Bottom Shelf at the Video Store: The Last Days

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Film * David and Àlex Pastor * Agoraphobia Apocalypse * 2013

Synopsis

I seem to keep inadvertently choosing foreign films lately. That’s fine, I can read. The only real downside is that the establishing shots remind me that I am woefully under-travelled and that it would be really nice to visit Barcelona. Preferably not during a mysterious apocalyptic event, and maybe not during social unrest due to Catalonian independence politics. The Last Days, not unlike The Midnight After, takes advantage of its setting to create, if nothing else, a lovely apocalypse. That said, The Last Days is in pretty much every way a stock-standard post-apocalypse film. There’s not a lot of weird shit happening here, there’s no bonkers music video in the middle for no discernable reason. And that’s actually a shame, because this film could use a bit of extra strangeness, or something, for it to stand out.

The Last Days begins with a group of survivors huddling in a cubicle farm office building. There’s no explicit apocalyptic event shown, but from the exterior shot we can see abandoned streets and a few fires, so you know bad shit happened. The survivors have already implemented rationing of food and water, and we are quickly shown a concentrated effort to tunnel from the parking garage to the adjacent subway tunnel. From this we can piece together that to go outside is to invite your own death. Who knows why, but everyone seems to go to great pains to remain indoors. The protagonist is an ex-programmer named Marc. His life is your typical bummer of being an overworked office drone. The film would very much like to remind you that office drudgery is dehumanizing. Marc spends the entirety of the film trying to get back to his girlfriend, Julia. Of course, this is made more difficult when you can’t go outside.

Lucky for old Marc, there’s a dude in the office with a shiny new GPS which still works. Whatever the cause of the apocalypse, most of the city’s infrastructure is still intact, except for the cell network (which is weird, considering that for most of the movie the power grid is still intact). This dude, Enrique, is a bit of a dick. Before the shit went down, he was the guy HR sent to out to the office to fire people. The film spends some time with flashbacks to provide context for the apocalyptic event, and there’s a scene with Enrique grilling Marc about his lack of performance. Enrique is not a pleasant guy, but honestly everyone in this movie is rather grim. I know, I get it, it’s the apocalypse. There are a few attempts at levity as the film progresses, but for the most part it seems the filmmakers were leaning toward a grim intensity for the overall tone. Which, whatever. Anyway, Marc and Enrique eventually team up in order to navigate the tunnels and sewers of Barcelona as they search for their respective loved ones. Things go poorly. Post-apocalypse stuff happens.

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Even the title is super generic and dull. Barcelona is still pretty, though.

Discussion

If I seem down on The Last Days, it’s only because I’m disappointed it doesn’t try for something new, and doesn’t otherwise stand out in a crowded field. It’s a perfectly competent movie. It’s shot well, the actors seem to hit what they’re going for, and the narrative makes sense. It’s just that I’ve heard this story before. If there’s a big checklist for post-apocalyptic stories, The Last Days was pretty thorough in checking every box. Intense, sweaty, rumpled but determined leads? You got it. Scary might-makes-right would-be warlords threatening violence? Oh you know it. Shots of abandoned traffic jams? You bet! Makeshift primitive weapons used to hunt rats? Yup. Escaped zoo animals popping up as a “surprise?” Obviously. Do characters become so despondent that they want to kill themselves? Indeed. Are there wistful moments of remembering the unsullied past? Uh-huh. Tribes of survivors making makeshift forts in a supermarket? Yepper, that’s a roger. Everything that happens in this movie, almost without exception, is a common element of the genre. That doesn’t make the film bad by any means, but it does make it rather uninspired.

The only real difference between this and any other post-apocalyptic story you’ve ever seen is the actual apocalyptic event. Not unlike The Midnight After, there is no concrete reason given for the event. There are half-assed guesses for the apocalypse given, from a volcanic eruption to an escaped virus, but we never really know for sure because it’s not terribly important. The focus of this kind of story is on how the survivors make do in the situation given. The twist here, if you want to call it that, is that people can’t go outside. The apocalyptic event is known as “The Panic,” which seems to be some kind of fatal agoraphobia. In the beginning it seemed to strike at random, until it either killed you or drove you indoors. That doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense, but whatever, it’s a plot device meant to keep the characters indoors. This limitation seems like it could make The Last Days stand out a bit more, but all it does is ensure that the aforementioned tropes happen in building instead of out in the open.

Now that I think about it, the fatal agoraphobia angle could have worked with a few tweaks. Instead of relying on heavily used elements of the post-apocalypse, I think a focus on the psychological effects of being trapped inside for the rest of your life would be super interesting. The tension between cabin-fever claustrophobia and the certain death of being under the open sky would have been something different. The film never capitalizes on this, however. While some of the film takes place in the train tunnels and the sewers, most of the action takes place in open, airy, sunlit buildings. While this is more visually interesting (sewer levels are the worst, am I right?) the opportunity to examine the dire effects of being trapped inside is lost. Also, the story isn’t really concerned with this aspect of the situation. The story could have been set years after the event, with characters determined to go outside again, or something like that that. But no. Like about a million other apocalypse stories, the whole narrative is a character trying to find another character. That’s it. Enrique helps before predictably dying a hero. In the end, Marc and his family live a new kind of life far removed from office drudgery, blah blah blah. I admittedly lost interest towards the end, when it became readily apparent the film was happy doing the same old thing.

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Posted in Bottom Shelf, Film, Plague | Leave a comment

The “Liberal News Media” Conspiracy

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Would I lie to you?

This is a difficult article for me to write, because I have no desire or intention of sifting through right-wing media in order to present specific examples of what I would like to talk about. This is not because I am afraid of leaving my “bubble” or being confronted with different opinions than my own. No, the reason I avoid Fox News and the like is because I already know what they’re going to say, because they’ve been saying the same things for years, and it’s tiresome. Also, it’s not like I can escape it anyway. I don’t have to seek out specific conservative news outlets in order to hear the messaging. I’m online, I follow the news and social media, and therefore like everyone else I have a front row seat to the talking-point circus. The message doesn’t change, it is always the same. From the President to his sycophants to local government to the old guy in the grocery store to your family to random Twitter-bots, the message is always the same. We’re right, and if you disagree with us you’re an un-American subhuman monster.

I wish I was overstating here. I wish I could claim hyperbole. Yet the way conservative media has been operating for the last, eh, 25 years or so, has rendered overstatement and hyperbole a daily way of operation. Look, I’m not speaking from a place of ignorance here. I’ve been subjected to this worldview my entire life, or at least since I was old enough to understand politics, which is right around when Rush Limbaugh became a thing. He laid the blueprint, of course, which went on in pretty much a straight line to the various heavyweight pundits on Fox like Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck and whoever the hell is mad this week. The success of this blueprint is undeniable, and has become stronger each year to the point where a significant segment of the population refuses to consider other viewpoints outright. I think it’s worthwhile to examine how they operate, although we all know that once you’re in, it’s nearly impossible to get out.

It was shortly after Trump won the Republican primary last year where I first realized that he lies in exactly the same manner as a Soviet official. Perhaps that’s unfair to the Soviet Union, I suppose it would be more accurate to say that Trump lies like a totalitarian dictator. I’m not making a direct comparison, by the way, I still think he’s too incompetent to actually derail democracy in this country, but he still lies like one. The mindset is there, and it’s different than how most politicians usually lie. Generally, the politician is subtle in their falsehoods. They lie by omission or misdirection. Not so the Trump Administration. They make it up as they go along, and then speak as if that is not only the truth, but always has been the truth. Then, when they invariably contradict themselves – sometimes in the very next sentence – the new statement becomes the new truth, always has been always will be. Now, in a totalitarian situation, these “truths” are not questioned. If Stalin says that the Soviet Union invented water, then the Soviet Union invented water. The true believers figure out a way to enforce their cognitive dissonance so as to continue being a believer while everyone else keeps their mouths shut lest they get themselves shot. Obviously that’s not the case here. In the United States, the true believers behave accordingly while everyone else throws their hands up in the air and screams “what the actual fuck?”

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When did hewing exactly to the party line ever hurt anyone? Those kids look stoked!

Yet Trump is only behaving according to the model. He speaks and acts like a less eloquent version of his pundit models. This model, demonstrated by the aforementioned personalities, is pretty well entrenched at this point. Limbaugh, Coulter, Hannity, O’Reilly and the rest all operate according to the same template. They work from a particular worldview – one which mines a specific kind of nostalgia – and build from that. It’s an absolutist model, which means that there’s no room for subtlety or variation or context. Guns are good, guns have always been good, guns will always be good. Climate change is a lie, it has always been a lie, it will always be a lie. You can throw as many facts as you want at the mantra, any deviation from the hard line is cause for suspicion and possible expulsion. It almost doesn’t matter what the reason for the platform is, once it’s established it’s a decree. For most viewers, this is fine since it simplifies the world. That’s one of the great allures of this kind of media, after all. You only have to keep track of one news source and they’ll have all the answers you’ll ever need.

