artefacts.  And with The Avengers having just Hulk-stomped the box-office in wholly unprecedented ways, it’s worth exploring why it is that these super heroic narratives are so embedded in modern cultural iconography.

When we think of comic books it is easy to be put off by the lesser, gratuitous works that can be seen to litter any medium: works of adolescent sensation where Lady Spandex and Captain Forearms fight the ferocious Explosion Monster (I’m copyrighting that by the way).  But if you cast your mind back to the characters that have lasted – some for almost a century – who have been revived and re-contextualised with each generation, you can see some quite intriguing archetypes on display.  Most obviously there are the early superhero characters that have their origins in Greek and Roman mythology: Wonder Woman is an Amazon; early artwork of The Flash depicted him as an exact replica of his mythical antecedent, Hermes (or Mercury) messenger of the gods; but the superhero genre as a whole is a modernisation of these ceaseless epic tales.  These are Gods among humankind, warriors granted unearthly powers; and like myths in their time, which sought to rationalise the human experience through fantastic tales of morality and fatalism, these superhero narratives, and the heroes they gave rise to, often speak to the concerns of the modern world (with equal smatterings of violence).

Consequentially, there is inestimable pleasure to be had dissecting the many allegorical facets of these seemingly innocuous adventures.  Like Gothic fiction before it, where social angst could be played out with the aid of invasive, inhuman vessels into which our paranoias might be poured – Dracula as the personification of our xenophobic terrors; Frankenstein’s monster as the scientific desecration of the natural; the Werewolf as our primal desires stirred alive to roam free – comics can likewise play out collective neurosis and escapist ideologies.  Sure, we don’t see the Hulk stooped to recite Milton in the flickering of a fading fire, but he still speaks something of a retribution visited upon mankind for its foray into unnatural science (gamma radiation, wasn’t it?), or the id left unchecked to rage and destroy.  Superman, often seen as the adolescent fantasy (the underestimated Kal-El hiding his true power under the awkward mask of bespectacled Clark Kent), is also the ultimate American immigrant magnified.  …And in a cape.  Spiderman is puberty.  The X-Men are (perhaps a little heavy-handedly) intolerance in all its forms.  The Silver Surfer is… Well he’s… Okay, I don’t know what the hell he is.  The dude is naked and surfs through space.  That’s weird.

I assume that I am not the first to draw this comparison, but to me Batman is the modern Hamlet.  Sure, he’s a little more proactive, is perhaps a little kinder to his sidekicks (he doesn’t send them off to get executed, at least), and doesn’t have quite as unnerving a fixation upon his mother, but the thematic similarities run deeper.  Both are characters whose narratives are born in the death of their parents (Hamlet’s mother is just as lost to him in her debasement), both are Princes motivated by revenge to seek justice, both are contemplative, melancholy, and use artful deception (skirting the edges of madness) to bring their opponents down.

“That I, the son of a dear father murdered,

Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,

Should don a cape and cowl and leotard,

Punch clowns and freaks and ne’er-do-wells,

drive a hellacious car and date a Cat…”

…Okay, so maybe I don’t want to stretch the comparison too far.

Perhaps most tellingly, however, is the parallel between their environments.  Something is rotten in Denmark, and the entire state reeks of this corruption.  The new King is morally poisoned; wise figures such as Polonius sink into drivelling inanities; dear friends like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern betray and are betrayed; Ophelia is lost to insanity when she forgets to use a floatation device.  The world is a manifestation of the turmoils within Hamlet’s mind, and the forces waging to tear his psyche apart.  And in exactly the same manner, Gotham City is Bruce Wayne’s inner monologue projected outward on his urban sprawl.  The city is awash in lawlessness and vice, its colourful criminals manifestations of a perverted communal consciousness – indeed, there is profit in reading the entire Batman narrative as merely the elaborate delusions of a rich kid named Bruce lost in the haze of a dissociative disorder, sitting in his own Arkham Asylum cell.  Thus, few of Batman major villains are superhuman.  In most cases they are intriguing psychological tropes: Two-Face is the self-loathing schizophrenic; Joker is the psychotic unchecked by the superego; Poison Ivy is the environmental militant blinded by her convictions; Penguin is the social climber haunted by an inferiority complex; Riddler is the sad, self-sabotaging egomaniac.  And king amongst them all is their antagonist, Batman, who nightly wages war on the excesses of these personal demons, never able to kill them, but outwitting them, beating them into submission, and returning them to the momentary quiet of the subconscious where they fester, waiting to spring forth again.

