Archive for critics

Beyond ‘Art’ and ‘Not-Art’: Art, Videogames, and Beyond Good and Evil

Posted in art, criticism, literature, Uncategorized, video games with tags , , , , , , , on June 14, 2017 by drayfish

In honour of the wondrous announcement of Beyond Good and Evil 2 at this years E3 Conference, I thought I should repost this article of mine, originally published on PopMatters; a celebration of what might very well be my favourite game of all time…

Beyond Good and Evil

Stuck in a box

I am standing in a black-market boutique talking to a walrus wearing a kimono.  Beside me, in a tank lit iridescent green, a koi fish turns in lazy circles, his whole world bound by panes of glass through which he can peer, but never escape.  A paper lantern hangs overhead; sandstone cobbles line the floor; my pockets are filled with pearls.  The air throbs with the hum of a didgeridoo; of castanets, and a flute, and a Chinese violin (an erhu) all swirling together in a sonorous harmony.  For those not familiar with the game, it probably sounds like I am having some kind of imagistic seizure, but I am actually revisiting Beyond Good and Evil, a work that I still find to be one of the most exquisitely beautiful and thematically resonant gaming experiences ever crafted.

Indeed, it is a game so elegant in narrative and design that it has always been my first thought whenever the tedious argument of whether videogames can be considered ‘Art’ gets rehashed anew.  Others, no doubt, will turn their minds to works like Journey, or Fez, or Heavy Rain, but for me, as soon as I hear someone start bleating on about all games being merely gratuitous violence generators, or time-wasting amusements devoid of substance, I am struck by the memory of Michel Ancel’s Beyond Good and Evil – of the game’s tenacious protagonist, her devoted quest for truth, and the world that she fought to save, not through violence and aggression, but through compassion and conviction and belief.  I think of this koi fish, suspended in a world of wild contrast and dissonance, measuring out the limits of its entrapment as it swims on; an indomitable force of nature despite, blind to the habitual programming that keeps it constrained.

Beyond Good and Evil 3

‘I Don’t Know Art, But I Know What’s Not Art…’

Even if only by virtue of the grand platform his global readership offered, the figure who has come to be perceived as the most vocal detractor of videogames was the film critic Roger Ebert.  Ebert was not a fan of videogames.  As he himself proudly declared, he had never actually played one, was entirely ignorant of their workings, and went on to arbitrarily reduce their myriad forms and styles to little more than animated board games or electronic skill testers, however, Ebert nonetheless took it upon himself to definitively declare them unworthy of the label ‘Art’, denying even the suggestion that they were capable of artistic expression.*

Although one might look at such wilfully uncontextualised commentary as misguided at best, or completely hypocritical at worst (after all, film too had once been written off as merely a trivial fad incapable of artistic expression), for a burgeoning medium still struggling for critical legitimacy, Ebert’s opinions have been subsequently afforded a mystifyingly disproportionate cultural cache.  Amongst innumerable examples, he is evoked in Noah Davis’ compelling summation of the medium’s evolution in ‘Are Video Games the Next Great Art Form?’ in Pacific Standard.  He was the subject of designer Brian Moriarty’s speech delivered to the 2011 GDC; Moriarty heartily endorsed Ebert’s position, seeking to draw a more articulate (but still rather narrow) delineation between ‘kitsch’, or commercial art, and legitimate Art, which apparently must be deigned so by critics such as Ebert.  Ebert is still frequently the first figure quoted in introspective articles such as Phil Hartup’s ‘Killing Time’ in New Statesman, in industry portraits like Laura Parker’s ‘A Journey To Make Videogames Into Art’ in The New Yorker, and by consequentially – much to my chagrin – the counterargument bogeyman of this very article.

I must admit, it is a ubiquity of reference that I find profoundly peculiar.  I can think of no other instance in which the opinion of someone who gladly admitted that they have no interest in, personal experience of, or research into a subject – who offers little more than a preconceived surety that it should be dismissed on principle – has ever been treated with such deference.  Add to this that Ebert was a critic for a completely different medium, who came to argue that videogames failed to meet the criteria he expected of film, his position appears to be about as noteworthy as a book reviewer declaring music ‘not a thing’, or an audience booing Hamlet for not being ‘painting’ enough.

