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‘Bees and Birds and Bluths, Oh My…’: Arrested Development Season 4

Posted in criticism, literature, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2013 by drayfish

arrested-development-season-4-full-cast

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

Sick B Colony

In 2006, freshly cancelled by the Fox television network, season three of Arrested Development ended on a note of dispersal.*  With the series-long unifying through-line of father George Bluth Sr.’s criminal trial for ‘light’ treason finally resolved, the revelation that daughter Lindsay was adopted, cousin Maeby no longer biologically related, and mother Lucille running from the feds by trying to sail a theme restaurant into international waters, son Michael Bluth finally decided to let his family take care of themselves for once, dislodging he and his son from the self-imposed burden of shepherding this narcissistic flock into order.  The show seemingly let the ties that held this universe together go slack.

After three years of being bound together through mutual obligation, these final moments were about freedom; ironically, for a show overburdened with self-involved characters, it was about Michael allowing himself to be selfish for once, finally deciding to put his and his son’s own happiness above everyone else’s.**  It literally ended (not counting the epilogue) with an image of the protagonist and his son riding into the sunset, limitless possibility ahead of them.

Over the intervening years, just as its name ironically implied, Arrested Development hung in a kind of suspended animation, waiting to be reborn as a new series on HBO or Showtime (both metatextually referenced in the Hail Mary ‘Save Our Bluths’ episode), or as a feature film (signalled in the series epilogue, in which Ron Howard, upon hearing the pitch for the show, observes that he cannot picture it on television, ‘But maybe a movie…’)  Its writers, directors and actors – all highly sought after – moved on to other projects, and the dream became progressively less likely.  Nonetheless, in a fervent, almost irrational passion worthy of the Bluth’s themselves, the show’s creators and their still-growing fan-base remained committed to the cause of bringing this family back together, continuing to keep hope alive.

And then, in May of this year, rising impossibly from the ashes like a phoenix (once again, self-referentially acknowledged in the title of its first new episode, ‘Flight of the Phoenix’), Arrested Development did indeed finally return.  Specifically developed for and screened upon the burgeoning content platform of Netflix as a simultaneous, fifteen episode release, the once-thought-impossible fourth season began with Ron Howard’s unnamed, omniscient narrator casually clearing his throat:

‘It was May –’

(*ahem*)

‘It was May 4th…’

It was a playful nod to the relative silence that he, these characters, and the audience that awaits them have had to endure for the several years previous, and it proved to be symbolic of the relative ease with which this communication between text and audience could be resumed – indeed, arguably enhanced – by the time apart.

Because rather than simply returning to pick up exactly where they last left off, Arrested Development chose to transform itself into something greater.  For a show that was once justifiably beloved for never taking its viewers for granted – celebrated for constantly embedding layers of subtle call-backs, searing social satire, and deep foreshadowing amidst the all the frivolity; that had already proved it could mix dadaesque absurdism into the collision of some identifiably human (if exaggerated) characters; that had consistently managed to deflate the saccharine with snark; flipped and back-flipped narrative convention and made it look effortless – Arrested Development once again proved its capacity to reshape the very fabric of comedy, to challenge what the television medium itself can ultimately achieve, and to offer what is perhaps the most transformative and culturally reflective work of literature for the twenty-first century.

When fans explored this resurgent new season, what awaited them proved to be one of the most audacious, revolutionary, and compoundingly hilarious evolutions in episodic storytelling ever conceived.  Instead of the lightning-paced episodes that had defined its first three years, in which nine characters constantly vied for screen time, all circling Michael’s ringleader straight-man, this season chose to respect the sense of familial drift with which the previous season had concluded, and concerned itself with following each of these figures individually, every episode tracking one character through a personal journey as they try (and most often fail) to satisfy some longing within themself.

By tackling this multiform narrative, choosing to recount the period of time between this family’s disbandment and the eventful night of Cinco de Cuatro through multiple viewpoints, the show devised a form of asynchronous, organically overlapping storytelling heretofore unseen in television.  Evoking the experimental narrative shifts in Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, the contextual point-of-view revisionism of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and the tonal and referential density of Joyce’s Ulysses, Arrested Development utilised its nine characters and fifteen episodes to remake the conventional form of storytelling, tying this dislocation and cultural diffusion into the very fabric of its theme and narrative.

The show thus developed even more elaborate interlocking plotlines, with each of these character’s apparently individual storylines proving to feed directly into one other, their actions impacting upon each other’s experiences in myriad, imperceptible ways.  With each return to an already viewed scene the show expanded the ramifications of these events with new context, the comedy compounding exponentially, the narrative becoming endlessly more than the sum of its composite parts.

And alongside these larger, intricately woven plot threads, the new season also employed several adaptive metaphors that likewise operate across multiple character arcs.  This poetic colour acts as more subconscious imagistic connective tissue, dynamically refracting from episode to episode when placed into the wider context that only the organising principle of the narrator – and eventually the viewing audience – can offer, able to reason out the implications of these bonds.

Perhaps the most expansive systemic analogy utilised this season is triggered in the episodes ‘Double Crossers’ and ‘Colony Collapse’, in which Lucille goes to ‘Plan B’, ordering son GOB to meet his father in the desert to help with their border wall project.  Instead of providing assistance, however, ‘gentleman honey farmer’ GOB accidentally unleashes his newly invigorated colony of sick bees, consequentially tanking his father’s Sweat and Squeeze fundraising scam in a flurry of stings and screaming.

Soon it becomes clear why the letter B is so ubiquitous throughout this season.  From George Sr. becoming a phony guru called ‘Father B’, to Michael calling himself ‘Michael B’ while assembling his ‘B-Team’ movie production staff.  From Baby B. Buster, to GOB awakening after his new excursion into B-level Hollywood celebrity to find a message on his mirror that reads, ‘Hey Joe Withabee’; and most revealingly, Lucille becoming known by the prison moniker ‘The B Word’, or ‘Queen B’.

They are Bees – literal Bs – and with their Queen B out of action, and their communal bond dissipated, the Bluths do indeed fall apart.  And so, as George Sr. stands amidst the chaos of ‘Plan B’ wearing a beekeepers hat and blouse, hearing GOB describe the symptoms of CCD, it is clear that this is a diagnosis that the Bluth family itself shares.  George Sr.’s wall-building scheme swiftly falls apart and must be bribed undone; GOB’s marriage into the Veals and revenge scheme on Tony Wonder each go spectacularly awry; Buster tries to replace his mother with a terrifying home-made mannequin and a stint in the armed forces that proves he can make even a desk job personally hazardous; Michael’s career as a movie producer dissolves into a flurry of judgemental tantrums, petulantly tearing up the releases that he requires and kicking everyone else off the project; Tobias’ continued attempt to pursue his delusion of stardom leads him to cling to a piece of discarded Hollywood debris – a woman actually called DeBris – who he eventually leaves collapsed in a pile of garbage, while his theatrical copyright infringement proves to be chum in the water for circling lawyers; Lindsay’s attempt to reconnect with her inner, protesting liberal ends with her becoming a waspy conservative career politician; and Maeby’s search for validation from her parents leaves her adrift in a cycle of perpetual non-graduation, her natural talents of producing directed toward spruiking a product that ultimately does not exist.

