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Archive for August, 2008

I want to tear it down.

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Gender in Wall-E

I don’t really have much to say about this, but it struck me when I finally saw Wall-E (which is brilliant and deserves every accolade it can get):

Wall-E, the masculine protagonist, is a robot whose job is to literally clean up the mess left behind by humans. More figuratively, it is a care-taker, protector, preserver, nurturer (e.g. the cockroach, the plant), a lover, etc: the roles of a house-wife and mother. Throughout the film, Wall-E’s only goal is to win over Eve (excepting a brief period before the finale when Wall-E gives up and acquiesces to Eve’s insistence on “directive”)–what characters are bemoaned for often the entirety of their character being their desire for a romantic interest?

Eve, the feminine protagonist, is a robot whose job is a literal Campbellian hero’s journey (the archetypal masculine plot): venture into a strange otherworld, retrieve a boon, and return with the boon to the old world. It is a transgresser, a destroyer (it repeatedly demonstrates its heedless willingness to use its ridiculously over-powered weapons), an interloper, a plan-maker, a fighter: the roles of a hero, a man. While amused by Wall-E’s attention, it is (at first) readily willing and even eager to abandon Wall-E to pursue the completion of its “directive”.

These are not strict frameworks, of course, because Wall-E is not a movie of cliches and stereotypes. Wall-E’s journey can be organized as a more fully-realized Campbellian arc; Eve spends much effort trying to preserve the plant; etc. There’s also an interesting play, related to this, with the power and age of Wall-E and Eve: Eve is nearly invincible, can destroy anything, operates in an impossible fashion (e.g. its “fingers” floating unconnected to its “hands”, its unaided movement, etc.), yet can be completely disabled at the push of a button (a killswitch?); Wall-E is fragile (to the point where it survives only by constantly replacing its parts with new ones scavenged from other disabled Wall-Es), has no weapons, operates in a very mechanical, physical, understandable manner, yet through sheer perseverence proves just as enduring as Eve. (In this way Wall-E very much resembles the typical American hero, exemplified by Indiana Jones and John McClane, who win through sheer stubborn refusal to lose, no matter how much damage they take, while Eve compares more to the traditional American villain, gleefully strident from the power of high-tech toys but completely destroyed once said high-tech toys have been disabled by some secret, simple weakness.)

I don’t think any of this is really relevant to the heart or meaning of Wall-E, but I find it interesting nonetheless, and anything that gives me reason to remember the movie makes me happy. It is so joyful.

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On Company Time

Black screen, white text. Four numbers, separated by colons, the farthest right decreasing steadily. It was easy to understand: days, hours, minutes, seconds.

“Where was this?” asked Will.

The countdown had six days left.

David nodded at the screen, his eyes unmoving. “Just an IP address, no domain. But it’s been posted everywhere.”

“Viral. Less is more, the allure of mystery. It’s a marketing gimmick. Anybody tracked down the source yet?”

“Yeah, it’s coming from an ISP out of West Virginia.”

West Virginia? “They have computers in West Virginia?”

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Narrative space

I’m a storyteller. I see the world in stories. That’s not saying much, because this is true of everyone. What is a story, after all? It’s an organization of reality, an illusionary order imposed by our brains to make sense of the fundamentally nonsensical universe. So why say I’m a storyteller? Because it means something else to most people, and the difference between that meaning and my meaning is what I want to talk about. For those with some knowledge of narrative theory this won’t be anything new or interesting, except maybe the stuff about video games and D&D later.

When most people think “story”, they think a book, or a movie, or whatever. Words, images, a sequence of events experienced by and actions taken by characters, fictional or non. For most people, a story is a distinct entity, separate from them, that they may borrow for a time but that remains outside of them. If a story is in a forest and no one’s around to read it, is it still a story? Most people say yes. The answer is no.

Well, not necessarily, because “story” is just a word and it means whatever you want it to mean, whatever meaning you endow it with, but there are other words for that sort of thing. “Text”, usually: if a text is in a forest and no one’s around to read it, is it still a text? Yes. (Well, actually, I would say no, because I think that all that really exists is the relationships between things and that the idea of “things” is just another false order constructed by our brains to make sense of nonsense, and so something without any relation to anything else doesn’t exist, but that’s for another time.) Unless you mean something else. But using a different word isn’t the problem; the problem is that people don’t accept that anything exists besides text. That, whatever you want to call it, there is something more than text.

