Friday, January 06, 2017

An Aesthetics of Aspect (on Medium)

Today, a sort of philosophy/media theory post on the CREATOR-CONSUMER-CRITIC triad, which I'm calling the Aspect Aesthetic. It provides a quick summary of the big picture, with the triadic diagram to map out the poles and paths, and then it goes into a deeper discussion of the CONSUMER role, touching on fandom, worldbuilding, and the joys of inhabiting a work of art.

Post can be found here:
An Aesthetics of Aspect

Monday, January 02, 2017

Bubble Universes (Welcome to 2017)

First of all, to head off any elevated expectations: this post is mostly about movies. The title sounds broad and philosophical, partly because I'm trying to stretch my frame a little, but movies are where this idea started, and I doubt it's going to wander too far from that starting point.

On New Year's Eve, I did what a lot of people do, aside from watching the ball drop: I caught a couple on-demand movies. In my case, these were The Witch (2015, but really 2016 as far as public release) and The Lobster (2016). These choices were entirely arbitrary, no more thematic than "oh, I remember wanting to see that one!"... and yet, in retrospect (where so many things become more orderly), I feel like they were pretty perfect for closing out 2016 and moving into a new solar cycle.

There's been a lot of talk, of course, about how rough 2016 was, and 2017 is a frontier under such a dark cloud... it's not really a pleasant transition, even if change is welcome. It kind of puts into relief that angst that comes with every New Year... the feeling that under all the celebration, all the rhetoric about renewal, the truth is that it's exactly the same world, just tagged as the next iteration.

But a couple movies like The Witch and The Lobster helped with that transition, it turned out... and not just in a way that every other movie would help (which is distraction and spectacle, mostly). These helped because they did something unique among movies: they created self-contained little bubble universes, and these gave me the stepping stones I needed to move between two troubled years and really feel that threshold.

The Witch creates its bubble universe out of vivid sensory detail and historical specificity. Beyond the incessant use of "thee" and "thou," the world was relentless and textured and -- probably my favorite word for it -- grimy. Full of grime. After William and Katherine leave their Puritan plantation, they are caught in, essentially, a tiny world of two settings: the homestead, and the forest.

The immersion on display here isn't just stylistic or aesthetic. Director Robert Eggers (by his own admission, here) was trying to place his audience in an authentically Puritan frame of mind. This means a gawking fascination with sin and perversion, a manic-depressive relationship with Christianity, and a belief in Satan and witchcraft in their most literal forms. Eggers is trying to rip us out of our modernity and instill in us the fear of a wild, corrupted abyss populated by malevolent forces.

The Lobster does something similar in the abstract, but in almost the opposite way. It also creates a small, self-contained universe ("city," "woods," and a hotel make up the whole world). However, instead of a jarring injection of detail and history, it fashions this world out of the familiar and the taken-for-granted, reconstructed in absurd and unexpected ways. The City has the feeling of Washington, DC (at least that's the closest analog from my own experience), and the hotel feels like any mid-priced Hilton convention center hosting a huge conference.

This world is structured metaphorically, emphasizing the absurdity of the familiar. The Lobster's bubble universe alienates us from everyday life, floating up above and letting us look back on social psychology and romantic conventions as they might appear to an alien anthropologist.

The longer I sit and stare at these films side by side, the more parallels I see. They're both about a breakdown at the margins of an overly-structured society... they're both about exiles, creating rituals in defiance of the rituals that initially excluded them. They're both about the terror and anxiety instilled by the demands of conventional thinking, whether it's consensus or superstition.

All that aside, I'll go back to the title. It was this little skipping action, this move between bubble universes, that's helping me make sense of the New Year transition. In every practical sense, the new world is the same as the old one... I just stepped out of it for a couple movies. But in another sense, we're moving into a reality with a new framework... a whole new set of rules are coming into play.

These new global rules include an escalating authoritarian trend, sudden fractious instability in international consensus (both political and economic), and a step back from reasoned discourse, idealism, and accountability. So in this sense, the "bubble universe" concept might not be such a bad tool: a focus-shifted lens for seeing 2017 as radically, qualitatively different.

In honor of this effect, I'd like to reflect for a moment: what other films have this sort of feeling, that they're taking place in a tightly-constrained reality whose rules are alien and temporarily absolute?

I'll note, and set aside, those horror and science-fiction films that make this a point of premise... The Cube, Snowpiercer, THX 1138, Alien, The Village. Even The Shining is a little more explicit than I'm talking about. I'm trying to come up with movies that tease a larger reality, but then compress it, to wring every drop of significance out of the setting.

Hitchcock tended to do this... The Birds is such a film, I think, since it takes place in an island village, isolated from the outside world.