Having spent three seasons growing closer together in a kind of dysfunctional but loving interdependence, the past several years are revealed to have splintered them apart again, a theme played out in the very structure of this season and its isolated character vignettes.  Gone their separate ways, often only unknowingly intruding upon each other’s lives, they are a family without cohesion and purpose – drifting, no longer able to validate themselves or each other as they journey on alone.  Just like GOB’s sickly hive, the Bluth Bs suffer their own Colony Collapse Disorder, their cross-pollinating storylines ironically failing to germinate anything productive.

arrested joe withabee

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

‘I’ll Put Up A Wall’

Just as the Bluth family were originally symbolic of the dissatisfaction lurking at the heart of the American dream – a family of entitlement, rocked by flagrant corporate embezzlement, forced to renegotiate their hollow narcissism and excess (although almost never successfully) – in this latest season they continue to reflect contemporary culture.  Consequentially, the narrative is loaded with references to the modern political and social climate, offering the most comprehensive and dense satire of the early twenty first century yet conceived.

Since the Bluths disappeared from television screens the subprime mortgage crisis has erupted, almost collapsing western civilisation into a new depression, the casual application of drone warfare and the revelations that spooled out of WikiLeaks have darkened US international relations, political discourse has degraded into partisan hysteria and fear-mongering sound bites, celebrity culture and the rise of social media have mutated our conceptions of privacy, and systematised social inequity has given rise to rallying cries like the Occupy movement.  If anything, familial and social bonds have become only more diffuse and contradictory in the intervening years, and Arrested Development loads these issues into the framework of its tale, allowing each of its characters to exhibit aspects of this social dissemination.

Buster becomes a drone pilot for Army, mistaking the brutality he is inflicting for the detachment of a videogame.  Tobias and Lindsay purchase a palatial estate on the cusp of the housing industry’s collapse, literally losing one another amongst its needless, empty square-footage.  We see members of Anonymous lurking in the shadows, trying to threaten George Michael (Mr. Maharis) away from his goal of creating the world’s best wood block musical app.  A right-wing Herman Cain substitute (Herbert Love), like his real-life counterpart, runs on a family values platform while secretly engaging in an extramarital affair, and spouts endless, hackneyed Tea Party slogans, demonising government corruption while negotiating his own lobbyist bribes.  And in a culture where demonising illegal immigration through the language of ‘invasion’ and ‘otherness’ runs rife, the hot-button issue of building a wall on the Mexican border threads through all of their tales, utilising this impulse for isolationist ‘protection’ as emblematic of the culture at large.

Feeling alienated and abandoned by their loved ones, exposed in the glare of a daunting world, this season finds the Bluth family – much like the world at large – attempting to construct new walls, both literal and figurative, to fortify themselves from harm.  Thus, in lieu of communication or change, they barricade themselves away.  George Sr. tries to swindle the US government by exploiting the hysteria of illegal immigration, offering to build a wall on the border with Mexico.  Tobias laments the universe putting up all sorts of walls between he and his dreams and tries to build his own little musical theatre haven in the Austerity Rehab Centre.  GOB flees the closeness and sincerity of marrying into the Veal’s welcoming family, a group so devoid of emotional walls that they all live together under one roof and collapse into communal hugs when they hear good news; he is likewise unprepared for the effects of being open with rival Tony Wonder, the first person with whom he finds he can share an empathetic bond (they are the ‘Same… Same…’), and immediately resorts to sabotage, again barricading himself away from a human intimacy that is all too confronting.  Not to mention poor Steve Holt (sorry: ‘STEVE HOLT!’), a son yearning for connection, relegated to the role of the ‘boss’ that is ‘on [his] ass…’  Even George Michael, struggling to assert himself and desperate to impress, stumbles into promising to build a privacy-blocking wall of electronic software, while, Maeby, heartbroken at being abandoned by her parents and run out of show business, likewise devotes herself to this ‘Fake Block’ system utterly.

And in one of the most revelatory cross-purpose conversations ever orchestrated, when Tobias’ is eliciting Lucille to join his doomed Fantastic Four knock-off, he leads her to the realisation that she feels like an ‘invisible woman’, creating ‘force field’ walls to protect herself from harm.  Indeed, it is in her audition for the part of Lucia – singing a song she wrote herself – that Lucille exposes this fear and desire for withdrawal most acutely:

‘My children despise me, my husband defies me,

It doesn’t surprise me, to hell with them all.

I’ll put up a wall.

You think I’m a villain, a villain I’ll be

My heart is in pain, I just want to flee,

from me…’

This is a family that has been emotionally broken, and while the anarchic exploits that spool from this sense of loss and abandon are hilarious, there is a sombre truth to hearing ‘The Sound of Silence’ play as GOB loses himself down a bout of self-loathing reverie, or watching Buster stammer through juice-stained lips as he realises that the security blanket of his mother is being torn from him.  And there is most certainly a shockingly revelatory bite to hearing Lucille, the family’s matriarchal centre, their Queen B, who has famously ignored self-assessment throughout her life (‘If that’s a veiled criticism about me, I won’t hear it and I won’t respond to it’) finally exposing her self-loathing, and a desire to wall herself away from sorrow.

The great irony of these attempts to isolate themselves, however, is that despite their boasts for autonomy, this family proves incapable of escaping each other’s influence, their storylines bouncing off each other unknowingly as a product of their inexorable gravitational pull.  Glitter-bombs are stymied, bags are switched, dead doves turn up in freezers, cheques and beehive-shaped caves and red wigs and the brotherhood of Andy Richter, all float between these tales, repeatedly thwarting their plans – literally breaking down walls – as the tale unfolds.  Although they appear to be alone, although they seek to isolate themselves utterly, as the season progressively reiterates, the one thing that can break down these fearful barriers is family.

arrested ostrich

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

Head in the Sand

For all of the recurring images of Banana-Grabbers, Blue-Men, sad-sacks, and hop-ons that have become signatures of the show, the most ubiquitous recurring image this season was that of the ostrich.

In the first episode, returning from Phoenix to remake himself once again, Michael was run over by one in the wrecked Bluth penthouse; Lindsay believed that the Indian guru who placed her on her spiritual path transformed into one, and follows her face-blind lover because he owned an ostrich farm, and that couldn’t be coincidence; George Sr. was visited by what he thought was an ostrich spirit in a desert hallucination; Maeby was attending a school that had an ostrich as their team mascot (Go Ostriches!); Lucille 2 was amorously savaged by one;  in lieu of the family stair car Michael was driving a vehicle described as one (a Google street camera)***; Buster fails to read the cartoon warning of one on his juice box; and when GOB swerves to avoid an ostrich he unleashes his box of bees, sees a decorative statue of one in Tony Wonder’s storage room, and hears one speak to him at his lowest moment (at rock-bottom in the bottom of a rock) informing him that if he does not dare to open himself up to others, then the treasures within him would never come out…

Pretty deep advice for a novelty drinking bird (…or the host of Locker Hawkers, who it is revealed was actually the one speaking).

Flightless, gangly, somewhat absurd in appearance, the ostrich shares a good deal of traits with the Bluths themselves – but it is the bird’s reputation the proves to be most revealing. Proverbially, the ostrich is a creature famous for sticking its head in the sand.  When they see danger, it is said that they bury themselves underground, oblivious to the world around them and ironically still open to attack.  It is a cliché that Maeby even expresses to her mother while disguised as the shape-shifting Indian guru: ‘Pull your head out of the sand’ – advice that both Lindsay, and Maeby herself, choose to ignore.

And fittingly, this utterly erroneous myth perfectly encapsulates the behaviour of almost every member of the Bluth family this season.  Troubled by a sense of loss and bewilderment, they foolishly choose to abandon their familial bonds and indulge selfish pursuits that more often than not further obscure rather than inspire self-awareness.  They bury their heads in the sand.  Indeed if the metaphor were not overt enough, we even see that whenever an ostrich appears it being directly aligned with some kind of wisdom – observed in a vision or as a spirit, uttered by a sage or a motto.  But every time that such a message is conveyed it is ignored by the wayward Bluths, who rather than heeding its advice – opening up to one another, seeking for validation and support – instead dysfunctionally continue to push people further away, compounding their misery in a roofie circle of de-actualisation.