The success of Fox News is the result of a genius business plan, of course, and like the strident, angry tone of the content, the template was lifted from Rush Limbaugh. Their fundamental strategy is to create a conspiracy theory. Like any conspiracy theory, this one targets people who are disaffected and dissatisfied with the current explanation for the world. A seemingly reasonable solution is offered which validates this dissatisfaction. Keep in mind, this solution only needs to sound right, it doesn’t actually have to pass logical rigor. Once that solution is accepted, it’s easy to feel a bond with the person or outlet who offered that solution, since they obviously view the world in the same way. Trust becomes more important than truth. Believing the conspiracy theory becomes a source of comfort – of course this is how things really are, I’m smart, I can see the truth, anyone who disagrees simply cannot see because they’re dumb/brainwashed/evil. Evidence which contradicts the conspiracy theory is instantly dismissed as suspect. You can’t trust that which doesn’t support the proper worldview.

In the case of Fox News and the conservative media, the conspiracy theory in question is that of the “liberal news media.” Consider the brilliance of this method. You’ve got a significant portion of the population who are starting to feel left behind, either economically or culturally (or both). There are many, many complicated social reasons for this. Ain’t nobody got time for that. Instead, explain that everyone in the news media is telling you false information. Instead of telling you things that happen in the world, they’re trying to make you feel bad about yourself and your beliefs. That’s awful, isn’t it? Don’t worry though, come listen to us and we’ll present similar things but in the way you want to hear it. Every other news organization in the world is in cahoots, only we are brave enough to tell the truth. Every other news organization in the world is trying to push their agenda, only we are brave enough to present the unvarnished truth.

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All this said, when these dudes talk I listen.

There’s two paradoxical reasons as to why this approach works so well. The first is, obviously, people like to be told what they want to hear. Therefore, it’s easy to accept something extremely unlikely and reject something obvious. Like any conspiracy theory, it becomes easy to believe that anyone telling you that your belief is mistaken is a liar and out to get you. If news organizations are all controlled by some nebulous cabal of liberals pushing their agenda, it makes sense to cling to the one life raft in an ocean of lies. The second reason this works seemingly contradicts this, though. Fox News and the rest of conservative media is unabashedly right-wing. By definition they push a specific worldview, and do so gladly. That’s kind of the whole point, right? Now, if that’s all you consume, you come to view all media as inherently biased. The notion of neutral reporting becomes an alien, impossible idea. Therefore, if a news organization attempting journalistic standards breaks a story that disagrees with the conservative worldview, that organization must be operating from a position of bias. Thus, facts become relative. You have to be able to hold both ideas in your head at once. My news is the only truth, but is also specifically biased toward my interests because everyone else is biased against them.

We’re at the point where some people don’t believe in journalism anymore. Punditry has taken over to the point where a reporter presenting actual things which happen in the world seems like a quaint notion. Major news organizations are dismissed out of hand because it is assumed that they operate in the same way as Fox News, even when they still make an attempt at neutral reporting. That’s how someone like Roy Moore nearly wins a Senate seat. “Did you hear about those women who said Moore tried to pick them up when they were minors?” “Gross, no, where did you hear that?” “Oh, The Washington Post ran….” “Say no more, it’s obviously more lies by the liberal news media trying to push their agenda again.” “Yeah, but the reporting looks legit and….” “No.” End of discussion, because any news agency outside of maybe three approved sources is just part of the conspiracy, out to spread lies.

I was hoping to touch on the use of rhetoric and other means of bad-faith argument implemented by conservative media that trickles down to the base, but this is getting long as it is. Suffice to say, everyone from Fox to Trump loves them some dismissive buzzwords and derogatory nicknames meant to trivialize fact-based arguments. If I label you a “loony leftist,” I don’t have to listen to what you’re saying. If I label the entirety of the world’s news media outside of two or three sources “fake news,” I don’t have consider your so-called “facts.” As for myself, I am more than willing to listen to conservative arguments. However, I have no discomfort in dismissing bad faith arguments. I don’t have time to listen to smug, dismissive name-calling. There’s no point in arguing with a set of bullet points seen on Hannity’s show, or some dude’s YouTube channel. I’m not interested in conspiracy theories, flawed logic, or a determined, willful ignorance. Unfortunately, it seems like those things are what defines modern American conservatism these days.

Posted in Politics! | Leave a comment

Ancillary Sword

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Novel * Ann Leckie * Space Mystery in a Space Empire! * 2014

Synopsis

Ancillary Justice was a revelation. It was a fresh shot of imagination in a genre that sometimes relies too heavily on tropes, and Leckie is a strong enough writer to make all her incongruous ideas work. That first novel, and for a debut novel it was a banger, had a lot of work to do. Justice was not only an introduction to a whole new world, but an introduction to a new way of thinking about character. The protagonist, Breq, is not human. Rather, it’s the remnant of a starship artificial intelligence that inhabits the body of an “ancillary,” which is to say the husk of a human slave whose mind was destroyed to make room for the machine intelligence. I’m assuming if you’re here reading this, you’ve read the first book, so that should make more sense than it otherwise might. Most of that that first novel is coming to terms with Breq and why she acts and thinks the way she does, while the rest is coming to terms with the empirical, matriarchal, highly rigid society that makes up the Radch. The narrative was a revenge story, in which Breq would very much like to murder the Emperor, Anaander Mianaai (and yes, the overwrought names are a weak point). Unfortunately, this is very difficult because the Emperor has like a thousand ancillary bodies and also has a split-hive-mind personality which is currently at war with itself.

It’s all very complicated, but the thing about Ancillary Sword is that all the high-level intrigue is happening in the background. This book is a direct sequel, but it has a very different feel from the first. The narrative has a much smaller scope, since Leckie did all the heavy world-building in that first book. We know Breq now, so there’s more fun to be had watching her interact with her crew. The story picks up immediately after the first, with the version of Mianaai who wants to tone down the whole violent colonialism thing, sending Breq off with her own ship. Now Breq is not entirely thrilled with this state of affairs, since she in no way trusts either version of the Emperor, but she makes the best of the situation and takes off for a system which contains the sister of Awn, the officer from the first book who Breq both loved and murdered. Meanwhile, local intrigue is afoot.

When Breq rolls into town, or onto the space station, whatever, things done get shook up. Ancillary Sword is a smaller story, a tighter narrative, but thematically it still takes big swings. The focus of this novel seems to be that of labor politics, and the inherent inequity of the Radch Empire. The action of this novel is restricted to a single system, and most of it seems to be Breq cleaning house before what is presumably the climactic action of the third book. This house cleaning, of course, upsets the local balance of power. It’s pretty fun to watch this A.I. upset the cart and then rather brusquely deal with the consequences of her actions. While yes, she’s out there righting wrongs and actively making things better for the underclass, Breq is also preparing for the larger battle to come. Readers may forget the larger picture at times over the course of Ancillary Sword, but Breq never does.

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This is a dope cover but put some shoes on, dang.

Discussion

The Ancillary series touches on many themes – Leckie is fearless when it comes to poking at various social issues – but most of what is at stake here is Breq’s ability to navigate the rigid hierarchy of the Radch Empire to further her crusade against the Emperor. The Athoek System appears to be something of an agricultural backwater. Most of the dignitaries and functionaries and other sorts of -aries live on the space station orbiting the big, inhabited planet. On the surface of Athoek, there are vast tea plantations. It’s pretty much an entire planet set aside to grow tea for the citizens of the Radch Empire. Exceedingly fancy tea, I might add. The person in charge of this operation is Citizen Fosyf. She sucks. She also has a daughter named Raughd, who sucks even more. The reason these two suck is that the Radch Empire is structured like it’s the 14th century. It’s quite weird, in this vast sci-fi universe, to find these ridiculous nobles prancing around fretting about the quality of the dinnerware and tea while literal space aliens are menacing around the peripheries of human space.

Yet fret they do, and Breq is here to wreck up the whole system. The Radch Empire is comprised of humans, and it spans nearly the entirety of human space. They are ruthless conquerors, and when they invade another human colony they leave nothing to chance. Captured fighters are usually frozen to be used later as ancillaries. Once frozen they get maybe thirty seconds of horrifying consciousness while their mind is obliterated to make room for the ship A.I., which is as grim as it sounds. Conquered citizens, if docile, are then basically made into serfs. That’s who works the tea fields for Citizen Fosyf. They still have to publicly observe Radch customs, but they otherwise seem to hold onto their native identity as much as possible, including all the resentment you’d expect from a conquered people. They keep their language and sense of gender to themselves (gender identity being one of the issues Leckie deals with indirectly, as the Radch Empire is single-gendered by custom, not biology, which is to say everyone is a “she” regardless of their genitals). The big drama of Ancillary Sword happens because Breq has no patience for aristocratic bullshit.

Citizen Fosyf and the rest of the Radch nobility treats the plantation workers exactly as you’d expect. Citizen Raughd, the horrible spoiled daughter, uses various workers as sex toys. Sometimes she bops up to the Station to abuse her kind-of girlfriend. Raughd is basically a caricature of the vain, mean-spirited aristocrat. And despite being well-worn territory for period dramas on the BBC, it’s weird seeing it in this context. It’s like my space opera swerved into Downton Abbey territory. Breq, as the sympathetic 2000 year old A.I., ruins her whole life, and it’s glorious. The point of all this, I expect, is the notion of Breq humanizing the social structure of the Radch, which are of course incredibly inhuman in their rigidity. It’s unfair to Leckie to boil all of this down to such a trite conclusion, however. “But maybe… the machine is more human after all. How deliciously ironic!” Boo on that. The story rises above that because the characters are so well drawn. Like any cliché or trope, it can still work if you know what you’re doing. And Leckie knows what the fuck she’s doing.

