Steve Likes Almost Everything: Inherent Vice and Ender’s Game

January 19, 2015 § Leave a comment

Welcome back to “Steve Likes Almost Everything”, where I like almost everything, even when I don’t.

Today, Inherent Vice, which I couldn’t wait to see as soon as it came out, and Ender’s Game, for which which definitely I could wait. And did.

1.

Inherent Vice

Have you ever heard the urban legend(?) that when you watch 2001: A Space Odyssey, you’re supposed to drop acid when the movie starts, and then you’ll peak right at the flashy lights scene? I think that Inherent Vice is supposed to be this, but backwards. I’ll explain what I mean in a minute.

First of all, this review hinges on the premise that I think that, once it hits home video, Vice will be overwhelmingly couchable—the type of movie that you can turn on, on a Sunday afternoon, volume lowish, and keep on in the background while you do other stuff. It shouldn’t be that, because it looks like a drama, and you don’t couch dramas, you couch action and comedy flicks. But Paul Thomas Anderson has made couchable movies before. Not just Boogie Nights and Punch Drunk Love, either. There Will Be Blood? Oddly, as Dan showed me, very couchable.

Vice has gags that will be funny 20 rewatchings later—basically, any moment Josh Brolin is on the screen, and its Goldilocks-sized portion of Martin Short. And Reese Witherspoon, and so on. It’s got enough side-characters and side-tangents that you can watch and explore and flit away, without the plot ever mattering too much. And Joanna Newsom’s narration is too much, too dense, too prosey to really latch into in the theater. It will find a permanent place next to The Big Lebowski on any shelf that holds the former…for, uh, non-alphabetic reasons.

It’s fitting that the first Pynchon novel adapted into a film is couchable, because Pynchon wrote probably the finest essay on couches ever penned. In “Nearer, My Couch, to Thee”, part of a series for the New York Times in which writers discuss the seven deadly sins, Pynchon gives an impassioned defense of Sloth. And Doc Sportello, the protagonist of Vice, is perhaps the Slothiest of any Pynchon protagonist, even Gravity’s Rainbow‘s Tyrone Slothrop, whose name is allegedly an anagram for “sloth or entropy”.

Doc is a man who wants to live life as it comes to him in a world where that was briefly allowed (that world: shoddy apartments on the sand in Manhattan Beach, drainage pipes out their windows, 1970). But less slowly than Doc’s dope-addled mind can fail to notice, that world is getting stamped out by real estate developers, the LAPD, and Richard Nixon. If 2001 is peaking on acid, Vice, as a movie, is sobering up after smoking some weed. Pop it on at home, on the couch. Feel your attention sucked back in as soon as shit gets way, too, damn, sober.

Of course, being a Pynchon fan, I also have to talk about how the movie and book compare to each other. If you haven’t read the book and don’t care, skip ahead a couple paragraphs.

The act of shoving any person in front of a camera for 2 hours, even a character as phlegmatic as Doc Sportello, makes them the main character. But in Pynchon, the protagonists are so incidental to the story being told, and have such little impact on it, that it’s more accurate to consider his settings as the main character. Pynchon novels are told through multiple lenses and locations, a million stories buzzing around a central zeitgeist, illustrating it, expanding on it. Doc is probably the one that most naturally and understandably ducks out of the way of the zeitgeist among Pynchon’s “protagonists”, because his hippiness and druginess is played for laughs.

Now, I’m not exactly lamenting the more focused treatment Anderson took in adapting Vice. I don’t know if it was possible to make a movie about zeitgeist in the same way that Pynchon writes—even a movie with an ensemble cast feels more like it’s about its characters than Pynchon novels feel like they’re about theirs. And I’m glad Anderson didn’t try. Something had to get lost in translation, and I’d rather we lose out on some of the things the novel did well as a separate work of art, like thematic breadth, than the things that a movie had an opportunity to accomplish in a unique and visually interesting way, like its tonal complexity and outrageous humor.

2.

I liked Ender’s Game. I mean, I’m supposed to, because of what this whole thing is called. But still.

Ender’s Game is the absolute ultimate test case in what this type of review is supposed to be about, because I know I was supposed to hate it, and I DID hate it for the reasons I was supposed to hate it. First, they got rid of Ender and Alai hugging, and making meaningful eye contact, and Alai kissing Ender on the cheek. In the middle of the controversy of Orson Scott Card’s batshit homophobia, that just fucking sucks.

