A Handful of Dust

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Novel * Evelyn Waugh * Come With Me under This Red Rock * 1934

Synopsis

Evelyn Waugh was fairly late to the Modernism party, but boy did he fit right in. His first novel, Decline and Fall, was a book where everyone is terrible all the time and it is clear that the entire English social order is on the verge of collapse. I’m not sure you can cleanly define the work of Evelyn Waugh as purely satire, although the books I’ve read have all had their moments. That said, these characters have some depth to them, and they’re doing more than simply serving a broader point being made by the author. Generally speaking, satire relies on flat characterization bordering on caricature in order to subvert expectations and create pointed, ridiculous situations. Waugh’s characters are not as well-defined as others in and around Modernism, and there is a surfeit of ridiculous situations, however there is still a tenuous humanity to them. A Handful of Dust is a novel in which silly and awful things happen to silly and awful people, yet there is still a lingering sense of sadness for something which has all but fallen apart.

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It’s Brenda Last, another Modern Woman here to wreck your shit all up!

The story begins with a character named John Beaver, which is a silly name for a silly man. I don’t mean he’s silly in that he’s some wacky goofball pulling pranks, I mean silly in that he’s sort of pointless and is almost aggressively subpar as a person. Pretty much every single other character hates him, including his rather horrid, conniving mother. Where some of the Waugh satire comes in is that despite being pretty much universally despised, Beaver never really does anything egregiously wrong, or mean, or stupid. He just kind of is. He exists in a world of English society that is, between apocalyptic world wars, undergoing a massive shift. More precisely, the horrors of World War I stripped bare the frailties of the European Order and what was left was kind of an empty husk filled with a good deal of disillusioned wealthy idiots trying to paper over the massive failure of society that led to the war. I say that Beaver is a pointless human being because he exists in this world of social parties and intrigue without even being able to engage the other pointless human beings who make up that world in the first place. There’s also the part where A Handful of Dust isn’t actually about John Beaver.

The book is actually about a couple of landed English aristocrats, Tony and Brenda Last. The surname there isn’t particularly subtle. Tony and Brenda live in their ancestral House, one of the massive manors that litter the countryside, with their truly awful little son, John Andrew. This family gets up to the kind of aristocratic nonsense that you’d might expect. They spend entirely too much time trying to maintain the massive house and arguing whether or not it should be updated and modernized. Brenda decides that she doesn’t socialize enough, and eventually goes to London to re-integrate herself with her social peers. John Andrew is learning how to ride horses and how to be a misogynist little shit. The thing is, in their way, they’re every bit as pointless and hollow as John Beaver. To don’t really do anything. They’re emblematic of a larger English society of people from ancient families with enormous houses and lot of inherited wealth but not much else. I won’t discuss plot points above the break, but suffice to say the novel does not go well for these people. Considering the title of the novel, that probably shouldn’t surprise anyone.

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This cover is… quite a bit more whimsical than the story within.

Discussion

Given the type of book this is, and what kind of writer Waugh is, I was fairly sure what to expect from the narrative. That is to say, since this is an English, interwar, Modernist novel and is written by an author known for dark, absurdist humor, I knew things were going to get fucked up. And boy did they! There are three major developments in the story, and you can probably guess what the first two are. First of all, in this disaffected family dramedy, Brenda begins an ill-advised affair with John Beaver, whom she does not respect. The title of this chapter is “Hard Cheese on Tony,” which is almost too British. Still, that’s a pretty common move for these kind of books, and there are more serious examinations of high-society family dynamics and the underlying visceral emotion of infidelity. If that’s what you’re looking for, Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Parade’s End are there for you. In A Handful of Dust, it’s just a thing that happens. Brenda is bored and Tony is clueless and their kid fucking sucks. Brenda ends up with Beaver, despite clearly not liking him, as an arguably unintended consequence of getting an apartment in the city. It goes about as badly as one might expect, because as an upper class Lady of the House, she has absolutely no idea how to live in the real world.

Meanwhile, Tony putters around making pathetic entreaties to his obviously disinterested wife, and continues existing. That’s pretty much what Tony is best at. Then the second big plot point happens, and once again you could see it coming. John Andrew, the shitty little kid, gets his dumb ass killed. And if it sounds like I’m being overly harsh to this young life being snuffed out, well, he’s not real so relax. Also, this is the kind of situation where Waugh’s immensely dark sense of humor shines. This kid gets kicked to death by a horse (okay, parenthetical tangent, but horses are the actual worst and anyone who says otherwise is not to be trusted. Look at these monsters. Why are their heads so enormous and weird? Why do they smell all horsey like that? And those fucking teeth! Gah, they’re awful and I hate them), and the immediate response by everyone present was to reassure each other that it was nobody’s fault, really. Half the people didn’t even know the little idiot’s name, and the only people to really react were his parents. Once again, if you’re looking for a more serious examination of how the death of a child would resonate these kinds of people, check out Point Counter Point. Here, the disaster is more to set up further strange things and the absurd finale.

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A fruitful avenue of analysis would be to examine the role of a new technology, the telephone, in the novel and how it provides another layer of abstraction and feelings of disconnect between characters. Fun!

Once the kid croak-boats, A Handful of Dust gets… strange. Brenda demands a divorce. Okay, well, “demands” is a strong word. Here’s what she actually says:

“You must have realized for some time that things were going wrong.

I am in love with John Beaver and I want to have a divorce and marry him. If John Andrew had not died things might not have happened like this. I can’t tell. As it is, I simply can’t begin over again. Please do not mind too much. I suppose we shan’t be allowed to meet while the case is on but I hope afterwards we shall be great friends. Anyway I shall always look on you as one whatever you think of me.”

That, by the way, is the exact tone of the entire novel and everyone in it. Distant and disengaged in reality, and completely out of touch with raw human emotion. My favorite bit is her politely asking him “not to mind too much.” Anyway, Tony does actually mind, not that you’d really notice. He agrees to the divorce, and there is a bit of a farce making fun of archaic English divorce laws in which Tony has to pretend to be the one having an affair. It’s from this point that A Handful of Dust takes aim at poor Tony Last and just unloads on him. He’s lost his wife, his son, and most of his friends. Eventually, in order to feel alive (I guess) he goes to Brazil with an explorer. Bad things happen to him here, as you might expect from some inexperienced ding-dong muddling about in the jungle. Tony gets sick and his companion gets himself killed and their “Indian guides” abandon him. There’s a swerve, though, one which I was not able to anticipate. Yes, it is true that Tony never escapes the Amazon jungle. No, it is not because he dies of malaria or whatever. In fact, he finds another Englishman, Mr. Todd, deep in the unmapped jungle. If you’re looking for a serious take on this situation, read Heart of Darkness, because what happens here is… goofy. This guy has made a go of it away from civilization, and nurses Tony back to health. For the specific purpose of having a captive Englishman around to read Dickens novels to him. When people come to rescue Tony, Mr. Todd poisons him so that he cannot alert the rescuers to his presence. Once they’re gone, Tony recovers only to find that he is the eternal prisoner of Mr. Todd, and is only being kept alive to continue to read Dickens. The end. I know, right?

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Posted in Books, Modernity | Leave a comment

Fallout 3

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Game * Bethesda Game Studios * Retro-Future Nukes! * 2008

Synopsis

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think I’m nearing the end of my desire to play more Fallout games. At the very least, I am of the firm conviction that Bethesda needs to mix their shit up because I don’t know that I can do this again. Of course, almost as if to mock me, Fallout 76 was just announced and boy is that not the kind of game I’m into. Still. It’s Bethesda trying something new and different, opening up the kind of game they make, and the simultaneous announcement of both a new I.P. and a new Elder Scrolls in the somewhat distant future ensures that they’re not giving up on the massive single player experience. Which is what I like because who needs other humans? That said, my hope for those two new games is that they change up the formula. It’s not my place to tell them how to do that, but I just played through Fallout 3 again and boy, it was a lot more tedious than I remembered. Perhaps that’s because I basically played it the same was as I did ten years ago (!!!), and so the story played out basically the same way. I don’t think that’s it, though. I’m not sure what it is, so let’s figure it out.

Fallout 3, if you’re not familiar, is a game set 200-some-odd years after a nuclear apocalypse destroyed civilization. In other words, the exact kind of thing I like. You play the Vault Dweller, which is a character that you kinda-create. As ever, my character is a smart, sneaky, resourceful young woman named Jillian. The game begins with Jillian’s birth, which is the game’s clever way of choosing your starting stats and whatnot. You’re born in a Vault, a secure, self-contained underground location that survived the nuclear war. However, all is not well within the Vault. Your dad is a bit of a troublemaker, it seems, and is in conflict with the Overseer, who is desperate to keep the doors to the outside world closed and his power in effect. Well, the game truly begins when you discover that your dad has left and the Overseer is cracking down on dissent. Fallout 3 has a morality system, dubbed “Karma,” so you can basically choose how things play out from this point. Your bestie is the daughter of the Overseer and she wants to help you escape. Do so without violence, and she’s cool. Kill her dad and she’s less so. Regardless, if you want to continue with the game, you must leave the Vault and enter the Capital Wasteland.

