Monday, September 30, 2013

Horse_ebooks as a Free Will Fetish

"It seems we cannot get enough of our mechanical mirror stage."

- Peggy Nelson, Not a Bot (

Things like "whimsy" and "dada" (and even the basic human capacity for "spontaneity") all happen at the intersection of meaning and randomness. They fascinate us because, by cross-referencing our symbol systems with the universe's inscrutable patterns of noise and happenstance, we get some sense that the universe itself is actually conscious, or purposeful, or whatever.

@horse_ebooks was a token of that always-captivating emergent significance. My Twitter feed filled up with tearful farewells when it was outed as a human "conceptual art project," and I felt disposed to join them. At least for me, the dismay results from losing that sense of whimsy and emergent meaning. Knowing it's a human, contriving the meaning and simulating the random factor, somehow steals away that elusive magic.

Of course, this illuminates one of the dialectical dissociations that underwrites human consciousness: we are fascinated by randomness, because we cannot entirely come to terms with it. Fortune tellers seeks out the most chaotic, meaningless systems possible (cards shuffling, tea leaves tossed about by convection) and insist on ascribing symbolic significance to the outcomes.

Pure purposefulness (corresponding to a deterministic universe) is boringly predictable. Pure randomness (quantum and non-deterministic) is boringly nihilistic. But somewhere at the threshold between them, we sense free will as a glimmer of purposeful indeterminacy. So we seek out things like @horse_ebooks and divination rituals, which seem to draw a connection between those two causal universes. Maybe this is one of the human mind's integral background processes: to search for evidence of our own agency in the framework of the universe.

For whatever reason, @horse_ebooks is much less interesting as an intentional art project than it was as an algorithmic gesture toward cosmic agency. Some psychological need was obviously being filled, and now it's not, so we're going to have to go back to our tarot cards.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Crypticism 2: Clinically Obscure Language in The Matrix and Cyclonopedia

I shall begin this post with a confession: I loved The Matrix Reloaded. I was shaken by its wild ambition, and being an adolescent, I was a sucker for the absurd fight scenes and the renegade cyber-floozy cyberpunk angle. But looking back on it, what now especially surprises me about the film -- one of the things I find most striking about its structure -- is how bold that climax was, the moment of heightened clinical stillness in the Source, where the Architect confronted Neo with a mind-contorting explanation of the Matrix's edifice of dissimulation.

The first time I watched Reloaded in the theaters, I just struggled to figure out what the Architect was talking about. There was something there about a cycle of Eternal Return, a feedback loop that required a few humans to be liberated so that an anomalous quantity could be vented. Underneath that carnival of abstractions, there were higher issues at stake... Neo as a messiah-sacrifice, guided to this moment by his own inevitable resistance instinct, now being called upon to destroy himself out of love for the larger human race. Somewhere in that dilemma, there was a slave's paradox: survival of the species meant recommitting it to subjugation; the pursuit of freedom was the spill-over that was presently threatening to destroy the Matrix and the species being held there.

I love the first line.
"You have many questions, and though the process has altered your consciousness you remain irrevocably human, ergo some of my answers you will understand and some of them you will not."
In one rather long sentence, the Architect triggers a whole bunch of responses we often have to overwritten prose: the feeling of being lost in a bombardment of phrases, the sense that the author has some kind of contempt for the reader, and the knee-jerk ambivalence (or even disgust) many casual readers feel as a result. Postmodern theorists, with Derrida leading the pack, have made sort of an art out of dragging the reader through dense and twisted prose, and his critics have reacted spitefully. In the process, both Derrida and his critics have provided us with landmarks of cryptic language: Derrida's deconstructionist texts, and Alan Sokal's intentionally meaningless essay Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.

What these writers highlight is the dialectical function of cryptic language to simultaneously reveal and obscure meaning. Arguably (and in my opinion, it's an argument with merit), opaque language is sometimes justified by the complexity and ambition of the concepts behind it... people like Derrida and Heidegger have to make up words and torture their prose because their thought is plumbing depths that common, non-academic language can't yet capture. However, it's hard -- nigh impossible -- to separate this revelatory function from mere self-indulgence, language made artificially incomprehensible in order to obscure an absence of rigor, or a dearth of ideas. This is what's generally referred to "being pretentious" or "trying too hard"... and it's one of the hobgoblins, whether intentional or not, of Alan Sokal's prank paper submitted to Social Text.

What complicates the critique applied by Sokal is the fact that cryptic language has an aesthetic and rhetorical effect, even in its opacity. Derrida was a smart guy, and he was most certainly conscious of his stylistic choices... and once we acknowledge that he was being purposeful and intentional, we can see him less as a fraud and more as a pioneer of the cryptic mode, which the writers of The Matrix Reloaded used to such memorable effect.

The scene with the Architect is fairly long, and the dialogue is brisk, academic, polysyllabic, and witheringly precise. It is also a prime example of intentionally cryptic prose, a sort of dispersed substrate of psychocybernetic jargon that Neo sinks into with his first dignified question to the Architect.

This particular speech, which can be read in its entirety here, is not flat-out incomprehensible (unlike, for instance, Sokal's essay). If you read it over a couple times, and maybe look up a couple terms in cybernetics, you shouldn't have trouble making sense of the Architect's explanations. However, within the conditions of an actual cinematic experience, it's obviously not meant to be simple exposition. For anyone seeing it for the first time, it seems to move at a blinding speed, and those viewers will be lucky to pick up even a few broad ideas from the coleslaw of technical terms.

Most action films hit a plateau of suspense at the climax, cap it off with a violent resolution, and then let out a breath of relief, turning sharply into the denouement. The Matrix jerks this progression off-course when Neo enters the Source, interrupting the intensity of the action with a sudden shock of stillness. In this stillness, the physical intuition that governs the action sequences gives way to a sort of incomplete, elliptical cerebral ambivalence, defined by the Architect's chilling clarity riddled with entropic gaps: the viewer is suddenly pushed to absorb information, to grapple with a conceptual model of the Matrix, but is denied easy access to that big picture, because it’s obscured in this cryptic language.

I see this as a bold decision in The Matrix Reloaded: the decision to hinge the climax on stillness and opacity, the decontextualized clarity at the eye of a storm. Visually, the scene is sterilized, like various other “inner sanctums” of the absolute mind, and the Architect's performance is impassive and lawyerly. Beyond this sense of irrecoverable alienness, though, what are the emotional tones of this scene? In particular, what’s the emotional and narrative resonance of that cryptic language?

First of all, there’s a sense of disorientation and lack of control within a rigidly-controlled text. That voice will continue droning on, it can’t be stopped, and your capacity to process that information can scarcely keep up with the exposition. However, there’s also a sense of overriding order, suggesting the presence of an inaccessible intelligence: either superior, or simply absolutely alien.

The Matrix Reloaded uses this incomprehensibility to project, via implication, an unknowable Other, a superintelligence that has remained obscured behind the Matrix until now. It also suggests, via an array of cues (tone of voice, posture, dismissive attitude) an absolute superiority, an awareness that's much larger than Neo or the audience, with a more complete picture. At this particular moment, the possibility that this entity is simply creating an illusion of superiority is left in the background. It becomes more important in The Matrix Revolutions; it’s also a relevant factor in our own discussion of cryptic language itself, complicated by Sokal's skepticism toward crypticism. For now, though, such caveats are left unacknowledged.

Stuart Hall, a prominent cultural theorist, has talked a lot about how information is encoded for transmission. One of the noteworthy points he makes is that the production end needs to encode information, and then the recipient needs to decode it. Each of these moments in the chain of communication has its own code, its own rules of meaning and grammar and interpretation, and if the message is to maintain its integrity, both codes (the producer's code and the audience's code) need to support it. Hall points out that misunderstanding is generally the result of asymmetrical codes, which are, for that reason, a bad thing.

Encoding/decoding systems give us one way to look at cryptic communication. In cases like The Matrix Reloaded, the dense, over-processed language is used to invoke an asymmetry of code systems: the entity producing the information (the Architect) has much more control over the encoding process than the person trying to consume the information (the audience, and Neo, its surrogate). The decoding process is deficient, and this suggests both the superiority of the encoder, and also the presence of unassimilated meaning, gaps in the final product of the communication due to the failure to decode some of the information and implications.

In fact, The Architect makes a point of this asymmetry. After Neo initially asks, “Why am I here?” the Architect offers a dump of words that sum up Neo’s function in the Matrix. Neo realizes that this sudden rush of information contained a lot of important background, but intentionally left out the key point, so he says, “You haven’t answered my question.” This is apparently an admirable feat of decoding, because the Architect responds, "Quite right. Interesting. That was faster than the others."