However, while I do not want to turn this into yet another screed about how adamantly one can disagree with Ebert’s contradictory position on this issue (I have already done so elsewhere), nor do I have any desire to continue giving legitimacy to an argument that was, and remained, wilfully ignorant of the materials it sought to denigrate, I must concede that it is nonetheless worth exploring at greater length his reasoning for why – in his opinion – videogames fail to meet his standard of Art.  Firstly, because Ebert’s comments offer a succinct summary of the most common criticisms levelled at games by those who wish to malign them as unworthy of serious consideration (a synopsis that also exhibits the wilfully prejudicial contradictions in such a position), but secondly, because they provide a suitably dogmatic set of rules about how Art apparently ‘must’ function – a set of arbitrary, restrictive requirements that, from my perspective, a game like Beyond Good and Evil not only effortlessly meets, but transcends in an unparalleled communicative engagement unique to its medium.

Perhaps the most concise expression of Ebert’s position was offered in response to a fan of his reviews who had sought to ask why he so adamantly and unreservedly considered videogames inferior to film and literature.  Years later he would go on to offer a longer (and rather more aggressive) reply to the TED talk of Kellee Santiago, founder of thatgamecompany, who had argued for the validity of her medium and her own artistic pursuit, but his initial reply to this inquisitive reader summarises much of the material upon which he would later elaborate.  He said:

‘I [do] indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature.  There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

‘I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful.  But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art.  To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.  That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept.  But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.’

Alongside his principle complaint that they do not function in the way that films or novels do (again: a specious argument at best, given that a song does not operate the way a painting does, nor a play like a book), in Ebert’s opinion videogames were a literal waste of time because they are designed not to communicate anything, but to instead gratify selfish indulgence.  ‘Play’, he argued, is in this way the natural enemy of discernment; rather than expanding ourselves through the self-evaluation offered by Art, videogames instead lead us toward a state of atrophy – civility, culture and empathy are ignored as the player seeks nothing but transitory pleasure.  Games can be pretty, he conceded, they could be diverting, but they lack the capacity to cultivate our sense of selflessness, or to invite us to engage more adroitly with the world around us.**

Similarly (and for Ebert, most damningly) player choice or input negates the authorial control deemed necessary for meaning to be conveyed.  Having spent his life beholden to the mechanics of cinema, in which viewing a film is a rigidly linear experience, its every beat governed by the omnipresent hand of an auteur, Ebert transposed this requirement onto an entirely different medium.  He therefore concluded that simply the requirements of being a ‘game’ – of sculpting an interactive experience that allows the player to be complicit in the unfolding of the narrative – necessarily wrests authorship away from the artist, and disperses it into the audience, muddying the creator’s intent irreparably, and thus weakening the text’s thematic statement.  Ebert offers no explanation at all for why this would be so, nor does he explain how exactly this must always be problematic, but we can speculate for him.***  One might ask how Bioshock Infinite can be an exploration of determinism if some players spend their time walking awkwardly into a wall, accidentally blowing themselves up, or falling off the edge of Columbia to their deaths?  How can Red Dead Redemption be a sweeping, tragic coda for the western genre if some players spend their time just hunting for wolf pelts and playing dice?  How can The Witcher 2 be the sombre tale of a stoic pariah in a nebulous moral vacuum when players – by the game’s own design – will see entirely different narratives play out dependent upon the plot decisions they themselves make?

Of course, these are all criticisms that fall apart the moment they are put to any legitimate scrutiny, measured against any nonpartisan definition of Art, or compared to similar outdated criticisms that have been applied to countless other media in the past.  I shall return momentarily to the accusations of self-indulgence and time-wasting in my discussion of Beyond Good and Evil, but one can probably already see the logical fallacy at the heart of accusing a text of ‘failing’ to communicate because it requires audience engagement.  After all, how can movies be said to be Art if some of their viewers don’t watch the whole thing, or talk over the dialogue?  Are musical, dramatic, and poetic improvisation not Art forms because they too require spectator interaction?  Are not plays, because they necessitate an engagement with their audience that defines the rhythm of their performance?  Can documentaries never be Art because they require the auteur to be beholden to reality, and the truths of their subject?  If a piece of installation Art is only displayed for a few weeks, is it not Art, and never was, once it has been removed from public exhibition?  Eventually such conjecture becomes one long aimless, nay-saying navel-gazing plod of hypotheticals.  One ends up sighing into the wind asking, ‘If an artwork exists in the forest, and no one sees it, does it have a meaning?’

