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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 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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A new plan of attack involves more shorter posts, so that there aren’t months without anything. I stayed away from that here before because I keep really short thoughts to Facebook status updates (would be Twitters if I had any friends on Twitter, but I don’t), but there’s a place between rambling essays and one sentence thoughts that I hope I can use to good effect in the future. In the meantime, a few quick shots:

  • Pushing Daisies be dead. Terrible, horrible, depressing, expected. On the very minor positive side, Bryan Fuller may well end up running Heroes and perhaps save it from the abysmal joke it’s become. (During Heroes’ second season, the first time I watched the show as it aired, I repeatedly took it to task for ugly sexism until I eventually concluded it was just lazy writing, not actual misogyny, and gave up. This is still the case, and still one of the few things I actively despise about the show. Please save it, Bryan Fuller. Make it whimsy and fun!)
  • Far Cry 2 is a great game, but I’ve barely played it (or any other games) since I started Letters from Africa. As a result, I haven’t updated that particular project since then. I hope to get around to it eventually, but at this point I kind of just want to play the game. I also bought Overlord during its 75% price reduction on Steam and played it for an hour or two. It’s cute.
  • I’m a terrible DM. Not really, of course, but not a very good one, anyway. I don’t intend to continue the campaign log, although I do intend to keep the wiki updated with shorter summaries and to post some thoughts on DM-ing (and how much I suck at it). Seriously, it’s hard (especially when the online campaign I’m playing in is so well-designed. Here’s to you, stabs!) I almost want to start something new next semester (with a month of preparation over break), but I think the players would prefer to continue, because they don’t have as much of a problem with what I do as I do (and that’s what’s important, anyway)–and there are still some (hopefully) really interesting moments to get to.
  • Quantum of Solace is a conundrum to me. I’m planning on writing some more thorough thoughts (and I’ve thought a lot about what those will be) but I’m waiting until I probably see it again this weekend.

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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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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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Recently I saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in theaters for the second time. I’m a true Indiana Jones fanatic–hung above my desk, right next to my computer, are all four movie posters, framed–so when I saw the film for the first time, most of my response to it was as from the view of a fan who had read over ten years’ worth of rumors and reports (basically, from when I first got internet access) about a fourth Indiana Jones movie. Even so, my analytical brain went into action when I saw it the first time, and there were a number of things that intrigued me about the film. I don’t consider it a particularly good movie: I think it’s certainly the weakest of the four, and what I have to say here is not meant to elevate the quality of the movie in any way. But there were things that seemed to deserve further thought than usual with the simple popcorn entertainment that I consider Indiana Jones, and so on my second viewing I went in with an eye for something more. Spoilers from here on, for all four Indiana Jones films.

What I realized, or decided, or constructed, was that The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not just a new movie about Indiana Jones; it is a movie about the death of Indiana Jones–the idea of Indiana Jones, the persona separate from the person of Henry Jones, Jr. Upon thinking about it, this is really strikingly obvious. After all, the film ends with Indiana Jones getting married, something that could not even be contemplated with regards to the Indy of the original trilogy, and an almost literal passing-of-the-hat to Indy’s son (although “Mutt Jones and the whatever” doesn’t seem to me as something that would play well on a movie poster). But it’s not simply the death of one man’s adventuring career, it’s the death of the entire idea of adventuring for “fortune and glory” (as Indy famously quips in The Temple of Doom), of death-defying stunts against insidious villains, of mysterious artifacts of ancient and unknown power. More than that, it’s the death of the unrepentant American optimism of the thirties and forties, when Americans believed in an American dream despite the Great Depression and later believed in their absolute righteousness in the fight against the Nazis, so gloriously demonstrated in the adventure serials that the original Indiana Jones trilogy were inspired by. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is about the end of an era.

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