The Matrix’s Architect scene is succinct and imbued with grave implications: it is the climax to an ambitiously intense film, and it changes the trajectory of the series in preparation for Revolutions. The use of cryptic language is important, giving a new dimension to the formerly-anonymous AI antagonist, but it’s also deployed carefully. Now it’s time to consider, as a contrast, certain works that have taken the paradox of opaque communication and cryptic language much further.

I’m just finishing a book right now called Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, by Reza Negarestani. Maybe you can tell, just from the title, what kind of pretension this book is operating under? From the blurbs on the cover, the book sounds like a deconstructed horror story, a la House of Leaves. It’s really not, though… it’s actually a book of deranged, highly speculative theory with a lack of supporting evidence, framed as fiction: theory that stops just sort of truth-claim, and only goes so far as to say, “Here is an unsubstantiated, but subversive, interesting, and frightening way to look at the geopolitical universe!”

I can tell you straight away, it would be hard to read Cyclonopedia without some experience reading other kinds of theorists: deconstructionists, continental philosophers, and occultists, especially. It would also help a lot to understand some of Middle Eastern and Islamic culture, which I did not, going into the book. It’s speckled with terms like Wahhabism, Taqiyya, Gog-Magogism, and various other concepts drawn from fields of knowledge that would strike average American readers as esoteric and specialized.

The resulting prose is dense, half-serious, and half-deranged, spilling out of intelligibility and becoming a kind of tortured poetry of abstraction. I liked it at times, although I also found it mind-numbing at other times (your mileage may vary, of course). Some striking ideas echo through the verbal edifice, as well: that the Middle East is a sentient entity, that war is a self-sufficient force that drives politics, that oil is the Earth’s way of resisting the cosmic hegemony of the sun. These ideas are ripe insects, entombed in an amber grave of cryptic theoretical language. If that’s your thing, then give Cyclonopedia a try.

If The Matrix Reloaded used crypticism to establish a character -- or, more properly speaking, an intellect -- then Cyclonopedia took it a step further. The Architect was the encoding party at the other end of a line, but everyone was still in the same place, which was the topic of the shared communication: the Matrix itself, complete with its relationship to humanity and Zion. The language of Cyclonopedia, on the other hand, does not simply reveal/obscure a character... it reveals/obscures an entire world, a mysterious semantic domain, defined largely by its vocabulary, structured by its operative concepts.

This act of world-building through language is part of what connects Cyclonopedia with science fiction as a narrative genre. This is why it's often called "speculative" theory: in order to appreciate it, you have to let yourself sink into its self-contained world, the same way you have to sink into the language in A Clockwork Orange. There are a few anchors to connect Cyclonopedia to our own world -- the Middle East, terrorism, HP Lovecraft -- but it's largely a semantic field unto itself. The cryptic code gives us a dizzy, tightly-constrained glimpse into this world, but it's only enough to suggest that there's a lot more going on in there than we can apprehend.

The Otherness of these works -- the "Other" as an ineffable intellect in The Matrix, or as an impenetrable web of scholarship and mysticism in Cyclonopedia -- should be recognized for its peculiar quality: the fact that it's characterized as intelligent and detached, rather than primitive and violent. This is, after all, the usual issue with portrayals of the Other, whether in Heart of Darkness or in Tolkien's hordes of Orcs and Haradrim (Southmen): the Other, as an object of both fascination and fear, is, at best, romanticized as an innocent child of nature... and more often, as a horde of faceless, undifferentiated, animalistic, hyper-sexualized foes.

These kinds of "Others" are generally described visually, or depicted in images, as Conrad does with the "Africans" (Congolese) he sees from his steamboat: "But suddenly, as we struggled round a bend, there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling, under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage." Or, in a film like 300, the Other depicted as a sea of masks, never speaking (except perhaps through a translator), an overwhelming visual presence, distanced and detached from the viewer by the objectivity of the optic brain.

So though the Other of cryptic language is still an exotic, unknowable presence (or a dim, half-rendered world), it's an intelligent Other, because language is inherently interior and cerebral. You can mark this as one of the unique features of the cryptic mode of writing, that's difficult to replicate in almost any other medium: the ability to create an Other that is more sophisticated than the POV, more abstract and advanced, and that bears the unique qualities of detachment, artificiality, and absolute self-control.

In an age of accelerating complexity, technology that seems to take on a supervisory role in our lives, and emergence that seems to be overwhelming our traditional mechanisms of control, maybe the runaway intelligence of a cryptic passage is becoming more threatening than the cartoonish tantrums of an Orientalist horde. Welcome to the horror of a new millennium.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Crypticism 1: An introduction to a preoccupation

I've created the term "Crypticism" to describe my current fixation on things that are intentionally, aesthetically incoherent. I don't mean they literally can't be understood... rather, that they push the boundaries of basic comprehensibility. For a couple blog entries, I want to talk about this idea. I know I don't discuss books much, but for at least these entries, I'll be mostly lingering in the realm of literature, with occasional forays into film dialogue.

I like how this word -- "cryptic" -- is connected to the word "crypt," in that both have to do with obscurity and concealment. Here's the entry in the Online Etymology Dictionary:
1630s, "hidden, occult, mystical," from Late Latin crypticus, from Greek kryptikos "fit for concealing," from kryptos "hidden" (see crypt). Meaning "mysterious, enigmatic" is recorded from 1920. Related: Cryptically.
It's a strange and amazing analogy... that language is sort of like a cemetery, or a morgue, and that the meaning is the substance that's locked away. The image is totally reversed from our normal picture of language as a device for clarity, communication, and exposure. If, in cryptic language, the meaning is willfully buried, it's because it's lifeless and decaying, a decomposed remnant of what it might have been when it was embodied in vibrant, transparent language.

I don't have to be so Manichean about the whole thing, though... death is not evil, as the Tarot tells us. If we were really to exhume the bodies of our ex-countrymen, we would discover that they've taken on new life... the life of the Earth, with its vermin and bacteria, with its organic evolution of the flesh and the bones and the clothing those bodies were buried in. The "death" of meaning is not so much about its stasis, as it is about its renewal through dissolution. In cryptic language, meaning unfolds from its corporeal shell, returning to the Earth and being resurrected as new raw material.

Cryptic language is not merely a mistake or a trick to conceal incompetence. It is a powerful stylistic tool, a vehicle for flirting with meaning without inflicting the violence of closure. In cryptic language, we can see the borders of a whole world, an interior governed by intimate and alien logics, whose vocabulary only brushes up against consensus. The mode of cryptic language is can be a performance, a misdirection, or a glamour...  a way of preserving mystery and plurality while sculpting meaning... and it can also be ruthlessly authentic beyond any pretense of politeness. The result can be a truly multithreaded text, or it can be an empty shell, a vessel inviting the reader to pour themselves into it.

I've got two types of cryptic language in mind, and hopefully I'll get around to writing about both. The first type is stream-of-consciousness writing, which attempts to access the contents of the mind before it's been structured by language.

The second type of cryptic language I want to discuss is intentionally obscure intellectual exposition, which I've been running across more and more lately. There's probably a whole thesis to write on this topic, as it occurs in postmodern theory, occultism, and at the margins of specialized disciplines. Its use as a stylistic effect is becoming more common, and I don't know of a word that's been invented to describe it.

There are a few particular works that have inspired this little excursion. The first is the iconic, brilliant, hopefully immortal House of Leaves, written by Mark Danielweski. The second is the book I'm just now finishing, Cyclonopedia, which, like HoL, provides some examples of both types of cryptic language. The third is a book I got most of the way through, but didn't quite finish, entitled Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, that (in my reading) is a prime example of stream-of-consciousness writing.

If anybody knows of any writing or studies of language or journal articles that might be relevant, definitely let me know. I'm not an expert on these rhetorical modes, and my musings may be numbingly primitive, or wander far afield of the technical understandings. Still, when I get an idea into my head, I can't help but talk about it. Hope that's okay with everyone.

