Archive for themenastics

Things Strange: The Nostalgic Dungeon Master of Stranger Things

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

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IMAGE: Stranger Things (Netflix)

SPOILERS: Dear Human Beings of The World,

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

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

Just watch.

Go in fresh and unspoiled and have an experience.

I’ll see you on the other side.

*     *     *

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

It’s strange.  It’s a strange thing.

It’s Stranger Things.

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

For my part, I loved it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So bad show is bad.

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

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

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

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IMAGE: Stranger Things (Netflix)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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IMAGE: Stranger Things (Netflix)

Vale David Bowie: He’s A Star, Man.

Posted in criticism, music with tags , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2016 by drayfish

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IMAGE: David Bowie, 1975

According to a group of international scientists, humanity has now had such a detrimental impact upon our own world that we have actually managed to shift the globe into a new geological epoch. Between our burning of fossil fuels, our addiction to driving species extinct, the dumping of toxins, the use of plastic and concrete (so ubiquitous that our oceans are now riddled with microplastic decay – yum), deforestation, reliance on fertiliser, and use of nuclear weapons, we have taken a process that usually takes millions of years of incremental evolution – from Triassic, to Jurassic, to Cretaceous – and squeezed it down to just shy of 16,000 years.

Because we’re humans. That’s what we do.

Bigger! Better! Faster! Howling as we hurl ourselves untethered into the abyss. Trying to convince ourselves that the world is not burning beneath us.

The scientists are therefore proposing a name change, from the Holocene to the Anthropocene. Because that’s the other thing we do. We name things after ourselves.

A few days after this news was announced, David Bowie’s friends and loved ones revealed that he had died, surrounded by his family, after a year and a half battle with cancer. And as hyperbolic as this will risk sounding, I cannot seem to disentangle the two events.

Not, I should warn, because I am going to try and make some hyperbolic, farcical declaration that there was a before and after David Bowie. That human history as we know it would not exist were it not for Aladdin Sane. (…I might make that argument for Station to Station, but that’s another matter.)

Because in my head, Bowie isn’t Earth, or history itself. He isn’t global warning, or nuclear fission, or a meteor waiting to strike down the dinosaurs.

He’s those scientists.

Bowie was an artist who had the capacity to name, to give shape, to epochs. Try thinking of the sixties without ‘Space Oddity’ or ‘Letter to Hermione’ (even if that self-titled album only snuck in half way through 1969). Try thinking of the seventies without ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Changes’, ‘Rebel Rebel’, ‘”Heroes”, ‘The Jean Genie”, ‘Sorrow’, ‘Life on Mars?’, etc. etc. etc… The eighties without ‘Ashes to Ashes’, ‘Let’s Dance’, ‘Under Pressure’, or ‘Dancing in the Street’. The nineties without ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’, or Nirvana’s version of ‘Man Who Sold the World’. The 2000s without the post-9/11 grim introspection of Heathen, the career-spanning Reality album tour.

Try growing up without having Labyrinth fixed like a nostalgic load-bearing wall in your soul; or forgetting his hilariously deadpan scene in Ricky Gervais’ Extras (‘Pathetic little fat man…’). Try denying the genius of his music videos, each one a unique experimental art film (and yes, I’m even including the surreally chipper ‘Dancing in the Street’).

And even now, in the teens of a new millennium, a decade since he was healthy enough to tour his music, he still remains as prescient and urgent as ever, having released two astonishing albums, The Next Day and Blackstar, replete with songs like ‘I’d Rather Be High’, ‘Dirty Boys’, ‘Dollar Days’, and ‘Lazarus’ that would make any other songwriter’s career on their own.

Bowie seemed to have an unmatched ability to identify and render in song the experience of generations. He poured all of it into his music and his personas – from pop psychedelia to crunchy rock, from glam cabaret, to freaky folk, through jazz and disco and electronic and crooner, he refracted it through the multiple character masks he employed that each embodied their age: Ziggy Stardust; Aladdin Sane; the Thin White Duke; his later, meta-impersonation of himself. Each album these figures produced offering an anthology, perfectly articulating the angst of the time in which it was released.

And like that body of international scientists, what his music described, again and again was that we were endlessly, relentlessly killing ourselves. The characters in his songs shoot themselves into space on doomed missions. They sell the world. Burn out in rock and roll suicides. Even the melodies could sometimes barely keep themselves together, with song’s like ‘Aladdin Sane’, ‘Jean Genie’, and the final song of his final album ‘I Can’t Give Everything’, threatening to run themselves apart at times, fragile moments of harmony to be treasured amongst a cacophony of sound.

He knew that we were killing ourselves, lying to ourselves, lost in ourselves. It’s no doubt why his work was peppered with references to anti-utopian literature – Orwell’s 1984; Burgess’ Clockwork Orange – nonetheless his songs were still defiantly hopeful. He used fantasy to reflect our devastation, but still saw something to celebrate amongst the despair.

Songs like ‘Life On Mars?’ might be the auditory equivalent of Hieronymus Bosch canvases, but they revel in the frenzied splendour of our disorder. In ‘Five Years’ the impending apocalypse leads people to recalibrate what is truly valuable amongst the detritus of life; the line ‘I never thought I’d need so many people’ dissolving the judgemental barriers that divide society. In the sublime ‘Golden Years’ he celebrates the sunset of a loved one’s glory. In ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’ he cries out passionately ‘You’re not alone’ to all those feeling disaffected and unseen. Chaos does not mean despair in Bowie’s soundscape. It is an invitation: ‘Gimme your hands cause you’re wonderful.’

For Bowie, in his music, in his myriad personas, when we accept all our freaky, broken excesses, we’re finally free to be ourselves. We can embrace each other without pretention, all equal in our messy wreckages of self.

Because we’re humans. That’s also what we do.

And right up to the end, with Blackstar, Bowie was continuing to describe his own – and humanity’s – demise, finding beauty in the predictable banality of our decay. His exquisite fugue ‘Lazarus’ is replete with lyrics that affirm and deny at once:

Look up here, I’m in Heaven.
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen.
Everybody knows me now.

Like all Bowie’s work, it’s marvellously cryptic and personal. He’s singing both about himself, and a character divorced from himself at the same time. He’s alive while singing about being dead; now dead while singing about being alive. He’s free like a bluebird, he says, and ‘Ain’t that just like me?’ But that ‘me’ is profoundly, impossibly multifaceted. He’s ‘known’ now, but remains fundamentally obscured. We know of him, but cannot know him.

It’s also why the cover of his final album – the last album he knew he would release before his death – is so profound. For the Star Man, Ziggy Stardust, the final image is another star, now black, disassembling itself. It is a powerful metaphor for an artistic icon in a state off self-assessment; compound and divisible, but always more than the sum of his constituent parts.

In his music David Bowie transcended the temporal. He seemed to stand outside of time to reflect our experience of it back to us. To name what we couldn’t articulate within ourselves. Like a scientist categorising the ages of global history he defined and gave voice to the experience of decades of lost souls. Those estranged and bewildered on the closing out of the 20th century, stumbling blind and just as alone into the 21st.

Which makes it even more extraordinary that even here, on his last record, released days before his death, Bowie continues to voice the impossible, eclipsing death itself to comfort his fans, transforming into one last masque, the undying Bowie, to remind them that his music – music that, like its creator, was intimate and alien in one – will remain. Those extraordinary songs might be divorced, necessarily, from the man who brought them into being. But that was always, in some way, true – and they are no less powerful for that. The music locates us, in time and experience, a campfire around which we gather, warmed even in the fading of the light.

So vale David Bowie; man who named the world.

Thank you for the gift of sound and vision.

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IMAGE: Cover of Blackstar by David Bowie

Vale DrawQuest: CTRL ALT DELETE

Posted in art, stupidity, video games with tags , , , , , , , on May 15, 2014 by drayfish

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IMAGE: ‘What’s Sizzling In The Pan?’ by DrawQuest and Me

Only late last year I was bleating on about how great DrawQuest was.

A free program designed to offer the canvas, tools, gallery, and daily inspirational prompts for aspiring artists and procrastinating doodlers to express their creativity in an encouraging environment, DrawQuest was like a sweet, supportive oasis.  It was a place where pop culture and classical art, established and original characters (and the occasional shamelessly redundant request for followers) mingled in blissful, free-associated abandon.

At any moment you could be scrolling through a five-year old’s adorably slanted drawing of a house with puffy smoke coming out the chimney, a near photo-realistic portrait of Beyonce, or a fresco of Princess Bubblegum dissecting SpongeBob SquarePants in a soundproof lab.*

So naturally enough, when I spoke of the program I compared it to the birth of all art and imaginative expression: humankind’s very first cave paintings and the revolutionary conceptual evolution that they continue, to this day, to represent.

Yeah.

‘Cause that’s not an overreach.

In any case, while I have to admit that it’s been a month or two since I’ve dropped in on DrawQuest, my fondness for the program has remained strong.  So I was greatly disheartened to hear earlier this month that DrawQuest had closed down.

