Cloud Atlas

In what universe is "our lives are bound with others" such a revelation that it's tantamount to revolution? These words are apparently so powerful in the fascist future of Neo Seoul, when society is divided into servers, consumers, seers, archivists, and other ominous-sounding, dystopian categories, that they start a religion, and the clone girl (a "server") who speaks these words becomes its martyr. What, do the people of New Seoul not have social media, where "friends" would spout such profundity daily? Do none of them have stoner friends to regale them with the mind-blowing philosophies they've worked out from the latest Wachowski film?

No, because this is not a universe that bothers with such quotidia. It's a universe in which every point in history is exactly the same, while appearing vastly different. Well, that's not quite true. It cannot be said that faces appear vastly different, from era to era. Makeup artists have been tasked with the contradictory work of this universe: they must make the same look different, while being reocognizable as the same. The same actors are recycled throughout all time by the addition of putty. The awkwardness of a Korean with freckles, a ginger frizz, green eyes, and a frock is considerable, but nothing compared to the awkwardness of equating a slave's emancipation in the 19th century with a sleazy publisher's escape from a retirement home. The nuances of such comparisons, however, are not within the scope of this universe, which is nonetheless considerable, at least by appearances.

Don't get me wrong, I am a hopeless enough postmodernist that I think it's cool to find the deep relation between historically disparate things. Far more specific things. The vision of the Wachowskis, or David Mitchell, or Tom Tykwer, or whoever (if we're "all connected" and the same so are they), is so grand that history is merely a colorful backdrop. The past and the far-future are the Orient. There can be no insight in these relationships between disparate points in time, because they aren't relationships; a relationship is necessarily between different entities. There are six stories here, all the same.

Let me be as clear as this film's vision is obscuring: the best part is the aging publisher's escape from the retirement home. (The best part is Jim Broadbent.) And I think, also, the most honest. One of my issues with the film, then, is a matter or hierarchy: all of these stories are just the publisher's amusing tale (which takes place in the present day) with different scenery, which is also the contention of matchcuts and smooth audio transitions that do more violence to time than Kubrick could have ever dreamed, but they also insist that all these tales are on an equal plane; I rather think the many all spring from one, here. As all these characters demostrate, we dream of mattering, and this is the filmmakers' way of mattering: spinning tales of consciousness-raising, of heroes using their privilege to save the underclass. Why must the universe always be saved by heroism? Why must heroes dodge bullets, perform acrobatics, vaunt peaks, and generally preen in their own transcendance?

What else is it, when an author chooses to disperse a story across eons, but to say "look, my imagation transcends time and space"? I do not mark anyone for imagination, nor do I ask that history be treated sanctimoniously as if it's "true-true," in this film's cutesy futuristic patois, but must imagination be so showy? A message does not get more profound through ventriloquism. When all the voices say exactly the same thing, why bother multiplying them?

The answer is embedded in the film's revolutionary praxis: The revolutioaries' mouthpiece must be one of the masses whose cause they champion. This is an erotic relationship, and the revolutionaries positively drool when they see Sonmi: an opportunity. Their message would not seem authentic if not spoken from the lips of its concern. Sure, diegetically these are her words, but her author needed her to say them.

But this is supposedly about the triumph of love, not of authorial fantasies. Love is apparently all the same at any and every historical moment, whether between a revolutionary and a clone slave in the future in Korea, two male interbellum English aesthetes, Halle Berry and Tom Hanks--I mean a journalist and a scientist in the 1970s, Halle Berry and Tom Hanks again but in costumes that seem already to be relics of imagining the future or maybe just second-hand Star Trek, or a black slave an English man of the cloth. Sure sounds to me like a definition of love peculiar to the present.

The gentle, warm-hearted Christian man asks the slave "how do you know I'm you're friend?" The slave replies by pointing at his own eyes and then at his friend's eyes and saying "it's all you need." I was quite taken by this simple truth when I saw it, but now I ask: really, is that all? And that difference between then and now is why I ask. In this universe, however, people are reliable, and most reliable in love, which is both the articulation and the constitution of their souls. Or should I say soul.

The conviction that self and other are interconnected could be profound, if it were troubled by the consequences of relationality, rather than lubricated by all those others it obscures and squashes under its zealous, revolutionary bootheel. There is a lot of anger here about people whose personhood has been and continues to be violently denied (slaves, women, homosexuals), but the heroic fight against this oppression involves no shortage of othering, and this gives nobody pause. Faceless black-visored police enforcers in the future, monotonic secret operatives who spew racist slurs in the 1970s, belligerent landowners in the 19th century. (The only intelligible bad guy is in the present, of course: the publisher's sadistic brother, who spites him for his financial dependence, and for sleeping with his wife.)

I wouldn't say the death of people our historical moment despises is inconsistent with Sonmi's philosophy, but neither is the mass murder that supposedly inspires it. If death is a "door" to another life, then why should we care about clones like her being farmed like chicken? If "boundaries are an illusion," then what does slaughter violate? It's hard to believe the fuzzy newagisms she broadcasts to the world inspired anything, much less a religion, and it's equally hard to believe that they are in any way connected to the ghastly circumstances of her life. I've heard people say similar things after merely enduring the line at the local coffee shop.

In this latest installment of the Wachowski's battle against The System, the thing to be brought down is "The Natural Order" (the point of this term being that it's only natural to those who privilege from it). But their issue does not appear to be that what is considered "natural" tends to work in this socially determined way. The thing that's supposed to break up The Natural Order is love. But if love is destiny, transcending time and space, determined before you were born, what is that but a consolidation of what is natural?

