Archive for July, 2013

Go Go Technological Singularity: Gadget and the Transcendent Man

Posted in criticism, stupidity, television with tags , , , , , , , , on July 21, 2013 by drayfish

Adam Jensen closeup

IMAGE: Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Square Enix)

Last week one of my tedious rants – an exploration of Deus Ex: Human Revolution and its uncomfortably anachronistic depiction of race – was inflicted upon the kind people of Medium Difficulty.  I will therefore save the internet the burden of having me spout off at length twice.  Instead I thought I would just offer a little supplementary material that I was unable (for reasons of time) to include in the original piece.*

Because sure, Deus Ex is a striking vision of a dystopic future, mired in complex debates over the boundaries of human life in an encroaching digital age of technological augmentation and advancement… but it is by no means the only text that has tackled this thorny issue, using it to muddy the very definitions of what it means to be human.  No doubt your mind immediately leaps to Blade Runner, or The Matrix, or the Tin Woodsman from Wizard of Oz; but no, I am talking about an even more haunting vision of technological advancement run amok, a man whose never ending battle against evil is eclipsed only by his unceasing quest to once again recognise himself amongst the detritus of machinery that delineates the confines of his digitised corporeal prison.  A noir detective whose darkest mystery is himself:

Inspector Gadget.

Inspector Gadget up close

IMAGE: Inspector Gadget (DIC Entertainment)

I loved Inspector Gadget.  After all, how could you not?  How could anybody disparage a text that is so openly a precursor to every cyberpunk question of synthetic selfhood?  Was Gadget just circuitry?  Was he still man?  Where did the delineation between the two lie anymore?  Was he more program than personality?  The harbinger of the gates of simulacra and simulation being thrown wide open…?  Adam Jensen**, Ghost in the Shell, the Robo-esty of Robocops, the ‘Gadget’ preceded them all, and brought a steely resolve to a question of autonomy that daily must have gnawed at his very centre of his being. 

And speaking of his centre of being: where exactly was his brain if there was a retractable helicopter in his head?

In contrast, like Moriarty to Sherlock Holmes, or Joker to the Batman, Dr. Claw was obviously the shadow-self to Gadget’s heroism and world view.  Obviously a representation of all that irascible human angst and emotion that Gadget had left behind in his upgrade to uber status, Dr. Claw was primal.  He was id.  A mass of loathing and desire, stewing irresolvably in a swirl of seething emotional turmoil: stroking Madcat affectionately; slamming his gloved fist down in rage; laughing hysterically in sorrow…  He was so insatiably fixated on Gadget (always vowing there would be a ‘Next time!’; never able to just let it go, man), that he represents all those obsessive compulsions that drive the biological human at their most base, subconscious level.

Indeed, maybe we never saw his face because if we had it would have ultimately been Gadget’s own face staring back at us – all of the emotional undercurrent and self-reflective baggage that Gadget had thought himself to have transcended made manifest in an antisocial, antithetical ‘other’.  Gadget the machine, at war with ‘Gadget’ the psyche, in an endless struggle for identity-dominance, taking control of the ‘world’ that is his psyche.

…I’d also like to question where he got his doctorate, because I’m not sure he has the most exhaustive research methodology.

Yes, Inspector Gadget delighted and chilled my very soul – a synthetic Prometheus, tolling the inevitable transcendence of all biology in our obstinate pursuit of godhood.

Also, as I think back on it now, I probably had a crush on Penny.

Inspector Gadget helicopter head

IMAGE: Inspector Gadget (DIC Entertainment)

* This is what is called ‘a weak comic set-up’, or ‘lie’.

** I swear I found this after writing this nonsense: Critical Miss.

*** Whoa.  Did I just blow your mind?  No?  Dammit.

[An earlier, even less-coherent version of this ‘critique’ was inflicted upon the good people of AWTR]

You Say Sharknado, I say Potato: When the Real Shark-in-the-Tornado …is Man

Posted in movies, stupidity, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2013 by drayfish

Sharknado picture

IMAGE: Sharknado (The Asylum)

In a week in which Sharknado was a thing, you might well think that humanity’s artistic expression had reached its zenith.

Having climbed so high, breathed the sweet serene of such wonder, you may fear that there are no more dreams to pursue, no more untrammelled caverns of the imagination left to explore.  Sure, Shakespeare might have blathered on about morality and mortality and love and stuff, and Picasso may have deconstructed the very ways in which we perceive our world, but Beverly Hill 90210’s Ian Ziering blasted Sharks out of the sky with a gun and (spoiler alert) chainsawed his way through one (with a chainsaw!) straight into the pantheon of awesome.

