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Mass Effect 1: ‘Never underestimate the power of words’ (A Mass Effect Retrospective part 2)

Posted in Uncategorized, video games, criticism with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 22, 2017 by drayfish

GAME PLAYED: Mass Effect (base game); DLC: ‘Bring Down The Sky’

To Read Part 1 of this Retrospective

Mass Effect title screen maxresdefault

In the beginning there is fear.

The first game begins with Shepard staring out into the inky black of space, over a planet that either is, or is meant to evoke, Earth.  Back when I used to replay this series, that expanse of possibility was delightfully vertiginous.  The journey ahead but a series of potentialities, none yet realised.  The player, like Shepard, was able to look ahead and wonder at what was to come.

But now there’s fear – because I already know it all leads to one place.  Awash with recollections of the series’ grandeur and disappointment; the prophesy of oncoming darkness and ruin that is about to be vomited into Shepard’s brain already gnawing away at my memory.

So I was wary when I fired up the game again after all this time.

And yet, to my delight, I found the experience to be instantly, gloriously reaffirming.

Beyond the comforting thrum of the menu music, which still evokes in me a kind of Pavlovian response of joyful anticipation, beyond the visuals and mechanics that hold up better than I’d feared, and even acknowledging that my affection for the series might lead to some blind spots in my critical thinking (I have always adored that beautiful Mako, wonky handling and all; hell, I even like the elevators – yes, really), I maintain that the first Mass Effect is still one of the most perfect marriages of form and function in any text, videogame or otherwise.  Its narrative, and the mechanics through which it expresses itself work in unison to create an experience that is thoroughly absorbing and profound.

You play the game, but the game plays you.  And together, through an intuitive conversation between audience and text, both are elevated, entwined in an understanding that validates the journey shared.

Mass Effect ashley and kaiden

The What

Mass Effect’s detractors might call it merely a pastiche of other great sci-fi texts.

It emulates the universe-building of Star Trek, the tone of Blade Runner, the political manoeuvring of Babylon 5, the pseudo-magical powers of Star Wars, the ominous dread of Lovecraftian horror, and revolves around a cast of oddball loners on the fringes of respectability somewhat like Firefly.

The first response to such an accusation would no doubt be: So what?!  Are you serious?  That sounds incredible!

And indeed, it is.  So shut up, imaginary naysayer guy.

But the more successful rejoinder would be to point out not what Mass Effect borrows, but what it offers that is purely its own.  Because Mass Effect presents, unique to any sci-fi universe ever crafted, the opportunity to truly discover an unknown universe; to use one’s own thirst for understanding and perspective as a videogame player to propel the way in which the narrative and its themes open up in an act of cooperative exploration.

To its credit, the game initially does this by placing its player and protagonist in a disempowered position.

This might sound strange for a game centrally concerned with the first human being accepted to the Spectres (a galactic police force who effectively answer to no one), who receives a prophesy that leads them on a crucial, universe saving quest, but despite this grandiose premise, the game manages to largely avoid Bioware’s now patented You-Are-The-Chosen-One-Messianic-Rise-To-Greatness narrative structure.  In this first foray into the Mass Effect universe, crucially, humanity are the underdogs.  And Shepard too – although already a decorated soldier when the plot begins – has to scramble to get respect.

Unlike in a universe such as Star Trek, where humanity has become a dominant force in galactic politics, charting new frontiers and leading by example, here humanity is the plucky, spry, slightly obnoxious newcomer to the galaxy.  When we stretched out into the stars (on the back of alien technology we merely stumbled across), we immediately began poking our noses into everyone’s business, accidentally picking a war with a dominant species, and aggressively trying to weasel our way onto the council of the universe – something that other races have not been allowed to do for a millennia.  Consequentially, we are often viewed with suspicion, contempt, or pity by the other races that see our eagerness as folly.

Thus Shepard too is frequently met by distrust and condescension – by dignitaries, police officers and merchants, who hold various prejudices against the human race; by the council she eventually works for, who patronisingly refuse to believe the evidence she is gathering; and even, at first, by her crew, some of whom join her for their own purposes, but eventually come to admire her goals.

The first Mass Effect game makes the series’ best case, both in plot and play, for the benefits of being hampered, but persisting in spite of the constraint.  Mass Effect is about struggle; about sucking it up, taking your knocks, wrestling with the wonky controls of the Mako (gods, I love it).  It’s not about being indulged and told you’re great all day.  It is only in Mass Effect 3 that the lazy Jesus metaphors start up in earnest, and in Andromeda (it appears) when you get to be the ‘chosen one’ and ignore your cheeky imperialism while bro-fisting your pals.

In Mass Effect 1 (and 2) the universe actually gives very little damn about you.  It is only in caring about it, in spite of its contempt for you, that you not only earn your place, but can be part of the effort to join together and make it better.  For all out faults, it says, we human beings are tenacious; and that is one of the traits that makes us thrive.

mass-effect-shepard-citadel-arm-presidium

The Why

The other feature that both Shepard and humanity have in abundance is curiosity – something that likewise marries beautifully with the player’s experience and the design of the game.  Humans might be underpowered, underrepresented, and unrespected, they might be tethered to the training wheels by alien races that look down upon them with misplaced sympathy, but we (and the player) are inquisitive.

We ask questions that few others seem to be bothered with.

Why are there Keepers on the Citadel?  What the hell are they doing?  Why is there all of this Prothean crap littered everywhere across the galaxy?  Who set up this government?  And why?  So what’s the deal with Spectres?  How can you have strictly enforced ethical codes if you’ve also got a secret police force that answers to no one?  Why did the Protheans leave a little mass relay statue in the Citadel?  That seems a little weird, no…?

While the bulk of the other races are seemingly content with profiting from the technology they suspiciously inherited from an unknown ancient race, Shepard and the player explore the whys of this universe, asking questions, seeking answers, and gathering a band of misfit aliens who likewise want to upend conventional wisdoms, so that together they can uncover some uncomfortable, dangerous truths.

And all of this feeds beautifully into the game play experience.  It’s why Bioware’s signature dialogue wheel was such an ingenious development, and still feels so inspired.  It invites and rewards exactly this kind of inquiry.  It satiates curiosity, but even more ingeniously, it allows for emotional responses to the revelations that unfold.  Not only does asking questions and considering options open up the central narrative, it also advances that other great attribute that speaks for humanity’s worth: it encourages empathy.

mass-effect-xbox-360-screenshot-dialog-choices-use-a-radial

It’s what makes Bioware’s decision to require player input for all of Shepard’s dialogue so significant.  Throughout the game Shepard does not utter a word in conversation unless directly prompted by the player.  Literally every line has to be selected, for tone, or inquiry, before she speaks.  It might sound like a small detail, but this direct contribution has a distinctly different feel to the distancing auto-dialogue that creeps into Mass Effect 2 and overtakes Mass Effect 3.  For a game fundamentally about the ways in which language binds people, every sentence feels like an incremental building of your distinct Shepard, rather than a shading of the predetermined character the game requires.  This is largely just an illusion, but it is an artful one, uniting player and character in a fluid, grammatical expression.

Exploring dialogue about other races and cultures, considering the rationale behind other moral codes and other ways of life; the game encourages the player to observe the disparate ideals that can unite a biodiversity of thought.  The game proposes that kindness, consideration and respect can be universal – particularly in the face of an unfeeling, omnipresent threat that seeks to crush all life different from itself.

(In the second game, this thesis of curiosity and empathy would be extended further – on the micro scale through sharing your teammates’ emotional baggage on their personal loyalty missions, and on a macro scale, by exploring hostile races like the Geth and an artificial intelligence like EDI.  In Mass Effect 3 this invitation to cultivate empathy and investment would be largely abandoned.  Rather than introducing new societies and personalities – allowing their perspective to sway the player’s experience – the conclusion of the trilogy spent its entire run time cynically exploiting the investment cultivated by the first two games.  The narrative’s threat was powered almost solely by the devastation of the familiar as races and companions from the past games were wiped from existence, the player trying to save what little they could from the galactic bonfire.  The trilogy’s conclusion did not invite the player to invest in the experience of others so much as gormlessly threaten what was already beloved to evoke a visceral, persistent sensation of loss and dread.)

Over the course of the first Mass Effect the player meets floating brains, bird/lizard people, elephant creatures, sentient space crustaceans, asexual blue sirens, jittery amphibians, ‘roided out reptiles, migrants hidden beneath non-descript protective suits.  It is a breadth that would never be matched by its following games (curiously, not even in the new, larger scope of the Andromeda universe, as many of the established races are now M.I.A.), with each race having different styles of speech and grammar and distinct behavioural practices.  Some races communicate through aromas, and so had to actively describe their tone of voice so as not to be misunderstood in translation.   Some huff through breathing apparatuses, or hum through fluctuations of light.