Thankfully, there is an answer to such speculative vagaries; and wholly unsurprisingly it reveals itself the same way it does for any other analysis of Art (if one can be bothered to try).  Instead of redundantly attempting to argue what all videogames are not, using erroneous equivalencies to Backgammon and Monopoly and speculating on the mindset of an audience neither known nor understood, critics can try performing a close reading of these texts (even a cursory one), experiencing them firsthand to see how they seek to communicate their themes, and how successfully, or not, this meaning is made manifest in their structure and design.

Recently, examples such as The Last of Us, Journey, and Fez have floated into the wider debate as exemplars to ‘prove’ the unique expressive potential of videogames, but they are by no means the earliest texts to elevate the medium – indeed, games like Space Invaders and Super Mario Bros. were inarguably elegant marriages of mechanical and artistic expression.  And so it is with this act of criticism in good faith in mind that one can turn to Michel Ancel’s Beyond Good and Evil, a platforming, light-stealth adventure game from publisher Ubisoft, and the image of that lone fish circling in that tank…

Beyond-Good-Evil 2

The Hillys are alive

To begin with the somewhat superficial, it is doubtful even a cynic like Ebert could deny that Beyond is a delight to the senses.  Despite being released on the previous generation of consoles (I played mine on the PS2 the first time around, but it has since been released on PC, and the version I am replaying now, upgraded with a  HD polish, was released on Xbox Arcade), the game still remains one of the most enchantingly eclectic settings ever depicted.  Beyond offers a sumptuous, watercolour aesthetic, with charmingly exaggerated creature designs (Rastafarian rhinos! Kabuki cats! Shark people! Goat kids! Loveable uncle pigs!) and lush, coastal landscapes dappled with the dying embers of day as twilight intrudes.  From its verdant untrammelled fields to its factories and mines and urban sprawl, sun-bleached stone streets and meandering Venetian canals are peppered with flickering holograms and ramshackle spaceships.  Reggae music swaggers alongside magisterial symphonic swells; the techno frolics of an illegal raceway are punctuated by a stripped bare, mournful piano reprise.

But amidst this scatological beauty, the game tells a story of corruption and totalitarian oppression.  Behind the idyllic splendour of this seafront environment of Hillys, this planet is revealed to be under the shadow of a galactic police state.  A military complex has been granted unchecked power by the threat of perpetual war, and with the consent of a terrified populace, has steadily stripped away the freedoms of each world under its ‘protection’.

Just as the villainous corporation in the game uses obfuscation to further their malevolent goals, the game itself, under the innocuous guise of a colourful fairytale, reveals itself to be telling a tale of political misdirection and inculcating propaganda.  But rather than asking you to storm your way through such a scenario, gunning people down and blowing things up, the game tasks you with unravelling the reality from the lies.  To hide, to sneak, to explore and follow the evidence you yourself observe.  It is little wonder then that the protagonist of the tale, Jade, is a tenacious, burgeoning journalist, a young woman devoted to her homeland, protective of her peoples, and eager to uncover truth, wherever it may lead.

Jade, the player-character protagonist is a young woman tasked with the care of a group of orphans displaced by the ongoing war.  Herself an orphan, she has a playful, affectionate relationship with her Uncle Pey’j, who raised her in the absence of her own parents, and has developed both a healthy scepticism toward the governmental force that has occupied her homeland, and a burgeoning desire to uncover the truth.

The first image the game provides of Jade presents her sitting on the outcrop of a cliff face, meditating, looking over the ocean, soaking in the tranquillity of a glistening sunset, lost in a moment of serenity.  The calm is soon broken by the wail of an air raid siren and the cacophony of a bombing invasion – but the echoing affect of this prologue remains potent.  Jade is a figure in search of equilibrium – ideological, emotional, and physical balance – and throughout the course of the game she will attempt to attain peace, both in herself and her society, by unravelling the deception under which they all subsist.  Thus, once the dust of this latest incursion has settled, and the alien invasion of the DomZ seemingly thwarted by the Alpha Section armed forces, Jade starts to question the veracity of the armada’s omnipresence, tasking herself with uncovering the truth of their motives beneath all the patriotic spin.  She offers he services as a reporter, and soon enough is approached by a band of subversive radicals likewise intent on exposing the military’s elaborate deception.

