Archive for Metatextuality

Yeah… So I Guess I’ll Just Write A Pulitzer Prize Winning Novel Then

Posted in creative writing, literature, stupidity with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2014 by drayfish

Writing writer stuff

THE PLAN

An award-eligible masterpiece by drayfish

The first sentence grabs them. The second proves it wasn’t by accident. The third sentence fleshes out the subject matter, maybe alluding to the inherent ironies and minor twists of the absurd that will litter the work. The forth is just along for the ride. The fifth sentence, while being completely practical, and serving certain fictional necessities, perhaps fleshing out the mimetic breadth of the work, maybe developing an empathetic tie that allows the reader to invest in the protagonist’s journey (whether providing further description, or entering deeper into a character’s psyche to unveil the deeper motivations of their social, surface behaviours), is entirely too long and convoluted. The final sentence should tie up a neat little metaphor begun in the opening line.

The second paragraph expands the story in a new direction. Perhaps the introduction of a new character, or a small contradiction to the previous few lines of thought. The next sentence says something subversive, or quirky, or just gosh-golly fun, dangnabit. The next one introduces a crisp new simile so as to sound rather more poetical – but like the hand-made pottery of a giant praying mantis doesn’t really make any sense.

This sentence is just boring exposition. Unfortunately, so is this one. This one is a little more lyrical; punctuated, paddling in the penumbra of a point; it fools the reader into overlooking any previous sloppy storytellinglyness…

‘Maybe you could put in some dialogue?’ you say. ‘To flesh out the characters some more?’

‘And squeeze in a little underhanded exposition while we’re at it?’ I say. ‘Well, I may be just a poor sap from the country, with a slight limp and a handful of broken dreams, but I say we go for it. Gee, I need a cigarette (which has always been my one principle vice and is perhaps symbolic of a deeper, destructive self-loathing).’

Now comes a perfect opportunity to enter the mind of a character. Using italics will make it look artsy. But it can be cheesy, so it’s kept short. And refer to sex somehow.

This sentence is a thinly veiled admission of the writer’s own prejudice. The next one contains a missstake that spell-check missed. This one is punchy. This one frantically slam-dances around with wildly elaborative, excessively worded description, and too many adjectives. The final diadem of this paragraph makes an indulgent reference only the writer and a forth year mythology major can share.

Then there comes the padding. Every story has to have padding. A bit of padding anyway. But padding can be good. Actually, no, it is good. Padding is good. Everything needs some padding. That’s how houses stay warm, after all. Y’know, in winter? With padding. But not too much.

NOW the story jumps back into motion with a tacky shock-tactic. Maybe it has some fucking swear words in it too, so it sounds all gritty and real. It might even mention a celebrity in a really negative way, so the writer can seem caustic, and uninterested in fame.

This sentence is witty, and memorable; it has that unnerving ability to silently slip behind you and glide its hands over your eyes, so that when you guess the ending you feel as though you had a part in writing it. It can also show that the writer is manipulative, and tediously self-involved.

‘This bit doesn’t make any sense at all,’ you say. ‘It seems completely unrelated.’

‘But it will later,’ I say. ‘It’s foreshadowing.’

The format of the story widens here, introducing a new character or moving the narration to another scene. Perhaps the description of a guy the writer saw once at a bus stop. He gets an additional quirk though, that makes him unique in a metaphorical way – like Ahab’s leg, or the imperfection of Tess d’Urberville’s lip. But then he does something unexpectedly, unremarkably normal, like picking his nose, or reshuffling the cards in his battered wallet; something the reader can relate to. Something to help them empathise.

That character gets screwed over. Quickly. Sadly. It proves to be a chilling portrayal of the bleak unfeeling void of existence. It shows that the writer read Camus and went through adolescence.

Then this part. This part is action. Each move is fast. Each sentence quick. No lingering description. Cause and effect. Like stylised journalism. With imbedded onomatopoeic words like thud, and crack, and waaaaahh…KRA-SHANG! With commas, and full stops… and exclamation points as far as the eye can see!!! And when it’s over, an elongated line to cool off the frantic writing, to soothe and slow the speed of the story to something resembling normal.

It’s ripped off from a television show, this sentence. But it sounded better when the angry cop snarled it to the fidgeting junkie.

This bit wins over the literary types again. It shows, but doesn’t tell. Then comes the part where the atmosphere is truly evoked. It’s a recipe for the senses. A dabble of visualisation, with a simile or two for spice; a dash of aromas, stirred in for measure; perhaps the zest of a distant sound drifting in from the ether; and if someone rubs their arm across the texture of something and murmurs a sigh: et Voila!

This one confuses the present tense by having been wrote in the past tense.