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Grey: The Game. To be fair, there’s a little sickly yellow and beige as, like, accent colors.

In 2008, that was an incredible moment. Yes, it was basically the same moment as 2006’s Oblivion, in which your character emerges from a sewer into an enormous open world, but whatever. It’s impressive. Hell, it was still impressive last time out in Fallout 4. You step out of your hidey hole and there’s a lens flare and a huge world sprawled out before you. And of course as the player you know that thing is all for you to roam around in. It’s the “see that mountain you can walk there” moment, and it still has power. Here’s the thing, though: That moment is only as good as the world the game delivers. Relax, Fallout delivers an amazing world that I love, and in 2008 this game was fucking mind blowing. I mean, unless you’re a Fallout 1&2 purist and you’re mad that these games aren’t isometric tactics games, in which case the world has moved on and yo, those games still exist. Still, this last playthrough was instructive as to why Fallout 4 didn’t quite feel right. There is a lot of repetition in the world design, from the complete and utter lack of color to the look and feel of the various locations down to the seven songs on the radio.

Let’s just face it, this game is incredibly grey. Yes, I get it, it’s a nuclear wasteland. Still, both outside and inside, everything is just shades of grey. In all these years nobody has figured out how to paint, apparently. It gets wearisome after a time, especially when paired with some fairly dire navigational choices. Oh, you want to walk around downtown D.C. and explore? Well sucks to be you, because in order to get anywhere you have to travel in an endless array of subway tunnels that all look exactly the same. Nor are these tunnels clearly marked, hell no, you just dip in and trudge through them and pop back on the surface. If you’re lucky, you’re a little closer to where you want to go. More likely, you end up in the complete opposite direction, so it’s right back into the tunnel so you can look for the next identical tunnel to hopefully get you to where you want to go. It’s awful, and I remember hating it when I first played it. Eventually, though, you get to where you’re going and then Fallout 3 is cool again. Which is to say you can get back into the various storylines.

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The only character who matters.

Discussion

There might be a way to finish this article without sounding like a total Negative Nicolas, but it’s probably going to take another paragraph or two of pointed criticism, so we’ll see. This is because the mainline story just didn’t resonate all that much with me. There’s a couple of primary reasons for this. The first is, none of the characters are particularly deep or sympathetic. The game basically hopes you either have a good relationship with your father – or a terrible one – so that the narrative choices your character make resonate within the story. I guess? Look, it’s difficult to craft a story around a character which can run a gamut of actions. Since the moral center of the protagonist is uncertain, the writers have to attempt to figure out what that character is going to do in any given situation. Videogames have progressed a little since 2008, but this is still a tricky story writing issue in the medium. The best versions tend to have a ready-made character that the player can nudge one way or the other, like Captain Shepard in Mass Effect. In Fallout 3, however, most of the character creation is left to the player. And while I enjoy that freedom, the narrative structure suffers for it.

Luckily for the game and the player, then, there are more memorable stories and vignettes within the world of the Capital Wasteland to stumble across. The main story is whatever. It moves you through the world and introduces you to its post-apocalyptic factions and also Three Dog, who is dope. Yet by the end, after you discover your old man’s back story and what happened to your mother and whatnot, none of it really lands, largely because of the reason noted above. You can nobly sacrifice yourself for the betterment of humanity and tbthh, whatevs. However, try being evil for once and go in and nuke Megaton. Now, if you’re like me (and apparently the majority of players) I’m a ridiculous goody-goody when a game gives me a morality spectrum. Yet after I wrapped up my playthrough this go-around, I went back in, created a straight-up doughy serial killer, and set about being evil. I wiped out everyone I could in the starting Vault, then marched straight to Megaton, found that creepy weirdo who gives you the option of blowing up the town, and then did so straight away. And holy shit! You do that for no other reason than because some bored old man could have a laugh. I dunno, I appreciate that kind of chaotic evil from time to time. It was definitely more memorable than the good path, where you haul scrap metal to some goof so he can fix up the water system. Blah.

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Just blow it all up.

There’s value to the good path, of course, as it is inherently fun to storm a slaver stronghold and wreck their entire shit up. Also, there are just a ton of flippin’ weirdos out there to find and deal with. All that grey has driven humanity to same strange and upsetting places, let me tell you what. There’s the Republic of Dave, in which some dude has convinced a handful of idiots that he’s some kind of king. There’s that one lady who is obsessed with Nuka-Cola like some kind of even-more-depressing-adult-Disney-weirdo. Also, vampires?! Anyway, the point is there are strange doins going on in the Capital Wasteland and it’s still fun to go and find them. That said, boy, the world still seems pretty sparse. If you look a filled-in map of the world it seems bewildering, but there were times I’d wander around for like an hour and only find a few radscorpions and the occasional boring raider-cave. And while the ritual murder of wasteland pirates is fun and all, the harsh level cap sucks some of that fun out.

I am always going to have a fondness for Fallout 3, regardless if the game itself isn’t as appealing as it may have been ten years ago. That’s fine. Sometime down the line I’m probably going to go back through New Vegas, which if I recall is a better game. It’s brown instead of grey. Regardless, it’s probably the apex of what Bethesda has done with this particular formula. There are ways to go about making a Fallout 5 (in like 2028) that take all the things I love about the concept and world and make it less of a drag. Honestly, Fallout 4 took care of some of the above issues. It’s more colorful, the world is more meaningfully dense, and the progression issues are mostly mitigated. Yet there’s still the roadblock of storytelling, and how to properly integrate a user-created protagonist into the game world. I might consider getting rid of a main quest storyline altogether and focus on a series of interconnected vignettes instead. I’m sure there are other solutions, assuming, of course, that Fallout 76 doesn’t just become the new template of Fallout games. It’s weird, but I’m not sure that would bum me out all that much. I’m a proponent of new ideas and new worlds, and it could very well be time for Fallout to just fade away.

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Winter

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Novel * Marissa Meyer * Happy Large-Scale Atrocities Ever After * 2015

Synopsis

Since this is the fourth and final novel in this particular narrative, there’s very little point in protecting anyone from spoilers. If you are vested in these books, you’ve finished them. If not, you probably figured out that they’re not for you three books ago. Either way, there’s little to be gained in explaining what happened. That said, I think I’m fine with the ending. Obviously, from the very framing of these novels, the series could only end one way. If you base your stories on fairy tales and they don’t all live happily ever after, you’ve fucked up. No matter what happens over the course of the story, we know the good guys will prevail and the correct people will match up and evil will be vanquished, because that’s how fairy tales work. All manner of grisly shit can go down between the once upon a time and the happily ever after, of course, but we’re working within a framework here. However, we’re also working within a modern, sci-fi/fantasy framework as well, so in order for the happily ever after to work, it needs to be earned. Meyer succeeds in that, for the most part, and where she does not, it barely matters.

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Apparently nobody told the French cover designer that Winter isn’t a white girl.

Discussion

For the most part, I’ve quite enjoyed this series up until this novel, so you can imagine my consternation when the first couple hundred pages or so of Winter left me fairly cold. I’m not certain if it’s the pacing, or the backsliding into obnoxious young adult fiction romance tropes, or puzzling character choices, or if Winter’s character wasn’t quite up to par. Now that I write that all out, it’s clearly an amalgamation of those issues, none of which were negative enough to deter me from pushing through. It made me anxious, though, because one thing I’ve learned over the years is that closing a series out is hard. And when an author really biffs it, it can put a damper on what came before. Perhaps that’s not entirely fair to the preceding material, but while reading the beginning of Winter, I was legit worried. What if this was a Divergent situation? As it happens, it is not. Eventually the pacing picks up, the romantic relationships stabilize, and I finally got behind Winter as a character. Meyer gets there in the end, which is great because The Lunar Chronicles make for some excellent summer reading and now I can recommend them in good conscience.

Now that we’ve reached the end of the series, I can give you my definitive ranking for the principal characters. First, of course, is Cinder. She’s had the most time to be properly fleshed out, and her arc is fairly well-realized. I’m not sure if I mentioned it last time or not, but it bears repeating. Over the course of the four novels, Cinder has grown from someone whose default mode was to be as invisible as possible to a true leader. This growth has been subtle, which I really appreciate. There were scenes in Winter where I noticed that Cinder was just chirping out orders, without the internal waffling and uncertainty that had been haunting her ever since she realized that she’s royalty. When I noticed that I was both impressed with the writing and also kind of proud of this fictional character. Like, yeah, you got it. Leadership is “simply” the courage to make the best decisions you can and to stand by them, regardless of the outcome. When she fucks up, she owns it. When she succeeds, she gives credit where it’s due. By the end, Cinder has the conviction to do what she knows is right and in so doing wins over not just her crew, but her future subjects. Even on the precipice of failure, Cinder comes to her leadership honestly. When the day is finally won, she deserves her new role and approaches it as you’d expect.

