Archive for the television Category

VALE: John Clarke

Posted in criticism, literature, movies, stupidity, television, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on April 19, 2017 by drayfish

This past week Australia lost one of its legends.  If you are not from Australia you may not know the name John Clarke, and if you don’t, I am sorry.  I am sorry that you never got to experience his brilliant work.  He was the country’s greatest satirist, delivering a virtuosic four decades of comic commentary on most every aspect of modern life (we might be lousy with Hollywood-ready actors, but quality satirists are fairly thin on the ground here; someone needs to place Shaun Micallef in some kind of cryogenic stasis for protection).  Clarke was also, I’m fairly certain, a genius, and by all accounts, an incredibly generous, warm, and kind human being.  There is little I can say to add to the richly deserved praise that has been offered to eulogise Clarke since his shock passing, but I have grown up admiring him, and thought I should say something anyway, for whatever little it is worth…

John Clarke umbrella

Words fail.

That’s a sentiment that people express when someone of great importance dies.  There seems to be no way to express, verbally, the loss.  Language is too small, too imprecise.  Ironically, it is precisely the right sentiment to embrace when hearing the tragic news of the loss of Australia and New Zealand’s greatest satirist, John Clarke.  Because Clarke’s greatest strength was his way of weekly exhibiting the way that words fail.

Clarke is perhaps best known, now, for his weekly satirical take on the news, but he was, in the true sense of the word, a polymath.  Over the course of his prolific career he wrote sketches, screenplays, stage plays, poems and novels; he was an actor; a director; a producer; a documentarian.  He worked in film, television, theatre, and radio; and he is warmly remembered by the innumerable comedians and creators with whom he collaborated, or inspired, or personally mentored and supported behind the scenes.  (Please be stunned by the breadth of his output here: http://mrjohnclarke.com/)  But throughout it all, uniting his disparate creative endeavours, was an abiding fascination with the fluidity of language – its use, and more frequent misuse – and the absurdities that resulted from this rift between truth and expression.

Born in New Zealand, he became famous in the 1970s for creating and performing the character Fred Dagg, a New Zealand farmer and social commentator with several sons named Trevor (the favourite son was Trevor).  Dagg was a sketch comedy character with a dry, unassuming delivery, but he allowed Clarke to indulge some deliriously nonsensical linguistic play.  In the voice of Dagg he could present a shambolic 21st birthday speech that was speckled with unintended insults, that intimated debaucherous anecdotes which cannot be told, cannot be told, that escalated into a recursion of well-meaning banalities (‘You’ll all here agree with me, more or less 100 percent, in going along with me, in joining with myself, in going along with Trev’s mother and I…’), and has poor old Mrs Ballis getting caught in the wool press.  Elsewhere he could recount how that story of Hamlet was just a rip off of a bit of trouble that happened up his way a few years ago to Herb Davison’s son, Trev.

When Clarke moved to Australia he was soon a principle writer and performer on The Gillies Report, a topical sketch program that employed the talents of its titular actor, Max Gilles, to impersonate sitting politicians.  A few years later, Clarke would continue this political satire in the form of brief sardonic dialogues that appeared weekly, in one form or another, for the majority of the next thirty years.  He and collaborator Brian Dawe would stage a mock interview that often involved Clarke playing the role of a real-world government official or public figure, someone embroiled in one of the week’s more pressing stories who was being asked to clarify their policy position, or explain the ‘official’ version of events.

John Clarke Clarke and Dawe

IMAGE: Clarke & Dawe

Unlike the parodic style that was the signature of The Gilles Report, in his Clarke & Dawe interviews Clarke did not try to offer a traditional impression of the people he portrayed – he was never made up to look like the person he was playing, hidden beneath stupid wigs and make-up – because it was never technically that specific public figure that was the target of his incisive wit (he did, however, have an acute ear for incorporating their turns of phrase into his dialogue).  Instead, what unfolded was a masterful account of the way in which the language of politics and media make a mockery of the pursuit of truth.  (The ABC have assembled a fairly good selection of their sketches – they miss a few great ones, but there is a nice cross-section of their work).

Just as he had no interest in affecting an impersonation of any one figure, he was similarly nonpartisan in his mockery over the years, skewering all sides of the political spectrum – because his real target was linguistic hypocrisy.  He explored the way that the logic of politicians could happily fold in on itself, how empty platitudes and a desperation to sanitise uncomfortable policy realities created a kind of pseudo speech, divorced from reason and clouded in self-delusion.  As one of his dialogues explains, an ‘Australian usage of the English language’ actually means the exploitation of language for political expediency:

Bryan (interviewer): What is it called when you say something you know to be false?

John (playing the role of Lars Torders): A policy.

Ironically, the result of Clarke’s linguistic play frequently presented some of the most incisive descriptions of the world’s most pressing issues.  From the ghoulish dehumanising of Australia’s asylum seeker policies, to his unsettlingly prescient critique of the modern media, either as an oversimplifying, reactionary ouroboros of Twitter clickbait (a point articulated in the immediate aftermath of the US election), or the distracted narrators of petty squabbles at the expense of legitimate analysis (such as in ‘It’s the Planet, Stupid’, a title with a crucial comma)  In the United States The Wall Street Journal once even cited a Clarke & Dawe video as the best summation of the European financial crisis.

Arguably Clarke’s most celebrated single work, The Games (1998-2000),  was a Logie and Australian Film Institute Award winning sitcom set behind the scenes of the preparations for the 2000 Sydney Olympic games.  (It was even popular enough to be allegedly ripped off by the BBC’s Twenty Twelve.)  The series, which ran for two seasons, was created and written by Clarke, in collaboration with Ross Stevenson.  It was the fictional account of a handful of bureaucrats, led by Clarke, Dawe, and Gina Riley, who were heading the organising committee of the games.  The series, brought to life with Clarke’s signature absurdist loops of dialogue, exposed the impossible position that such a committee was placed within.

John Clarke The Games
IMAGE: The Games

It was the ideal setting for his satire: an enterprise with superficially lofty ideals, mired in contradiction, spin, and compromise.  Because as Clarke revealed, beneath the grand symbolism of the Olympics as an athletic competition about human excellence, the truth was a nebulous confluence of differing agendas, one regimented by obsessive rules and protocols, propped up by advertisers dictating special treatment to push their wares, pestered by the needs of governments all over the world who were looking to bathe in the reflected glory while inoculating themselves from controversy, harassed by journalists incessantly sniffing around for stories of failure, and perpetually mere moments from disaster.

Consequentially, it was a series that allowed Clarke to explore his many avenues of satiric interest, wherever he cared to roam.  It simultaneously covered finance, government, marketing, media, myth making, and office politics (the mandated team-building episode in which John’s role-playing animal is an aphid is hysterical).  It catalogued the manipulation of budgets, the weathering of daily governmental point-scoring, and the placation of sporting bodies and sponsors.  It was able to ponder whether anyone really wants a ‘clean’ Olympic games, confront the dismaying inability of the then-sitting Australian Prime Minister’s unwillingness to apologise to the country’s Aboriginal people, and philosophise over whether a 100 metre running track really needs to be 100 metres.

Even with its tie to the minutia of the Sydney Olympic games, for anyone outside of Australia curious about Clarke’s comedy it remains perhaps the most accessible of his work.  It should be stated that it is also a series that does not get enough credit for its experimental style, which not only blurred the divide between fiction and reality – frequently employing real public figures and celebrities in its narrative – but also pioneered the now ubiquitous ‘mockumentary’ sitcom style of having a film crew act as the observers shaping the story.

Clarke’s contributions to cinema were diverse.  He was a scene-stealing presence in films such as Death in Brunswick (1990), playing a laconic gravedigger, and Never Say Die (1998), playing an uncharacteristically honest car salesman.  He was the voice of Wal in Footrot Flats: A Dog’s Tail (1986).  He wrote film adaptations for Shane Maloney’s modern suburban comic crime noirs Stiff (which he also directed) and The Brush Off, both of which were screened as television movies in 2004.

Despite being best remembered for his work in television and film, it is perhaps in his literary output that the extent of his genius is best glimpsed.  His book The Tournament (2002) (which I will admit to not yet finishing) transplants the Modernist movement into one long tennis tournament, refashioning the twentieth century’s greatest thinkers and artists into players, coaches, and commentators, playing out their intellectual disputes in a unifying sport metaphor.

He also wrote a collection of poetry, The Complete Book of Australian Verse (1989) (followed by an expanded reprinting, The Even More Complete Book of Australian Verse (1994)), which claimed to be a collection of all of the original Australian poets who had been ripped off by the English and American poets of the past.  Not only did Clarke expertly mimic the style and structure of the writers he was referencing – repurposing them into figures like Dylan Thompson, Sylvia Blath, W.H. Auding and Stewie Smith – he simultaneously parodied the themes of the original while speaking to quintessentially Australian experiences.

To use but one example: Kahil Gibran, author of the mystic philosophical prose/poem The Prophet becomes Kahlihliji Bran, whose ‘prophet’ is being sought out for horse-racing tips at a local bar, waxing lyrical in absurd contradictions (‘Paradox is that which is not paradoxical / Only the living know death.  Only the dead are living’) as he tries to weasel himself a free drink and escape before being called out for his nonsense.

For John Clarke, language was malleable and fragile.  Powerful, capable of descriptive elegance, but too frequently made to fail; too often twisted into dissembling vapidity.  And over the course of his career he exposed it all.  In the chicanery of political spin, in the cold dehumanising calculus of euphemism, in the nonsensical bellyflops of the media – like few others John Clarke could see through the facade of rhetoric, past the bluster and the fraud, to the cowardice and bewilderment and grasping beneath.  He dissected language surgically, and reassembled it as a ridiculous pantomime of itself, allowing even those of us blind to its tricks to be in on the joke.

And for several decades, on multiple platforms, across myriad subjects, John Clarke gifted his wit and insight and craft to the world, his skills only ever sharpening with time.

There is no satisfactory way to summarise a career and a life such as John Clarke’s.

Because words fail.

Even if he never did.

John Clarke

THE YEAR OF ‘SPEARE 05: ‘I DID Come Here To Make Friends’; As You Like It and ‘Reality’

Posted in criticism, literature, television with tags , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2016 by drayfish

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IMAGE: As You Like It directed by Kenneth Branagh (Shakespeare Film Company, 2006)

Set your expectations to ‘shocked’.  Prepare to be astounded.  Because I am about to utter (no doubt for the very first time on the internet) the most original, brave, singular thought ever articulated:

I hate reality television.

I know, right?  I’m so raw.  So real.  I just tell it like it is, y’all.  Truth bomb.  Finger snap.

Man, I should get my own show.