Eventually the protagonist picks up an object, or maybe notices something, a smell perhaps, and it triggers a memory. This is a lazy dissolve to their past, but helps flesh them out, gives their journey motivation, and is blatantly stolen from a passage by Virginia Woolf.

This sentence wasn’t meant to, but halfway through its meaning starts to stir, it swells, hardening, rising, and suddenly enters into a whole different kind of imagery, it pushes through the mind, waits a moment, and then begins to grind a little, testing, developing a rhythm, until increasingly a desperate, insistent thrust takes over and the sentence continues, committed, unstopping, moving on, going on, keeping on, until finally it peaks, and at its climax, in the calm, once the frenzy has gently cleared, the reader is left unsatisfied, wondering if it was all a mistake.

Perhaps a child walks in here. At the exact moment an adult is doing something ghastly, obscene, or immoral. The child symbolises innocence. It is freedom; it can still pick its nose. When the child speaks, their words are so profoundly naïve they fill the room like a diamond splitting light. This lets the writer toy with the corruption of purity, of growth and the blessing of ignorance; it makes the light points lighter, the dark points darker, and flips the morality of the story on its head. If you actually bother to think about it though, it has little more substance than a fortune cookie mantra.

The narration at this point lingers on an image that seems entirely unnecessary; completely unknowable, like the bottom of an undrained coffee cup, or the depths of the human eye. The protagonist is haunted by the vertiginous spaces and incalculable immensity of the world. In their mind they use words they would never understand out loud. When they speak, only the reader hears them.

Because here – if there can be said to be one – comes the point of the story, the moral unearthed from this play of shadow puppets:

‘It’s brief and it’s curt, and when the character speaks it, it’s uttered as though unwillingly believed.’

It will be quoted on the dust jacket.

Then this part seems oddly familiar.

‘Oh, now I understand that bit from before,’ you say.

‘The foreshadowing?’ I ask.

‘Yes, but it hardly seems worth it.’

‘I know,’ I say. ‘But it rounds it all off neatly. And everything needs to have an end.’

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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.

Does Shepard Dream of Electric Sheep? Thoughts on the Indoctrination Theory in Mass Effect 3

Posted in criticism, literature, Uncategorized, video games with tags , , , , , , on January 11, 2013 by drayfish

IMAGE: Mass Effect 3 (Bioware)

Although I am not a subscriber to the theory, and was not a contributor to their discussions, I was rather disturbed this past week to see that Bioware, publishers of the Mass Effect series, have decided to clamp down hard on a subset of their fans: those who believe in the ‘Indoctrination Theory’ (a theory that argues the muddled, obscure ending of Mass Effect 3 was in fact a dream-state from which the protagonist, Shepard, was struggling to wake).  Without warning, and with little explanation, Bioware’s Community Coordinator Chris Priestly began culling anything remotely to do with the discussion of IT, halting the primary thread (which had been running in some form or another for the past ten months), banning people who kept trying to discuss it elsewhere, dismissing anything written on the subject as ‘Spam’, and even completely deleting some threads (including an open letter pleading with him to allow fans to speak on a topic they care about).  Instead, fans who wanted to continue talking about IT were instructed that they could only do so in a closed off, invitation-only Group section of the site – that they were no longer permitted to discuss their interpretation in the public forums.

Again, I am not ultimately one of the fans effected by this blanket censorship, and so did not follow their discussions closely, but as far as I could see the (single) IT discussion thread was not a flame war, nor was it awash with triviality.  It appeared to be a group of people who passionately loved the game (in a way that I no longer can, given the disgusting implications of the text’s underlying thematic message),  players who were in many cases praising the work of the developers for being genius enough to sculpt a mystery of Hitchcockian depth and wonder.  Not exactly the barbarians storming the gates.

Frankly, it seems a rather shameful and prejudicial way to treat the fans that remain, arguably, the company’s most loyal and fervent supporters – particularly as it is a move that directly imposes a censorship upon what subject matter can and cannot be discussed in a forum that purports to offer a voice for the Bioware community.  I’ve not seen the topic of Synthesis, or Control, or Destroy (the other three primary conclusions to the ending (each of which concerns eugenics, totalitarianism or genocide as their central tenets) being forced to dismiss themselves to invitational groups away from the public discourse.

To me there seems to be a very unsettling precedent being set in this censorship, one that appears to be escalating a pattern of silencing the subject matter that fans are allowed to discuss on that forum (a prominent thread pointing out the many contradictions between the pre-release promises made by Bioware representatives and what was delivered in game was also shut down, with complaints disappeared).