After Cinder comes Cress, because I will always have a soft spot for the socially awkward making good despite having to overcome intense social anxiety. I know that Cress is extremely anime, and that her base characterization is probably the most well-worn trope, but whatever. I identify with that trope. Besides, I’m on record proclaiming that I don’t care how often a particular character type or plot device is used, so long as it’s done well. And Cress is great. She was instrumental in saving the day, she displayed deep courage and honesty, and she got her boy. What’s not to like? After Cress, Winter grew on me to the point of coming in third. Since she only really came along in the final book, she had the least amount of time to grow as a character. Despite that, she was generally fun to read. I’m not sure I’m fully on board with the whole dissociative aspect of her personality, but Winter has her own offbeat sense of humor that I enjoy.

I never really came around on Scarlet. Look, she’s fine. Also, I understand that her character was M.I.A. for most of an entire novel, which really cut into her screen time. I was just so completely bored with her relationship with Wolf that I kind of checked out of most of her scenes. Her best moments were those shared with Winter, and quite honestly Winter carried most of those. Scarlet is just kind of… mad a lot. I get it, she’s a fiery redhead and whatnot, but that’s about as deep as she gets. Also, more so than the other ladies, Scarlet seems defined by her relationship with Wolf. As we’ve seen, Cinder’s growth is the most pronounced and Kai is just kind of in awe of her most of the time. As he should be. Meanwhile, Cress had a childlike crush on Thorne from the onset, but over the course of the last two books she grew as a character first, and then naturally won Thorne because of her radness. Most importantly, Cress didn’t change and grow because of the boy, she changed and grew because the situation demanded it and she had the internal strength to accommodate that situation. The boy was secondary. Winter had a preexisting relationship with Jacin, of course, and most of her story has to do with controlling her madness long enough to help overthrow Levana. By contrast, Scarlet and Wolf spent the vast majority of the series pining for each other because they’re immediately co-dependent. Which is not great.

The Lunar Chronicles are one long fairy tale, obviously, so we know from the onset that everyone lives happily ever after. That’s great! Especially since I thoroughly enjoyed the principal characters and I feel like they deserve their happiness. Everyone is in love, and of course despite being teenagers they will remain so forever and ever. So, our protagonists are happily paired off and are enjoying their new lives of freedom and responsibility. That’s all well and good, but let us not forget the horrifying state of the world. Like, these eight people get to live happily ever after, but what of the teeming masses?

Turns out society is still super racist against cyborgs, despite Kai restoring them to mostly-human status. Meanwhile, this plague is still sweeping through humanity, and it’s going to take a while to get the cure out to the masses. And guess who’s going to benefit from the cure first? Oh you know it’s rich people. Then, you’ve got the fallout from the Lunar regime change. Earthen society isn’t exactly going to openly embrace the people who spent the last however many weeks sending genetically engineered monsters randomly into cities to kill tens of thousands of people. Oh, and then you’ve got the Lunars, who are getting that mind-control chip in their skull whether they want it or not, also they’ve got a huge ideological change coming up with Cinder’s new regime. On the one hand I’m glad Meyer didn’t attempt to wrap all this up with a cute little bow at the end. On the other, it never really seemed like the narrative took the large-scale atrocities enacted under both societies particularly seriously. In the end it barely matters. This is a character driven story, and so the happily-ever-after remains satisfying… if you don’t think about it too hard.

Posted in Books, Government, Plague, Uncategorized, Y.A.T. | Leave a comment

Predator

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Film * John McTiernan * I’m Sure There’s a Theme Somewhere* 1987

Synopsis

Yo, I just had a million dollar idea, stay with me. So I just wrote that article about Alien, and then I watched this dumb action classic Predator, and what if, like, they fought each other? ‘Cuz it’s like, the Predator is a super-hunter and only stalks the baddest of the bad, which in this case is mid-eighties Arnold Schwarzenegger, but what if he hunted the perfect organism? Huh? Eh? Sounds like it would make a great video game. Anyway, shut up, it turns out there’s not a ton to talk about when it comes to Predator. I thought there might be, but boy this is a cornball movie, which tracks, because I loved this shit when I was about ten. And like most ten-year-olds, I was a cornball. Most American kids in this time period were, I’m sure. It’s weird going back to some of these things and seeing what was legit and what is, well, like this. On the one hand you have something like Robocop, which is a movie that knows what it is doing and functions as sharply written satire. On the other, you have something like Predator, which also knows what it is doing, but has no other pretentions than blowing shit up real radical.

The above two movies are linking in my mind, probably because I saw them in the same general time frame of way too young. My two distinct memories of those films are arguably the two worst bits. In Robocop, it’s where Murphy is shot to pieces by the baddies. In Predator, it’s when Jesse Ventura gets his chest blown out by the Predator’s space laser, and there’s this big, lovingly-rendered, gaping chest-hole onscreen for like a second. The former was by far more traumatic. Yes, Predator is gross, what with the skinned people and the skull-claiming and all, but its primary function is to have beefy dudes with enormous guns shoot the shit out of things. Predator succeeds in this aim extremely well. It is apex Arnold Schwarzenegger. He totes around a massive gun with a grenade launcher attached to it. He flexes out a bunch. He stabs a guy to a wall and says “stick around.” He’s a representation of a brand of Americana that absolutely never existed.

 

 

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This is an important visual metaphor! I think!

Meanwhile, there is a story of sorts. Arnie, who I suppose is playing a character named Dutch, is a special forces war man who is now making a living as a search-and-rescue mercenary. I think? He’s been called in by Carl Weathers, playing a CIA man named Dillon. They are bros. Dutch has a team of new bros and they are in an undisclosed Latin American jungle in order to extract a couple of sensitive political hostages from some baddies. They do this by being stealthy for about thirty seconds before unleashing like ten million dollars in ammunition and explosives on the bad guys. It’s real cool. The movie then turns into a weird not-quite-horror movie when the Predator shows up and starts picking off Arnie’s team one by one, in various grisly ways. The Predator is an alien who hunts dangerous game. And as we all know, the most dangerous game of all is man. Specifically, it’s a man named Arnold Schwarzenegger. So the Predator is running around, basically invisible because it has all this advanced technology which gives it a massive advantage, murdering these fools and harvesting their skulls. There’s a lady? Anyway, eventually there’s a final battle. Guess who wins.

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Ah, bring it in here buddy!

Discussion

I’m not trying to be overly dismissive of this film. I like big, dumb action movies. I was raised on them, after all. No, hold on, that’s dumb. I was not raised by Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. That’s hyperbole. I have parents. They were around. They occasionally talked to me. There were hot dogs in the fridge. Also we had a Nintendo. So I’m not giving all the credit for my upbringing to stupid action flicks. I will give credit to them for my ability to enjoy particularly silly pop culture ephemera without thinking about them too much.  Sometimes, there’s no secret message. Sometimes, critics have to try too hard to make something out of nothing. Predator, in its broad, lowest-common-denominator way, is art. But it’s not important art. It’s exceedingly trivial art. The movie doesn’t want to resonate with any deeper meaning. It wants to resonate with sick kills and rad explosions. And that’s totally okay. Not every piece of media needs deeper analysis. That said, I think Predator might be responsible for Trump. Stay with me here.

First of all, I’m not trying to say that there are subliminal messages in the film which are imploring the audience to remember the name of a flamboyant New York real estate playboy so that 29 years later said audience would vote him into office. That’s just silly. No, what I’m saying is that Predator, and films like it, reinforce an already existing sense of populism that eventually coalesce around a charismatic figure who makes no rational sense but appeals to gut feelings of inferiority. How is that, you say? Take a look at the central source of conflict in the movie. No, not Arnie versus the alien big-game hunter. That’s the result of the conflict. I’m talking about the relationship between Dutch and Dillon. These two men have brought us two things. The first is the iconic shot of two absurdly beefy arms clasping hands and flexing out. Talk about inferiority! Ain’t no one watching this movie who could clasp hands with a fellow bro and have it look like that. I will certainly never be that manly. The second thing this bromance brings us is the crux of the film, and that is the reason Arnie and his gang is in the jungle in the first place.

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I disagree with your code of ethics and your elastic morality, good sir!

On the one hand, you have the pure soul of Arnold Schwarzenegger (I’ve given up on trying to remember character names, because who cares). Yes, he is burly and strong and probably not all that bright, but whatever he has an enormous gun with a dope grenade launcher on it. However, the film goes to great lengths to inform us how principled he is. Obviously he could kill you and everyone you love in an instant. Sure, he has a team of lethal trained killers at his command, most of whom are not exactly well-adjusted to polite society. None of this is important because he only uses his powers for good. He’s a vet! He’s the common man, out there to help a buddy in a pinch! That’s why he only uses his propensity for violence to rescue and save innocent Americans. He represents real American values, which he learned from, uh, the American military. Ignore that for a moment, though. Because here comes Carl Weathers, who is shifty and shady and meddlesome and a filthy, stinky, disgusting liar. He’s pure garbage, because he’s in the C.I.A. now and we all know what that means. That means he hates America!