Second, wow, I did not catch the awful gender politics of Ender’s Game when I read the book when I was like, 11. Every woman in Ender’s life only exists as a nurturer for him. Ender’s sister, Petra, and Harrison Ford’s Black Assistant seem to be plenty capable in their own rights, but they all disappear as soon as Ender needs something. Bleh.

Also, for the longest time I thought it was nice that Card snuck a person of color past the conservative sci-fi culture and into a crucial role in Enderverse—ok, I guess I just assumed that Bean was Mexican. Upset now that he seems to be white in the movie.

But I also rediscovered a lot of the things that made Ender’s Game my favorite book when I was 11. It starred the smart kid who was younger than everyone else succeeding and thriving, I’m sure that had its pull on me. But wow, Ender’s Game pulls no punches in its treatment of the military industrial complex. It presents a compelling, well supported case that the military would ruin the lives of its children, fuck up all of society, and cause complete alien genocide just to fight a war that didn’t need to be won. And I like the final message that any enemy, no matter how foreign and different from you, can be talked to, reached as an equal.

Finally, there’s Ender’s final argument, final statement to Graff: “it matters how we win”. This is, to me, the most compelling argument for non-violence. It’s above Gene Sharp’s strategic nonviolence, in which non-violence is presented as simply the most strategically easy method for achieving social change. And (fitting that I saw this movie on MLK day), Ender’s argument is below King’s principled nonviolence, in which non-violence is a great moral principle that rests on an external moral force that favors those who choose not to hurt or kill.

“It matters how we win”, coming from Ender, is a warning. Ender is smarter and sees strategy several steps farther than anyone else. He wants to not just end the war, but end all future wars. And he understands that ending conflicts in violence may solve a present conflict, but it creates future conflicts. Even if you wipe out your enemy as completely as he does the Buggers (oof, that word looks wrong post Card-homophobia controversy), it creates future conflicts, because you will be starting future conflicts. As we see in the rest of the Ender series, using violence turns you into a future aggressor, because that’s how you know to end conflicts.

I also couldn’t help but start to analyze the movie as a piece of Mormon fiction. Card, of course, is Mormon. Mormonism is the largest, most distinct current religion based on white American mythology. Ender commits mass genocide (Xenocide!) and feels guilty, and takes it on as his burden to rescue the buggers. I got kind of bored with that line of analysis.

Look, the movie as a movie wasn’t good. Like Vice, it was a very incomplete adaptation of a much longer novel, and it lacked more for its compression and choices than Vice did. It focused on the wrong things, it sacrificed the continuity its characters needed for their moments together to feel genuine in order to give Harrison Ford more screen time. But this movie felt like a pure nostalgia trip for the now-adult fans of a book which was, at the time, the shit for me and a lot of young kids. It evoked just enough of the book that I loved once upon a time to make the romp enjoyable.

Steve Likes Almost Everything: Introduction, Nightcrawler, and Big Hero 6

November 10, 2014 § 2 Comments

Call it a rebranding, or whatever it takes to get me to use this blog more: From now until I decide to stop, I’m going to be calling any reviews I write here “Steve Likes Almost Everything.” I will continue using this title whether or not it proves to be true (and I have a sneaking suspicion it won’t).

Using the name for a few reasons, then. First is that I’m very clearly not a professional reviewer, and the things I review will be what I was drawn to or drawn to writing about anyway, which are usually media I wanted to consume anyway.

Second, and more important I think, is an idea I’ve been kicking around about the tone and objective of critique, especially more rigorous and academically informed critique. Even though I am proudly #notafuckinggradstudent, and what I write would certainly not deserve any attention in the world of thinkpieces and longreads, thank god. But if the author is dead and interpretation has primacy, shouldn’t we focus on interpretation that leads further towards media we can enjoy? And trumpet those interpretations, no matter how outlandish, if we so choose?

Like, for example, I watched like 3 hours of South Park last night. Now, I’m fairly sure as a person committed to social justice I’m supposed to hate South Park—the ethos of “we make fun of everyone” is a false equivalency, they often fail to “punch up”, and most episodes feature crude or regressive stereotypes and caricatures of subaltern identities. And Trey Parker and Matt Stone are Libertarians! I’ve heard it all and more, from people I like and trust immensely.