Friday, August 16, 2013

A letter of appreciation regarding Xenoblade Chronicles (Monolith Soft, 2012)

Dear friend who lent me Xenoblade Chronicles (Monolith Soft, 2012) for the Wii:

I have borrowed a lot of things from a lot of people, and... a confession... I've failed to give a lot of them back. (Dom, if you're reading this, I still have Skyward Sword, and it's totally safe, for whenever you want to play it again). Usually, it's because they didn't seem to care that much about them, but sometimes, it's not even that. Like, here's the exception that demonstrates the point:

I once borrowed my friend's copy of The Women's Room, by Marilyn French. It was her favorite book, and her copy was a special limited-run London edition, and she really wanted me to read it, so she gave it to me, exhorting me to take good care of it. I read about 3/4ths of the way through, and then left it on the Chinatown bus. I wanted to buy her another copy, but that edition was nowhere to be found, so I apologized profusely, and she eventually forgave me. It was one of my more shameful moments.

I kind of promised myself at the time that I would be more considerate of the feelings of those I borrowed things from, but still... I've been in the habit of absently holding onto things until somebody asks for them back. Being a Homer Simpson to everybody else's Ned Flanders is nothing to be proud of, and I try to do better when I can. Your case is an example.

You made it clear to me that you actually care about your games... you see yourself as a bit of a collector, and you avoid lending them out whenever possible. Nonetheless, I really wanted to try Xenoblade Chronicles. My wife and I bond over JRPG's, and we'd heard great things about this one, and it was upwards of $150 to buy it, so it was really a lovely thing when you agreed to lend it to me. That's why I wanted to fulfill my end of the bargain, and take care of that disc, and hold myself to getting it back to you, without forcing me to bug you about it.

So I did all that. The day after we finished it, I put it in its case and gave it back to you, like a regular normal decent human being.

And what irony, then, what karmic poetry, that this one time that I've really made an effort to be responsible about a media artifact, it's the one time that parting with that artifact has really hurt. Because this experience you gave me was brilliant, it was luminous, it was life-changing. My wife and I logged 185 hours in Xenoblade, and we would have kept playing indefinitely (thank God it wasn't procedurally generated, like Nethack!). There were seven playable characters, and I fell in love with all of them, including the cutesy comic-relief (Riki's dignity was preserved by the fact that he was a father and a sensitive family man, remixed as a chibby tribal fluff-ball). When you ask me to name my favorite character, I just list them all, debating with myself, until you get tired of waiting for me and go get a sandwich.

It was the same deal with the landscapes. Was my favorite location the great temple in Sartorl marsh? The glowing shards of Valyk Mountain at night, with its sparse piano background music? Was it the wild, unexplored prairie around Colony 9 and Colony 6? The Makna Waterfall, with its rainbow cascading down with the water? Every location had something that I remember now as sublime, almost mystical.

As I recount these bits and pieces of this epic game, I remember them fondly, with a nostalgia that seems inappropriate considering I experienced them all less than a few months ago. The nostalgia is most salient when I think back to that first moment with Shulk and Reyn, the two intrepid main characters, as they make the decision to leave their home colony and wander the Bionis in search of the monster that attacked their families and friends. This is the moment when the vast game-world opens up, and you feel a rush of freedom and release that's so poignant, it goes beyond anticipation and echoes with a pang of melancholy. It recalls, in a certain way, the departure from Midgar in Final Fantasy VII, but I think Xenoblade nails it even more perfectly, because of how warm and familiar Colony 9 has already come to feel by that time.

Look, all I'm saying is that it was a great game. One of the greatest, I'd say... tied with Final Fantasy VI for my favorite JRPG ever. I know this sounds like a guilt trip for letting me give it back to you, but I want to invert that reading: what you're actually getting here is a massive thank-you, a final, 800-word appreciation for letting us play this breathtaking game. It's a bit of poetry, I think, that we got this experience on loan from a work-friend, and now, that work-friend will have a little part of my soul, stacked in among his Wii games. So please take good care of that.

Thanks again,

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Being the Body: Henri Bergson and embodiment in Pacific Rim (2013)

Giant Robots everywhere in my life right now... having spent the last month or two playing Xenoblade Chronicles, I've been in the presence of some of the largest robot(-like entities) in any fiction I've come across. In that game, you guide an ensemble of heroes, drawn from various fantasy races, through a landscape entirely situated on the body of a massive humanoid creature, large enough that whole continents can protrude from its limbs and tissue. It places you, the protagonists, on the scale of bacteria, which is a pretty amazing speculative premise.

And then, of course, there's the robot-kaiju film on everybody's tongue: Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim.

As usual (or unusual, in the recent waning of my productivity), I'm going to use the film as a jumping-off point for some thematic observations. If you want to know how I liked it, I liked it. It was a fun, positive, humanistic action film that tapped into our adolescent monster worship without treating us with contempt. It was rich with detail and draped in vibrant production design, and its characters were glowing, sympathetic protagonists, free of cynicism, except for occasional comic effect.

In terms of big themes, the film plays a lot with ideas of embodiment and the relationship between mind and matter. There is, in fact, a particular philosopher who explored these topics at length, and his work dovetails nicely with the devices in Pacific Rim. His name was Henri Bergson... and in recalling the film's motifs, I might actually go so far as to say the universe was kind of Bergsonian. Maybe talking about the parallels will help someone understand Bergson better, or maybe it'll shed some light on the film's universe. I'm lucky... for me, the guy working through these concepts, it did both.

I'm not intimately familiar with Bergson, but from reading a chunk of his book Matter and Memory, I've come to understand and appreciate at least part of his philosophical project. Bergson was a grounded, practical philosopher, looking to dissolve some of the paradoxes that have infected philosophical thinking about the mind and body... in particular, he felt the "realism versus idealism" dichotomy was based on faulty logic, a consequence of our bad habit of seeing the "mind" as an isolated, self-sufficient entity whose primary purpose is passive reflection and knowledge-production.

Bergson took the rather radical position that "matter" should actually be seen as "images" -- halfway between the conceptual objects of the mind and the raw physical objects of the external world -- and that the universe is a system of images interacting with one another. One of these images, of course, is our body, which breathes air, kicks sand, runs away from danger, and reacts in various other ways to its external stimuli. To Bergson, the body is continuous with the outside universe, and the "mind" is just a part of the body that slows down that process of stimulus and response, so that more pathways and branches of causation can be opened up between each stimulus and its resulting action(s).

To Bergson, the way the mind does this is through memory. Most perception, he claims, is actually just memories, conjured up spontaneously to organize the raw data that's always coming in through our senses.

It's easy to apply this framework to the Jaeger, the giant robots in Pacific Rim, which are piloted by multiple human pilots to fight the giant monsters called Kaiju. The body is just an image, a construct that reacts to certain stimuli (responding to a jo staff strike by parrying)... the Jaeger is an extension of this body, an image to contain the image, that scales the body up to the size of its monstrous opponent. Deep inside this construct, the human presence provides a narrow but critical function: it allows the responses to be delayed, multifaceted, and complex. It does this by tapping into and intertwining the memories of two pilots, the twin homunculi of this experiment in embodiment.

Bergson never uses the term embodiment, as far as I know, but it's highly relevant in this context. It's a noteworthy aspect of Bergson's writing that he sees the mind and the body as essentially inseparable... seeing a flash of light is as much an action of the eye as it is the action of the mind, and shielding the eyes is as much a physical function as it is a behavioral decision. Bergson claimed that the rational behavior of the brain is essentially identical to the unconscious impulses of the spinal cord... it's just that the brain slows the process down, so the response can account for more stimuli at once.

It should be noted that the humans piloting the Jaeger are entirely different from the humans in their native form. Operating on a different scale, using a different set of tools, requires extraordinary adaptation by the human mind, to a point where it becomes a totally new kind of entity. To explain why this is true, take a moment and think about the movement of the Jaeger and the human pilots.

If the Jaeger were moving at exactly the speed of their human pilots -- action for action, a second and a half for each step, a half-second for a punch -- they would be moving insanely fast, accelerating faster than any airplane, to a degree that would probably challenge credibility of physical laws. For a human, a punch that takes 0.5 seconds has to cover about 2 feet of distance. For a Jaeger, that same punch has to cover... what, 60 yards? A punch that moved an average of 300 feet per second... that's silly, right? That's not just me? That's why the Jaeger always look like they're moving in slow motion... the filmmakers had to make it clear that their every gesture covered an enormous distance, and it would probably take an unnatural amount of time.

Of course, the pilots could slow down their movements, right? Just get in sync with their massive avatars? Yeah, but this would get pretty weird-looking in fast-paced action sequences... every punch taking 4 to 8 seconds for the people inside the Jaeger cockpits. It really was better for everyone that the film used editing to gloss over this discrepancy.