Posted in Aliens, Books, Government | Leave a comment

Bottom Shelf at the Video Store: The Midnight After

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Film * Fruit Chan * A Very Mysterious Apocalypse * 2014

A Brief Re-Introduction

Since I began this blog over two years ago, I think I’ve rather strayed from the initial idea, which was to compose a catalogue of critical discussion about various media which focus on the concept of apocalypse. Now, most of the time I make an effort to make connections between pretty much anything I read, watch, or play and said concepts. Sometimes that is difficult, sometimes (such as anything dealing with Modernism) my arguments are based on historical context and more conventional literary analysis. I’m not going to stop doing that, because I still think it’s fun, but I’m also going to start seeking out more weird shit to talk about.

Specifically, there’s a ton of borderline obscure nonsense on the various streaming services that I’ve been scrolling past the last couple of years that I’ve been unwilling to spend time on. Look, for whatever reason I don’t really like watching movies that much. I mean, I do once I’m watching one, but tricking myself into starting it up in the first place is difficult. I could spend that two hours dinking around in Yakuza 0, you know? However, I’ve assigned myself this, so expect a series of weird fuckin’ movies culled from waaaaaaay down the list on Netflix and whatnot. There is a wide variety of apocalyptically-themed movies out there. Most of them look terrible. But maybe they’re not! I mean, there’s definitely some which appear to be bad-on-purpose B-movie situations, but there are also many that appear to be genuine attempts to do something interesting. We’ll see.

Synopsis

First up is a real weird Hong Kong film that presents a disparate group of people attempting to cope with an indeterminate apocalyptic event. And when I say “real weird” I mean “strap the fuck in because I don’t know what the hell is happening.” The thing is, I expect most of the movies I talk about in the coming weeks will be similar to The Midnight After. There are a lot of cool ideas here, and there are a few things that work really well in this film. However, as a whole, it just never comes together in a satisfying or skillful way. This movie is like the anti-Lost, at least in terms of its storytelling. The film starts strong, and there’s lots of intriguing details and many questions are asked of the viewer, not unlike the seminal TV show of the mid-2000’s. The difference here is that where Lost went off the rails when it started answering too many questions, The Midnight After answers nothing at all. Obviously as a show with seven seasons, Lost had a lot more room to work with, which ended up working against it when there was simply too much time to fill. As a two hour movie, The Midnight After needed to both create the mystery and conclude it quickly and efficiently. It doesn’t bother with the last bit.

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I’m skeptical you just did it with anyone’s girl, my dude.

The setup is cool, though. The Midnight After begins after midnight, specifically around 2:30 in the morning. The first character we’re introduced to is a sloppy, sweaty, loud minibus driver with a gambling problem who is wearing a shirt proclaiming: “I JUST DID IT with your girl.” He’s fucking great. Anyway, he’s parked on a busy street (despite the time because Hong Kong) and collects a variety of passengers. There’s another older loudmouth, a nerd, another kind of nerd, a couple of street punks, a couple of yuppies up early to watch Premier League soccer, a middle-aged New Age-y lady, a junkie, the cool guy, the cute girl, the weird girl, and four college kids. Another couple try to get on the bus, but they have an argument and bail. Once the bus is on its way, they slowly drive past a terrible accident and see said couple dead on the street. Mysterious! The minibus carries on, and goes through a tunnel.

Once on the other side of the tunnel, the passengers eventually realize that everyone in Hong Kong has disappeared. There is no obvious event that causes this, and as a result most of the passengers carry on as normal. There’s a brief discussion, and some silly theories are tossed around as to why they’re seemingly alone in the usually dense metropolis, but ultimately they all go their separate ways. The only unusual thing they do is swap names and phone numbers, just in case shit gets even weirder and they can reconvene to discuss the situation. Shit does in fact get weirder, and the rest of the film is what happens when this group gets back together and try to figure out what the hell happened. I will say above the break that they do not accomplish this. If you’re looking for a resolution to the story, or any kind of satisfying exposition, you’re not going to get it. The Midnight After does some other things which are pretty cool, though, and the movie looks great. I’m just not sure these things make up for the film’s frustrating shortcomings.

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This movie is very Hong Kong, and I admit I’m probably missing quite a bit not being a local. 

Discussion

The Midnight After hits its peak an hour or so in. The mysterious apocalypse has taken on aspects of a horror movie by this point. When the cool guy and the cute girl are walking together, some weird stuff starts happening. Cool guy sees a creep in a hazmat suit, but cute girl doesn’t. But then the cute girl also appears as a different, scarier version of herself for a hot second before claiming she saw nothing. Meanwhile, the four college kids are flipping out because one of them became suddenly ill and then spontaneously combusted. Then horrible weird things start happening to the other three. There doesn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason to their afflictions. One guy blows up, another turns to crumbled concrete. Anyway, once cool guy makes it home, he sees that it’s deserted and seemingly has been for a while. Then his, and everyone else’s, phone rings. When they answer, it’s not a person but a horrible, creepy screeching noise. Once this happens, they reconvene at a deli, where the most wonderful thing happens.

There are a lot of issues with this movie, the ending notwithstanding, and a big one is a dizzying shift in tone every five minutes or so. The Midnight After has a hard time deciding what it wants to be. Some of the characters are clearly caricatures, and are there mostly for comic relief. But the movie also wants to be a horror movie. But it also wants to be a suspense film. It also wants to be really fuckin’ weird, which I will concede it succeeds at. Yet it never is able to pull all of these elements together successfully and as a result the movie is fragmented and incoherent, which is a shame because when moments work, they totally work. That above scene with the mysterious phone call is very tense and creepy, what happens afterward – while amazing – is also part of the problem. Now, one of the nerds is a technology guy, and is able to record and figure out the creepy phone call. Turns out it’s Morse code, and the call was a message. What was the message? Well, according to the other nerd they’re lyrics, dude. David Bowie lyrics, specifically. “Space Odyssey,” which is promptly performed in a gloriously strange manner, I mean it’s a full on music video performed by this random dude. Of course as soon as he’s done singing he spontaneously combusts and runs from the restaurant on fire.

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This scene almost redeems the (complete lack of an) ending. Almost.

You see what I mean by constantly shifting tone? As great as that scene is, it’s bookended by a moment of creeping dread and a scene of noisy terror. But once the guy is dead on the sidewalk, one of the other people causally tosses a sandwich board on top of him like whatever, comedy. Later on, the body of the weird girl is discovered and it turns out that the two punk kids chased her down and raped her. She died midway through due to the undetermined apocalyptic event, which leads to another scene of the survivors taking turns to stab the rapist repeatedly to death with a very small knife. The punk’s name is Airplane. The tone just whips all over the place and it’s impossible to take any of it very seriously, and while I’m totally happy to enjoy a lighthearted apocalypse, this isn’t that because The Midnight After would also like for you to take it seriously.

The problem is that it’s impossible to do that. There are the makings of an intense, horror-ish apocalyptic movie here, but there’s no attempt to maintain that atmosphere. We’re also not given enough information about the nature of the apocalypse, which is important if you’re making a movie like this. To be clear, I don’t need everything spelled out for me, but I do need to something to anchor the events of the film to. Theories are floated by the survivors, but nobody takes any of them particularly seriously, and nothing is ever really decided on. There are plague-like elements to some of the deaths, and others think it might be a Fukushima situation. The cool guy ends up getting a phone call from his girlfriend who claims that he’s been missing for six years, but has no other real details. The film ends with everyone in half-assed protective gear evading official-looking vehicles intent on keeping them in Hong Kong. They escape, but the movie ends before they get to where there might be answers. The characters aren’t ever developed enough to form any strong attachments, so the ambiguous ending falls flat. Like who cares. And that’s a shame, because there are moments of brilliance here.

Posted in Bottom Shelf, Disaster, Film, Nuclear, Plague | Leave a comment

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

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Novel * Anita Loos * I Ain’t Sayin’ She’s a Gold Digger * 1925

Synopsis

Modernism has a deserved reputation for being rather bleak. Most works of the era were either directly or indirectly about the first great apocalyptic war of the Twentieth Century, so it’s not like they were just a bunch of morose emo kids wearing flapper clothes and listening to jazz for no reason. That said, there is a tendency to overlook the streak of humor that many Modernists had. Yeah sure, most of the time it was a dry, understated humor, but even in the most dour novels there are scenes which are meant to be funny. These folks understood humor. Well, except T.S. Eliot. That joyless motherfucker never had a laugh in his life. But we’re not here to talk about my boy Eliot today. Instead, let’s talk about his total polar opposite, Ms. Anita Loos and her brilliant, gleeful novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

It seems to me that the cultural touchstone of this story has shifted from the author over to Marilyn Monroe and the 1953 musical adaptation of this book. I’m not here to diss that movie, I enjoyed it. Still, it’s a bit of a shame that it overshadows the novel, because the book is a ridiculous amount of fun. Loos deserves all the credit in the world, too. If you’re not familiar with her, that’s okay. I mean, I’m going to travel back in time a hundred years to marry her and have 100 of her babies, but here’s a brief sketch. Loos was born in California at the end of the 19th century. At the forefront of the nascent Hollywood scene, she was a force of nature when it came to script writing. Seriously, check out these film credits. Loos wrote full-tilt for decades, and moved between movies and plays and novels. This… probably wasn’t great for her overall health and happiness, but since when do artists lead happy lives? It seems she did all this at the behest of a man who didn’t appreciate her. When I go back in time I will terminate him. Anyway, she was an impressive woman, and this novel was probably her greatest achievement.