29 October 2012

Windows 8 Released

Today Microsoft gave a press conference on their release of Windows 8. They rhapsodized the future of their tablet and expounded just how fresh their operating system is, emphasizing that it was "redesigned from the ground up." They wobbled a little, and gripped the podium, but were cheery and professional overall. There were rumors of sweat breaking through their powdered forehead.

Our correspondent embedded at a Redmond BroPad reports that the software giant was in high spirits following today's press event, saying "that'll show those Apple fags" as they swaggered to a nearby Chili's and high-fived their companions. At the bar there was reportedly a rousing round of "developers developers developers developers," a renowned chant on the Microsoft campus. Back at home, Microsoft regaled their housemates with speeches, bellowing "SIMULTANEITY IS DEAD, SAY HELLO TO THE MONOLITH" over the noise of a "Halo 4" alpha.

Our technology expert, Mark Jankowsky, P.h.D. in Media Studies, who diligently comments on every of Steven Shaviro's blog posts, has already tweeted extensively on Microsoft's just-released operating system.

MS decides that the illusion of a third dimension and screens that aren't touch are so last decade

it was comforting that the right-angled minimalism of the web was encased in ornate, rounded glass that glowed and cast shadows

windows 8 obliterates outside & inside

there is no time in win8, only an unrelated confusion of NOWs, each all-important, neither before nor after anything

Jankowsky's peers critique him in their own barrages of tweets, accusing him of "drown[ing] in ontic nostalgia," "privileg[ing] linearity," being "stuck in a bourgeois ethos," and that he "subscribes to a visuospatial heteronormativity." One noted that he "sound[ed] like one of his knee-jerking graduate students, but back before he was born." One of those graduate students, age 20, tweeted "this feels like the 1920s all over again."

Microsoft, who doesn't follow any of the aforementioned on twitter, sat back to enjoy a well-earned Michael Bay marathon.

27 October 2012

The Contemplation of Yards

There are for me basically two ways of walking alone in Ashland, the town I grew up in: in which I comopose sentences, and in which I contemplate yards. The former, obviously, is linguistic; the latter is not. The former is manic; the latter, depressive. The former does not feel exhausting but soon exhausts; the latter feels dull, even relaxing, but raises to a suppressed din of impasse. In the philosophical scene of pointing at chairs, the former is essentially solipsistic, concerned with the world only as an aesthetic backdrop; the latter--more properly philosophical--obsessed with objects that cannot be reached. The former is masturbatory; the latter, romantic.

The latter is also more difficult to explain. Everyone who writes and idealizes writing is familiar with the high of phrases coming in flashes. Moreover, it has been, as you would expect, written about extensively. I have not read a word about my suburban flanerie.

I can only describe it by circumloctuion, in part because it mostly resides in memory. I have spend a staggering amount of time in contemplation of yards, but most of it when I was a teenager.

Ever since I began attending public school (kindergarden), there has been a lot of walking in my life. I would say that my parents insisted that my brother and I walk to school, but I don't remember thinking that there were other options. That dawned on me slowly after weeks of other parents' cars flocking to the school at the finishing bell. I don't at all remember being envious. By that time the walks were an accepted part of life. If anything, I took pleasure in not having a ride, just as I used to get excited when the other kids made fun of my brown-bag lunches that often contained pumpkin pie in a ziplock bag, which resembled something that more traditionally excites and revolts children.

For several years, however, I was accompanied by my brother--by protective decree, probably. In company one does not contemplate yards. Of course, the memory of the texture of my mental life at that time is sparse. I have no idea what it was like when I finally did begin walking by myself. Whimsy is certain: I remember looking up at the sky while I swung on the playground swings, wilfully inducing the illusion that the sky was down, the ground, up, and I teetering above an abyss of blue, held to the swing seat by some improbable countergravity.

Whatever those walks were to me, they were cut in middle school by the presence of another companion--my best friend. We lived a block from each other and so walked to school and back together. It occurs to me that I had very little time to myself (not that it was a thing to want, then) until high school. Given my current proclivities, I am tempted to ascribe a psychological cause to the near-fainting spells I had throughout middle school. Perhaps they were a symptom of early adolescence: I was just old enough to have an introverted clash with my peers, but not old enough to realize it. Instead, I spent time in the nurse's office laying down and trying not to black out. There was a certain restfulness in the white of everything there. That is where I might locate the beginnings of the contemplative noncognition that would later attach itself to yards. I spent a lot of time staring at white, letting its texture and light seep into me.

For reasons I don't recall, my best friend and I didn't walk together to high school very often. Maybe our class schedules simply began to differ. In any case, I walked to and from high school, sometimes twice a day because I would flee home for lunch (the clash had reached its apex: I was terrified of campus). The route between home and high school was entirely along residential streets. So I would walk by the same houses over and over. Yet I never got used to them. I saw them change from season to season, but these changes never accrued into dynamic entities that persisted through time. No, every glance at their evocative exteriors constituted an eternity. In part this was a kind of furniture catalogue yard envy. I would look at patios and arbors and wish I had them. Other people's yards are always more appealing. It's only there, indeed, that eternity is possible. Looking at some restful corner of a yard replete with greenery and soft light, I imagine sitting there forever, life solved.

There is a woman who lives two doors down in an enormous turn of the century homestead. Her spacious property is filled with old fruit trees, and a magnificent oak. Her name is Fader, and she does seem to. She takes very good care of her yard. I rarely see her outside, but the evidence of her care is apparent. The patches of daffodils and tulips, the mowed grass and trimmed trees, and the white benches and chairs at particularly nice spots. I have never seen her or anyone else sitting in the alluring furniture. Yet she has carefully placed it, each piece an idyll of sitting.