In any case, in light of this unnerving development, I thought that I would (if you will permit me) return to some thoughts that I originally wrote on the BSN forum concerning this subject and its broader implications for gaming, back before even the mention of this concept was taboo.  As will be immediately evident, these comments all concern the potential implications of the Indoctrination Theory, should it have been revealed to be true…

. . . . .

As much of the criticism I have levelled at the conclusion of Mass Effect 3 is predicated upon the notion that the narrative arc with which we have been presented by Bioware is the entirety of the game, I did want to speak briefly (and I know my version of the word ‘briefly’ differs from most) to what it would mean if this is not, in fact, the end of Shepard’s tale.  …And yes, I am about to utter the words ‘Indoctrination Theory’, which I know for many players will no doubt inspire images of me sitting in a basement with a tin-foil hat.

Even before the Extended Cut was released I was always reluctant to weigh in on whether I thought the Indoctrination Theory was valid (although I will admit that I dearly, passionately hoped that it would have been so); but now that both the Extended Cut has rolled out and seemingly discrediting the reading, and Bioware itself has declared definitively there will be no more content after the ending, it seems that what I will go on to describe is more an account of what might have been, rather than what will.  So in that light, I would like to speak to what it could have meant for this game, this franchise, and the entire medium of video gaming, if it had have been the plan.

People need not have me repeat yet again the components of the Indoctrination Theory – suffice to say that it involves the jarring ending being but a psychological morality play within Shepard’s wounded psyche; Ghosty-McSpace-Scamp represents the voice of three options, two of which led to surrender, and the third, Destroy, playing out as a catalyst through which to break the stranglehold of Harbinger’s influence (hence the breath amongst the rubble: Shepard is reawakening to the real world).

If this is what is actually occurring, if a later supplemental free DLC patch to the game were to reveal these events to be the imaginings of Shepard moments before the true conclusions of the game (whatever they might actually be) play out, this narrative will be one of the greatest acts of literary manipulation and storytelling ever conceived.  (Again, I want to point out: I am not saying that this is what is happening – merely what it would mean if it is.)

The symmetry between audience and experience would be sublime: all the rancour and disbelief on the internet, all the fighting for Shepard’s identity and ideology would perfectly parallel the character’s own fight for survival, breaking the hold of an omnipotent, omniscient force that seems to compel him/her to act against his/her actions.  All of the angst, all of the sorrow, even my own pretentious blather, would therefore feed directly into the psychological rallying cry that that our focal character, Shepard, requires to wake him/herself up from this delirious stupor, and return to the fight.

Indeed, if Indoctrination Theory is accurate – if the concluding moments of the game as we have them now are but the shadows cast upon Shepard’s mind by Harbinger in an attempt to bend him/her to the Reaper’s will – then Mass Effect 3 would not be Game of the Year: it would be Game of the Century.  No hyperbole.  It would do for the communicative form of gaming what Citizen Kane did for film, what Joyce’s Ulysses did for modern fiction: it would turn the medium itself into a fundamental, inseparable element of the means through which the narrative was communicated.  It would elevate the audience’s engagement with this text to a profoundly intimate level (arguably impossible in any other artistic form), would fold dissenters and believers and self-righteous critics on both sides all into the miasma of speculation and emotion required for Shepard to act.  It would be the perfect culmination of player agency in the story-telling medium that Bioware has promised (and for the great majority of these narratives, delivered) for the past several years.

This ‘ending’ would be an intentionally, necessarily disturbing waypoint in the journey towards this tale’s epic dénouement.  And in such an instance, I will be at the front of the pack, howling myself hoarse with praise for the audacity and brilliance of this writing team and its talented crafts-people.

There would be no more question as to whether games were art.  People would simply harrumph and murmur the name Mass Effect as they do Mona Lisa, and then swan away to drink lattes and wear berets and talk about Kierkegaard.

Having Shepard (and by extension the Player) awake from the most audacious (and in fact necessarily cruel) act of player trolling in the history of gaming, only to then fight on with a greater comprehension of the alluring pull of this mind-altering persuasive power that has rippled through the entire Mass Effect canon…

Well that would be…  Would be…  Well there aren’t even words to put into context what that would be, because it would necessitate a whole new descriptive language of player and text interaction. (‘Cluster-Mind-frakafication’ leaps to the tongue.)

Mean?  Yes.  Deceptive?  Yes.  Misleading?  Oh, my wordy, yes.  But a rousing way in which to further bind the player to this character with whom they have journeyed, fought and loved?  Sign me up.