And it is in the means through which you the player actively pursue these unsavoury truths – the manner in which this work is so uniquely a game – that Beyond Good and Evil is most striking.  Rather than passively watch this world and its narrative play out before you, as one would experience a film or fiction, this is an experience in which the act of play itself informs the very way through which this fiction conveys its meaning.  This is an environment that necessarily must be moved through, lived in, reacted to – the act of interpretation bound inextricably to this cultivation of a bond with the environment you inhabit.  As Jade, you will sneak.  You will explore.  You will gather clues.  You will learn this land’s secrets, befriend its inhabitants, uncover its seedy underbelly.  You will meet hardworking entrepreneurs, pirate looters, soldiers, shell game sneaks, black market merchants, washed up alcoholics, street racers, slavers, subversive rebels trying to overthrow the government from beneath the city’s streets.  You will intrude upon clandestine networks and peek behind the masks of the tyrants.

The game invites you to fall in love with this land of Hillys, not only through its visual and auditory splendour, but through action.  The narrative compels you to explore its urban centres and delve into its uncharted caverns, to converse with each of its residents (many of whom Jade knows personally), to taste its produce (Starkos bars and K-Bups Berries), to photograph its fauna for the preservation of science and history, to uncover the deeper, unsettling truths that lie beneath the surface of its government and media.

Through exploring Hilly’s luscious landscapes, cataloguing its creatures, befriending its inhabitants, and learning of its myriad splendour – invited to literally preserve its wonder on film, through study, through social interaction – you invest in this world, belong to it.  And in doing so, you commit yourself to protecting it.  You see the injustice visited upon the people of Hillys, you see the fear and suspicion of a populace forced to live under an endless totalitarian police state; you feel their loss as they watch their friends and family lost to this endless, Orwellian ‘conflict’.  Indeed, it is for this reason that despite the constant fear of death and loss – the most omnipresent dread depicted in the game is that of kidnapping – of a severing of the communal and familial bonds that are so necessary in the face of such chaos.

Beyond Good and Evil reveals itself to be a parable about responsibility.  Personal responsibility, familial responsibility, social and environmental responsibility.  In this sense the game is about makeshift families built from the wreckage of a society devastated by war.  It is about the commitments such families pledge to each other, the resolve and strength that they draw from this interdependence.  Frequently (though not constantly), Jade therefore works alongside a companion in her journey through these landscapes – her adopted uncle Pey’j; a devoted soldier Double H – further heightening this sense of cooperation and reliance.  Quite literally, were it not for the support of your fellow NPC – in the encouragement and feedback they offer on the journey, and the physical boosts and battling that they offer to assist you – you would not be able to proceed.  By travelling alongside them, trusting them for support, you feel even more acutely the sense of communal bond that infuses the game’s fictional world, stirring you to save this blighted land from its omnipresent dread.

It is no accident, then, that the metaphorical space standing at the centre of this game – Jade’s home, where she, her Uncle, and their orphan charges gather in the shadow of looming corruption – is a lighthouse; a beacon of warning for the ship of state, the searching source of illumination amongst a treacherous, ignorant dark.  And there is a moment, early in the game, where the poignancy of this space is subtly, movingly acknowledged.  As Jade, at the player’s behest, explores this space, watching the children around her mingle and move about, joking, conversing, playing with the lighthouse dog, trying to distract themselves from the daily bombing raids and sirens and whispers of kidnapped citizens stolen away in the night, a piece of music penetrates the quiet to colour the experience profoundly.

Jade – you – ascend the staircase and come upon the orphan children’s makeshift bedroom. Toy’s lay scattered about.  A warm slant of sunlight cuts through the air.  And on the walls, sketched in crayon, are clumsy drawings of the lighthouse itself, of JJade and her uncle Pey’j, and the word ‘HOME’ scribbled beside them.

And at precisely that moment, looking in upon one safe-haven carved out of the detritus of a haunting, ceaseless war, you hear a lilting piano cue.  It’s soft, slow, even mournful, but so delicate, and so precious, that it sears itself in the mind.  A tune stripped utterly bare.  Just solo finger stickling across ivory.  A private melody, alone amongst the cacophony of harmony and discord swelling outside those walls.

It is a melody that recurs in various forms throughout the game – particularly in some tragic moments to come, when Jade will again feel profound personal loss – but it also resurges in some resounding moments of defiance and fight, a subconscious reminder of precisely what it is that you are fighting for.