I guess I should clarify.  I don’t mean to slag off the whole genre …or, since I guess it’s too big to be called a genre, the ‘form’?  The ‘structure’?  The ‘plague’?  Lots of people love it – for innumerable reasons – and as a device it can take myriad shapes.  Honey Boo Boo can hardly be placed in the same discussion as Making a Murderer; and the soapy freak show of the Real Housewives franchise is worlds away from whatever the hell Naked and Afraid is attempting to be (although when are we going to see Real Housewives: Sesame Street? ‘Elmo so mad Elmo almost run her down in Elmo’s Ferrari…’).

What bothers me is the overt artifice with which these shows are fuelled.  The attempts to ape reality that are patently constructed.  The artificial people having artificial conversations – be they the Bratz dolls of The Hills or the Deliverance cosplayers of Duck Dynasty.  The concocting of zany, pre-arranged schemes.  The leaning in to stilted, predetermined confrontations.  The meet-ups in restaurants, or the drop-ins at someone’s start-up business to share wooden dialogue riddled with one-liners and rote exposition.  ‘Surprise’ telephone calls where both sides of the conversation are somehow filmed.  The spouting of rehearsed ‘spontaneous’ observations and manufactured realisations.  All those constant, ceaseless reminders that everything depicted is a fabricated mise en scene; that even before the highly selective editing process has begun, a narrative is already being orchestrated that renders any sense of authenticity moot.

Indeed, this whole pretence has reached such a saturation point that it’s now no longer a secret these shows have writers.  They might be called ‘showrunners’, and sure, they don’t type out dialogue to be repeated verbatim, but they do run story treatments, come up with loose plotlines, concoct scenarios, give shape and order to the action – and yes, offer one or two snappy lines of banter.

And this fakery doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.  Many people (my wife, for one) happily watch a platter of reality programming comfortably aware that it has, at the very least, been massaged by its editing, or wholesale invented for the cameras.  Personally, I find it tedious because it turns the viewing experience into a meta-game.  Rather than watching the show, you’re watching through the thin, shiny veil that covers the behind the scenes production meetings that designed the show.  Any sense of ‘reality’ disassembles into a meat-puppet theatre, one so commonly understood that there are now scripted television shows like UnREAL based around this premise.

A year or two back, I was compelled (it felt like at gunpoint, but I do have a tendency toward the hyperbolic) to watch what was then a new reality program titled It’s All Relative.  The show was centred around the family life of Leah Remini, onetime star of King of Queens and Scientology escapee.*  And I have to confess, by the standard set in a post-Kardashian universe, it was comparatively inoffensive.  Indeed, almost quaint.

Let me be clear: I still hated it.  I still squirmed and sighed and begged for freedom – but that’s a personal taste issue.  I’m sure for many others it was charming.

But what struck me at the time as one of the show’s virtues was its subjects’ unfamiliarity with the language of reality television.  To their credit, the family being scrutinised – Remini’s immediate family and mother – were uncommonly awkward with the fabrication of the filming process.  They were so conscious of the oddity of a film crew in their house that they would actually talk directly to the producers and sound techs as though they were new neighbours who had stopped by for a chat, commenting down the camera lens not only about what was being filmed, but the decision to film it.  In a world where Kardashians keep multiplying through social media photosynthesis, it was comforting to still see people try to grapple with the invasion of a guy with a boom mike having his elbow in their fridge.

TLC

IMAGE: It’s All Relative (TLC)

In one scene, when a mock funeral for Remini’s mother had soured into a peculiarly melancholy affair (despite the zany music cues punctuating the soundtrack) Remini actually turned to camera, wiping tears from her eyes to ask, ‘Is this what you want, TLC?  Is this what you want to see?’  She was joking.  Ish.  There was a laugh tangled in the crying, and the absurdity of the whole situation was never lost, but by referencing the artifice of the scenario, she punctured the constraints and manipulation under which the program operated.  Clearly her mother didn’t just decide spontaneously to force her family to hold a living memorial for her; they didn’t all set a date and put on catering and get dressed in funeral clothes and all write eulogies on a whim.  It was crafted.  A display initiated for – and with – the film crew capturing it.  Perhaps this humanising awkwardness went away with time, but I appreciated the meagre glimpse of authenticity it offered behind the facade.

The real issue I have with these programs arises however when their calculated artifice bleeds into reality.  When asking an audience to playact dishonesty into ‘truth’ means we suddenly have to pretend that the Taylor Swift / Kanye West ‘feud’ is anything other than a cynical, mutually beneficial publicity stunt to be exploited for maximum exposure.  Or, after several seasons of The Apprentice, people get duped into believing the pernicious, fatuous fraud that Donald Trump was ever a ‘successful, self-made businessman’, instead of a thin-skinned, paranoid, self-mythologising, narcissistic, pathological liar who once inherited an empire from his father and spent the next few decades flushing it away on an unbroken spiral of hysterically asinine failed business ventures and multiple bankruptcies (at least six).  That a man with such a reverse-Midas touch that he spectacularly tanked everything he came in contact with, from an airline, to a travel agency, to a scam university, to a mortgage company (at the time of the country’s subprime mortgage crisis, no less), steaks, magazines, bottled water, vodkas and vitamins – a man who lost billions of dollars running his own casinos – that he was a successful business entrepreneur.

That guy.

If we have to swallow a lie that big, reality television should be a lot more fucking entertaining than it is.

In any case, all of this is just a protracted preamble to me saying that I was surprised, upon returning to As You Like It, at how many of the tropes of reality television Shakespeare employed, four centuries before it was even a genre

…Or a form

…Or a whatever the hell.

Because As You Like It is stuffed full of reality show fodder.  It has backstabbing, and betrayal, and reconciliations.  Its central conceit – aristocrats thrown into the wild – is pure Survivor.  The whole thing ends on a ‘surprise’ wedding ceremony, where shocking secrets are revealed in public.  Most every character is playing some sort of role to deceive, hide, or outwit their fellow outcasts, and above and uniting all of this, there is a general embrace of performative hamming it up and communal playacting.

In one delightfully convoluted moment, Rosalind – a woman masquerading as a man – is trying to disentangle herself from a pair of would-be lovers, Phebe and Silvius.  Silvius loves Phebe, despite her treating him like garbage, and Phebe has fallen for the disguised Rosalind, who likewise treats her with contempt.  And to a reality show cynic like myself, Rosalind’s  summary of their circumstance, ‘He’s fallen in love with your foulness, and she’ll fall in love with my anger’ (III.5.68), could serve as the tag line for every season of The Bachelor and its ilk.

(You can look also to Much Ado About Nothing for more evidence of how much Shakespeare loves a good reality show plot.  There’s its twisted fake funeral, the family squabbling, the vicious slut-shaming rumours, the zany schemes, and the will-they-won’t-they bickering couple whose romance everyone seems perversely invested in…)

Ultimately, As You Like It is soaked in the kind of pretence that drives me insane about reality television.  But here, that willing embrace of falsehood becomes profoundly transformative, because ironically, it actually succeeds in rendering something true.

The plot (such as it is) may not sound like a playful comic romp.  There are multiple familial betrayals and murderous plots; homes are ripped apart; loyalties sundered; choking declarations of unbridled hatred are made; most every sympathetic character is ejected into the wilderness to die – but the result is a celebration of farce and wilful play.

Primarily, the narrative concerns a gaggle of aristocrats who are banished from their homes into a nearby wood.  Some embrace their imposed liberty, unfettered from the concerns of the civil world; others, by necessity, affect disguises to protect themselves from harm.  But rather than descending into despair and savagery, playing out an Elizabethan Lord of the Flies, the characters meet this new, dangerous wilderness in the forests of Arden by giving license to their imagination.  They literally start playing around.  Enacting silly wooing games and writing poetry and dressing up to pretend.  It can all seem, at first glance, a bit unhinged, but Shakespeare keeps the tortured, tragic thread that motivated this excursion throughout, just to remind the audience that we’ve not simply wandered off into some giddy fantastical dream.

There is the heroine, Rosalind, who, while wearing the disguise of a country boy, meets up with Orlando, a man for whom she had romantic feelings back in the city and who now appears to have similar feelings for her.  While remaining in disguise, she convinces Orlando to let her ‘cure’ him of his love for Rosalind, by pretending to be her, and acting like a crazy woman.  So Rosalind finds herself playing a man, playing a woman, playing crazy.

And not a television production crew in sight.

Given this theme of contrasting civilisation and wilderness, it is perhaps no surprise to say that As You Like It is concerned on every level with the question of nature versus nurture.  What is it that defines us as people?  Are we born bad – the fact one brother is a villain and the other a sweet tempered benefactor, merely a quirk of biology? – or do we rather learn our dispositions, becoming shaped by our experience?  Do we merely affect an appearance of goodness to mask our intrinsic immorality?

For a while, in order to tease these questions out, the play seems to have it most every way.  Two of the play’s brothers, Orlando and Oliver, appear to be diametric opposites, and yet both are the products of the same loving family, so Oliver’s cruelty, spite, and willingness to have his brother murdered, seems inborn; similarly, the two competing Dukes, the rightful Duke Senior and his usurping brother Frederick, who banished him with threat of death, were presumably raised together.  But before the play lets us settle on this idea of an innate evil, both villains, Frederick and Oliver, prove themselves to be redeemable.  Both, having left civilisation, are able to cultivate an inner peace that leads them to renounce their former behaviour and seek to genuinely better themselves in future.  And either way, whether this is some elemental better human nature, or the promise of a newly acquired philosophy, the play opens up to the eternal, hopeful potentiality for change.

 rosalind_-_robert_walker_macbeth

IMAGE: Rosalind by Robert Walker Macbeth (1888)

Despite this occasional, necessary cloud, it remains an exquisitely bright, celebratory play.  Those filled with spite and jealous rage are able to be healed by the unburdened welcome of the wilderness.  Brothers are able to forgive, to reconnect, to wish each other peace and goodwill.  Lovers can embrace foolery to find within it deeper truth.  Rosalind and Orlando get to shake out their playactings of love in disguise before they undertake the real thing, and the shepherd Silvius and his love Phebe (one hopes) get some perspective on their unhealthy emotional co-dependency, and actually agree to love someone who is capable of loving them back.

Shakespeare isn’t just detaching his characters from the recognisable world to make some lazy Garden of Eden reference (although that is overtly mixed into the imagery).  This is not about sneering at the fall of man and idolising the ‘freedom’ granted by naïveté.  After all, even though the two converted villains of the play vow to live more rustic, pure lives, most of the other characters gladly reclaim their lives in society.  Instead, I think Shakespeare wants is to remember just how stifling adulthood, social pressure, the acquisition of wealth and esteem can be.  It’s a daily fight for survival, as Orlando’s was at the beginning of the play, too swiftly propagated on competition and scheming, trying to outwit and outplay opponents you can see, and more tragically, those that you come to imagine.  Even those you should consider family or friend.