And you are encouraged to get to know them all.  To ask them questions.  To learn their ways.

mass-effect-1-squad

You can pepper the members of these different cultures with queries about their politics, history, philosophy, businesses, finances, and family.  You can explore hot button issues like religion and slavery and genocide and environmentalism and crime.  You can probe them on everything from the effects of technology, to their eating habits, and their thoughts on space prostitution.

Consequentially, it is a game centrally concerned with knowledge.  Information becomes power, both as a play mechanic (asking more questions, being more persuasive or threatening, opens up greater options to the player) and as a recurring part of the plot.

You are tasked with solving a sci-fi detective story, so fittingly, along the way you meet people who manipulate information, withhold information, bargain information for power.  You are forced to deal with representatives of spy networks, cult leaders, scientists pushing their research to its limits; corporations and company stooges block you, reporters interrogate you, ambassadors try to spin your actions for their own agendas.  You hear the media, at the behest of the military, manipulate the truth of what you confront on the frontline into numbing lies spewed out across the presidium radio.

Your team-mates likewise pursue answers – some gathering new information to offer their migrant fleet, some hunting for intel into criminals that eluded them, learning something about themselves in the process.  The villain you pursue likewise uses information about an oncoming threat, a truth that has poisoned his mind, to twist and misuse fear to indoctrinate others to his will.  And the entire journey is motivated by a cryptic info dump jolted into your head in the game’s first mission – a prophesy of unknown devastation that you must spend three games unpacking and seeking to comprehend.

Thus every interaction that fleshes out this world, binding you to it, is reiterating the same theme: that knowledge, the language of understanding others, is the most transformative power of all.  As the esteemed Asari consort (who you are encouraged to assist deal with a scandal of leaked misinformation) says:

‘Never underestimate the power of words.’

So fittingly, you make friends with pariahs and hotheads and renegades, academics and warriors, people on the run from the shameful actions of their past and casual space-racists.  You collect a team of charming weirdos and you shoot off into the stars to make your own way together.  A merry assortment of colliding ideals and agendas, all proving the game’s hopeful thesis that with respect and curiosity, even unfathomable cruelty can be met and ultimately overcome.

Mass Effect Normandy_feros

The How

This sense of exploration – both ideological and physical – is exactly why seemingly trivial things, such as being able to draw or sheathe your gun at any moment (a feature stripped out of Mass Effect 3), using the Mako to trundle across the tundra, or travelling in elevators (which didn’t’ survive past the first game), become so important in Mass Effect.

Arming and disarming yourself wasn’t just a neat visual; it was emblematic of the fluid grandeur of the game.  It indicated that you really were at the mercy of an unfamiliar universe at all times – not just in predetermined, spotlighted ‘fight’ scenarios.  You might round a corner at any moment, even in the ‘safety’ of the Citadel, to be confronted by assassins; the survivors you try to help on some blighted wasteland planet might surprise you with a threat.  These vast environments live and breathe, and you inhabit them along with everyone else, rather than just blasting through on the way to the next scripted objective point.  You were there to explore, and never knowing from where danger or aid might appear, that journeying was fraught with peril, made the whole process richly rewarding.  The act of adapting to this ebb and flow of conversation and conflict, being able to vacillate between the two by pulling or replacing your weapon, therefore further enmeshed you in the grammar of the game.

The same was true of being able to rocket along the surface of planets in the Mako, exiting to wander on foot any time you wish.  Indeed, while I know many in the past have criticised these long sojourns on alien planets as barren, palate-swapped ranges largely devoid of life – it is hard to deny their beauty, and for me this loneliness only enhances the experience.  By the time you return from the wilderness back to Asari civilisation you are desperate to reconnect with people, to deep dive back into the game’s conversational systems and glean more from these societies that have sought for meaning amongst the emptiness of space.

Mass Effect 1 earth

Similarly the ability to board ships that you found floating in space; or to infiltrate facilities speckled throughout the stars; or selecting you and your party’s equipment and armaments; or even the act of physically watching yourself enter or exit the Normandy, going through quarantine scans and handing over command to the XO when you became part of the shore party; the whole game, at every level, encourages you to feel your freedom and isolation at once; investing you in an unbroken experience that evokes a sense of being truly out on the frontier, exploring a real universe.

Even the much maligned (I think very unfairly) long elevator rides that punctuate the game not only enhance the sense of this being a real universe that you are navigating, they allowed companion characters to converse: sometimes with playful banter, other times enabling two races with complicated histories and generational animosities to respectfully debate, to learn more about each other by valuing one another’s point of view.

In a time of videogame critique in which ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ has already become an obsessive buzzword for anything even momentarily immersion breaking, this decade old game still stands out for the way in which its design only deepens the engagement its players feel, with every perilous exploration, question asked, or elevator ridden, only further embedding them in its fiction.

mass effect elevator

The Huh?

As I indicated in my previous post – what is most remarkable about the first Mass Effect is how fully realised it already is in this its initial outing.  While the gun play may improve as the series goes on and while some of the themes alluded to here might be fleshed out further in Mass Effect 2, this first game fulfils every promise it makes.  Each major story beat and theme is explored and brought to a resolve; there is a sense of cohesion to the several sci-fi narratives it explores – from an Aliens-like facility infestation lockdown, to a Thing-style colony overrun by an ancient extraterrestrial mind control, to an assault on a cloning facility, several run-ins with robot zombies, amoral paramilitary groups gone wild, and a gloating inscrutable Cthulhu beast – and a thrilling resolution in the way that all of these elements ultimately converge, revealing the terrible secrets of an ancient cycle of imminent devastation at the heart of every space faring society.

The series really never does tie its plot together so elegantly ever again.

(An argument might be made that it is not until we meet EDI and Legion in the second game that the potential of this narrative’s exploration of Artificial Intelligence is fully explored, but even here the first game in the series leaves enough ambiguities and subtle clues to imply that this inexorable journey toward synthetic sentience is not as simplistically dangerous as the characters who oppose it would have you believe.  From the gambling AI that has slipped its programming leash, to the moon based system (subsequently revealed to be a prototype for EDI) that has developed a sense of self-preservation and actually feels pain, to the moment that you stumble upon a facility of Geth and find these hostile robots have been listening to a mournful old melody by their Quarian creators, a song about regret and lost innocence, the player is repeatedly invited, should they wish, to view the inevitability of artificial consciousness as something more complex than a binary good or evil.)

And to my mind this is easily the most climactic ending that the series will go on to offer.  For all of the personal dramatic stakes of Mass Effect 2’s suicide mission, even it cannot compare for scope or theme.

After finding a way to interact with the last surviving knowledge of the ancient Prothean race that you’ve been chasing the entire game, you infiltrate the Citadel via a backdoor built surreptitiously into its design (a doublecross of their doublecross), fight your way up the innards of the structure in zero gravity, straight toward the looming spectre of a sci-fi Lovecraftian demon, arrive back at the chambers of the council you were appointed to serve, battle your rogue adversary (or persuade him into a moment of sanity to stop himself), issue orders to the armada of ships engaged in a raging space battle outside, making decisions that will dictate who survives the fray and remaking the face of galactic politics for generations to come, and survive certain death, crawling out of a pile of rubble that used to be a mouthy wannabe god.

There is so much fist-pumping spectacle and elegant narrative resolve that even though you are left desperately wanting more, it is more from enthusiasm and a love of the universe than a sense that you were cheated of anything.  The conclusion of Mass Effect 1 operates much like the ending of the first Matrix film.  The creatures threatening humanity might not be gone, but the hero of the saga now knows what they are up against, and is resolved to see it through.  Like Neo’s phone call to the code, the smile breaking on Shepard’s face as she strides from the rubble is more than enough to know that the Reapers – whatever their goal – will never succeed.

And like the Matrix film, perhaps it would have been best if it had have just left it at that.

Mass Effect Screenshot3597.1

The Rub

Is Mass Effect perfect?  Absolutely not.  There is little to no reason to gate every surveyed mineral deposit or archaeological find you run across behind insipid quick time events.  Why anyone should need to press five buttons in sequence simply to loot a mummified corpse is never adequately explained.  And although I think that the Mako is an unjustly maligned joy, it is true that the planets you are asked to traverse with its help are frequently lacking in thoughtful design.  They are often beautiful spaces to look at (even if some of them are barren colour-palate swaps), but when you spend half an hour sliding in place unsuccessfully attempting to ascend a sheer rock face to gather up one objective marker, it’s easy to lose patience with the whole process.  (Speaking of which, whoever designed the planet surface of Nodacrux: please go straight to hell.)  Also, to get really picky, that film grain filter they put over everything to give it a noir aesthetic is the very first thing anyone playing the game should switch off.  The game is far prettier than that filter suggests.