As their announcement states, the program had been the target of a hacker, and while it was unclear whether any sensitive information had in fact been gathered, the owners and operators of the program decided in the wake of this breach to protect against further intrusion into their clients’ privacy by closing down the whole production.**

Aside from being a loss for those who used the platform to feed their creative spark, it’s also a sad reminder of just how transitory the world wide web can be as a means of archival preservation.  In my previous post, I spoke of the way in which the internet gave we desperate, expressive humans the opportunity to spread ourselves even further beyond the limitations of this our mortal, corporeal form.  No longer were we constrained by the need for physical space and temperamental mediums – suddenly we could reach into the nebulous, wild expanse of the digital eternal…

Except of course that now, with all of DrawQuest’s galleries and social functions shut down, we instead see hundreds of thousands of users discovering that material they had poured countless hours of love and effort into could be dissolved in an instant.

Bet those cave walls don’t seem to ‘antiquated’ now, huh?

…Wait, who am I mocking?  Me?

I’m confused.

Although to their great credit the creators and curators of DrawQuest have promised to try and restore those galleries somewhere, somewhen in future, the truth is that they appear to be a small handful of very kind, very underfunded volunteers, and a library of that magnitude will probably be cumbersome, and prohibitively expensive to wrangle.  Ideally, they will indeed find a way to return, but at present, all of that work – months of labour, passion, and effort; a testament to the enthusiastic community DrawQuest had fostered – is gone.

Thankfully, for those users (like myself) who were egomaniacal enough to link up their tumblr feeds and facebook histories and twitter twoots and flickr whatevers (why do none of these programs use capital letters, inquired the very old man typing this post?), their pictures live on, however ephemerally, in other internet galleries.  These echoes of what DrawQuest was remain, the artworks given life through its collaboration preserved – likewise, no doubt, all tremulously poised upon the precipice of another encroaching oblivion…

So to mourn the loss of a truly wonderful little community and its lovingly generous original mission statement to ‘foster a community of budding creators’, I offer some more of of my own stupid pictures.  As you scroll down this gallery, feel free to imagine me weeping, blurting the lyrics to ‘Memory’ in your ear…

Let the memory live again
Every street lamp seems to beat
A fatalistic warning
Someone mutters and the street lamp sputters
Soon it will be morning…

Wait. Those are the lyrics to that song?  Those are some of the stupidest lyrics I’ve ever heard.  Forget it.  Pretend I’m singing The Black Eyed Peas:

My hump my hump my hump my hump my hump, my hump my hump my hump my lovely lady lumps.

That makes about as much sense.

But all my stupidity aside, thank you for everything, DrawQuest.  You provided people a great deal of joy, and you will be missed.

 What are they learning today

IMAGE: ‘What Are They Learning Today?’ by DrawQuest and Me

Whats In The Wardrobe

IMAGE: ‘What’s In The Wardrobe?’ by DrawQuest and Me

Finish Building the Pyramid

IMAGE: ‘Finish Building The Pyramid’ by DrawQuest and Me

What's inside the shell

IMAGE: ‘What’s Inside The Shell?’ by DrawQuest and Me

put up a notice on the bulletin board

IMAGE: ‘Put Up A Notice On The Notice Board’ by DrawQuest and Me

* I never actually saw this one, but suddenly want to draw it immediately.  And yes, it is soundproof because of the screaming.

** In truth it appears to be the proverbial final straw for the company.  As the creator of DrawQuest, Chris Poole, recounts in a heartbreaking post from January of this year, the program was already running at a loss.

Losing the Plot: Or How I Learned To Love Making LOST Puns

Posted in television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 25, 2014 by drayfish

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IMAGE: The Cast of LOST, season one (ABC)

It’s been ten years since LOST burst onto our televisions screens making bold promises that its writers now admit they never intended to keep.

I don’t say that to be a jerk or get pissy about it; that is literally what the showrunners, Damon Lindeloff and Carlton Cuse, have themselves described in several interviews and statements in the years since the show’s controversial conclusion. It was the very point of the show, apparently. For them, LOST was always a narrative about people searching for meaning. And searching – as the narrative went on to prove – is very different from discovering. Searching, for example, doesn’t necessitate that anyone actually finds the answers they seek.

This past month I wrote a long, convoluted article about the ending of LOST (because the world needs more of those, right?) for the PopMatters journal. You can read it here. Weirdly, despite being decade-old news, it seemed the thing to do. The ending of How I Met Your Mother was foremost in pop culture’s communal consciousness (and went on to provoke a good deal of audience dissatisfaction itself*), and the creators of LOST had just appeared at the Paley Centre to celebrate the ten year anniversary of the their show, once again referencing their controversial conclusion as the definitive statement that they wanted to make, even if in their opinion it still appears to be misunderstood.

It all got me thinking. Firstly, about what it is that makes the ending of LOST so controversial – why it still enflames audiences, for and against it, even now. Plenty of shows have ended poorly, and yet the ending of LOST still remains the punching bag of narrative letdowns. Meanwhile, it’s by no means universally despised: it has quite a vocal group of supporters who cannot themselves see what all the fuss was about. In many ways it’s the Vegemite of television: there are those who love it, who will never understand those who don’t; while those who despise it, who will stare in bafflement at anyone that could find it edible. I guess I wanted to know what was in the ingredients.

Secondly, I was curious to understand why one of its creators, Damon Lindeloff, seems intent on repeatedly revisiting this argument – in the reviews he writes about other programs and films; in his (now defunct) Twitter account; in interviews – almost as though he legitimately doesn’t understand why people would not appreciate (or at least respect) the authorial decisions he made in closing his opus. Lindeloff can be delightfully self-depreciating about his work, but this seemed like a peculiar form of self-flagellation, actively inviting further criticism by constantly bringing the topic up, even when it wasn’t part of the conversation.

So I set about wildly speculating about why all of this was. Why some fans found the ending a violation of trust, and a complete abandonment of the show’s entire premise; why others found it an ideal, even inspired resolve for their characters’ journeys; and even why Damon Lindeloff, understandably, seems unable to let go. Hopefully I teased out an answer. Almost certainly those who read it will disagree. In any case, it’s done, it involves a minimal amount of snark, and for some reason contains a faked up poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

‘Cause that makes complete sense.

For the sake of neutrality, I tried (and undoubtedly failed) to leave my own personal history with the show out of the article. But I did want to talk, briefly (ha!) about it here. Not because I think it will be particularly revealing, not even because I think anyone else shared my experience, but just to get it out.

Because I have a complicated history with LOST. One filled with a lot of conflicting emotion. I loved LOST. I hated LOST. I loved to hate it, then hated to love it. By the time the tenth anniversary rolled around I told myself that I now mostly just think of it as a cautionary tale about buying into too much marketing hype …and yet I go and write a several thousand word article about it, trying to constantly tamp down the rising emotions that are rekindled with just the mention of its name…

I think, much as I say in the article, it’s because I really was enamoured with its potential. So for me it remains one of the most frustrating, contradictory, and aggressively wasteful uses of an extremely fertile premise ever conceived. It wasn’t offensive in the way that something like the end of Mass Effect 3 was. It wasn’t gaudy pretentious drivel that lazily milked religious iconography the way The Matrix sequels had (although the hero of LOST was a ‘Shephard’, with a father called ‘Christian’, who led them all to an afterlife in a church… so it was certainly pushing it). It just felt as though it was actively and continuously dishonest with its audience, so that when it concluded not only was I left let down by the ‘resolution’ it offered (not a big surprise, this is television after all), I felt as though it had actually robbed me of the opportunity to enjoy the program for what it always was – not what it had constantly purported, falsely, to be.

It is a particular personal shame, because I would have had no problem had they been up front to begin with and just admitted that there was no overarching plan – that it was all just an experiment in storytelling in which the writers too were on a ride – just as the audience were. After all, I’m one of the viewers who drank the Ron Moore Kool Aid of the Battlestar Galactica remake, happy to follow that narrative wherever it led, accepting that (despite the first few season’s naff pronouncement that the Cylons ‘Had a plan’) it was less of a tightly ordered tele-visual novel and more an excursion into reactive, evolving, serialised plot. Just as the human race’s familiar conventions and structures had been decimated, leaving the survivors to eke out new social orders and an endlessly renegotiated status quo, so too was the narrative racing to keep up, testing its character’s hopes and fears and faiths.

Sure, it plunged into some pretty nutty mysticism, and swung for the fences on a central theme of cyclical technological singularity and self-destruction that it struggled to always fully articulate, but this kind of urgency, of desperately trying to find meaning in the face of incomprehensible loss, to rebuild belief structures in a vacuum, was always thrilling. You just weighed the wins (’33’; ‘Unfinished Business’; ‘Exodus’) against the losses (whatever the hell ‘Black Market’ was meant to be), and you ended up way, way ahead. And when resolve was finally reached, and a new Earth founded (although many, many, many people no doubt disagree with me here), the peace was earned. The gauntlet of struggle and bewilderment along their journey revealed to be the chrysalis for a necessary change.

But LOST was always a text irreconcilably torn between its intent and its execution, seemingly unsure of what viewership it was trying to serve.

If you were watching for the mystery, what you finally discover is that there isn’t actually a puzzle to unpack. All that fan investment, all that effort to parse out the clues, all the theorems and hypothesis and projections into the text to give it meaning, all risks being revealed a waste of time. That’s not to say that such fan imagination is itself invalidated, or pointless; but it is, ultimately only a projection onto a text that is trying to remain wilfully abstruse.