Anyway, what does this have to do with Bergson? Oh, right! It's the fact that cognitive activity... reaction times, impulses, decisions, the timing and rhythm of movements... is not some kind of isolated process, separate from the physical reality it governs. Thinking is done with the body, as well as the mind. Just as humans have to think on a smaller, faster scale than Jaeger and Kaiju, so it is with other creatures: houseflies, despite having very small brains, have to think on a much smaller, faster scale than humans. When we're going in for a swat, we probably look as slow to the fly as the Jaeger did to us. That's why they can get out of the way so effectively.

If that's not enough brain-twisting epistemology for you, Bergson went deeper into how the body actually processes this data. Turns out, he says, the body turns sense data into actions mainly through a process of discernment... it's actually a highly efficient machine for filtering input. Whereas every other image in the universe -- every rock and leaf and air molecule -- has to react to the whole universe all at once, responding equally to every effect, the body is an image that can choose to react to some stimuli and ignore others. In fact, most stimuli don't even reach us, since they have no relevance to us and don't affect any of our five senses. Of the effects that DO reach us, we are extremely good at sorting it out and only letting the most relevant data into our consciousness. We are reductive machines, organizing all input according to our faculties.

I think it's very possible that this is what the human pilots are doing for their Jaeger, as well: processing all the input from various artificial sensory organs, prioritizing it, and reducing the possible responses to a manageable subset. This is something a computer could certainly do, but come on... nature developed the human mind as the best possible computer for this type of thing, complete with ethical impulses, survival instincts, and carefully-calibrated judgment. The only problem, of course, is that there is always too much data coming into those spinal conduits for a single human mind to effectively filter. Thus, two humans... two bodies, complete with all their cognitive patterns... two filters for reducing and streamlining that massive flow of sensory data. There you go: a possible interpretation of the cryptic phrase "reducing the neural load."

The rest of the stuff in Pacific Rim... the love story, the World War II references, the dubious feminist politics... the other critics can cover that stuff. We can all decide what aspect of this cinematic experience affects us, using these beautiful, strange, reductive brains of ours. For me, it was the subtleties and complexities of embodiment and shared consciousness, and trying to figure out what that might mean. It happens that the best answers I've found are the ones furnished by Henri Bergson, back in 1896.

That's pretty weird, right?

Monday, June 10, 2013

On BioShock Infinite: The Self, The Shadow, The Other

I did an analysis of BioShock Infinite, the recent FPS-cum-art-game from Ken Levine at Irrational Games. It can be found over at Berfrois, an always-excellent repository of essays and criticism. If you've played the gaem, or you're curious and don't mind spoilers, go give it a read. A selection:
On a thematic level, BioShock Infinite‘s tropes may be well-worn – it taps into familiar material – but it does reconfigure and invigorate these tropes, delving deeper into them than a work of art has attempted in a long time. These motifs, as articulated by psychology and existentialism, are the Shadow and the Other. They’ve been used in video games forever, generally in the shallowest of ways, but in BioShock Infinite, they’re resuscitated and supercharged, and their primal power gives an uncanny intensity to those aforementioned emotional moments.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

On *Mein Blog*: My favorite album

Back in May, I wrote a reflection on my favorite album for Evan's blog. I chose the Rx Bandits' The Resignation. If you want to give it a read, here it is. A selection:
So here's what came together to make Resignation the album that it was: the Bandits had found some success in experimentation, so they decided to really push their creative boundaries. At the same time, they discovered a dense pocket of rage and frustration that their neo-ska-punk groove hadn't been able to relieve. So all at once, they exploded, both technically and emotionally, and the result is a really intense record, an angsty grit-toothed white noise at the confluence of all their circumstances and influences. It was a bit of a perfect storm of an album.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

My Capsule Review of Like Someone in Love

Back in March, I did a capsule for Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love for 366 Weird Movies. If you're curious about the film, feel free to go check it out. A selection:
One of the great things about Like Someone in Love is how it demonstrates the strength of this kind of ambiguous, minimalist filmmaking: within its naturalistic treatment of its subjects, it creates huge fertile spaces for the proliferation of symbolic meanings and psychological resonance. It’s shot painstakingly, with the camera always intensely aware of its space. Doorways, reflections, confined interiors, obstructions, and the space outside the frame: all these become Kiarostami’s playthings. In his control of objects and the camera’s eye, he is reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick, whose style was similarly deliberate, ostensibly naturalistic, but profoundly self-aware.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Holy Motors (2012) as a success, even in its failures

After yet another hour-long session surfing NetFlix, trying to decide on an Instant film to watch, I settled on Holy Motors, a big-spectacle plus high-concept art film that showed in an unexpectedly wide range of theaters here in NYC in 2012. Having synthesized a number of write-ups and synopses, I pretty much knew what to expect. I enjoyed it. Also, because this is me, I have thoughts.

I have to give props to this film for its wild abandon and its vibrant vision of the world. First of all, it's a tantrum of artistic release... second, it's a metaphorical universe, built from scratch, where the substructures (the production, the preparation, the paperwork, the assignments, the transportation) are cunning, but banal -- a superfluous reality, stagnating beneath the fantastic world of the imagination. As a call to arms of spectacle, the movie works great.

The whole film's tone and approach is sort of summed up in the crazy light-show in the big studio green-room... it starts off goofy and sarcastic, so self-consciously ridiculous that you can just feel the delighted mocking of the whole production crew behind every oversold ninja flip. But when the latex-suited female enters, it drifts across the line into seriousness, or at least earnestly sexy weirdness, as a way of informing the audience: yes, I mock, but I also genuinely adore the power of this medium to make you feel things. And then, bam, it ends, and we're on to the next thing.

Also, I couldn't have asked for a better interlude than the wild musical romp at the center of the film, a sequence reminiscent of Fellini and Gogo Bordello.

The misgivings I had about Holy Motors were actually similar to the ones I had about another 2012 film, the Wachowskis' Cloud Atlas. In short: all those little vignettes, while presenting lovely tributes to the various permutations of cinematic storytelling, had to be reduced to abbreviations and imprints, lo-fi echoes of great ideas. I know this was unavoidable, given the constraints of the feature-film and the mission statements of these omnibus films. Still, seeing (in Holy Motors) an isolated fragment of a Jodorowskiish beauty-and-the-beast, or (in Cloud Atlas) a quick condensation of an hyperkinetic postmodern fable of love and liberation and cloning... it just serves to draw attention to its own incompleteness, to give us a cropped window into a larger, more beautiful film that we'll never get to see.

The problem isn't just because of time available. It's because to really feel the full force of a cinematic vision, we have to inhabit it without distraction. In these two films, we are wandering across time and space and genre, so we never get to engage with a single fictional universe.

I guess, even in its failure to fully evoke any particular universe, both of these films are successful in communicating the meta-message they seem to be aiming for, at least partially. As much as self-contained fictions, they are essays on the irreducible multiplicity of cinema, on the impossibility of turning a great film into a small part of a big ol' omnibus. Both films are somewhat less than the sum of their parts, I think, but that the failure itself contributes to another message: isn't it beautiful, being in control of this medium that's so rich, we can't even get its stories to fit together on a single canvas? If that's what you guys were saying, Leos Carax and the Wachowskis, then okay, cool. I got it.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

So I entered the Tumblr ecosystem

So I now have an active Tumblr account (rather than the TWO I was never using, having variously signed up for them and then never signed in again). This means I've started engaging with the Tumblr ecosystem, as prompted by certain interesting Tumblr feeds I've run across (Discover Games and Notational being the ones that jump to mind). It's another step down the road that Digital Media in general are guiding us along: lots of content being created, recycled, passed along, an endless stream of fleeting observations draining into an ocean of obsolescent data.

I have public, cultivated accounts in tons of social networks -- here in Blogger, plus Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr... plus ones I've let slip a bit in Google+, Vimeo, DeviantArt, MUBI, Reddit, and 500px... plus totally outdated ones in the junkyard of social networks: MySpace, OKCupid, and Friendster. Of all these, none makes me feel like the whole world of culture is collapsing, quite so much as Tumblr.

I don't mean collapsing like dying a rotten death (only YouTube comments make me feel like that). I mean collapsing, like, all texts are running together, all boundaries and structures are vanishing. Every opinion immediately elicits its own counter-opinion, arguments evolve past recognition before they even begin, meaning doesn't even pass through a filter of authenticity before it's subsumed by irony. Every person is a consumer, and a curator, and finally a creator, of every form of media, and there are no valuable criteria for categorizing or assessing any cognitive artifact. The whole universe of ideas has become the half-formed subject of one giant text, articulated by an amateur, and read briefly and passed over by the universe.