Also, I would be lying if I tried to argue that the wondrous promise of the first game isn’t still somewhat marred by the narrative slurry it is destined to slide into in Mass Effect 3.  This is far more pronounced when returning to Mass Effect 2 (which I will discuss in the coming weeks), but not even this first game is immune.  In particular, the plot-twist moment in which you speak to Sovereign is entirely undermined.  When one first plays this game, hearing Sovereign speak to you is chilling; a shift in your character’s very sense of reality as you realise that the object you thought was just a looming space ship is itself actually an ancient sentient creature of untold devastation.  But now all of Sovereign’s threats and pontificating ring utterly hollow.

I would never understand your grand, unfathomable purpose, huh, Sebastian the Dark Matter Crab?  Well, your pals give me the Cliff Notes version in game three, and not only is it very ungrand and super fathomable, it’s complete asinine.

But overall these gripes are miniscule when weighed against the splendour of everything else this game achieves.  There is a thoughtfulness and care and polish to everything here that makes the entire experience, on every level of design and narrative and character, thoroughly absorbing.

In  my replay of Mass Effect I was delighted to find that not only is the magic of the series still present, it has seemingly only intensified with age, as so many other series (Mass Effect itself even) have strayed from the absorbing world-building it accomplished.

Perhaps my biggest surprise, however, is that I have come to discover a flaw in Mass Effect’s marketing…

All of that talk about ‘big impactful decisions’ that was used to spruik the game is actually something of a misunderstanding of its real concern (and no, this is not me being snotty about how none of your decisions will ultimately matter in Mass Effect 3 …although, yeah, that too).  These promises of ‘consequential choices’ that were made in its advertising (and often misleadingly guaranteed by the game’s creators; I’m looking at you, Casey Hudson) often only add up to some minor shifts in the narrative, or in the superficial behaviour of some of the game’s personalities.  At their most extreme – most evident in this first game – these choices might lead to the death of certain characters that will not be seen again; but the essential plot rolls on, unrelenting.

But that’s fine, because what Mass Effect is actually concerned with is the context surrounding decisions.  Not what decision you made, but why you made it.  What impulses led you to decide, with the little information available, how to react to a situation?  Save the Racchni Queen or kill her?  Bargain with Wrex or put him down?  Trade intel with the Shadow Broker, or tell him to screw off?  Do you have faith in the goodness of others, or are you more pragmatic?  Are you focused on the mission at all costs?  Willing to gamble on luck?  A fan of minor chicanery or a straight shooter?

For all of the promises of future revelations that they offer, what the decisions in Mass Effect really provide is an opportunity to expose your own thought process.  Just as you interrogate your companions and enemies throughout the game in order to understand them and their worlds, the game reveals itself to have been questioning you.  What kind of player are you?  What kind of person?

It is a conversation through play.  It wants to get to know you, and offers the chance, if you are willing, to better know yourself.

It’s quite an achievement.  You stare into the RPG, but the RPG stares back into you.

Mass Effect climax

Next Time: Mass Effect 2: ‘Suicide is painless.  It brings on many changes.’

Twin Peaks: Flame Wars Walk With Me

Posted in criticism, stupidity, television, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 12, 2017 by drayfish

Twin Peaks log lady

My log has something to tell you.

My log knows the ways of popular culture.  Of the fans that brighten the flame.  My log has seen television revivals come and go.  My log has a Twitter account.

Behind all memes are reasons.  Reasons can explain the absurd.

Twin Peaks will return.  It is a miracle.  But it will open a gateway.

My log knows what is to come.

Can you hear it?

I will translate.

On the first week David Lynch will be a genius.  It is wondrous, the people will cry.  Articles will scatter like dandelion seeds.  ‘THIS is why Twin Peaks had to return’, they will say.  ‘Lynch and Frost teach modern television creators how to do it.’  Much shade will be thrown at the most recent season of The Walking Dead.

On the second week, columnists and critics will agree that the show is taking its time.  But this is universe building, they will argue.  Perhaps the weirdness is not quite so quirky, some will suggest.  It is still better than everything else on television.  Listicles filled with spoilers counting the ’10 Best Things About the New Twin Peaks‘ will clog websites everywhere.  People will already tire of their workmate’s references to ‘damn fine’ black coffee.

In week three there will be disparaging chatter about some of the returning actors, and whether or not they should have come back.  Magazines will create spreads of the female cast members, rating them alongside photographs taken twenty years ago.  Copy-editors will ask who has ‘let herself go the most?’  The male cast will be referred to as ‘distinguished’.  Humanity will continue to die a little inside.

In week four conspiracy theories abound.  What does that salt shaker mean?!  Enough with the owls!  Memes will fly wildly on Twitter.  One line, taken out of context in episode two, will have become so ubiquitous and overused in daily conversation that your aunt will facebook you to ask what it means.  A Guardian newspaper columnist will list reasons why this new series is exactly what Twin Peaks was once all about.

Week five will leave viewers wondering aloud whether the long pauses and abstract dialogue are intentional.  People will haunt comments sections of articles loudly proclaiming that they ‘Don’t care!’ about this series.  That they ‘heard’ it wasn’t that good in the first place.  That they are only writing this in every comments section, on every review that they find, because they are ‘SO UNINTERESTED!  SERIOUSLY!’  Critics begin to wonder whether Twin Peaks has shown its age.  In the wake of Breaking Bad and Mad Men, does Twin Peaks still have ‘it‘ anymore?  A Guardian newspaper columnist will list reasons why this new series is the complete opposite of what Twin Peaks was once all about.

Twin Peaks Damn fine coffee

In week six the online anger will rise.  ‘Why don’t we KNOW anything yet?!  Where are the answers?!  We waited twenty years for THIS!?!?’ they will furiously type, despite having only binge-watched the series a month ago.  Reviewers cataloguing episode summaries on websites like the AV Club will wonder why the screenwriters are concentrating on the peripheral characters.  Think pieces about why they are actually important, even though they appear completely irrelevant to anything, will emerge.  Some will sound nearly convincing.  #Where’sAnnie?

In week seven the ‘fans’ will become apoplectic.  A beloved character and actor from the original series that they have not thought about for a decade has been treated unfairly!  Boycotts are threatened.  #HAVETOSPEAKUPHEARINGISGONE.  Capitalising on this anger, an organised conservative moral outrage group will petition Showtime to cancel the show.  They will demand an investigation into whether something screened in a previous episode was too disturbing for broadcast.  The FCC will issue non-committal statement about looking into the matter.

On the eighth week Saturday Night Live will do a sketch claiming that Twin Peaks is actually about Donald Trump.  The White House is now the Red Room.  Jeff Sessions is the Man From Another Place.  Paul Ryan is an uptight nerd possessed by darkness.  Steve Bannon is Bob.  Ivanka, a vague beauty queen with no defined personality is ogled like a trophy to distract everyone from the evil goings on barely obscured behind the scenes.  Alec Baldwin will play Trump as a dim-witted Log in an unconvincing toupee, carried around by Vladimir Putin in a dress.

My log is not amused.

Week nine will bring with it hand-wringing think pieces.  ‘Lynch might just be a weird old man with singular antiquated beliefs’, they will suggest.  Is he celebrating, or mocking what he thinks is ‘weird’?!  Maybe Blue Velvet wasn’t that good after all.

Week ten there will be a controversy.  Perhaps Denise Bryson, the transgender character played by David Duchovny, will be presented in an arguably unflattering light.  Perhaps someone will rethink the use of the word ‘dwarf’ on national television.  A critic will write an article titled ‘Twin Peaks Is Not A Safe Space.’  It will be unclear if this is meant to be satirical.  #CancelTP

In week eleven people will have moved on to the return of Game of Thrones.  Can you believe that Khaleesi did that thing that she did?  It was about time!  Critics will praise Game of Thrones in inverse proportion to their criticism of Twin Peaks.  ‘David Lynch withholds too much!’  They will gnash their teeth.  Game of Thrones will cut a dude’s head off and show you some rude bits.  That’s how you tell a story!

In week twelve disparaging think pieces propagate.  Everyone will be reminded that before it was cool to brag to everyone about how underappreciated Twin Peaks was, it was fun to slag off the second season, while it was still screening, for not being as great as you wanted.  Endless columns will lament that Lynch is just stringing his audience along – just like before.  This is why Twin Peaks got cancelled in the first place, they will say.  #Waiting25Years

In week thirteen many clever, ironic people, who are all very popular and hip, will write disparaging comments about how Twin Peaks is still on television.  Yawn.  I forgot that was even a thing, etc.  I watched that new Archie Riverdale show and it was weirder.  Did you see Gravity Falls?  #LodgeAComplaint

In week 14 a subsection of Tumblr fans will be disheartened when it becomes clear that the romance they were shipping is never to be.  Whether this romance was between a stale box of donuts and a taxidermied deer head is obscured.  #DoughADeer

On the fifteenth week, the week before it ends, fan theories will run amuck.  Entire Wikis will flourish and fade daily.  Click-bait websites will dangle promises of ‘WHAT IT ALL MEANS’ behind several pages of single sentence paragraphs and a confetti of pop-up ads.  There will be rage from those who love the series; rage from those who ‘have never and will never watch it! Why doesn’t everyone just shut up?!’; and rage from those who believe that it is just not as good as it was when James Hurley went on that stupid road trip.