And you know what?  Maybe we did fly too close to the sun on this one, people.  Because once the chocolate of sharks was mixed with the peanut butter of tornado there was no going back – no chance to un-taste the sweet mana against which everything else will pale.  No doubt all culture, all civilisation, is but a downward spiral from here.

Fear not: I’m not going to do a critical exploration of Sharknado (wow, that is a fun word to say).  After all, can you explain the majesty of a sunrise?  Quantify the myriad wonders of the ocean’s splendour – even if it has been sucked up into a swirling vortex, agitated, and methodically sprayed all over southern California’s d-list celebrities in a rain of ropey CGI and rubber puppets?

No, for me the most curious thing about Sharknado (it just rolls off the tongue) – aside from the fact that it legitimately did somehow thread that impossible needle of self-awareness and ham-fisted B-movie cheese, becoming so blisteringly bonkers that it transcended into joy – was the way in which it was so wholeheartedly embraced by social media.

For anyone with even a passing awareness of Twitter or the Book of Face, the coming of Sharknado (it’s the ‘nado’ part that I like most) was like the arrival into some pop-culture promised land.  As Sharknado (at this point I just like typing it) went to air, Twitter feeds and Facebook walls unified  in an explosion of unmitigated glee.  The AV Club awarded it an ‘A’ for its glorious schlockery; the NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour sardonically, but still enthusiastically, praised its excess, and Uproxx offered a suitably giddy recap after whipping themselves into an expectant flurry before its premiere.  All of America was suddenly sitting on the one sprawling electronic couch, sarcastically riffing at the screen.

Somebody has probably already made this equivalence somewhere else, but what struck me was the superbly ironic poetic correlation between the tornado that lifted those ravenous cartoon fish from the ocean and shook them into a frenzy, and the storm of social media that scooped everyone up from their viewing complacency, likewise stirring them into a maelstrom of applause and derision.

And so, all the redundant narrative tropes intentionally woven into the script were merrily torn to shreds: humanity’s environmental hubris and the political inaction that probably brought this horror upon ourselves (who knows? the film pays lip-service to these ideas, but nothing ever sticks); the beautiful young love-interest with the tortured past, scarred by her (don’t-cha-know-it) shark-related trauma; the parents and offspring reconnecting amidst the cacophony of jump-scares, buckets of red corn syrup, and sharks blasting out of manholes and raining from the sky; the contortions of plot necessary to manoeuvre a helicopter into a tornado so as to makeshift-bomb the sharks still swirling around in the funnel (do not look away: this is happening); Tara Reid’s  … well, just Tara Reid, I guess.

Admittedly Sharknado (I believe it’s both a noun and a verb), unlike other spectacular B-movie disasters like Tommy Wiseau’s The Room or James Nguyen’s Birdemic, was proverbial chum in the water, completely self-aware, and methodically designed to be every bit as bombastic and ridiculous as it could on an intentionally shoestring budget.  Indeed, the film knowingly, gleefully waved its hammy underbelly in everyone’s faces, inviting them to bite.

And bite they did, churned up in a whimsical bloodbath of irony and froth that celebrated the glorious spectacle of genre movie-making at its most absurd.  It was a combination of snark and Twitter.  It was Snarkwitter.

Or Snitter?  …Twark?

Whatever.

Because in contrast to turgid, pretentious drudgery like Man of Steel, Sharknado (why does it never get old?) – equally as lazy and hyperactive as filmmaking can be – reinvigorated that simple delight of sharing a gloriously bad cinematic fever dream with friends, ultimately reminding us that in the end, we the viewers are the real flying sharks.

…Or something.

BJ Novak Sharknado

IMAGE: from B.J. Novak’s Twitter feed

Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Mystery Machine with the Suspicious Odour

Posted in criticism, literature, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2013 by drayfish

Frontispiece (Hound of the Baskervilles)

IMAGE: The Hound of the Baskervilles frontispiece, illustration by Sidney Paget

I have taken quite a liking to the Sherlock Holmes stories lately.*  There is something paternally soothing about them – an assurance that no matter how bewildering the circumstances of a mystery may be, at the end of ten pages Doyle’s legendary character will deliver you back to the rational world with a condescending smirk and a lecture about how plainly obvious the whole matter was to anyone who cared to look.

It’s a trick, of course, a lie – as all detective fiction must be in order to function.  Sure the clues are there, but the aperture through which the reader must view the story is so narrow that one can only ever glimpse a sliver of the overarching tale.  The great fun of the Holmes character, ultimately, is that he goes out of his way to spoil such illusions.  In his final exegesis of each crime he metaphorically strides onto the magician’s stage, drags back the curtain and snaps on the house lights, revealing every trapdoor and wire to the stupefied crowd.  It’s ‘elementary’ because he was never taken in by the ruse.