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The illustrations by Ralph Barton are a part of why the book is such whimsical fun. I love the half-deranged look of vacant concentration.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a novel that offers far more depth than it appears. The novel, which is presented as the diary of a young woman named Lorelei Lee, is a breezy, humorous story. It’s a straight up comedy, and it works. On the surface level, this is a funny story about an ambitious socialite out to get hers. Lorelei is from Little Rock, Arkansas and is not exactly from a distinguished family. However, she’s an attractive young flapper, and has a particular talent for seducing dumb rich guys. The book is written entirely from her point of view, and as the book goes along you eventually come to understand Lorelei’s ruthless intelligence. Don’t let the constant misspellings and naïve statements about culture throw you off. Lorelei is super smart, and all she wants is that cash money. She stackin’ her paper her wallet look like a Bible.

Lorelei’s diary, which she starts keeping because one gentleman or another suggested to her that “brains are really everything,” covers a relatively brief period of time, maybe three months. In this time, we follow Lorelei and her bestie Dorothy as they take a jaunt over to Europe (on another gentleman’s dime – don’t get hung up on the dudes, they’re interchangeable) for a few weeks before they return to New York. Most of the “action” consists of Lorelei scamming various men for cash and diamonds. For all appearances, Lorelei is vapid and shallow. Yet watching her effortlessly switch gears to interact with all sorts of different people, and always to her advantage, is breathtaking. Lorelei has a very clear sense of herself and her individuality, which she can leverage against others in order to project what they want to see in her. Most of the time it’s an impressionable, attractive young woman. Meanwhile her buddy, Dorothy, is there as a counterpoint. She’s crass and doesn’t have Lorelei’s killer instinct. That said, it’s nice having her around, cracking wise all the time.

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There’s a lot of horny rich dudes in the world.

Discussion

American Modernism differs from British Modernism in lots of ways, but probably the easiest way to go about it is this: the Americans were concerned with money while the Brits were concerned with society. Everyone in the States was new money. There is no ancient aristocracy here, so the apocalyptic war (which of course didn’t really touch us and was therefore not a physical apocalypse) didn’t have the same effect on American society. There was no social order to topple. Instead, after the war America rose up. This was not our ultimate rise to international superpower, but it was close. Turns out it was a bubble economy which lead to the desolation of the Great Depression, but Loos and Fitzgerald didn’t know that when they were writing Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Great Gatsby. All they were seeing at the time was a blizzard of money, screaming new technology, and endless opportunity.

It’s a mistake to assume that there weren’t any social changes taking place in the United States, of course. There was a universal loosening of rigid morality across the West after the war which happened for a lot of reasons. The apocalyptic nature of the war was part of this, of course, but the speed in which technology was advancing was also instrumental in the social movement which continues unabated even now. Young, attractive single women having any kind of autonomy was a new thing when this book was written. Women were only just being allowed to vote, to work, to speak without being spoken to. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is an understated example of how some women navigated this new world. Lorelei is tired of being played, therefore she becomes a player. Make no mistake, Lorelei fucks. Her sexuality is her own, and she weaponizes it in order to achieve her own ends. That her ends are entirely materialistic are almost beside the point.

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Lorelei’s scam to get this diamond tiara is a straight up robbery. Lorelei is gangsta.

When Lorelei is in Europe, she’s confronted with a Europe trying to rebuild after a catastrophic war in the midst of a massive social upheaval. She could give a shit about any of that. She’s out to socialize, because that’s her business. If she’s not making money, she’s wasting time. Her conflict in Europe is that these social transactions aren’t as straightforward as in America. Here’s an example and the origins of a famous line:

“So the French veecount is going to call up in the morning but I am not going to see him again. Because French gentlemen are really quite deceeving. I mean that they take you to quite cute places and they make you feel quite good about yourself and you really seem to have a delightful time but when you get home and come to think it all over, all you have got is a fan that only cost 20 francs and a doll that they gave you away for nothing in a restaurant. I mean a girl has to look out in Paris, or she would have such a good time in Paris that she would not get anywhere. So I really think that American gentlemen are the best after all, because kissing your hand may make you feel very very good but a diamond and safire bracelet lasts forever.”

Lorelei’s not out here to have a good time. There’s a clear transaction when Lorelei goes out with her American gentlemen. In public, she’s there to be seen. She’s a bubbly, pleasant, lovely young woman. In private, as mentioned above, she fucks. In return, the American gentleman provides comfort and cash. If that sounds gross, it really isn’t. Lorelei spends zero time worrying about her morality, so you shouldn’t either. She’s doing what she wants, and what she wants is fuckin’ dead presidents. Having a good time is incidental, and entirely beside the point. Her friend Dorothy, who Lorelei often holds in affectionate contempt, provides the counterpoint. To Dorothy, life is a party. She doesn’t discriminate between gentlemen, and as long as they can afford a few rounds at the bar, Dorothy is down to party. To Lorelei, this is a waste of time and effort. However, the larger point is that both young women are free to pursue their desires. Lorelei Lee is up there in the pantheon of Modern Women, yet it’s clear that she’s different than the Lady Brett type. No, she’s using the loosening of social morality to further her own station. Instead of reveling in her burgeoning freedom, she’s going to work. That diamond tiara isn’t going to buy itself, after all.

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Dishonored 2

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Game * Arkane Studios SA * Magic Victorian Dystopia * 2016

Synopsis

It took me a while to get around to this game, which is surprising only because I enjoyed the first one so much. Part of the problem is, of course, writing this blog. I intended to go back to the first game in order to write about it, but it turns out my aversion to replaying games is as strong as ever. I don’t know why that is, considering I re-read books all the time. But when I booted up the first Dishonored I got a mission in and went, “eh, I remember all this” and put it down. In retrospect I should have played through it the opposite of how I went about it the first time and just murdered every motherfucker in the game. Instead I moved on. Anyway, here we are with the sequel, which is… fine. I recall the first game garnishing mixed impressions, with most people seeming to enjoy it with reservations. I liked it all the way. I loved the world especially, but I also like games which encourage me to poke along and not necessarily murder everyone I see.

Dishonored 2 doesn’t fiddle too much with the formula of the first game. It takes place about fifteen years after the events of the first game. In case you forgot (or just didn’t play it), that first game put you in the role of a shadowy assassin named Corvo. In the beginning of that game, the Empress gets shived in her own gazebo, and you spend the rest of the game sneaking through the magical, steam-punky, Victorian dystopia of Dunwall in an effort to avenge her death and protect her (and Corvo’s) daughter, and set things back to rights. Fifteen years later, Corvo’s daughter Emily succeeds her mother to the throne, and she’s basically been a child/adolescent ruler for that entire time. And she kind of sucks at it. This game begins with a royal procession welcoming a powerful Duke to the capital. This dude rolls in with a bunch of sick robots and a lady named Delilah, who promptly uses her weird dark magic to instigate a coup. She claims to be Emily’s aunt, and the rightful heir to the throne. At this point you can choose your protagonist and play as either Emily or Corvo. I chose Emily because of course I did.

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Given the option, always play as the lady.

The overall structure of Dishonored 2 is pretty much the same as the first game, which is great if you enjoyed the stealth action of the first game and is probably not for you if you didn’t. The chaos mechanic is the same as well. Essentially, the more people you kill the more chaotic the world becomes, and the darker the ending. Because I am an insufferable goody-goody, I did my best not to kill anyone. This, of course, means that the dope foldable sword I carry around everywhere is basically useless. Instead I spent the entire game lurking around and choking dudes out. Honestly, it gets a little tiresome. There’s fun to be had playing this way – many of the encounters turn into puzzles with a good deal of trial-and-error – but after a while you come up with tactics that work, and the game doesn’t do much to challenge you to mix it up. As you progress, you open up magic powers, which draws upon “The Void” and “The Outsider,” which are the supernatural element of the game’s world and story. These are fun, even if they’re not terribly imaginative. I dunno. It’s fine.