And the most egregious example of this self-destructive blindness occurs in the most deceptively impactful scene of the entire series…

The narrative conceit of Arrested Development’s season four is intentionally misleading.  The show initially sets itself up as something of a noir mystery, purporting to slowly answer the mystery of what happened on one dark, debauched night at Cinco de Cuatro (a celebration long ago created by the Bluth’s themselves to peevishly undercut Cinco de Mayo).  In each episode we appear to be unravelling the truth about this literally explosive evening, travelling back in time to contextualise a night where people are going to be threatened, led to question their identity and sexuality, hospitalised, morally compromised, and possibly (although let’s face it, probably not really) murdered.

But while the narrative does gradually disentangle Cinco de Cuatro’s elaborate knot, dancing across the ingeniously interwoven experience of a family that seems cosmically fated to intersect, these revelations are ultimately proved less impactful than a deceptively innocuous scene that is dually being gradually unpacked in every episode: a gathering of the entire family in one of the most familiar of the show’s locations, the Balboa Towers penthouse.

In its earliest appearances in the season, the scene is appears to be little more than a company briefing between Michael and his parents, an exchange in which he declares that he is out of the business, and out of the family, for good.  As each episode continues to build upon the one previous to it, the scope of that scene literally widens, however, the camera angles shifting to reveal that more and more characters are present when this event take place.  Lindsay and Tobias have announced they are giving their marriage another try.  GOB declares that he will be marrying Plant  …I mean, Mouth  …I mean Egg  …I mean, Ann.  Buster is workshopping his testimony for the trial.  Maeby is looking on ignored.  And significantly revealed last is George Michael – for whom, ultimately, the whole gathering is taking place.  Because, as the banner above the door reveals (‘Look at banner, Michael!’), this is a farewell party for George Michael on the eve of his moving to college.

We therefore come to see that in the midst of this fractured series, this is chronologically the last time that this family have gathered together, and they are there to celebrate the boy who originally brought them together at the beginning of the first season – the young man who was the reason that Michael decided to stick around when his father’s business had dissolved into a legal quagmire.  George Michael has grown into a young, aspiring man, and (despite the fact that everyone eventually starts thoughtlessly singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to him by mistake) they are there to celebrate whatever future lies before him.

And so, Michael’s once clichéd storm out – declaring that he has had enough of his family’s selfishness; that he is leaving them all behind and taking his son with him – suddenly takes on a whole new and disheartening dimension.  Because for once his exit is in fact successful. The family does indeed implode, causing far more damage than he had foreseen.  As part of his selfish exit, Michael forces George Michael to tear up a gift just given to him by his grandparents, a gift of money that would have set him up to pursue his studies on his own terms.

Although Michael has always considered himself the most altruistic of the Bluth clan, in truth he has always skirted the edge of the rational himself.  Seemingly the uber-straight man to the panoply of madness around him, he is actually just self-deluded enough to believe that he is the only normal one in a family of spoiled egomaniacs.  In reality, he reveals himself to be just as self-involved as any of them, blind to the smothering relationship he has cultivated with his son.  For all his indignation and pomposity, Michael too has his head buried in the sand, his pride preventing him from appreciating the line that he has crossed in imposing his own issues upon his son’s life.  Consequentially, the tearing of that cheque symbolically echoes throughout the remainder of the season.

From that point on, although George Michael still tries to be the dutiful son, he finds his father’s presence and expectations a progressively choking imposition.  He wants to go by a different name than ‘George Michael’, given the pop-culture baggage that it carries, but is guilted into relenting.  Having stretched his wings in Spain he tries to reinvent himself at college as a young, sexually confident man, but ends up finding his father crashing on his top bunk, passive-aggressively convincing him to shave off his new moustache, and literally not willing to give him any space.  And most damaging of all, he tries to outgrow his childhood crush by dating someone else, only to find that his father has actively tried to steal this new girlfriend for himself.

This season ultimately proves to be about severing the final, previously most stable bond that this family has managed, in spite of itself, to maintain.  In the end, in his selfish efforts to divorce himself from his own family, Michael has managed to accidentally build the only successful wall amongst the many proposed but never brought to fruition this season: he has managed to drive a barrier between he and his son.  After a season of Michael licking the wounds of being voted out of George Michael’s dorm room in the first episode – a course of events that he still hubristically wants to believe was due to everyone else misunderstanding the ‘plan’ – the revelation that Michael was knowingly pursuing Rebel Alley behind his son’s back leads to the real emotional and literal blow that stops this rollicking, spritely story in its tracks.

And so, as the final scene of the episode (not including the epilogue) hangs in the air, George Michael having punched his father in the face, and both men left standing staring at each other, one seething with betrayal, the other numb with shame, both shocked by the new distance between them, there really does seem to be a divide where once there was unity.  Finally Michael and George Michael – like the audience itself – must acknowledge that this is a different world into which they have grown, and it is one that will require selflessness and trust if there is any hope to heal.

arrested love each other

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

Love Each Other

Selectively blind to their own realities, the members of the Bluth family repeatedly miss the most important advice that the universe tries to impart to them.  Through broken walls, the preponderance of missed avian counsel, the inevitable, spectacular collapse of each of their selfish pursuits, there is a message that they keep overlooking, shouted at them from every conceivable angle, one that – like the proverbial ostriches, heads buried in the sand – they are unable to see.  Written on the tags of dead doves, gasped by a dying mailman, seared across the back of a sacrilegious magic spectacular; mumbled out as rambling romantic advice from a lecherous uncle (who means it as an excuse for promiscuity) to his befuddled nephew (who re-interprets it as a call for integrity and respect):

‘Love each other.’

It is even offered as the very last piece of dialogue in the season, in what is chronologically the final moment to which everything else has built, in the earnest sign-off of television presenter John Beard, who wishes his audience well as he bids them goodbye:

‘This is John Beard.  Remember: love each other.’

And despite the Bluth characters’ inability to cherish this instruction (even George Michael soon abandons his revelation by mistaking a threatening letter for an offer of enthusiastic lovemaking), it is here that we in the audience, with our metatextual perspective, can get the most out of the line.

Like the program Arrested Development itself, which swam in a kind of production vacuum until finding its voice again in its triumphant return on Netflix, newsreader John Beard is shown throughout this season similarly displaced.  Popping up all over the media dial in a variety of formats – naff morning talk shows, airport cable news networks, Catch-a-Predator gotcha specials, gas station update reports (seemingly geared around ‘pump’ puns) – by season’s end he eventually finds his home on Ron Howard’s burgeoning and remarkably personalised (there is a reminder to go to the doctors in the newsfeed crawl at the bottom of the screen) news network.  And it is from this new home, finally secure, that Beard stares out at us, through Howard’s television screen and though ours too, to offer his new mantra.

As has always been its style, when Arrested Development gets sincere, it does so in the most metatextual, subversive way possible – after all, this is the show that could go cornball while ‘cornballing’ it in the same second, that turns heartfelt hugs into an opportunity to ‘taste my tears’, to ‘taste the happy’ – and here, through Beard’s rote but heartfelt counsel, we have a statement as much to the fans as to the characters that keep missing its implications.

‘Love’ in the Arrested Development universe is bizarre.  It can be competitive, blind, asexual, occasionally incestuous and frequently borderline polygamous, but it is deep, and it is messy, and it is real.  For all of their fleeting fancies and fruitless passions, the Bluths do care for each other, and profoundly need each other; and over the span of these four seasons and across all of the madness of the past few years, when the Bluths could barely take care of themselves let alone nurture this bond of family, the show has been a series long meditation upon what exactly it does take to unite television’s most anarchic family.