Of course, Holmes is not himself adverse to pulling such tricks upon his audience.  He will often make an impossible observation, state the seemingly unknowable – ‘You have just come back from France’; ‘I see you are thinking of investing in the stock market’; ‘Your fly is open’ (…maybe that one’s not so miraculous) – and the characters surrounding Holmes will gasp in astonishment.  In the very first case they work together (A Study in Scarlet), Holmes at first refuses to describe his entire deductive process, momentarily withholding his suspicions about the murder in question and thereby propelling the plot.  As he explains to Watson:

‘You know a conjurer gets no credit once he has explained his trick and if I show you too much of my method of working, you will come to the conclusion that I am a very ordinary individual after all.’

However, this is precisely what Holmes goes on to do – repeatedly – for the remainder of his time with Watson, solving seemingly impossible conundrums, but always taking time to explain his methods, insisting that anyone else could do the same, if they too simply bothered to look.  As he states himself in ‘The Adventure of the Dancing Men’, describing the trick he uses to strike wonder into his audience:

 ‘[I]t is not really difficult to construct a series of inferences, each dependent upon its predecessor and each simple enough in itself.  If, after doing so, one simply knocks out all the central inferences and present’s one’s audience with the starting point and the conclusion, one may produce a startling, though possibly a meretricious effect.’

And it is only when Holmes then goes on to lay out the intuitive leaps and logical reasoning that lead up to his pronouncements that we readers applaud.  Indeed, it is precisely this inclination toward explaining his gimmicks that makes Holmes such a wonderfully fun character, rather than a condescending prat.

It should come as no surprise then that with such a devotion to the rules of an ordered and logical universe, Holmes’ most frequent bugbear (quite in contrast to his creator Doyle) was the willingness of those around him to entertain metaphysical explanations for the world’s mysteries.  Holmes believed that the world could be – must be – quantifiable, and so there is a recurring theme throughout the his tales of confronting and exploding superstition and mysticism.  In one famous example, ‘The Sussex Vampire’, Holmes immediately banishes the fantastical from consideration, refusing to indulge the panicked imagination of others and instantly dismissing the notion that a supernatural being could be dwelling in suburbia (in this instance a mother is suspected of having vampiric tendencies):

‘But are we to give serious attention to such things?  This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain.  The world is big enough for us.  No ghosts need apply.’

Over the course of the story, Holmes therefore dissects this false hypothesis, unmasking the ‘vampire’ by revealing the mystery to be a product of altogether too human emotions: petty jealousies, paranoia, and blinding affection.

Similarly, in The Hound of the Baskervilles (a great read I that cannot recommend highly enough), Watson is sent off into the gloomiest landscape imaginable to be stalked by a creature of gothic horror: the titular hound and its deathly curse.  It is only when Holmes turns up two thirds of the way through the story that he can drag the whole proceeding back toward the light of coherency.  All the mythical, mystical wonders that blight this landscape are dragged from out of the shadows, again to be cast down at the audience’s feet, the products of mere shadow puppets and paranoia.

In this sense, Holmes is the ultimate Victorian-Era Scooby-Doo, unmasking the irrational and mystical in order to expose the creepy-old-janitor-under-the-werewolf-mask of the coherent, objective world.  …Or, if anthropomorphised, mystery-solving cartoon dogs aren’t your speed: these narratives effectively operate as Socratic dialogues, exposing the metaphysical to be but a misapprehension of the plainly apparent.**

The great irony of this endeavour, however, is that it is precisely in his attempt to rid the world of mystery and mysticism that Holmes himself becomes all the more fantastical.  To return to Holmes’ own conjuring analogy, in his denouncement of the metaphysical he becomes the magician who takes you through the process of the illusion: he puts on a show so that you can be stupefied, then explains the trick so you can share in the conspiratorial glee, finally being wowed again by thinking back on how the ordinary was made to seem impossible.  Holmes makes the rational world, by virtue of its tediously unremarkable logic (not in spite of it), seem astonishing.

On a larger scale, what makes Doyle such a fantastic author is that he performs exactly the same function in his narratives: almost going out of his way to notify his audience of the trickery he is using to hoodwink them.  Doyle dazzles his reader with his audacity, and it is for this reason that he can get away with one of the most audacious acts in literary history: bringing his most beloved hero back from the dead.***

Scooby Doo

IMAGE: Scooby-Doo, Where are You? (Hanna-Barbera)

* I’ve also blathered about him further here.

** Just swap the mystery van’s endless, cross-country drive for a Socrates’ nomadic wanderings, and Scooby snacks for hemlock.  …Wait, no, that’s horrible.

*** Sorry, I should have said: SPOILER ALERT.  Scooby-Doo is a dog.

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