One aspect of this is that certain privileged processing modules are now at the mercy of the whole world (or at least, the whole world of Western consumers, which is the privileged position I'm allowing myself to inhabit, for the moment). Everybody is a writer, and everybody is a photographer, and everybody is a curator. The "curation" part is kind of understandable, I guess... it was only in the 60's that curators of content started seeing their task as an art in itself. And it's long been the dream of photography to become a completely democratized, ubiquitous technology -- from the very first discussion of the topic, the engineers of the process have talked about the day when every person would have a camera and the ability to print and archive images of their lives.

Writing? Well, writing has always been sort of a democratizing force, literacy being the baseline for a society to reach full participatory capitalist actualization. The democratization of that technology has been going on since Gutenberg.

At any rate, it seems that these technologies are the most fully affected by the collapse of our cultural hierarchy. Accepted cultural standards for judging writing have all but dissolved, leaving an orgy of subjective speculation and unsubstantiated pointing and shouting: the critical hegemony toppling under the stampede of frivolous public recognition. Something similar has happened for photography... anyone with a camera has the chance to be noticed, based on an indecipherable tangle of differentiating factors. There are so many excellent amateurs, so many outlets, so many opportunities for discovery of new work, that the highest rewards seem to be a matter of the lottery of circumstance... the right person noticing the right picture at the right time, and uploading it to the right social network.

Of course, it's possible that this is the fairest way to process all these texts: as long as everyone is a writer and a photographer, it's inevitable that everyone is also a curator and a critic.

It doesn't seem to have touched the older arts, though, the arts that require a deeper intervention of craft. Not everyone is a painter, or sculptor, or dancer, or even musician (although practitioners of popular music are bordering on it). Those statuses are still reserved for people who have put in the sweat to master their physical connection to the medium: their gestures, their ability to see in two dimensions, or to move gracefully in three. It seems like these arts of the eye and body and mind will certainly last.

What's that, me? Are you saying you think the reproducible arts -- the imprinting art of photography, the repeatable, reprintable, abstract art of writing -- may vanish, collapsing into an undifferentiated digital singularity? I hope not, cause I'm not much of a painter or dancer. Still, it sometimes seems like Tumblr, these curatorial white-water rapids that shake and upset our creations as they rush to the ocean, can't help but blur the dignity of these most recent textual forms.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

VIDEOGAMES and the Liberation of Content from Medium

Darius Kazemi published this presentation called FUCK VIDEOGAMES, adapted from a presentation he gave in March. Other commentators, like Ian Bogost, have already summed it up, but I'll try to paraphrase it, too, to show that I understood it. What Darius basically says is: "Do not fetishize video games as an artistic medium. Just because there's a lot of new stuff going on in this domain doesn't always make it the right way to express a certain idea. Furthermore, the presence of a certain indie community of sexiness or support should not dictate your choice of medium, either."

This was followed by a response from Liz Ryerson, which reads as rather conflicted about this whole issue. She is a person who is passionate about gaming, and about critical studies of gaming, but here, she is also critical of colleagues who place video games on a pedestal of artistic expression. She also struggles with the question of authenticity in the art-game universe, which she remains uncertain about, right down to the final passage:
"we say we love Cart Life but we don't actually want to play it. it's just there to make us feel good. we'd much rather sink our teeth into some flashy, mass-marketed sludge by an egomaniacal dilettante."
I think Liz Ryerson is conflicted (I welcome a correction on that, if one is necessary). I am not conflicted. I am not conflicted in my attitudes toward art, or toward videogames as art, or toward people who make a creative decision to express themselves through video games. I am not conflicted about loving BioShock Infinite, nor about loving Howling Dogs, or Digital: A Love Story. I am not conflicted about my comparative indifference toward Super Mario 64, or toward Rat Chaos. I am a hardline pluralist -- I accept anything on its own terms, and that gives me space to articulate criticism, and let my personal favorites float to the top.

I realize there is a difference between good art and bad art, and occasionally, no matter how deep you dig, all you find is shit. However, whereas some public personalities are intensely focused on asserting their autonomy in separating good art from bad art, I am focused much more on my ambivalence about it. I recognize the limits of my own radically subjective POV when it comes to art criticism, and when I discuss artworks -- even in a hostile way -- I always tread lightly, keeping my own limitations at the forefront of my mind.

So anyway, let's talk about that: knowing the difference between good art and bad art, and being hung up on that difference. This is an idea that goes back forever, of course, figuring prominently in the concerns of Aristotle and Kant, and frequently correlated with the definition of "beauty." I think it's a distinction worth making... I'd even go into it myself, except I don't have a university tenureship and 15 years to spare.

Instead, I'd like to advance another idea: that the evaluation and judgment of art has taken over our discourse so completely, it's led many of us -- the very people committed to art as an autonomous domain, like Darius and Liz -- to start treating art as a commodity, at the expense of its own integrity. After all, as soon as you get into this discussion of what's good and what's bad, what's working and what's not, whose criteria is the best, who deserves to be heard, who's doin' it wrong, you're slipping more and more into a mind frame where art is reduced to something valued, a token of exchange and utility.

All this talk of whether videogames are "the most appropriate medium to express your idea" is a symptom of commodification run rampant. Communication is not necessarily art; Art can have a message, and express a point of view, and clarify the world, but when the artistic impulse is secondary to the "communication" impulse, then you have journalism or propaganda.

If you take away the idea (I would call it a "constraint") that every medium has some "ideal purpose," a whole new creative landscape opens up. The fact is, there is a long history of artists stretching the limits of their medium. Painters aspire to photo-realism, photographers aspire to abstraction, poets use words visually, and musicians draw the descriptive meanings out of melodies. The sort of prescriptivism that says, "Do not use games as a means of expression if it doesn't provide the ideal outcome" is itself a mild type of formal fascism. Same, on a broader level, with Darius's prescription: "Don't make art in videogame form if you're frustrated with that process." Who says any good art brings peace to the artist?

Note how natural it was to use those terms: painters and poets, novelists, musicians, composers, sculptors, choreographers, filmmakers. Our common language exposes the anemia of all this talk about "what medium is the best for your idea." When it comes down to it, in almost every single case in history, the artist has chosen their medium based on their own personality, their own background and proclivities, their own skills and sympathies. The medium comes first, so that the idea can be sculpted into shape. Perhaps Mozart had many stories he wanted to write... the fact is, he had to find a way to turn those stories into music, or he had to live with them privately. The medium is not chosen because it fits some abstract, fully-formed idea that needs expression.

One reason for this is that CRAFT IS IMPORTANT. Even if you work in Twine, or in some vague postmodern medium like "multimedia installation," you have to hone your skills through years of experience and in-depth understanding of precedent. Emily Short said of Howling Dogs, "I came away thinking howling dogs should be an assigned text of study for people considering writing link-based fictions." This is an attestation: a medium is not just an empty vessel, it is a process and a commitment... potentially, a whole lifetime of study.

Given the demands of any serious art form, I can't really take seriously Darius's idea that an artist who can't seem to fit their idea into a game should just pick a more suitable medium. You may as well tell them to just think of a new idea. Both prescriptions are valid, but trivial... what you should really do is try to make that bizarre game, watch yourself fail, and move on to the next thing. That's the only way to stumble upon success.

It's worth going back to a passage in Liz's piece, which I think deserves to be highlighted:
"an issue that i see underlying the whole piece that is never really expressed explicitly - it's the case with many "gamers" and techies in general that so many who have constructed their lives and identities through videogames often have a hard time accepting that there are other valid means of expressing or legitimizing their own emotions outside of technology. the world of technology is, after all, what they know. they want to make personal videogames because they understand how videogames work (having played them a lot) and that they can express deep emotions through play, but they don't have the kind corresponding experience with other forms of art to understand how those work. this lack of understanding combined with videogames' newness means they get raised to the top of the pantheon as the all-encompassing, clearly superior, art-form-to-end-all-art-forms."
This parallels Slide 13 in Darius's presentation, where he says, "Some people make games because they grew up with games and always saw themselves as the kind of person who would one day make games. ... I don't think this is a very good reason."

These passages make an important point, but in my opinion, they also overplay it. Liz and Darius both essentially explain how people choose their mediums... they decide to take up a medium that's been an important part of their lives, that they value sentimentally and intuitively, often for totally illogical, circumstantial reasons. Someone who has a true mastery of an art form must have a personal relationship with that art form. Art is personal. The medium chooses its master, not vice versa.