By seeking out answers, Jade will eventually inspire her people to throw off their oppression, to react against the placation of their media, and to rise up to question the preconceptions into which they have blindly surrendered their faith.  The game unpacks conventional wisdom and manipulative jingoism in a time of war, revealing an expansive web of collusion and misinformation, inspiring a oppressed peoples to reclaim a homeland stolen from them not by force, but through the pernicious application of lies.

And so, for a game fundamentally concerned with the nature of societal indoctrination, one arguing that such willing apathy has to be examined and overthrown, the conceit of the final level is inspired.  Having led her fellow citizens to revolt, Jade confronts the High Priest of the DomZ and is forced to fight for her life.  During the conflict, however, the High Priest bombards Jade with a hypnotic pulse, pouring the sum total of the game’s thematic exploration of persuasion and ideological inculcation into one mesmerising blast.  Suddenly, after having faith in the mechanics with which the game has operated over the preceding hours, the game suddenly flips its control scheme entirely.  Up is now down; left is now right; the character suddenly behaves wholly contrary to the system that the player has trained into their muscle memory.

This metaphor for the reversal of convention that has played into every facet of the narrative, and its exploration of social and political dissent, is heightened by this final subversion of the player.  Just as Jade, who has had to undertake a journey into the heart of her homeland’s darkest recesses to cure herself of the systemic misinformation that has governed her life, so too must the player, in this concluding conflict, force themselves to unlearn what this game’s universe has gradually convinced them to invest in utterly.

In defeating this beast, symbolically tracing this skewed belief system back to its root and therapeutically dissolving the corruption that it has engendered, both Jade and the player, in a unity of purpose, excise the corrosive limitations that would choke this society, its freedom and its media, into atrophy.

beyond-good-and-evil-2

Treading Water

Back in Ming-Tsu’s shop, however, that koi fish keeps turning circles.

Programmed in an infinite reactive loop, he is forever walled in, enslaved by that emerald glass.  And in that sense he offers a fitting metaphor for the transformative nature of responsibility that this game explores.  Ancel’s masterwork invites us to see the limitations – both welcomed and imposed – that govern every aspect of our lives.  Those glass walls, in microcosm, become symbols of the conventional predispositions and rhetorical manipulations that can hold the uninquisitive in stasis.

In looking down at this poor, ensnared creature, Jade, and I playing her, are suddenly reminded that we are not that fish – not bound to some primitive reactive coding, swimming endlessly in place.  No, in this game, in this sumptuous but suffering world, Jade and I can transcend the inculcation of intransigent beliefs.  Instead, she and I can be reminded of the true intangible bonds and beliefs that define us, those that bind us in a happy enslavement to the things we hold most precious.

Through its narrative, its play, and the enchanting aesthetic of its environments and melodies, the game enables its players to invest in the world of Hillys, to feel a responsibility to its peoples and its future, and to redefine ourselves through the bond we feel to its familial, spatial and ideological constraints.  Indeed, as you are literally a character inhabiting this land, tasked with its preservation, this evokes a sense of ownership and obligation elevated far beyond the detached regard stirred by films or fiction.

Beyond Good and Evil is a game about and fuelled by empathy, about cooperation and selflessness, about testing the veracity of presumed truths.  Under the facade of its disarmingly innocuous beauty it is a game that compels its audience to question the media – even the media through which the artwork expresses itself.  By brushing up against the barriers of this world myself, empowered through my own agency within the narrative to question these restrictions – to scrutinise them – I become attuned to this environment, become one with it.  And in doing so, come to better know myself.

Ebert, and those like him, who see video games as nothing more than gratuitous, indulgent death-simulators – petty playthings that rob humanity ‘of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic’ – will doubtless never change their minds about this medium.  Ironically, they remain obstinately walled behind their own prejudices, unable to look beyond their bias to see the greater, more diverse possibility they have arbitrarily denied.

In contrast, I watch that koi fish circle and am reminded of how effortlessly this game proves such dismissive ignorance a lie: of the way that it renders an organic, breathing culture, in order to watch it fray under the threat of war; how it speaks to the nature of civilisation and the duty of personal responsibility; of the manner in which it so elegantly evokes and celebrates empathy as our greatest treasure (in videogame-speak: the greatest ‘skill’ we human beings can seek to ‘upgrade’).