And so he occupies a unique space in the comic book pantheon.  He is a terrifying figure, not noble and bright, but slinking through the shadows, almost Goya-esque, heroic not because he is granted super powers he is obliged to use, but a mortal man (now over seventy years old), battling against the neurosis that threatens to overtake us all, and haunted by the profoundly human realisation that his struggle can only end with death.

* http://www.suntimes.com/news/nation/12456511-418/batman-no-1-comic-sells-for-850000.html

** http://articles.nydailynews.com/2010-02-26/news/27057382_1_action-comics-comic-book-detective-comics

‘Clap your Hands If You Believe In Community’: Season Four and Why It’s A Show Worth Celebrating

Posted in criticism, television with tags , , , , on August 18, 2012 by drayfish

IMAGE: NBC

There’s almost nothing more irritating than having someone describe to you why a television show is great.  It’s so obnoxious, so presumptive.  Television is an intensely personal thing – you don’t just swan in to a movie theatre for two hours and then swish back out into the daylight, ready to return to your life.*  Television shows are something you live with week to week, sometimes for years.  You get invested in them, the ups and downs of the narrative, the rise and dips in quality.  They are relationships that an audience undertakes with a text.  They can make you soar imaginatively and emotionally; and you can go through bad patches with a beloved television show, you can see them make mistakes, go in bad directions, but still hold on to the hopes that they can pull it all back together and be as great as they once were.  You believe because you know them so well.

So having someone tell you why they love a particular show, and why therefore you should too can be incredibly invasive and off-putting.  Worse than that, it can make actually getting around to watching the show itself feel like homework rather than escapist fun:

‘Urgh, that show is on…  That show everyone has been insisting is so great, so important, so ‘clever’.  But I don’t want to have to learn a whole bunch of new characters and situations all at once.  I don’t want to have to scramble to catch up with all the episodes that have lead up to this one.  And who are those people to know what I like?’

All good points; all completely understandable.  Someone would have to be a ridiculous, self-righteous, pompous ass to still insist, after everything that you just thought/said, that they have any right to assign you viewing homework, to tell you what you should be doing with your free television time.  What a jerk they would be.

…So here’s your homework.  Go on.  Go get a pen.  I’ll wait.

And sit up straight.

Earlier this year, with its third season drawing to a close, the fate of the dearly beloved, but criminally under-viewed comedy Community hung precariously in the balance.  NBC, the show’s broadcaster, had benched the sitcom halfway through the season, temporarily postponing screening the second half (almost always the first sign of an imminent axing) due to less than stellar ratings; behind the scenes a fractious relationship between Chevy Chase and creator/executive producer Dan Harmon had made for disquiet on set and had started spilling out into showbiz gossip; and finally, most alarmingly, there was the shock axing of Harmon, who had been the show’s primary guiding voice for the entirety of its production, in May.

At the 2012 San Diego Comic Con, the newly installed executive producers and show runners for the upcoming truncated season 4 (only 13 episodes, yet another bad sign for the show continuing), appeared with members of the cast to try and assuage the concerns of fans (who range from academically intrigued to fearfully traumatised) over the loss of Harmon and the potential shift in tone of the beloved show.

But why do people care?  What does it matter?  Isn’t it just another one of those quick-talking, postmodern shows where characters shoot cultural references at each other?  Don’t we already have enough of those?  Am I just asking a bunch of perfunctory rhetorical questions so that I can obnoxiously flip them on their head as this article goes on?  Am I really that transparent?

Yes.  Now shut up.

Yes, Community is clever.  Yes, it’s alert and responsive to the cultural pulse.  Yes, it is capable of the most ingenious and knowing genre parodies currently operating now that The Simpsons have slid into a decade long funk.  But at the heart of all the seeming pop culture, self-aware hilarity, most importantly it’s about characters.  Fractured human beings who need each other to survive, who better each other in order to grow.