Rules of the Game has this sense, as well (it's been quite a while since I've seen it).

There must be others... Gilliam? Haneke? Anderson? ... BUELLER?

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Pendulum

Published a piece on Medium called The Pendulum, about the shift from despair to tentative hope while I ponder all the catastrophic implications of the Trump presidency. I also mention the Thai Blind Orchestra. Both of these things came to me in an NPR report this morning, on a drive to take care of some errands.

The Pendulum on Medium:
The future does not look bright. In fact, in some moments, like driving down the road listening to these NPR reports, it looks frankly terrifying. My head constructs something that looks like Flint in the middle of its water crisis, and NYC and Detroit at the height of urban decay, and the Rust Belt and Appalachia at their most desolate, featuring lone-wolf terrorists in prominent roles, both Middle Eastern and radicalized American. I think this is what they call “catastrophizing”… or just “hysteria,” if you want to spare a syllable. 
At these times, I tell myself that I just have to protect my family and seek high ground. Civil society has always been build on the bedrock of a hostile wilderness, after all… will that world, where we have to fight for survival, finally start peeking through? When is it ethical for a non-violent leftist to buy a gun? Is a coming apocalypse the right time to rethink that principle?
At this point, it was not a pleasant drive.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Trump and The Spectacle

Wrote a thing on Medium. Sounds very Guy Debord/Critical Theory, but don't worry, there's nothing particularly rigorous about it. It's just one more moment of me thinking I've "figured it out" because I just had a new thought that seems to have overturned a few previous thoughts at once.

A selection:
The hardest part about reconciling with the present moment — not submitting to it, of course, but finding the right way to exist in relation to it — is going to be resisting the spectacle of it all. We are all, even unto the most cynical and steady, vulnerable to the distraction that comes from bearing witness. Our own need to gaze awestruck upon the bigness of history, and the bigness of our own imperfection, is going to leave us dazzled.
Find it here: The Spectacle

Monday, November 28, 2016

Westworld's Three Domains

I've been gone for some time, but -- this seems as good a time as any to come back, since this blog feels like the best place for my current musings. If this is the only post in a five year span, please forgive me.

My ongoing viewing has been Game of Thrones, Mr. Robot, and Westworld. The first two are currently between seasons, so I'm focused on the third one, whose first season is just coming to an end. I have thoughts. This is the place for them, methinks.

My instinctive reaction to the show is that it's steeped in influences, and this isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's built on foundations of Inception, The Matrix, The Truman Show, Battlestar Galactica, Ex Machina, The Hunger Games, and various other postmodern reality-bending science fiction, and almost every artifact in the show can be seen as a refraction of one or several of these. I don't think it's doing anything ground-breaking with this conceptual material, but it's beautiful and well-executed, and there's nothing wrong with delving deeper into themes that our culture is currently hung up on.

My primary criticism of the show, up until this morning, was that it's too caught up in the self-indulgence of contemporary plotting and writing: the need to always have three, four, or five ongoing plot arcs, each with several characters, to the point where every concern feels trivial. In particular, Maeve's character arc, which represents a massive disruption as far as the setting is concerned (like, she's the lynchpin that's bringing about the end of the whole world of the show), doesn't feel entirely earned. There are enough characters that I can't always keep track of them, and when an old face turns back up in a new context, I find myself scrambling to remember where I saw them, or why it's even interesting.

But I think I've worked out a way of thinking about these plots that will help me make better sense of them, with the finale impending. As far as I can see it, this season consists of three primary narrative arcs: Dolores, Bernard, and Maeve. The other plotlines -- Ford as sinister mastermind, Charlotte and the board of directors, and the Man in Black -- are all background noise, threads that don't serve much except to tie those three major plotlines together.

Those three major plotlines can be thought of as, respectively, Spiritual, Existential, and Political.

I say "spiritual" for Dolores's plotline because it seems to be a journey of self-discovery and transcendence, and it takes on cyclical, mystical overtones. I wouldn't be surprised to discover, in the finale, that her journey brings together Past and Future and Good and Evil, and that she satisfies Westworld's obligatory "messianic" role.

I say "existential" for Bernard's plotline because it's a journey inward, to find the boundaries of Selfhood. The stakes are the limits and accountability of consciousness, and the reality of one's own emotions and experiences.

And Maeve's journey is political in the sense that she's working out, and manipulating, her place in the power structure. If the world is created and activated in the spiritual realm, it's in the political realm that it's ultimately brought to an end, through fire and revolution if necessary.

Some of this is informed by a certain fan theory floating around out there, that seems pretty highly likely as we approach the finale.