The yardanalia (for lack of a better word) I see while walking is not always idyllic. Often, it's just strange. Cheesy, neglected statuary signals the otherness of a domestic life. Looking at it, I realize that whoever lives there passes it all the time; that it's a part of their daily life. To imagine such a life is bewildering. Of course, this life quite probably ignores its yard for the most part. Yards are only really noticed when newly reinvented or by people who don't live in them. On the one hand, objects in yards are of little significance to those who inhabit them. On the other hand, this is exactly what makes them significant.

There is a certain pain in passing all of these artifacts of other lives. On a long enough walk, to look begins to hurt. The limits of one life become apparent. All of these lives, these singularities, these things one is not.

When I find myself returning to this mode of walking, I am relieved to realize it is rare, troubled to think it could continue, and concerned by its import. As soon as I've left it, I'm sad that I seem to have forgotten how to return.

24 October 2012

A Poor Player

Faced with the insistence that games are ruining our children, one often falls back on the insistence that games are not reality, and that players can discern the difference. While this serves its political function, it has the defensive ring of dishonesty. Games are, after all, not the only things one plays. There are those things in which one is accustomed to identifying one's personhood. Yes, one can reflect on what one plays, but that, too, is playing at something. The notion that behind all this playing is an infinite capacity to not be confused is surely only a comforting game.

There being nothing to fall back on, my attitude towards all forms of play is a senseless one: What is the point of playing? Directed towards the more difficult parts of life, this melancholic question draws me into playing computer games. But I have the same question of those games, and often it seems it's only that I can't answer this question that stops me from playing a computer game forever.

I do sometimes put the question to other players of the game I'm addicted to, but they usually give answers that begin from already enjoying the game. Such is enjoyment; one does not have eyes in one's eyes. Players enthusiastic enough to haunt forums never seem to be able to explain what is compelling about playing to someone who doesn't play--or someone like me who finds the pleasures of the game inexplicable, and sometimes thinks they're not even pleasures.

In the winter (of course it was winter) of the year before last, I became addicted to Widelands. It kills an enormous amount of time, but not in the hungry way Diablo keeps you salivating for the better item, the next level, the next spell, nor the way Civilization famously makes you want to play "just one more turn." No, Widelands gives you a much looser grasp on the future. It seems rather to expand the present into a plenitude of pleasant dawdling. It's real-time, but very very slow. I left the game running while I went to get a cup of tea or put something in the oven. While I was away from the game, my little pastoral empire kept toiling away for me. There was something extremely comforting about the sense that things were happening whether I was there or not. The music, sound effects, and quaint graphics helped. Meandering folk music drifted through the air. Birds chirped. Axes bit into trees with distant thuds, and hammers struck metal with a satisfying yet unalarming pong. Nothing was threatening or exciting, and everything was productive. I was more or less happy with my idyllic domain.

But what was the point? Soon, unfortunately, it became clear that there was an object to the game: To build your economy more efficiently than the other player (an AI, in my case), and, eventually, to destroy them. Once I realized this, I became invested in building my economy well, rather than whimsically. I learned what not to do, and I learned how to do. I wanted to win. I narrowed my plans to ever more efficient chains of actions. Eventually, it seemed to me that to play well was not playful at all, but to follow a set itinerary. I may as well, I thought, be a code interpreter executing a script.

I wrote an essay on Widelands' constraints, and posted it to the their online forums. The response was "you sure have a depressing view of Widelands." I explained that I loved Widelands, but found it philosophically troubling. I couldn't understand what made it fun. I was told that "it's in the details" of each game. A cop-out. One may as well say "it's the little things in life."

Eventually, when the season for tea and pie ended, I stopped playing Widelands. These days, my addictions are Diablo II and Torchlight. Entirely different pleasures, but I have reached a similar quandary with hack-and-slash RPGs. Soon I will probably stop playing them, as they increasingly seem pointless. But then, I lied earlier: When has pointlessness ever been what stopped me?

My quandary is that eternal one: You fight monsters to get items and experience points that allow you to fight bigger, scarier monsters, to get more items and experience points. Etc. It's not just circular; it's a paradox. You want the awesomest sword ever (or whatever) to really show those monsters once and for all, but if this were to ever occur (if the monsters stopped modulating to your ability to kill them), you would become very quickly bored. On the other hand, because becoming more powerful merely gives you access to more powerful monsters, it makes no difference at all if you fight or not. The state of your relationship with the game world, with minor fluctuations, never really changes. What you want is for that little difference between your current state and your more powerful future to matter. You fight for the possession of something that is structurally impossible to get--in other words, a phallus.

Someone commented in a Diablo II review that "the item system is truly something to behold." I have to assume what was meant by that is that the item system is of such staggeringly cruel complexity that it turns players pathological. The most sadistic innovation (back in 2000) are called "sockets". Some items of equipment have anywhere from one to three sockets. Gems, jewels, and runes may be placed in the sockets, which improve the item with various magical effects. My brother and I (we've been going through the game cooperatively) were at first only mildly excited by this. Socketed items were plentiful; things to put in the sockets, scarce and not amazing. Nonetheless, occasionally we threw some chipped gems (the worst kind) onto some wands and swords. Eventually we discovered better things to put into sockets, but our standards for what constituted a good item had risen. Moreover, there appeared to be fewer socketed items falling wily-nilly from monster's corpses. Then we were given what I can only call a transmogrifier. A box into which you put items, and it turns them into other, usually better items. For instance, three chipped gems may be turned into one flawed, three of those into a complete gem, and so on. Oh dear. This, as you might imagine, gave rise to a whole scheme of obsessive hoarding. We never wanted to put any of our gems into sockets because if we waited, we might get more gems and therefore make better gems. To just use them immediately was a waste. You can't remove things from sockets. Did I mention that?