If, on the other hand, you were watching the show for its characters, and for human drama, then this too was constantly swallowed by the plot’s overriding infatuation with mysteries. The characters were obsessed with searching for answers. The episodes invariably revolved around big honking questions: Who are the Others? What’s under the hatch? Who is Jacob? So what’s going on in that weird room with the –

AHHH!!! POLAR BEAR!!!

Consequentially, I’ve often wondered what I would of made of the show if I had not followed it as it first went to air; if I’d not (for the first few seasons at least) actually believed the writers when they assured their audience that there was a grand narrative they intended to unveil. Perhaps if I was instead seeing it all for the first time on DVD, fully aware the entire time that there would never be any fundamental answers coming (ever), then maybe I would be able to enjoy it all a great deal more. To actually see it for the courageous, oddball mesh of genre tropes and bombast that it attempted to be.

Because for all of its floundering around** – trying to gesture towards arguments about free will and determinism, about the nature of the metaphysical, the impossibility of human comprehension – LOST was ultimately just an elegantly made, exceptionally well-acted, rollicking adventure story. Nothing more.

And that’s nothing to be ashamed of. It actually rescues the whole enterprise. It makes all its efforts to tie inconsequential puzzles into one another a fun quirk that propels its eccentric momentum. It makes the whole adventure fun, rather than pretentiously obscure. And if I had have known all that going in, rather than getting incessantly distracted by the aimless magic trick of ‘mystery’ perpetuated by its writers, I suspect it would have been a far less aggravating, and infinitely more satisfying ride.

It certainly would have justified the mawkish, totally-illogical-but-feel-good ending they eventually bowed out with. Because, ‘Thanks! We love you! And we appreciate you hanging out with us for six years!’ is a lot sweeter a message when it’s coming from a show that was just trying its hardest, every week, to take you on a big, fun giddy ride, instead of from a text that just called you a gullible idiot for making you believe it could ever be anything more.

Lost ending

IMAGE:  The Sensation of Watching the End of LOST (ABC)

* I was never a viewer of How I Met Your Mother, so I can’t speak to its ending personally, but I did have the details of it spoiled by a particularly irate friend who had always adored the show and needed to vent his frustrations to someone. …And yikes. (He rechristened the program ‘How I Met Your Disposable Plot Device’.) For whatever it’s worth, in his opinion the last few minutes of the finale would have worked well after a season or two; but once several years had passed, once characters had moved on and the mother herself had been introduced as a legitimate, likeable character, he felt that the way both she and the emotional growth of the other characters were treated, all to service a trite ‘happy ending’, was not cool. …But again, I haven’t seen it, so I have no idea.

** The second and third series are particularly guilty of this: can anyone explain why the survivors of the back of the plane were in any way relevant to anything?

‘I Am Rubber And You Are Glue…’: Art, Criticism, and Poop

Posted in art, criticism with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 19, 2013 by drayfish

Statler & Waldorf BalconyBox

IMAGE: Statler & Waldorf from The Muppet Show

Criticism is a funny thing.

Too frequently it is mistakenly viewed as a detached, objective, practice; a figure blessed with a breadth of knowledge and experience in the field brings his or her objective, reasoned perspective to bear upon the analysis of an artwork.  In truth, of course, criticism is anything but.  Yes, one may aspire to impartial, scholarly interpretation, but an artwork – any artwork – is designed to elicit a response, to stir its audience in unique, intimate ways.

Perhaps the most iconic image that now leaps to the mind whenever one speaks of criticism is the fictional character of Anton Ego, the restaurant reviewer in Ratatouille (I have even cited him previously in a rant about videogames and Art).  A quintessential cliché of the sneering malcontent critic, Ego* spends the film glowering and sweeping about like an insurmountable killjoy, seemingly drunk on the power he wields to act as the arbiter of literal good taste, able to make or break those who would venture to pour themselves into their Art.  As the film progresses, however, Ego’s self-importance is shaken, and he is compelled to reconsider the obligation he owes to those works, and artists, that he would presume to assess.

The speech that accompanies this realisation is marvellous – Ego laments that the act of criticism can oftentimes be less worthy than the garbage it would seek to deride (‘The average piece of junk is more meaningful that our criticism declaring it so’) and he celebrates the promise available to critics: to support and defend that which is original (‘But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defence of the new’) – but the part that I find most striking is how he comes to this moment of revelation.

Anton Ego revelation gif

IMAGE: Ratatouille (directed by Brad Bird)

Ego takes a bite of an extraordinary rat’s** culinary craft, and is transported back to his youth – to the comfort and warmth and love of his own childhood home.  A work of Art stirs him in a profoundly personal, individual manner – evoking a sensation that even if he could explain it, is so subjective that it could never be dissected and disseminated into scholarly prose.  And it is in the shock of this undiluted singularity of experience that he reconsiders the folly of his analytical arrogance.

As Ego realises, critics, in order to be able to speak with any context about the success or otherwise of this artistry, must be willing to open themselves up in this conversational exchange between work and receiver; not to be blinded by subjectivity at the expense of all else (the most unhelpful ‘critic’ is the one who shouts, ‘Well I like it, so everyone else can just shut up!’), but rather to be mindful of their own preferences and persuasions, to know when they have projected themselves and their own prejudices upon a text, and whether this has unjustly impacted their judgement.

With this in mind, this past month I have waded back into the thoroughly fished out waters of the ‘Are videogames Art?’ debate (dear gods, how can there even still be considered a ‘debate’?) to take issue with Roger Ebert’s criticisms of videogames.  Ebert famously considered videogames as a medium too ‘immature’ and ‘indulgent’ to constitute a form of Art.  In his view, the act of surrendering authorial control to the player meant that the text itself became incapable of conveying meaning, and as a ‘game’, it lacked the ability to evoke empathy or self-reflection in its players.

What Ebert, an otherwise admirable advocate for the celebration and assessment of Art, failed to observe was that his own prejudices – about what constitutes ‘Art’; about what even constitutes a ‘game’ – had blinded him to a wealth of expressive potential.  He was applying the expectations of a movie reviewer onto a completely different medium, obstinately refusing to actually explore these texts on their own terms, and had therefore irreparably muddied his own argument.***

In response, I decided to use Ebert’s own criteria to perform the analysis of a videogame that he, curiously, had not bothered to undertake.  I chose Michel Ancel’s Beyond Good and Evil because (and here my own prejudices emerge) I just think its exquisite.  The result of my analysis can be read over on my latest PopMatters column, but I don’t think it will come as any surprise that I end up arguing that Beyond is every bit as good as any film (indeed probably more-so) at evoking civility, self-awareness and empathy.

…Also, you may be surprised to learn that I still think Beyond Good and Evil is great.

Spoiler alert.

But that’s all boring.  Me yammering on (yet again) about a number of misguided comments a film reviewer made years ago; applauding a game that is now a decade old; hashing out an argument that for anyone not harbouring some lingering loathing for the videogame medium really is as dead as can be?  Urgh.

Instead, I want to talk about what is by far the best piece of criticism I have read of late.  It is an article titled ‘Australian Art and the Search for Faecal Purity’, written by an Australian artist named Duncan Staples and published on his website (Duncan Staples Art).

Before doing so, however, just so that my own critical bias is laid bare, I should mention that I know Staples personally – indeed, it is his portrait of me, ‘Writer at the Bar’, that I proudly sport as my avatar.  But don’t think that just because he is a friend of mine I am predisposed to agree with everything he says****; and you can check out his Art for yourself to see that when I refer to it as some of the most lively, urgent, and expressive work I have seen, I am being completely sincere.

I mean, just check this one out:

Duncan Staples In Preparation

IMAGE: In Preparation by Duncan Staples

In his article, Staples responds to the recent outrage that emerged in the wake of critic Waldemar Januszczak’s review of the Australia exhibition at the London Royal Academy.  Having perused the exhibition – purported to be one of the most sizable and comprehensive overviews of the history of Australian Art – Januszczak had made a series of rather disparaging and farcically hyperbolic remarks about its quality, including gems like ‘tourist tat’, ‘poverty porn’, and culminating in the rather hysterical ‘cascade of diarrhoea.’  Overall, he considered the wealth of Australia’s artistic output (or at the very least this curated snapshot of it) ‘lightweight, provincial and dull.’

Staples, himself a member of this country’s Art history, has every reason to take umbrage at Januszczak’s petty dismissal of Australia’s ‘provincial’ tastes; but instead of getting indignant – as it appears much of Australia’s Art scene and news media have done – Staples instead chose to explore the ignorance Januszczak exhibited in his dismissal of two prominent painters, Fred Williams and John Olsen, who had their work likened to ‘cowpats’ and a ‘diarrhoea’ respectively.  He takes the descriptions at face value, actually putting more thought and perspective into these snide insults than Januszczak clearly did, and by doing so, reveals the accidental truth behind them – commending Olsen’s untrammelled Romantic spirit, and admiring William’s meticulous eye for capturing the reality of his landscape.

Staples performs an act of critical alchemy, elegantly redirecting the superficial insults of a reviewer who had allowed his ignorance and disdain of the subject matter to cloud his perspective.  Marrying the profound and the profane, the professorial and the puerile, the perceptive with the poop, it’s an article that is funny, insightful, and that elevates the discourse …all while still making several wonderfully indulgent references to faeces.