I’m often told that I shouldn’t watch things like this, for what seems like a lot of different reasons: to not give their bad critique berth, or that it might affect some sort of purity of my own critique of the world. But the scariest reason is when it’s hinted to me that I ought not to watch these things because, as a member of our subculture or someone who shares a certain set of ideological markers, I ought not to like them.

I hate this. I think liking things is an admirable goal of consuming media. And I think the same tools we use to critically disembowel media and explain why it’s so bad—and importantly, the same amount of effort—can be used to come up with a reading we like. I really like South Park, even though it’s a completely different show now than the one I fell in love with in junior high school. I think there’s so much to learn from and enjoy in the way their particular style of humor and topicality can be used to discuss George Zimmerman’s acquittal that says so much more than the 20th thinkpiece you read on the subject.

Tl;dr, all media is going to be found, in some way or another, problematic. What I propose is not just that we should compartmentalize the good with the bad, but that we can learn from both and make things better.

Ok, with that tangent out of the way, let’s talk movies that I saw this weekend. Very very briefly, because I’m still chewing on them.

Nightcrawler had more to say for itself, which is probably why I have less to say about it. Jake Gyllenhaal’s character sounds exactly like your boss, perfected. The scariest thing isn’t even his callous disregard for human life, it’s the fact that he never, ever makes a mistake or wavers from his trajectory as, in his mind, the ideal version of himself. He mentions that he’s (quote is remembered and therefore not accurate) “self-educated from the internet on a wide berth of subjects”—keying on this line, his character comes off as a rebuke of the internet, of MOOCs, and as a lens on the type of psycho that emerges from digital alienation. We never, ever see him interact with another character outside of a professional capacity, and it doesn’t look like he misses it, either.

His chosen career as a freelance crime videographer doesn’t seem to offer a very fruitful parallel to this reading. But it does directly lead to another thing I liked a lot about Nightcrawler: how cool and exciting Los Angeles is depicted at night, and how sickly and depressing it looks during the day.

Big Hero 6 is still unraveling in my mind. Particularly, I’m trying to sort out what it has to say about the tech industry, capitalism, STEM education, and why the fuck it took place in the mashup city of “San Fransokyo”. Let’s start with the last one.

San Fransokyo is, like you’d expect, not built on equal power relations between the two source cities (just like the inequality in power between Asians and whites in tech). It’s the geography and landmarks pretty exactly imported from San Francisco, with orientalized aesthetics. There’s a Transamerica pyramid but no real Shibuya. Yet despite the imbalance of influence between the two real cities upon the fictional one, it’s hard to find a believable or reading for San Fransokyo as a future San Francisco transformed by political and cultural upheaval.

Instead, it feels like San Francisco and Tokyo were tapped for the mashup for the way the cities act as the thematic representations of technology and the future, respectively. In one reading, this puts Tokyo in a subordinate role to San Francisco: a clear theme of the movie is the potential of technology as a means to unlock both the intellectual and productive power, but also the emotional power and health of the human individual (Baymax is kind of like a wearable health tech accessory for the soul). Thus the future, as represented by Tokyo, would only have importance in order exists to advance San Francisco’s technology to a sufficiently advanced level to allow the situations of the plot to take place.

In the world of Big Hero 6, or at least in the plot of the movie, the only businesses are protagonist Hiro’s aunt’s hip café, and tech. Hiro’s brother pressures him to do something special with that brain of his, but there are no discussions of what that might entail or what Hiro is interested in: there is no intellectual pursuit outside of the breathy dreamers at Hiro’s brother’s university, the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology. The school is home to all sorts of (awesome) inventions from many different scientific and engineering disciplines. But there’s no superhero with a working knowledge of Deleuze. STEM rules everything around me, and in the future, all the buildings will look like iPhones.

The overall look at tech is pretty uncritical, which is especially interesting right after watching Nightcrawler. Instead of Louis Bloom’s sociopathic managerial voice, we have the greedy, ruthless CEO Alistar Krei, who the group assumes is their kabuki-masked villain until it turns out he’s not. I found it really cool that nobody ever had to make a case or present evidence that the greedy tech CEO would probably end up a supervillain for everyone in the movie to believe it unquestioningly. However, it is because of Krei’s greed (though not specifically his Silicon Valley-esque self-importance) that the main conflict of the movie ever happened.