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Oh no! Illegal immigrants!

Somewhere along the line, a sizable portion of the population managed an impressive feat of cognitive dissonance. Somewhere, the decision was made that “the troops” = good and “the government” = evil. Now, this is not the time or place to really delve into that dissonance, but it’s readily apparent in the film. Carl Weathers tricks Schwarzenegger into agreeing to come to the jungle to blow shit up. Arnold thinks he is helping people, but really he’s only helping Carl to gain some vague political advantage. Schwarzenegger, a mercenary now, doesn’t need the abstract construct of a government in order to know who it’s okay to blow up versus those who it is not okay to blow up. He only needs his pure American instincts. Carl, though, has been subsumed by the governmental bureaucracy and is more machine than man. And that’s why he dies. In the mind of Trump, and in the mind of his followers, Trump is Arnie. He is allowed to do whatever is necessary to get the job done, even if means blowing everything up, because despite his methods, his soul is pure. Never mind that reality is vastly more complicated. Never mind that Trump has only ever done anything for himself and his image and is about as pure as the dumpster behind a fish cleaning station. Never mind… just never mind. It’s at this point, alas, where my Predator metaphor falls apart. I like it when they all get mad and shoot the jungle, which now that I think about it makes a pretty apt image for what this administration has accomplished.

Posted in Aliens, Film, Politics! | Leave a comment

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

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Novel * David Shafer * The Encroaching Analytic Dystopia * 2014

Synopsis

Reading Whiskey Tango Foxtrot coincided with two things which I’m pretty sure combined to ensure that I would not really enjoy reading it all that much. The first thing is returning to work full time, which is a good thing since I really like my job, however it leaves me less time for things like reading and writing. The other thing is a shift from a reading-intensive phase to a doing-other-things phase. These things happen. Anyway, the result is that this book took me like three weeks to get through, and under other circumstances it would have taken far less time. Most of this isn’t the book’s fault. I’m pretty sure that when I was finished, I was of the opinion that it is, in fact, a pretty good novel. It’s just that reading it felt like a chore, and I’m not sure how much of that was me and how much of that was the book. Because even after moving on, I’m pretty sure there are some significant annoyances which are keeping me from wanting to fully recommend WTF. One thing is that the coded/abbreviated form of the title is WTF. Another is that the main characters are kind of dull and one is actively obnoxious. The final thing is that the plot is esoteric and abstract and never really comes together.

Hmm, that makes me think that I didn’t actually like the novel all that much. Well, let’s try a quick summary, and maybe that will diagnose my issues with the book. The story begins with a woman named Leila Majnoun, who is in Myanmar working for a nonprofit organization of some kind. She’s a pretty engaging character, and it isn’t too long before she gets herself into a sticky situation. By which I mean that she witnesses something that she shouldn’t have and is now on the bad side of a vindictive cabal of corporate overlords and governmental intelligence. So her life is all fucked up. Then we’ve got Leo, who is a wayward trust-fund goofball with mental illness issues. He lives in Portland, which is fun because I used to live in Portland, and Leo is very Portland. Anyway, he has a breakdown of sorts and in his ramblings inadvertently stumbles onto the same corporate conspiracy that Leila has. And then we have Mark, who sucks. To be clear, Mark is supposed to suck. He’s a mealy-mouthed, low-rent conman who has stumbled ass-backward into a lucrative book deal and an inexplicably fruitful relationship with a billionaire. He’s an old college buddy of Leo’s, and coincidentally the billionaire who is Mark’s patron is also part of the aforementioned conspiracy.

The conspiracy itself is where the book has trouble keeping tabs on the actual plot. Part of this is because the nature of the corporate conspiracy is vague and abstract. Basically, the evil companies are in cahoots with corrupt government agencies and other international powers and have devised technology which can harvest the personal information of everyone in the world. They will then use this information to, like, profit and maybe enslave the thoughts of humanity? It’s super unclear. There’s underwater mega-databases and not-iPhones-but-totally-iPhones and secret security firms and who knows what else. Then there’s the resistance, who recruit Leila with some kind of weird Snow Crash-like computer program that connects everyone’s brains together or something. Speaking of Snow Crash, I repeatedly got the feeling that WTF was a slowed down version of Neal Stephenson’s book. This is not necessarily a bad thing, yet it really does seem like this novel has a hard time keeping track of its own ideas about data analytics and their role in modern society. Information is indeed power, but I’m not convinced WTF knows exactly what kind of power that is.

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Discussion

Oh thank sweet inflatable wacky waving Jesus, I’m so happy this copy of the book has a reading group guide. Oh, and these questions are also extremely full of their own cleverness. I’m writing them out verbatim, and I’m 99% sure the author wrote them. Okay. Here we go.

  1. Each of WTF’s three main characters seem to be opening a different book. In such a case, how soon should the author promise the reader that separate strands of a story will come together? How much time does the author have to make a case for the reader’s continued engagement?

Holy shit, that’s totally something I would write because I would still somehow be insecure about a narrative method I used, despite being published already. Anyway this question highlights my other main issue about the novel. There are way too many words spent on each character doing, saying, and thinking utterly inessential things throughout the story. I don’t care about how each character is introduced, however I do care that entirely too much time is spent with each and every one of them while they fuck off and don’t do anything. This goes especially for Mark, who in addition to being a douche is also extremely boring.

  1. Did you find it hard to credit that there would be this amazingly competent NGO logistician working alone in a beautiful and exotic city? If in fact you found Leila too conveniently badass, were there other elements of her character that mitigated that effect, that made her seem real to you?

Jesus, the insecurity just keeps getting worse. Anyway, that Leila was competent and smart and tough is not what annoyed me, it was constantly being told that she was the most beautifullest girl in the whole wide world. I get it, male author, you like babes. And of course there are physically attractive people of all kinds who are also smart and successful. And it is right and good to hate them. Especially when they’re also nice and pleasant and good cooks who also shred the guitar and are better writers than me.

  1. Is Mark a charming jerk or an uncharming jerk?

The latter, but what’s worse is that he’s a basic bitch and the books spends way too much time with him.

  1. Wouldn’t it be cool if Ikeas comprised a global network of safehouses?

I’m not sure that bit was as clever as you thought it was.

  1. When did you first know that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was a coded title?

Like right away? Again, this is not as clever as you clearly want it to be.

  1. Had you any acquaintance with the word game the Jumble before page 184? Did you try to solve that puzzle as you read it in the book? Or is that the kind of Easter-egg shit you skip over when reading fiction?

Ooh, the discussion questions are getting edgy! There’s a swear! Also fuck you.

  1. Did you notice that the entire novel is a palindrome?

FUUUUCK YOOOOU!

  1. How do you feel about the TSA? Isn’t it a little strange that we all agreed to subject ourselves to their airport screening experience? How much of that do you think is actually Security Theater? Like, say, if they had taken half a banana right out of your daughter’s hands: would you think, Thank God these people are keeping us safe? Or would you think: WTF?

I would think, huh, is the author working on a bit for his open mike stand up set? The real answer is that in our post-9/11 safety fervor we did it to ourselves. We wrote President Bush and Congress a blank check to keep us safe from “terror.” And insofar as granting certain segments of the government unprecedented power is concerned, it worked a treat.

  1. Did you see that they’re now selling as advertising space the bottom of the bin in which they make you put their shoes? WTF?

Holy shit, this IS a bit. It’s like “you might be a redneck” but instead, at the end of every trite observation, he just uses the abbreviation of his book title in lieu of a punchline. Also that question is a fucking terrible sentence.

  1. You know it’s not a cloud, right? You know it’s a vast network of secure servers storing everything we do and drinking our rivers to keep themselves cool?

Jesus, this is some top-notch, Portland, Oregon, passive-fucking-aggressiveness right here. Also, I’m willing to bet that if anyone ever calls these awful, awful questions out the author defends them by saying something like “oh, uh, well these questions are all written as if Leo from the book wrote them,” and okay, sure, but also fuck you.

  1. That 5-zettabyte listening post and data-storage complex the NSA built in Bluffdale, Utah – did we ever vote on whether we wanted one of those?

NONE OF THESE QUESTIONS HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENED IN THE BOOK. Jesus, these things read like angry Tweets from a conspiracy account. Also, that’s not how a representative republic works, take a civics class. It would be impossible to put every policy decision up for a vote, you disingenuous dingbat. Also, there’s over 300 million people in this country, most of whom could not give a shit how their cell phone works so long as it works. At this point I should also mention that I have extremely limited patience for stupid conspiracy theories, regardless of where on the political spectrum they originate.

  1. Which side do you think Tessa Bright is on?

Could not care less.

  1. Is Mark sincere in his commitment to Dear Diary?

No, wait, it turns out I can actually care less.