It is a pity that critics like Januszczak and Ebert do not more frequently take after an artist like Staples, who not only proves himself to be knowledgeable and attentive, but is alert to his own place in this dialogue between artwork and viewer.  It is a lesson that they would have done well to heed.  Because ultimately, even if they do not like the Art they are viewing, even if it offends their senses: they are the ones standing in it.

The Sydney Sun by John Olsen

IMAGE: The Sydney Sun by John Olsen

* Ah, what a marvellous name for a critic!

** Ah, what a marvellous name for an artist!

*** One can even see this mistake – to a far more asinine extreme – being played out in the increasingly patronising tirades of a figure like J.Shea at the Exploring Believability blog (someone with whom I have taken issue previously).  No longer merely denying videogames the possibility of being considered an Art form based upon his own arbitrary (and honestly rather sad) definition of what ‘Art’ is, Shea now appears to be fixated on some weird crusade to openly insult anyone who would dare approach them as anything more than violence generators for training psychotics.

**** We have had some quite heated debates in the past about issues of great importance.  …Turning the world back around the other way at the end of Richard Donner’s Superman cannot reverse time, Staples!  I DON’T CARE IF IT’S NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE!

Once, We Painted On Cave Walls: The Quest to Draw in DrawQuest

Posted in art, criticism, stupidity, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2013 by drayfish

or: ‘Is There An App For That?: The Evolution Of Art and DrawQuest

Great Black Bull from the lascaux caves by N Aujoulat 2003

IMAGE: Great Black Bull from Lascaux Caves, photograph by N. Aujoulat

Several millennia ago something unprecedented happened…

(I wasn’t there, but I heard about it from a guy.)

One evening, in a moment of fleeting respite from the onerous, unceasing pursuit for food and safety and shelter, one of humanity’s ancestors sat staring at a cave wall.  Secluded from the instinctual fight-or-flight pressures of the day, lost in a moment of reflective quietude, he or she (let’s split the difference and say ‘s/he’ – I hear that it was a popular name at the time) peered up at this barren rock, watching it flutter and warp as the firelight spilled across its surface, and suddenly, out of nowhere, s/he did something remarkable.  S/he did something that in the history of human existence – up until that very moment – had never been performed.

S/he imagined.

Rather than simply seeing a slab of stone, a nothingness that marked the borders of her/his world*, s/he saw a stampede of horses, a deer, a lone cow.  S/he saw motion and vitality and life, a kinetic vibrancy of being that compelled her/him to action.  And in that moment, seeing all this splendour in her/his mind’s eye, s/he decided to bring these images into being.  The result was cave paintings of staggering delicacy and grace, testaments to the intimate knowledge of the natural world in which this artist was immersed.  I’ve discussed these cave paintings before, noting the way in which these vivid portraits, despite calling to us from the dawn of artistic expression, remain profoundly moving to this day, reminding us of our innate human desire to reflect our world through our own unique experience.

Lambros Malafouris, a researcher in Cognitive Archaeology from  the University of Cambridge, has spoken of this act – or rather, the whole process of human beings taking these tentative steps into the world of artistic expression – as a transformative moment in our cognitive development.  For Malafouris, this prehistoric Art is the herald of every advancement in human cultural, social, and intellectual achievement that has arisen in its wake, because through these images we see evidence of an evolution in both our capacity to engage in more abstract thought, and, ultimately, to reason ourselves into a more complex state of self-awareness as embodied, social beings.

In the article ‘Before and Beyond Representation: Towards an Enactive Conception of the Palaeolithic Image’**, Malafouris speaks of the way in which images such as these offered human beings a space in which to explore the action of making meaning itself.  By proving themselves able to depict the idea of an animal or object in a series of artfully crafted lines and shapes, by evoking concepts abstracted from mere representation, human beings were able to expand their thinking beyond simplistically mirroring the physical world, and into the realm of the imagination.  In so doing, they made the image on the rock wall itself an extension of their own evolving mind:

[T]he emergence of the image made possible a new special kind of perception of the world not previously available.  The implication … is that the question to ask about Palaeolithic imagery is not ‘What kind of mind was needed to made those images?’ but instead ‘What kinds of minds are constructed by perceiving those images?’ (p.295).

These early humans were not simply attempting to reflect the world, to create a series of symbols that stood in one to one relation with observable objects (‘This squiggly line equals that horse’s head over there’), they were explorations of concepts, articulations of elements abstracted from direct correspondence.  These signs and symbols, he argues, are therefore not merely evidence that we had intellectually advanced, they actually became part of the process of that advancement.  Human beings, through the act of interpretation and imagination, were detaching themselves from direct experience in order to examine the image itself, and the concepts that this aesthetic object evokes:

‘What I suggest is, that the image makes it possible for the visual apparatus to interrogate itself and thus acquire a sense of perceptual awareness not previously available.’ (p.298)

In a later article, Malafouris speaks of this malleability of the human intellect as a kind of plasticity: ‘We have a plastic mind, which is embedded and inextricably enfolded with a plastic culture.’***  Even more evocatively, he goes on to describe this cognitive evolution as its own artistic work-in-progress:

‘Like a piece of clay, thrown onto the wheel of culture, the human mind and brain is subject to continuous re-shaping, re-wiring, and re-modelling.’ (p.55).

But however one describes it, by projecting ourselves and our imaginations out onto the world – through paint, onto cave walls – our surroundings became our canvas, and therefore became an expansion of our own minds, literally a new environment into which our abstract thought advanced and evolved.

But let’s be honest for a second.  Horses?  Cows?  Resolute hunting parties and surrealist antlers?  Earthen hues and magisterial sprawls?  A delicacy of brushstroke both tender and robust; proud and yet spritely?  Landscapes that capture the graceful and the thunderous in one?  That bring order to the transitory chaos of life through the sculpted stasis of an artist’s representational outpouring?

Pfft.

How Palaeolithic.

After all, a stampeded of unbridled stallions is so 30 millennia ago.  Nowadays we have My Little Pony.  And sure, before the invention of the wheel cows probably did look like majestic, statuesque beasts, radiating a noble, bovine tranquillity, but in the 21st century most cows come squashed between two limp sesame seed buns, discoloured by dry pickles, and served to us by an aggressively vibrant clown.  In fact, your whole theme and subject matter is outdated, guys.  We don’t pay homage to the totemic, unknowable beings that we methodically pursue and devour, any more.  Now we have celebrities.  Sure, okay, we do tend to set our emotional metronomes to every minor fluctuation of these creatures – particularly, it seems, the ones called ‘Bradley Pittington’ and ‘the Miley Cyrus’ – and yes, we do seem to hunt them for sport and scrutinise their every move…

But at least we don’t devour them.  Right?

…Okay, okay.  Shut up.

In any case, you’re out of touch, stupid precursors-of-all-modern-Art-and-culture-with-your-revolutionary-wellsprings-of-imagination.  A bunch of pictures of non-anthropomorphised animals (who cares?) painted on rocks (that’s a good way to need a tetanus shot) with hand-fashioned pigments (what no neons?) in a cave (where there is probably no parking at all)?  Geez.  Try harder next time, grandpa.

Luckily, since our ancestors and their triumphantly evocative advancement into a more imaginative self-awareness is so thoroughly dated, we have DrawQuest.

I first became aware of DrawQuest only a few weeks ago.  I was gifted a second-hand iPad, and like the witless luddite I am, at first had little idea what to do with it.  ‘But where are the small squares with which I press the letters?’ I asked.  ‘Where is the bit with the scroll wheel that I will inevitably knock onto the floor and step on?’  …Okay, this is all hyperbole, but not by much.

Indeed, although it sounds a little ridiculous, I was ignorant enough of its workings to have a brief flicker of wonder.  Here in my hands was this technical marvel (well, it’s first generation and doesn’t even have a functioning camera, but go with me here), suddenly I was peering into a window of colour and light that, with a touch of my finger, could conjure the whole breadth of human history, creativity and inquiry – an object that could near-instantaneously answer my every query, allow me to converse face-to-face with people on the other side of the globe, or show me video of most any kind of cat falling into most any kind of sink.

…So, pretty much the same as any other mass-market computer on sale anywhere – but in tablet form.  And with a touch screen that goes swish when I flick my thumb across it.

Only ten years ago an object like this would have been the stuff of science fiction****, but today it is so commonplace I’ve seen people resting their sodas on the screen for want of a coaster, seen them handed to toddlers to bash on the ground for want of a rattle, seen them hurled through the air at decathlons for want of a discus (okay, I made that last one up).  But still, this utterly remarkable slab of circuitry and wi-fi wizardry has come to represent the dawning of a new artistic age.

So what could I do with it?  What could be worthy?

When Prometheus gifted humanity the treasure of fire it heralded a whole new world order of knowledge and wonder; it represented enlightenment, the capacity to harness and utilise flame, a symbol of self-sufficiency and natural mastery around which all civilisation has blossomed into being…  Since being gifted this iPad – had this magical tablet delivered to me like some boon from the gods – I have somehow managed to leave a handful of passengers stranded in layovers on Pocket Planes (a game it is literally impossible to lose), failed to see what all the fuss is about with Angry Birds (a game I’m fairly certain is about the perils of imperialism …think about it*****), and heard myself squee with a wholly juvenile glee at the overblown nostalgic bombast of Major Mayhem (a game I truly cannot recommend highly enough – particularly as it is completely free).