Twin-Peaks-sign

On the final week, there will be no definitive resolution.  The answers it does offer will be nebulous.  Much will remain obscure.  Articles will be written praising a work that is willing to excite, entice, and respect its audience in such a way; others will be written calling the show a fraud.  David Lynch will be labelled a scam artist; a genius; an auteur; a hack.  The show will be called exploitative; ridiculous; outdated; cutting-edge.  It will be both hip and derivative to hate on it; its defenders will be equal parts brave and gullible sheep.  It will be the greatest; it will be the worst.  Proof of the revival model; evidence of why it never works.

Twins; mirrors of one another.  The darkness in the light.  Inextricable.

#CUin25Years

The show will probably be magnificent; but none will be able to tell anymore.  The flames will rise regardless.  The smoke will blind.  From the warmth of recognition to a fandom ablaze.

In the feedback is the fire.   All that is good burns.

It happened to Arrested Development.  To The X-Files.  Even the Gilmore Girls got a working over.

All of this has happened before.

All will happen again.

All of this my log has foreseen.

And, yeah.

That Rosanne reunion sounds like a terrible idea.

Twin Peaks thumbs up

Mess Effect: Andyou’reawhatnow?: Foreseeing the Forerunners Foresight (A Mass Effect Retrospective part 1)

Posted in criticism, Uncategorized, video games with tags , , , , , , on May 5, 2017 by drayfish

Bet I’m the First Person to Use That ‘Mess Effect’ Pun …Right?

Mass Effect Andromeda 2

I don’t know what people are talking about.  I’m playing Mass Effect and I love it.

Actually, that’s too small a word.  I adore it.  Without reservation.  Warts and all.  It’s splendid.

It’s a game equally sprawling and bold and beautiful.  Rich and atmospheric, spilling over with captivating characters, and dense with philosophically complex social and political mores to traverse.  It takes its mythology seriously, but is frequently still playful and wry.  And yeah, sure, there’s a bit of janky design and clunky animation, but it remains a visual and auditory marvel, with absorbing, sprawling game play and a sense of endless potential.  It’s everything I’ve ever wanted in an interactive narrative experience, and has easily become one of my favourite video games ever.

No wonder they made a sequel.

Oh –

Sorry.  You probably thought I meant Mass Effect: Andromeda, right?  Simply because I knowingly engineered the beginning of this column to actively imply that I was?  Simply because I used an Andromeda picture in the header – and another one right here?

Mass Effect Andromeda 1

IMAGE: Intentionally misleading

Simply because I am a jerk?

Yeah, but no.  No, I meant the original Mass Effect.  Classic, not New flavour.  The decade old first entry into what I’m happily rediscovering might now well be considered a largely superfluous franchise.

It’s fair to say that the release of the new Mass Effect: Andromeda – the first game in the series since the ignominious conclusion of Mass Effect 3 five years ago – has been met with a tempered enthusiasm at best, and mocking scorn at worst.  Over the past several weeks the game has been knocked for its bizarre facial animations, game-stalling bugs, and stilted dialogue – videos of which seemed to have mutated on contact with the internet into a virulent strain of snarky (if admittedly hilarious) memes.

There are suspicions that the game was rushed out before it had finished development (given the state of Mass Effect 3 when it was released, this would not surprise me), that its pacing is slowed to tedium by rote fetch-quest padding, and that it is littered with multiple unresolved plot threads that serve more as cheap bait for future DLC packs and sequels than offering a satisfying narrative experience in its own right.

(Please note: I’ve not played the game, myself; this is simply what I am gleaning from the general scuttlebutt on the interwebs.  And do not take this as an attempt to denigrate anyone else’s interest in the game.  If you’ve enjoyed playing it, I’m very happy for you.  Similarly, this is in no way an attempt to insult the hard work of its many talented designers and creators who have worked on it.  I cannot speak to the game’s actual quality – though I do think some of its alien vistas look quite striking.  These comments, and what is to follow, are all based on speculation, and should be treated as such.)

For my part, however, none of the primary criticisms being levelled at Mass Effect: Andromeda have contributed to my complete disinterest in playing it.

Yes, the rubbery faces look silly, and yes, the quality of the dialogue – with lines like ‘My face is tired’ and Ryder’s father’s ham-fisted blather about ‘dreams and ‘dreaming for achievement’ – looks to have taken a dive, but usually I would still be keen.  Throw all the bugs and glitches at me that you want.  I’m deranged enough to have played Dragon Age: Inquisition on an XBox 360; I can deal with some jank in my tank.  In the past I’ve found even an unfinished Bioware game to be more absorbing than most other major releases; I played Dragon Age 2; I can handle a rushed production that makes ninety percent of its locations shoddy re-skins of the same warehouse and stretch of cave.  And I’m certainly not going to be scared off by whatever hateful, rabid conspiracy theory is being cooked up by gamergate trolls to slander Bioware on any given week.  (Gods, I cannot believe how depressing it is to still have to deal with the toxic bilge of gamergate in 2017.)

Mass Effect my face is tired

IMAGE: ‘Sorry, my dialogue is contrived’

But in this case my apathy for the game is tied more to narrative and thematic concerns for both it and the trajectory of the series as a whole – all of which I only seem to be seeing confirmed in the aftermath of the game’s release.

To explain my issues properly I would have to go off on yet another tedious, pedantic rant about Mass Effect 3 – specifically the way that it was already heading in a disheartening direction even before its reprehensible end – and no one (including me) wants that.  Besides, I’ve banged that particular drum plenty of times in the past.  Seriously.

But to offer a quick summary: to me, Andromeda appears to have problems with the basic logic of its plot, and looks to be tackling a problematic theme that I doubt its creators have fully thought through.

Firstly: the plot.

From the information circulated in the marketing, I get the sense that the premise of the new game actively works against it.  While I can sympathise that its creators want to get away from the controversial baggage of Mass Effect 3’s poorly-received conclusion, by choosing to set the story between Mass Effect 1 and 2 (before swiftly blasting the player several hundred years into the future into a different galaxy), the result is that Andromeda’s audience is being asked to suspend not only its disbelief, but the logic of all the preceding games.

Because nothing about this game’s central premise is possible in the universe of Mass Effect between the first and second games.  Here, several arks, stuffed with hundreds of thousands of cryogenically frozen souls are sent on a journey to an as-yet unexplored galaxy in order to populate new worlds; but there seems to be neither any reason to do this, nor any explanation for how this heretofore inconceivable scheme is now occurring.

There is no population crisis driving them to action (nothing is ever mentioned in the original games, where humanity still has room to expand all over the place), nor does it appear to be a failsafe in case the apocalyptic threat of the original games’ antagonists, the Reapers, prove to be real.  (Admittedly, this could be an eventual plot twist in the new game, but again, no one in Mass Effect 2 or 3 ever mentions such a mission).

Moreover, given that the state of the universe at the end of Mass Effect 1 had neither the science, political co-operation, nor resources, to put together an enterprise of such magnitude – and, again, the fact that no such astonishingly expensive, complex, time consuming program was ever mentioned in all of Shepard’s subsequent interactions with the several governments involved – it seems to be a narrative device chosen more out of fear than purposeful storytelling.

Perhaps if the story had been set many hundreds of years after the original trilogy it could have made sense – science might have advanced enough to make what was proposed less preposterous; a new predicament could have been established to justify why such a gargantuan undertaking needed to be; but in an effort to avoid the consequences of Mass Effect 3, the writers appear to have simply jettisoned the logic of their own universe entirely.  And it is hard to invest in a story that has already disrespected your willingness to believe in it before it begins.

But what is most worrisome for me is that theme of colonialisation at the heart of the new game.

Because Andromeda clearly has a precarious narrative tightrope to walk.  These humans are not the upstart, inquisitive underdogs looking for a seat at the grownups table of galactic politics that they were in the original trilogy; here they are invading colonisers.  Humanity is intruding into a new world, looking for lands to populate, and they are involved, almost immediately, in violent exchanges with the present occupants of these lands.  There is a disquieting aroma of imperialism in that set up, one that appears to only intensify when your player character’s father dies and you inherit the role of King.

…I mean, ‘Pathfinder’.

Mass-Effect-Andromeda-Fighting-The-Kett-on-Eos-1036x583

IMAGE: ‘Hello chaps!  I wonder if we might discuss a time-share arrangement?’