A character like Abed speaks of Pretty In Pink, Back To The Future, and Cougar Town, not because he is ticking off some mass culture Bingo card, but because these texts are his window into a world he struggles to comprehend, and can help rationalise through film and television.  Pierce ham-fistedly references facts from the ‘Wie-kie-poh-dia’ and ‘the facebooks’, because he’s a muddled baby-boomer struggling to act young.  Jeff Winger looses himself in imported beauty products, faux-soccer fandom, and pretentious scotch drinking, because his narcissistic materialism clouds a fear of self-worth.

In the past I have tried to convince people to watch (to love) Community.  I have had some successes, far too many failures, but the reaction that really surprises me is those who sort of shrug and say, ‘Yeah, it’s clever, but I wouldn’t need to watch it again.’

youwouldawha?

You wouldn’t need to drop in on this beautiful band of misfits again?  You wouldn’t need to see how they’re going?  Where they’re headed?  How their magnificently fractured minds intersect?  How they offer a salve for the damaged parts of each other?  How, by accepting each other as they are, they become the best that they can, or have ever, been?  You wouldn’t need, wouldn’t cry out to the universe in longing, for that?!

For me, Community is all about that imaginative act that allows for all manners of play.

I think a lot of people see the show sliding into the beats of genre and they think it’s an elongated piss-take with a rather too self-aware winking-at-the-audience-style satire of form over substance; but what those naysayers miss is that unlike the Family Guys and Scary Movies of the world, Community is not cynically tearing down these structures, poking holes in them.  it is rather using them as playgrounds in which to best articulate their characters’ journeys, manifesting the experience of people who have themselves been born into and raised by such culturally dense tropes.

The onlyway that Community gets away with their genre swaps – a paintball game pastiche of every action film ever made; a Law and Order style investigation of a murdered yam; a stop-motion Christmas Special; a tale played out in the 8-bit graphics of a videogame – is because the characters (and thereby the audience) invest in the scenario with which they are presented.  It’s a love note to imagination; to the unspoken collective accord of belief in one another that makes the notion of ‘community’ possible at all.  The characters, like we the audience, like society at large, decide to believe in something together.  And by believing in it, by feeding into that act of imagination, we make it real.  We become a community.

Part of what is most extraordinary about the show is that up until now it has seemed to go out of its way to baffle its audience’s expectations.  It offers us faith in the possibilities of storytelling, because it has repeatedly made effortless what any other fiction would attempt to do only to crash and burn.  So many times over the course of its three year run we have heard of an upcoming premise (the return to the paintball game as a Western; the multiple dimensions story; the story set entirely in the Dreamatorium) and thought: Oh God, no.  No, no one can do that…  No matter how good they’ve been up until now they can’t pull that off…’

And yet…  Every.  Damned.  Time.

It’s streets ahead.

In its first three miraculous seasons, Community has proved itself to be one of the most precious shows ever put to air.  No doubt the show’s fans – amongst whom clearly I number myself – will be praying that it doesn’t get screwed up this coming season in the wake of all the ugly behind the scenes nonsense.  Even his detractors would have to admit, Dan Harmon’s voice is going to be almost impossible to emulate, and personally, I’m not sure I hold much hope for the replacement show-runners.  …however, Community has always flaunted my dire expectations, all the moments that I thought it couldn’t go on.  So I hope to be joyfully disproved again in the months to come.

* With all the ‘swanning’ and ‘swishing’ I seem to be imagining audiences everywhere wearing capes now – sorry about that.  But you do all look quite fetching.  Just sayin’.

Thematically Revolting: The End of Mass Effect 3

Posted in criticism, video games with tags , , , , , on August 16, 2012 by drayfish

IMAGE: Bioware

Putting aside all of the hanging plot threads that rankled me when first playing through the ending of Mass Effect 3 (where was the Normandy going? why did my squad mates live? Anderson is where now? wait, the catalyst was Haley Joel Osment? etc), I would like to take a moment to explain why, when I was offered those three repellent choices, ‘Destroy’, ‘Control’, and ‘Synthesise’, I turned and tried to unload my now infinite pistol into the whispy-space-ghost’s face.