Arrested Development began as a series about a group of marvellously oddball characters who (although oblivious to this truth) required each other to stay grounded.  As such, the primary organising factor for their past adventures at first appeared to be Michael, ‘The one son who had no choice but to keep them all together.’  But in this season he too is clearly adrift – feeling alienated by his son and so desperate to reclaim the sense of control he has lost that he spends his subplot play-acting being a Hollywood producer and trying to gather the permission to remake a film fantasy about his past.  At times it may have seemed to be Lucille, through whom the money and influence was ultimately said to be funnelled.   She could certainly scheme and manipulate her loved ones into servitude, but as a consequence eventually pushed them all away.

From a more abstract viewpoint, as the show went on it revealed that the unnamed, faceless, but ever-so-earnest narrator was something of a tenth character amongst the bunch.  The shaping of the narrative offered by Ron Howard’s detached voice – all-knowing, omnipresent, something of a proxy for writer/creator Hurwitz himself – was not just a structural crutch, he was actively trying to follow these now (seemingly) disparate plotlines and wrangle them into order, frequently undercutting and commenting upon the absurdity of these characters behaviour with a dry sincerity.  He was essentially the text itself, an amalgam of the writers, directors and their fictional universe, looking in on this strange little family and trying to puzzle it out.

But as the show has progressed, his objectivity too has gradually been brought into question – from his irritability when faced with lesser examples of television narration (he declares the Scandalmakers guy’s work, ‘Real shoddy narrating.  Just pure crap’), to his reluctance to attend Maeby’s sixteenth birthday after being invited (‘And a lot of us didn’t want to drive to Orange County’), to his spruiking the show for desperately needed ratings (‘Now that’s a clear situation with the promise of comedy.  Tell your friends about this show.’)  And now that Howard himself appears this season as a character within the narrative, a man with his own agenda and allegiances, the narrator seems compromised even further – from the way he proudly commends Rebel (apparently Howard’s illegitimate daughter) for knowing that the Wright brothers had a bicycle shop, to the way he lingers a little long on the Opie statue, noting that it must be an honour to have such an award named after you…

Instead the show is now saying that this family was held together by more than just these compromised individuals and their peculiar loves, bound in fact by something outside of the text itself.  With this fourth season, there is suddenly a new, profoundly necessary character in the mix: we the audience.  In its new viewing format Arrested Development literally requires the viewer to participate in connecting the pieces together, asking that we have the devotion and trust, throughout these unfolding episodes to make connections, to see patterns, to draw this family together – often even in spite of themselves – winding each story back into the whole that they have naively abandoned.

And so, in splintering this family apart, following their dissolve and lonely explorations of self, Hurwitz wrote a broad, interlocking, demented love note to the fans of the show, and the faith they showed in believing and hoping and begging for it to be granted more time.  By blowing open the way in which this show is now consumed, by adapting the very narrative itself so that the viewer literally has control over how this asynchronous story is absorbed, Arrested Development reveals that it was ultimately the fans, the viewers, those who dared to believe that this family could be brought back from oblivion, who kept the love for this show alive, even when its prospects looked most bleak – even, it seems, when the characters themselves had given up hope.

Where last season the show concluded on a state of freedom and abandon, this season ends with a desperate yearning for reconnection.  Torn apart, but narratively stitched back together through the affection of its fans and creators, the Bluths, and Arrested Development itself, hang suspended in a moment of disrepair, the beating heart of their sorrow exposed, but yearning always to reconnect.  As the strains of Lucy Schwartz’ track, ‘Boomerang’ assert over the closing credits,

Waitin’, waitin’

Heartbroken and frustrated

Hard to get around without your love.

It is a fitting note on which to end, a summation of the emotion fans felt when the show was first cancelled, and a resonant message for the characters within this narcissistic little menagerie, who will now have to shake off their self-involvement (at least temporarily) to gather back the unity they have lost.

To love each other – so that perhaps they can finally learn to love themselves.

arrested development hug

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

* For my thoughts on seasons one through three see here.

** But since it was still Arrested Development – a show that always stirs the sour into the sweet – there was perhaps a bit of cowardly running away in the mix too.

*** The use of the Google maps car as an ‘ostrich’ has a lovely additional layer of metaphor due to that company’s own hypocrisy.  For, as Ron Howard’s narrator observes with a stinging bit of snark, Google – as a company that posts the address details and photographs of every address in the world without anyone’s permission – does not allow themselves to be identified freely because that name and logo ‘is their property.’

And Now For Something Completely Stupid…: Critic’s Corner

Posted in art, criticism, stupidity with tags , , , , , on April 20, 2013 by drayfish

[This past week was my birthday, and so, I will be taking a one week sabbatical to celebrate.  Instead, a good friend of mine, Finnius McPhail, critic in the fine arts for ProtoRationale Journal (a person and publication that I totally did not just make up) will be standing in to offer his analysis of a young, up-and-coming visual artist, four year old Olive Jenkins.]

Olive Jenkins Australia

IMAGE: Australia, by Olive Jenkins, Age 4

CRITIC’S CORNER

Olive Jenkins’ post-modern manifesto, Australia, dissolves the boundaries of contemporary art by forcing the viewer to reinterpret their own placement within a futile dialogue of accumulative knowledge and perception. Jenkins asks us to revisit our inherited ideologies of what modern art should be, and what value it should be granted in our tumultuous political climate. Are we not all the disenfranchised figures that Jenkins depicts adrift in a yawning abyss of baseless rationality?

‘Repent!’ Jenkins seems to demand, for in her merciless canvas we are frozen in awe, transfixed by the horrible clarity of a truth that she compels us to confront. We are alone beneath an unpitying sun, our ‘landscape’ is barren, and we are its disenfranchised, prodigal children, returning home from an aborted quest for meaning, our souls flayed raw by the insistent knowledge that for all our conceptual evolution, we are but scattered ash, flotsam in the gnarled wreckage of a social structure, blind to the futility of self-assessment.

All this Olive Jenkins, Age 4, says in her chilling indictment, through a masterful command of her art. And for this she should be in equal parts celebrated, respected, and perhaps feared.

– Reviewed by Finnius McPhail, Fine Art Critic for ProtoRationale Journal

‘EVERYONE SHUT UP SO I CAN HEAR MYSELF DECIDE WHAT ART IS!’: Colin Moriarty and the Fallacy of Commercial Self-Regulation in Art

Posted in criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 2, 2013 by drayfish

IMAGE: Six Days in Fallujah (Konami)

Who doesn’t love and angry rant written months ago and left to ferment?  Mmmm hmmm…  A nice, acidic argument – now completely out of context, with references that almost no one recalls – lambasting an opinion piece that pretty much everyone has already forgotten?  Those smoky, earthy tannins of matured rage smouldering on the palate.  Who doesn’t love that?

…What?  Nobody loves that?  In fact, people actively despise that?  Oh.  Well, this blog might not be the taste experience I predicted…

Anyhoo…  This piece was actually written in response to an IGN Playstation editor, Colin Moriarty, and the peculiar editorial appeal he made last year to the videogame industry, declaring that ‘political correctness’ was stifling the creative potential of game designers.  It struck me as a ludicrous (and rather childish) screed, one that fundamentally mistook personal gratification for artistic license.  That this irrational tantrum was being offered by a prominent representative of videogaming – a medium that I believe deserves more regard than it is currently afforded – unnerved me greatly.  (Indeed, in truth I’m still rather shocked that he retains such a high position in the industry.)