As another side-note, I have to say, I wish one of these Artificial Intelligence movies -- AI, Ex Machina, Her, even The Matrix -- would tackle the Hard Problem of Consciousness more directly. They all take it for granted that these intelligent agents have an inner life, perfectly analogous to our own. This is necessary for stories of self-discovery and heroism, but it's also kind of a cop-out.

I wouldn't even mind, if they didn't seem to be approaching this problem and then running away from it, like children running away from the waves lapping up the beach. Westworld is particular is obsessed with the secondary symptoms of this idea. Ford has a whole monologue on how he doesn't believe there's a clear distinction between human and machine consciousness. Logan, William's evil friend, is the epitome of a consciousness skeptic, believing adamantly that however human they appear, these hosts are simply machines, no more self-aware than calculators. And from what it sounds like in that last episode, it seems like "the maze" itself is just a test of sentience for the hosts, a high-powered Turing Test for some pragmatic "consciousness" criteria.

And yet, we're always privy to inner experiences of the hosts. Bernard and Maeve and Dolores have intense flashbacks, many of which seem to be distorted or fabricated, just like human memories. Wouldn't it be creepier if we'd seen, in some experimental sequence, a close-up of Bernard's eye as he's describing a vivid memory, and then a cut to complete black, or to a screen full of code? And wouldn't it be a beautiful moment if we got to see Bernard go from inert self-monitoring terminal to actual conscious mind? I'm not sure how you would do this, cinematically: some visual effect or camera trick representing the first glimmerings of a private, conceptual picture of the world, inaccessible even to the human operators.

Maybe this is part of the larger formal message of Westworld: that consciousness itself is basically a cinematic device showing flashbacks, a film reel that starts at birth and ends at death, that does nothing more interesting than represent the machine to itself. And that this simple mechanism is all that's necessary for "automaton" to become "living thing with a rich inner life."

Lots of questions. No answers, so far. But the finale is bearing down, and perhaps the questions will all least keep getting more interesting.

Monday, October 13, 2014

On Daily Intel and whether male feminists exist

In response to an article from Kat Stoeffel on the Daily Intel.

As an all-oppressor-classes human [cis, white, hetero, male, suburban, American, Yankee, upper-middle class, abled, neurotypical, etc], I've struggled with being an ally for some years. To all men, like me, who are reading this: the first step is, indeed, radical acceptance that you need to be secondary in this conversation; that if your views on gender issues remain forever conflicted, benign, and invisible, that's okay, it probably means you're doing it right. This disclaimer has been brought to you in the name of solidarity.

However, within that fuzzy gap where an oppressor-class human can talk about a movement he cares about, but isn't officially a member of (biologically speaking, and according to Kat, even in terms of identification) -- I want to note: Kat's article is fine in condemning a certain class of social-climber feminist men who rise in the movement's ranks by exercising their own chauvinist impulses. Clymer and Schweizer? Sure. Boorish, self-important, and definitely not good for the movement. However, along with that valid point, this article has a willful divisiveness riding side-saddle, and I doubt it's doing the larger feminist movement many favors.

Why? Because, at least for me, this article triggers some nasty anxieties about whether there is EVER a path to reconciliation for me, and for others like me, who want to contribute quietly and productively to the fashioning of a better world for all people stuck in the gender matrix. I know you (Kat, and other feminists) are not responsible for my "feels," and this isn't intended as a take-down. It just might be worth having on-hand as a data point -- one of many -- as you configure your strategy going forward.

It's this anxiety, triggered by articles like this, that occasionally threatens my interest in being an ally. It communicates, whether intentionally or not, the sense that I'm a permanent target of exclusionary rhetoric. In fact, this kind of wagon-circling is the only thing that gives me hang-ups about supporting feminism. Reading MRA rants and hearing misogynistic remarks? That actually makes me feel more feminism-aligned. I have no desire for solidarity with men who express their masculinity through disrespect and aggression.

Lots of men, some of them perhaps excellent allies, may want to identify as feminists, because  the term refers to a complex of ideas and commitments, a belief in certain values and a broad historical movement (and it's not a biologically-determined identity, like "disabled" or "American Indian"). Exclusionary rhetoric (and also snarky, dog-whistle defensive mechanisms of any kind) just make it seem like I'm not welcome to hold those values, or to adopt any position of support whatsoever vis-a-vis feminism.

Does feminism prefer an eventual reconciliation and mutual acknowledgment between the sexes, as the term "gender equality" would suggest? Or does it favor a permanent state of culture war, which would at least give women a place to fight for their autonomy and identity, even if it never leads to any kind of long-term equilibrium? It is an honest question, and I don't mean to load the answers with pre-judgment.