  1. Does Mark make it to Sine Wave 2?

Oh yeah, by the way, the book doesn’t actually end. Which I guess is fine since the plot is so ambiguous and nebulous, but there is absolutely no resolution to what plot there is. Now, I suppose you could argue that the characters were the focus, and I would agree that for the most part there is some kind of arc and growth for most of these people. However, I would also point out that the ambiguous ending trope only works if it is, in fact, ambiguous. The end of WTF isn’t unclear, or left to the reader’s interpretation, it just ends before the fucking story is over. And that’s a copout. So to answer this question, since the author clearly doesn’t give a shit, neither do I.

Posted in Books, Conspiracy, Corporations | Leave a comment

Alien

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Film * Ridley Scott * Hidden Corporate Dystopia * 1979

Synopsis

Alien is one of those things where I watch it, and enjoy it, and appreciate it, but never find myself evangelizing for it. Never mind that I like similar things which hearken back to this particular movie in spirit, or use it for inspiration. I dunno, it’s like how I feel about The Pixies. Like, I get it. I like some songs. They were a major influence on pretty much every band that came after them that I fucking love. I’m just never going to put them in a personal top 10… or 20… or 50. Likewise with Alien. I like it a lot. But I pretty much fall asleep during the first 45 minutes or so every time I try and watch it. Maybe I should try not watching it after a long work week lying down on my comfy, comfy couch. But also maybe the movie should move its ass a little bit. Anyway, this time the same thing happens that always happens. I try to stay engaged, but the protracted, quiet, and dark scenes in the beginning lull me into a doze. Then something loud happens! And shit, I missed the scene where they discover the weird egg lair again. But then it’s quiet for another long stretch and here comes sleepytime again. Then bang! Oh shit it’s just the cat. Alien is a Pixies song, is what I’m saying.

I have actually seen this entire film before. Several times even. So if you’re new to what this even is, it’s basically a pure horror movie. Yeah, yeah, it’s set in a spaceship and takes place in outer space and the movie is called Alien, but the science fiction elements are an effective setting as opposed to the actual point of the movie. Well, that’s not entirely true, but we’ll get to that later. Anyway, Alien is first and foremost a horror film. The setting is a commercial, industrial-ass spaceship staffed with seven blue-collar spacers. They’re in transit back to earth after doing their space-mining or whatever. However, they’re awakened early because the ship detected a distress signal and therefore the crew of the Nostromo is obligated to investigate the source of the signal. If science fiction has taught us anything, it’s that this is always a terrible idea. As it happens, the distress signal is not human in origin. The crew crash lands on a small… moonlet? Asteroid? I dunno, some scary and sterile spacescape. Anyway, they decide they have little else to do but check it out.

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Oh no spooky alien! It’s probably for the best we only see the xenomorph in glimpses.

Obviously this goes poorly for them. While I generally take care regarding spoilers, this movie is the same age as me, which means it is ancient. Also, I’m pretty sure that most of the story was pretty well telegraphed by the promotional materials when it came out. Anyway, while out on the planetoid, they discover a creepy, H.R. Giger designed, goth-boy den of nightmares. They find a suggestive alien skeleton and a bunch of gross slimy eggs. One of the crew members falls in and contracts a… thing. The crew then recovers him, and despite being comatose with a huge crack in his helmet’s faceplate and some kind of heretofore unknown alien creature attached to him, the decision is made to bring him back onto the ship. Great idea! The only source of rational thought in this entire situation comes from our protagonist, Ripley. Everyone else is either evil or a fucking ding-dong. I mean, it’s a horror movie, there are many bad choices made throughout. Eventually, the cute little baby facehugger alien turns into a terrifying slimy devil-monster that stalks and kills its prey and is also like impossible to kill. It’s all very scary and cool, but let’s take a minute to figure out why Alien is also indicative of a horrible corporate dystopia.

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Ripley is so sick of your shit, corporations. Also, Ripley is rad in this movie, which probably goes without saying.

Discussion

Actually, it’s not that difficult to figure out, considering the motive behind bringing the pitch black nightmare creature on board is a critical plot point. Towards the end of the film, Ripley is getting fed up with the stonewalling of the ship’s science officer, Ash. The dipshit captain, Dallas, was just killed so now Ripley is in charge and is demanding answers as to how to finally kill this fucking acid-blooded death-demon. Ash is still refusing to answer questions, although it’s clear he knows some shit and is being a prick about it. So Ripley goes into the ship’s weird analog computer room, designated such because it is mostly white with a bunch of random blinky lights and a very 1979 computer monitor. This is MOTHER, which we’ve already seen when the aforementioned Dallas tried to figure out what the hell was going on and received an extremely helpful “cannot compute” answer from this weird future’s version of Google. Anyway, Ripley is getting nowhere with MOTHER until she uses her emergency override and discovers the truth of the matter, which is that “the company” set this all up from the get-go and that the crew is expendable.

Somehow, Alien has managed to create an entire dystopian society with seven characters, some impressive set design, and a few lines of text. I haven’t mentioned it yet, but I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered another movie where the sets have done so much narrative work. Obviously the ominous, claustrophobic, dreadful atmosphere is projected throughout the film by the dark, dank, grim corridors of the Nostromo. It’s clearly industrial in nature, which deftly communicates not only what kind of craft it is, but what kind of society it comes from. It’s basically a space-faring oil rig, at least aesthetically speaking. In tandem with the various conversations between the characters, it’s clear that labor politics are alive and well in the distant future. Most of the early dialogue, before the alien starts really tearing shit up, is either mundane chatter or bitter complaining about “shares” by the underclass, represented here by the maintenance crew. Clearly we’re dealing with a society that is not much different than ours, and that everything is still mostly dictated by sheer corporate capitalism. This sentiment is punctuated by Ash’s secret orders, Special Order 937, which explicitly states that the company has sent them to capture the nightmare devil-monster for research purposes.

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All this industrial dank does a lot of world-building work.

Obviously, Ripley is none too pleased with this information, which implies that the society she comes from has at least the semblance of personal freedom attached to it. We’re given precious little other information to make this determination, however. Ripley seems shocked and betrayed by this corporation’s behavior, as well she would be, so perhaps this kind of secretive, evil behavior by corporations isn’t common knowledge. Not that it needs to be to constitute a dystopian corporate state, of course. Generally speaking, totalitarian society liberally uses propaganda and misinformation to disguise their true natures, and it follows that corporate overlords use the same kind of tactics. From what we’re given in Alien, it’s impossible to say what kind of Earth Ripley is returning to. However, considering that “the company,” always referred to ominously like that, I don’t believe that it’s out of left field to think that the Earth of Alien is probably more like that of Blade Runner than what we have going on right now. Essentially, the pressures of late-stage capitalism have motivated a corporation to sacrifice human life in order to acquire an extraterrestrial of unknown capability and to bring the thing to Earth, regardless of the consequences. That’s hubris typical of behemoth corporations, but it’s also indicative of the great social divide between the workers and the masters, and the contempt in which the latter hold the former.

Posted in Aliens, Corporations, Film | 2 Comments

The Waste Land Project: The Tempest

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Play * William Shakespeare * Magic! Music! Other Things! * 1611

Synopsis

Comparative literary analysis is difficult, and anyone who says otherwise is either a damned liar or a damned engineer who thinks they’re better than me. I am not a Shakespeare scholar. I’m barely Shakespeare literate. I’ve read and/or seen (checks internet) nineteen of thirty-seven plays. That sounds like a lot, but I assure you I barely remember any of those. And while compared to say, Chaucer, Shakespeare’s variety of English is fairly easy to deal with, he’s still not exactly Stephen King when it comes to clear, modern language. All of this is to say that both trying to make sense of the various themes at play in The Tempest and somehow put those into the context of a poem written over three hundred years later is a challenge. Especially when Eliot’s masterwork is not exactly, ah, easy to decipher. I should be clear about this paragraph. My aim is not to complain about a task I set myself which comes with exactly zero expectations and even fewer repercussions should I get bored and quit. No. This entire preamble is an extended apology to anyone reading this who is better at Shakespearing than I am, and also to anyone hoping to find some kind of shimmering, illustrious elucidation that will suddenly make The Tempest and The Waste Land clear. Disclaimer over, so let’s muddle through this.

The most striking thing about The Tempest, at least in relationship with The Waste Land, is that of tone. I’m not sure you could categorize this play as a comedy, exactly, but it is by no means a tragedy. Everything works out in the end, and in the meantime there are various pranks being pulled and some silly bits. I’ve never watched a production of The Tempest, and I might have to rectify that, because the sense I get from the text is that this play is quite the show. Or at least it has that potential. There’s a big storm which I’m sure is fun to stage. Also there is a ton of music in this thing, which is probably catnip to any theatre student who wants to set The Tempest in like, late ‘70s Los Angeles or something and Ariel is in The Germs. NOBODY STEAL THIS IDEA. Anyway, on the surface this play doesn’t appear to have much of a place within the confines of Eliot’s poem. There’s your basic Shakespearian shenanigans surrounding various dukedoms and whatnot, but there’s no sense of impending doom and apocalypse that The Waste Land is basically founded on.