While we amassed huge collections of things to put in sockets, we noted that the shopkeepers no longer sold socketed items. We were now some ridiculous level and could equip the newest, shiniest swords and staves, but we could find no socketed versions of these now de-rigeur items. They had to be out there, somewhere, so we kept scouring the dungeons. Which yielded largely gems, runes, and jewels. Meanwhile, at any moment the even shinier equipment was bound to become available soon. So even if we were graced with a socketed version of the current weaponry, it would be a waste to actually put our precious socket-plugs into weapons that would quickly become obsolete.

No one has expressed the process of collecting all this crap better than Yahtzee Croshaw in his recent rant on Diablo III.

Ultimately, I confess I still don't get the appeal of dungeon crawlers. Seems like I could recreate the essential experience by opening Microsoft Excel, scrolling down ten thousand pages with the down cursor key, and then typing "The Most Splendid Trousers of Them All!"

Except that you would only imagine typing that; the most splendid trousers are always to be found at some point in the future, never had. Yahtzee can characterize the repetitive banality of dungeon crawlers, yet he too can't stop playing them. They "put me into a fucking hypnotic trance and leveling starts to carry this mindlessly addictive quality."

Why? I only have lame excuses. The novelty ("ooh what does that spell do?"). The vanity of watching your powers visualized on screen ("OMG look at everything explode!"). The reliability: unlike in life, there are no unexpected lulls in activity. There's always a pointless struggle waiting for you in the game. That's the best I've got--that the byzantine profusion of items and skills in Diablo II is not remarkable for the way it endlessly produces ambitions and endlessly defers fulfillment, but for the consistency with which it does so.

There is no dawdling. My place in its world, however dreary, is quite clear: there are always monsters to slay, and items to sort to slay more monsters. In other words, there is very little freedom, which is nice. There is no possibility of getting lost, of drifting, of having to choose anything except where my points go after a level-up. I'm held tight.

My brother and I also talk about how unplayably bad Diablo II is, and then continue to play it, rapidly clicking into the wee hours. One of our beefs is that this sort of game should be at least partially driven by story. That is, you ought to play it to unfold the story, which would be engaging enough that you want to know what happens next. It needn't be great literature; it just needs to incite the tiniest glimmer of curiosity. Diablo II fails to do even that. The story--dispensed in the grim, stilted monologues of quest-hawking characters--is both boring and completely unnecessary to play the game. I suppose I'm glad it isn't boring and necessary, because then I'd have to listen to all the droning on about evil and darkness, but I wish I gave enough of a shit to want to listen, and that what was said had some bearing on gameplay. As it is, we just click on the people with little exclamations over their heads (which I think is supposed to show you they have something to tell you, but really it just means "click on me to get another quest or a reward"), and skim the quest log afterwards for what we need to know.

All of this makes me nostalgic for Star Control II, whose dialogue was not only entertaining, but mattered. You had to pay attention to what was said because through interpretation (sometimes obvious, sometimes arcane) you figured out how to advance the game. Paying attention, however, was not a mind-numbing exercise, because the backstories were fairly interesting, and the writing was often hilarious. In Diablo II, by contrast, absolutely nothing is funny, and reading the backstories is a slog through a mixture of high fantasy cliches and pseudoreligious claptrap.

So it was with a kind of hope other than the yearning for a new sword that I downloaded Torchlight. I'm one of those boys who plays female characters in video games, so of course I played the Rogue--excuse me, the "Vanquisher". Combined with the fact that this genre of game seems to be an elaboration of masculinity, this put me in an odd position.

Her costume, which includes a corset and not much else, seems clearly organized by the male gaze, and predictably, unlike the two male characters, she has a smile. I found myself trying to put some clothes on her. About mid-game I found a unique armor that when equipped dressed her in leather leggings and a full-sleeved leather coat. I thought she looked handsome in it. The game designers seemed to prefer rather that she show as much skin as possible, because in all my searching I never found another suit of armor that was much more than a bra and a short skirt.

My annoyance with her revealing clothing is perhaps my internalization of a partriarchal need to control the veiling and unveiling of the female body, or in other words I wanted to protect her from other male gazes. On the other hand, this character was much more the object of my vanity than my ogling. These kinds of games are as much about getting the better sword as they are about preening once you have it. Torchlight has even built the pause button around this desire to admire yourself. When you hit it, the camera spins around your character, decked-out in all her latest gear. When I found the Leather Armor of the Gunslinger, I hit pause and thought now I'm ready to slay some monsters.

Looking at things, sorting things, using things--that's what playing Diablo and Torchlight is all about.

Your relationship to things is the central theme of Torchlight's story. Unlike Diablo, in which evil springs without cause from below, Torchlight's story is about obsessive exploitation of the earth (I mean literally underground) to find eternal life. It's about mining deeper and deeper for immortality, and becoming corrupted in the process. It is, in other words, about you, the player.

But of course your role as the player is to exorcise the specter of your real relationship to the game. Early on, one of the NPCs asks you "Are you, too, becoming obsessed with ember?" You set out to follow your obsession (ember works exactly like gems do in Diablo II, so you hoard it) and yet prove her wrong. Being a hero, you can enter into that which corrupts everyone, and undo it. Which is exactly what I want to do--the corrupter being the game. I want to purge the desire to play it from me, and to do so I must play it. To play I must believe that I can stop playing. But as soon as I want to stop, I have to play. What I hope awaits me at the end of the game, if there is one, is to be released from the game.

22 October 2012

Frozen Peaches

What does one do with frozen peaches? The underlying question, of course, is what does one do with peaches? There are so many of them, and they go so quickly. Can't have them rotting on the ground and yet if brought home they melt into the counter within a few days. Their already fuzzy skins bloom with white and black. They leave behind a goo, the underside of their ripeness. To capture them ripe without catching the toughness and putrefaction that define the borders of ripe is the passion of autumn, for some.