The driving force of Big Hero 6 is health care robot Baymax’s protectorship of his 14 year old ward, Hiro. But, viewed after Nightcrawler and the hellish consequences of its protagonist’s reliance on computers for his essential learning and socialization, that friendship seems a little different. Big Hero 6 seems to be arguing that it’s not a problem to have meaningful personal relationships with computers, we just have to have those relationships with the right computer—one with its own will and desires.

That’s it for the review. Also, it’s my birthday! I’m 29 now. Wtf.

2014-15 NBA Predictions

October 28, 2014 § 1 Comment

Same as last year, where I make terrible predictions about the NBA (hi, 2014 Brooklyn Nets), for no other purpose than to look back later and feel dumb, and for no other audience than myself.

Regular Season:

EAST:
1. Bulls
2. Cavaliers
3. Wizards
4. Raptors
5. Heat
6. Nets
7. Pistons
8. Hornets
Hawks
Pacers
Knicks
Bucks
Magic
Celtics
76ers

WEST:
1. Clippers
2. Spurs
3. Warriors
4. Thunder
5. Grizzlies
6. Trailblazers
7. Rockets
8. Pelicans
Mavericks
Suns
Nuggets
Kings
Jazz
Lakers
Timberwolves

PLAYOFFS:
Bulls over Hornets
Cavaliers over Pistons
Wizards over Nets
Heat over Raptors

Clippers over Pelicans
Spurs over Rockets
Warriors over Trailblazers
Thunder over Grizzlies

Bulls over Heat
Cavaliers over Wizards
Thunder over Clippers
Warriors over Spurs

Bulls over Cavaliers
Thunder over Warriors

Thunder over Bulls

AWARDS:
MVP: LeBron James
DPOY: Andrew Bogut
ROY: Jabari Parker
6th Man: Taj Gibson
Coach: Doc Rivers
Executive: Gar Forman

June 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

Things Fall Apart is the name of a novel I haven’t read yet. It’s on my shelf and it has been for years. For years before I would eye it longingly in the bookstore before browsing on to buy something else that I, today, still haven’t read—a cheap used Bolaño hardcover, The Handmaiden’s Tale, the complete short fiction of Kafka, you get the point. Then, piracy was nice because I could go ahead and pile up .mp3s or or .cbzs or .isos instead, things like books that I didn’t have to either pay for or haul with me when I move to a new town, or else give away, later reacquire, and still never fucking read. Then came the email inbox stacking up with people to respond to, to-do list swelling with desperately hoarded obligations crafted to excuse my inaccessibility, or a Steam queue to distract me from it all.

I can’t remember the last time I’d read everything on my shelf and I’m getting further away from that equilibrium year after year, books accumulating steadily at a rate about 7-10 times the speed at which I read them, demanding soon a second shelf, a third, a fourth, plus filling up my computer’s hard drive and another hard drive external, and even while I sleep books lean perilous next to my head, stacked in order of “read me now goddammit” to “ok but then me next.” All of which depends on a vision of the future where Steve the tortoise, running at his own pace, finally catches up to the hare, all tuckered out. A future offering an infinite excess of time and attention span that would allow me to slowly wade through the pile of fascination I have with the world, and people, and the depths of our experience and invention and expression, accumulating steadily at a rate far larger than any one mind could ever absorb. And this omniscient future, even if it wasn’t impossible, is bunk anyway. I’d likely never make it there because Things. Fall. Apart.

Today it was the Beatitude Catholic Worker house, sort of. Not completely or forever, we assume—they’ll find another house. But I saw Victor today and his daughter Lupita, and remembered the depth of heroism they all went through to keep that family together, and I wanted to cry. One day without that house and what they do for their community is a hardship. A day without their example of grown radicals living awesomely is a heartache. Any uncertainty to their future is plain difficult to think about.

But they will be back.

Things fall apart to bad people too, too. Sheriff Brown’s letter ban might be falling apart after an identical policy in Ventura County was deemed unconstitutional in a federal district court. But also writing deadlines fall apart. Spoilers’ noggins fall apart. Things fall apart not because you want them to or don’t want them to, but simply because they are things, and things fall apart, and there will never be enough time to put them all back together, because apart accumulates steadily at a much larger rate.

Still haven’t read that book, so I don’t know if I’m using the metaphor right. I’ve been perfectly happy doing everything else instead, though.