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This cover is weird for a lot of reasons, but mostly because the publisher thought Shakespeare needed a critic quote on the front. I’m not trusting anybody who was caught “unawares” by motherfucking William Shakespeare, ya heard?

While I may not be a Shakespeare scholar, one thing I’ve noticed in my causal enjoyment of his plays is that his plots are rarely the main attraction. At no point in my life have I been reading or watching one of his plays and wondering to myself “golly, I wonder what happens next.” I mean, mostly because I’ve never unironically used the term “golly,” but also because the ending is generally projected from the very beginning. You almost always know what you’re in for, and if some aspiring director decides to get frisky and change things up, the proper reaction should be annoyance. Romeo and Juliet should not live to become professional surfer-assassins and King Lear shouldn’t have a sick jetpack. Mmm. Okay, well if the jetpack is true to his character, fine. Because that’s really the point, in the end. Nobody goes into the aforementioned Romeo and Juliet wondering if maybe they’re going to make it this time. We’re there watch the tragedy unfold because it is inevitable, and despite that preordained suffering, we can appreciate our humanity. Or some other kind of theatre school bullshit, I don’t know. What I do know is that The Tempest is a weird play.

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Listen up, girl, shit’s about to pop off up in here and I don’t want you to freak out and go ham on the first dude you see.

All the action of the play is set into motion when this cat Prospero is usurped from his rightful place as the Duke of Milan by his brother, Antonio. Alonso, the king of Naples is apparently fine with this gross injustice. Ferdinand, Alonso’s son, doesn’t seem to give much of a shit about any of this, although that may be me projecting my own disinterest in Ferdinand. Anyway, the thing about Prospero is that he’s a wizard or some shit. He also lives on this mystical island with his lovely daughter Miranda, some poor troglodyte named Caliban who is basically a slave, and a spirit named Ariel. As the play begins, Prospero has magicked up a storm real good because Alonso and a bunch of his royal cronies, including Antonio, were out on their party boat or whatever and Prospero was there to fuck em up. So everyone ends up on this island thinking those who are not in their group are dead, meanwhile Prospero is using Ariel to do pranks and manipulate people. And jam out, there’s lots of singing for a Shakespeare play. Oh, and Ferdinand and Miranda fall in love immediately, because that’s how relationships work in Shakespeare. Hijinks ensue, everyone realizes what a shithead they’ve been, Prospero gets his shit back, and Ferdinand and Miranda get it on. The Tempest, y’all.

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Did the Pre-Raphaelites love them some Miranda? Oh hell yes they did.

Discussion

A problem arises when I read something like The Tempest and have to think about it. My brain immediately rebels, like no! I got it! We did it, we’re done! Everyone’s cool in the end, remember? But then some other, probably deeply insecure part of my brain which feels like it has something to prove speaks up, and I have to sit here and try and answer questions. Why would Eliot choose this seemingly random line from a work which is so dissimilar to his own? Well whatever, let’s throw ‘em up and see what happens:

Full fathom five thy father lies;

Of his bones are coral made;

Those are pearls that were his eyes:

Nothing of him that doth fade

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.

Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell

Okay, that’s Prospero’s servant-spirit Ariel singing to Ferdinand about his dead, drowned dad. Of course, his father isn’t actually drowned, Prospero just wants him to believe he is. (Side note: there goes Shakespeare just pulling English phrases which will become common expressions for hundreds of years directly out of his ass. Sea-change, c’mon.) Okay, here’s Eliot:

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,

Had a bad cold, nevertheless

Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,

With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,

Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,

(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)

Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,

The lady of situations.

Okay, first of all, since it won’t come up in later editions of The Waste Land Project, allow me to point out how much I enjoy the phrase “The lady of situations.” I don’t know what that means but I love it. Now, woof, let’s spool the rest of this out. First of all, we’ve got like three threads working within this one passage from The Waste Land. First we’ve got Madame Sosostris, named for the fraud fortune teller from Crome Yellow. She’s out here dealing completely fictional Tarot cards (as Eliot mentions in his own notes) as a lark. The use of the Tarot here is purely for entertainment, because they didn’t have video games in the 1920’s, and is stripped of any ritualistic meaning it may have once had. It seems that this ritualistic meaning may have had roots in the fertility rituals that much of The Waste Land is rooted in, as noted in From Ritual to Romance. So we’ve got all that churning under the surface, and then Eliot plops a parenthetical right in the middle of it all, which is our Tempest reference. I’m trying my serious-minded grad school best to not just dismiss this as Eliot being flippant. Because T.S. Eliot was not a man anyone would ever describe as flippant. Yet given the context for this passage, and especially because it is a parenthetical, the line just seems like Eliot showing off. Like, “oh, look at this other thing I know.” And that attitude is very much like T.S. Eliot.

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Lord spare me from silly-billy versions of classic literature.

Yet this is literary analysis, where there are no accidents and coincidence does not exist. I know this, because I did a brief search about The Waste Land and The Tempest and was immediately rewarded with dozens of academic articles (which I cannot read because I do not have the extremely expensive access to databases like JSTOR and the like) about this very reference. One article, written in the 60’s, claims that The Tempest is a major reference, rather than a minor one. And I would really like to read that, because it seems like a reach. Frankly, this reference seems like a very T.S. Eliot attempt at learned humor. The joke, if it is one, is clearly a stuffy, erudite examples of humor, but I wouldn’t expect anything less. This entire section featuring Madame Sosostris is a goof, an example of short-form satire lampooning the popularity of the occult among the moneyed classes at the time. Of course, like everything else in this poem, the joke has an edge to it. This is simply another example of the degradation of culture. In antiquity, humans had a real relationship with the power of nature and in so doing created various rituals calling on the supernatural in an attempt to somehow mediate these powers. Those once-serious rituals are now played for the giggles of the upper class.

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Two things. First, the expression on these dude’s faces are gold: “get a load of this fucked up goblin, let’s punch it.” Second, that’s Gollum, right?

The passage used from The Tempest is about metamorphosis, and I’ve already pointed out how the term “sea-change” is yet another example of Shakespeare’s ability to straight up coin phrases out of thin air. Ariel is singing to Ferdinand here, basically trying to freak him out about his father’s supposed drowning death. Yet at the same time, the passage is somehow comforting. Like, yeah your old man is fish food, but in a way his death is beautiful, as nothing ever really ends but only transforms. Eliot is less positive in his outlook, because in this instance the transformation is a degradation. Madame Sosostris lays out a card meant to provoke – the drowned Phoenician Sailor – and makes this offhand Tempest reference as a motion to comfort. Of course nothing in The Waste Land is offhand, in the same way that nothing about T.S. Eliot is flippant, however the use of it here in that parenthetical and the emphasis placed on “Look!” marks it out as an aside. Yet by evoking The Tempest in the first place, Eliot is placing his own work within the context of Prospero’s magic island. It’s a nod to a time when people were capable of understanding magic and mysticism within the human sphere as opposed to a form of entertainment. The Tempest is about many modes of humanity, not the least of which is the transformation of perspective, which of course is paraded around in Act V. The Waste Land is about how those modes of humanity have changed with modernity. Eliot’s use of Ariel’s speech might have been delivered with a literary wink, but fitting with the tone of the poem it simply highlights what we’ve lost as a culture.

Posted in Books, Waste Land Project | Leave a comment

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

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Film * Stephen Herek * A Most Excellent Utopia * 1989

Synopsis

Most of the time, I’m here writing about books and movies which are, by most metrics, incredibly depressing. However you define “apocalypse,” whether it’s the literal end of the world, or a transition in a historical process, or the inevitable decline of civilization, or whatever, it usually includes bad times for a lot of people. If you scroll through the archives I spend a lot of time talking about disasters both real and imagined, the unsustainability of social constructs, ennui and despair, the harsh, eternal reality of universal entropy and the inevitable heat death of the universe. You know, fun stuff. Occasionally, especially if I’ve been on Twitter too much, I need to engage with a more positive worldview. I need to pretend that there’s a possibility of things being okay, that the fundamental mindset of humanity isn’t belligerent self-destruction. This is especially true in 2018, when social discourse seems more mean-spirited that it has been in the past. Like, I understand that most of this is perception born out of the immediate access to a vast social sphere that has been unavailable in the past, but like any other rapidly evolving technology, social media grew too big too quickly and it’s exhausting. Everyone just straight up fucking hates each other, all day every day, and it’s a bummer.

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Listen to this guy Rufus, he knows what he’s talking about. Carlin looks like the protagonist to an early-90’s FMV computer game. And I love him.