My response (which follows here) was written and published last year at What Culture, but I offer it up now in all its un-contextualised, un-timely, utterly-irrelevant anti-glory:

‘EVERYONE SHUT UP SO I CAN HEAR MYSELF DECIDE WHAT ART IS!’: Colin Moriarty and the Fallacy of Commercial Self-Regulation in Art

IMAGE: Tomb Raider (Eidos)

 I: ‘Do what I say, not what I do’

I’ve taken issue with the opinion of IGN Playstation editor Colin Moriarty in the past.  A few months ago when Moriarty loudly decried the temerity of fans who would dare question the rushed, illogical, nihilistic endings of Mass Effect 3 (a game whose creators themselves went on to agree needed ‘clarification’ with a free Extended Cut), I lamented the way in which Moriarty, despite being a mouthpiece for the videogame community, had joyfully set back the debate over the validity of games being Art with a number of stifling and anachronistic sentiments about the way that they should be approached as texts.  In a curiously hypocritical declaration for a game-reviewer, Moriarty had posited that audiences had no right to be heard by the creators of videogames, that their only options in engaging with a text were to either purchase the work and unquestioningly praise it, or to not buy it, shut your mouth, and walk away.  For Moriarty there was no avenue for feedback or critique; you either paid your money or got the hell out: nothing to discuss here.  Seeing this as a shockingly reductive way in which to interact with any work of Art – let alone in the still-burgeoning medium that videogames represent – I concluded that Moriarty was probably in the wrong profession, and that his stifling hostility certainly did the legitimacy of his own position as a critic no favours at all.

At the time I had hoped that Moriarty would prove this strange outburst to be a momentary lapse of thought.  Having finished venting his ire at the ‘entitled whiners’ of the Mass Effect community who seemed to have somehow personally offended him by not agreeing to being satisfied when he told them to, I believed he would return to his function as a reviewer, perhaps even, one day, looking back to appreciate (if never vocalising) the irony that his very career was based upon the commentary he had condemned others for attempting.  And yet, only months after his first outburst, in the past week Moriarty has chosen to cast his net even wider.  Expanding his buy-it-or-shut-the-hell-up treatise to the whole of the videogame world, Moriarty has decided to decry the ‘Political Correctness’ that he imagines is stifling all creativity in the field.

II: All the little things…

In an opinion piece published on the IGN Playstation website, Moriarty argues that, as he sees it, all videogame Art is currently under threat.  Games in the midst of development, he argues, are being choked by the whims of vocal minorities; voices of complaint are stifling the creativity and innovation of developers, compelling them to change their visions based upon the most insignificant of personal grievances.  All because, as he states, ‘Even the most mundane and inconsequential something can send a person into a tizzy.’*

But what are those inconsequential ‘tizzy’-inducing ‘somethings’?

Well, helpfully Moriarty offers a list.  They are: rape; the sanctity of people’s religious beliefs; and graphic recreations of ongoing real-world military bloodshed (actual events in which currently serving soldiers have watched their squad mates die).

You know?  The small stuff.

Extraordinarily, considering how harangued he sounds in his Chicken Little proclamations, Moriarty offers no legitimate examples to support his claim that this kind of censorship is rife.  Citing the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot (in which pre-release advertising showed the game’s protagonist being overtly threatened with sexual assault), the game Smite (which offers gratuitous and unflattering depictions of Hindu Gods), and the now-cancelled Six Days In Fallujah (an FPS that recreates in painstaking detail the real-world events of the bloody insurgency in Fallujah), Moriarty argues that somehow – he’s not actually able to articulate how, but he can feel it: somehow – these games are being stripped of all creativity and communicative potential by voices of dissent that would question how such subject matter is being depicted.  However, in the three examples he has selected only one can perhaps be said to have been effected by the criticism it received.  Tomb Raider and Smite are both confirmed to be going ahead without any alterations at all, and it still remains unclear why publishers Konami pulled the release of Six Days In Fallujah – though one can fairly comfortably suspect that it was more to do with projected sales figures than the moral outrage of a ‘vocal minority’.

For Moriarty even the suggestion that one could question any of the design decisions in these games equates to an affront to free speech, but, as now appears to be the case with his entire thought process, he misses the nuance that can put these complaints into context.  The issue with Lara Croft’s threatened rape in the recent trailer was not that the subject matter of sexual assault itself should never be depicted in fiction, it was that it was being used, cynically, as a tool through which to disempower the central protagonist in order to make her sympathetic to a playing audience.  Much of the complaint centred around the suggestion that we, the players, needed to be so ham-fistedly manipulated, that we would feel no compulsion to follow a strong female character unless she was first violated and beaten down, a weakened damsel in distress that we, with our godly player-agency, could rescue from the ravenous advances of predatory men.**  It was an advertising move that insulted its audience as much as it did the heroine (who thankfully, we were soon assured, was not actually going to suffer a sexual assault in game just to elicit empathy).

Indeed, in order to scramble up to his fearful, speculative peak, Moriarty has had to completely ignore the reality that in the history of the medium very little – indeed almost none – of this so called ‘Political Correctness’ has ever actually succeeded in altering the design of a game.  Nonetheless, he believes that all dissenting opinions (such as those of veterans of war who questioned how appropriate it was to release a sensationalised portrait of an ongoing conflict in Six Days… – this is literally the argument Moriarty makes***) should always be ignored in favour of the marketplace, which has a better chance of regulating the material to which the public should be exposed.  Instead of debate and dialogue, Moriarty proudly subscribes to a form of Darwinian Capitalism in which the dollar is the sole measure of a text’s artistic merit.

And who knows, perhaps he’s right…  It’s certainly true that money has, in the past, always been the best arbiter of Art.  That’s why Transformers remains the most important cinematic touchstone in recent history; why Twilight is the finest piece of literature to have elevated the written word; and why Justin Bieber is widely considered to be history’s finest composer.

…Hold on.  What?!

Alongside being patently idiotic, Moriarty’s purely commercial vision would also theoretically silence any critic who did not speak with their wallet …although it goes without saying that Moriarty (as a ‘critic’) reserves the right to himself complain about whatever he feels (it would appear that he is either addicted to, or is incapable of comprehending, irony).

III: ‘Yer with us, or agin us’

To arbitrarily shut argument down, to point to some mythic commercial idol that will somehow rescue us from the need to converse with one another about social and artistic issues is so mind-numbingly reductive that it is hard to believe Moriarty could be unaware of the false dichotomy he employs.  By pointing to some mythic commercial idol that will rescue us from the responsibility of actually having to think for ourselves Moriarty uses the oldest and most rote means of shutting any discussion down; in his new fallacious bipolarity of argument he decrees that either everything is allowed, or everything is not:

Should we succumb to the plight of political correctness and let it ruin the creativity of our industry like it’s corrupted so many other artistic avenues? Or should we stand up and say “anything goes” and encourage the creative minds that give us the games we love to push the envelope, social consequences be damned?