This passion can take two forms: anxiety and hoarding. These may sound like the same thing. But while the anxious is obsessed with wasted peaches (those on the ground are failures, or if not too rotten yet, rescues) the hoarder has a more generous outlok. The hoarder sees the peach season as an opportunity. Noteably, the anxious has trees in the yard and is tasked with caring for them (i.e. using them), whereas the hoarder rents others'.

The anxious picks as many as possible ripe off the tree and uses them immediately. Uses and not eats beause eating is only one use. Other uses include baking in a crisp and pairing with ice cream. Not so much pleasures as ways to cut losses. One does not so much taste the presence of peaches as the absence of the loss of peaches. One feels less a failure.

The hoarder, having access to far more trees, picks and picks. It's not much work, picking peaches, and so boxes and boxes fill up quickly. Here we return to the second question: what to do with all those peaches? One can't eat them quickly enough, even in a crisp. No matter. The hoarder believes ripeness can be preservered. Peaches can be frozen. Fleeting pleasure can be had throughout the year. As the anxious tastes the mitigation of failure, the hoarder tastes shrewdness in frozen peaches. Having given perishability the slip, one tastes oneself.

Now we come to the first question: What does not do with frozen peaches? Much as one would like to believe they are peaches, they're something else when they thaw. As they thaw, they release their liquid. They divide, much like curdling milk, into liquid and solid. A bowl of thawed peaches is a bowl of sweet, orange soup. One can ignore the soup, cover it with oats, butter, and sugar, and bake it, but the oats turn soggy. The peach-solids boil into near disintegration in the oven. But it is crisp, in it are still technically peaches, and one may still revel in the simulacric bounty of refrigeration.

One may also acknowledge the soup, and treat its two components different. One then pours off the liquid into a pot, covers the solids with oats, butter, and sugar, and bakes them. One boils the liquid with more sugar and spices, down to a thick brown sauce, and pours this over the crisp. This necromantic trickery makes a less soggy crisp, but still, soggy, and the peaches, if indeed they are peaches, sad, deflated, and oddly flavorless without their sauce. Some things cannot be fixed or solved. To solve them is to change what the solution was meant to preserve. It would be smug, however, to suggest that the lack of a solution is a solution. It's not as if the gesture of stepping aside causes the peach to leap forth with its true flavor. On the unyielding terms one lays out, one has never tasted a peach.

21 October 2012

Argo

When the screen faded to black and Ben Affleck's name appeared, everyone clapped. Renata Adler notes in 1968 that clapping for a movie is a peculiar gesture, "quite different from what it means in live theater." Who are you applauding? Nobody is there to hear you clap except the rest of the audience, and you. This was quiet, as applause goes. This is Ashland; audiences are gentle folk with multicultural pretensions. We listen to NPR. For us, Mr. Affleck had moved in just the right ways in his turn on the stage; he affirmed our concerns, and successfully navigated our national shame to give us a patriotic happy ending that we could approve of. For that moment, the audience basked in the communal warmth of their shared appreciation. I'm in basically the same boat as far as qualms, but I'm one of those prideful people who can't bear to participate in a crowd. I felt at once superior and pathetic for getting up to leave--passing relaxed, vaguely postcoital smiles that I envied and reviled--as everyone else stayed for the rest of the credits.

I gather that Affleck feels a similar mixture of pride and shame about his country's involvement in Iran. His movie opens as a grave documentary, with footage of the Iranian Revolution. A voiceover narrates Iran's history up to 1979. The Shahs. The democratic election of a president. The period in which (the narrator tells us proudly) Iran's oil was their own. The U.S. installation of a new Shah (here the narrator's voice turns bitter). The 1979 uprising against this Shah. It's not that I disagree on any particular point (I'm not informed enough), but I have to wonder why this bit of exposition is here. This is the story of getting American "hostages" (actually they're just hiding out in the Canadian ambassador's house in Tehran) out of Iran. It's an American story. This five-minute introduction to a place that throughout the rest of the movie must at all costs be fled is the lefty equivalent of a hail-mary. Without it, the audience would not have clapped, but only enjoyed, somewhat guiltily. Affleck is atoning for his privileged Americanness in a popular style: by having fits of reaching for the experience of who he isn't.

The experience that the movie can't show becomes quite clear when the actual movie begins with a crowd of Iranian protesters storming the U.S. embasy. Affleck's direction in this scene exercises admirable control, but this I think is because he's straining to resolve it in a politically correct way. It flicks back and forth between the panicked Americans in the embasy, and the crowd. The crowd is a crowd: impossible to sympathize with, because this kind of sympathy has the individual as its basic unit. What can an American director who wants not to offend anyone do, when given Americans under a siege of foreign righteousness? I suppose you can push the onus of morality onto individual irrationality, which is to say you can do away with moral thought entirely. To protect the embassy there are some policemen of some sort or other, in full riot gear, with tear gas launders. Their commander tells them over the radio to "only use the tear gs a last resort--I repeat, as a last resort only." Cut immediately to tear gas canisters being launched into the crowd.

What is the point of a movie that on the one hand refuses to be overtly political, and on the other refuses to be a drama--something it seems to view as being of inadequate importance? One might equally ask what is the point of Affleck's taut montages, in which he smashes all the locuses of tension together? A man behind me during one of these breathtaking multiscenes said "interesting juxtaposition." It was. All at once, prisoners are sent to a firing squad and almost but not quite executed, a press event Hollywood party in which the actors read the terrible Argo script aloud proceeds gaily and vapidly along, and some other thing that I can't quite remember. I'm sure it was important. But that's the trouble. Shouldn't I remember, if this meticulously edited sequence--in which audio from all three scenes piles up into a cacophony-- really made an impact? I remember a similar, simpler technique in Lord of the Rings: while on the raging battlefield millions die at a king's strategically poor orders, this king eats cherry tomatoes alone. He makes quite a mess, spurting tomato juice with every bite. Cutting back and forth between these two things, the king's minstrel sings a plaintive song. It was memorable because its moralistic meaning was too unmistakeable. Affleck's crucibles of disparity are just the opposite. The justaposition is interesting, and not at all obvious in its intent, but all I can do is scratch my head, and feel inexplicably somewhat moved.