Ethically, that is an uncomfortably loaded position to place the player.  In the days of Mass Effect 1 Bioware I would have trusted that an awareness and sensitivity would permeate the writing, exploring the complexities of this premise to tantalising effect.

Unfortunately this project has been led by Mac Walters, one of the two principle writers responsible for Mass Effect 3’s grotesque finale and asinine central plot.  In that game, whether consciously or not, Walters took the myriad possibilities of the original two game’s branching narratives and reduced them into a quest to build a giant spacemagic doohickie that could end war with a pick-a-box of hate crimes.  He took complex philosophical contemplations of cultural diversity, questions of artificial life, free will, and justice, and boiled them all down to a clumsy grey nihilism, producing a text that by its end actively championed mass-murder, mind-control, and forcibly rewriting people’s DNA against their will, all in a thumping, Michael Bay tone of vulgarity and vapidity.

So, to me, watching a writer who literally tried (and catastrophically failed) to put positive spins on genocide, brainwashing, and forced eugenics now handling the nuance of a plot centrally concerned with intergalactic terra nullius sounds dreadful.

And given that Andromeda already appears to be following its predecessor’s mistakes – the writers are lazily rehashing the ‘ancient unknown aliens have left mysterious plot-helpful devices scattered around for mysterious reasons’ story; as mentioned, they leave the majority of the larger plotlines inconclusively hanging – it’s hard to give them the benefit of the doubt.  After all, none of those gimmicks worked out so well last time.

And finally, while I’m throwing unjustified shade at the game, I may as well admit that to me it simply doesn’t look that fun to explore.  No doubt I’m wrong – and again, I welcome players to correct this misconception – but from everything I’ve seen so far, I can’t help it.

Andromeda is clearly big – the advertising and pre-release previews incessantly promised environments several times larger than all previous Bioware games – but to me Mass Effect has always been about more than traversing a landscape.  It’s about exploring different cultures, different personalities.  So while this new universe might be physically expansive, it sure looks a lot emptier.

By all accounts the game has jettisoned the entirety of its most idiosyncratic alien species.  There are no appearances from the drell, the hanar, the elcor, the quarians, geth, volus or batarians.  Meanwhile, in their place, only two new additional races are expected to fill the void – one that looks to be cannon fodder; the other like a fairly generic clone of Avatar’s the Na’vi.

So, long, long, long story short: I’m not exactly racing out to buy a copy of Andromeda.

Mass Effect Andromeda bug

IMAGE: Secret third race of new aliens in game: the NoBetaTests

But what all of this recent buzz in the press (both positive and negative) did achieve was to make me nostalgic for the original games: Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2.  These works were – and still remain – two of my most beloved gaming experiences, so in light of all my newfound apathy I started to wonder:

How well do they still hold up?

It was a question that was particularly pressing given that I now find it impossible to think back on those experiences without recalling the way in which they ultimately conclude – all that hope and wonder and grace reduced to a spiteful, nihilistic wet thud that its writers presumably thought was profound.

So I decided to revisit the first two games in sequence.  To re-explore them, both with the (relative) fresh eyes of several years distance, and examining – really for the first time – the way in which foreknowledge of the trilogy’s vile ending impacts the experience.

That is what I will therefore be doing over the next few posts: cataloguing my tedious, erratic, distractible, rambling (and yes, long) thoughts on each game.  Pondering what, at least for me, remains of this revolutionary series.  What has dated it, what has tarnished it, but overall, what once made – and still makes – this series so magnificent.

And spoiler alert for the first game: It’s fantastic.

Because it’s all there in that first game.  All of it.  Everything that made the Mass Effect universe great.  Everything that captivates and excites the imagination.  Yes, the sequel’s promise of decisions that carry over from game to game was ripe with possibility; yes, the chance that you could watch entire civilisations change over multiple years, or grow alongside characters that you had fallen in love with was enticing; yes, the hope that game play mechanics would get polished and refined with new instalments tantalised; but returning to that first game, as I have over the past few weeks, provokes a startling revelation: much of what follows Mass Effect 1 is unnecessary.  Or at least, not impactful enough to dull the charms of the original.

To be clear: I’m not suggesting that the sequels should not exist.  Speaking as someone who adores the second game in the series (niggling narrative issues and all), and who even found momentary flashes of greatness in the trilogy’s dumpster fire of a conclusion, the subsequent games clearly have a reason to be.  All I am saying is that in revisiting the first game I have been delighted to discover that although Mass Effect is often spoken of as a trilogy (and now as a trilogy with a weird prequel/sequel/soft-reboot thing poking out of the side of it), in truth everything that made this series so wondrous appears, already fully formed, in the first game.  Some concepts may get fleshed out further in later instalments, the combat might be tightened, and there is a general uptick in the visuals (aside from your own character’s face in game 3), but often, not only does the first Mass Effect perfectly achieve the overarching narrative’s thematic goals, in many ways it articulates its mission statement more eloquently than the series would ever manage again.

But I’ll get to that next time.  For now I’ll just leave my argument unfinished, but overflowing with promises of what’s to come.  Let that tantalise and excite the imagination.  Let it build up impossible expectations that can never realistically be met.

Because, as this wondrous series has proved, that always works out great.

…Right?

Mass Effect title screen maxresdefault

p.s. – I am serious about welcoming people to tell me I’m utterly mistaken about Andromeda.  I highly doubt I will ever play it, but I would be delighted to hear of people’s experiences enjoying the game.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: ‘Welcome to the human race, a celebration’

Posted in criticism, movies, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on April 28, 2017 by drayfish

Guardians Vol 2

Okay, I’m about to be super, suuuuuuper petty.

I mean it: really insignificant and snippy.  And there’s pretty much no reason to do so, I just need to vent, even while realising that in a world where Trump is president and life for all humanity is about to become too expensive and environmentally toxic to remain viable, what I am about to say is phenomenally ridiculous.

But I just saw Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 today, and I loved it.

That’s not the petty bit.  I’ll get to the petty bit in a second.

Oh, and fear not: I will offer no spoilers.  I will simply say that I thought it was funny and lovable and scrappy – just like the original – but it wasn’t afraid to dig a little deeper into the characters and just have a great, if more personal, rollicking adventure.

I laughed; I cried; I pumped my fist in glee; I did all the things.

But when I got home, out of curiosity, I decided to check a review or two of the film, hoping to further fan the warm glow of enthusiasm in my chest by revelling in the shared joy of others.

And here’s where my pettiness comes in…

Because, sure, the majority of reviewers confirmed that, yep it’s still fun, still a winner (Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gave it a bit of a rave), but I was surprised to find a large sample of the critiques that I read (see a sampling of those criticisms here) all had variations on a similar theme: this one feels lame; the first one was better.

Over and over I kept reading it.

And for the most part they weren’t even scathing reviews.  This was no Suicide Squad pile on (although that film was a disaster).  But it was consistent.  One hipster backhanded dis after another.

Dinging the direction: this one thinks it’s cool, but the first one was effortlessly cool, man.  Having a go at the character interactions: well sure, they have fantastic banter and genuine emotional arcs, but it’s just not as unexpected as last time, brah.  One reviewer even trashed the soundtrack as lazy, all the time comparing it to the last movie, like that was some unassailable surprise wonder, and this one was just spinning its wheels.  Hey, using  the Jackson 5 last time was inspired, but Cat Stephens this time?!  Whaaaaaaaa?

And again, I want to make it clear: they were not saying the film was bad or had problems (I could at least understand what they meant then, even if I disagree), what irked me about these responses was the way that they seemed to talk in presumptive vagaries.  It’s less charming the second time around; it’s not as clever as it thinks it is (exactly how they know how clever it thinks it is going unexplained).  To me it read as being more interested in assuring the reader that they, the reviewer, were way too savvy and awesome to be impressed by what had seemed fresh and taken everyone else by surprise last time.

I mean, sure, they seemed to say, we might have been impressed by an anthropomorphic tree and a talking racoon having emotional depth last time, but why are they still in this film?  What, am I supposed to actually invest in these rich characters and their evolving inner psychologies?  I liked it better when it was just a one-off mind screw to be forgotten in an instant.

What I loved about the film, which many of these ‘I liked it better back when…’ commentaries seem to miss, is that simply upending your expectations is not the sole point of this film (nor was it was the focus of the first film, either.)  This is the second offering in a series.  It has recurring characters; a continuing plot; a consistent universe.  It’s not trying to drop your jaw to the floor by using Fleetwood Mac song in space, it’s just respecting is characters and tonal identity – and I thought doing it spectacularly.

Meanwhile, the series does innovate where it matters, just not in the superficial ways.  It still subverts space heroic tropes; it still keeps it playful and lived-in where it matters.  It still loves these characters and respects them enough to give them their own quirks and desires and drives, still making a precarious feat of juggling comic/tragic personalities look effortless.