It’s the kind of infantile either/or scenario that is popular in any rhetorically specious debate: ‘Well if you don’t agree that torture is acceptable then you’re pro-terrorist’; ‘If you eat meat then you can’t complain about animal cruelty’; if you laughed at Leno you must hate Dave; Pepsi versus Coke; Jacob versus Edward; ninja versus robot.  In discourse it’s the equivalent of putting one’s hands over one’s ears and shouting ‘La la la la laaaa…’ to avoid responding to contrary opinion.  It’s pathetic.****

Indeed, in any other circumstance it would be comical to hear someone so witlessly misapplying this kind of arbitrary delineation to a debate on artistic merit.  It is as if Moriarty were intentionally evoking each and every cliché in the history of turgid irrational screeds.  We get the predictably uncontextualised Benjamin Franklin quote; the ‘Thought Police’ have their obligatory mention; and his tantrum even comes packaged with its own victimhood complex: I’m sick of being told how to live; I know plenty of fire fighters but I never stop anyone saying anything about 9/11!!, etc.  Taken completely out of context (as Moriarty impossibly wants people to consume all Art), his opinion piece is an hilarious, although unwitting, parody – the indignation of a paranoiac with a persecution-complex, wailing that the ‘PC’ bogeymen are ruining all his fun.

However, as Moriarty is not joking, and as these opinions are being espoused by a commentator who is himself a member of the gaming press, this ludicrous fear-mongering has the potential to be quite harmful for a new medium of expression that has, throughout its relatively short span, struggled for legitimacy in a world that frequently dismisses it as juvenile distraction.  Moriarty might well be content to pursue an illusory enemy, leaving his city to burn in the process, but for those of us who do genuinely care to see the videogame form accepted for the innovative artistic medium that it is, seeing someone who should be using their platform to advance this message instead railing like a petulant child is quite disheartening.  I can only presume that this is why his employers at IGN provided a more rational response from a fellow editor the next day, seeking perhaps to offset the unflattering portrait his eruption presented of the contemporary gamer.*****

For critics who have long dismissed videogames as the competitive playthings of people too self-involved to conceive of what the purpose of ‘Art’ actually is, Moriarty’s petulant ultimatums – silencing debate and reducing the medium to pure consumer product – will confirm their every ugly stereotype of games and the people who play them.  Rather than innovative texts that have the capacity to redefine narrative experience and audience interaction, games will merely remain a means of juvenile gratuitous satisfaction, feeding whatever wanton or base desire for which its customers are willing to pay.  By reducing the conversation of Art down to a cartoonishly politicised either/or proposition, Moriarty undermines the very validity he claims to defend and risks making gamers everywhere look like infantile fools.

IV: ‘The reason we all have one mouth but two ears’

In the end, Moriarty sounds like little more than a brat throughout his opinion piece, squealing for his toys as the big mean ‘Politically Correct’ mummies and daddies of the world try to tell him that sometimes it’s important to think of someone else in the world besides himself.  Indeed, there are so many things wrong with his ill-conceived fantasy of a commercially-dictated artistic merit that in trying to formulate a rejoinder it is difficult to know where to start.

Does one begin by pointing out that Vincent Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime, so profit alone is no validation of Art?  Does one explain to Moriarty what the highly profitable pornography industry actually is, and how profitable it has proved over the years – since he seems to have made himself wilfully unaware?  No.  In the end, one needs to settle on the simplest answer; the most fitting response in this case.  One needs to offer him the advice one would offer to the tantrum of a child:

Despite what you might think, Moriarty, you don’t know everything.

No one person does.  And it is only through being willing to participate in healthy, adult discussion that works of artistic merit (and ideally of profit) can be produced, dissected, and enjoyed.

For all his bleating about protecting the rights of freedom of speech and expression, Moriarty is so busy weeping for the fun he imagines himself to be denied that he utterly forgets about the social responsibility that any self-respecting artist should value.  No artwork is divorced from the social and cultural milieu into which it is presented; no artist works in a vacuum.  Any piece of Art (if it is to be considered worthy of the title) – and even if it aspires to speak for generations beyond its time – remains a conversation with an audience that cannot be divorced from its context.

Simply being able to say something is no immediate indication that one should (as Moriarty’s own article proves); and reminding artists that they have a duty to communicate something of value, not to simply pander to whatever base desire floats momentarily across the transom of their mind is not the Orwellian censorship about which Moriarty apoplectically shrieks.  It is simply part of the organic dialogue of creativity in which every artist must participate; to pretend otherwise, to mistakenly equate ‘freedom of speech’ with a reckless abandon of purpose and taste is to fundamentally devolve the act of expression itself.

It would therefore serve us all – artists, audiences and critics – to remember that communication itself is the most elemental component of all artistic expression, and lies at the heart of every interaction between audience and text.  Videogames offer us an unprecedented window into a thrilling new relationship between creator and player; but with restrictive voices like Moriarty in the gaming press conceitedly shouting such dialogue down, the debate over whether videogames should be considered Art is only made harder to justify; they become nothing more than soulless product met by a silent audience, made-to-order fare with nothing innovative to say and nothing to ask of their player.

IMAGE: Smite (Hi-Rez Studios)

* http://au.ign.com/articles/2012/07/17/opinion-the-problem-with-political-correctness-in-video-games

** The producer Ron Rosenberg in an interview with Kotaku stated that he wanted players to feel an urge to ‘protect’ Lara from danger: ‘When you see her have to face these challenges, you start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character.’ (http://kotaku.com/5917400/youll-want-to-protect-the-new-less-curvy-lara-croft)

*** ‘Never mind that we have hundreds of games about World War II – a war in which some 65 million people died – anything to do with Iraq should be censored. Why, because it just happened?’ (http://au.ign.com/articles/2012/07/17/opinion-the-problem-with-political-correctness-in-video-games)

**** Besides, the ninja clearly wins.

***** http://au.ign.com/articles/2012/07/19/political-correctness-a-different-view

The Newsroom: ‘The Best Possible Version of the Argument’

Posted in criticism, literature, television with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2013 by drayfish

IMAGE: The Newsroom (HBO)

For a writer who specialises in drawing inspiration from the details of real life – who employs the known facts of recent history, utilises sharp biographical research, and explores the machinations of complex, identifiable institutions as source material – Aaron Sorkin somehow manages to write truly beautiful dreams.

In The West Wing Sorkin presented an image of a sitting American administration filled with honourable, hardworking, ferociously intelligent people, all fuelled by a longing to leave the future world a better place than the one into which they were elected.  His fictional government was overstuffed – on both sides of the partisan divide – with people who faithfully believed in serving their constituents to the best of their ability; people who used integrity, compromise, and reasoned debate as the cornerstones of their decision making process.  In The Social Network, a screenplay for which he won an academy award, he made even the most emotionally stunted and narcissistic characters ring true with identifiable (if not always admirable) aspirations and motivations.  In A Few Good Men he celebrated military service and the tenacity of truth (even if you couldn’t handle it!) in a culture that at times necessitated secrecy.  In Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip he…

ah…

Well, to be honest, I really don’t know.  Although, as a television narrative set behind the scenes of a late night sketch comedy show (one that screened on NBC), he seemed to be laying the metatextual groundwork for his hilarious ‘walk-and-talk’ appearance with Liz Lemon, years after his own show’s cancellation, on Tina Fey’s 30 Rock – the show that did in fact successfully carry the premise Studio 60 was loosely built around to its fruition.

In truth, I’ve enjoyed Sorkin’s work in the past – found it worthy and intriguing, been struck by its loquacious elegance – but previously I’ve not been swept up in the raptures reported by many of his fans.  It’s certainly not that I don’t care for his work – merely an acknowledgment that although there are many people whose opinions I greatly admire that have told me of their adoration for Sports Night (which I have not seen at all), or of their fervent belief that The West Wing (into which I have only dipped) is the best show ever made for television, so far I have not joined this enamoured throng.

But then I watched the first season of The Newsroom – the series he created and wrote for HBO – and okay.  Okay, I see it now.

Because wow.