Culture, civility, and empathy – all while necessitating that the player be an integral part of progressing the narrative and allowing them to be complicit in the enunciation of this altruistic theme; videogames, when crafted with the elegance and care of a work such as Beyond Good and Evil, more than prove themselves to exceed every arbitrary ‘requirement’ for Art demanded of them by those prejudicially inclined to deny them worth.  Despite being dismissed off hand, there are many such examples that transcend these limitations in their moment of experience, becoming something profoundly, intimately expressive in the act of granting the player agency within their worlds.

Does that mean that all videogames are therefore worthy of being held aloft alongside the pantheon of great composers, playwrights, and poets?  No, of course not.  But that is and always was a disingenuous argument to begin with.  The world of cinema has produced Vertigo, but it also gave us Norbit.  Music granted us Brahms, but it also gave us Rebecca Black.  Arguing that every single text has to justify the value of its entire medium or else they are all suspect is a reductive act of sophistry that knowingly chases its own tail.  It debases the whole discussion of Art by making it some rote test dictated by elitist patriarchs whose prejudices are already irrevocably calcified.  But just as Shakespeare’s artistic expression is not demeaned by the shaky 4th grade Christmas pageant I once participated in as a child, the entire span of potentiality evident in the videogame form is not dismissible because one thinks Call of Duty 19 looks like indulgent gush.

If, in contrast, those who imprudently disparage videogames actually bothered to try them – to free themselves from the mire of lazy bias and prove themselves capable of re-examining the constraints of imagination that such works so frequently embrace, they might not only find something worthy of exploration, but could well find a whole new experiential medium through which to explore the endlessly shifting limits of human expression. Otherwise, they just continue to spout the ‘conventional wisdom’ that games are indulgent toys gratifying insularity with nothing worthwhile to say.  And as Beyond Good and Evil articulates so adroitly, there’s nothing less beneficial to the progress of society, criticism and Art than simply regurgitating the same old tired party lines without ever exhibiting the capacity for self-reflection that they would demand of others.

They too reveal themselves to be like that fish – not urged to test their limitations, not inclined to seek for more; instead trapped in the same tired contrarian routine.  The circle their definition of Art in a infinite self-justifying stagnation, emboldened by their own limitation as they deny it the capacity to evolve.  As for me, I don’t presume to know definitively what Art is.  I’m too stunned by its diversity and magnitude to want to try.  And in here, in the living diorama Michel Ancel and his team have brought into being, I’ve got a head full of sweet melody, a pocket full of pearls, and a world to treasure.  I’ve been invited to help directly enact a message of audacity and hope, to fall in love with a land, and to believe that both it, one’s own curious, indomitable will are things that are precious, things worth preserving.

I know that might not be Roger Ebert’s definition of Art.  He would (and did) cry ‘selfishness’ and ‘time-wasting’ – declared them uncivilised, corrosive and childish.  But in truth that’s what all Art has always been.  Art itself is an act of play: the selfish imaginative pursuit of an artist, the indulgence of an enraptured audience; a sublime waste of time that consequentially reflects something resonant about the human condition, something enduring, back to us.  We are creatures that have stirred pigment into paint to decorate our caves; transformed religious festivals into the history of theatre; cultivated the carnival curiosity of moving pictures into the diversity of cinema; exploded the boundaries of Art to soup cans and signed urinals and sharks suspended in formaldehyde.  Why then must we be frightened off by our capacity to weave new environs to explore – new emotions, new engagements to inhabit – in pixels and electronic code?  It seems the height of complacent stagnation – a fish swimming up against the same glass walls, content to never extend beyond them, terrified to lose its way.

Beyond_Good_&_Evil_Ming-Tzu

*   *   *   *   *

* One can read Ebert’s dismissal of the medium, in response to game designer Kellee Santiago’s rousing TED, talk here.

** Something that the Big Momma trilogy and Transformers 2 can do, apparently.

*** Elsewhere, in his final, rather patronising opinion piece on this matter, titled ‘Okay, Kids, Play On My Lawn’, Ebert does use the example (repurposed from a debate with Clive Barker) of Romeo and Juliet.  In a game, he argues, the story would be rewritten so that the lovers might both live in the end, thereby destroying the whole tragic trajectory of the narrative.  But this too is a completely disingenuous argument.  Nowhere does the notion of videogame ‘interactivity’ dictate that all things must be possible at all times to everyone.  Multiple forking paths of narrative are a possibility of a certain form of videogame; not the requirement for every text.  Ebert’s position would be like arguing that because Pulp Fiction and Memento utilise non-linear storytelling, every other movie obviously must do the same – cinema is incapable of following a character’s life chronologically from birth to death.