By ejecting these characters into the wild, those societal shackles are abandoned.  Life is no longer a competition, but an invitation to take solace in others, to support and encourage and give.  Shakespeare writes the ultimate reverse-Survivor fan fiction.  The gong is being rung for the eviction ceremony (is that how the show works?), but no one wants to partake.

And so, freed from the need to be grown-ups about everything, the characters embrace their youthful sides. Write mooney love poems; dress up and pretend; play-act getting married; chase each other around; fall asleep in the sunlight; sing songs.  There is giddiness and gambolling, and fun (even in spite of there being lions roaming the land eating people, apparently.)  All the crap, all the politicking and scheming and backstabbing, all those social institutions everyone believed were so integral back in the invisible prison of civilisation, are dissolved.  Instead, they carry that which is crucial and unquantifiable with them: love, fellowship, and kindness.

It’s a hokeyness that Shakespeare himself acknowledges he is indulging.  For much of the play’s run time it conducts a tongue-in-cheek interrogation of both its own structure (calling out its conventional failings) and its poetry (the hyperbole and disingenuousness verse relies upon for effect).**  Orlando – despite loving Rosalind intensely, writes objectively bad poetry, scattering his meagre verse throughout the forest to the derision of all.  Touchstone, wooing Audrey, says that all poetry is a fraud, ‘for the truest poetry is the most feigning’ (III.3.17-18).

Meanwhile, the plot seems to get forgotten in the salve of all this pretending.  The real peril that the characters are in meanders away; major shifts in the narrative occur unseen, off-stage.  When an as-yet unmentioned third brother of Oliver and Orlando rushes in at the end to exposition-dump that the danger of the usurping Duke Frederick has passed, it seems to be as unexpected an return to the narrative for the characters as it is for the audience.

And in Rosalind’s fourth-wall dismantling epilogue (which declares itself subversive for being delivered by a woman – or since women weren’t allowed to perform on stage in Shakespeare’s time, technically a man pretending to be a woman  pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man…) – she cannot even be bothered to defend Shakespeare’s shapelessness narrative.  Rosalind teasingly denigrates the play’s writing, saying she cannot ‘insinuate you in the behalf of a good play’ (V.4.202-3); instead, she uses her charm, with which the play is overflowing, to invite the audience to take from the production what they will – as they like it.  They too are under no obligations.

Because this is not a play about story.  Just like in reality television, the premise is merely the thinnest frame upon which to hang the real drama; the game less significant than the games the players played on one another.  Fraud – and particularly poetic fraud – is here shown to lead to truth and growth, even in spite of itself.  Here, unlike in the carnivorous scheming of reality television, giving license to falsehood brings out the best in us.  Placed into artificial worlds we divorce ourselves from our engrained misbehaviours.  Counter-intuitively, by pretending to be what we aren’t, we can reconnect with what we should be.

Rosalind fakes being a boy to lead the man she loves through his delusions of adoration to the clarity of self-awareness.  Duke Senior, by playing at being a wild man, gets in touch with an unsullied vision of humanity where he can ‘feel not the penalty of Adam’ (II.1.5).  Even the melancholic Jaques gets to be tickled by the verbal play of a fool, stepping, if only momentarily, out of his self-imposed funk.

Fittingly, it is therefore when the play indulges its most artificial moment that it presents its most elegant portrait of humanity.  In the midst of what is in truth a bit of tedious stage business – literally Shakespeare needs to kill a few minutes so that Orlando can run off to retrieve his starving manservant Adam – the play stalls to have Jaques rhapsodise poetically about the lifespan of the average human being.  Jaques, an insatiable depressive (a weathered The Cure t-shirt away from being the prototypical emo), has spent his time moping around the forest, in his words, sucking melancholy from melody and railing against the world, and here, to fill time, Shakespeare grants him one of the most genuinely moving descriptions of the inevitability of death, decay and mortal frailty, the seven stages of man:

                                  All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His Acts being seven ages.  At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
Then, the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school; and then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow; then, a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth; and then, the justice,
In fair round belly, with good capon lined,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances,
And so he plays his part; the sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound; last Scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness, and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. (II.7.140-67)

Seven ages of man; our inevitable, unavoidable, solemn march toward the grave’s oblivion, sans eyes, sans ears, sans everything.  It will come, he says.  But that’s for another day, the play suggests.  And knowing what awaits need not deaden the beauty of youth and it virtue, but rather make it sweeter.  If we are to be creatures always ensnared by larger constructs like society and temporality, then at least we can be aware of them, and free ourselves from their burden.  Even if only in our minds.

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IMAGE: As You Like It directed by Kenneth Branagh (Shakespeare Film Company, 2006)

On its surface, director Kenneth Branagh’s sumptuous version of As You Like It (2006) appears to bear little relationship to this falsified ‘reality’ television show conceit that I’ve been blathering on about.  The production is set in a stylised pre-twentieth century Japan, with a group of English aristocrats.  But this notion of play-acting a superficial facade is nonetheless central to the themes being explored, becoming uncomfortably problematic as the film proceeds.

In many ways it is a lovely production: lavish visuals; a score that is evocative and sublime; acting that is solid to exceptional across the ensemble.  There’s a little less Rosalind (as played by Bryce Dallas Howard) than I would like as good portions of her dialogue appear to be excised, but national treasure Brian Blessed gets to portray both Dukes as twins, running the gamut of Senior’s benign saintliness to Frederick’s volcanic, paranoid psychosis, and Romola Garai, as Celia, is delightful, as always.  The brothers Orlando and Oliver (David Oyelowo and Adrian Lester respectively) are both fantastic – Lester in particular gives emotional depth and complexity to Oliver, a character that is often little more than a moustache twirler until his last minute conversion. And hearing Kevin Kline as Jacques deliver the seven ages of man speech never gets old.

And Shakespeare can work wonderfully in Japan.  Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) is a reimagining of Macbeth, taking a Jacobean English play about an 11th century Scottish King and translating it seamlessly – marvellously – into feudal Japan, elevating all the perversions of honour and madness of the original text.  But here there doesn’t seem to be a deeper thematic reason for transplanting the action of the story to a British trading outpost in Japan outside of aesthetic quirkiness.

A title card informs the audience that these are colonial traders who have set up a ‘treaty port’ during the nebulous late 19th century period of British-Japanese political relations.  Taken just at face value, Branagh appears to have simply replicated the original play’s romantic rejection of society and its embrace of the rejuvenating lustre of the natural world in the forests of Japan rather than a mythic British wilderness (although ironically he still films it in England).  And that’s nice in theory – the stuffy Brits are going to learn about real life by being exposed to another culture – but that doesn’t really manifest in the play.  In its place, a lot of complex, thorny issues of cultural appropriation are evoked that threaten to become outright controversial.

To begin with, all the of the principle characters are played by western actors – including many of those in the supposedly Japanese peasantry that have multiple lines.  Even Charles the wrester (here a sumo wrestler, natch) has a western manager who speaks for him.  Secondly, although Branagh attempts to utilise the trappings of Japanese culture to allow his western characters to access a truth within themselves (an impulse coming from a complimentary, if misguided, place) in practice, aside from a pretty estate, some fine clothes, a zen garden, and a token, unspeaking monk, there is little indication that Japan has impacted these characters much at all.  His principle characters remain western imperialist intruders into a culture that they are in the process of coopting as their own.

If I sound like I’m really down on the film – I’m not.  It’s still lovely.  It’s just a shame, because it feels like there is something of more substance to say in the work that is never fully articulated.  That in this enchanting Shakespearean fantasy cultures can be respected and genuinely shared beyond the limitations of genealogy.  In practice though, at best the Japanese aesthetic is a pretty but ultimately pointless coat of paint, at worst it risks playing as more of a celebration of imperialist assimilation and the coopting of a culture.

But it is beautiful, and well acted, and by the time Orlando has been attacked by some stock footage of a tiger, I am already in the thrall of Rosalind’s layers of playful fraud.  Because here too, reality is joyfully bent to a happier end – you just have to be willing to ignore the bad, socially disheartening stuff for a moment, and indulge your imagination…

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IMAGE: As You Like It directed by Kenneth Branagh (Shakespeare Film Company, 2006)

* * *

* It’s All Relative appears to have run for two seasons before ending in 2015.

** He even uses verse sparingly, with the majority of the interactions between the two lovers, Rosalind and Orlando, rendered in prose.

* * *

Texts Mentioned:

Book: As You Like It by William Shakespeare (ed. by H.J. Oliver, Penguin, 2005)

Production: As You Like It, directed and screenplay by Kenneth Branagh (Shakespeare Film Company, 2006)

Throne of Blood, directed by Akira Kurosawa, screenplay by Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, and Hideo Oguni (Toho Studios, 1957)

Things Strange: The Nostalgic Dungeon Master of Stranger Things

Posted in criticism, movies, television, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2016 by drayfish

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IMAGE: Stranger Things (Netflix)

SPOILERS: Dear Human Beings of The World,

Before you read this, watch ‘Stranger Things’. Watch it immediately.

Do not let anyone (like me) spoil anything about the story. Do not let anyone (like me) say cute lines from it that you will then be waiting to hear uttered by some character in some scene or other. Don’t read supplementary articles (like this very one) talking up its themes or hidden references or whatever. Avoid the AV Club. Don’t even ask anyone if it’s good (it is).

Just watch.

Go in fresh and unspoiled and have an experience.

I’ll see you on the other side.

*     *     *

The zeitgeist is funny.  It can speed along so swiftly.  What one moment was a cult delight, shared like a conspiratorial whisper, the next becomes a full blown sensation, awash with critical recommendations and twitter trending and unchecked, enthusiastic praise.  But then, as predictable as it is petulant, comes the counterattack.  And this has become particularly virulent in the age of the internet.  Once one of these kinds of entertainment convergences appears it gathers speed so fast that it seems but a moment before a saturation point is reached, and people suddenly feel compelled to deride what was once considered great.  They clamour to tear it apart in nit-picking autopsies that attempt to explain away the initial magic that others (not them, certainly) felt, and drag its makers low for their hubris, as if the whole experience was just a con job on us poor, rube viewers.

It’s strange.  It’s a strange thing.

It’s Stranger Things.

Because in the mere two months since it was released into the wild with almost no fanfare (July 15th), Stranger Things has already lived out this absurd pop culture mayfly life cycle.  From surprise critical darling, to over-rated hack job.  And, what this lightning-in-a-bottle series shows – arguably more acutely than any other – is that these kinds of analytical roller coasters can reveal more about audiences than they ever do about the text under scruitiny.  Because Stranger Things didn’t start strong and fade away like LOST.  It didn’t get snarled up in its out increasingly dim-witted mythology like X-Files.  The entire thing was released and disseminated in one day.  It went from bewilderment, to behemoth, to backlash, without changing a single frame.  It was the voices in the audience surrounding it that changed.