Sure, I can happily leave aside all the tortured will-they-won’t-they back-and-forth of the ensemble’s principle younglings, Jim and Maggie, who have circled each other all season in a progressively tedious square dance (particularly when, by the last few episodes, the gravity of their emotional cowardice has now pulled Don, and bystanders like Lisa and Sloan into the well…)  I can overlook some of the more fantastical beats (for example: anything Bigfoot; confusing Georgia the state and Georgia the country; the general slapstick) that, in an effort to enliven the mood, can risk tipping into comic contrivance.  And I can even forgive the moments when characters inch perhaps a little too close to sermonising.  I can ignore all of that, because at the heart of this narrative, underneath all that might superficially appear to be political and social commentary, is a celebration and defence of language that is utterly inspiring.

Yes, as is often noted of his work, Sorkin’s dialogue is rapid and rhythmic.  It skips along like a Frank Capra film; playful and lively, with characters leapfrogging each other’s verbal play with snappy rejoinders and witty retorts.  These figures speak like you wish human beings could – sparring and riffing and speckled with playful snark.

More than that, however, Sorkin argues over the application of language, of the beauty of rhetoric and its potential abuse, of the influence this misappropriation can have upon the validity of discourse.  He explores the misuses of grammar: he ponders the difference between ‘whom’ and ‘which’; over the worrying semantic blur in defining corporations as individuals; over arbitrary definitions, such as referring to all undocumented immigrants with convenient, blanket terms like ‘illegals’.  Sorkin implores the viewer to be mindful of the expressive potential of our language, and the semantic shift that can swiftly occur when one is not observant of its casual misuse.

And oh, those speeches…

Pleas for a return to intelligent discourse in political debate (no matter what your affiliation), for meticulousness and determination in journalism.  Petitions for an audience hungry for comprehensive information and reasoned analysis amongst the frantic, hyperbolic cacophony of the twenty-four hour news cycle.  Appeals for a moment of digested respite amongst the daily pursuit of the sensational for ratings, and each network’s desperation to break news first, no matter how ill-informed, specious or riddled with speculation.  A battle cry to discard the farcical pageantry of journalism – from Fox News and its slavish devotion to pundit talking points, to CNN and its addiction to techno-porn like electronic graph salads and holograms.  Sorkin’s characters rail against the vulgarity of giving soapboxes to the most extreme, unsubstantiated viewpoints simply because it makes for explosive (and trivialised) entertainment.

The first scene of the series literally depicts the central character, Will, sandwiched between one such barrage of reductive rhetoric at a university forum.  He sits between two extreme caricatures of the bipolar spectrum in American politics – the vapid liberal and the belligerent conservative; each feeding off the other’s spite to validate their own indignation – and as he hears them rail against each other in their predictable, bullet-point oversimplifications, his head is buzzing.

Finally, irked by all this impotent rage masquerading as political debate, and goaded by the host into picking a side, Will eventually erupts, unleashing an impassioned screed.  He rails against such self-perpetuating victimhood, and the fruitless divisiveness it cultivates, even berating a student who had naively asked – in the midst of all this petty squabbling – what makes America the greatest country in the world.  It is that presumption that so infuriates Will, it seems, that willingness to just leap to a presumptive surety before even bothering to consider the facts.

Indeed, in the final moments of the first episode it is revealed that despite his proffered excuse that he had suffered an adverse chemical reaction, Will had not in fact taken any vertigo medication before his meltdown – he had simply overdosed on all this mindless vitriol.  In truth, his mind, like the media discourse at large, had been in slow process of atrophy, numbed by the arbitrary maelstrom in which he was being buffeted.  The clichéd cycle of needlessly bipartisan oratory, the thoughtless phrasing of redundant questions that invite only pabulum regurgitation as response – his mind was choking in a haze of apathy, and it responded instinctively, purging the air in a flourish of Sorkin’s signature resplendent verbiage.

It is likewise fitting that this episode – and therefore the whole fiction of The Newsroom – starts with a momentary eruption of truth that was caught and distributed virally (captured by a hall filled with mobile phones, streamed through YouTube, dispersed through Twitter, disseminated in blogs; all mediums that are referenced in some way or another in the first episode).  After all, never before has the world been so inundated with platforms through which society can express itself with immediacy and freedom (and yes, I’m aware of the irony of writing this very spiel in blog form), yet at the same time, it has never felt so acutely that the voices at the centre of that maelstrom – those traditionally tasked with the pursuit and curation of objective truth beneath all the empty rhetoric – have completely abdicated their role as the watchdogs of social discourse.

Between reporters so desperate to break stories ‘first’ (even if only microseconds before their competitors) that they risk spewing inaccurate speculation onto the air (to use but one example, after the tragic massacre in a Colorado cinema last year, ABC journalist Brian Ross named an innocent man as a suspect for the crime); or commentators blithely spinning fabrication to suit their narratives (again, to use but one example, conservative pundit’s ludicrous parroting that President Obama’s trip to India cost upwards of 200 million dollars a day, and involved a 3000 person strong entourage with a third of the navy along for the ride – a nonsense addressed directly in The Newsroom); or where celebrity scandals saturate screen time daily while ongoing foreign tragedy or social inequity at home gets comparatively peripheral attention.  In a world where it seemed to take satirists Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart screwing around with a Super PAC in the run up to the election for many in the media to start concentrating upon how repugnantly and uncomfortably intermingled such unpoliced attack groups can become with candidates pursuing higher office.

Amongst all of this speculative, subjective noise, The Newsroom, and its central protagonists, pleads for a moment of introspective calm – a cherishing of objective truth, and an interrogation of fact, in order to allow for rational debate.  As the executive producer of the fictional News Night program MacKenzie McHale states:

‘That studio is a courtroom.  And we only call expert witnesses.  Will is the attorney for both sides.  He examines the witness and reveals facts.’

It is a pursuit in search of – and offering a defence for – context.  They refresh the grammar amongst the hyperbole, theoretically allowing for a space in which debate, stemming from impartial truth, can prosper.

The recurring textual touchstone of the series, referenced repeatedly throughout the season’s run and cited at the inception of the new News Night journalistic mission statement, is Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote.  At first, Will is inspired to reclaim his journalistic integrity through an appeal to this ironic heroic quest; later he will proudly declare Don Quixote’s mission as his mantra.

In the original novel, a nobleman named Alonso Quijano falls in love with the tales of chivalry and justice he has spent years absorbing.  He becomes besotted by a nostalgic fiction, a ‘Golden Age’ of man that he longs to preserve.  It is a highly self-reflexive work – a metatextual self-inspection of fantasy and Romanticism* – one that inspires Quijano, emboldened by the tales of valour and virtue in Romantic fiction, to change his name to Don Quixote, and set out upon a misguided attempt to ‘civilise’ the world – a knight errant believing he can restore a corrupted social disorder.

… But he was mad.

The piercing ironic comedy of this work comes from the realisation that Don Quixote, stirred into action by beautiful fantasies, heads out into a world filled with dangers he neither understands nor can recognise, blind to the debasement that stares him in the eye.  And so, on his journey, he is routinely physically and psychological beaten down.  Most famously, he ’tilts’ at windmills; literally mistaking windmills as giants, he attacks them in a self-destructive charge that risks devastating himself on what it revealed to be an utterly foolish errand.**

The Newsroom too embraces this kind of romantic sensibility.  The show name-checks Edward R. Murrow, Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite, remembering them fondly as exemplars of an age in which the news was a bastion of reason and independence.  And again, perhaps that’s the great appeal of Sorkin’s writing.  His work (and in this particular text, his characters) are enflamed by nostalgia, by a longing for a better time, perhaps remembered more vividly and idealistically than it ever truly was.  They take that nostalgic impulse and hone it to a razor’s edge on the millstone of their hope; defying the odds, arguably flying in the face of present reality, they yearn to recapture the best of what we believed ourselves to be.