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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

‘I’ve Made a Huge Mistake’: How Critics Failed Arrested Development

Posted in criticism, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 7, 2013 by drayfish

Michael Bluth and Vultures

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

After a brief wait before being able to dive into the Phoenix-like return of Arrested Development, which two weeks ago released its fourth season over the streaming service Netflix, I have now finally made my way through the labyrinthine genius of this wondrous, multifaceted behemoth, and have been scrambling to try and unpack its splendour in words.

In the next couple of days I hope to inflict my sprawling (admittedly happy-ranting) take on this unprecedented marvel, but before I even get started trying to pick apart its every nuance and ramification (spoiler alert: it does involve me droning on and on about how much I love this new gift of a season), I have decided to add to my already punishingly long treatise by speaking briefly to the mystifying backlash this season seems to have received from a selection of critics in the first few days after its release.

To those who actually did bother to watch each of the new episodes, who got to see what the show was intricately building, experienced its breadth, but nonetheless felt that the show was lacklustre: well to them I will say that although I respectfully (vehemently) disagree, at least they were diligent in their duty as critics. (…But I cannot restrain myself from suggesting that they might want to give it another watch without the press of a crushing, arbitrary review deadline hanging over them – just to give the show space to breathe a little).

However.

To all of the ‘professional’ critics that stayed up until three in the morning on the day the show went live, who watched only a handful of episodes and then hurriedly bashed out snide copy that dismissed the show as a poor shadow of its former glory in order to fish for search hits on the morning of release (I’m looking specifically at you, New York Times television reviewer Mike Hale*), they have every right – indeed, if they take their occupation seriously, the responsibility – to feel ashamed of themselves.

To those critics, who despite now having plenty of time to familiarise themselves with the whole series, still write speculation about the entire season based on only slivers of the tale, they too continue to embarrass themselves.  To take but one example, Sydney Morning Herald commentator Giles Hardy wrote his review for the whole season (in which he declared the show only ‘semi-familiar’, ‘disappointing’, and lacking the ‘reflexes’ it once sported) weeks after release – but clearly after having only viewed the first episode.  His observations about the ‘strange’ new relationship between father and son Michael and George Michael revealed that he had utterly failed to even glean the context of this one moment in the greater narrative (the nature of that ‘new’ relationship is central to the entire season’s conceit), but he was still comfortable pompously deriding the entire exercise as a failure.**

Because even though these reviewers tried to justify their flippant invective, claiming that as this new version of Arrested is still technically labelled a ‘television show’ it can thus be reviewed like any other episodic text, one-at-a-time, with no idea of its place within the larger season’s arc, in reality it is cheap excuses such as this that reveal just how negligent critics like Hale and Hardy have been in their duty.

Firstly, most obviously: this is not a regular season of television.

It was devised and written as a single, cohesive piece, filmed altogether, and released into the world simultaneously.  Hurwitz and company did not take the Netflix model lightly.  They built it into the very DNA of their storytelling and humour.  As a consequence, they have created one of the most intricate, interlocking narratives ever crafted (in all of serialised fiction, let alone the sitcom form); and have offered one of the most inspired commentaries upon comedy, narrative universe-building, and audience investment, ever put to film.

Picking and choosing singular episodes to judge isolated from the whole defeats the very purpose of this viewing experience.  Despite what these critics might claim in order to justify their laziness, it literally is like watching part of a movie, reading half a book, or listening to a couple of tracks off an album, and then scampering back over to their computer to bash out a complaint that the whole work didn’t feel ‘finished’.  The failing is not in the text – it is in the overt hypocrisy of critics who presume they can get by only doing half of their job.

Similarly, it is asinine it is to condemn the show for no longer slavishly sticking to the 22 minute, commercially-oriented-act break format to which it was once forced to abide in its days as a product of broadcast television.  To happily, blatantly condemn a text for what they fantasise it should be, or what they have unjustly presupposed in their heads – rather than actually addressing the form in which it currently presents itself – is embarrassing.  It is the most fundamental mistake that any critic can make.

And secondly: have critics really become this petulant and cynical an audience?