True, as time goes on I will probably still consider the first film my favourite of the two, but that in no way means that this second film is a lesser beast.  In many respects, given the impossible expectations it had to meet – that apparently critics carried with them into the cinema – it’s the far more impressive.  It’s not beholden to the worn out ‘go chase this shiny MacGuffin’ archetypal Marvel plot of the first film; nor does it suffer from having a generic, forgettable bad guy like its predecessor; and rather than just watching this ensemble assemble, we get to live with them, watch how they deal with being a family.

Again, this is all very petty of me.  People can like and dislike whatever they want, however they want.  If they have the urge to pronounce that something is not as great as it once was without backing that statement up, that too is perfectly fine.

It just bothered me in the case of Guardians of the Galaxy, because it appears to be one the few big-budget action adventure superhero products still resisting the urge to amalgamate into a ubiquitous oneness.

Now that DC has let its entire pantheon of characters sour into a Zack Snyder’s grey funk; now that every Mummy and Dr Jekyll film has to pointlessly collaborate into a shared universe; now that Marvel films persist in bleeding into one another, getting more and more enmeshed and familiar, continuing to rehash the same plots (I enjoyed it, but Doctor Strange really is just Iron Man on acid), I love having this goofball little outlier of a series, just doing what it does and not apologising for it.  Earnest and playful; cross promotional brand awareness and infinity stones and the cynical posturing of critics be damned.

Dancing all on its own; making itself happy.

Radiating love.

baby-groot-dance

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

‘Alternative Stanzas’: Shakespeare on Trump

Posted in creative writing, criticism, stupidity, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on January 25, 2017 by drayfish

shakespeare-trump

This past weekend something amazing happened!

I was hunting through my garage and I stumbled across some original William Shakespeare manuscripts.  They were just sitting there, tucked underneath a box of old Robotech toys and a punctured inflatable pool.  Original, signed documents by William Shakespeare, the English language’s most extraordinary poet and dramatist.

I know, right?!

Obviously, had I made a statement like this in the past, I would have been attacked by the liberal media and the intelligentsia for having nothing to prove my claims.  “But don’t you live in Australia, nowhere near Stratford Upon Avon?” they would have asked.  “And wasn’t your garage only built in the 1970s, centuries after Shakespeare died?” they would tediously continue.  “And wasn’t this poem clearly typed out in a Microsoft Word program, when Shakespeare was probably more of an Apple guy?”  On and on.  Asking questions.  Demanding evidence.  Getting all up in my grill just because no such material has ever been discovered in four centuries of painstaking research and because of my track record of being a ridiculous, inveterate liar.

Well, shut it, eggheads!

We live in a bold, post-truth, fake news, “alternative facts” world now!

Truth is relative!  Objective, demonstrably provable facts are suspect!  War is peace!  Freedom is slavery!  Ignorance is strength!

I found a Shakespeare poem!

I said it.  Loudly.  And Angrily.  So it must be true.  Period.

Enjoy.

‘Alternative Facts’

When Don Trump swears that he is made of truths,

They do believe him, though they know he lies,

That he might think them some untutored youths,

Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties.

Thus they excuse the tax returns he fled,

The “proof” of Birtherism, his grand “wall”,

(That Mexico shall pay for, so he said),

And “record crowds” flooding National Mall.

Divesting his stocks, Cuban embargos,

His “charity”, vote fraud, and Russian hacks,

Bankruptcies, draft dodge, failed casinos,

Dozens of women and “unfair” attacks.

They welcome these falsehoods and plate them gold

To buy the lie that “greatness” can be sold.

So anyway, this is clearly an astonishing find.  Not only do these precious artefacts blow open our entire understanding of modern literary history, but I can finally, definitively end the centuries old debate over the real identity of the great bard.  Shakespeare was not secretly Christopher Marlowe or the Earl of Oxford.

He was (as I think many of us always suspected) a witch.

With his powers of prophesy, familiarity with the concept of cyber theft, and lazy, poorly-scanning rhyme structures, he was, undoubtedly, a practitioner of the dark arts.

Also, he appears to have had a Kenyan birth certificate.

And as if all that wasn’t amazing enough: there are notes and drafts for extra stanzas!

See, sonnets, by tradition, are 14 lines long, but it appears that Shakespeare had so much material to draw from in his foreknowledge of Donald Trump’s outrageous, galling, hysterical lies (oops – I mean, “post-true alterna-facts”) that he had to cut several extra lines of verse. Here are just some of the additional stanzas that didn’t make it into the final edit:

Election was “rigged”, but his win’s no fluke,

Clinton need not be stopped with a weapon.

He knew nothing about a David Duke,

But saw Muslims cheering 9/11.

That disabled reporter was not mocked,

And nothing was crooked about Trump U,

He didn’t say Megan Kelly bled on Fox,

And always opposed the Iraq war too.

And “Check out sex tape” was not what he said;

It’s a Chinese hoax, not a warming crisis.

Do “Blacks” shoot 80 percent of “Whites” dead?

No wonder Obama started ISIS.

Ted Cruz’s father probably killed JFK;

He saw footage of cash coming off that plane;

We cannot trust proof from the CIA;

But don’t worry, the swamp will soon be drained.

This is yuuuuuuuuuuge.

THE YEAR OF ‘SPEARE 06: The Spoiled Little Man-Child They Made King: Richard II, Donald Trump, and Regime Change

Posted in criticism, literature, movies, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on January 12, 2017 by drayfish

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IMAGE: The Hollow Crown: Richard II (Neal Street Productions)

This was going to be a nice easy one.

Read Richard II; watch the BBC’s sumptuous Hollow Crown version of the play; make a bunch of snotty Justin Bieber references; sign off.

Bim.  Bam.  Boom.  No fuss, no muss.

Because if you’re bothering to keep track (although, why would you?), my ‘Year of ‘Speare’ has been a little slow going.  To say the least.  After twelve months, I’ve discussed, what?  Three?  Four plays?  I mean, at this point it’s not even 2016 anymore!  It’s the year after ‘Speare.  Ah, whatever.

So Richard II was meant to be a way to turn that around.  To put out something quick.

It’s a play that I love – one inexplicably undervalued in the Shakespeare canon; one that has some striking things to say about human nature – so I figured I could belt out a quick diatribe about what a hidden gem the play is, how it explores universal existential fears, and how it speaks directly to our modern preoccupations with fame.

Indeed, that’s where the Bieber stuff would have come in…

The point I was going to make was that from one perspective, at its core, Richard II is all about the perils of celebrity at a young age.  The titular character, Richard, is a young, calamitously un-liked king – one eventually so hated that effectively his entire country conspires to dethrone him.  But from a more sympathetic perspective, he is a victim of his rise to stardom.  Preceding the action of the play, he was appointed monarch at the age of ten after his grandfather, father, and brother all died, thinning what was otherwise a healthy line of succession.  Richard went from an indulged ten year old boy to God’s appointed ruler on Earth – literally told that he was anointed from on high by the sacred blood of monarchy.  And so, although originally appointed advisors to assist him, the young king grew up in privilege, pampered, praised, his every desire met, his word literally law.  He could do no wrong, because he was King – and kings, as his own experience repeatedly proved, are above and beyond the rules of the commoners they deign to rule.

And as Shakespeare’s play reveals, that has got to screw a person up.

bieber-in-crown

IMAGE: Justin Bieber

Like Bieber at the height of his arrogant self-entitlement (abandoning his pet monkey; musing that Anne Frank would have been a fan; peeing in a mop bucket; drunken drag-racing) or present day Shia LaBeouf (trying to explain away his plagiarisms and general dickishness by turning himself into a walking performance art parody), Richard goes on to enact the downward spiral of every child celebrity who flipped out in adolescence and burned away all the good will their fame once cultivated.  He doesn’t hold up a liquor store or go on a drug-fuelled bender down a freeway, but he does start unfairly taxing his dukes and stealing their property to fund his unpopular wars.  He has his political rivals secretly killed and presides over sham court proceedings.  He alienates himself from the people of his kingdom by spending all day snarking with his mean-girl entourage.*

Eventually his people, who have resoundingly had enough, rise up in protest, revolt, and eject him from his rule.  They install Bollingbroke, soon to be Henry IV, in his place, and the second half of the play becomes an introspective psychological exploration of a Richard who, now stripped of his fame, tries to grapple with the question of his own identity.  If he is no longer a king – the sole thing that has defined him his entire life – then what, or even even who, is he?