For my part, I loved it.

And for once – for perhaps the first time in living history – I was in on the ground floor.  I happened to be in the United States when Stranger Things was released (fittingly, I was actually in Indiana), and happily got to enjoy an unbiased experience of the show.  Before the memes and spoilers and think pieces started rolling out.  Before people began quoting things in their facebook feeds, ‘Where’s Barb?’ became a catch-cry, and fan theories mapped out the shared universe theory with Parks and Recreation.

It popped up on the Netflix feed as a peculiar looking genre throwback.  Some forgotten film from the eighties I might have watched at a drive-in theatre that had been randomly exhumed from the streaming library’s algorithm.  I read the description, only half taking it in, and pressed play.  Five minutes later I knew I was going to follow that show wherever it led.

It was sumptuous and lean and wry.  It’s characters layered and fully fleshed.  It was psychologically horrifying, poised and menacing without resorting to empty jump scares or gratuitous gore.  And it deftly collided at least three separate genres into one, juggling its point of view so as to never sacrifice one for the sake of the others.

On one level it was a boy’s own adventure romp, part ET part Famous Five, in which the investigation of their friend’s disappearance leads a handful of friends to meet a young girl with impossible powers.  It was a tale about being on the precipice of young adulthood; riding bikes through the neighbourhood; growing out of the innocence of childhood; tasting the burgeoning freedom of a relative autonomy, only to discover that adults can dangerous liars with malicious agendas.  On the level of the teenager characters, it was a monster flick.  Part Nightmare on Elm Street, part IT, it was about confronting the terrors of adolescence, like peer pressure, marginalisation, sexual shaming, and being treated like a figurative (and literal) piece of meat.  For the adults, it was a conspiracy tale about fighting against the inexorability of loss and despair; where children die, and relationships erode, and you have to struggle to retain your sense of self against the dispassionate forces of mortality and corporate conspiracy.

And for eight episodes these three plotlines hummed along until colliding in a communal effort to reclaim the young boy who had been sacrificed to the conventions of genre in the season’s opener, setting all of these narratives in motion.

I thought it was splendid.  Drawing upon a rich history of familiar influences, but presenting something audacious and unique.

Little did I realise that I was wrong.  And the show was bad.  And that my nostalgia had been exploited.  Thankfully I had critics like Film Crit Hulk, who are sick and tired of the adulation that this show has received over the past few weeks, to set me straight.

Because didn’t you know it was riddled with nonsensical creative decisions?  Like, didn’t you realise it was silly of the show to linger on the moment where the towns people think they have discovered the missing boy’s body and grieve his death?  Well, it was.  Film Crit Hulk made sure to point out that the show was dumb for doing that because, as viewers, we already suspect that he might not actually have died.  …Even though what was actually being depicting was the characters feeling this despair, rather than some gauche effort to spoon feed a viewer response through the screen.  Also, at this point in the narrative, in truth, we really don’t know what is going on with the boy – he might well be a dead, disembodied spirit.  But never mind all that.  Because didn’t you also know that a young woman seeing something mysterious, then crawling into it instead of scurrying away in fright is totally unrealistic?  …Even though her progression from meek, objectified beauty, to fearless pursuer of truth is central to her character arc.  Because never mind that either.  And surely it doesn’t make sense for a young boy risk endangering himself because his friend’s life is being threatened.  …Even though his character has been repeatedly established to have an overly-empathetic nature, even to his own detriment.  Nope.  Never mind that too.  Despite all of these things arguably making sense, be assured that none of them make sense.  Because reasons.  Because shows have to behave in the predetermined ways that Film Crit Hulk has decided.

So bad show is bad.

(And yes, that’s Film Crit Hulk.  The same guy who furiously defended the lazy, racist nihilism of the Mass Effect ending because he had head-cannoned over its garbled script with a pseudo-philosophy about the cyclical nature of existence.  Who disliked The Dark Knight Rises because he was convinced a distraught Christopher Nolan, still mourning the death of Heath Ledger, had been dragged against his will through the writing and filming process.  Suddenly now an audience projecting anything into its experience of a text – nostalgia; an awareness of hackneyed narrative conventions – is a sign of the text’s weakness, and the audience’s poor, sad foolishness for buying into all this malarkey.)

The show trades in nostalgia, he complains.  It asks you to accept the characters’ logic about alternate dimensions and psychic links without always holding your hand through the justification of such leaps.  It invites you to run with some plot points and ignore others.  On occasion it leans into spectacle as narrative shorthand.  And somehow all of this is outrageous – as if it has never happened in cinema before.  …Except for all of the countless times it happens in the many films and books to which the series lovingly pays homage.

And that, to me, is exactly the point of Stranger Things, and why such criticism rings so hollow.

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IMAGE: Stranger Things (Netflix)

Despite what I’m saying, I don’t mean to attack Film Crit Hulk specifically.  His is by no means the only negative review.  His scathing reaction against the validity of the show in particular just strikes me as representative of the critical double standards to which the series is now being subjected.  Because while Film Crit Hulk has many skills as a critic (at this point I would strenuously argue that the all-caps affectation is decidedly not one of them), his strength has never seemingly been in separating out his personal bias from the interpretation of a text.  Nor, I should add, should it be.

Criticism is an act of intimate engagement with a work of art, an interplay between audience and text.  Just like every viewer sitting down to watch a summer blockbuster, or curling up on the couch with a favourite Austen novel, or firing up a beloved videogame in which the controller already hums with anticipation, one’s own predilections and preoccupations are an unavoidable factor in the experience.  It is that very intimacy that many creators can utilise in their craft.  It’s certainly such a familiarity that the Duffer Brothers – creators, writers and directors of Stranger Things – employ to simultaneously welcome and unsettle their audience.

Because despite what its detractors claim, the eighties aesthetic and storytelling Stranger Things repurposes do not merely operate as window dressing.  It doesn’t use its period setting as a crutch to avoid dealing with the cell phones and internet coverage, nor as a cloying wistful wallpaper to cover holes in its plot.  It’s an earnest throwback to an earlier time, both stylistically and narratively, and this period specificity proves to be key to its purpose.  It’s a bower bird, meticulously fashioning a nest from the scraps of the past, operating as a near perfect union of theme and text.

To begin with, there’s a lovely superficially irony in the way that Stranger Things – a show that you can view alone on a streaming service that enables you to avoid speaking to anyone outside of your house – evokes the bygone experience of going to a video store and scrounging through the aisles for some under-loved cinematic curio.  It calls to mind that communal experience of personally sharing physical media, of pressing a VHS copy of Ridley Scott’s Alien or John Carpenter’s The Thing (taped off television and labelled with black marker), into your friends hand and making them promise, just promise, to watch it.  Just so someone you know can go on that journey with you.

More significantly, however, there is the way in which the series actively subverts expectation by playfully reconstituting the familiar.  Because oddly, what many of the critics of the show miss (or perhaps haughtily dismiss) is the most abiding narrative analogy that Stranger Things repeatedly invokes in its storytelling.  The entire show communicates itself through the lens of a game of Dungeons & Dragons.  The first scene of the series presents four boys sitting around a card table playing a session of the game; the final scenes of the concluding episode returns to those same boys, now reunited, completing their campaign.  In between, the parallel universe into which people are being sucked is spoken of in the language of the D&D shadow realm; the monster vomited up from the darkness is named after a creature from their fantasy journey, the Demogorgon; Will’s actions (‘He cast protection’), and the remaining boy’s friendships, are all rationalised though the rules of teamwork that govern the game; and the creators of the show even poke fun at their own unresolved story beats in the final scenes when the boys all chastise Dungeon Master Mike for leaving strands of his plot unexplained (‘What about the lost knight?’ / ‘And the proud princess?’ / ‘And those weird flowers in the cave?’) despite having ten hours to wrap up his campaign (two hours longer than the show itself).

Dungeons & Dragons is about taking familiar conventions and characters and situations – treasures, wizards, monsters, mysteries, magic powers, quests, etc. – and fluctuating them in unique ways, creating new situations in which to inhabit, and by doing so, exposing aspects of those disparate elements that you never perceived before, or that were never previously present.  By inviting the audience into a remade fiction, riffing on the familiar, the whole campaign becomes something new.  Done well, it creates an experience, in the process of upending these conventions, more than the sum of its parts.

And that it precisely what Stranger Things, by touching the conventions of the old but remaking them new, presents.  The series itself operates as a Dungeons & Dragons game.  The hysterical, possibly unhinged single mother of conventional genre narratives, here becomes an unflappable badass; the lazy county sheriff is revealed to be a dogged investigator willing to embrace surreality; the hackneyed douchebag boyfriend trope rebels against his cowardly, dickish nature; the iconic outcast boys on their Goonies bent are now hunted by killers, see necks snapped and brains crushed in front of their eyes, and learn that every moment of their lives, perpetually and for the rest of their days, exists on the precipice of a world of pitiless darkness that can swallow them whole in an instant.  So, fun!

And in perhaps the best rebellion of type, the attractive young bookworm brushes up against her sexual awakening, but isn’t punished and killed for it; rather she goes all monster-hunter, and tells her parents, the cops, her boyfriend, and even the cute-but-sullen outcast to whom she is warming to all go screw off when they try to demean her or dictate her life.  And even in her final scene, when narrative convention would suggest that she should have hooked up with the weirdo with the heart of gold, she zigs again to remain with the conventionally ‘bad’ boyfriend Steve, who has traded the Kevin Back in Footloose ensemble for a goofy Christmas sweater.

All these things – these rote, familiar things – are appropriated and made strange.  And in so doing the show crafts something wholly individual out of the chrysalis of the past, turning the comfort of nostalgia against itself.  In a way, the ‘upside down’ is the wellspring of genre that the Duffer Brothers have touched, and from which this show, misshapen inexplicable creature that it is, emerges.  Stranger Things subsequently defies convention and allows characters traditionally marginalised in popular culture to assert themselves beyond the stereotypes of ‘crazy single mother’ and ‘un-virginal slasher film bait’.  It reveals the past to be a dangerous place, shows youth to be more dangerous and psychologically devastating than it appears in Spielberg’s nostalgic Amblin glow.  It doesn’t mean that you cannot enjoy the show if you have not been steeped in texts it evokes, but it does mean that if you have, it can potentially speak on multiple levels at once.