So in this light, I would have loved to have seen Indoctrination Theory play out.  It would have been an extraordinarily audacious play on the meta-fictional structure of the game.  Movies and fiction can’t do that: hold off on the release of the final scene of a film until the audience is good and invested in one reading, only to kick it up a notch with a later addition to the tale.  It is one of the great benefits of the delivery system of the games medium, one that I would love to see people utilise in more experimental, expressive ways than simply: ‘Hey guys, here’s Sonic 4: part 1…  Maybe you’ll wanna try part 2, ‘kay? ‘

I remember Stephen King experimented with that old-fashioned episodic form with the original publication of The Green Mile, and while I wasn’t a huge fan of the book, it seemed to work quite well for him in ensuring that the true narrative wasn’t spoiled.  His rationale – drawing on the experience of his mother, who he said had a tendency to always flip to the back of a book and spoil the ending – was to ensure than no-one could leak the information before he was ready to reveal it, and that by doing this he was participating in a very focussed, specific engagement with his reading audience.

My dream – and with the passing of the Extended Cut release it has now been revealed a completely insubstantial fantasy – is that with time constraints pressing in, Bioware decided to give the audience the cold, hard-sci-fi conclusion that this franchise has always flirted with, intending always (with the freedom of extra time to work on the DLC) to release the soaring, but-heroism-and-unity-can-still-fight-back conclusion that has always (until the ending) triumphed over the rigidity of the Lovecraftian nightmare.

Again, in such a case, the ending would have to be free (they would be rightly pilloried for trying to ‘sell’ the hopeful ending), and it would have to be handled delicately so as to not undermine the fans that have, quite rightly, invested in the conclusion as it stands.  Bioware would have to avoid posing this as a: ‘Ha! Ha! Gotcha!’, but rather as a bold expression of the whole experience of indoctrination, binding the players experience to Shepard, to manifest the battle within.

I should clarify, however: personally, I have no interest in Indoctrination Theory if it does ultimately turn out (as it appears it now has) to operate as no more than an ‘alternate’ reading on the current canon ending.  Indeed, in such an ending it seems merely a vicious malformation of the player’s engagement with the plot, failing to even provide a satisfactory conclusion.  If the end of the game really is just Shepard lying bleeding to death in rubble, then I completely check out.

Ultimately, one of the major problems with the Indoctrination Theory – aside from the fact that Bioware has almost certainly denied it’s very existence – is that it is an ending that backs the player into the corner of having to commit a heinous act in order to fight through the dream-state: obliteration, domination, or eugenic purging.  You have to select one on order to even hope to end the deception – and you have to do so without actually knowing whether your dreaming or not.  It’s a horrifying, and grotesquely pricey gamble.

The only way that this action could function is if Bioware’s plan was always to push us into an extreme act, an act for which we could never forgive ourselves, in order to (clumsily) force a kind of empathetic bond with the major villains of the work.  In such a case the question would become how much could you/would you, Shepard, be willing to sacrifice to save the Universe – as a prelude to the real conclusion, waking the character from whatever choice was made in DLC and stomping some Reaper ass.  Still awkward, still vile, still an utterly unjust violation of the player’s agency, but one that intentionally muddies the stark moral delineation between the potential for action between the heroes and ‘villains’, forcing a hypothetical moral conundrum upon the player that will reverberate even after the uplifting conclusion…  Of course, this presupposes that the Reapers are little more than the rocks upon which our characters dash themselves, and Shepard is compelled to see the choice that confronted all those who pursued these creatures before him/her, hoping to control or thwart them.

Again, I frankly don’t think that this is in any way what Bioware had or has planned – it seems to me that this revelation should have already been made by now if they had any actual intention of running with it…  But I guess for me, the Indoctrination Theory is like a scratch on the roof my mouth that I cannot help but keep touching with my tongue.  It lingers because although I can ultimately dismiss almost everything else that supports Indoctrination under the shortcomings of apathy, rushed design, or happenstance, one doubt remains.  Sure, no one looks at the creepy kid as he scrambles onto the ship; fine, because who’s looking anywhere but at the giant mutant insect blowing civilisation into powder?  Sure, there is absolutely no way that Anderson could have gotten in front of me with pristine clothes and no visible wounds; but he said the walls were moving around and maybe the developers (somehow) didn’t catch that logistical speed bump.  And yes, even those goddamn dreams – intrusions into my Shepard’s semi-cipher identity that really stick in my craw (it’s a thing; a craw can be a thing!); if I squint a little in my mind’s eye I can finally dismiss them as purely clumsy, woefully mistimed swings at emotional engagement.

But that breath scene.  Someone has to explain that Shepard breath scene after the Destroy ending. I have to have it explained.  Need it explained: justified, contextualised, even deleted as a fault – anything.  But something needs to be done, because at the moment, from whatever angle I read it, it seems to be saying to the audience: ‘Oh, and by the way, gentle player:

‘Screw you.

‘…No really. You, drayfish.  You.  Screw you.’