To me, this play’s examination of the descent from celebrity to pariah seems a more prescient examination of contemporary culture than it must have been in the entire history of its performance.  From the vantage point of the 21st century, when every actor, musician, politician, YouTube star, Chewbacca Mom, and vacuous-yet-inexplicably-omnipresent-nobodies (I’m looking at you Kardassian brood), are all forced, inevitably, to grapple with the impact their public persona has had upon their lives, when the adoration of the crowd abates, and the wan ineffability of fame threatens to expose the figure behind the facade, this play’s central themes seem ever more urgent.

And what Richard II says about this struggle is profoundly moving.

At first, for the majority of the narrative, Richard balks at his forced abdication, grappling with the loss of his old, exalted identity by desperately struggling to substitute a new, false one in its place.  For a time he tries, unsuccessfully, to bluff his challengers, attempting to still throw his now-undermined royal authority around.  When that doesn’t work he waxes lyrical about being a monk, living in seclusion, giving himself up to the quiet adoration of God.  Later he goes into long, pitiful laments about how forgotten and forlorn he has become, romanticising his dissolution into nothingness with a messianically sacrificial tone.  But all of these attempts at self-description are just feints, lies striving to reconstitute a new meaning for himself, a way to avoid dealing with the vacuous hollow beneath his empty facade.

Despite this, in the final moments before his untimely death, Richard does finally reach an epiphany.  Wrestling with his wayward sense of self, he finally comes to accept ownership of his actions and identity, reaching an almost Zen state of being:

Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented.  Sometimes am I king.
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar;
And so I am.  Then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king.
Then am I kinged again; and by and by
Think that I am unkinged by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing.  But whate’er I be,
Nor I, nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing. (5.5.31-41)

Having been imprisoned, and left both figuratively and physically alone in his thoughts, Richard sees, finally, his own role in the shaping of his sense of self.  In the past he has been charmed by the delusions of his infallibility – of his people’s love, of his noblemen’s devotion, of God’s blessing – but once all that has been stripped from him, once he confronts the nothingness within himself, he sees it all an illusion permitted by his own ego.  Bolingbroke may have taken his crown, but whatever remains of Richard is his alone, prey only to his self-delusion.

Once he arrives at this revelation, Richard is free (albeit tragically briefly) to become his best self.  When assassins arrive to kill him, Richard implores the stableboy who has come to visit to flee and save himself, and he fights back valiantly, even killing one of his assailants, showing a valour at the moment of death that was obscured by his untested fame.

All this I would have said, and more besides (the Duke of York, the most interesting character in the play, the one whose shift of allegiance from Richard to Bolingbroke embodies the dramatic political upheaval unfolding, gives a phenomenal speech about the vacuousness of celebrity), but then the election happened, and Richard II, like seemingly everything else good this year, got ruined by a sentient sack of half-chewed Cheetos, Donald Trump.

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IMAGE: Donald Trump

Suddenly a story about the dangers of an indulged, thin-skinned, egomaniacal, vainglorious leader with no impulse control and a staggering deficit of real-world knowledge seemed a little less abstract.  Suddenly Richard II was no longer just about the tragedy of a man disentangling himself from his own celebrity, it was about the dangerous destabilisation that one man’s catastrophic rule could have upon a country’s entire political order.

(Of course, it should be clarified that Trump is nothing if not a celebrity.  In many ways, it’s all he is.  It’s certainly the principle way in which he has improbably peddled the fiction of his ‘business savvy’.  After ricocheting from one farcically failed business enterprise to the next for several decades, becoming a joke in his home state of New York for his many calamitous blunders, Trump eventually landed the role of ‘cartoon billionaire’ on The Apprentice, a vanity project designed to mythologise him as the ultimate dealmaker, no matter how repeatedly reality revealed it a fraud.**  And from that Trump was soon FOX News’ favourite conspiratorial Magic 8 Ball, where, once shaken up with a phone call he would spew whatever nonsense Birther/the-Chinese-invented-global-warming drivel he could into the airwaves, Howard Stern’s desperate little friend, and a torrent of narcissistic complexes and unchecked id on Twitter.  Inexplicably, for his many supporters, this celebrity image was never fully punctured by the slew of revelations about Trump’s many obfuscations, frauds, and corruptions – even those, like his taped admission of sexually assaulting women, that spoke directly to his status as a pseudo-celebrity.)

Dishearteningly, there are numerous superficial analogies to draw between the two men, the Richard and the Donald.  Richard shares something of Trump’s petty greed and vindictiveness.  He gleefully wishes his uncle Gaunt dead so he can immediately start pilfering his wealth, just as Trump applauds himself for stiffing contractors and burying them under litigation for seeking what is legally owed, or in the exploitative vulgarity he showed by using his ‘charity’ as a slush fund to buy himself gifts or to pay his legal debts with other people’s donations.

There is the ugly entitlement that both men exhibit.  Richard, thinking himself appointed by God to rule, cannot fathom that he might need to treat others with respect.  He’s so convinced of his righteousness that he literally believes that he can bless his country by touching it with his hand.  Trump’s similar feeling of privilege is emblazoned on every phallic building, scam ‘university’, and shiny bauble to which he has affixed his name.  And to be crass, he has made it evident in video footage that he believes he’s entitled to stick his hand wherever he wants.

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Both men are similarly infantilised, throwing tantrums when they do not get their way – Richard whimpering off to Flint Castle, Trump walling himself away from reality by constructing comforting fictions on Twitter.  Richard doesn’t think he needs to answer for unjustly having his uncle murdered because he thinks himself above the law; Trump is outraged that he should be accountable for his own words and actions, claiming the media is ‘mean’ to him when they report on the things that he himself does, that the people who protest him are ‘unfair’, and that Meryl Streep and the cast of Hamilton are big meanies.

Thankfully there are some differences that differentiate the two men.  As I have noted, Richard is at times capable of producing stirring lyricism, far from the ‘pussy-grabbing’, pugnacious, playground incoherency of Trump.  And again, by the end of his narrative journey, having felt defeat most acutely, Richard exhibits a level of self-assessment and introspection that Trump has repeatedly proved himself is psychologically incapable of achieving.

But more than their evident character flaws, parallels can also be drawn between the state of the two lands these men seek to govern.  Richard II is, after all, not only a personal tragedy (indeed, some readers may well argue whether or not it is even that), it is moreover the tragedy of a nation.  It catalogues the shift from England’s history of Kings appointed by holy decree, to a rule dictated by political concord.  England shifts from a land unified around a singular, unquestioned monarch, to a family feud that would play out over several generations and erupt, frequently, into full blown civil war.

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Trump’s election worryingly signals an analogous shift in the identity of America and its traditional ideals.  A fundamental part of Trump’s appeal in the 2016 election was his defiance of – in many cases his complete contempt for – established democratic norms.  Trump, for better or worse (or catastrophically, nightmarishly, apocalyptically worse), represented the rejection of the established political order of the United States.  He was a protest vote, a way to shake up a system that was seen to be stagnating.  It’s why his promise to ‘drain the swamp’ rang so loudly (and why his cabinet picks post-election, effectively relocating the swamp into his White House, are so farcical).  It’s why, to many of his supporters, Trump’s reprehensible behaviour throughout the election was not seen as a detriment, but a curious boon.

On the campaign trail he repeatedly made wildly inflammatory, unsubstantiated (often proved abjectly false) statements about other races, religions, and groups, in defiance of established political decorum.  He called Mexicans rapists and murderers, circulated bogus statistics about ‘Black on White’ crime, and implicated all Muslims in the actions of terrorists by suggesting that ‘they’ weren’t doing enough to help stop terrorist acts.  His supporters, however, saw all of these insults – and many more besides – as a refreshing willingness to ‘speak his mind’ (even when his mind was wilfully inaccurate) and proof that he wasn’t ‘following a script’ (even when he read his remarks directly from teleprompters).

He threatened – on multiple occasions, from most every conceivable angle – the right of free speech; the first amendment of the constitution.  From vowing to look into ‘changing the libel laws’ (despite these laws not actually existing), to threatening to sue journalists for printing anything he doesn’t like, to openly harassing members of the press, he created a uniquely hostile relationship with the news media.  His supporters likewise clearly enjoyed this game of Trump biting the hand that fed him, as they raucously booed and hissed the media at his rallies like pantomime evil-doers, and joyfully resurrected the derogatory term Lügenpresse, a Nazi German word for ‘lying press’.

He refused to accept the peaceful transition of power when it looked like he was not going to win, following up on the tantrums he threw during the primaries whenever he lost by threatening one of the country’s most sacred democratic traditions, the peaceful transition of power, even claiming that voter fraud and mass conspiracies were rampant.  (Predictably, the second he won any question of a rigged election was swiftly abandoned – while still claiming on Twitter that millions of people had voted illegally.)  And again his supporters appeared to adore this too, as both they and the president elect got to work hypocritically admonishing anyone who wanted to examine the clear influence of Russian interference in the election.