But then, after a brief sojourn through Draw Something – an asynchronous Pictionary-lite game – I stumbled into DrawQuest

DrawQuest is a free iPad app designed to act as a launching point for creative expression.  Despite the adventurous title, the game is not a platformer or an RPG – it simply, elegantly, offers an opportunity to engage in creative play, providing a space, a canvas, and the opportunity of exhibition, for any and all illustration.

The app gives you a rudimentary, but surprisingly versatile, art supply kit – a pencil, paintbrush, marker, eraser, and a rainbow of colours and shades (with more that unlock relatively effortlessly), and each day presents a new ‘Quest’ – essentially a short prompt that is offered as inspiration, perhaps a picture of an empty  body of water with the question, ‘Who’s swimming?’  Should you wish, this quest can be just as easily ignored, however.  The idea is to draw straight onto the tablet using your fingers (or stylus if you have one), adding to, overwriting, or ignoring the prompt as you see fit, with the invitation to scrap or save whatever you like.

To better explain what I am talking about, I have attached a few of my rather dire offerings to this post, but do check out the finer works of other contributors here

DrawQuest Whos Sitting On The Couch

IMAGE: ‘Who’s Sitting On The Couch?’ by DrawQuest and Me

DrawQuest Help the witch move into her new house

IMAGE: ‘Help The Witch Move Into Her New House’, by DrawQuest and Me

DrawQuest Build a contraption to catch the mouse

IMAGE: ‘Build A Contraption To Catch A Mouse’ by DrawQuest and Me

There are no prizes, no fail-states, no commercials for other products.  There is no shilling for in-app purchases, or attempts to up-sell.  It is simply a safe, supportive gathering of people who love to doodle and to let their minds wander.  Indeed, aside from the opportunity to just play around and be inspired by others, it is that lack of pressure that is so refreshing.  DrawQuest is, on the whole, is by design peaceful and supportive.  You cannot vote down anyone else’s work – you either like it, or move along to something else.  No one is going to shred one other in a snippy comments section.  People can follow your work, and you can follow theirs, or you can just go meandering through the galleries of the most popular piece of the past few days.

Yes, DrawQuest can sadly still be littered with offerings that present no more than hastily scrawled pleas for followers (I truly have no idea why – having people ‘follow’ a stream of constant pleas for following sounds to me like a Sisyphean nightmare), or apologies such as ‘Sorry!  Can’t think of anything to draw!  LOLS!’, bizarrely only posted in pursuit of the game’s almost-arbitrary currency (the only thing it allows you to ‘buy’ is more colours with which to write ‘I can’t think of anything to draw…’, again, rolling a rock up a hill to nowhere).  But dig down beyond these off-handed scribblings and there is a wealth of both extraordinary artistic acuity and playful imagination on display.

People take these daily prompts and sculpt them into some wildly unique responses.  A trigger such as ‘What time is it?’ and the image of a partially rendered clock face, will elicit playful (if slightly predictable) Adventure Time scenes; will inspire small murals of daily life; stick figure vignettes of people racing to work; moments of dreamers lost in reverie; the Grim Reaper on a coffee break; groundhogs tentatively sniffing the air in search of a shadow; literary allusions to The Watchmen and The Time Machine.

And as I scan the depths of this disarmingly innocuous app, returning to it each day to exercise my own now-atrophied drawing ‘skills’ (and yearning for a stylus to replace my clumsy fingertips), I am reminded of those sublime prehistoric images, hidden underground in Lascaux, and more than a little of the cognitive growth described in Malafouris’ theories…

Because there truly is something of the cave wall in these images – and not just in the immediacy with which rock face and iPad are both stroked by humanity’s insistent fingertips.  Sure, one is pigment while the other is pixel; one communicates across the incomprehensible chasm of several millennia, while the other is but electronic vapour, born in an instant and dissolved into the labyrinthine void of the internet; but each is an attempt (however seemingly frivolous and ephemeral the latter may at first appear to be) to communicate a singular vision, to express a unique point of view.  Fundamentally, both – like all artistic expression – are stirred into being from the same elemental desire to reach out beyond the limitations of oneself and connect.

DrawQuest taps into our most elemental creative impulses, and stirs that desire to reach out beyond oneself to try to communicate something individual – even if it has been funnelled through a reverberating chamber of memes and allusions and influences.  Perhaps it’s that same urge that motivates us to pour ourselves into Twitter and facebook and Vine, that fuels the anarchic splendour of the internet itself.  For some it’s a longing to mark our territory, for some a way to connect, for still others, painting themselves onto zeros and ones and dispersing themselves into the air, it is a way to reach even further beyond the limits of their own space, to detach from canvas and paint and environment, free-associating and expanding in the untrammelled joy of creativity.

Once our cave wall was a secluded space, a cherished place, beside the warmth of a hearth fire.  It was dark, and treasured, a space that we grew into, expanded ourselves and our vision of the world through and upon.  Now we project ourselves into the cyber ether.  A mesh of pop culture and self-referential irony, a swirl of influences and stagnations and innovations projected onto the eternally insubstantial.  Once we needed cave walls to give our imagination space to grow upon; now even our walls are imaginary.  Now we create incorporeal images, refracted through the diaspora of an exponentially expanding collective unconscious.

DrawQuest offers a pop culture panoply refracted through the lens of a daily drawing prompt, with no expectation or obligation or risk of censure – just the invitation to dream, and the opportunity to hear the squeak of our plastic minds rubbing up against the endlessly shifting expanse of our metaplastic culture.  It is a multiform cave wall, at once impermanent and preserved, frivolous and profound, exhibitionist and yet profoundly personal.  It is a mass of contradictions, a breeding ground for snarky cynicism and heartfelt earnestness.

It is us, in all our goofy, dreamy splendour, stretching out into the unexplored darkness, compelled to decorate the space we find there, and in so doing, to meet ourselves, evolving into something as yet unknowable.

…Perhaps with the occasional picture of Grumpy Cat chastising Justin Bieber.

DrawQuest What Is She Drawing On The Cave Wall

IMAGE: ‘What Is She Drawing On The Cave Wall?’ by DrawQuest and Me

* ‘Her/his’ was s/he’s nickname, probably?

** ‘Before and Beyond Representation: Towards an Enactive Conception of the Palaeolithic Image’, by Lambros Malifouris.  Image and Imagination: A Global History of Figurative Representation, edited by C. Renfrew & I. Morley (Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2007, pp. 289-302.) An online version can be found here

*** ‘Metaplasticity and the Human Becoming: Principles of Neuroarcheology’, Journal of Anthropological Sciences Vol.88, 2010, pp.49-72, p.55

**** In particular I’m thinking of that ugly blinking remote control-looking thing that Al used to walk around with in Quantum Leap …although, to be fair, perhaps time travel doesn’t allow for great Wi-Fi.

***** Don’t think about it.

Brain Freeze: Frozen Synapse

Posted in criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 5, 2013 by drayfish

Frozen Synapse Logo

IMAGE: Frozen Synapse (Mode 7 Games)

In many ways I have a thoroughly unhelpful and disappointing brain.  Reactive, more emotionally intuitive than coldly logical, motivated by comfort and sanguinity and introspection rather than the practicalities and planning that builds a society and keeps the lights on.  No one should ask me to build a house.  Or fix anything.  Or work out why my computer is not speaking to my printer…  I mean, shouldn’t that just work?!  I put the plug in the thing!  It says that it’s on.  The light is even blinking!

Come on!

Simply put, I’m the lazy, vague, distracted type that enjoys sitting on a sofa sipping a warm cup of tea, my thoughts drifting through the resplendent vagaries of imagination, more than I am the enterprising strategian, artfully mapping out complex manoeuvres and schemes.  When I play chess (and I play it badly), I get caught up in narrative, anthropomorphising everything.  I mourn for every fallen piece, find myself drawn into demonstratively ill-considered plays, motivated in completely irrational ways to seek vengeance for a captured rook and lamenting the soldier cut down (usually through my abject idiocy) before his time.

Oh, little horsey guy.  I will avenge thee.

So everything about my brain, my psyche, the very fabric of my being, is wired completely wrong to enjoy an experience like Mode 7 Games’ Frozen Synapse.

As a top down, turn-based strategy game in which the entire conceit is to predict, outthink, and outplay your opponent, Frozen Synapse is perhaps something of a spiritual successor to works like the original XCOM (someone, anyone, with more knowledge of these strategy games will know how accurate or otherwise this statement is).  In Frozen, you command a small squadron of drones with primitive AI – reactive pawns who obey simple, yet intuitive commands – and you are attempting to manoeuvre around a playing space – one designed to be reminiscent of a digitised circuit board – by issuing orders on where to move, where to look, how to stand, how relaxed or trigger-happy to behave.  Meanwhile, you compete against an aggressor who is concurrently trying to wipe your men off the board.  It is strategic, orderly, regimented, and requires focus and planning.

Gun to my head, I can scarcely think of a game more antithetical to my personality, less aligned with my interests…

And yet.

