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Archive for the ‘Analyses’ Category

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.

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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.

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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.

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I really should have seen this the first time. (Spoilers for Quantum of Solace below.)

The Palio di Siena

The Palio di Siena (source)

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.

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The Sarah Connor Chronicles is a fascinating show. It’s a show on a major network (and one notorious for canning potentially brilliant but niche shows befor giving them any real chance to establish an audience) that manages to get away with many things you wouldn’t expect possible on a major network (and especially on FOX). It’s a confused show, one that often seems to be at odds with itself, threatening to be torn apart by these two impulses: the desire for mainstream, traditional, escapist entertainment and the desire for a genuinely new, creative, and interesting work of science fiction. To this already dangerous balancing act is a third pillar, the nostalgic love for the first two Terminator films that presumably keeps much of the audience (and thus the show) coming back while at the same time fighting with both of the show’s other main directions. If you’re at all interested in the troubles of maintaining a clear vision on a network television series, this is enough reason to watch Sarah Connor Chronicles, just trying to decipher each week how the people behind the show have managed to corral all these competing impulses into a coherent series.

That’s not most people, of course, and that’s fine. But the reason I point all this out up front is that while I want to focus on one aspect of the show–the aspect of it that is a genuinely new work of science fiction–I don’t want to pretend that that’s all it is, or that the show is a particularly great one. This is not Battlestar Galactica. At times SCC devolves into a conventional if entertaining action series, or into a love song for The Terminator and Terminator 2. The series is often clumsy and unsubtle, the acting by leads Lena Headey and Thomas Dekker is uneven (though Summer Glau and Brian Austin Green are reliably excellent), and some of the first season’s plot threads were too drawn-out and complicated to really work on television. Despite these flaws in execution and its confused heart, however, SCC is a show with a very strong heart, a show with something to say which, even if it’s not quite sure how to say it (or perhaps even what it is that it wants to say), deserves to be heard.

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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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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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