He refused to release his taxes – cowardly and entirely erroneously claiming that the IRS wouldn’t allow him to release them – breaking with several decades of practice, and exhibiting what would become a pattern of refusing to be transparent with his voters, from his business dealings to the ‘blind trust’ of his children running his company, all while hypocritically attacking his opponent for that very thing.  (…In this instance his supporters apparently enjoyed being told to screw off, because I can see no other reason for them to celebrate this continuing pattern of being contemptibly patronised to.)

He vowed to lock up his political opponent, the signature threat of a petty dictator; he suggested that ‘second amendment people’ should assassinate his rival should she win; he insulted and attacked a Gold Star family; argued that a ‘Mexican’ judge was not able to properly adjudicate the fraud trial against Trump University; talked with relish about unleashing America’s nuclear arsenal; mocked a disabled reporter; refused to hold a press conference in almost a year while literally fleeing from the White House press gallery; spent his time, both at his rallies and through the cowardice of social media, offending, belittling, and attacking those less powerful than he, all while quoting war criminals he admired and rehashing sad old grudges to make himself feel big.  Despite their craven, cynical cozying up to him after his victory, for much of his campaign he was reviled by much of his own party, and his only endorsements of any status was from the goddamn KKK.  To his voters, Trump presents the end of the system they know, but for all of Trump’s rhetoric about making America ‘great’ again, what he actually presents is not a return to some mythologised past, but the fundamental remaking of all of America’s founding principles.

Just like in Richard II, in which the elevation of a young, unprepared boy to the station of King eventually leads to the undermining of the hereditary tradition that had defined the English monarchy right back to William the Conqueror, Trump’s ascendency to President of the United States can be seen as the dramatic end of an era.  Just as Richard’s reign saw England’s (relatively) peaceful transfer of power through birthright and familial lineage fall into question, Trump’s impending rule, more in the styling of a petty dictatorship or the ramblings of a Twitter troll, represents the end of the ideals of the American Republic as it has traditionally been understood.

A nation built on immigration, religious freedom, and unfettered speech, is now to be governed by a man who campaigned, aggressively, against all of those things.  The notion of American exceptionalism that led the United States to becoming a beacon of moral authority in global politics has been abandoned for an inward-looking, paranoid, ‘America first’ nationalism.

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IMAGE: The Hollow Crown: Richard II (Neal Street Productions)

Richard II is about the moment of awakening from a beautiful dream.  The glorified England of the past is already just a remembrance, but the fantasy clings, even as it is dissolved from within.  The BBC’s Hollow Crown production, in all its lavish spectacle, captures this beautiful decay elegantly.  Part Byzantine painting, part Game of Thrones, it rockets along with all the prerequisite scheming and beheadings necessary to satiate those looking for action, while allowing breathing room for the psychological renegotiations and losses playing out on the character level.  It even manages to make the somewhat ridiculous scene in the final act of York and his wife each pleading their respective cases for their conspirator son to Henry IV (an interaction traditionally played for a kind of ghoulish laugh, and a counterpoint to Richard’s earlier phony courtroom scene) operate as a loaded enactment of York’s loyalty to a sworn promise, even in the face of personal sacrifice.

Likewise, it handily juggles the artifice in Shakespeare’s text.  Richard II is one of Shakespeare’s most lyrical plays – one of the few written entirely in verse – and it consequentially has some splendid, but highly rigid, rhyming beats elevating its most pointed moments.  In the hands of lesser actors, these shifts into poesy could have sounded stilted, even ridiculous, but the entire ensemble shines.  Some, like the mercurial Ben Whishaw, as a Richard seeking desperately to still array himself in the plumage of a kingship he has already lost, and David Suchet as the pragmatic, but mournful York, and the ever-reliable Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt, give captivating performances that stun the viewer to silence.  I defy anyone to watch Stewart’s rendition of the ‘This sceptred isle’ monologue and not be moved – his brazen challenge, foretelling the ruin of his nation, peering through the camera lens, beyond time, to the audience of the future who can confirm his prophesy.  It is a speech that echoes through the following several plays Shakespeare wrote recounting the War of the Roses, and Stewart, with his signature gravitas, gives it the enormity it warrants:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden – demi-paradise –
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Feared by their breed, and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home
For Christian service and true chivalry
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry
Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s Son;
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out – I die pronouncing it –
Like to a tenement or pelting farm.
England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds.
That England that was wont to conquer others
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death! (2.1.31-68)

In the face of Richard’s misrule, Gaunt foresees an age of greed and ruin.  Over the course of one rollicking, thunderous, building sentence, all prologue to its final declamatory insult, Gaunt paints the image of a proud land already lost in a fantasy of itself.  For the moment England still believes itself blessed by God’s grace, but Gaunt can see through the facade into the ghastly, self-defeating hypocrisy already eating away at its heart.  Shakespeare didn’t write those lines with Donald Trump in mind; neither did Stewart speak them so; but it now remains impossible to hear them without thinking of his ‘yuuuuuuge’ victory.

If I have one complaint about The Hollow Crown’s production (and I really don’t), it is that it sets the bar so high that the following six films in the series (Henry VI parts 1 and 2, Henry V, Henry VI parts 1 and 2, and Richard III) never quite measure up to it, as truly exceptional as each of them are.  But this too is only fitting for a play that is fundamentally concerned with the passing of an ideal age that proves ultimately impossible to reclaim.

It is such a powerful moment that now, as the free world looks to the future with a leader who is an apologist for (and likely beholden to) Russian Oligarchs, who is a vociferous advocate for torture and human rights violations, who holds paying taxes and avoiding conflicts of interest with open contempt, who skips intelligence briefings and subscribes to insane conspiracy theories, and who lies openly and brazenly on a daily basis, one wonders if the United States needs its own Sceptred Isle speech.

But perhaps it already has one…

In Back to the Future 2 Marty McFly glimpsed a world run by a deranged, narcissistic, sexually abusive gangster-wannabe  with a tower fetish and comically fake hair.  Bob Gale, writer of the film, intentionally fashioned Biff Tannen as an analogy for Trump (the one major difference appears to be that Biff was actually successful at running casinos), and his nightmare scenario for the dark timeline Biff creates with his sports almanac is a world of gilded trash in which the greed, corruption and pettiness Trump embodies are given license.

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IMAGE: Back to the Future 2 (Universal Pictures)

Of course, much as I love it, Back to the Future lacks much of the sombre, tremulous beauty of Shakespeare’s original text – no ‘That America hath made a shameful conquest of itself’ here.  But for a year like 2016, telling democracy that it should ‘Make like a tree and get out of here’ seems sadly appropriate.

Thankfully, the words of the Duke of York, tragic in the context of Richard II, offer some hope in the wake of Trump’s degradation of the American electoral process.  As I alluded to earlier, when York laments the passing of Richard’s rule, he likens him to a celebrity who has passed out of favour with his audience:

As in a theatre the eyes of men,
After a well graced actor leaves the stage,
Are idly bent on him that enters next,
Thinking his prattle to be tedious:
Even so, or with much more contempt, men’s eyes
Did scowl on gentle Richard.  No man cried ‘God save him!’
No joyful tongue gave him his welcome home (5.2.23-29)

Even for all of Richard’s failings, the image is sombre and heartbreaking.  That which was once so highly regarded is treated with disdain; not merely forgotten, but immediately condemned.

However, when Trump inevitably implodes these words will seem like a blessed relief.  Because when Trump – a figure more celebrity than man, more bluster than substance – can no longer hide from his supporters that he has walked back every one of his campaign promises, that he has no answers for the fears he exploited, and that his vision extends nowhere beyond himself, the fickle nature of even his most loyal audience will similarly turn against him.  And even though Trump, as the soon-to-be oldest man to be sworn in as President, is no child celebrity, he will get to feel the same sting that has marked Justin Bieber and Shia LaBeouf.

It’s not much.

It’s barely anything.

But as Richard himself says, sometimes we must all be content with nothingness.

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IMAGE: The Hollow Crown: Richard II (Neal Street Productions)

*   *   *

* It should be acknowledged that, like all of his history plays, Shakespeare takes innumerable liberties with his characterisation of the titular historical figure, so when I speak of Richard II, I am solely referencing Shakespeare’s representation of him.

** Building off the legend of his ghost-written autobiography The Art of the Deal – a book that the writer himself now loudly admonishes as a pernicious work of fraud. (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/07/25/donald-trumps-ghostwriter-tells-all)

*   *   *

Texts Mentioned:

Book: Richard II by William Shakespeare (ed. by Stanley Wells, Penguin, 1997)

Production: The Hollow Crown: Richard II, directed by Rupert Goold, screenplay by Rupert Goold, Ben Power, and William Shakespeare (Neal Street Productions, 2012)

Back to the Future 2, directed by Robert Zemeckis, screenplay by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis (Universal Pictures, 1989)

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