Because that scene has no merit whatsoever besides intentionally, openly trolling the audience.

They know that we’re not infants – simply shaking a set of keys in front of our eyes will not delight us to forget everything else we’ve seen.  They may not have known that a healthy portion of the fans would react as vehemently to the principles of the endings.  They may not have foreseen that everyone would (I think entirely justifiably) interpret the Relays exploding as the ruination of all life (although when you pull out to a universe-sized wide-shot that reveals tsunamis of devastation rippling into countless stratospheres, I’m not sure what else they were expecting).  But that breath scene is an addition (needless at best) to this salad of gormless iconography.  And because it goes nowhere, asking its viewer to believe that Shepard not only survived the Reaper destruct code that was meant to kill him/her, but lived through the structurally devastating Crucible explosion; and then lived through re-entry into Earth’s now blighted atmosphere, the premise goes so far beyond the realm of the fantastical that it would be like the creators sat down with a game of Mad-Libs to devise the ending plot:

‘I was walking through LONDON when I found a GIANT LAZER that sent me to SPACE . It was here that I met CREEPY GHOST who made me feel EXISTENTIAL NIHILISTIC ANGST until I BLEW UP the UNIVERSE and went home for more DLC .’

If the creators of this franchise really have that little respect for their audience then there is little left to say at all. If the breath scene (as it currently does) continues to have no relevance except to tantalise with utterly fruitless speculation, then I fear that my investment in this franchise will be truly eroded through – and I desperately do not want that to be so – because it really will mean that a prank was more important to the creators of this universe than thematic cohesion and narrative sense.

…Even as I type this, however, I can acknowledge with sorrow that I am in the bargaining stages of having my hopes dashed.  It’s Christmas Eve, I’m standing in my pyjamas, a teddy bear tucked under one arm on the staircase as I watch my parents stuffing the stockings with gifts from a trash bag, both hushing each other in case they wake me.  ‘But – But there is still a Santa, right?’ I’m murmuring into the dark.

Come on, Bioware.  Let there be some kind of impossibly fortuitous path through the murky narrative haze.  Give me back Santa.  You have no idea how much I still want to believe.*

http://themenastics.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/hope-in-mass-effect.png

IMAGE: Mass Effect 3 (Bioware; additional snarkiness: me)

* But as we were all made aware: on 26th June Santa lay beaten to a pulp in a back alley. A note, left by the attacker read: ‘For the Lulz’.

(Originally published, in parts, on the ‘All Were Thematically Revolting…’ thread: http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/355/index/11435886/)

Burning Down the House: Cabin in the Woods and Genre Immolation

Posted in criticism, movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 4, 2013 by drayfish

[Seriously, DO NOT READ IF YOU EVER INTEND TO WATCH CABIN IN THE WOODS ever… and I do encourage you to watch it.  SPOILERS AHOY.]

IMAGE: Cabin in the Woods (Lionsgate, Mutant Enemy)

Joss Whedon – finally the world recognised uber-director/writer his fans always knew he was destined to be thanks to a little bohemian art-house film he made recently called The Avengers (you’ve probably never heard of it) – began the first television project he created on his own, Buffy the Vampire Slayer*, with a two minute sequence that kicked the legs out from under one of the most firmly established, and frankly tired conventions of horror.  Within the sequence a young blonde girl and a larger, muscular young man are wandering down a dark corridor, trying to find somewhere to be alone.  The girl, giggling as she sashays coquettishly in her school uniform,  grows suddenly timid, ruminating on what dangers might be lurking in the shadows around them…  The young man, amorously predatory, skulks closer, leering over her, telling her not to worry about it, that there’s nothing she needs to fear, as he looks her over hungrily and snuggles closer to her neck…

The darkness closes in, the boy towers over her, his frame eclipsing hers as they linger in this lonely alcove, cut off from the world, unable to escape, the viewer knowing that the trembling girl is wholly at his mercy…

And at that point, she spins around, revealing herself a vampire, and rips into his throat to feed.

Whedon took the sexually-promiscuous-blonde-girl-who-gets-moralistically-devoured-by-the-monster motif common to the history of the horror genre, and before the opening credits had even run, flipped it wholly on its head.  In the universe of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (as if the title wasn’t enough) it was made immediately evident that women were no longer to play the rote damsel-in-distress roles, and that weary conventions of schlock cinema were going to be fundamentally shaken up and subverted.