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D&D 4E Character Sheets

The standard D&D character sheets, while usable, are always capable of being improved. For 4E I got a particular itch to create anew because the editors seem to assume the use of index cards to keep track of powers (or at least some method separate from the character sheet), and I didn’t see why it couldn’t be done on the character sheet, along with everything else, on the standard front-and-back one page–which none of the many custom character sheets I’ve examined do, either, despite other (often major) improvements on the official sheet.

Several days later, I see why. While it is possible to use just a character sheet without power cards, you have to be prepared to use a lot of shorthand and rely on the power sections as reminders rather than actual recordings of the rules. (For example, for my sample warlock I statted up I have this as the effect of one power: “For encounter, allies in 5: 1 + int to atk against same enemy; miss: allies in 5: +1 to atk ” ” “. )

If you take the power sections out, however, there not that much information to actually record; I ended up with the entire bottom half of the back page empty.

In any case, I’ve been staring at these too long to accurately ascertain their utility, but there they are nonetheless.

D&D 4E Character Sheet (w/o Powers) (PDF, 60 KB)

D&D 4E Custom Character Sheet (w/ Powers) (PDF, 65 KB)

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This post is something of a sequel to this one.

I’m halfway through season two of The Wire (just finished “All Prologue”) and I’ve got some more thoughts on it and David Simon’s other HBO production, Generation Kill (thoughts which of course apply to television and to some extent narratives in general as well).

What strikes me now, especially after getting into Generation Kill, is that the problem I attempted to describe previously already has a perfect title, albeit one not widely used: the “tragedy of verisimilitude”. Coined, as far as I know, by Battlestar Galactica‘s James Callis in a “roundtable” podcast of several of the show’s actors and crew (a fascinating, albeit very long, discussion, you can get download it from SciFi’s Battlestar site, which unfortunately prevents more direct linking), he lamented that Battlestar‘s oft-praised dedication to realism (or more accurately verisimilitude) was occasionally a burden, when the principles of physical reality (or the expectations of the audience) made simple stories needlessly complex (or worse, made them impossible to convey believably).

While the problem occasionally rises on Battlestar, it’s much more prevalent on the much more grounded Wire and, in a twisted, more acceptable fashion due to its semi-nonfictional nature, Generation Kill. The second season of The Wire begins with the main characters of the first season, who were pulled from various disparate police units to serve on a special detail, scattered into the wind. McNulty is working the boat; Freamon is in Homicide; Kima has a desk job; Daniels is in the basement; etc. The first episode juggles the ongoing fates of these characters while continuing the story of Avon Barksdale’s similarly scattered drug crew and introducing an entirely new set of characters at the Baltimore docks (not to mention beginning a plot, although that’s clearly, as always on The Wire, a secondary priority). It’s a clusterfuck of too many characters, too much to carry, and yet it works in a twisted way, because this is what happens. People move on, with their jobs and with their lives, and the attempt to follow that, rather than unrealistically but more simply keep them together, or bring them back together on another detail for a new case.

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You fight like a dairy-farmer.

I always used to get into trouble with people because I say a lot of things I don’t mean. Or, rather, I mean them, but other people don’t understand what I mean and think I mean something else, which amounts to the same thing from their frame of reference. It doesn’t help that much of what I used to say that they didn’t understand sounded like insults. Sometimes they weren’t–sometimes they were true statements that I actually meant as compliments but due to disparities in ethical philosophies were considered insults by them–but that’s not what I want to talk about, because those are easy to explain. I think this a is right, they think a is wrong, I tell them they’re a and they flip out. Mathematics.

While I’m using the past tense throughout, of course, none of this is really gone, though it doesn’t happen as often as it used to.

Anyway. The other cases, when they were insults, or sort-of, or whatever, are more interesting, because they’re more complicated. I learned early on that words were words and that’s all they were; that is, an insult was a sound out of someone’s mouth and nothing more unless you made it more. (“Sticks and stones can break my bones / but words will never hurt me” was my motto back in the day. Not that I was a particularly bullied child, because I was actually a fairly sociable child in my younger years and anyway most would-be bullies learned quickly that I was quite willing to apply that mantra to the offensive as well as the defensive.) Since then I’ve always had a strange relationship with language: a fascination, to be sure (I’m an English major, after all), but also a detachment, an awareness of how fragile language is, how easily it can be broken and tossed aside, all its illusory control and power dispersed in a flash, like a flame consuming a cloud of gas.

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