Granted, I don't think you can ever make great art without finding some way to bridge the gap between the personal/anecdotal, and the mythic/universal. Still, I hold to my claim: Art must be personal. There is no art of indifference.

And then, as often happens, both writers get to the point where they start to impugn the motivations of the culture-makers they're criticizing. Darius says, "Some people make games because games are cool, or sexy." I'm sure there are people like this out there, but I doubt there are very many people who would cop to this as their primary motivation (can I see some citations, maybe?), so it's really an assumption about artists' motives on the part of the author. If a game designer DOES say this outright, it probably means they're not serious about games, or about art.

There's a similar line of vague disapproval in Liz's piece, where she says, "making a Twine game does not divorce you from all of the trappings of videogame culture and substitute it with something more pure, and it certainly doesn't absolve you of artistic responsibility as the creator." And earlier in the piece, she says that in the mind of gamers, videogames "get raised to the top of the pantheon as the all-encompassing, clearly superior, art-form-to-end-all-art-forms." Again, who has actually claimed these things? Did they put it in writing? Because imputing these feelings to indie gamers, who usually just love videogames and want to use them as a mode of expression, is kind of unfair. Most game designers I know have not manufactured some theoretical podium and placed video games upon it. I don't think the "art game" crowd is particularly guilty of that, either... even right down to the "egomaniacal dilettante" Ken Levine.

Liz talks briefly about Dys4ia, and that's an almost perfect example of what I'm talking about. Liz gives a vague account of the positive things that Dys4ia has done: "many wonderful things for many people." More precisely, it expressed some ideas about personal experience, identity, and gender in ways that I haven't seen in any other piece of art. However, Liz questions the use of videogames as a medium, saying she thought it needed too much explanation, and asking whether critics are really smart enough to get the big ideas that the game is "about."

Aside: Liz's claim that there are too many captions, but that the audience might not understand the broader message without the captions... put these two things together, and they cancel each other out. Assuming Anna Anthropy wanted to reach some gamers with a clear message about the experience of transition, I'd say that this thing, which Liz might not be sure is "working," is simply what I would call an intentional, effective creative decision.

There are a lot more creative decisions here that we can discuss. You can abstract Dys4ia into a game "about" transitioning and dislocation and frustration, and reduced to that synopsis, there's no particular reason it works better as a game. You might have been able to write a personal essay, or create a series of photographs or illustrations, with almost the same verbal content in the captions, and made something "about" the same thing. But the choice of videogames as a medium has an incredible influence over the whole experience! No matter how much you stretch the limits of personal writing, you never give your audience any agency, aside from reading through to the next word; the ludic Dys4ia gives the player agency, and then when they form a goal, or devise a plan of action, it frustrates them, reducing their agency in the situation to zero in a very immediate (dare I say "phenomenological"?) kind of way.

There's no strict reason it had to be a game. There's also no strict reason it had to be minimalist, or use the musical cues it did, or frame its issues in the intimate biographical way it did. But all these choices are justifiable, if you're the type of pedantic person who demands that... and more importantly, they all work together to create the whole experience, which is unmistakably one of a kind.

Now, in the interest of not being a purely pedantic douche, I'm doing to step back here and revisit Darius's presentation. When I let go of my confrontational impulse, I can see what he was saying, and all the ways I could agree with him. Seeing an echo-chamber of artsy indie game types, all trying to pile into the same creative vehicle... watching the art of game design become a fad, and lose its authenticity and freshness... it makes sense to draw attention to those red flags. If videogames-as-art has become a bandwagon covered in hip hangers-on, it's probably a good idea to shake some of them off.

Still, I think this deserved a response, because it propagates certain negative attitudes that are increasingly infecting all cultural production... for instance, the attitude of pervasive, dismissive judgement and disapproval, and the assertion of arbitrary standards of "taste" that frustrate aspiring artists without really helping them very much. And as I said at the beginning of the piece, I think this hard-assed approach to criticism tends to frame art as value-equation and commodity, and undermine the autonomy of art, its significance as a site of introversion and experimentation.

Maybe FUCK VIDEOGAMES makes sense, but if so, we have to say FUCK ALL MEDIA in equal measure. And this flippant profanity needs to be intoned in the spirit of openness, rather than judgment.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

On Soderbergh and Present Shock

I'm kind of fascinated by the beginning of Steven Soderbergh's piece on the current state of cinema, in which he talks about that moment of paralysis when you feel like every framework, every intelligible construct of ideas, is all collapsing on itself. He describes feeling this way on a Jet Blue flight:
"I get this wave of – not panic, it’s not like my heart started fluttering – but I had this sense of, am I going insane? Or is the world going insane – or both? [...] Something is going on – something that can be measured is happening, and there has to be. When people are more outraged by the ambiguous ending of The Sopranos than some young girl being stoned to death, then there’s something wrong. [...] So I think that life is sort of like a drumbeat. It has a rhythm and sometimes it’s fast and sometimes it’s slower, and maybe what’s happening is this drumbeat is just accelerating and it’s gotten to the point where I can’t hear between the beats anymore and it’s just a hum."
This is just quoted for quick reference... you should really read the whole thing, in which he spins out this story of feeling lost in the feedback of the current moment. It's sort of like I feel when my blood sugar is low, and all the external stimuli starts to get dim and disconnected, and my inner monologue gets distorted and amplified into a sort of dizzy paranoia. Soderbergh refers us back to Douglas Rushkoff, who spoke of something called Present Shock:
" 'When there’s no linear tie, how is a person supposed to figure out what’s going on? There’s no story, no narrative to explain why things are the way things are. Previously distinct causes and effects collapse into one another. There’s no time between doing something and seeing the result. Instead the results begin accumulating and influencing us before we've even completed an action. And there’s so much information coming in at once from so many different sources that there’s simply no way to trace the plot over time'. That’s the hum I’m talking about. And I mention this because I think it’s having an effect on all of us."
I feel this more and more frequently, as the discourse gets more discordant and amplified, and I let myself get caught up in it. I especially feel it in any situation where people tend to have really strong opinions... politics is a good example, especially when I let myself get perversely, voyeuristically drawn to the distorted universe of right-wing blogs and MRA activism and stuff.

I also feel this dizziness when I fall into the cacophony of reviews that follows any major game or film release that I care about. I'm thrown off balance by the way people I very much respect -- activists, intellectuals, friends -- can see the same things I see, but be affected by them in the opposite way. What makes it even stranger is that these are always people with whom I share a fundamental premise: that art/media can be legitimately judged according to some higher standard, that there's some accessible criteria for what makes something "good art." If I didn't feel that way, I would end up in a relativistic world, where I saw every opinion as subjective, and never had any reason to listen to what anyone else said about... well, anything, I guess.

So we all believe it standards, in the noble act of criticism and assessment of art, in the higher value of beauty and meaning. Yet, when we consider the middlebrow films and games, I find that so many of these people hate the things I love, and they seem to have arrived at their opinions by focusing on things that I feel are unimportant, and waving away the things that I feel are the soul of the work. And on some level, I don't know what license I have to say, "Those are not the things that are important. You are wrong." On some level, I contain a relativism fights against my own ability to form an opinion.

Of course, it doesn't help that so many opinions in modern media (especially bloggy media) are wrapped in sarcasm and self-righteousness shields. The strongest voices, the ones that now completely dominate the discourse, are the ones who laugh at disagreement, who mock the opposition, who treat the whole world like it's their own echo chamber. When I read their writing, it no longer feels like I live in a shared world... it feels like the world is a tiny elevator that a hundred people are competing for. The way all these opposite and adverse opinions overlap... the way the discourse is distorted by disruptive acts of rage and mockery and sarcasm... the way everyone seems to react defensively to any threat of a challenge or disagreement... the way every minor point of contention flares up into anger and cruelty in a flash, with no escalation whatsoever... it turns everything into noise.

It's a weird topic, almost too personal for me, despite its cerebral nature. I'm glad Soderbergh gave me something to read about it, something to relate to, so I could write this rambling blog post... it lets me approach that ocean of intellectual vertigo, without quite letting myself fall in.

For the record -- and this is relevant to this post, even if it sounds like a non sequitur -- I will dearly and desperately miss Roger Ebert's writing.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Major Arcana #16: THE TOWER - Lars Von Trier

This is the seventeenth in a series of blog posts discussing major figures in film and literature, based on the Major Arcana of the Tarot. I'll be using the 21 Major Arcana of the standard Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck. For some more background on the deck's history and its elusive role in popular culture, see this post from HiLowBrow, which is a good primer on the Tarot, and pretty fascinating in its own right.