The script, likewise, aims away from the head toward the heart, but politely fires a very small calibur. Hearts pump with and are revealed by epistles, and this movie's heart is written on a postcard to Affleck's character's son as he goes to the airport. "Sorry I missed ya, buddy-man," he writes. He tried to call him for his birthday, but nobody picked up. His son's absent presence is the tiny looseness from which narrative flows. As the direction is restrainted, so is the world these characters inhabit. When Affleck's character is on the phone with his son (someone who is nerver on screen), there's a needful lapse. His son is telling him about school, but his voice mutes out as Affleck spaces out, staring at the television, on which Planet of the Apes is playing (his son is watching the same). He's listening, but all we get is emotional content. The idea to make a fake movie as a cover to rescue the Americans stranded in Iran comes to him during a swell of love for his son.

This particular brand of masculine sentimentality for the family holds throughout. Affleck's character and the fake filmmaker he hires (Alan Arkin) bond over the absence of their families, from whom they are both estranged ultimately, they think, because they're in "the bullshit business." In this movie, the bullshit business is lifesaving potential; the ability to create, believe, and convince others of narratives is survival out there in the public sphere. What they're saying is that their heroism tragically seperates them from domestic life. Which is nice for them because it's sad for them. How else to maintain such a sentimental attachment but absence? And how else to drive the creation of narrative but by this attachment? Besides, as Arkin's character says, "kids need the mother." One thing about a period piece based on a true story is that characters can say things like this without comment, cinematic or verbal.

I don't mean to suggest that the script or Affleck's direction are dumb. Rather, the movie's intelligence all goes into saying as little as possible.

Affleck is capable of trying to engage with the world. The Town wrapped its head around the phenomenon of how one becomes trapped in a place, a family, and a destiny, try as one might to escape it and its criminality. It's about a very particular place; I got the impression there was research involved in writing the script. Argo's script is too scary to direct because too potentially contentious. Affleck tries to tiptoe around Iran, however much time the camera spends there, because of how relevant the subject matter is right now, when two presidential candidates are debating about what to do or not to do about the country. He becomes much like the protagonist he plays--an escape artist.

He has a boyish face, with sharp rather than rough features--as angular as a young Bruce Willis, but open and gentle about the eyes somehow, especially in profile. Both can summon an immense, suffocating smugness, but Affleck has chosen to avoid doing so in this movie. Instead he is a man so conflicted he's taciturn, and rigorously maintains a neutral expression, just barely smiling when pleased. When their flight out of Tehran reaches altitude and the stewardesses begin serbing drinks, the six he's rescued cheer and embrace. He sits alone at a window seat and allows himself a tiny, sheepish, one-sided smile.

14 October 2012

Figs & Toilets

Is eating fruit a perversion? If you're bored, it's a cheering thought. While picking figs the other day, I heard it articulated like this: "these trees must be so unhapppy--they spent all this energy putting on fruit, just to have us flush the seeds down our indoor plumbing." The assumption is that trees produce fruit for a purpose: to reproduce. This seems obvious, but it is also untrue.

Evolutionary thought, oddly, seems to undergird this assumption of fruit's purposiveness, in the same way that the tired image of basket weavers and hunters is mobilized to naturalize the most thoughtless gender prescriptions. I do have to assume that fruit evolved because trees that grew fruit begat more reproducing offspring than trees that did not. However, the accidents of evolution--canny as they might be--do not assign or come from any purpose whatsoever. (A tautology--but honestly, do you want to read an argument that evolution is accidental? Suffice to say evolution is a misleading term, because it's not a system.) Fruit just happened.

Besides, if trees are people, then who are we to say they insist on the reproductive use of their fruit? And even if they insist that their detachable flesh only be chewed for the furthering of the race, who is to say they don't enjoy wantonness for exactly the same reason?

I know, I'm reaching. But when I heard it said matter-of-factly that figs are "like balls" the train of thought was inevitable, wasn't it? No, actually--that's my point. I think you'll agree that just because I heard that statement and now I'm writing this post, this post was not its purpose. Yet I am enjoying this particular use. Because it is excessive, or just because?

On the same outing, as we exerted ourselves jumping to and climbing on branches, I posited the dreariest view of food imaginable by saying that we certainly were not doing this for the calories. Of course not. If you have the chance not to, why do something out of necessity?

So no, eating fruit is not a perversion, flush toilet or no, because there isn't one thing fruit are made for in the first place.

It's not as if anyone is all in a tizzy over orchards (all those "virgin" trees). Then again, isn't this exactly what pastoral beauty is all about--the sublime channeled into production?

The fruit does fall, and I must admit I looked away from the figs smashed into the ground, and I hesitated yet was excited by the squishy give of the overripe. The fallen (that word cannot be an accident) figs stuck unpleasantly to our shoes. Importantly, figs will not sprout in this climate. Whether I think so or not, it appears I'm uncomfortable with flesh not trained to produce or reproduce.

11 October 2012

some incredibly sloppy theorizing

It is said that western civilization sprang from wheat. These days, although it remains staff of life to many, it’s often called junk food, or if you’re a paleo dieter, just plain evil. And what is considered junk by the pious is also a comfort, or even more: an indulgence.