But above and beyond all that, on every level, the series is about letting your freak flag fly.  About not apologising for what you love, as hokey or rough at the edges as it might be.  It is a show that encourages you to identify with the self-possessed teen who no longer hesitates from asserting herself – in either the world or the narrative.  With the mother who loves her kid enough to not give a good goddamn if the rest of the town thinks she’s nuts.  The detective who doesn’t back down when he decides to give a crap.  The lonely weirdo, more afraid and more powerful than people know, who just wants to find a place in the world.  With the outcast boys young enough in spirit to still believe in the magic of collaborative imagination.

Consequentially, the fact that there are critics who look at Stranger Things and declare its period setting meaningless surprises me; but the thought that anyone could point at its invocation of overplayed tropes and not see the way in which they were being necessarily subverted, rewriting these tired conventions, astounds.  But that’s just the thing: not everything is meant for everyone.  That’s the beauty and the penalty of subjectivity.  Critics like Film Crit Hulk clearly do not see what I see in the show.  And that’s fine.  Dungeons & Dragons is not a game the whole world can experience at one.  Each round is uniquely tailored by its Dungeon Master to a specific audience.  And as the audience, you have to know the rules and be prepared to test them.

Most of all, however, you have to be willing to play.

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IMAGE: Stranger Things (Netflix)

The Oscars: Playing Their Own Wind-Up Music

Posted in criticism, movies, stupidity, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2015 by drayfish

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IMAGE: The Oscars Broadcast (ABC)

Do you like white guys?

If you said ‘Yes, please!’ then – as the uproar across social media over this past month will attest – the upcoming Academy Awards are for you!

Since this year’s Oscars category nominations were announced few weeks back, much has been made of the seemingly whitewashed sausage party that Hollywood is planning to throw for itself this year, with no nominations for any women or any non-Caucasians in the Best Directing category, and a largely white, Y-chromosomey roster elsewhere else across the board. All 20 nominees in four acting categories are white. And who knows? Daniel Day Lewis is such a remarkable method actor, we still may get a plot-twist revelation when the winner for Best Female Actor steps up to the stage…

But for all of the rightful rage about this gallingly myopic exclusion, I am a little surprised that anyone can still bother being shocked.

Please don’t misinterpret my glib tone: I in no way disagree with the complaints. That the director of Selma, Ava DuVernay, should go ignored while Clint Eastwood is seemingly grandfathered into the shortlist on the back of probably his most toothless (and morally ugly) cinematic offering is indefensible. It’s just that to me it seems like less of a snub and more of the Oscars – having made the most token of efforts to shake out of their proverbial slumber by giving Lupita Nyong’o and Kathryn Bigelow awards in the past couple of years – once again slapping the snooze button and happily rolling back to sleep.

Because despite how pivotal it clearly is to address the injustice of repeatedly failing to acknowledge female and non-white artists, it’s not as if this wilful blindness is unique. The Oscars routinely ignore merit, celebrate the pedestrian, and trip over themselves scrambling to play catch-up with audiences that repeatedly show themselves to have more discerning taste. You only have to look at some of the other snubs in this year’s offerings.

To pick one (I think quite telling) example: The Lego Movie was the most playful, impossibly, wildly creative celebration of imagination and narrative in the last twelve months of cinema. It defied all expectation and was charming, audacious and fearless in its storytelling. So the fact that it wasn’t even nominated in the Best Animated Feature category says more than enough…

(And yes, despite expressing surprise that anyone would trouble themselves to complain about the Oscars, clearly I am about to go off on the three-hundred and fifty-seven thousandth* anti-Oscar rant published online in the past month… It’s called being wildly inconsistent and hypocritical – something I apparently share with the institution I am about to ineffectually slag off.)

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IMAGE: The Lego Movie (Warner Bros.)

Because it’s easy to get dazzled by the Oscars.

I mean – what prestige! What class! What impeccable discerning taste!

…No, seriously.

What of those things?

It’s not like they ever really had that stuff, and lost it along the way to become their current glittering, gladhanding grotesquery of gauche. Even the most cursory look back at the films the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have celebrated offers a fairly unflattering portrait for a ceremony that purports to celebrate excellence.

Remember when Citizen Kane won for best picture?

You shouldn’t. Because it didn’t. Neither did It’s A Wonderful Life, or High Noon, or A Streetcar Named Desire, or Roman Holiday, or Shane, or To Kill A Mockingbird, or Vertigo, or Apocalypse Now, or Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Do The Right Thing, or King Kong (the original!), or Pulp Fiction, or Metropolis. Indeed, most of history’s finest films – those that have transcended their age to delight audiences and profoundly inform generations of moviemakers since – have routinely been overlooked.

And yes, I acknowledge before I even get started that this is all highly unfair – peering back, with the benefit of decades of hindsight, to sneer at a clutch of ultimately meaningless awards.** But it does illustrate how poorly the Academy’s taste seems to date. For all of their posturing, the Oscars seem to have little impact on the shelf-life or reputation of a film. In retrospect they often seem to make those that they venerate look all the more farcical…

When was the last time you (or anyone) watched the mawkish Crash, winner of the 2005 Best Picture? Or that interminably pretentious The English Patient film that won in 1996? (Elaine Benes was right all along, people!) Go back and watch it now and you can see Kevin Costner already exercising all of his worst self-aggrandising, overblown filmmaking urges in 1990’s winner, Dances With Wolves (here’s the elevator pitch for every Costner vanity project: ‘Please save us, uncharismatic white man!’***) Meanwhile, 2001’s A Beautiful Mind , despite some solid acting and direction, plays more like a Lifetime original M. Night Shamalan joint.

And I’m nutty for Shakespeare, so a playful riff on the early years of the bard, penned by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern playwright Tom Stoppard and stuffed full of every living actor and neck ruffle in the British Isles is about as up my alley as it is possible to get, but even I don’t think Shakespeare In Love should have beaten The Truman Show, Rushmore, Out of Sight, or The Big Lebowski (none of which were even nominated) in 1998.

At best, you might call some of these winning films ‘products of their time’ (American Beauty; Chicago), but frequently they are just the most ‘Oscar-baity’ work on the roster that year – spectacle and emotional histrionics dressed up as profundity. It’s cheesy, mythologising pap and period pieces awash with tales of adversity like Forest Gump and Titanic, or bloated mythologising bombast like Braveheart – a rote tale of tragi-heroism so perfectly engineered that it even won a second time when someone slapped on a new coat of CGI paint and resubmitted it under the revised title: Gladiator.

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IMAGE: Heroic Protagonist #1, Gladiator (Universal Pictures)

And just in case you think that comparison between Gladiator and Braveheart is undeserved, let me just quote an IMDB plot summary and see if you can guess which film I am talking about:

A supercilious Australian actor in an unconvincing accent, beloved by the perpetually unwashed extras that populate his historical foreign land, is compelled to stand up against a cartoonish, moustache-twirling villain after his wife suffers the most cruel fate of all: murder by plot convenience.

This embittered warrior reluctantly leads an impossible revolution to bring down a corrupt oligarchy; inspires the masses in an improbable revolt; is beloved by the anachronistically hot and arbitrarily sympathetic matriarch of the land (who can do nothing to save him); and ultimately sacrifices himself to become a glaringly asinine Christ-metaphor that conveniently ignores all the putting-swords-through-people’s-faces business that preceded it for two-and-a-half ass-numbing hours.

Did you guess?

That’s right: it was both of them. (Partial credit if you guessed Ben-Hur, an earlier draft of both films that I believe also did quite well at the Oscars in 1959.) If there was a TV Tropes for ‘Hackneyed Historical Epics’ (and there probably is, I haven’t checked) these two films would handily win the ‘Most Expensive Cut and Paste’ award for screenwriting.

Film "Gladiator" In United States In May 2000-

IMAGE: Unique Archytpe #2, Braveheart (20th Century Fox)

Meanwhile, the Academy routinely fails to acknowledge the people who bring the most innovative and influential works to life. Stanley Kubrick never won an Oscar. Alfred Hitchcock. Buster Keaton. Robert Altman. Charlie Chapman. Orson Welles. Howard Hawks. None of these figures could (if they ever wanted to) tout themself as an ‘Academy Award Winning Director’. (Even Martin Scorsese finally only won one for The Departed, a perfectly serviceable, idiosyncratic Scorcese work, but hardly, I would argue, his best.) And that is just for directing. Similar examples (far too numerous to get into here) abound in the acting and writing categories.

Mostly the Academy finds itself scrambling for retroactive relevancy, dispensing Lifetime Achievement Awards to filmmakers whose work they have otherwise ignored. It’s here that the names like Hitchcock and Altman and Chaplin finally appear, invited to ascend to the stage to receive an accolade that, by that point in their career, should be retitled the ‘Yeah, No Duh Award’.

And yet despite all the evidence to the contrary, the Oscars – seemingly by sheer force of will on behalf of the Academy that stages them – somehow continue to be treated as though they inherently possess some relevance or prestige; that they in fact represent the definitive voice of the industry.

But the second that you dig into the specifics of the peculiar voting processes around which this whole ceremony revolves, things become very murky indeed. Because the Oscars are not judged by audiences, or critics, or even a cross-section of peers. In truth, the whole nomination and voting process is carried out by a small, highly secretive club of only around 6000 members.

For more detail on this whole weird secret-best-friends-group-hug of a society, Sean Hutchinson at Mental_Floss has provided a fine overview of their mysterious admissions process, but the short version is this: any hopeful wanting to get in has a brief window, once a year, in which they need to be sponsored by two already-sitting members. This person must also have ‘demonstrated exceptional achievement in the field of theatrical motion pictures’ – at least to whatever standard the Academy’s Board of Governors deems appropriate (and it’s not as if those members yearly oversee a gaudy ceremony that directs floodlights of scorn onto their questionable judgement).

And the results speak for themselves!

Because while you might be under the impression that the Oscar voters are all just a cluster of old white men, according to an LA Times report only 94% of them are white, and only 77% are male. Also, their median age is a spritely 62.

…Which, okay, looks bad.

But don’t worry about it. That report was published waaaaaaay back in 2012. They’re probably posting some radically different numbers now. Especially since the memberships are for life.

To anyone still unconvinced, anyone worried that such an insulated process might result in people who aren’t the most illustrious of filmmaking doyens having their say, I say to you:

Steve Guttenberg is a member.

That’s right. The man responsible for this nuanced New Zealand accent is judging others on their acting prowess.****

As is Lorenzo Lamas. Because his parents nominated him. So take that, anyone who dares suspect nepotism in the selection process!

But if you’re still thinking that such a system risks being a little too elitist, and potentially discriminatory, it should be noted that anyone can, of course, also become a member of the Academy if they were nominated for an award in the past year. …So lucky for Selma director Ava DuVernay. She won’t have to expend that mental energy wondering whether she’ll be getting an invite.

In any case, even then, after all those hurdles for membership are cleared and you are deemed as important to the film industry as Meatloaf (yep, he’s a member too), the actual process through which films get nominated are still fairly suspect.