For seven years Buffy was a malleable catch-all for revolutionary genre pastiche, blurring fantasy, horror, comedy, romance, sci-fi, and effortlessly manifesting the heightened emotional turmoils of adolescence with literalised demons and a handful of apocalypses.  In his more recent collaboration with fellow Buffy writer Drew Goddard, Cabin in the Woods (Goddard co-wrote and directed the film), the two have sculpted an even more focussed, and arguably more acerbic, exploration of the horror genre, offering one of the finest examples of textual self-assessment I can think of, capturing a sense of homage, parody, and unapologetic embrace of traditional genre conventions all in one cohesive narrative salad.**

Yes, Cabin in the Woods lays out the mechanics of the horror narrative and riffs on them with a metatextual self-awareness; but rather than simply tear them down, or satirise them as repetitive drivel, it finds a legitimate means of validating their perpetuation.  It argues that there is a reason we let these clichés play out, a synchronicity that explains why this group of kids looks like a corporeal Scooby-Doo Gang as they drive onward to their doom; because these narratives tell us something about ourselves, about our communal psyche and the traditions of storytelling that define us.

We can laugh at it – just as we laugh at all of the things that we love – but what is embraced or emboldened is more important than what is derided.

The central conceit of Cabin in the Woods revolves around the dissonance between two depicted worlds that rub up against each other and eventually collide in a spectacular, chaotic eruption by film’s end.  Throughout the tale a group of teenagers travel to a cabin in the woods (the most clichéd location for any specious tale of dread), and begin living out the machinations of any number of urban legends that have become hard-wired into our communal human psyche (mutants; cannibals; escaped psychotics; werewolves; clowns…  ergh…  clowns), gradually getting picked off as this evil is unleashed upon them.  This is the first level of narrative.  The second level concerns a group of technicians, seemingly working in a sterile office space, who are in fact looking on at this horror playing out.  It is revealed that these men are in fact orchestrating the monstrous fate that is befalling these young people – trapping them in a snare from which the only escape is gratuitous, theatrical death.

Some have justifiably seen this structure as a fictionalised commentary upon the making of horror films – the dreariness and contemptuousness of the men in their ties a statement on the rote production of these films, playing out hackneyed, predictable narrative beats with overly familiar gore: the technicians complaining about tight schedules, broken pyrotechnics, and having to deal with that weird actor who takes his role as crusty old harbinger of doom a little too seriously – it definitely appears to be a glimpse into the behind the scenes machinations of these tired narratives and their restrictive mechanics.

However, while this is a valid way into analysing the work, in truth, I didn’t read the movie as an analogy for the production of horror films so much as the viewing of them.  To me, those observers were not solely ‘writer’/’director’ proxies, but rather mirrors.  The guys in the button down shirts and the sensible ties; the figures whining about home-repairs and pressure from their bosses to meet quotas; looking on through the observational detachment of television screens as the young hot teens die; betting on the outcomes; hoping to see boobies; scarfing down snack food and yawping with disappointment as the comely young lovers get interrupted before the sexy stuff gets too carried away – they are us.  We viewers.  Both revolted and delighted at the ritualised narrative sacrifice playing out before them.

Sure, they engineer the scenario that will be enacted – but ultimately they are just as surprised as the audience at which kind of tale will play out, and how exactly it will go down.  Will it be the zombie cannibal story about buried histories of familial abuse resurfacing to brutalise the innocent?  A fiction about fantastical creatures of legend that intrude upon the rational?  The werewolves that expose (both metaphorically and in sprays of viscera) the beast within us all?  And what do these desires say about them that they long for one more than the other?  …Why is that one guy so enamoured with the thought of mermen, already?

Then, eventually, this natural human curiosity of the onlookers is answered by that same natural human curiosity of the victims caught in the snare: several potential fates await, but it is the most inquisitive personality that dictates what tempting bauble will trigger which sacramental plotline…  And again, we get to ask: why were they so attracted to that particular bait?  Why go for the dust-speckled diary?  Why not the shiny trinket, or the mystic prophesy?  Why not continue to unravel that puzzling curio, or finish latching that antique, cursed trinket around their neck?  But of course, in this world of Saw sequels and knock-offs, we had to go for the gruesome torture-pit…

On every level of the movie – both in the kids at the cabin and the sterile overseer hub – the movie speaks to that recurring inclination to explore our own, subliminal motivations and terrors by sublimating them onto a screen soaked with gore.

Traditionally we human beings explore ourselves in these morality-play genres, repeatedly punishing the aspects of ourselves that are too prickly and antisocial (lechery; stupidity; cowardice), and manifesting the fears that plague the darker regions of our communal consciousness (the unknown; the repressed; the injustice of the past), so that we can ultimately try to confront and overcome them.  Hence, of course, the revelation scene at the end: the explanation for the ritual that is said to appease the demons lurking below.  We feed them examples of human frailty, and maybe a chaste young heroine or two survives.

And here too, contemporary humanity does triumph in this film …if only briefly, and stupefyingly self-destructively.