It was not because I was unhappy that my Shepard would not get to drink Garrus under the table one last time, or get to help Tali build a back-porch on her new homestead, nor that I was pretty sure no one was going to remember to feed my space fish – it was because those three ideological options were so structurally indefensible that they broke the suspension of disbelief that Bioware had (up until that point) so spectacularly crafted for over a hundred hours of narrative. Suddenly Shepard was not simply being asked to sacrifice a race or a friend or him/herself for the greater good (all of which was no doubt expected by any player paying attention to the tone of the series), Shepard was being compelled, without even the chance to offer a counterpoint, to perform one of three actions that to my reading each fundamentally undermined the narrative foundations upon which the series seemed to rest.

In the Control ending, Shepard is invited to pursue the previously impossible path of attempting to dominate the reapers and bend them to his or her will. Momentarily putting aside the vulgarity of dominating a species to achieve one’s own ends (and I will get to complaining about that premise soon enough), this has proved to be the failed modus operandi of every antagonist in this fiction up until this point – including the Illusive Man and Saren – all of whom have been chewed up and destroyed by their blind ambition, incapable of controlling forces beyond their comprehension. Nothing in the vague prognostication of the exposition-ghost offers any tangible justification for why Shepard’s plunge into Reaper-control should play out any differently. In fact, as many people have already pointed out, Shepard has literally not five minutes before this moment watched the Illusive Man die as a consequence of this arrogant misconception.

The Destroy ending, however, seems even more perverse. One of the constants of the Mass Effect universe (and indeed much quality science fiction) has been an exploration of the notion that life is not simplistically bound to biology, that existence expands beyond the narrow parameters of blood and bone. That is why synthetic characters like Legion and EDI are so compelling in this context, why their quests to understand self-awareness – not simply to ape human behaviours – is so dramatic and compelling. Indeed, we even get glimpses of the Reapers having more sprawling and unknowable motivations that we puny mortals can comprehend…

To then end the tale by forcing the player to obliterate several now-proven-legitimate forms of life in order to ‘save’ the traditional definition of fleshy existence is not only genocidal, it actually devolves Shephard’s ideological growth, undermining his ascent toward a more evolved conception of existence, something that the fiction has been steadily advancing no matter how Renegadishably you wanted to play. This is particularly evident when the preceding actions of all three games entirely disprove the premise that synthetic will inevitably destroy organic: the Geth were the persecuted victims, trying their best to save the Quarians from themselves; EDI, given autonomy, immediately sought to aid her crew, even taking physical form in order to experience life from their perspective and finally learning that she too feared the implications of death.

And finally Synthesis, the ending that I suspect (unless we are to believe the Indoctrination Theory) is the ‘good’ option, proves to be the most distasteful of all. Shepard, up until this point has been an instrument though which change is achieved in this universe, and dependent upon your individual Renegade or Paragon choices, this may have resulted in siding with one species or another, letting this person live or that person die, even condemning races to extinction through your actions. But these decisions were always the result of a mediation of disparate opinions, and a consequence of the natural escalation of these disputes – Shepard was merely the fork in the path that decided which way the lava would run. His/her actions had an impact, but was responding to events in the universe that were already in motion before he/she arrived.

To belabour the point: Shepard is an agent for arbitration, the tipping point of dialogues that have, at times, root causes that reach back across generations. Up until this moment in the game the narrative, and Shepard’s role within it, has been about the negotiation of diversity, testing the validity of opposing viewpoints and selecting a path through which to evolve on to another layer of questioning. Suddenly with the Synthesis ending, Shepard’s capacity to make decisions elevates from offering a moral tipping point to arbitrarily wiping such disparity from the world. Shepard imposes his/her will upon every species, every form of life within the galaxy, making them all a dreary homogenous oneness. At such a point, wiping negotiation and multiplicity from the universe, Shepard moves from being an influential voice amongst a biodiversity of thought to sacrificing him/herself in an omnipotent imposition of will.

(And lest we forget that the entire character arc of Javik (the ‘bonus’ paid-DLC character that gives unique context to the entire cycle of destruction upon which this fiction is based) is utilised to reveal that a lack of diversity, the failure to continue adapting to new circumstances, was the primary reason that his race was decimated. …So I guess we have that to look forward to.)

This bewildering finale felt as if you had been listening to a soaring orchestral movement that ended in a cacophonous blast, the musicians tossing down their instruments and walking away. I find it hard to conceive how the creators of such a magnificent franchise could made such a mess of their own universe. The plot holes, thematic inconsistencies and a deus ex machina that was unforgivable in ancient Greek theatre, let alone in any modern narrative, all combine to erode the foundations upon which the rest of the experience resides. (It’s a disturbing sign when apologists for such an ending have to literally hope that what they witnessed was just a bad dream in the central character’s head.)