This is guaranteed by the degree to which its emptiness is insisted upon. How else could a dry Starbucks scone constitute pleasure than by the reflexive tut-tut that it’s “just empty carbs”? This sense of their substancelessness makes baked goods palatable in unique ways.

Though if 1890s London is as Sarah Waters imagines it, then perhaps bread needn’t be saturated with health-food discourse to go down like nearly nothing. In Tipping the Velvet, bread products are all that its protagonist, Nancy, can handle after a catastrophic breakup. She lays in a dark bedsit for weeks eating nothing but “bagels, brioches, and flat Greek loaves, and buns from the Chinese bakeries” and cups of tea, “which I brewed ferociously strong, in a pot on the hearth, and sweetened with condensed milk.” God, if that ever sounds familiar.

(I have spent weeks alone eating little but toast and tea. When anything substantial is nauseating, toast will do.)

I wrote that Sarah Lund’s diet of mostly bread, butter, and coffee was deeply appealing to me, for similar reasons. Baked goods can be passed off as almost not food at all. Lund is perennially, functionally depressed, and Nancy is suddenly becoming acquainted with depression. The will to live and the will to eat are connected in this way. When I say “will to live,” I do not mean it literally, though the sense does not disinclude that. Nancy’s post-breakup melancholy is the instructive example here: she can’t move on from her former lover, despite (or because of) the fact that she is clearly and acutely gone. Letting anything else in–even a bit of food–is abhorrent because it would mean letting go of this nothingness.

Which sounds self-defeating, and it is. But I do not want to fall into the judgemental prescriptiveness of phrases like “let go” and “move on.” In the pop-psychologic vernacular, these imperatives lie (pun intended) firmly on the side of productivity. They prioritize orienting oneself to the future. But what’s in the future? More moving on. One moves on to float in an endless deferral.

Contemplation is possessive, i.e. depressive. Indeed, depression is to be blocked from acting by the sheer bandwidth of cognition. Writing is thus a bizarre balancing act of thinking and not thinking. Don’t think at all and you’ll have nothing to write; think too much and you’ll never be able to write it down.

One cannot eat a feast and at the same time possess it. But the world–and oneself in it–turns on consumption, and so it is generally thought advantageous to advocate eating.

When this helpful prescription turns sour, there are ways to mitigate the bile–to keep distance from both life and death. To not have to take on the burden of having hope (the backlash from which Nancy suffers), one takes in whatever unwholesomeness is available. Bread, being neither food nor not-food, will do nicely. It is an imperfect antidote to the illness it makes possible–civilization.

What will happen to a civilization that demands productivity from its citizens and also demands that they keep themselves healthy by not eating “empty carbs,” not smoking, not drinking, and absolutely no other vice, save sex, which has been deemed healthy.

Yes, of course all these vices are the opiates on which civilization functions, and some more revolutionary souls would say it’s better to renounce them.

I’m not trying to say that society’s prescriptions ought to self-consciously indulge us. You can’t go back. But rather that there seem to be increasingly fewer blind spots. Which is a bit scary. Everything is a lifestyle choice.

What, are we all going to binge on naughty kale chips?

6 October 2012

I am endeavouring, ma'am, to construct a mnemonic memory circuit using stone knives and bearskins.

Star Trek (the original) is nearly unwatchable. Thus it is populated with babes in costumes whose designer seems to grin lasciviously from behind the camera. When their bodies aren't giving relief from the creak of plastic gears--or if you prefer, the shouting of men--a particular kind of head shot is. The female guest star's face is in soft focus, and lit from a slightly oblique angle, so that her hair shines ethereally. Her face glows, and her glowing smile appears indeed from another planet.

While the rest of our heroes boldly go where no man has gone before--namely, portals--Uhura says "Captain, I'm afraid."

To a trekkie, it's already apparent that I'm really speaking of one episode, "The City on the Edge of Forever". (But that way of filming female faces holds throughout the series, I swear.) I began watching the episode because I know someone who is obsessed with the writer, Harlan Ellison. I was wikipediaing him, and discovered he wrote an episode of Star Trek. What really interested me, though, was that he hated the adaptation of his script so much that he went to court. I had to see what all the fuss was about.

Controversy could only bouy me so much against the sinking dullness of the show, however. I couldn't make it through the episode. It was one of those "travelling back in time screws up the present" plots. When it is revealed that what changes the future for the worse is the U.S. not going to war with Germany during World War Two, my cursor fled to the pause button. I longed for a non-butterfly-effect time travel concept, as in Kage Baker. At least when written history cannot be changed, jingoistic self-justification (whenever we feel national shame, it seems, we can always fall back on "but we saved the world!") isn't possible.

But anyway, I wasn't intending masturbate about taste. I haven't read Ellison's script, but I have a conjecture. When he wrote an episode for Star Trek, what was he expecting when it got aired? Star Trek is still Star Trek. Every writer has a rebellious streak of some sort--otherwise why write--but I think Ellison's was particularly strong. When he wrote an episode of Star Trek, he wanted it to exceed the bounds of what a Star Trek episode could be. He wanted to make something daring, perhaps with a bit of commentary on the show itself. He wanted to inject a bit of not-Star Trek into Star Trek, to give it a little life. So when he saw what ultimately made it to the screen, he was pissed. This wasn't the edgyness he had imagined.

I make fun, but it's perfectly understandable. (Although it does take a special kind of stubbornness to take Paramount to court four decades later for rewriting his script.) Even writing a piece for Bright Wall in a Dark Room, at least half my motivation was something along the lines of I'll show them! I felt that I was in some way shaking up the genre of BWDR. Such an attitude may be necessary, along with the idealizations that come with it.