Which is why I need the reminder that once, in the late 1980’s, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure dared to imagine a world in which people were inclined to be excellent to each other. Now, before we get any further, some disclosure. This movie is on a short list of my very favorite things of all time, so I’m probably going to lean into some hyperbole here. I don’t actually know if it’s a good movie or not. I have no apparatus to actually criticize this film. I’ve been watching it since I was ten, and who knows how many times I’ve seen it. It’s probably not a great movie? But it’s also the best movie. The thing is, Bill and Ted is not exactly an inspired comedy, nor is it a particularly sharp science fiction story. It’s fun, of course, and there’s a pretty obvious message attached, but Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is more of a fantastical view of how the world should be. Everyone in the movie is fundamentally good-hearted, and the motives and actions of the characters are generally pure. The closest thing I can think of, insofar as pure, unadulterated positivity is concerned, would be Adventure Time. Which also happens to be one of my very favorite things, because the world is an exhausting place.

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All we are is dust in the wind, dude. Dust. Wind. DUDE. You know what, the writing in this movie is perfect.

It occurs to me, in my oldness, that not everyone knows exactly what Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure even is. If you come at it from the point of view of someone with no tangible memories of the 80’s, Bill and Ted is a dated period flick. To a point, that is fair. It is very 80’s. The entire premise of the film is based on the notion that the world will be saved by hair-metal butt rock, after all. That said, how beautiful is that premise? George Carlin is a man from the future, who explains how sick the future is going to be by citing bowling and mini golf scores. Make no mistake, this utopia is firmly rooted in what was cool in the San Fernando Valley in 1989. Bill and Ted, a couple of teenage doofuses, are destined to form a band which will inspire world peace and an eventual utopia. Do not worry about the details. However, this utopia is threatened because Bill and Ted are not very smart and are on the verge of failing their history class, the consequence of which is that Ted will be sent to Alaska by his overbearing father. The solution to this problem is that Carlin’s character, Rufus, arrives with a time machine. You see, in order to pass history, Bill and Ted must cobble together a final presentation to be given the next day. Bill and Ted use the time machine to travel through history and abduct various historical figures and basically force them to talk in their report. It sounds fairly dark when I say it like that. It isn’t.

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Rufus is the patron saint of patience.

Discussion

Everyone loves Bill and Ted pretty much right away. I’m not actually talking about the movie here, although the axiom holds true for good-hearted, right-thinking citizens of the world. No, within the world of the film itself, nearly every character likes Bill and Ted. The sole exception is Ted’s dad, who is as close as we get to a villain, and even he is acting out of a place of love and concern for his son. Other than that, parents, teachers, fellow students, and most importantly every single historical figure, immediately bond with Bill and Ted. Upon watching the movie for approximately the forty millionth time, people’s reaction to these lovable goofballs is the most striking aspect of the movie. These two guys never demand anything of anyone, yet pretty much anyone would do anything to help them out. And please, feel free to write your angry screed against white male privilege and set it on fire, because Bill and Ted never expect people to do their bidding. They go into the entire adventure expecting to fail most egregiously, and are legitimately surprised when the means of their success falls into their laps. No, Bill and Ted find help and loyalty wherever they go because they are fundamentally kind and accepting. That’s literally it.

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The corn dog is a nice touch. Geek.

I mentioned above that Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is not an inspired comedy, and while from the perspective of someone who did not grow up with this movie that’s probably true, it is equally true that the film’s comedy is subtle and tonally perfect. Bill and Ted introducing “Bob” Ghengis Khan and Socrates “Johnson” to Missy makes me laugh every time. You also have heard the catch phrases born from this movie your entire life, whether or not you’ve seen it. “Strange things are afoot at the Circle K” gets trotted out literally every time something weird happens or you’re not a real American. By the same token, the film’s central philosophy is “be excellent to each other,” and if you need another mantra to live by you’re doing life wrong. It’s that ethos which lends authenticity to the comedy. Bill and Ted doesn’t punch down. It doesn’t punch up. It doesn’t punch anywhere. No punching! It’s a film which asks why we can’t just all be cool and have fun and spend the day at Water Loops, you know? The meanest thing that happens in the movie is when Ted’s little brother ditches Napoleon, because “he’s a dick.” Even then, Napoleon is immediately redeemed because water slides bring the best out of everyone.

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Your stepmom is cute though. Remember when she was a senior and we were freshmen? Missy made me feel things as a kid, you guys.

Obviously Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is a cotton candy fantasy which imagines an idealistic, picturesque version of America that has never existed and never will. I made an error above, when I talked about the film’s meanest moment, but that’s indicative of how the real world changes and Bill and Ted’s San Dimas never does. There’s a point in the middle where Bill thinks Ted is dead and he’s totally not. They hug each other, because obviously they’re the best friends to have ever existed and love each other. Then they part and call each other a fag. That was worth a chuckle in 1989 but feels grossly out of place in 2018. The only thing I would say about that is this: if you went into the world of the movie and told Bill and Ted that word bums people out, they would never use it again. I am as certain of that as I am of gravity, because all Bill and Ted want to do is allow people to be happy and love each other. The whole point of Wyld Stallyns is to unite the world under a banner of acceptance and joy and, of course, a deep unabated love of rippin’, shreddin’ guitar solos. Party on, dudes.

Posted in Film, Utopia | Leave a comment

Cress

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Novel * Marissa Meyer * Fairy Tales and Mind Control * 2014

Synopsis

Cress is book three of The Lunar Chronicles, a so-far delightful series of far-future science fiction loosely based on classic fairy tales. It’s likely that if you’re reading this, you’re well aware of that fact. Each book in the series introduces a new major character, each one based on a particular fairy tale. The protagonist is a cyborg-mechanic named Cinder. Next up is a sassy young farmer named Scarlet. This book, the longest so far, is named after a tiny-yet-brilliant computer whiz named Cress. She’s based on the Rapunzel story, and so at the beginning of the novel we find her in the sci-fi version of a tower, an orbiting satellite-prison that Cress has been confined in for most of her life. Also, she has extremely long hair, because that’s kind of part of the deal. That’s about as far as the fairy tale parallel goes, because Cress is almost immediately rescued from her satellite-prison, in that it falls out of orbit and crashes to earth. I could be wrong, but I don’t recall any version of the Rapunzel story where the prince rescues her by just knocking the tower over, although if it does exist I would probably really enjoy it.

Since this is the third entry in a series, I’m going to make the assumption that you’ve read the first couple of books or otherwise don’t care about spoilers. I’m also going to assume that you intend to finish the series, because it is good. If you’ve been feeling the tone and overall story, Cress continues to provide what you like. So far, I feel that Scarlet is the weakest of the three main characters, however she doesn’t get a lot of screen time, so I don’t see that changing much since she doesn’t get much of a chance to grow as a character. As for the new character, Cress herself, I happen to like her quite a lot. Cinder is still probably the strongest, most well rounded character of the bunch, but again, she’s the actual protagonist so that’s to be expected. Cress, though, is wonderful fun. There are tropey elements to her character, as there are with pretty much everyone here, but as a whole package it makes sense. Actually, and I hesitate to say this, but The Lunar Chronicles are basically anime. The world and premise are outlandish and makes for intriguing science fiction, the characters are a little broad and hew to almost-but-not-quite character tropes. Captain Thorne is your charming rogue with a heart of gold. Cress is the socially awkward waif who becomes formidable in pressure situations. You get it. It’s really not a bad thing.

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The Czech cover, and I don’t know what the red blurry thing is. Like some kind of Ring Pop? Remember Ring Pops? They were gross and made your fingers all sticky. Bleh.

Discussion

Ah, dang it. The first two volumes of this series were there, ready to help me out with ready-made, surprisingly deep discussion questions printed at the end. Cress also has “bonus materials,” but they consist of a sample chapter of some other thing I don’t care about and an interview with the author that I also don’t care about. But wait, I said to myself, desperate to avoid any kind of work, what about the internet? Nah, the only thing I could find was some unofficial book club questions that were extremely limp. Hell, damn, butts. I guess that leaves it all to me. The only problem with this state of affairs is the fact that I’m having trouble coming up with anything, because now all I can think of is how anime these books are. While this is a fun line of thought, mostly because it makes my wife all indignant, it’s also not a particularly fruitful one. Yeah, sure, now I’m picturing everyone with big old honking eyeballs and when things get silly they’ll inexplicably turn into short, squat chibi versions of themselves, but that’s still not particularly engaging. Even if it is fun.

It occurs to me that maybe that’s the issue I’m having. I was misled by the first two novels and their fancy discussion questions. You might not recall, but the analysis level on those things went from trite to Derrida pretty much between questions one and two. Now, I obviously appreciate looking for depth in media. Even when something seems light and frivolous it’s often that way for a reason. There’s still a reflection on the society said product comes from. These books are clearly no exception. I think the issue might be that those original two batches of discussion questions swung for the fences in a way that might have been detrimental to really appreciating what we have in The Lunar Chronicles. As a champion of reading, and more importantly thinking about what you’ve read, I appreciate the attempt. After all, the target demographic of these novels are not dudes with a Master’s degree who are pushing 40. Yes, okay, all books are for everyone, but you know what I mean. These are marketed as young adult novels, and unlike some novels in this space, the tone and language here are decidedly aimed at an audience of teenagers. Therefore, I appreciate whipping some analysis on them when they’re not expecting it. That said, maybe just yelling “what’s the meaning of life, ya doofus?” is not the best way to go about things.