The more I think about my time with this game, the more I realized that it disappointed me. I’m forced to wonder if I’m losing interest in the “immersive sim” as a genre, since I played Prey not too long ago and came away with the same feeling of “eh, that was fine.” Compared to my experience with the first Dishonored, the world in particular felt a little more sterile than the first go-round, and I just can’t be sure why that is. I love everything about the set-up here. The entire aesthetic is gloomy, 19th century London, but with magic. It’s super weird and cool that the entire society runs on whale oil, which is a fascinating twist on how cheap, easy to exploit energy changes civilization. Dishonored 2 changes location from Dunwall to a city called Karnaca, and while it’s an extension of the world we already know, for some reason it just falls flat. Further, the new characters we meet just aren’t particularly engaging. Okay, I need to figure out why I’m lukewarm on this game. Spoilers ahoy.

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The set design of the game is great, and I still really enjoy the aesthetic. However, the interiors and moment-to-moment exploring skew a little dull.

Discussion

As Emily, once you escape your usurpers in the palace, you make your way to a boat. This boat belongs to a lady named Megan, and maybe I missed something, but there doesn’t seem to be a terribly compelling reason for her to help you out. I wonder if these limited character interactions are due to me playing as Emily, who as a young, isolated ruler wouldn’t exactly have the worldly experience of her father. As the story moves along, you meet an assortment of weirdos who you may or may not kill. I didn’t, and so some of these folks end up on your boat. At some point, you can stumble across Megan’s tragic backstory. By the end of the game she confesses to you that she helped kill your mother. After that revelation, I was just sitting there like, “okay, cool.” The narrative leading up to this moment simply never emphasized the relationship between Emily and, well, anyone at all. So when Megan makes her big confession, Emily is acting like she cares but as a player I’m left wondering why I should care.

What I usually enjoy about immersive sims is, well, the immersion. I actually like creeping around and poking around people’s houses and rifling through their shit. But that stuff is only fun if you’re finding compelling things when you do so. In the first game, I quite enjoyed myself because I was discovering this weird, fascinating world. This time, the tidbits I was finding were for whatever reason less interesting. Most of the thirty-plus hours I spent with this game was crawling around figuring out how to best avoid detection and murder. Probably the most outwardly frustrating part of the game is how little feedback you get in this instance. There were three or four missions that after spending three or more hours dinking around being stealthy, I would finish only to be told by the stat screen that whoopsies, you killed a person. I did? You think I might have noticed that! Seriously, if you’re going to encourage me to be non-lethal, it should be obvious when I fail. Gah.

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These fly-ass robots are dope as hell, though.

I have to wonder if I would have enjoyed myself more if I had gone loud. Just say fuck it, ignore the chaos system and stop worrying about getting the “good” ending, and run around murking fools in broad daylight. In my playthrough, it often felt like I was spending the majority of my time creeping around disheveled apartments looking through cabinets rather than engaging with the world. There’s also the strong possibility that the environments in this game just aren’t as good as the first set. By the end of the game, I was straying away from optional objectives in an effort to just get on with it already. That’s not a great sign. There comes a point where the practical rewards for scouring the environments – the bone charms and the runes and the ammunition – become largely irrelevant. If you’re going non-lethal, a good third of the powers are totally useless, so you end up with more skill points than you need. By the end, I was just bopping through as quickly as possible (which is still pretty slowly if you’re trying not to kill anyone) to finish the story and get my good ending.

The main theme of Dishonored 2 is that of governance. It’s clear that at the beginning of the game, Emily is a bad ruler. It’s the 19th century and the form of government is your basic monarchy, supported by an aristocratic hierarchy of various dukes and whatnot. There’s a bureaucracy in place, but I don’t recall a mention of a Parliament or anything like that, so it seems like Emily is the de facto final word about policy. She’s a rich teenager, and so the actual act of governance isn’t terribly interesting to her. She’s spent most of the previous fifteen years fucking off and letting the bureaucracy do its thing, and as a result some shady shit has been going down. Over the course of the game, Emily gets up close and personal with the consequences of her indifference. If you’re not a murder-machine, by the end of the game Emily has her revelation, which is her resolution to become a benevolent, engaged ruler. Hooray. Of course, she’s still the unquestioned, absolute ruler of all the land, so that hasn’t changed. And that’s part of the problem. Emily never questions the fundamental problems with her society, and so even in the good ending I’m left feeling like, well great, good for the status quo I guess. Like the rest of the game, my reaction is basically the same. I dunno. It’s fine.

Posted in Dystopia, Games, Government | Leave a comment

A Brief History of Seven Killings

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Novel * Marlon James * Jamaica Is Fucked Up, Yo * 2014

Synopsis

Let me preface this article by proclaiming to all and sundry that I don’t know shit about Jamaica. I know the stereotypes, obviously, but it’s not a subject I’ve ever looked into. It’s never come up in any history class I’ve ever taken, outside of the occasional aside about colonialism. Oh, there’s that old Chris Rock bit about “resort Jamaica” and “stabbin’ Jamaica.” This astounding book is definitely about stabbin’ Jamaica, holy shit. I do not think I was prepared for what I was getting into when I randomly picked it up in Powell’s. This book is another attempt at pushing myself outside of my typical bullshit, and while it paid off I’m still kind of reeling from the experience. It’s not even the subject matter, not really. I’ve read my share of hyper-violent stories with lots of swears. I guess it’s not even the way James writes his story – it’s post-modern stream-of-consciousness told from a dizzying array of viewpoints, but it’s not like that’s a unique structure. I don’t think it’s the patois used throughout, although that does slow the reading experience down a bit. Like any dialect-heavy text, you get used to it. Plus it’s fun, you bombo r’asscloth pussyhole. Yeah, if that phrase bums you out maybe skip this one. It’s a shame, because you’d be missing out on a stunning novel.

A Brief History of Seven Killings is a bit of a misnomer, because way more than seven people bite it over the course of the narrative. This is a sprawling novel which takes place over the span of fifteen years. It is mostly a crime novel, thus the many killings. The centerpiece event of the book is the attempted killing of Bob Marley in his Jamaica studio by a vanload of would-be assassins in 1976. This is a true thing that happened, although it’s the first I’ve heard of it because prior to reading this book I could give the least amount of fucks possible about Bob Marley. All the more credit to Marlon James, then, for making an account of this event so totally compelling. Roughly the first half of the novel takes place during the day before and the day of the attempted murder. The viewpoints are a whirlwind of shifting perspective and narratives which get more fragmented and less coherent when things start popping off for real. There’s no true protagonist, but there are many, many characters. Quite a few of these get their own viewpoint chapters. From low-level gang members to high-level gang members to CIA agents to obnoxious hipster white guys the style and vocabulary are constantly shifting. It’s a lot to keep up with.

Jamaica in the 70’s was a fucking mess. Maybe it still is, I don’t know. After reading this there are approximately 422,000 places I’d rather go first. This is why novels like this provide a valuable service: it’s an account of a horrible place which is fascinating and horrifying at the same time. A Brief History doesn’t equivocate on this point, either. James is Jamaican, and his feelings about his home country are seemingly as conflicted as those of most of his characters. The native Jamaicans are all well aware that large swaths of their country is a festering shithole with no redeeming qualities, but there’s still a vibrant love of the place that keeps them there. Then you’ve got the outsiders, Americans in the CIA or reporter Alex Pierce who are there for one reason or another who have the same qualms, but the same confusing love of the island. Pierce in particular is super annoying. He’s one of these white douchebags who simultaneously believes he knows about “the real Jamaica” while still spouting clichés about it. He’s kind of the worst, which is saying something considering some of the sociopathic monsters running around in this story.

A Brief History of Seven Killings is impossible to encapsulate in a few paragraphs. It’s a major achievement, and it deserves the praise and awards and whatnot, but it’s not an easy read. Getting through this thing requires quite a bit form the reader, so it’s important to understand what you’re getting into. You’ve got to have a thick skin, because there are some gnarly scenes here, but you also need plenty of patience. Your reward is a thorough and visceral examination of a deeply flawed, deeply compelling country. You get to know some horribly fucked up characters, and even if you don’t necessarily sympathize with them they’re no less fascinating. I guess that’s it for disclaimers. It’s difficult to “spoil” a novel like this, because the story is so meandering and there are so many threads that pretty much every chapter is surprising in its own way. I’m going to talk about a few specific things anyway, because it’s kind of impossible to talk in generalities any longer.

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The audio version of this book would take up so many LP’s. Also the neighbors would call the cops.

Discussion

A breezy scan through the Wikipedia article about Jamaica lays out bare just how hard Spain and England fucked this island over. Spain gets there and promptly cuts all the trees down and kills off the native population. Naturally. Then the British show up and kick them out, and the Spanish were all like “whatever it sucks here anyway.” So the Brits look around and think about sugarcane and import a bunch of African slaves and make it happen. A few centuries later, Jamaica declares independence and takes control of their own affairs. Of course, they’re left with a 400 year legacy of colonial oppression and not much else, so despite some optimism in the sixties, by the time A Brief History of Seven Killings takes place, the country is well and truly fucked. I am in no way qualified to talk to you about Jamaican history. Pretty much everything I know I learned from this book, but what this book does have to teach is a deeply unsettling look at the legacy of colonialism.