Those who cast their votes don’t have to have seen all (or any) of the films they select. It really is just up to whatever they want to pick, whether they have thoroughly scrutinised the year’s features or not. This is something complicated further by the fact that it therefore often falls to the companies releasing these films to get the screeners into people’s hands – to spruik their product. In fact, in the case of Selma, some have stated that this might be part of the problem: according to David Carr in The New York Times, Paramount was throwing all their weight behind Interstellar before its mixed critical reaction sent them into the fallback Selma position.

So after all this – a clandestine, unrepresentative governing body; suspect members; no oversight on who is nominating what, and why – it’s hard to see why anyone puts so much stock into such an anachronistic spectacle as the Academy Awards.

Even with the Gute on board.

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IMAGE: Selma (Paramount)

That is not to dismiss every Oscar win, of course. For what it’s worth, although their process is suspect, their taste questionable, and their authority laughable, many would argue that they do get it ‘right’ sometimes, occasionally picking a winner that stands even the most perfunctory test of time. Usually it’s when the performance or film is undeniable – the first two Godfather films, Casablanca and Unforgiven spring to mind; and Meryl Street isn’t doing nothing out there – but as their terrible average and labyrinthine selection processes show, they clearly have biases, quirks, and are addicted to some pretty cheesy melodrama that does not age particularly well.

So ultimately, rather than see this is as some targeted conspiracy against any specific demographic, I look as this year’s Oscar nominations as just another example of the tunnel vision that has always made them ridiculous. This recent outcry against their exclusionism is not solely about sexism or racism, but a reaction against their whole outdated culture.

Perhaps, now that the film industry is thankfully starting to diversify (at least relative to the status quo that has maintained for generations) audiences are now able to see the stark divide that has always existed between quality, transformative cinema, and those films that the Academy chooses to glorify in its empty, inward-looking pageantry.

Maybe that’s why The Lego Movie was subject to such an egregious snub; perhaps the message of that film cut a little too close to home…

A film about a boring old uninspired white guy, making vapid, cookie-cutter products, who refuses to share his toys with the wildly creative next generation?

Yeah. It’s not hard to see why that one might sting a little.

Lego Movie Emmet

IMAGE: Non-White Guy Emmet, from The Lego Movie (Warner Bros.)

* We have to take a number like at a deli.

** Also, who cares if I’m being unfair? This is my nitpicky rant, on my tedious, unloved blog, so the gross rhetorical injustice will stand!

*** Although, it’s almost worth sitting though the turgid idiocy of The Postman just for the hysterically self-important scene at the end when a kid holds a letter out for Costner – in the most needlessly melodramatic way possible – to collect. He will post that letter. Because he is a postman. Who posts things. In the post.

**** This is a long shot, but ‘Hi!’ to any Get This listeners out there. I hope this managed to ‘full the yurning void…’

‘Hashtag! We’re It’: 2014, A Retrospective (Part 2)

Posted in criticism, literature, television, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 19, 2015 by drayfish

Hashtag 2014 with Cat by Me

2014: The Good (Or Marginally Better) Stuff

In my last post I skimmed the surface of why 2014 was such an enormous downer …to put it mildly. For a few thousand interminable words I blathered on about several of the year’s most unsettling cultural and pop cultural controversies – from Gamergate, to Bill Cosby, to the trend of police shootings of unarmed black men – and briefly explored the way in which these stories were directly forwarded by, impacted with, or responded to in social media.

It was despairing stuff. And I hadn’t even gotten to Ebola, Syria, or made any snotty remarks about Taylor Swift or Flappy Bird yet (no doubt I’ll get to them momentarily).

But now it’s time to dig up and out of the hole. Because thankfully, this need for fellowship and community – a longing symbolised by our use of the hashtag – emerged in other, far more life-affirming ways, as people felt the impulse to join together and help one another out.

Kermit Ice Bucket Challenge

IMAGE: Kermit The Frog’s Ice Bucket Challenge

There was the Ice Bucket Challenge to raise money for research into the motor-neuron degenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Essentially a good-natured update on the email chain letter, it involved people filming themselves dumping a bucket of ice water over their head, and then calling out others to do the same, raising awareness for the disease, prompting others to get involved, and inviting donations. It was hard not to get caught up in the excitement as friends, celebrities, and world leaders were called out, eventually reaching the kind of pop-cultural ubiquity that results in parodies, fail videos, Presidential shout-outs, and lazy Simpsons references.

Reading Rainbow, a television show designed around sharing books with children and promoting literacy (and that contained an oddly gloating theme song about flying ‘twice as high’ as a butterfly – why not let the butterflies have that one thing?) was brought back from the dead after its cancelation in 2006. The show wasn’t re-launched on television, but was instead funded by a social media-propelled Kickstarter campaign to be turned into an app that will allow children to stream books and content directly. The Kickstarter met the one million dollar goal it had set for itself in less than a day (I believe eleven hours, actually), and had soon easily raised five million, with the additional funding going to providing free access to the service for underprivileged schools. The grateful joy with which Reading Rainbow host LeVar Burton thanked the contributors was wonderfully heartening.*

Reading Rainbow Kickstarter

IMAGE: Reading Rainbow Kickstarter

That impulse to share ourselves also surfaced in less purely altruistic contexts, including the way in which we consumed our entertainments. Sure, the days of friends and family sitting around on the couch shouting at the same copy of Mariocart and wrestling for next go on the controller might be largely behind us, but the popularity of Twitch streaming and the re-emergence of appointment television like Game of Thrones meant that, rather than killing off the communal experience of pop culture, in 2014 the lounge room instead just infinitely expanded.**

It was a trend that can perhaps be seen most obviously in the popularity of last year’s surprise schlock-watch Sharknado, a SyFy original film that became a magnet for gleeful, snarky commentary over social media when it aired. This year’s Sharknado 2: The Second One doubled down on the cheesy idiocy of its premise, throwing every B and C-grade celebrity cameo at it they could manage, moving the unconvincing green screens of the whole production to New York City, and building to a climax in which a man (named Fin; I never get tired of that) surfs a shark through the funnel of a tornado while wielding a chainsaw. The resulting Twitter-nado may not have felt as organic and delirious as the first time around, but it was still proof that ironic-viewership had gone global.

Sharknado 2

IMAGE: Sharknado 2: The Second One (Syfy)

Indeed, this kind of social media word-of-mouth is inarguably the reason that some soulless, spiky-haired studio executive, having just flicked through a Venn diagram of internet memes and a budget projection for integrated advertising, green lit production on this year’s most cynical contribution to humanity’s seasonal depressive state: Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever. As you can probably imagine, the result – a Reddit image that had ballooned into a tedious viral phenomena and been repackaged into a cheap, gratuitous ‘hate-watch’ spectacle – would have been equally as subtle had the Lifetime Channel just shown a two hour commercial block with the phrase ‘Viewers like you make us sick’ superimposed across the screen.

Even the tradition of after-show ‘water cooler’ critique and speculation accompanying any series that has captured the attention of the zeitgeist has now expanded into its own genre, rife with programs and podcasts that discuss programs sometimes only minutes after they’ve finished airing. Chris Hardwick (who appears to have spent this past year using his Nerdist network to stage some form of world-domination coup) now hosts Talking Dead to mull over AMC’s The Walking Dead; Kumail Nanjiani (likewise everywhere this past year) has dipped into cult television of the past with The X-Files Files (only one of the now countless new Star Wars/Buffy/Twin Peaks/Doctor Who podcasts out there currently propagating like a virulent strain of flu).

Thankfully, shows that invited this kind of devoted analysis were suddenly everywhere. There were the usual examples like Mad Men (heading into its final episodes) and House of Cards (still sneaking up on everyone with full season dumps on Netflix), but some freshmen shows like Fargo (which, as a semi-adaptation of a film, took everyone by surprise by being captivatingly bold, idiosyncratic, and thematically resonant) and True Detective (which ended all handwringing over the long-redundant ‘divide’ in quality between television and film), came out of the gates fully formed, demanding their audience’s communal attention right from their opening minutes.

true detective

IMAGE: True Detective (HBO)

True Detective in particular kept people riveted for weeks, locking them in the kind of grand pop cultural conversation arguably not seen since the early days of LOST (before everyone realised that show was just yanking their extremely long, irresolvably convoluted chain***). Audiences wildly speculated on the identity of the killer, plunged into deep-dive critiques of the show’s signature gothic splendour, and playfully mocked Mathew McConaughey’s ‘flat circle’ monologue until the dialogue,

‘Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again…’

became more a metatextual commentary on our own impulse toward de-contextualised memes than it did the hunt for the monster in the existential labyrinth of the human soul.

Or whatever.

But for me, the best moments in television this year came in the conclusions of two beloved and irreplaceable programs, both of which took their last bow by acknowledging the intimacy and strength of community.

The Legend of Korra was a four-season television epic (a sequel to the sublime Avatar: The Last Airbender) so wondrous that Nickelodeon consistently seemed baffled to know what to do with it. For two seasons they barely advertised the series, for a third they hurried it to air with no advertising at all, burning through half the episodes in a marathon and then yanking the rest to screen ‘online’ in a bold new strategy of anti-marketing. For the fourth season they threw up their hands entirely and decided to just let the internet have at it, leaving room, no doubt, for more decade-old repeat screenings of Spongebob Squarepants.

Korra-next-to-statue

IMAGE: The Legend of Korra (Nickelodeon)

Thankfully the show’s audience were not as incapable of investing in grand, serialised narrative as Nickelodeon believed them to be, and the show was lovingly followed to its conclusion by a grateful fan base who got to see one of the finest evolutions of a character and universe ever rendered in ‘childrens’ programming. Over the course of its run, Korra tackled themes of bigotry, propaganda, anarchy, totalitarianism, terrorism, social upheaval, genocide, and post traumatic stress, all punctuated with dynamic action, sumptuous visuals, and a robust roster of richly drawn characters, any of whom (perhaps with the exception of Mako) could easily have headlined their own show.

I mean, Asami was a female Batman.

A FEMALE BATMAN, PEOPLE!!!

And with its final season revolving around an expansive metaphorical exploration of World War 2, with fascism and the rising threat of atomic weaponry at its core, the show built to an exceptional crescendo that, rather than simply ending with the easy resolve of a villain slain or an army destroyed, instead chose to conclude with a perfect encapsulation of the shows principle mission statement: that compassion and sympathy are our greatest tools for peace.

Not a smack down drag out (although it did deliver some sublime action also), but the willingness to extend oneself with kindness, forgiveness, and understanding – to build a community that is strengthened by diversity, and in doing so, consequentially, to cultivate peace within oneself.

cr_11032_05.jpg

IMAGE: The Colbert Report (Comedy Central)

In a very different alternate reality, The Colbert Report bid farewell in December in order for its star, real-world Stephen Colbert, to move to CBS in 2015 and take over the retiring David Letterman’s The Late Show. But once again – ironically for a show that gravitationally bound to the ego of its fake conservative pundit ‘Stephen Colbert’ – the show instead chose to celebrate community.