In the end, when a randomised agent is thrown into the mix – the Shaggy-proxy, swimming in his impenetrable weed-coma – a cog is thrown, the machine spits, and the pressure lets loose in a sprawling, chaotic self-immolation.  As they show in the live feeds from other failed attempts at appeasement from around the world (damned Japan and those resourceful kiddies), the world is outgrowing the hackneyed old beats of these repetitious tales – J-horror, jump-scares, psycho-thrillers – we’ve seen it all already, so we know what’s coming; and people aren’t just ‘Jocks’ and ‘Cheerleaders’ and ‘Virgins’ anymore.  The ‘classic’ archetypes of these fictions no longer apply in such arbitrary ways – so trying to unimaginatively cram characters into boxes, and serve up conventional, predictable colour-by-numbers plots won’t work anymore.

Thus, both the viewers – and the characters in the Cabin – start to react, to begin shaking out of their stupor and literally attempt to escape the restrictive paradigm they find themselves within: ‘I am not a meathead – I’m freaking Thor.’ (Okay, bad example…)  How about: ‘I am not some helpless damsel – I’m the woman who flips the switch and turns the whole power-structure on its head…’

And then – Well then you have a movie; and potentially a rebirth of this genre that both embraces, and transcends the old.

That moment where the lever is thrown and anarchy unleashed – where every source of human dread, literalised into monsters, pours out of their cages to mutilate and destroy – that instant is a definitive call to arms for this genre and its viewership.  Yes, on one level it is declaring the historical need for these genre fictions: if the psyche does not have these spit valves for the release of these psychological undertows, if surrogates cannot be sent to the altar to analogously purge ourselves of our more detestable aspects, then we may well (psychologically) implode.

But more than that, it was saying that if all we are doing, as viewers and moviemakers, is watching these films for cheap thrills – if it is all just to catch a glimpse of some flesh and watch a pickaxe get buried in a dude’s face – if there is no deeper interrogation of ourselves being offered even if not actively embraced, then truly it all does just become a geyser of farcically eruptive blood.

And in that case, we may as well just burn it all down.

So when that demon hand bursts out of the earth at the end (in all its suggestively human dimensions), it is either the harbinger of doom for this genre, or the birth of things to come.

IMAGE: Cabin in the Woods (Lionsgate, Mutant Enemy)

* Itself based upon his earlier attempt at telling this story as a film, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (with which he was apparently not satisfied).

** An argument could most certainly be made for the masterful works of Messrs Pegg, Frost and Wright in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, however…

‘Clap your Hands If You Believe In Community’: Season Four and Why It’s A Show Worth Celebrating

Posted in criticism, television with tags , , , , on August 18, 2012 by drayfish

IMAGE: NBC

There’s almost nothing more irritating than having someone describe to you why a television show is great.  It’s so obnoxious, so presumptive.  Television is an intensely personal thing – you don’t just swan in to a movie theatre for two hours and then swish back out into the daylight, ready to return to your life.*  Television shows are something you live with week to week, sometimes for years.  You get invested in them, the ups and downs of the narrative, the rise and dips in quality.  They are relationships that an audience undertakes with a text.  They can make you soar imaginatively and emotionally; and you can go through bad patches with a beloved television show, you can see them make mistakes, go in bad directions, but still hold on to the hopes that they can pull it all back together and be as great as they once were.  You believe because you know them so well.

So having someone tell you why they love a particular show, and why therefore you should too can be incredibly invasive and off-putting.  Worse than that, it can make actually getting around to watching the show itself feel like homework rather than escapist fun:

‘Urgh, that show is on…  That show everyone has been insisting is so great, so important, so ‘clever’.  But I don’t want to have to learn a whole bunch of new characters and situations all at once.  I don’t want to have to scramble to catch up with all the episodes that have lead up to this one.  And who are those people to know what I like?’

All good points; all completely understandable.  Someone would have to be a ridiculous, self-righteous, pompous ass to still insist, after everything that you just thought/said, that they have any right to assign you viewing homework, to tell you what you should be doing with your free television time.  What a jerk they would be.

…So here’s your homework.  Go on.  Go get a pen.  I’ll wait.

And sit up straight.

Earlier this year, with its third season drawing to a close, the fate of the dearly beloved, but criminally under-viewed comedy Community hung precariously in the balance.  NBC, the show’s broadcaster, had benched the sitcom halfway through the season, temporarily postponing screening the second half (almost always the first sign of an imminent axing) due to less than stellar ratings; behind the scenes a fractious relationship between Chevy Chase and creator/executive producer Dan Harmon had made for disquiet on set and had started spilling out into showbiz gossip; and finally, most alarmingly, there was the shock axing of Harmon, who had been the show’s primary guiding voice for the entirety of its production, in May.