That’s all buried in subtext, though. This is not a Things Fall Apart situation, and the novel does not wear its stance on colonialism on its sleeve. However, by taking such an unflinching look at the extreme poverty of areas like Copenhagen City and Eight Lanes, there is an unspoken condemnation of the historical forces at work. The casual violence of these places are jarring and visceral. Christ, one of the first scenes of the book features a little boy hiding under a bed while a gang enforcer murders his father. Uh, “murder” undersells it. The killer forces the father to his knees and forces him to beg for his life by performing oral sex on him while he holds a gun to his head. Afterward he shoots him anyway. Then the kid’s mom. And everyone else is like, whatever, just another day in Jamdown or whatever and meanwhile the reader is thinking what the actual fuck is happening here?

Like I said, this is largely a novel about the criminal underground. There’s no real protagonist, but one of the more prominent characters is an upstart gang leader, Josey Wales. He’s a cold motherfucker whose top priority in life is “chatting good” and murdering anyone who gets in his way. Including Bob Marley. Josey is behind the murder attempt, in cahoots with the CIA for reasons that even now elude me. Jamaica was an area of interest at the time because of its proximity to Cuba, so they had a presence on the island, presumably to keep it from turning socialist. Each major Kingston gang represented their neighborhood, and the two main gangs repped for opposing political parties. At the time of the Marley near-miss, Josey Wales was the number two man in Copenhagen City under Papa-Lo. Their counterpart in their rival gang was a cat named Shotta Sherriff. About the time Marley was going to put on a big old concert for peace, there was going to be an election. The attempted murder had clear political undertones, since there was an attempt at a peace treaty between the rival gangs included with all the political maneuverings.

If all that sounds confusing, well, that’s how this book rolls. It swings wildly back and forth between just utterly disturbing violence and complicated political maneuvering. The latter is almost never explained, either. There’s very little exposition, because the book is written in a semi-stream-of-consciousness perspective from many, many characters. Some, like Nina Burgess and her sister, seemingly have little to do with the rest of the novel. There’s a lot of piecing together events that happen from snippets of thought from various people. Each section is also a specific moment of time, with the last three sections jumping in time quite a bit. By the end of the novel, most of the main players have moved to New York, and Josey Wales loses his shit and it’s like a scene from The Wire all of a sudden, and Jamaica itself takes a bit of a backseat to the Jamaican characters. But make no mistake, everyone here is a product of that messed-up little island. Pretty much everyone in the story has a nagging, compulsive love for the place, even if nobody has illusions about the post-colonial violence or the endless struggle against desperate poverty. You know, reading this over it’s clear that this novel might be a hard sell. Sometimes that’s the hallmark of an important piece of art, though. It’s pretty clear that A Brief History of Seven Killings is an important work. It’s just rough to get through.

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The Great Gatsby

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Novel * F. Scott Fitzgerald * American Modernism Defined * 1925

Synopsis

Yeah all right fine. The Great Gatsby is good. I accept that most of my antipathy towards this novel is rooted in having the book poorly taught to me at several points in my life, which isn’t fair to the actual words on the page. Those are fine. What I’m not going to back down from is my assertion that the English did Modernism better. There was simply more at stake, socially, in Europe at the time when these people were writing. The United States of the 20th century morphed from scrappy underdog to single world power largely because they were able to keep themselves on the periphery of the two apocalyptic events that essentially burned the European powers to the ground. World War I wasn’t the only major blow to the ancient power structures, the French Revolution was the first, but it was enough to send the world powers of the time into a tailspin that would end up wrecking even more havoc only twenty years later. Meanwhile, the United States was an ocean away and more than content to reap the benefits of the European powers tearing themselves to shreds. In the aftermath, America was obviously in a better position to benefit economically from the new state of the world. I mean, we basically threw in with the winning side a few months before the end of the war so we could claim moral victory as well, but you know. Details.

The 1920’s (and the fact that in a couple of years we’re going to need to make it clear which “Twenties” we’re talking about makes me feel old for some reason) are generally considered to be a decade of ridiculous excess: money flying everywhere, young people doing sex on each other, bootleg booze flowing, shiny new cars zooming around brightly lit big cities. Yet this was largely an American phenomenon, because we didn’t lose millions of young men in a pointless bloodbath in the mud pits of France. I don’t want to trivialize our role in the conflict, but we lost more soldiers to the influenza epidemic of 1918 than we did to combat. You simply can’t compare our losses to those of the European combatants. That said, when it comes to art and literature, American writers served – and some of our best of the era were right in the middle of the war, including F. Scott Fitzgerald. The effect of this was twofold. The most apparent is the sheer disillusionment that transpired from witnessing the slaughter of the war. That’ll mess anyone up, and it’s no surprise that the survivors turned to drink and revelry after the war was over. For an American veteran, the other effect was to introduce them to a whole other world. There’s a reason our best writers of the era spent a good deal of time in London and Paris (and in T.S. Eliot’s case changed citizenship), and that’s in some part down to having that wider experience of the world.

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In case you were confused about the whole “green light” thing.

The Great Gatsby isn’t about Paris or the war, however. It’s about being a young man in New York City surrounded by the nouveau riche and witnessing the decline and fall of an older era. It’s the raw speed of technology and the accelerated pace of civilization and urban living. Like their European counterparts, Americans were also dealing with the unprecedented rate of technological development and the radical shift in not only social values, but in raw ambition. America has always been a place without centuries-old reified social structures, but it wasn’t until the 1920’s that there was the actual possibility of a Jay Gatsby. This is mostly due to the fact that prior to this era, Gilded Age monopolies squashed ambition. The best you could hope for was a position in a monopolistic industry because there wasn’t anything left to conquer yourself. Yet the beginning of the 20th century shifted the game. As I’ve said in pretty much every article I’ve posted about Modernism, technological development skyrocketed. This, of course, opened up new avenues of innovation and created new fields to develop and get rich off of. Meanwhile, Europe cannibalized themselves at this crucial moment so the plucky Americans slid right into the vacuum left behind. Once the war was over and a new world order was up for grabs, American money was everywhere.

More than anything, The Great Gatsby is about money. It’s a story about people flailing around in an economic bubble, and I’d be lying if I haven’t thought about where these characters ended up like six years after the events of the novel. I doubt people like Tom and Daisy Buchanan did particularly well during the Depression, you know? Nick Carraway, our intrepid narrator, seems even-keeled enough to get by, which is why he anchors this story of a bunch of terrible people interacting with one another. Yep, this being Modernism pretty much every character is an awful human being. Even Nick has his issues, even if a kind of terminal passiveness is the worst of his traits. Tom and Daisy are the actual worst. Jay Gatsby is a crazy person who can’t even deal with life. Nick’s golfing girlfriend Jordan is icy, cynical, and dull. And that’s pretty much it, because The Great Gatsby is also a novel of small scale. Not a whole helluva lot happens here, which is fine because again that’s not what this book is about. It’s a small story about small people who happen to reflect the repercussions of an apocalyptic event an ocean away.

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Beep! Beep! Out of my way! I’m a motorist!

Discussion

I hope things have changed in the classroom since I was taught The Great Gatsby in high school (three times), or even that I had an atypical experience with this novel. Obviously, English class was my favorite. I generally had good teachers. However, because I moved around a lot, when I’d get into a new school the administration was generally reluctant to place me in the honors version of their English program, regardless of previous achievements. It’s like, “yeah yeah, you did fine there but here you’re going to have to prove yourself!” And that’s how I got to essentially retake an entire year’s worth of material. Anyway, personal tangent aside, when the curriculum assumes that you don’t like literature, it goes out of its way to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy. I have to think that Gatsby is required reading for pretty much everyone, it’s right up there with To Kill a Mockingbird in that regard. Two of the three times Gatsby was taught at me the instructor almost exclusively focused on the use of symbolism in the novel. That’s a wonderful way to poison positive experiences with literature and to skew perception about analysis.

Instead of receiving any historical context of the time when the novel was written, or being encouraged to push at the narrative in any meaningful way, or questioning the author’s intentions, or engaging with character choices in the story, we were given a symbol hunt. Everything boiled down to discovering seemingly innocuous things and decoding them. To be fair, Fitzgerald does have a habit of placing conspicuous items and moments in the prose. However, it’s unfair to the text to assume the author had a list of some kind. Like, “green light = the future via Daisy.” And then that’s the end of the discussion. It turns English into math, and with respect to my science peeps that’s the allure of the humanities. There’s no one answer, there’s no formula for literature-solving. An argument can be made that teaching symbolism in The Great Gatsby is an attempt to force students to look deeper than they otherwise would, but it’s been clear to me in the years since that those who are not disposed toward the humanities dismiss literary analysis as pointless deciphering of symbols that may or may not exist. There are much more engaging ways to talk about books.

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Clearly spoilers weren’t a big deal back in the day. I don’t remember Gatsby spending a lot of time topless though? Maybe I just read it wrong.

The best way, in my most humble of opinions, is to latch onto something in the text which is relevant to our current experience. Yes, Gatsby is a period piece. It’s hard to vibe with what was happening nearly a hundred years ago unless you’re predisposed to historical thinking. Yet the secret of good books is that human nature doesn’t change much. Social attitudes move at a glacial pace, so most of the issues Fitzgerald examines are still very much in play now. Take a look at this exchange:

“You make me feel uncivilized, Daisy,” I confessed on my second glass of corky but rather impressive claret. “Can’t you talk about crops or something?”