There's something phallic about this conception of creativity in which one creates within confines but yearns to exceed those confines, and in so doing reveal one's idealized self in the difference. One pretends to want freedom from the confines, but without them one would not be able to create, nor would one want to. Ellison raged against the apparatus of his articulation. He saw too much of the apparatus, and not enough of himself. Despite the angelic face of its female guest star, the episode wasn't pornographic enough.

4 October 2012

Elena

There is a horse. There is also a man, and his grandson in law. The first two die; the last lies on the ground so long after being beaten that it seems he dies, but he gets up. What else needs to be known? When the horse passes into view out the train window, a little boy cries "look!" Hitting it, presumably, was why the train came to a stop a few moments before, and why policemen hurried through the car. The eponymous Elena seemed to fidget when the uniforms clomped through, but then, she doesn't actually move much. I just know that she killed the aforementioned man, her husband, Vladimir, and therefore I imagine her pang of fear and guilt at the sight of the law. Anyway, in the extreme long view Elena--but not Elena--takes Vladimir may as well be the dead horse. Indeed, why does he die? For the sake of her grandson, who could die any day in a gang fight. Vladimir, who unapologetically cares for nothing but money, would have thought his own death a poor investment.

About perspective. The film begins and ends with a shot of winter tree limbs in front of Vladimir's house. The focus begins at the foremost branch, and very slowly shifts to the house's windows. Vladimir and Elena live in one of those brutally convenient modernist things that was once so outside the box, it became one. He sleeps in the worst part of it, she on a fold-out couch in the coziest room, truer to her class origins. The two of them met when she was nurse to him in the hospital, and it seems that as his wife she has carried on in this same capacity. Watching Elena go about her domestic duties is like a defanged version of Jeanne Dielman. She has less routine, and less time for her routine to explode, but explode it does.

When Vladimir tells her that he plans to write a will, that his daughter, Katya, will get almost everything, and that he has no intention of providing for her grandson, she takes his dishes (on a designer wooden tray) back to the kitchen and sets them down roughly, with a clang. The next day she furtively reads his draft; cut to her feeding carrots into a juicer, which sounds remarkably like paper shredding. It is alongside this frothy carrot juice that she serves him an excess of pills, popping extras into the cup with a kind of nervous whimsy.

Elena speaks, but she is understood through her actions, though the body language of her long, patient time on the screen. I fell in love with the head of this film, who does nothing but speak, and who happens to be Vladimir's pretty daughter. It seems not too shaky of a conjecture that Andrey Zvyagintsev, writer and director, fancied her, too. He imbued her with the whole of the truth-telling--and all the word play, to boot.

As the linguistic articulation of the film's cinematic distance, she, too, takes the long view. Her father accuses her of saying everything is pointless. She does. There is a bit of cheek, though, to her dire pronouncements. She's deadly serious, but so sometimes are the best comedians. Everything may be pointless, but people like Zvyagintsev would like to believe that there is a point in communicating why. I'm in the same boat.

One of the more memorable things she says is that one has children to suck the life from them. Of course, the opposite occurs--quite literally, if indirectly. Not that Elena's grandson wants the money that she goes to such ends to get for him.

As for Vladimir, he smiles and says that he's cheered up by his daughter's caustic words. So, I find, am I. These two scenes, in which with her tongue she first dispatches Elena and then Vladimir in his hospital bed following a heart attack, are the only clarity, and the only real mirth. Although, personally, I giggled at the bits of television that were chosen for the domestic scenes. After Elena kills Vladimir, she's watching people evaluate a new "sausage product." "I like No. 6. It's quite edible." "No 3 tastes very sausagey." Katya's verbal flaying, however, did more than elicit quiet giggles. I was warmed through.

"I barely see you, Katya," says Vladimir.

"That's because I'm standing against the light." (She's in front of the window.)

"I didn't mean it in that sense."

"Dad, you know that nothing like sense even exists."

"Looking at you, sometimes I think, that might even be true."

"So, it's OK that you barely see me."

Their dialogue goes on like this, full of puns and metaphor. Yes, this was the filmmaker's transparent philosophizing, yet its agile twists along words' axes thrilled me. I could've kissed her. Her father did. The consonance of these was, I admit, a little discomforting. Yet still my fervor is enough that I want to reprint just a bit more of the script here:

"You've always loved those word games."

"Games help children come to terms with the cruel laws of reality."

"Children?"

"Nope. Not going to happen. I'm not pregnant, if that's what you were asking."

"Too bad. It'd sort you out."

"I am sorted. Alcohol and drugs only on the weekends. It's clean living now. Of all the pleasures I'm still getting sex and food under control, but I'm working on myself, trust me."

Katya does nothing but express her interiority, however sarcastically; Elena becomes a sublime object, despite how much time there is to watch and get to know her. In part this is because Katya--who has the last word on everything--distrusts her performances. "Listen, Elena Anatolievna. You're playing the role of the worried wife. You do that very well. Congratulations." I therefore contracted the same paranoid reading of Elena's every facial movement. This both made her fascinating to watch, and is rather unforunate. Vladimir by contrast is highly readable. For a little while the camera follows him about his day. He goes to the gym; he ogles girls. The only perhaps mystifying thing about him is his rejection of pleasure, which is a fairly mundane bit of father psychology.

Defamiliarizing the feminine is rather familiar. But then, I already admitted the origin of this scrutiny. Isn't this just how the wealthy eye the poor: with the suspicion that the poor are out to take their money? In this case, it's true. By the end, Elena's family have taken over Vladimir's house. But while the hysterical search for the actor behind the act may have a sound cause, there's no sense in it. Which makes me wonder about having watched Elena, during which I looked endlessly for signs of Elena.

Do you prefer your movie-going sensible or senseless?

2 October 2012