There is a recurring gag in The Newsroom whenever someone cites Don Quixote.  Frequently when Cervantes’ character is mentioned, it is noted that he was never wholly alone in his quest.  People refer to themselves as his companion and aide Sancho Panza, or even his fantasised lady love, Dulcinea – but no one, ultimately, is willing to be his horse (or donkey, rather.***)

But I want to be the horse.

(Or donkey.  …Whatever.****)

Damn looking silly.  Damn tilting at windmills.  I’ll be the horse.  To carry such a noble madman?  To be filled with such wondrous hopeful intent?  It would enrich us all; would prove the dream of reasoned argument and an end to empty rhetoric a glorious reality.  Or at the very least, something worth trudging toward.

Now, in the interests of living up to this narrative’s own demand for responsible counterargument, one might respond to Sorkin’s pleas for an obstinate impartiality by observing that he himself, in the service of creating an engaging fiction, utilises highly persuasive rhetorical techniques.  There are times when the dialogue borders on diatribe, and the prescience these characters exhibit over the unfolding events in which they are embroiled might read as a form of narrative sanctimony.  One might observe that these flourishes in his writing are themselves manipulative stylistic choices that give a rather ironic dramatic flourish to his calls for objective judiciousness…  However, as a tremendous fan of hyperbole myself, I would respond to such criticism by saying, respectfully, um… shut up.

Please?

It is a beautiful dream.  One worth passionately defending as Sorkin – through his fictional band of tenacious believers – does.  And as an alternative to the undigested parroting of fear-mongering, scapegoating, obfuscation and accusation that too often passes as discussion in modern broadcasting, it presents a much needed respite from the daily erosion of our analytical soul.

As Jack McCoy says (okay, I know his name is Charlie Skinner, but Waterson will always be the astonishing McCoy to me):

We can do better.

All of us.  We just have to decide to.  And Sorkin’s The Newsroom is the beautiful dream that proves we still long to do better – even if we currently fall short of the goal.

And personally, I would rather be moved by a dream, to yearn for something better, than to wallow in the cynicism of a reductive bipolarity that too often masquerades as news.   Thankfully, Sorkin’s is a fiction that proves there is still hope for rational intelligent discourse, even if only in our fantasies.

File:Don Quixote 6.jpg

IMAGE: Don Quixote Fighting A Windmill by Gustave Dore (1863)

* A textual self-reflexivity that the extraordinary writer Jorge Luis Borges would later explode outward even further in his prose with the short fiction ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote‘.

** Don Quixote, Part I, Chapter VIII.

***And no: this is not a Democrat reference, by the way).

**** For the record: it’s a horse, named Rocinante.

‘This Whole System Is On Trial!’: Surprises and Self Reference in Game Mechanics

Posted in art, criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2012 by drayfish

[To avoid what little spoilers for Chrono Trigger there are, skip the middle section surrounded by bold.]

IMAGE: Chrono Trigger (Square Enix)

Here’s something y’all might need to know about me: I’m always late to the party.  Any party.  And it’s not a ‘fashionable arrival’ thing.  It’s usually incompetence.  I got lost on the way.  I saw something shiny and decided to stare at it for a while.  I fell into a wardrobe and awoke in a magical land.  That kind of crap.  In short: I seem to operate at some kind of socially and culturally staggered pace.  If I’m praising the greatness of a television program, it was no doubt cancelled years ago (‘Have you guys seen this new Deadwood show?’); if I like a band, no doubt their popularity has already peaked and waned (‘The White Stripes sound so awesome, I wonder if they have any other albums?’); books (‘This Jane Austen guy might be kind of cool’)…*

So when you see me praising something as great, it almost always means both that everyone has experienced it already long ago, and they have most likely already written at length about why that experience was so important.  Please keep that fact in mind as I utter the following words:

I am only just now, for the very first time, playing Chrono Trigger.

And it is…

ohmygoodnessthiscouldbethemostadorablefantasticgameI’veeverplayed…

iloveitsomuchagaaaaahhhh….

And let me tell you why…

SPOILERS (ONLY FOR THE FIRST HOUR OR SO) OF CHRONO TRIGGER FOLLOW:

I’ve just been put on trail.

On freaking trail!  In freaking COURT!  Where I’m gonna be put to death!

I came back to the castle, leading the princess home, and I’m all:

He-ey guys, here’s your princess and everything!  I’m just doing the whole thing where I bring-the-princess-back-to-her-castle-and-get-a-new-quest-deal’ – and they freaking arrested me!  Hauled me off to a specially designed courtroom splash-panel where I got judged for my actions.

But here’s the thing: they really were my actions.  All of the insignificant, insubstantial, who-gives-a-second-thought kind of actions that I had made up to that point.

Did you eat this old man’s lunch?

Hey! I didn’t mean to!  I was just standing there and I pressed a button and it was gone!  It was an accident!  And when it happened the princess laughed!  She thought it was adorable!  And – And I didn’t reload cause the next time I went back the lunch was there again!  No harm no foul…  Come on! 

Did you just run over and pick up the locket that the princess dropped before you even saw if she was okay?

…Um.  Well, yeah, okay, so maybe I didn’t talk to the princess before I picked up the locket, but it looked like game loot!  That’s what I’ve been trained to do!  Pick up game loot!  That’s RPG 101, man!  Some gear drops, you pick it up!  Right away before it disappears.  Years of gaming experience have programmed me to think that way – now I’m being judged for it?!

Aw no.  Hell no.  I’m not guilty.  You’re guilty!  This whole system is guilty!  We’re all part of the machine, man!  We’re all just cogs in the machine!  Attica!  Attica!  Attica!!!  ATTICA!!!

What about the girl I helped with her cat?  Doesn’t that count for something?  I could of just left it there!  I had to walk it across the whole screen!

No?!  Nothin’?  Guilty?! 

Damnnit!

NOW CEASETH THE SPOILERAGE

What amazed me was the game’s capacity to call into question the very way that I play such RPGs – the decisions that I make, without a thought.  Do you arbitrarily pick this thing up?  Do you bother (for seemingly no reason) helping that other person out?  It invited me to consider what it would be like if people actually did notice and respond to the way that a player operates in a pixilated adventure world…  What would people say about you if you were really behaving this way in real life?

In a game like Mass Effect or The Witcher this kind of in-game response is expected, it’s part of the package: your actions will be remembered, will be folded into the design, will be commented upon.  But here it was a thrilling, experience-altering surprise, one that actually led me to consider the manner in which I approach games themselves – how my character avatar behaves in these spaces, and what that says about me.

I’ve heard that – in a far more grim and dire manner – the recent release Spec Ops: The Line has been designed to perform a similar function, to invite the player to consider the very nature of military shooters, their jingoism, their moral dimensions.  I’ve not played the game, so I have no comment myself, but it is intriguing that this can be a definite communicative purpose in videogame design.  One I find particularly intriguing.

So, my question is: what games – and perhaps more specifically what surprise moments, mechanics, or ideas in games – have had this effect on you?  Have made you question the very action of playing games itself?  Even shaken up the way that you behave in game, or the way that you relate to the genre as a whole?

IMAGE: Chrono Trigger ‘Courtroom’ (Square Enix)

* Also, have you guys heard of the Beatles?  I think they’ve got a promising sound.  Could probably use some more experimental Japanese avant-garde sound-scapes though.  I hope someone can help them with that…

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

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

pacman2_0

IMAGE: Pacman installation Art by Benedetto Bufalino and Benoit Deseille

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Anton Ego (Ratatouille)

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

* here

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