I meant nothing in particular by this remark but it was taken up in an unexpected way.

“Civilization’s going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read ‘The Rise of the Coloured Empires’ by this man Goddard?”

“Why, no,” I answered, rather surprised by his tone.

“Well, it’s a fine book and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”

“Tom’s getting very profound,” said Daisy with an expression of unthoughtful sadness. “He reads deep books with long words in them. What was that word we – ”

“Well, these books are all scientific,” insisted Tom, glancing at her impatiently. “This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us who are the dominant race to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”

“We’ve got to beat them down,” whispered Daisy, winking ferociously toward the fervent sun.

There’s more but you get the idea. Tom is the great capitalist alpha male. He’s also a racist garbage can of a person (Note: I looked up the book he referenced and couldn’t find anything, but Google probably thinks I’m racist now). In terms of 2017, someone like Tom Buchanan is the nostalgic standard of the alt-right. He’s the kind of idealized white masculinity that these Internet gremlins and tiki-torch wielding motherfuckers wish they could be. And yet here he is, trying to convince his peers that his ignorant, rank racism is something elevated, something right and true. These patently untrue sentiments are in a book with big words, therefore they are true, therefore my ugly feelings are correct. Not only are they correct, but they are right and pure. He’s using the same pathetic tactics to rationalize his gross feelings of inadequacy as these worthless, whining, racist-ass beta bitches we have today. I, uh, may have some strong feelings about the resurgence of the kind of ideals that Tom Buchanan believes in, but that’s exactly what good fiction is supposed to do.

The Great Gatsby puts in a lot of work for a novel with such a small focus, and there are plenty of places to jump to from the above passage. Starting with an otherwise unassuming passage and working out towards the topic of entrenched racism to the role of money and the politics of domination in said racism to what America looks like a hundred years later is more natural and interesting than quizzing people on what Tom’s shirts mean. This is not to say that symbolic gestures are not happening in the text – they totally are – but to make them the focus of a more nuanced and complicated story misses out on a lot of dynamic discussion that could otherwise happen spontaneously. Plus, pulling out actual text is a good way to remind yourself what a brilliant craftsman Fitzgerald was. “Winking ferociously toward the fervent sun” is a good fucking phrase. Also: “expression of unthoughtful sadness.” Sometimes I think I’m an okay writer and then I see shit like that and am forced to consider my nearly transcendental mediocrity. Actually, that makes for a pretty good description of Nick, now that I think about it. It all comes around in the end!

Posted in Books, Modernity | Leave a comment

The Dark Tower (film)

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Film * Nikolaj Arcel * Excuse Me, I Need to Lie Down * 2017

Synopsis

What a huge fucking bummer. Just… goddammit. Okay. Okay. Okay, I have actual words. Hold on, give me another second….

[gets up]

[walks to window]

[screams into the infinite unknown]

[apologizes to alarmed neighbors]

[sits back down]

Okay that didn’t work at all. I guess I just need to work this out here. First of all, I think it’s important that I preface the following by stating that The Dark Tower and its six sequels have been hugely important to me. I’ve gone full evangelical with this series, I’ve made converts, I’ve gone on at length on this very site. So when I (finally) sat down to watch this movie, I brought some baggage with me. It’s impossible not to do so, considering. I know the books backwards and forwards as I’ve read them entirely too many times. So this movie already had some work to do. That said, I did my very best to accept the movie on its own terms. I get it, I understand, I know how adaptations work. You can’t just literally film the books and expect it to work for a general audience. Maybe especially these books. And I was totally fine with surprising choices and drastic changes. The movie is its own thing and its existence doesn’t invalidate the books in any way. I’m just so very disappointed in what they came up with.

First of all, a couple of good things before I explain very precisely why this whole thing is so awful. The Dark Tower is a beautiful movie. It’s absolutely sold me on the natural splendor of South Africa. With a couple of quibbles, Mid-World looks amazing. The set and costume design are fantastic, Roland looks perfect. As far as that’s concerned, the casting is also great. I mean, there’s only three main characters to work with, but they absolutely nailed it. Idris Elba is Roland. The kid they found to play Jake is great too, and he works really well against Elba. Their chemistry felt right. I even like Matthew McConaughey as Walter. He brings a menace to the role that fits, although I wish there was just a touch more jocularity to the character. Walter is often amused with his own cruelty. Anyway, he still looked the part. Even the Low Men were awesome. I’m down with the entire aesthetic of this film, this is the one aspect of the books they captured.

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They absolutely nailed the look, I’ll give them that.

It’s too bad about literally everything else. I just… I don’t understand! There’s like a hundred ways to do this without stripping everything worthwhile out of the story! Gah! It’s like they skimmed the books, pulled out ten or twelve random details, and sprinkled them throughout a boilerplate revenge story. Here’s the thing about that: I want to enjoy my fanboy squealing over those details, but I couldn’t because they didn’t make any fucking sense in context of whatever narrative they were trying to tell. Christ, the movie begins with a Tet Corporation logo with a little turtle and that should be fucking awesome and I could barely appreciate it because I’m sitting here thinking “why isn’t this movie starting with a man in black fleeing across a desert and a gunslinger following?” This shit’s not complicated. When your source material serves up one of the most iconic opening sentences of all time, you start with that fucking sentence! I guess they eventually dropped it in there, half an hour after it would have had any real impact, just one of a bunch of random details they included without having any understanding of why.

What makes this so utterly frustrating is that “unfilmable” adaptations have been pulled off before. There’s a goddamn blueprint. In just fantasy alone, I can point to Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones and Harry Potter. All three of those take liberties with the source material. They change stuff around and cut things and add other stuff and whatever! That’s not what bothers me about this. No, those other movies succeed because those behind the adaptation understand the spirit of the source. They fucking get it. Those books are all perennially popular for a reason, it’s the job of the filmmakers and screenwriters to harness that essence and make it work for a movie. The worst way to do that is to just strip random details and sprinkle them over an entirely new narrative. But that’s what The Dark Tower does, and as a result it’s a boring failure. Dammit.

Oh, and a friendly reminder that I’m going to openly talk about plot points of not only the movie, but the books below.

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I think they used the term “Beamquake” but at no point did they explain just what the hell the Beams are or why they’re important.

Discussion

Probably the most obvious thing this movie gets wrong is the characterization. The Dark Tower, as a series, works well with so few characters because those characters are so well realized. Roland is one of Stephen King’s greatest characters because he’s been writing about him for forty years. You know what the best way to understand Roland’s character is without having to go through all the bother of actually understanding the novels? Read some of the introductions to the Dark Tower novels. King straight up tells you how Roland works. He’s a slow-thinking, aristocratic, diplomat with a deeply romantic nature who shoots real good. The film gets the easiest thing to get right utterly wrong, and it makes no fucking sense. Roland is all about the Tower. That’s his whole deal! As Eddie puts it, Roland’s a Tower junkie. The Man in Black is and always was a means to that end. He’s just another cobble in the road to the Dark Tower. This is explicitly stated time and time again, and I simply cannot understand how the filmmakers looked at that and went “yeah but what if revenge.”

Oh, and they say his name wrong. He’s an aristocrat. He’s the heir of Arthur, for crying out loud. You draw that name out all fancy. “Childe Rolaaand to the Dark Tower Came.” Minor issue all things considered, but still.

So they fuck Roland’s basic nature all up (“I’m not a gunslinger anymore” my rosy red ass). Jake is a little closer to the mark, but at the same time they take unnecessary liberties with his backstory. Remember how Elmer Chambers is a go-go 80’s executive and his mom is a vapid Valium addict? And how he bails on them because his life is otherwise empty and meaningless? And how maybe that’s important to his character but whatever, we need him to have a totally relatable relationship with his loving mother and the mean old stepdad? The fuck am I even looking at here. And then Jake doesn’t die. He doesn’t die? How? What!? JAKE’S DEATH IS THE WHOLE FUCKING POINT. That’s the emotional center of his entire arc, and this movie looked at that and went “yeah but what if sci-fi portals.”

 

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The set design is so fantastic and then they promptly squander it all and now I’m sad again.

To be fair, those sci-fi portals show up – kind of – in the books, towards the end of the series. And that’s a big problem. This movie has a lean 90 minute runtime, which I totally appreciate, but they’re trying to cram in seven big ass novels’ worth of story in there. Of course that’s not going to work. Of course! That’s obvious on its face! Tell a person who’s never even heard of The Dark Tower that oh, by the way, this one movie is like seven books, and they’ll look at you like you said something stupid. Because you did, because that’s stupid. I don’t even understand what the thought process was here. I assume they made this because they wanted a fresh new franchise to exploit, but this movie is pretty clearly wrapped up by the end. They introduce this weird, elaborate concept – the Dark Tower is the linchpin to all realities and all universes, Walter would like to blow it up with little kid brain magic – and then they solve it immediately. I’m trying to put myself in the shoes of an objective observer, and I’m not seeing where this goes from here. And that’s super confusing.