THE TOWER: Lars Von Trier

As two troubling cards follow one another in the Major Arcana, so two provocateur directors follow each other in my list of associations. If the Fool follows the path laid out by the trumps, he has just experienced the turmoil of self-bondage with the Devil, and now, with the Tower, he hits rock bottom: the structure he has been building for himself is collapsing, and he will have to emerge from the rubble, or be washed away entirely by his trials.

Von Trier and Gaspar Noe both trade in the psychology of anxiety and crisis, but their approach is strikingly different. Gaspar Noe's films feel undeniably like punishment... there is very little in them that feels enlightening, or feels like any sort of opportunity for growth. The send the viewer through the ringer, and then the credits roll, and we take a deep breath and hope a pint of ice cream will salve our wounds. Von Trier, on the other hand, builds his films around crises that are part of a broader journey. They are still often depressing and nihilistic, but they also reveal something redemptive about their main characters, even if they're ultimately broken.

Of all Von Trier's movies, Anti-Christ is probably his most pessimistic -- it feels the most like a product of the Devil, leaving only ruins of its protagonists. The only enlightenment to be had in Anti-Christ is the knowledge that both He and She are reaping the consequences of their own sins. But Trier's more recent film, Melancholia, is more hopeful, even though it's a meditation on depression and despair.

In Melancholia, there is a binary system of support and collapse: first, there is the collapse of Justine's personality, as she sinks into self-destruction and sabotages her own wedding. With her sister's help, she eventually rises from the rubble of her life, reclaiming her composure. As she does this, there is a larger collapse: the collapse of the planet Earth, which is being devoured by a wayward planet, an agent of the end of the world. This is a crisis from whence there can be no recovery; but Justine has already looked into this abyss, and she alone is equipped to face down a future without hope. Through Justine, the small family has an opportunity to find peace, and even dignity, in the shadow of an approaching cataclysm.

Von Trier's emotional machinations are subtle, but they are multi-dimensional. His preoccupation with human behavior in the shadow of crisis goes back to his earlier films, with Breaking the Waves as an especially poignant example. In Breaking the Waves, Bess must face the crisis of her husband's paralysis, occurring just after they have been married. In a misguided attempt to heal him, Bess sacrifices herself through perversity and self-denial. And though the whole edifice of her peaceful life collapses, the film ends on a surreally redemptive note -- a sign that in the ruins of the fallen tower, some people, at least can stand back up.

And where Gaspar Noe's films let darkness consume us, Van Trier's films shake the tower we're cowering in, until the structure starts to topple and lets in the first shafts of light.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Walking Dead: On Rick and the Governor in Arrow on the Doorpost

So The Walking Dead is churning out new episodes, new zombies and little twists and candid conversations and artificially dirty sweaty actors, and there's a lot to talk about with regards to the way it's written and paced. It's a messy show, afflicted by constant inconsistencies and missteps, and in a way, that aspect makes it even more interesting to talk about than a deliberate, immaculate show like Mad Men, or its widely acclaimed AMC brother, Breaking Bad.

After all, we can trust the critics when they tells us what's good, because they tend to all settle into agreement on the strengths of the show. Mad Men is good for its casting and production, its slow and discerning character evolution, its moments of neorealistic honesty, its self-conscious critique of its own nostalgic charm. What's bad about it? Who cares? It's not about those things. But with a show like The Walking Dead, there's this massive subjective tangle of opinions around the show... every merit and flaw is a point of contention. In any particular episode, a scene will hated by an army of fans, at the same time that select others see it as the redeeming point in an episode.

In last week's episode -- Arrow on the Doorpost -- you can go through the important scenes, one by one, and each one will have a significant number of bitter critics, but also a small group of enthusiasts who claim it's the best scene in the episode. Does the confrontation between Rick and the Governor drag on, or does it give subtle shade to their characters? Does the bromance between the henchmen provide a moment of welcome frankness and levity, or is it a crap cliché without any sticking power? Does the final scene give an extra layer of gravity to Rick's moral reasoning, or does it just ruin his credibility in the eyes of the viewer? It seems like the only thing people can all agree on is that they hate The Governor (in a good way), they hate Andrea (in a bad way), and they approve of Michonne and Herschel.

One of the reasons for this endless, widespread controversy on every nuance is that these characters show striking inconsistency, to the point where they seem to be mere plot devices, rather than characters. I mean, I don't entirely put stock in that criticism, as I'll get to... but I can certainly see where it's coming from. There have been long stretches of show, like almost the entirety of Season 2, where there didn't seem to be any guiding motivation or intelligible development for these characters at all. The show lost all its momentum, and at the same time, it lost any sense of intimacy that it might have used to cover its weakness.

In the last episode, Clear, there was a marked (I'd even say "massive") improvement in this tendency. The episode-spanning objective was simple: check out Rick's old hometown, collect guns and ammo. This framework allowed the writers to steer clear of the convoluted "Prison versus Woodbury" mess and focus on a few particular points of tension and backstory, and they used that opportunity to reinforce some important characters: Michonne as a struggling ally -- Carl as a kid still working on growing up and dealing with trust and authority issues -- and Rick walking that line between guarded optimism and pragmatic ruthlessness.

Back to this week, there were a lot of questions about pacing, but all the questions about coherence -- about the realism of the characters' behavior -- seemed to center on one question: why, after all the bad blood, were these men able to sit down and talk in private, albeit tensely and unproductively? Why didn't the Governor, being a demonstrably ruthless tyrant, just shoot Rick? And why didn't Rick, being a ferocious pragmatist who's convinced of the Governor's evilness, just shoot him immediately and stop the war from happening?

The Onion AV Club asks the first form of that question here: "Why the hell doesn't the Governor just kill Rick when he has the chance? He's demonstrated he has no compunction about betraying his enemies' trust when it suits him. I guess he might be worried that Daryl would put up a fight if Rick went down, but I still don't understand his motivation here. But then, that's nothing new."

To me, this question is less baffling than its reverse. The Governor doesn't kill Rick for a couple reasons... first, he doesn't entirely trust his henchmen to keep him safe from Herschel and Daryl, so he doesn't want to light the fuse that leads to his own pointless murder. Second, and more importantly, he's tipped his hand already this episode: he wants Michonne. Killing Rick wouldn't guarantee that he got to kill her, especially in the personal, painful way he wants to do it.

You could also easily argue that The Governor has more faith in his machinations... his ability to play on Rick's humanity... than he does in his own ability to get a fatal shot off. He sincerely thinks he can nail Michonne, and guarantee a clean, dominant defeat of the Prison leaders.

Andy Pants, a commenter on that Onion AV Club write-up, gave a great account of The Governor's character, construing him as a tyrant who thinks himself an absolute realpolitick juggernaut, and perhaps even a benevolent leader. It makes a lot of sense, although in my opinion, you still have to allow that he's a bit emotionally disturbed, as well:

"Since his introduction it's been made clear that the Governor doesn't want anyone knowing about or living anywhere near (and therefore potentially finding out about) Woodbury who aren't willing to submit to his authority. Hence why he killed the military guys (they would have taken over), welcomed in Andrea when it seemed like she'd likely join the town and sent Merle to capture and kill Michonne when she tried to leave. It's also telling that he never revealed any of these activities to the towns civilians. He knows they'll probably be alienated by this strategy of pre-emptive strikes and refusing to tolerate the existence of a potential threat.

His motivations make sense to me. He's egotistical and doesn't want to give up the power the post-apocalypse has brought him and twice as paranoid about outside dangers as Rick. The Governor has always been just a little further down that path than Rick has. I think the Governor has always suspected that even if the Prison Group might not have posed a threat at first, once they became hungry and desperate enough they would attack.
He's not crazy, so much as rational and extremely aggressive. Unlike his comic book counterapart all of his actions make sense when you really think about them. Even the fishtanks filled with zombie heads, as a commenter pointed out last week, were there for a logical reason, so the governor could directly confront and conquer his fear of the Walkers."

This speaks to the character's consistency, and in this light, it makes sense that he is trying to orchestrate a political betrayal that leads to a total defeat of the Prison group, with special consideration given to Michonne, his most dangerous enemy. In comparison to this master plan, Rick's assassination seems like a messy, incremental step.