When you’re trying to trick people into thinking about things, you have to be subtle about it. The entry point to any story are the characters, right? Now let’s get to sterotyping! Cress, the titular hero of this third novel, is a severe introvert. Through most of her life, she only really interacts with a few people, and while she has immense technical skill, when it comes to human interaction she’s basically hopeless. Now, as someone who grew up preferring the company of books to the company of my peers, there’s a certain amount of validation and comfort to be found in a character like Cress. I’m going to go way out on a limb and suppose that things haven’t changed all that much since I was a reclusive teenager, and state that your typical bookworm might be inclined toward social awkwardness. Here comes little Cress, then, and she’s clearly an extreme example of this kind of introverted personality. She’s different than most of our reading audience, though. Cress never had a choice. She was locked up at a young age, and her situation, should it be replicated on Earth in our time, would be classified as horrifying child abuse. Considering that, Cress is actually pretty well adjusted. Since we’re dealing with a fairy tale anime, however, we can expect these story elements to skew to the extreme side of things. Cress’ character still appeals to the latent introvert in the book-obsessed, and more to the point, validates that personality.

Cress is rad almost entirely because she’s never once comfortable with herself and yet still manages to push forward. Even in scenes where her technical mastery should distinguish her as extraordinary, Cress is still wracked with insecurity and inadequacy. And yet – and yet! – she doesn’t succumb to self-pity. At least not for any extended period. In this way, Cress is a lot more like Cinder, except that their technical specialties are different, of course. There’s also the matter of Cinder displaying the innate qualities of leadership that Cress obviously lacks, despite the fact that their upbringing was similarly horrible. Cress is quite clearly marked as a severe introvert, while Cinder is not. All the more curious, then, that Cress finds herself drawn to Captain Thorne, and vice-versa. Perhaps it’s not that surprising, given that we’re dealing with a couple attracted to what they are outwardly not. It turns out, the more we learn of these two characters the more we understand that beneath the persona they present to the public, they share many innate qualities. Look, I know none of this is any kind of earth-shattering revelation. But a good story doesn’t need to rewrite the landscape of critical theory, you know? Sometimes simply putting words to how books and stories make us feel is enough.

Posted in Books, Y.A.T. | Leave a comment

Rollerball

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Film * Norman Jewison * Corporate Dystopia Death Sports * 1975

Synopsis

I have to say that I’m fairly disappointed with the murderous kill-sport of rollerball. The film Rollerball also has some issues, but the actual sport depicted is… not particularly murderous? The movie begins cold with an entire game being played between Houston and Madrid. It is very seventies. As far as I can tell, the game is basically roller derby with motorcycles and an oversized ball bearing. Look, I don’t know. There’s a bunch of grown men whipping around on actual factual roller skates, going in literal circles. The track is a wooden ring, with a safe-cage in the middle where the coaches and doctors and benchwarmers hang out during the match. On the outside of the ring is a gutter where the tiny steel bowling ball is shot out of a pneumatic cannon. Some team scoops the ball up, and the other team tries to knock it out of his scoop-glove. The goal is to get the ball in a little ball-alcove in the side of the arena. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of structure – maybe it’s like soccer where there are formations which are fluid – but there are definitely motorcycles. Guys get punched around a bit, but if this movie-opening first game is any indication, the NFL is more violent.

After what feels like a full game of rollerball (it’s actually only like fifteen minutes, but still), the actual movie starts. The concept is actually pretty solid. Rollerball takes place in an indeterminate future, although the aesthetic is exactly 1975. Earth tones are everywhere, and so, so much wood paneling. In this future, all the world’s nations have gone bankrupt leaving corporations to govern society. There are some intriguing allusions to “the corporate wars” sprinkled throughout the opening of the movie, as well as an understanding that for the most part, humanity is content. It seems as if everyone has their basic needs met, and there is no longer the strife and struggle of modern-day living. The sport of Rollerball, then, is a sport of the times. Yeah it’s violent, but it’s all in the good fun of global competition. Besides, the players are all pretty well taken care of. So everyone is happy with the arrangement. The vast majority no longer has to struggle to live, there’s a sick new sport to get into, and all you have to do is abide by whatever management decrees without question.

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“Oh, huh? Movie? Nah, uh, I’m rebelling right now, sorry.” He looks like this through the ENTIRE movie.

It’s that last little bit which becomes the crux of the film. The protagonist is a man named Jonathan E. He’s the best, baddest rollerball player in the world. The best who ever was. Now, I skimmed over some reviews of the movie before writing this, both contemporary and modern, and most of them spoke well of James Caan in the role of our hero. Personally, I found him to be bland as shit. Like he did the movie as a favor to a friend, but not a particularly good friend, and so he just coasted. The whole point of conflict of the film is that old Johnny E is getting to be too big of a star, and therefore is a threat to the whole CEO structure of corporate society. Company leadership then directs him to retire before the season is over, which doesn’t sit well with Jonathan. He wants to know why. Corporate basically says “fuck you, that’s why.” What follows is a whole lot of listless rebellion. By the end of the movie, I’m not even all that sure what the stakes are, or how any of the actions which occur over the course of the story affect society as a whole. Despite some of the intriguing setup and exposition that we get, there seems to be very little in the way of payoff. Unless you consider three extremely long games of Rollerball to be a payoff, in which case Rollerball has you covered.

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You will become intimately acquainted with the sport of Rollerball. Go skate-boys! 

Discussion

The primary issue that Rollerball flirts with while never actually engaging all that deeply with is that freedom. Namely, it’s asking two questions about it. First, and most importantly, is what do we mean when we talk about our “freedom?” The second question kind of depends on the answer to the first, which is how much freedom are we willing to sacrifice for security, or vice-versa? To its credit, the film actually seems to want to engage with these ideas in between lengthy rollerball scenes. Yet it’s those very same namesake matches which distract from the larger overall state of the world. And yes, James Caan’s lackadaisical approach to the role don’t help matters, but there was little in the way of staking a position in terms of the two above questions. It’s weird because there is an ongoing escalation between the corporate masters and Jonathan’s refusal to retire, which is reflected in the games. Essentially, the managers keep changing the rules to make the game more vicious, with the hope that Jonathan E. will eventually succumb to the rigors of the game. He does not. Jonathan E. triumphs in the end and is the literal last man standing. What is not clear is what, exactly, the dude wins.

From the viewpoint of the average person in the world of Rollerball, life seems pretty good. All basic needs are covered and there doesn’t appear to be any social strife to speak of. It’s explicitly stated that warfare is a thing of the past, and that the “corporate wars” sealed that aspect of human society off forever. Further, most people seem to be perfectly content with the way the world works now. The only catch is pretty simple, if management says to do a thing, you do that thing and don’t ask questions. Despite that seemingly galling stipulation, there doesn’t appear to anything impeding people from doing things they wish to do. So, what is freedom? Is freedom the ability to make your living as comfortable as possible? Or is it the ability to pursue your own desires, regardless of what that might be? Jonathan E. wants to be the best dang rollerballer of all time. This desire conflicts with corporate interests. Old Johnny is going to be all right, when it comes to basic needs. Yet he continues to fight the power and to leverage his power as a global superstar in order to achieve his desire. Why? Well, the movie doesn’t have a great answer for you. It simply doesn’t spend the time outside the rollerball arena to create the necessary social context to provide a strong point of view.

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That’s Moonpie on the right. His mustache has about 300% more personality in this film than the protagonist does.

There is one thing that’s fairly clear given what insight we do get is that most citizens of the Rollerball universe seem fine. Pretty much every other character in the movie spend their time on screen trying to get Jonathan to chill. This seems misguided, because nobody has ever been as chill as Jonathan. Seriously, he’s engaged in this battle of wills with the entire global social order and finishes the movie in a physical duel to the death with a bunch of beefy guys on roller skates and motorcycles, and yet throughout the entire movie he seems like he barely cares how things turn out. Anyway, judging from the actions of the ancillary characters, it appears that humanity is happy trading their definition of freedom for safety and comfort. Johnny just wants his girlfriend back. I guess? Man, who knows. Everyone is so goddamn tepid it’s hard to say. And this is ultimately why Rollerball fails to hit with its premise. Most of the time, when the corporate world order is depicted in fiction, it’s the late-stage capitalist nightmare of ultimate income inequality. That’s not the case here, and the social question is far more subtle. Too subtle, in fact. Since we don’t have the context of what the rest of civilization actually looks like, it’s hard to determine if trading ultimate freedom for ultimate safety is the right call. In the end, Jonathan E. is the last man standing, but what has he won? Not only will we never know, it’s hard to say that we have any reason to care.

Posted in Corporations, Dystopia, Film | Leave a comment