In the spirit of this particular type of ally-ship, I'd like to recognize the good work of Matthew Inman in actually, earnestly apologizing when he writes jokes that offend people. This may be the best possible way to act as an ally... know when it's time to defer to the community. This is especially true if you accept the increasing feminist principles that: 1) silence in the face of injustice is bad, and 2) speaking out clearly enough to derail the movement's focus is bad.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

On the Passing of Something (Robin Williams, 1951-2014)

How do you love an actor through their work? A celebrity, a public personality you've never met, never seen in their private moments, never known as anything but what they choose to put on the screen? A lot of questions, all intellectually interesting. Also, all easier to think about than the instigating event. All effective diversions.

I mean, some celebrities don't feel like mere projections, assemblages dispensed by the entertainment industry for the sake of optimal charisma. Some celebrities... some advocates, politicians, comedians, and even comic actors... don't seem to put much of a wall up between their public lives and their private eccentricities and vulnerabilities. Maybe they're just not good at the fakery. Or maybe they're extremely good at it, and my senses haven't caught up. Who knows?

You can't fall in love with on-screen personas the way you do with someone whose hand you've shaken at their wedding reception. You can't fall in love with them the way you do a trusted mentor, or a great psychologist. You can't fall in love with them the way you do with your kids as you tuck them in at night, and you can't be connected to them the way you can to a soul-mate whose trials and troubles you've spent a life trying to shoulder. With an entertainer, there's a degree to which it's all pre-packaged, conducted for your benefit, and for the benefit of several billion others who share your unrequited love.

But in a mediated age like ours, where we're all managing different aspects of ourselves that are being peeled away in fragments and distributed according to the logic of production, I think it's valid... perhaps even necessary... that we can fall in love with projections, with the ideas that people choose to champion and represent. It's been happening for centuries, after all... people have loved saints and athletes and politicians, in moments of hardship they've loved prophets and revolutionaries, in times of prosperity they've loved artists and emperors. They've loved fictional characters and half-serious delusions. These kinds of love are real, and and their mourning warrants expression.

Robin Williams earned our love, and he deserved it. Through the roles he chose, through his commitments to particular characters at particular moments, he came to represent a very specific thing in our culture: the hapless sentimentalist. He was a comic actor -- even his most serious roles were cut with a certain therapeutic irreverence -- but his humor was always an interface with a certain soaring, hopeful, joyful sadness, the kind of heartfelt pathos that's come under siege in the age of smug self-consciousness and detachment.

And goddamn! From a young age, I've fallen in love, repeatedly, with what Robin Williams represented. I was in love with Daniel Hillard and Armand Goldman and Jack Powell and Sean Macguire. His roles all took on this fatherly tenderness... even the heroic roles (Alan Parrish in Jumanji) and even, weirdly enough, the twisted and unhinged antagonist roles (Seymour Parrish of One Hour Photo, Walter Finch of Insomnia). As with many kids (not all, I fully realize), I thought my dad was the most heroic human in the world, and in a way, I loved Robin Williams because his roles seemed to be paying tribute to my own dad (Kevin Costner is the only other actor who managed the same thing from time to time).

Maybe Williams was so good at this because he also knew how to play a kid, and he knew the power that a father-figure or an older mentor can have over a child. This came through most explicitly in Jack, a lovingly-acted role in a movie that I still think about at the most random times. It's also one of the central dimensions of Hook, which is an affectionate, reconstructed hero story built around the father figure rediscovering childhood. Hook is, incidentally, in a three-way tie for my favorite Robin Williams movie.

One of my other favorite Robin Williams characters is the genie in Aladdin. I can't help but see all the good, earnest, loving people I know in that genie... all the people who I've been grateful to have as my mentors and influences. It was a movie all about the relationship between power and dependence and vulnerability, right? About how the greatest power in the world suddenly becomes worthless without the existential sinew of vulnerability and honesty and self-acceptance?

My third favorite: Williams' role as Chris Nielsen in What Dreams May Come, one of the great epic journeys, a walk in the shadow of endless cosmic melancholy. Despite its joyful, almost saccharine ending, there's a profound sadness that permeates What Dreams May Come, a sense of futility and submission to the endless cycles and trials and rediscoveries of history. This is, of course, balanced by the redeeming forces of familial love and loyalty and free will, but one of the most beautiful things about the movie is that it finds a delicate balance... the darkness passes, but it remains on the horizon of the film, even unto its rosy final shot.

I loved Robin Williams, one of the great father figures of the modern age of cinema, and though his story will always be tinged with melancholy, I hope that for him, the darkness has passed. RIP RW.