I mean, you start with the beginning because it’s the beginning, right? Yeah, I know the books begin in media res, shut up. I also understand that the first book is a weird, esoteric thing that’s not for everyone. Which is why you truncate it for the film and probably mash it up with The Drawing of the Three. You introduce all the mystery of Roland and Mid-World and then ground that with the audience with his trips to New York to draw two extremely compelling characters. Right? Is this hard? You end with a hint at Roland’s coming madness and the notion that Jake isn’t actually dead. That’s a hook, and these books are beloved for a reason. It’s like the filmmakers were terrified they’d never get another chance so they just crammed as much as they could from the seven books without considering how they were being used, and hey look self-fulfilling prophecy. Good job, jerks. I guess maybe Tull gives this an R rating? It should probably have that anyway. Ugh. There are ways to make that first book a compelling movie! And then they looked at all that and went “yeah but what if all the books.”

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Roland does some cool gun shit, for sure.

Adaptations are hard, I get it. I listed those three extremely popular fantasy adaptations above because they’re obvious examples of getting it right. You have to appeal to people who have no interest in reading dorky books for dorks. You jazz it up with dope action scenes, right? This movie had a couple of those moments. That scene in the village (???) where Walter’s goblin raiders (????) invaded and ran off with Jake? And then everything slows down to show how totally rad Roland is, and he makes that crazy shot? That was brilliant. That was a perfect encapsulation of how spooky Roland is with a gun. The Dixie Pig shootout was also fucking cool to look at. Yet I’m still watching that going: why is Roland here? This is just set dressing. There is no narrative reason for him to be here, and with zero context this makes no sense. It’s just another reference, which is doubly confusing because the only people who are going to even get that reference are too busy being mad that you’ve misused the reference! The only reason the Dixie Pig is cool is because that’s where Jake finally goes Full Gunslinger after like five books of growth. And then they looked at all of that and went “yeah but what if Roland just shot a bunch of dudes.”

When it comes down to it, the movie fails because it doesn’t earn anything. There’s no narrative reason given for Jake showing up in Mid-World, other than he has the Shinnin’. Roland’s entire backstory is summed up in a trite flashback of his dad biting it. That’s it, that’s his motivation. None of that is terribly compelling. They show off this cool-looking world, but they try and explain every modicum of mystery immediately, which is the exact opposite of what makes the books so fascinating and what gives them such a long life. Even within the context of the novels, I know a lot of people are disappointed with the concluding three books, and that’s in large part because things get explained. Explanations are usually boring and disappointing. You gotta let that mystery and atmosphere and esoteric weirdness marinade for a while. You can still make a snappy action film and keep what makes The Dark Tower special intact. I believe that. It’s too bad that those behind this atrocity didn’t.

Posted in Dark Tower, Entropy, Film, Post-Post-Apocalypse | Leave a comment

Edge of Tomorrow

edge of tomorrow1

Film * Doug Liman * Groundhog Day but with Aliens * 2014

Synopsis

I always appreciate when a story drops you into its bonkers premise without much in the way of context. Edge of Tomorrow begins with a montage of stock footage taken from various terrorist attacks used to explain that oh no, aliens showed up and invaded Western Europe and they’re real fucked up. Humanity is about to launch a counterstrike from England, the last free state in Europe. It’s clearly a big D-Day situation, except sci-fi. They land in Calais and everything. Anyway, that’s pretty much it for backstory. We learn all this in the first five minutes or so. Scary aliens, big counter-offensive, there’s a soldier-lady who seems cool, and Tom Cruise is there. Look, this is a Tom Cruise movie. Either you’re in or you’re out, you know what you’re getting. To this day, the only time I’ve been surprised and impressed by a Tom Cruise performance was Tropic Thunder, and this movie is no exception. It’s Tom Cruise as Tom Cruise doing and saying Tom Cruise things. In this case his name is Major Cage and he’s a slick advertising man who is gross and crosses the wrong general before the big counter-invasion.

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Of course watching this movie made Bill Paxton’s death resonate all the more because he’s fantastic here. Such a bummer.

Edge of Tomorrow is a film all about its premise. It’s the reason you see the movie. I mean yeah, it’s cool to watch dudes in mech-suits running around blowing up weird looking aliens, but that’s more incidental sci-fi violence. Nah, you’re here for the hook, which is essentially Groundhog Day. The only major difference between that film and Edge of Tomorrow is that Bill Murray is replaced by Tom Cruise, there are aliens instead of folksy rural Pennsylvanians, and the day is reset after a violent death as opposed to the end of the day. Other than that it’s pretty much the same movie. It’s a film about learning. When Major Cage learns he’s been busted down to Private Cage and is being sent to the front, he’s understandably bummed out. He gets one day to learn how to use the mech-suit used to kill aliens, and he’s obviously super bad at it. Eventually he gets dumped on the beach where he and his entire squad are wiped out by a surprisingly strong alien attack. He dies horribly, and promptly wakes up back at the start of his day.

It seems to me that this kind of idea would be really easy to mess up, but the premise is worked to excellent effect throughout the movie. The story itself is kind of boilerplate alien invasion stuff, but Liman is constantly keeping the audience guessing about what is happening when. Cage always remembers what happened before he dies, and there doesn’t seem to be a limit to the number of times he can come back. Later in the film there are some constraints put on his power, and there’s an explanation as to why everything is happening, but whatever. I barely care. I’m way more interested in how the story moves, and how it subverts our expectations considering time and character. The film sets expectations right up front. Oh, Tom Cruise is going to get all this free practice and get good at killing aliens. But then each scene compounds on the next, and not all scenes begin at the same time, so that you never actually know how many times Cage has lived a particular scene. All the other characters around him, most notably the aforementioned cool solider-lady, Rita, do not get to carry over memories like Cage does, so he has to put in all that work every day. You know, like Groundhog Day.

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Emily Blunt is extremely cool in this movie and she shoots Tom Cruise in the face a lot, which is fun.

Discussion

This is the section where I usually discuss the larger themes at play within the work, or try and figure out what it’s saying about itself or the state of the world. I’m not really feeling that here. Edge of Tomorrow functions almost entirely in service to its plot, which is totally fine. I had a real good time watching. However, once it’s done that’s kind of it. I know Groundhog Day is the obvious comparison, but when you pair these two movies, it’s clear that the otherwise lighthearted comedy is the better film. In that movie, the plot device is of course important to the story and is used in many fun ways, but it’s always in service the characters and the examination of small-town interactions. Edge of Tomorrow barely cares about its characters. Tom Cruise starts out as a manipulative wiener and turns into a cool action guy, sure. Yet there isn’t really that much room for his character to grow, considering there was never very much character there to begin with. This is largely because the stakes are so much higher in Edge of Tomorrow – after all, the fate of the planet hangs in the balance, which is arguably more important that Bill Murray’s love life. There’s simply no time to stretch out as a person when everything you do needs to be in service to saving the world, you know?

I guess that’s all I have to say about that. Meanwhile, let’s talk about aliens. The older I get and the more musings about aliens I read/watch in various science fiction efforts, the more I’m convinced that we’re beneath the notice of proper alien civilizations. If you look at something like Edge of Tomorrow, or Independence Day, the aliens are described as more of a virus than a civilization. That seems about right, if we’re talking apocalypse-by-space-alien. In this film, the aliens (who look an awful lot like the aliens in the 2017 game Prey, which also has a type called “mimics”) don’t even try to communicate. We’re given next to zero information about how they showed up. We pick up the battle for Earth in media res, and that the decimation of the planet is imminent. When we do get a little backstory, they’re described as an interstellar virus, a sort of reflexive parasitical spore that lands on a planet and quickly dooms it for no particular reason. Somehow, they can control the flow of time, thus the plot device. Yet there is no intelligent menace here. There is certainly no evidence of culture or higher thought. They don’t appear to use technology. They just destroy.

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I killed so many of these things in Prey. Apparently someone at Bethesda is a fan.

So if the aliens come, it makes sense to me that it’ll be something like this. Why would an actual alien intelligence be interested? If you hang out much on the Internet, you likely saw this story in the New York Times. Said article casually mentions that yeah, many high-ranking officials are pretty sure aliens have been here and oh maybe there are bits of an alien ship chilling in Las Vegas also check out this weird video taken from extremely expensive video equipment. As much as my X-Files watching ass wants to believe, I just can’t roll with it. Because why would an advanced alien civilization want anything to do with us? We’re a planet of homicidal apes whose psychology hasn’t evolved all that much since we evolved the ability to use tools. We’re a backwater, and if 2017 is any indication it’s going to be some time before we get an invite to the interstellar party. I’m convinced that there are extraterrestrial civilizations out there – the universe is far too vast to believe otherwise. I’m also pretty sure that some of those civilizations have developed all of my sci-fi fantasies, from teleportation to time travel to faster-than-light travel. Again, in an infinite universe there is infinite possibility, right? We don’t have any direct observation of any of that stuff, which suggests to me that higher forms of life simply don’t care. Or there’s some kind of Prime Directive at play. Anyway, as much as it pains me to say it, something like Edge of Tomorrow makes more sense to me than a Contact situation. If the aliens come, we’re boned.

Posted in Aliens, Film | 2 Comments