And to hear Bioware and sympathetic critics arguing ‘artistic integrity’ as an excuse to hide from their audience’s criticism, or to arbitrarilly dismiss the idea of a re-writing of the end, seems a juvenile escape from valid critique. One can immediately think of Charles Dickens being alert to, and adapting his writing in response to the floods of letters he received from his fans in the serialised delivery of stories such as The Old Curiosity Shop; or of F.Scott Fitzgerald extensively redrafting Tender is the Night for a second publishing after receiving negative critical feedback. Indeed, whatever you think of the final result, Ridley Scott was able to reassert a definitive vision of Blade Runner in spite of its original theatrical release. Despite what critics might burble about artistic vision there is innumerable precedent for such reshaping, even beyond fundamental industry practices such as play-testings and film test-screenings. If a work of art has failed in its communicative purpose (and unless angering and bewildering its most invested fans was the goal, then Mass Effect 3 has done so), then it cannot be considered a success, and is not worthy of regard.

And for those who would respond that I, and fans like myself, are simply upset because the endings do not offer some irrefutable ‘clarity’ that would mar the poetic mysteries of the ending, I would point out that I am in no way against obscure or bewildering endings: if they are earned. In contrast to a majority of viewers, I happen to love the ending of The Sopranos for precisely this reason – because, despite the momentary jolt of surprise it engendered, that audacious blank screen was wholly thematically supportable. The driving premise of that program was a man seeking therapy (a mobster, yes, but a psychologically damaged man) – indeed, the very first beat in that narrative was Tony Soprano walking into a psychiatrist’s office. The principle thematic tie of the entire series was therefore revealed to be a mediation upon the underlying psychological stimuli that produces identity: whether the capacity to interpret and understand one’s impulses can impact upon the experience of one’s life; whether one can attain agency over one’s life.

That ending might have been agonising, but it was entirely fitting that the series ended with a loaded ambiguity, inviting a myriad of interpretations in which we the audience were now placed into the role of the psychiatrist, suddenly compelled to reason out the ending of those final thirty seconds with the cumulative experience of the preceding six years of imagery. Did Tony die? Did he have a second plate of onion rings and enjoy his family’s company? Did Meadow ever park that car? In its final act The Sopranos gives over the interpretive, descriptive function of its narrative to its audience, intimately binding the viewer to Tony Soprano’s own (perhaps failed) attempts to comprehend himself and attain authorship over his life. …But the only reason that they could even try this is because every minute of every episode to this point has been propagated upon the notion that Tony Soprano was a man with a subconscious that could be explored, and that motivated his actions whether as a loving father or brutal criminal.

The obscurities in the ending of Mass Effect 3 have not been similarly earned by its prior narrative. This narrative has not until this point been about dominance, extermination, and the imposition of uniformity – indeed, Shepard has spent over a hundred hours of narrative fighting against precisely these three themes. And if one of these three (and only these three) options must be selected in order to sustain life in the universe, then that life has been so devalued by that act as to make the sacrifice meaningless.

And that is why I shall go on shooting Haley Joel Osmont’s ghost in the face.

(Originally published in the ‘All Were Thematically Revolting…” thread: http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/355/index/11435886/)

‘Hey Lara! Stop hitting yourself! Stop hitting yourself!’: Scraping Lara off the ‘boot’ of her gaming Reboot.

Posted in video games with tags , , , , , on August 16, 2012 by drayfish

IMAGE: EIDOS

In 2013 Lara Croft will be reborn anew, emerging from the chrysalis of the old to attempt to reclaim her place in the pantheon of gaming heroes – but you’d be forgiven for thinking that at this point that the birth pangs have been a little excessive.  Admirably, developers Crystal Dynamics have recently announced that they are going to delay the release of their new iteration of the classic game until next year, taking extra time to polish their work rather than rushing out an unfinished product for the holiday purchase period; but it is not only the development process that is proving painfully excessive in this rebirth.  Lara herself has been taking a physical pounding in the pre-release advertising, culminating in a controversial trailer for E3 in which it appeared the she was also under threat of sexual violence.