Alongside the show’s searing satiric wit, much of its genius can be traced to the real-world Stephen Colbert’s unique and expansive skill set. Colbert is an exceptional improvisational comedian, coming up through Second City and honing his craft for years on The Daily Show, and it has been that skill at sustaining, adapting and evolving a joke, that seemed to inform the show. The ‘Yes/And’ of long form comic narrative allowed it to go wandering to truly surreal lengths: the Sean Penn Metaphor-Off; the Late Night Ice Cream Battle with Jimmy Fallon; Cooking With Feminists; the Shred-Off with the Decemberists; his decade long argument with his mirror-self, his only ‘Formidable Opponent’; the Daft Punk debacle; and his eternal wars with Jimmy Fallon, the liberal bias of reality, and bears.

Not surprisingly then, the finale proved to be an equally epic comedic wandering toward resolution. After faking out the audience for months with allusions to the character’s inevitable demise – ‘Grimmy’ the Grim Reaper was seen lurking around the set, pointing ominously to a dwindling clock, (and one assumes swiping office supplies) – the show made the inspired decision of subverting this expectation and having Colbert – by accidentally killing Grimmy himself – ascend to a state of omnipotent godhood, allowing one of the greatest long-form satiric characters of all time to finally take his place amongst the pantheon of American folklore, ushered into eternity with Santa Claus, Unicorn Abraham Lincoln, and …Alex Trebek?

Okay.

colbert goodbye

IMAGE: The Colbert Report (Comedy Central)

But while riding into the nethersphere of iconography, Colbert’s final act, letting the mask partially slide away, was to send a heartfelt thanks to the ‘Colbert Nation’, the fans and community that were an integral part of the success of his show.

Because as this final episode, taking its last bow, elegantly acknowledged: without the Colbert Nation there would have been no Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, he would never have appeared, in character, before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, delivered his blisteringly subversive speech at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner, ran for president, or in the saga of the SuperPac (what I personally thought was his greatest achievement), had his audience raise a fund he was able to exploit for practically any insidious, disingenuous or libellous act he could imagine, unequivocally revealing just how corrupt and lawless the entire system of campaign funding and advertising still remain in politics.

The character of Stephen Colbert (‘The T is silent, bitch’) was an egomaniacal blowhard trying to remake the country into his own conservative fantasy, but that character needed – nay, required – a legion of chanting, ecstatic fans, in on the joke and feeding him with ironic adoration that masked a genuine affection.

And as Colbert stated in his climb to the stars, it sure as hell was fun.

Speaking of fun (and hell), videogames too often found themselves structurally and thematically about trying to foster communities (if one can momentarily scrape aside the festering garbage of GamerGate). Even though the majority of my personal videogame highlights of the year were solitary, it is hard to deny that the games of 2014 were marked by a move toward enticing co-operative play, with multiplayer elements intruding upon traditionally solo experiences.

…Even when they probably shouldn’t.

Assassins Creed Unity

IMAGE: Assassin’s Creed: Unity (Ubisoft)

Assassin’s Creed: Unity, the latest in a series fundamentally concerned with being a solo assassin, working aloneone, single, solitary, lone clandestine agent, by himself, against the world, individually (have I built this up enough yet?) – decided that the next logical step in the series’ evolution was to swallow its own multiplayer component and turn the game into a four player drop-in hack and slash fest.

Because teamwork.

Admittedly, despite the game’s subtitle, the single-player option is still there (beneath all the reminders of co-op and companion apps and in-game purchases), but the game’s publishers, Ubisoft, seemed so keen for the world to try their new multiplayer feature that they rushed the game out the door before bothering to nail down a stable frame rate, put faces on some of their character models, fix whatever it is that makes you arbitrarily fall through the streets of Paris into a gaping white abyss, iron out the innumerable visual and audio pop-in delays, or check for game-crashing main menu bugs.

They also decided that every reviewer of the game should be legally prevented from reporting on those myriad problems until a day after the game had been released when it would already have been purchased by eager fans.

…Because teamwork?

But hey, cynics: that’s not because it was an unfinished, glitchy mess, victim to Ubisoft’s now unsustainable yearly-release franchise model! It’s because it’s more ‘cinematic’ that way.

…And no girls allowed.

destiny

IMAGE: Destiny (Bungie)

Bungie, the creators of Destiny, were likewise so sure that multiplayer experiences were the wave of the future that they seemed willing to gut their single player game before release, portion off content and locations for future DLC, and wholesale remove character options and plotlines, bargaining that the lure of frenetic team-based multiplayer experiences would make up for the remaining hollow shell of loot grinds and Peter Dinklage’s mono-droning that now substituted for a story. (And now no one even knows where that wizard came from!)

Then there was Titanfall. Remember Titanfall? The slick, frenetic multiplayer-only mash of parkour and Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robots from Respawn Entertainment, the team that built and were then screwed over by the Call of Duty franchise. Titanfall may not have been the revolution that many fans had hoped for, and like Destiny, the narrative might feel like little more than an afterthought – an insect buzz in your ear while you are concentrating on not getting shot in the face – but it has certainly already impacted multiplayer shooters, with Call of Duty already peeking over their shoulder for ‘inspiration’. Somewhere that A.I. dog from Ghosts is wiping a tear from its eye with one paw as COD ‘borrows’ Titanfall’s mech-suits, verticality, and futuristic aesthetic, and slaps a grinning Kevin Spacey on the front of the box so that no one has to pretend to be surprised when the character goes full super villain at the most arbitrary moment in the plot.

Elsewhere, Nintendo – whose Wii U console (to put it kindly) has struggled in the past couple of years with low sales almost no third-party support – managed to regain some ground in the marketplace by banking on new iterations of two of their most popular multiplayer franchises, Super Smash Brothers and Mario Kart 8 – again proving that tight, competitive and mischievous gameplay can still captivate. Indie darlings like fencing multiplayer Nidhogg became impossibly addictive. And Blizzard’s unassuming but insanely addictive competitive electronic card game Hearthstone (currently conquering everything from PCs to iPads), redefined and legitimised freemium games.

…Also there was Flappy Bird.

flappy_bird-2

IMAGE: A Bird That Flaps (.GEARS Studios)

I –

I have no idea what the hell Flappy Bird was all about.

…Self-flagellation in a year of self-loathing?

But whatever it was, it too was marked by an element of pop cultural social bonding. People shared this weird little curio with its nostalgic (read: ‘ripped off from Mario Bros.’) aesthetic, frantically competing against each other to better one another’s maddeningly miniscule scores. It was argued over and defended. Trippy little time-waster? Ad revenue peddling trash? Game? Carnival skill tester? Quaint? Evil? It was an unavoidable discussion point in the endlessly evolving debate over the legitimacy and breadth of videogames. And eventually – as is the mark of anything that has contributed for good or ill to the sum total of that conversation – it was soon cloned into an oblivion of re-skinned sludge in the app store.

But the greatest examples of videogaming’s inclination toward the sharing of experiences came not at the whim of a publisher shoehorning in a co-op function, but through social media venues like Twitch and YouTube. Online personalities like PewDiePie have become sensations by inviting people to watch them play videogames (like that cousin who would ‘let’ you watch over his shoulder while he played his third run-through of Street Fighter 2); people share footage of their best speed-runs; first plays can scratch that itch to fire snide commentary at poorly-made games without having to pay for, or suffer through them, yourself.

Then there was Twitch Plays Pokemon – one of most curious social experiments to ever witness unfold, and a wild insight into unfettered groupthink.

It started when an Australian programmer designed a way in which Twitch chat could be used to life feed commands for the Gameboy game Pokemon: Red. The game could therefore be played in real-time, non-stop, to a global audience, who were themselves telling the game what its next moves should be. Soon, an audience of several thousand viewers (at times up to over 100,000) were inputting directions all at once, which the game then tried to play out.

Twitch_plays_pokemon_animated

IMAGE: Screenshots from Twitch Plays Pokemon

And the result was captivating – if utterly bonkers. Strategies were bickered over on the fly. Trolls fought against those genuinely trying to advance the game. An escalating war of moves and countermoves went on behind the scenes to try and get the action on track. Eventually a democratic voting system even had to be implemented so that the game could advance at all.

It took just over a fortnight of unbroken, erratic play for the game to be completed; but even more remarkable than the heartening fact that the project managed to advance at all, what was really surprising was the way in which it revealed, in microcosm, the way in which we human beings like to impose a communal narrative upon our daily experiences.

While the game chugged along, prompted by the live, unpredictable hive-mind breaking, advancing, and testing its boundaries, whole histories and mythologies were soon spawning organically from out of the apparent chaos. On screen, the main character and his menagerie of pocket monsters reacted in skittish, twitchy, irrational ways, but from out of this disorder, a saga began to unfold.

Each Pokemon was given a new name (often sounded out from the alphabet salad punched into the renaming feature), and imbued with distinct personalities and motivations. There were treasured artefacts, sought for and inopportunely discarded. ‘Consulting the Helix Fossil’ grew from a playful justification for the player character’s random selection of this useless tool in battle, to a divine ritual, a consultation with the true deity of this bizarre world, and a battle between gods that inflated into an eternal conflict between good and evil, anarchy and democracy. There was betrayal (‘The False Prophet’ who abandoned them all); heartbreak (the darkness of day eleven, when so many Pokemon were needlessly released as the chatlog repeatedly pressed the wrong commands); loss after loss; but in the end, impossibly, through perseverance and passion, victory was achieved and the journey through a literal chaos, finally validated.

It was a true shared mythology, equally as frivolous and convoluted as it was palpable and portentous; one conceived and made manifest in a marathon improv from contributors (even those trying to troll it into madness) devoted to a singular, communal experience.****

In new media (if you can call a media that’s now at least a decade old ‘new’) the podcast world exploded with the coming of NPR’s Serial, the first real pop culture podcast sensation. A true-crime story helmed by NPR reporter Sarah Koenig, Serial revisited and reinterrogated one real-world murder cold case over the course of multiple episodes. The result was a cultural phenomenon, a series that harkens back to the days of early radio in which families would crowd around to hear the latest instalment of their weekly shows, stirring the same kind of audience dialogue (and somewhat muddled demands to beware of ‘Spoilers’) that would usually accompany a critical darling HBO series.