There is something about this game – something that ticks every box in my mind that I never knew went wanting.  Something that lies beyond that simple, petulant urge to have one-more-try…

What differentiates Frozen Synapse from other similar turn-based game designs is its innovation of an asynchronous planning stage and a parallel resolution.  You are afforded as much time as you like to plot out your move, and your opponent (either another human player, or the game itself) is offered the same; but once you both commit to the manoeuvre, time restarts, and for several seconds all of this strategy is enacted simultaneously.  Suddenly the enemy soldier you were moving to intercept has already spun off in the opposite direction; now two soldiers are heading to the same piece of cover; in a twist, the guy you were flanking has flanked your flank with his flankety flank (…I’m using that word right, no?)  And with each of these semi-intelligent playing pieces having snappy, reactive trigger fingers, things get explodey fast.

It becomes evident that unlike many strategy games, you are not prey to the whims of dice rolls and stat upgrades.  Indeed, ultimately you are not even playing the lay of the board, but rather where you predict that your opposition will move next.  It adds a whole component of projection and bluff into the objective, as you know that once you have locked in those behavioural patterns, you will be watching their routines engage with each other beyond your direct influence.  Rather than control every action, you are therefore striving to craft the most fortuitous scenario through which your little agents can succeed on their own.  You become a god of opportunity, tweaking determinism to give your rudimentary bots the greatest possibility of success.

And not surprisingly, this proves to be utterly absorbing.

Having to methodically plan out each move, watching your soldiers follow your dictates (for better or worse), scrambling for cover, peering into a room, avoiding a line of sight, blowing the snot out of half the map with a rocket launcher (that’s a good one), is profoundly addictive.  Because when it comes together, when a move does in fact accurately predict the enemy’s momentum and get the drop on them in a cathartically fatal (if momentary) triumph, the sense of achievement is quite intoxicating.  There is a genuine sense in which you have legitimately overcome, have outplayed and outwitted, a system – even in instances where (as has far too frequently been the case for me) it clearly wasn’t entirely foreseen …some in which, in truth, it was just dumb luck.

So I should make clear at this point, lest I give entirely the wrong impression: I still suck at this game.

I’m terrible.

So many times the game screen ends littered with the fallen wreckage of my shambling discordant schemes, little geometrically primitive bodies laying shattered and inert in pools of their synthetic blood.  I’ve not quite grappled with the mechanics of how swiftly a shotgunner can outpace a machinegunner; if I have to escort someone in missions I have a tendency to charge off into farcically useless cover, completely out of their line of sight; and I have little to no idea what the ‘duck’ feature does.  But wonderfully (and this is a sensation that is true of all the best videogames), here even failure feels like progression.

Even as you watch your plans go awry, you are still gradually learning the game’s mechanics, watching their logics play out.  Winning, it reveals, is not about memorising rote patterns or cracking AI routines, but about incrementally familiarising yourself with this pocket universe’s action and temporal flow.  And once you have got these jumps and starts and tactics subconsciously woven into your technique, a curious poetry of motion starts to emerge.  Suddenly line-of-sight becomes second-nature, the splashback on a grenade and destroying cover is commonplace, the sight of a missile threading doorways to ignite a distant encampment has an almost balletic grace.

On top of all this, the single player experience impressively does include a serviceable cyberpunk narrative about a dire dystopian future in which warfare (of the kind played out in the game) is conducted by synthetic programs in virtual reality.  You are effectively a hacker, using the tactics you develop to dance these algorithms into visceral combat in the artificial ‘shape’ world – the threat of death nonetheless remaining compelling despite these soldiers being overtly reduced to winking pixels and shaders.  You are vying for control of Markov Geist, a city as blessed with an overabundance of terms like ‘infographics’ and ‘vatforms’ and ‘knowledge nexus’ as it is sprinkled with suitably romantic descriptors like ‘The Shard’, ‘The Brightling Core’, ‘Fortune’s Glave’, ‘Torpor’, and the ‘Cortecan Eye’.  There are oppressive regimes, resistance movements (why, you’re a member of one, of course), cults, splinter groups, propaganda engines, totalitarian philosophies being ironically toppled by dispassionate inhuman programs.  And with the optional dossiers that accompany each mission you can dig as deeply as you wish (or not at all) into the game’s welcomingly robust world-building and fiction.

Perhaps its most ingenious design choice is the way in which it incorporates the player’s own interaction with the text into its conceit, as you, through the input of your computer, stir these digitised beings into action.  In this abstracted play-space – part Tron, part Wargames, more than a little Matrix – the game simultaneously dehumanises and invests with meaning this world, these vatform bots, and the player themself, binding them all into a necessary symbiosis.  These algorithms grant you subservience and a complete devotion of will to complete your mission; you supply them with the attribute that for the time being – at least until the inevitable robot uprising* still separates us from artificial intelligence: the capacity to imagine.  Because this game lives and breathes in that moment of projection – in that ability to fantasise oneself into a possible future, and to try to plan for its innumerable potentialities.

So with that in mind, perhaps I should look into playing the new version of X-Com: Enemy Unknown.  After all, with my penchant for getting overly invested in games of strategy and poise now totally under control, it seems to be the next logical step.  And from everything that I’ve heard about it, I’m sure I won’t get attached to those soldiers, right?  I’m sure they’ll be just like my faceless, Frozen Synapse bots.  There’s no way I’ll obsess over their every dash for cover and each foreboding engagement with the unknown.  It sure won’t matter if I name them after my friends and family and most beloved cultural icons…  Surely there’s no way I’ll feel anything when Major Springsteen is eviscerated before my eyes.  Right?

…Right?

Frozen Synapse Game Screen

IMAGE: Frozen Synapse (Mode 7 Games)

* ‘Don’t tase me, Wall-E.  Don’t tase me.’

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

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

arrested-development-season-4-full-cast

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

Sick B Colony

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

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

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

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

‘It was May –’

(*ahem*)

‘It was May 4th…’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

arrested joe withabee

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

‘I’ll Put Up A Wall’

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

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

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

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

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

‘My children despise me, my husband defies me,

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

I’ll put up a wall.

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

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

from me…’

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

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

arrested ostrich

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

Head in the Sand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

arrested love each other

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

Love Each Other

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

‘Love each other.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waitin’, waitin’

Heartbroken and frustrated

Hard to get around without your love.

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

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

arrested development hug

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

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

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

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

Swing-and-a-Miss: ‘Feminism’ in Sucker Punch

Posted in criticism, movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2013 by drayfish

sucker punch

IMAGE: Sucker Punch, Directed by Zack Snyder (Warner Bros)

Superficially, Sucker Punch (2011) is an easy film to hate.  Between the maudlin histrionics of the plot, the stilted, tone deaf dialogue, and the glossy CGI pyrotechnics cluttering the screen while signifying little, it appears to be little more than a bombastic, exploitative spectacle.  Loud, voyeuristic, and seemingly concerned with the systematised objectification and abuse of women, upon its release it was savaged by critics who labelled it juvenile, misogynistic, and even hysterically, garishly overwrought.

However, as almost a direct reaction to this overwhelming panning, a select few critics sought to vehemently defend the film, lamenting that no one had taken the time to look beneath the surface of the work.  No one, they declared, had appreciated the irony at the heart of its narrative, the sardonic statement it was making about the exploitation and debasement of women that informs its narrative.

One film critic in particular, Scott Mendelson, went so far as to declare that the reaction to Sucker Punch was a harbinger of our cultural ruin, a kneejerk PC overcorrection that revealed ‘Why We Can’t Have Nice Things…’ (here)*  We, as a mass-market audience, were all too ignorant, and ‘couldn’t see past the surface’ to the genius beneath.  Indeed, in France, Mendelson argued, the film would have been hailed a masterpiece (although from what little I have gleaned it does not appear that it was beloved in Europe, either), but when a ‘visionary’ director such as Zack Snyder releases a film in America, it is unjustly maligned and rejected as exploitative trash.

Similarly, /Film’s Adam Quigley made the bold claim that no one but he had yet seen the true narrative of the film in a video essay literally titled ‘You Don’t Understand Sucker Punch’ (here).  Apparently what the audience didn’t understand (Quigley actually uses the slightly hysterical phrasing ‘prestigious journalists … don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about’) was that we were meant to infer that the entire narrative was bookended by another layer of fantasy, a ‘real’ world in which secondary-character Sweet Pea was being lobotomised, and that everything depicted was all just her dream.

…Why this entirely subjective hypothesis has any impact upon the themes of objectification and sexism at the film’s heart, why layering another needless ‘twist’ upon the several that already go nowhere is impactful, or how one single, fleeting scene with Sweet Pea being threatened by a lobotomy was distinct enough from every other similar sequence that it could distinguish itself as the singular key that unlocks the film’s puzzle, is never fully explained by Quigley.  (Although perhaps he doesn’t bother because ‘critics’ would no doubt be too stupid to understand anyway.)

However, while it is often easy to attack the media for concentrating too much upon the salacious, and for failing to address the thematic meat beneath an artist’s work – as both Mendelson and Quigley do with indignation – in this case, I would argue that to actually take up their challenge, to bother to scratch the surface of Snyder’s work and delve into its psychologically regressive meaning, rather than rescuing the film from condemnation, instead confirms its ugly pretence, and the exploitative sexism it mistakenly, clumsily believes it is debunking.

Before even leaping into the subtext, though, I should be honest and admit that even superficially the film does little to warm me to it.  Personally, I find its hyper-stylised cartoon action so flashy and weightless that it loses all sense of substance, meaning that as a punctuation for character drama it becomes impossible to invest in (particularly in light of the ultimate revelation that it is all just layers of fantasy within fantasy).  Likewise, the glossy sexualisation of the central female characters – reducing them to an amalgam of corsets, miniskirts and porcelain skin – was off-putting rather than enticing, sadly hollowing these women into figurines provocatively posed amongst a CGI cacophony.

But it is in the Russian Doll embedding of realities (with Babydoll descending into her mindscape to find herself, the namesake ‘baby doll’ in the stack) that the purportedly subversive message that critics such as Mendelson and Quigley have applauded is at its most invasive and corroding, where it becomes most evident that Snyder (I hope) did not actually understand how to articulate the themes that he was trying to explore, resulting in an offensively contradictory mess.

Fundamentally, the plot concerns a young woman, nicknamed Babydoll, who is incarcerated in a mental institution after accidentally shooting and killing her younger sister.  Babydoll had been attempting to fend off the physically abusive and sexually predatory advances of her stepfather, but he, unpunished, watches on as she is arrested, and bribes an orderly to forge the signatures that will ensure she is given a lobotomy.  Over the course of the following week, Babydoll finds herself and her fellow inmates taking refuge in the shared fantasy that they are actually trapped inside a bordello, where they must ‘dance’ for the entertainment of their clients.  Guided by Babydoll, who receives instruction from a wizened old man, in this layer of fantasy, the women then regress into a further layer of communal dream whenever Babydoll ‘dances’ to distract the onlooking men, imagining themselves on a quest to gather together a series of totemic ‘keys’ that will ‘free’ them from their entrapment.  These vignettes take the form of something akin to videogame levels – a world war one fight with robots; a samurai showdown; orcs and dragons – and when the item is retrieved the women return to the world of the bordello to continue their escape plan.

Advocates of the film suggest that it can be read as a postmodern feminist statement, because it is in these regressions into themselves that these women find a power that defies the dominance of the men who physically hold them down.  In such a reading, these women are attempting to escape their exploitation at the hands of a corrupted social structure that allows men to dominate the sanctity of a woman’s legal rights and autonomy (Babydoll was committed because she fought back against a brutal rapist, and is condemned to receive a lobotomy to shut her up), a gender politics that allows them to be sexually exploited at will (a kind reading of the narrative suggests that they must ‘dance’ for men’s entertainment; a more accurate reading reveals that they are being repeatedly raped by the orderlies who are running a makeshift slave-brothel), and even a media that reduces them to pretty faces that can kick ass in tight leather and school-girl outfits for the entertainment of a movie-going audience (those in the audience who came to watch Snyder’s film).  They do this by looking deep within themselves for a space that these patriarchal systems cannot touch, and by using the power that they find in this private recess to their advantage.

Now, if the point of this fiction was to argue that there is, ultimately, no way out of this kind of sexist, abusive cycle, then the film would be making a horribly grim, but consistent message.  It would be presenting a searing – if hackneyed – condemnation of a corrupt worldview that needs to change.  But Snyder attempts to go further, suggesting that there is a way to reclaim individual dignity in the face of such cruelty by playing into its expectation.  Sadly, Snyder’s film ultimately posits that women caught in the web of this debasement need to embrace the ‘power’ afforded to them by their imposed sexualisation, thereby achieving ‘freedom’.  It effectively offers a rather nihilistic message about the need for women to utterly abdicate their sense of self in service of survival.

At every level of the descent down the reality/fantasy slide these women are being dominated and defined by men, and must use these fantasies as a refuge (effectively looking away as they are violated).  In order to escape the horror of being raped in the institution, Babydoll descends into the fantasy of a bordello.  When she is likewise sexually exploited there, compelled to dress provocatively and turn men on with her dancing, she escapes this debasement by withdrawing into a series of computer-generated boss-battles, imagining herself and her fellow captives in sexy costumes.  So even here, in her most private depicted space – the landscape of her own mind and imagination – she and her fellow prisoners are shown to be viewed through a sexualised vision.  Snyder yet again reduces them to objects performing aimless spectacle for the gratification of their viewer.  Babydoll ‘dances’ for both the corrupted orderlies and bordello patrons, but also for the conventional movie-going audience who demand their empty, silky set-piece spectacle.

Snyder claims to take us on a journey into their mindscape to show their independence, the private space no man can enter to defile them, but in doing so he performs arguably the most grotesque violation of all: he distorts their inner imaginative space to be subsumed into yet another male-gaze.  Socially, physically, and (thanks to the film’s intrusion into their dreams) psychologically, they are being reprogrammed to believe that there is salvation and autonomy in such an ideological compromise of self.  Sure, they can be ‘heroes’ – they can control their own destinies – if only they will agree to put on the skimpy schoolgirl outfits and pout in the flare of the explosions.  In pigtails, short skirt, and high stockings, carrying glossy cold steel as she is bent into a sexual pretzel of poses, Babydoll becomes precisely what her nickname suggests: an objectified, sexualised infant being trained to behave.

And this, sadly, is evident in the rather vile ending that results.  Not only is there the clumsy patriarchal reinforcement of having these women delivered their ‘salvation’ by a fatherly figure who tells them what to do in each videogame mission (and who eventually appears as a bus driver in the ‘real world’ to carry the one survivor to freedom), but it is revealed that it is only through embracing these multiple exploitations, giving over bodily and psychologically to the hungry leering of both their narrative and metatextual captors, that these women can see their mission ‘succeed’.

Babydoll’s ‘reward’ for acquiescing to the objectification of her captors is to lose her metaphorical virginity in the dream of the bordello, to have her physical sanctity violated by being repeatedly raped and savaged in the asylum, and then to be robbed literally of her mind – firstly embracing the lecherous fantasy of crass commercial culture by playing a sexy ninjette, and then having that private space decimated anyway by being casually lobotomised.  (In the extended cut apparently she also gets to ’empower’ herself by choosing to sexually gratify the doctor who then goes on to literally cut the last vestiges of her independent personality away.)  But apparently all this sacrifice is a ‘win’ because she managed to help one other woman thread this vile gauntlet to be ‘freed’.

Yes, the film posits that men are weak, exploitative, institutionally-cowardly scum, but where it fails is in its suggestion that the only way women can overcome their enslavement is to actually embrace this grotesque misogynist vision of the world wholly, to become (both body and mind) the object that this debased social structure demands they be in the first place.  If they do so, it says, then maybe – just maybe – by being willing to literally sacrifice themself to this self-immolating pageantry, they can thread the leering gauntlet that would punish their autonomy, and a couple of them might find a nice asexual old bus-driver/spiritual-advisor man who can carry them off to safety.

These victims are shown needing to embrace their infantilisation and sexualisation at every level of their being – and, again, were the movie legitimately about showing how barren and wasteful such vile compromise is, it would have fulfilled its rather nihilistic purpose.  Instead, it chooses to reinforce the merit in embracing this kind of exploitation.  Sure, the majority of these women will be emotionally and psychologically indoctrinated to view themselves through the lens of their oppressors, put on display like dolls, raped, killed and lobotomised like so much cattle, but at least one of them might make it through this nightmare …only to spend the rest of her life traumatised and alone in a world still engineered to reward such ritual cruelty.

By making every male in the film a hysterically overinflated uber-villain, and by reducing the women to sexualised beings that must sell themselves physically and psychologically, Snyder might be deriding the whole process of reducing women to objects, but instead of condemning it outright, he (I hope unknowingly) actually reinforces it.  After all, as the narrative progresses, it is only by having these women embrace the fetishisation of mass market culture that the film disingenuously purports to critique that they are even offered an illusion of autonomy.  And it is in that contradiction – positing that there is independence and supremacy in the act of utterly divesting oneself of selfhood – that the film egregiously falls down, creating an equally damaging illusion of ‘feminist’ power by ironically strengthening all of the hateful misogyny that it claims to deride.

To be completely honest, if, as Mendelson declared in his vehement support of the film, Sucker Punch’s aesthetic titillation and reprehensible message are the ‘nice things’ audiences have denied themselves in future because they were unwilling to celebrate Snyder’s misogynistic snuff film as ‘feminism’, I struggle to feel the loss.  Hopefully, more films will arise that show women embracing their strength, independence and sexuality – not because they have been infantilised or patronisingly danced about like action figures, but because they are being rightly depicted as having every reserve of strength and autonomy that any man has – making the ‘novelty’ of a misguided film such as this a thing of the past.

 sucker punch institution

 IMAGE: Sucker Punch, Directed by Zack Snyder (Warner Bros)

* Mendelson’s celebration of the film gathers pace from the backhanded encouragement of ‘In the end, Sucker Punch is a messy, flawed, and ambitious movie that earns kudos for daring to actually be about something relevant and interesting’ in his original review (http://scottalanmendelson.blogspot.com.au/2011/03/review-sucker-punch-2011.html), to ‘it is a severely compromised and messy picture. But it earns points for being about something genuinely interesting’ in follow-up commentaries, to finally declaring it a ‘masterpiece’ by any conceivable standard, a symbol of everything that should be defended and celebrated in Art, ‘a big budget studio picture filled with provocative and challenging ideas …. creating at least three all-time classic action set pieces …. It is everything we say we want from our mainstream entertainments’ (http://scottalanmendelson.blogspot.com.au/2011/06/why-we-cant-have-nice-things-last-word.html).

** Consequentially, I have very real concerns about how Lois Lane – a character who, over the span of her existence has managed to finally shuffle off a good portion of the helpless, naive damsel-in-distress cliché that hung over her in some of her earliest incarnations – will be depicted in Snyder’s upcoming Superman reboot, Man of Steel.  I would hate to see a self-possessed, capable, heroic woman like the more contemporary Lois likewise reduced to a vulnerable waif, reliant upon a man to show her kindness.

‘Come On?!’: Thoughts Before the Return of Arrested Development

Posted in criticism, television with tags , , , , , , , on May 26, 2013 by drayfish

arrested-developement cast netflix

IMAGE: Arrested Development cast (Netflix)

It seems a tedious understatement to say that the return of Arrested Development (due to release its entire fourth series in Netflix streaming this very weekend) is creating something of a media frenzy.  Indeed, it’s such a predictable observation to make, it would be like beginning this article with the phrase, ‘Unless you’ve been living under a rock…’ – something I’ve sadly read far too often this past week.

So unless you are in a share-rent arrangement with some sedimentary or igneous housemates (or trying to pay down your mortgage to a scorpion – what do I know about your lifestyle?) you are no doubt well aware that a minor miracle has occurred in the world of television land, and – for better or worse – a spectacular show once cancelled before it’s time is about to lurch back to life, stagger out into the night, and growl ‘Michael!‘ one more time.

For those who are themselves not fans of the show – looking on nonplussed as everyone around them tweets about ‘blueing themselves’, shares awareness PSAs about ‘never-nudes’, references bags of dead doves and seemingly arbitrarily spouts the word ‘Her?‘ – it might appear that a certain slice of the human populace has suddenly been indoctrinated into a manic cult, all staring at a Netflix countdown as if it indicated the return of their Grand Leader, come to whisk them off to a promised land on a low-flying comet.  No doubt those mystified few look forward to the day they can scroll through websites without seeing references to a one armed man preaching ‘And that’s why you don’t [insert subject of internet meme here]…’

Personally, I’m with the crazies.

I too am simply rocking in place repeating the word, ‘Annyong’ to myself while I wait.  After all, watching Arrested Development get choked to death by Fox (who even went so far as to passive aggressively burn off their final episodes months late, scheduled against the opening of the Winter Olympics) was up there with the cancellation of Firefly (also Fox) in the pantheon of Pop-Culture-Outrages-That-Jerks-Like-Me-Drive-Their-Loved-Ones-Insane-Complaining-About.

…Although, if I’m honest, that’s a long list.

I’ve already spoken (did I say ‘spoken’, I meant ‘ranted gleefully’) of my enthusiasm for this upcoming season (here), but I’m by no means alone in my anticipation.

This past week, fans have counting down the hours, revisiting all of the old episodes, swarming promotional Frozen Banana stands the world over (here), trying to reason out how exactly they will watch the episodes given that all fifteen episodes will be available in one immediate glut, no longer restrained by the network schedule.

Forbes contributor Dorothy Pomerantz reasoned that rather than devour them all in one binge, she will restrain herself, watching them one at a time, week by week, reluctant to let the experience end (here).

I know precisely what she means – having lived through those early years of Arrested Development when the show was perpetually teetering on the edge of cancelation, wondering why no one else was watching something so sublime, I too would savour each episode, knowing every week that it could be the last…  However, while I know in theory that I want to follow her lead, and space out my viewing, I know I’m going to hear that little ukulele riff as the end credits roll, and not be able to stop myself firing up the next one…  Truly, I won’t be able to stop.  It’s an addiction.  It was the same sensation I had after each episode ended when they were played live to air: ‘Give me the next one! I just want to see one more, and then I’ll switch it off.  Really, I’ll definitely stop then.  Probably.’

After all, it was that very (slightly obsessive compulsive) moreish longing from fans that allowed the show to live on and resurrect itself so long after its unjust cancellation.  And thankfully Arrested is one of those spectacular shows that actually encourages and rewards multiple repeat viewings, revealing itself all the more hilariously dense and interconnected with each run through.  You can blast through it in one go, but that’s really only a skim-reading.  As the cliché goes, ‘There’s always money in the banana stand’, and if you don’t go back and look for it, you’re missing half the fun.

But just as predictable as all the excitement and frivolity, the return of Arrested Development has also resulted in some cynical critical blowback.  Before even a single episode of the show has been viewed some members of the media are already trying to leap to the front of the hipster naysayer wave and downplay the fun.

On the lower end of the scale, the A.V. Club, after spending literally years fanning the speculation and anticipation of Arrested’s return, recently ran a roundtable discussion with its contributors to somewhat ironically warn against hoping for too much, and opining the culture of hype and fandom that has been gleefully celebrating this event – a fandom that has arguably defined their own editorial ethos for the entire span of their publication (and I say that as a great fan of their site) (here).

On the higher end, one of the worst reactions to the return of the show has been from critics like Mary McNamara, television writer for The Los Angeles Times, who has gone on the offensive in an article titled ‘Arrested Development kicks critics in the teeth at its own peril’, openly decrying Netflix and the creators of the show for what she considers to be the arrogance of refusing to send out preview discs of the first couple of episodes to reviewers (here).

In one of the most extraordinary and petulant screeds I’ve seen published in a newspaper, a critic throwing a hissy fit because they feel that their role as bastion of critical discourse has been usurped by the lowly rabble, McNamara declared that she felt personally slighted to be left out of the traditional exchange of textual dispersal.  See, traditionally, the creators send the critics previews, they give their interpretations, and the audience take their cues from them, deciding whether or not to watch on the day of release based upon what they have written.

Netflix was violating this tradition, she felt, and so, in perhaps the most ineffectual of boycotts ever, McNamara declared that perhaps all critics should just start reviewing show ‘whenever the heck we get around to it.’

Sure, the show is a love note to the fans who brought it back to life, and so it was a stated priority that fans should see it first; sure, it is no longer dependent upon the advertising and timeslot constraints of its network brethren, so it does not actually require critics to applaud it and direct people to watch it; sure Mitch Hurwitz has already called this fourth ‘season’ a 700 minute movie, and slicing a couple of episodes out to put on a critic taster plate defeats the whole purpose of devising the show in that way…  McNamara wants to watch her free show early, and it is a moral issue that she has been denied.

I mean, I agree with her that history has not shown un-previewed material to have a great track record – there is a reason no one got a glimpse of The Adventures of Pluto Nash before it opened – but this is a uniquely, fundamentally ensemble work, that is said to truly require this all-encompassing format.  Asking it to bend to her will because she is a critic and must be satisfied is a little asinine.  And I acknowledge that, as she says, there is a purpose for critics and reviewers, that in some cases, their writing has helped keep shows like Arrested Development on air even in the face of low viewing numbers – but they are not gods.  It is not their responsibility to help audiences form into lines and nod or shake their heads in the way they dictate is appropriate.

Thinking such things – that it was solely critics who helped save this program, injured little bird that it was, from death; that it is critics who should sit at the adults table of analytical discourse while the regular folk squabble and fight for the scraps at the kiddies bench – is not only demeaning to the virtues of the program itself, but disrespectful of the program’s creators and their devoted audience, all of whom were actually responsible for keeping interest in this project alive.  As a critic who should be able to discern when their ego has clouded their vision, McNamara might well have failed at her duty this time around.

In any case, Arrested Development is once again upon us.  Perhaps not in its familiar form.  Perhaps not through familiar channels.  Perhaps not at the whim of critics who demand more devotion.  All I know is that on the brief teaser I let myself glimpse I saw GOB call himself a ‘gentleman honey farmer’, and watched his father get attacked by a swarm bees from a limo.  I have no context for any of it.  It all remains an exquisite mystery.  And yet I am all in.

I’m still rocking in place.  Still waiting.

Annyong.

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

EDIT:

It’s now only hours after the episodes went live, and already some of the knives are out.  The New York Times reviewer Mike Hale, despite admitting that he has not actually watched all of the episodes yet, has declared the new season a dud (here).  Plodding, interminable, an exercise in plot at the sacrifice of comedy, he went so far as to literally declare the show ‘dead’:

‘Chalk one up for the internet: It has killed Arrested Development.

Yikes.

The internet ‘killed’ Arrested Development?  Good thing the internet doesn’t encourage ludicrous hyperbole.

He pronounced the show dead, while admitting that he had only seen eight of the fifteen episodes, and had already written off the intricacies of an entirely new narrative style – specifically designed for this format – without even having seen how it all plays out.

Gee, I wonder why Netflix didn’t want to release screeners to reviewers ahead of the show’s launch?  With such level-headed and fair critique awaiting them as is on display here, I bet they feel like fools now.

Personally, I don’t feel the need to stay locked into the expectation of what once was.  Arrested is a show that has always been experimental, and ahead of its time.  If it wants to expand its potential in such a way, to take risks with the format and perhaps revolutionise the way television program and narrative is consumed, I look forward to taking the ride with them.

If it fails, so be it.  But – unlike the professional reviewers at The New York Times who are apparently paid to do this for a living – I’ll wait until I’ve seen all fifteen episodes before I call time of death.

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