The Lara Croft of old was an impossibly fantastical creature.  Statuesque, resourceful, quippy, with a handful of PhDs in pseudo-psycho sci-history and fabulous wealth and beauty.  She was proportioned like a Greek goddess and capable of 5-foot standing flips while shooting dual pistols.  Part Angelina Jolie, part John Woo, part Indiana Jones; it was as though she had been concocted in some Weird Science-style lab, drawn from the design specs of …well, of me when I was a 12 year old boy.

And because of this she felt curiously alien, almost inhuman.  She felt no pain, did not get dirty, never ran out of bullets, could take down a freaking T-Rex without breaking a sweat (yet somehow had an extraordinarily underdeveloped special awareness that would send her plummeting to her death off a rocky edifice every thirty seconds).  Even in the realm of videogames she seemed to sit firmly outside the bounds of reality, in a fantastical narrative nether-space reserved for the likes of James Bond, Superman and Dorian Gray – attractive, impervious and eternally young.

In the previews and trailers for her upcoming return to popular culture, however, Lara, and we the audience, are being reintroduced to the frailties of humanity.  Bruised, beaten, starving, chilled and lost; this is not the traditional superhuman Lara Croft with whom we were first acquainted.  Indeed, developers Crystal Dynamics seem a little obsessed with showing us that this Lara bleeds.  And vomits.  And cries.  She’s also breakable.  And flammable.  And impale-able.  And makes for some tasty meat for the crazed, psychotic cannibals stalking her in the wilderness.  …Oh yes, she’s stalkable too.  And can be shot.  And it has been confirmed – as the E3 trailer controversially implied – that she can even be subjected to an attempted rape (a danger that the studio head Darrell Gallagher has thankfully made clear will go no further than the depicted threat).*

Indeed, the footage was starting to get to be a little gratuitous for me, reminiscent of those scenes in the Superman films where Lex Luthor would inevitably throw some kryptonite into the mix and start beating the snot out of the Ubermensch:

‘You’re not so powerful now, are you Ms Croft?’

(* boot *)

‘You thought you were immortal?’

(* knifey-stabs *)

‘Where’s your grapple-thingy now?!’

(* backs over her with a car *)

(* flicks cigarette in her face *)

(* writes unkind things on her facebook wall *)

There’s an almost borderline fetishistic quality to the pre-release material.  So much so, in fact, that you start to wonder whether this is some kind of triple-A title snuff film.  I kept expecting the sound of slow banjo music to come drifting through the trees…

Thankfully, after several minutes of torture porn and petrified fleeing Lara grabs a bow and arrow and the dynamics finally begin to change.  And hopefully this will be indicative of where the majority of the game is headed: toward an affirmation of power.  Not because of some ridiculous notion that she must be broken down in order to earn her agency in this tale; and certainly not because of some ludicrous notion (as has been suggested by producer Ron Rosenberg in an interview with Kotaku**) that by showing Lara in such physical and emotional peril we as players will feel the need to ‘protect’ her; but because she, like any other protagonist – female, male, alien, cartoonishly exaggerated plumber – has the right and capacity to be the champion of their own tale.

We should not be being manipulated into wanting to tuck Lara into our pocket and warm her fluttering heart like a bird with a broken wing.  Crystal Dynamics may want us to empathise with their re-imagined titular character – to remind us that unlike the creature of old she has frailties that make her human – but this should not necessitate gratuitously stripping her of the agency and drive that define her as a hero.

Hopefully this is merely a miscommunication in the publicity cycle that will be clarified with the release of the game.  Certainly as the current commercial goes on Lara ends no longer the trembling figure that she begins.  Sleazebag McRapeington gets both deservedly kicked in the crotch and shot, and then Lara makes a break for it.  In the flurry of scattershot imagery we see the Tomb Raider in action, even carrying her signature pistols – no longer shivering and weak, no longer cowed, but tempered, newly resilient; hopefully ready to tear that island, its assortment of mercenaries, murderers, wolves, any (as-yet-unconfirmed) lingering dinosaurs, and anyone else who might make the mistake of trying to dominate her, apart.

Just as she always should.

* http://www.tombraider.com/gb/base/brandsite?refer=19&

** http://kotaku.com/5917400/youll-want-to-protect-the-new-less-curvy-lara-croft

(Originally published at WhatCulture.com)

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