Michael Sam, Donald Sterling, and Politics in Sports

May 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

The Inevitable Politicization of Sports (Lompoc Record)

New column by me in today’s Lompoc Record, ends with a call for both local high school teams to change their crappy mascots.

In a week of headlines dominated by Michael Sam and Donald Sterling, one of the most frustrating responses has been from commentators and fans who wish we could “away from all the politics” and “just focus on sports.”

Not only is their wish for a politically neutral entertainment world impossible, it would ruin sports.

If openly gay NFL draft pick Michael Sam makes the NFL, it may not be a Jackie Robinson moment, but he will undoubtedly add a new thread to the tapestry of personalities that make up the landscape of sports. Similarly, when NBA forward Kevin Durant, in tears, thanked his mother while accepting his MVP trophy, it was an inspiring moment for me and thousands of other sons of single parents who grew up poor.

We watch sports not just for the times when our team wins, or the pure aesthetic marvel of top athletes doing things no one else can do. We watch to follow stories like those of Kevin Durant, Michael Sam and even Donald Sterling and the players working for him. And in cases of identity politics, like that of Michael Sam, the personality and the politics are inextricable.

Read more (from lompocrecord.com).

The Last of Us and Rugged Individualism

March 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

I just finished playing The Last of Us. I have a lot of shit to talk on a game I couldn’t stop thinking about or playing. All of the spoilers follow.

First, it’s important to note that the game is a post-apocalypse story, more than a zombie story. By that, I mean the fully realized TEOTWAWKI world is the chief spectacle. There are no moaning hordes of undead, and the zombie movie cliches are kept to a minimum. Instead, we have absolutely stunning vistas of overgrown and rewilded freeways, city centers, and suburbs. At the center, we have Joel and his surrogate daughter Ellie, a complex and tangled relationship that acts as a stand-in for whatever hope might exist for fixing that broken world.

Second, The Last of Us is a conspicuously American post-apocalypse story. Your Player Character for most of the game is a drawling Texan former country musician. As far as I can remember, the state of the rest of the world outside the USA is never discussed within the game. And your progression through the game takes you, mostly by foot, on a Manifest Destinied path from the jackboot-ruled Boston Quarantine Zone to the lawless expanses of Utah and Wyoming, vast and empty paradises sparsely populated by violent savages, and zombies. Hm. (Also, I just did a Google search and found out that the companion graphic novel is subtitled “American Dream”.)

More to the point, The Last of Us is a game in which rugged individualism runs amok. I suppose you could say that about any story in which one guy kills dozens upon dozens of other guys, but it seems doubly so in this one. Throughout the entire game, you come across hundreds of non-infected humans, but only 4 who aren’t trying to you shoot you. You systematically murder all the rest. These people, all men, are apparently sociable enough to each other that they can form small packs of pirates, looters, cannibals, even a revolutionary paramilitary organization. But every single person, as soon as they see you, starts trying to kill you. Well, one doesn’t want to kill you immediately—he wants to rape Ellie first. Basically (with two exceptions) the game argues that, in the absence of our current civilization, people can only organize themselves to do evil. It’s like a Libertarian prepper convention gone horribly sour. The game eventually points out the repercussions of your murder spree on the personal relationships of those you killed—somebody says, “you killed all my friends!” But that guy turns out to be a cannibal, so who cares.

The rugged individualism is subverted somewhat in the developing relationship between Joel and Ellie, but only somewhat. The major arc of their relationship involves Joel coming to care for Ellie despite the fact that she is not his dead daugher, who gets refrigeratored in the prologue. To do this he must overcome his horrendous insistence on being a total jerkface—never acknowledging his past, never talking about anything ever, etc. He finally gets over this, but only as soon as Ellie proves she can be a rugged individual herself by shooting some dudes. After that, Joel finally acquiesces to let her carry a gun of her own, and their relationship begins to develop.

Ellie eventually acquits herself as a worthy partner to Joel, saving him and taking care of him through a brutal winter when he gets critically wounded. She doesn’t even need him to save her from the evil cannibalrapist, which was a nice touch. But she does need him to be a parent after that experience, which was also well executed. Thankfully, he steps up to the task. Just when it seems like their adventure together is finished and their mutual respect is complete, though, the ending introduces some true emotional turmoil to the story.

For the whole game, Joel and Ellie’s goal has been to get to a science research station run by the aforementioned revolutionary organization, the Fireflies. