Apparently I can’t go a year without changing location and title.
Yesterday the Oscar nomination were announced; to no surprise, Heath Ledger has a spot on the list of Best Supporting Actors (and will certainly win) for his performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight; to much outcry, The Dark Knight failed to recieve any other major nominations, such as Best Director or even Best Picture. I don’t care, really. As much as I love it, I don’t think it deserves Best Picture (though admittedly I haven’t seen any of the actual nominees this year, to my failure). But the hullabaloo got me thinking about the film again, and why it’s so problematic to me. Because as I addressed in my original essay on the film–the first piece written for this site–I have a lot of issues with The Dark Knight. I already explained what I think is wrong with it, with regards to the ethical position presented by the narrative; now I’d like to expand on that, a bit, but more importantly, explain how to do it right.
The Dark Knight is a film about the myth of the Hero. A cursory view might say that it is a film deconstructing the Hero: it emphasizes, after all, that Batman/Bruce Wayne is not a hero, and this is true, depending on how we define “hero”. The film seems to mean the popular sense of an individual who acts ethically to eliminate injustice and preserve society’s righteousness. I’m not going to dispute that definition too much; in fact, I want to look much closer at several parts of it and what they mean, and how they impact the status of Batman as a Hero.
I chose my eyes and my hair and my face. I chose where I’m from and what I’ve done. I chose my name.
Despite its cinematic presentation (and what cinematic presentation it is!), Mass Effect is rooted in the Western RPG tradition (whether or not it actually is a Western RPG first and not a third-person action game with elements of western RPGs ala Deus Ex), which means players have a significant influence on how their character acts within the game–after all, the game was developed by Bioware, best known for Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and Knights of the Old Republic, the epitome of Western RPG tradition. Mass Effect begins with a player choosing their name, physical appearance, and history. Before the opening cutscene finishes the player is already presented with their first choice: will they chastise a sarcastic crew member or listen to their concerns?
Those who have played Bioware’s other games know the drill. The first two-thirds of Mass Effect play like a better, Star Wars-less version of Knights of the Old Republic. The plot is authored, and so are the menu of your character’s responses, but you do have a menu of responses. You always have the choice: fight or negotiate. Kill or don’t. Or, of course, don’t do anything at all, for the myriad side quests. It may not be much of a choice, but combined with the custom appearance and custom “talents” (AKA skills, spells, whatever you level up when you level up in an RPG), most players come to feel a sense of authorship over their character, a sense that they are their character. That’s (generally) the point of Western RPGs, in the way it is absolutely not in their Japanese counterparts.
At the conclusion of the introductory mission, the player’s character is affected by an alien “beacon” and experiences a vision. A player only sees quick cuts of unintelligible images, but when approached by party members, the character starts talking about killer robots and mass extinction. It’s a startling disconnect between player and character, but digestable: alright, so that’s what it was, what now? But the disconnect doesn’t go away; it grows. As the player continues through the game, the character expresses more and more certainty that the killer robots from the vision are the real threat, not the renegade special forces operative the character has been persuing, going so far as to demand action from the Council that rules most of the galaxy. The Council’s response is predictable: you had a vision. We’ll wait for a bit more evidence before starting a war.
The problem with this was that I thought the same thing. Following the “paragon” path (the “good” way, which also emphasizes cooperation), I wanted to agree with the Council, agree to look for further evidence first, agree to continue searching for the rogue operative. But the options presented to me were: demand the Council take action against the killer robot threat, or demand it nicely.
Battlestar Galactica has featured assassinations, coup d’etat, martial law, suicide bombing, torture, forced abortion, gang rape. It’s a dark show. But to my mind, one of the most horrible moments of the show was not anything so conventionally terrible as the above, but a speech sometimes hailed as one of the triumphant turning points of the show:
In our civil war, we’ve seen death. We watched our people die. Gone forever. As terrible as it was, beyond the reach of the resurrection ships, something began to change. We could feel a sense of time. As if each moment held its own significance. We began to realize that for our existence to hold any value it must end. To live meaningful lives we must die, and not return. The one human flaw, that you spend your lifetimes distressing over – mortality – is the one thing . . . well, it’s the one thing that makes you whole.
In “Guess What’s Coming to Dinner”, Natalie, the Six who leads the Cylon rebellion, gives this speech to the assembled Quroum, humanity’s elected government, arguing in favor of a joint strike mission to permanently disable the Cylon’s ability to resurrect themselves into new bodies following death. Later, in “The Hub”, with the exploding resurrection hub in the background, Helo and the leader of the rebel Eights fly the last surviving Three back to the rebel base ship:
Three: And with a whimper, every Cylon in the universe begins to die.
Eight: Yes, that’s right. And it’s a good thing, D’Anna, because now there’s no difference. We can all start trusting each other.
The first thing that follows this, of course, is Helo’s betrayal of the Eight’s trust by taking Three to President Roslin and denying the Cylons access (on the President’s order). But there’s a larger issue here than the Eights’ pereptually foolish optimism. And that’s the idea that the only way the Cylons can be “whole” is for there to be “no difference” between humans and Cylons.
Free (decentralized, node-based) global networking means that small-scale (individualized) groups can harness both the intrinsic mobility and speed of innovation of small-scale groups and the intrinsic efficiency of action of large-scale (heirarchal) structures. Large-scale structures, however, are not similarly benefited. Therefore, as long as free global networking exists, the paradigm will continue to shift towards small-scale groups producing larger and larger power shifts while large-scale structures are more and more outmatched and antiquated; and because small-scale groups are of course more numerous and reactive than large-scale structures, power shifts will become more and more common, greatly increasing the dynamism and fluctuations of social and political systems (among others). Small-scale, rapidly reproducible but highly localized (individualized, decentralized) resiliency systems will become the only sustainable method of stability.
A short note today. This isn’t anything new for those who know me, but it’s an important foundation of what I believe, so I figured it should be up here, especially for some pieces I want to write in the future.
Major Premise: All rational/logical structures/systems can be fundamentally represented mathematically.
Minor Premise: Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, which collectively demonstrate that a mathematical system cannot be both consistent and complete (i.e., contain irreconcilable contradictions and/or errors).
Conclusion: All rational/logical structures/systems contain irreconcilable contradictions and/or errors.
Facile, perhaps. But the point is this: never forget that rationality, logic, structures, systems, order, et. al., are not ends to themselves. They are useful but dishonest; they are an attempt to bound, limit, define what is fundamentally unboundable, limitless, indefinable: physical reality and the human experience of it.
I really should have seen this the first time. (Spoilers for Quantum of Solace below.)
Having watched Quantum of Solace for the second time today, it seems so obvious to me. Hindsight, of course. The first big action sequence–Bond’s chase after traitorous MI6 agent Mitchell–is intercut against shots of a horse race. I noticed this the first time I watched the movie, and was amused by it: juxtaposing the exciting chase against an obviously artificial game expressly set up for the entertainment of the masses (and repeatedly showing us those masses as well as the actual racers). One way to read it is a contrast, life-and-death against a game, but of course it’s the opposite: it’s a reminder that we, too, are watching something constructed purely for our entertainment. Right from the start, Quantum of Solace seems to be saying: remember that this is a movie meant for your entertainment.