At the 2012 San Diego Comic Con, the newly installed executive producers and show runners for the upcoming truncated season 4 (only 13 episodes, yet another bad sign for the show continuing), appeared with members of the cast to try and assuage the concerns of fans (who range from academically intrigued to fearfully traumatised) over the loss of Harmon and the potential shift in tone of the beloved show.

But why do people care?  What does it matter?  Isn’t it just another one of those quick-talking, postmodern shows where characters shoot cultural references at each other?  Don’t we already have enough of those?  Am I just asking a bunch of perfunctory rhetorical questions so that I can obnoxiously flip them on their head as this article goes on?  Am I really that transparent?

Yes.  Now shut up.

Yes, Community is clever.  Yes, it’s alert and responsive to the cultural pulse.  Yes, it is capable of the most ingenious and knowing genre parodies currently operating now that The Simpsons have slid into a decade long funk.  But at the heart of all the seeming pop culture, self-aware hilarity, most importantly it’s about characters.  Fractured human beings who need each other to survive, who better each other in order to grow.

A character like Abed speaks of Pretty In Pink, Back To The Future, and Cougar Town, not because he is ticking off some mass culture Bingo card, but because these texts are his window into a world he struggles to comprehend, and can help rationalise through film and television.  Pierce ham-fistedly references facts from the ‘Wie-kie-poh-dia’ and ‘the facebooks’, because he’s a muddled baby-boomer struggling to act young.  Jeff Winger looses himself in imported beauty products, faux-soccer fandom, and pretentious scotch drinking, because his narcissistic materialism clouds a fear of self-worth.

In the past I have tried to convince people to watch (to love) Community.  I have had some successes, far too many failures, but the reaction that really surprises me is those who sort of shrug and say, ‘Yeah, it’s clever, but I wouldn’t need to watch it again.’

youwouldawha?

You wouldn’t need to drop in on this beautiful band of misfits again?  You wouldn’t need to see how they’re going?  Where they’re headed?  How their magnificently fractured minds intersect?  How they offer a salve for the damaged parts of each other?  How, by accepting each other as they are, they become the best that they can, or have ever, been?  You wouldn’t need, wouldn’t cry out to the universe in longing, for that?!

For me, Community is all about that imaginative act that allows for all manners of play.

I think a lot of people see the show sliding into the beats of genre and they think it’s an elongated piss-take with a rather too self-aware winking-at-the-audience-style satire of form over substance; but what those naysayers miss is that unlike the Family Guys and Scary Movies of the world, Community is not cynically tearing down these structures, poking holes in them.  it is rather using them as playgrounds in which to best articulate their characters’ journeys, manifesting the experience of people who have themselves been born into and raised by such culturally dense tropes.

The onlyway that Community gets away with their genre swaps – a paintball game pastiche of every action film ever made; a Law and Order style investigation of a murdered yam; a stop-motion Christmas Special; a tale played out in the 8-bit graphics of a videogame – is because the characters (and thereby the audience) invest in the scenario with which they are presented.  It’s a love note to imagination; to the unspoken collective accord of belief in one another that makes the notion of ‘community’ possible at all.  The characters, like we the audience, like society at large, decide to believe in something together.  And by believing in it, by feeding into that act of imagination, we make it real.  We become a community.

Part of what is most extraordinary about the show is that up until now it has seemed to go out of its way to baffle its audience’s expectations.  It offers us faith in the possibilities of storytelling, because it has repeatedly made effortless what any other fiction would attempt to do only to crash and burn.  So many times over the course of its three year run we have heard of an upcoming premise (the return to the paintball game as a Western; the multiple dimensions story; the story set entirely in the Dreamatorium) and thought: Oh God, no.  No, no one can do that…  No matter how good they’ve been up until now they can’t pull that off…’

And yet…  Every.  Damned.  Time.

It’s streets ahead.

In its first three miraculous seasons, Community has proved itself to be one of the most precious shows ever put to air.  No doubt the show’s fans – amongst whom clearly I number myself – will be praying that it doesn’t get screwed up this coming season in the wake of all the ugly behind the scenes nonsense.  Even his detractors would have to admit, Dan Harmon’s voice is going to be almost impossible to emulate, and personally, I’m not sure I hold much hope for the replacement show-runners.  …however, Community has always flaunted my dire expectations, all the moments that I thought it couldn’t go on.  So I hope to be joyfully disproved again in the months to come.

* With all the ‘swanning’ and ‘swishing’ I seem to be imagining audiences everywhere wearing capes now – sorry about that.  But you do all look quite fetching.  Just sayin’.

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