Have they legitimately become so arrogant and eager to voice their opinion that they cannot even be bothered to fully form one before opening their mouths?  In the desperate need to be the first person to speak – to say something before everyone else – do they really have to scramble up to the podium of hyperbole to declare something dead (literally describing it as murdered in the example of Hale) before properly experiencing what it is that they are tearing down?

I mean, no doubt it is fun to shout, ‘Hey guys: that thing you like… it sucks now’ (after all, most every adolescent wallows for a time in that kind of reactionary scepticism), but in this case, actually taking the time to watch the show immediately proves just how inept such a statement is.

Yes, the show is different – that cannot be denied.  The program itself repeatedly leaves the viewer with no illusions that this is a new format, now capable of exploring new themes, a new tone, and new depth.  The necessities of wrangling a group of very talented actors who are all now in high demand (and under other contractual obligations), the need to work at a reduced budget, and the duty to the story itself, mindful of where we left these characters several years ago, required an entirely different method of presenting this season – and creator Mitch Hurwitz, his actors and crew, have found an innovative, creatively inspired, and thematically resonant means through which to do so.

Arrested could so easily have come back as some kind of anodyne reunion special – a three episode ‘mini-movie’ rehash of the old show’s format, shamelessly serving as a taster for a proposed movie.  It could have been a lazy regurgitation of the old, shouting ‘Hey, look at us!  Getting the team back together again!  Remember these gags?  Remember back when we were funny?’

Instead it chose to answer the faith of its audience by providing a season long arc that captures the spirit of the original, but one that has grown, that actually alludes to its potential going forward, one that deepens its characters in unique and legitimised ways, and that performs what is inarguably (whether you agree that it worked or not – and I am going to argue strenuously in the coming days that I thought it worked stunningly well) the most revolutionary leap in the production and delivery of television that has ever been conceived.

By getting cancelled from broadcast television, spending years in production limbo, working around budgetary constraints and a production schedule that must have looked at times like a disassembled Lego set, Arrested Development returned on an entirely new broadcast format and has managed to evolve the whole medium of episodic narrative in heretofore unseen ways.  The Bluth family might make crappy homes (both figuratively and literally), but as this season shows, they make hilariously bulletproof experimental television.

And while this article may all just read like the predictable screed of a die-hard fan who feels that something he loves has been jilted, I do want to reiterate that my indignation does not stem from people disliking the show – they are of course free to think whatever they like.  My issue is with those critics who contemptuously believe that they have the right to fundamentally refuse to respect what a text is asking of them as a viewer, and yet still consider themselves justified in condemning it as having ‘failed’ their fantasised requirements.

The petty part of me hopes that someone is cataloguing all of the negative reviews that have been spilling out over the past two weeks.***  I will enjoy watching those nay-sayers, so eager to leap ahead of their predicted ‘I liked it when it was cool’ clichéd backlash, scrambling as the success of this season and its gathering critical acclaim leave them behind.  Because there will be a certain kind of (admittedly petty) schadenfreude in watching these critics – who claim to seek out and foster the innovative and new, who presume to eschew the predictable and stale – have their reactionary, knee-jerk responses revealed for the lazy pessimism it was.

Indeed I will be curious to see how many of them, in the build up to what I hope will be a season five (please, universe, please…) try to swing back around to the ‘Hey, I always loved it too…’ catch-cry, casually sweeping aside their own words as if they had never been spoken.

Because when those commentators can finally put their egos aside and actually finish the job they were presumably paid to do, they will no doubt find something original and utterly revolutionary awaiting them.  And for a group that likes to bleat on about how they once bravely defended Arrested Development when no one else was watching, it will surely sting for them to realise that a more savvy, evolved audience than they has left their tired conventional thinking behind.

 arrested characters thumb

 IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

* Indeed, I notice that Hale’s review is nonetheless still being counted on the Arrested Development (season 4) Metacritic page, despite the fact that he himself admits to having not watched the whole season, and as of this writing, has not amended his initial, un-contextualised thoughts.

** Giles’ review, although included in their paper edition, is conspicuously absent from the Sydney Morning Herald’s online review section – one hopes indicating that perhaps even his editors knew it to be an insufficiently considered response to the season.

*** At least Ted Sarandos, Chief Content Officer of Netflix is willing to call them out and keep their inattentive response in context, even if he only means it playfully (http://variety.com/2013/digital/news/netflix-chief-rips-new-york-times-over-negative-arrested-development-review-1200489764/).

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