The question is more valid, I think, when it comes to Rick. Why doesn't Rick use this as an opportunity to end the war and take out a dangerous enemy of his own group? Rick knows The Governor is ruthless... he knows what happened to Maggie and Glenn, he's seen the public fights, and he's endured an assault on his own home territory. Rightly, he's already come to the point where he considers The Governor an enemy of his group, at the very least, if not an absolute existential threat and abomination. I think we would all forgive Rick for killing Phillip, and even for killing the soldiers outside, given the circumstances. In this regard, I'm sure many of us can relate to Merle and Michonne, who kind of just want to go kill the guy and get it over with.

Rick's indecision on this point goes hand in hand with his later moral ambivalence, when he seems to consider The Governor's offer to take Michonne in return for an end to hostilities. Rick seems to have made the right decision – The Governor is not dealing in good faith, and they'd better prepare for a war – but lots of people are troubled by his talk with Hershel, thinking it inconsistent for a guy who's proven both his worth as a leader and his ruthlessness. I think some fans' discomfort with this waffling is linked to their misgivings about the whole development of the show, wherein characters seemed to lack any consistency, and seemed to act irrationally or incongruously simply to further particular contrived plot points.

It's important to note, though, since these episodes have gotten a bit better: the criticism needs to consider context. Rick's behavior (along with the apparently unstable behavior of some other characters) is erratic because that's how your behavior would become if you were stuck in crisis mode. Some other characters – Hershel, for instance – are clearly handling it better, probably because, it Hershel's case, he's older, more tested, and bears less pressure of being an active tactical commander. But Rick is struggling between two competing philosophies – humanity versus stone-cold pragmatism – and he's working with lots of unknown variables.

  • First, he hasn't absolutely settled on Michonne's membership in the group, despite Carl's sanction last episode.
  • Second, he's got lingering doubt about his own reliability, considering a hallucination about his wife recently caused him to make a major political decisions (re: Tyrese's group) entirely by accident. 
  • Third, the moral question that dogs all leaders – is the safety of each individual worth more than the safety of the largest number? – hangs over his head as a dark cloud, probably much more since he's the leader of a group full of family, that's become very close-knit.
These points of inner conflict articulate some of the differences between Rick and The Governor, a contrast that the show is obviously trying very hard to highlight (especially in this episode). The Governor makes decisions impulsively, tactically, erring on the side of ruthlessness so that he expands and upholds his power. If you're on his side, you see him protecting you at all costs; if you array yourself against him, you discover the nihilistic void of a manipulative, uncompromising aggressor. Rick, on the other hand, feels the weight of responsibility... not only to his own group, but to civilians involved on both sides, and even, to a steadily-declining degree, to certain higher moral standards. He creates space around him, giving the world a chance to pass over him and his loved ones, rather than forcing the world into a straightjacket of control.

The twitchy, violent indecision and inconsistency we see among decision-making characters may have seemed like a plot point for quite a while, but now it's settling into a form of workable realism. These characters are bound to seem erratic, when they're living under a 24/7 cloud of stress. The ethics of targeted assassination, the burdens of loyalty to a group: these should be difficult decisions, even now, after all the conflicts and conditioning. These are the uncertainties this episode is exploring, and rather than I weakness, I suddenly find that to be a strength.

So, for that reason, it worked for me. It wasn't as good as last week's, but I think it's by far the best episode in this Woodbury plotline.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Major Arcana #15: THE DEVIL - Gaspar Noe

This is the sixteenth in a series of blog posts discussing major figures in film and literature, based on the Major Arcana of the Tarot. I'll be using the 21 Major Arcana of the standard Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck. For some more background on the deck's history and its elusive role in popular culture, see this post from HiLowBrow, which is a good primer on the Tarot, and pretty fascinating in its own right.


THE DEVIL: Gaspar Noe

In a timely coincidence, Gaspar Noe has recently surfaced after a while under the radar; at the beginning of February, his video for the Animal Collective song Applesauce appeared, in which the inky silhouette of a mouth eats a fruit, lusciously and sensuously, before a background that cycles rhythmically and rapidly between bright primary colors.

This video distills one of Noe's essential characteristics: he is a filmmaker of the senses, and if nothing else, this music video is a pure sensory composition, a synaesthetic torrent of colors, shapes, and allusions to smells and flavors and textures. Working in the limited palette of sound and moving image, Noe wants to evoke, as much as possible, a completely immersive multisensory fugue.

So Gaspar Noe, the Devil of contemporary cinema, emerges from the ether: a creature of self-indulgence and materialism, of the loss of self within the ocean of sensory overload. The Devil represents the triumph of the physical and the primal over the spiritual and the cerebral; he is the collapse of moderation in favor of perpetually indulged but inexhaustible desire. Like Noe, he is the taboo-breaker, the transgressor of successive boundaries, the poet of vice and the stylist of the flesh.

The Devil often represents slavery, either to an outside force or to an inner master, a particular impulse or obsession. This is a running theme for Gaspar Noe's main characters: Marcus, the main character in Irreversible, is a slave to his excesses, first in sex and drugs, and then in bitterness and vengeful wrath. They are not evil, but the circumstances -- the cruelty of a malignant force guiding their fates -- maneuvers them into vicious, amoral actions, perversions of their own natures. As a nameless character says in the first scene in Irreversible: "I guess we're all Mephisto. ... It's no big deal."

If that's not a clear enough announcement of the presence of the Dark Lord, consider, also: in film after film, Noe creates a transparent allegory for the journey to the underworld, which is often juxtaposed with a return to the womb, or to a more primordial state of being. In Irreversible, it's the red passageway beneath the street; in Enter the Void, it's the first jarring trip through the pipes in a building in Tokyo, as Oscar's troubled soul falls out of his ruined body.

This is the journey Gaspar Noe insists on taking us on, through a sensory slipstream of disturbing imagery and reeling camerawork: a journey of torment, punishing, but, at its best, cleansing and cathartic, allowing us to come out the other side purged of our own Devils.

Friday, March 08, 2013

The Major Arcana #14: TEMPERANCE - Terrence Malick

This is the fifteenth in a series of blog posts discussing major figures in film and literature, based on the Major Arcana of the Tarot. I'll be using the 21 Major Arcana of the standard Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck. For some more background on the deck's history and its elusive role in popular culture, see this post from HiLowBrow, which is a good primer on the Tarot, and pretty fascinating in its own right.


TEMPERANCE: Terrence Malick

Temperance is the third of the three virtues, preceded by Justice and Strength. Of the three, Temperance is the calming force, a uniter of opposites; where justice decides and strength enforces, temperance compromises and harmonizes. There is something gentle and spiritual about her, something protective; she is the healing virtue and the guiding, grounding spirit, following Death, smoothing the path into Hades.

Terrence Malick is an odd duck of a director. He comes from a literary and philosophical background, and his writing and directing rhythm is so gradual as to be glacial; he infamously spends years in post-production, and he took a 20-year break after directing Days of Heaven (still his masterpiece, IMHO), during which he wrote and published and contemplated the universe.

Days of Heaven exhibits some of Malick's quintessential tendencies. At its center is a human drama of love, manipulation, and irresponsibility, emotional betrayals that shatter the lives of their participants, but that seem inconsequential, played out on the cosmic stage that Malick establishes. This conflict -- the love triangle between a worker, his lover, and their wealthy but fragile employer -- is disjointed at times, following narrative logics of prophecy and contingency, rather than simple dramatic convention. It is enough to know that man is petty and selfish, but that he is also part of a larger, more selfless universe.

And this is the frame that defines Days of Heaven, and can also be found in Malick's other films: the context of the witness, the eye and the voice watching the conflicts and always taking their measure. At the lowest level, this witnessing is represented in the voiceovers: naive ruminations from a young itinerant teenager, or from a lost and frustrated soldier on the front lines of a war. And as these characters bear witness to man's folly, so the universe seems to bear witness as well, arranging these actors within a greater familial system. The wheat fields, the cicadas, the endless roads; the jungle, the desert, the sea; architecture, the seasons, and Earth's primordial history. Every short-sighted gesture and mistake is understood... and if necessary, forgiven... by the transcendent consciousness, the mind of an elusive God, to which Malick is always alluding.

It's telling that in the end of each of these stories... Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World, and Tree of Life... there's always a sense that peace and equilibrium prevail, even when it comes on the heels of war, tragedy, and disillusionment. The fabric of the cosmos is truly absorbent (har har), cushioning the blows that men aim at one another. This is the Temperance of the universe, and it's the tone that always manages to prevail in Malick, no matter where his films take us.