Much has been made of the debate that the show has triggered about whether or not Adnan, the man convicted of killing his high-school girlfriend, was guilty. Several publications (most notably and hypocritically The Intercept this past couple of weeks*****) have criticised Koenig for showing undue bias toward Adnan and thus stirring up an army of online armchair detectives; but at its core, at least in my experience of it, Serial was never about finding some exonerating piece of evidence, or advocating on anyone’s behalf.

Sarah Koenig by Meredith Heuer

IMAGE: Sarah Koenig (Meredith Heuer)

Koenig’s twelve episode journey was a staggered documentary investigation into the layers of a presumed slam-dunk conviction that exposed, as those layers were peeled back, some troubling implications for the case and the American legal system as a whole – despite whether Adnan ‘did it’ or not. Its why Koenig anticlimactically never comes to a decision on whether she believes Adnan is ‘guilty’; why so many who followed Serial remain convinced he is a murderer and why so many others are baffled that anyone could consider him a suspect at all.

What Koenig was instead exploring was the way in which the machinations of the justice system can all too often be clouded with the frailties of human perception. How notions of ‘truth’, ‘justice’, and ‘proof’ are prey to our imperfect memories, biases, obfuscations, and self-interests. Whether Adnan was a charming psychopath or a kid screwed over by an incredibly unlucky series of events, it was the process of his trial and sentencing that was really the focus, one that, when light was thrown upon it raised a lot of troubling questions – from shifting witness testimony, questionable prosecutorial conduct, negligent representation, and untested DNA – no matter what the ultimate result.

And perhaps that is one of the best symbolic representations of the curious nature of 2014, and its tendency toward the makeshift community of the hashtag. Serial was a podcast that, by the very nature of its medium, was designed for individual people to download and listen to it privately, in their own time, to make of what they will. Instead it triggered communities. Not only the most downloaded podcast in history, it gave rise to sprawling group discussions in Reddit and forums, resulted in listening parties, handwringing speculation about ‘trial by audience’ in the press, inspired people to fund a school scholarship in memory of the victim, and to flood Twitter with a torrent of conversations punctuated with everything from ‘#freeAdnan’ to ‘#MailKimp’.

Throughout the year the hashtag became an avenue for society to voice publically some uncomfortable issues that have perpetuated for generations. In September, in order to bring awareness to the prevalence of domestic violence, thousands of women used the hashtags #whyistayed and #whyileft to discuss their decisions to remain within or escape abusive relationships. After Emma Watson’s address to the United Nations, in which she spoke hopefully about a future in which both men and women work together toward equality, the hashtag #HeforShe went viral. And in July the seemingly irresolvable conflict in Israel and Palestine had a moment of – even if only fleeting – hope when the hashtag #JewandArabsRefuseToBeEnemies was shared across the globe.

It was also a outlet through which many could express grief, or acknowledge loss. When cricketer Phil Hughes died after a freak bowling accident on the field the hashtag #PutOutYourBats became a communal signature of condolence. Celebrities like Robin Williams, Harold Ramis, Elaine Stritch and Philip Seymour Hoffman were remembered in outpourings of memories from their life and work. And poet Maya Angelou’s final tweet before her death in May was a fitting, elegant farewell, re-Tweeted by almost a hundred thousand fans in thanks:

Maya Angelou Final Tweet

Finally, in the last few weeks of the year, Hashtags proved themselves to be a means of expressing the very best impulses in humanity.

On the 15th December, a lone gunman held eighteen people at gunpoint in a cafe in Sydney’s Martin Place. What unfolded was a lengthy hostage standoff that the media soon began misreporting to be a ‘Muslim Extremist’ action. In particular, Rupert Murdoch’s fear-mongering, sensationalist rags, despite having absolutely no evidence with which to back up this speculation, declared it an ‘ISIS death cult attack’, trying to tap into a terror that far too many Australia’s politicians have likewise preyed upon in the past decade and a half, that ‘Muslim’ is somehow a synonym for ‘terrorist’. (Murdoch, like some kind of Twitter carrion bird, later even gleefully used the whole incident as advertising for his paper’s bloodthirsty fatuousness.

illridewithyou

IMAGE: #illridewithyou

But in spite of this prejudicial reporting and fear-mongering, the public decided to respond in a kinder, more inclusive way. Fearing that people of the Muslim faith might be harassed the next day by ignorant, angry commuters that had been stirred into a xenophobic spin, a hashtag, #illridewithyou, started up over social media. People shared their public transport timetables and details, offering to be a friendly companion for anyone riding on those trains and buses and ferries who might otherwise be feeling alone or targeted. Rather than being some territorial mark of identity, or prideful sign of exclusivity, #illridewithyou was an invitation, a promise. It offered solidarity and support in the face of prejudice and fear.

(Murdoch’s papers, of course, were swift to sneer at the whole thing as another ‘left-wing’ conspiracy of superiority – the usual nonsense – all while conveniently failing to mention either their own inflammatory misreportings or their boss’ ghoulish gloating.)

There’s no denying that this year was rough.

Atrocities went on around the world seemingly unchecked. Almost three hundred school girls and women were abducted by terrorists in Nigeria. School children were slaughtered by Taliban gunmen. Sunni extremist group ISIS seized control of much of Iraq and Syria. There were beheadings. Slaughters. An Ebola epidemic swept through West Africa. We saw new Cold War sabre rattling as Russia ignored international outrage at their invasion of Crimea and Ukraine. Multiple (multiple!) commercial airplanes went missing or were shot from the skies. Horrible racial injustice seemed not only entrenched, but was aggressively defended by many in power or in the media. A group of artists and critics were demonised and terrorised because of their gender. If the FBI is to be believed, North Korea successfully threatened an entertainment company into forgoing its freedom of expression.

Like something Shakespearean, even society’s clowns didn’t seem to be safe: Joan Collins died, Bill Cosby was disgraced, and, again, Robin Williams, a man who delivered endless delight to others, lost his own battle with crippling despair. Then, right before the holidays, everyone learned that the United States, self-described beacon of freedom and democracy, has had its CIA engaged in, and consistently lying about, a horrifying, ongoing campaign of torturing war prisoners.

And in case that didn’t haunt your dreams enough, Dick Cheney emerged from his Darth Vader egg tomb to cynically evoke 9/11 to the news media again, show no remorse for even the innocent people that have been brutally tortured – in some cases to death – and proudly declare that he’d be happy to implement such systemic violations of the Geneva convention again ‘in a minute.’

So… Merry Christmas?

Dick Cheney Still Cheering for Evil

IMAGE: Dick Cheney on Fox News (Fox News)

A lot of the time, 2014 really did suck.

But in spite of all this – sometimes as the only way of dealing with it – it also proved itself to be a time in which people sought out one another for comfort. Tried to make them laugh. Tried to remind them that despite everything going on around them, they weren’t crazy, and they weren’t alone.

This year reminded us that, sure, the internet can be a cesspool of inward looking bias, an echo chamber of hatred and misinformation and conspiracy and cruelty, but it can also be a mass of firing synapses, linking us in incomprehensible, inspiring ways. People riffing on the day’s events in 144 characters or less; swapping personal stories in comments sections; commiserating in blogs; collaborating on research in Google docs; breaking stories in Reddit; angling for social change on facebook; fighting censorship on YouTube; turning eight seconds into surrealist vaudeville on Vine; desperately hoping that MySpace is still a thing on MySpace.

We have now stretched out into the vast, wild nothingness of the internet, a space untethered from location and time; one in which we can bring with us as much or as little of ourselves as we like.

Sometimes this means that people, freed from the responsibility of identity, can act like raging, abusive, trolling lunatics, but other times, those times in which social media reveals itself to be a fount of collaboration and conversation, the hashtag can be a symbol of so much more. It signifies a space in which we can dare to get giddy about Star Wars again, or to grieve the passing of those who inspired us, or to giggle at memes that we all know are ridiculous, but that momentarily lighten our psychological load.

And so, for me anyway, this year finally showed what that hashtag actually represents.

The hashtag is the best and the worst of us, all our impulses and yearning for community collapsed into metadata key. Four lines, intersecting across one another, gaining strength from that support. It represents not just some longing to shout our existence into the nether, but to be heard and to hear others. To remind ourselves that, despite the darkness, there are others out there eager to huddle closer to the light.

hashtag

* Seth McFarlane pledged one million dollars to the cause, continuing to mess with my mind by endlessly ping-ponging between heroism and villainy. Million dollars to literacy? Good. Million Ways To Die In The West? Unmitigated evil. Being the principle producer on the return of Cosmos, one of the year’s greatest joys? You are a ray of sunshine. The Simpsons/Family Guy crossover? You are a monster who must be stopped.

** Note: These are points that South Park made, albeit far more elegantly, in their two-part season finale episode. Does anybody but me care that I wrote the first draft of this before the episodes aired? No? I just sound sad and defensive? …Fair enough.

*** Someone else might want to throw Damon Lindelhof’s new show, The Leftovers, into this list of great new shows, but after LOST, the idea of another Lindelof-run mystery-bait premise about broken souls yearning to understand themselves means I’m already out.)

**** For anyone interested in reading an account of the narrative that unfolded in Twitch Plays Pokemon, you can find a grand one here.

***** Two of The Intercept’s reporters, in an act of extraordinary hypocrisy, recently published two interviews – one with the original prosecutor of the case, the other with the prosecution’s star witness – and then used these accounts to try and discredit Koenig and Serial as being disingenuous, unethical, sensationalist, and derelict in their journalistic obligations. They felt so strongly about this that they published a lengthy introduction to the interview with the prosecutor in which they declared all questions of Adnan’s guilt to be moot, and Koenig to have lied about trying to contact the prosecutor for an interview. They then proceeded to leap on to Twitter to rile up anyone who might take issue with their work and even distastefully try to use the murder victim herself as a cheap emotional ploy to avoid criticism. It was a weird little tantrum meltdown so baffling that even other reporters had to step in to question their self-aggrandising ‘trolling’.

Meanwhile, the fact that they were basing all of this solely on the accounts of two people who had every reason to paint themselves in the best possible light, that their reporting made several factual errors, that they edited a direct quote to misleadingly make it work to their own damning narrative, that it was they (not Koenig) who was creating a media spectacle out of the principle witness by revealing his name to the world and giving out personal information that was never revealed in Serial, and, astonishingly, that their own two witnesses were now openly contradicting one another’s stories (the witness having admitted that much of his court testimony was a lie – something they let pass without even a follow up question to the prosecutor), made their petulant grandstanding about Koenig’s supposed failings as a journalist all the more farcical.

Vargas-Cooper in particular even went so far as to give her own interview to The Observer, again failing to see the mind-boggling hypocrisy of trying to make herself the story while chastising Koenig for apparently doing the same, and describing those interested in the case as ‘delightful white liberals who are creaming over This American Life‘. The hubris was staggering, and one presumes an embarrassment to The Intercept.

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?*****

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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.

 

 

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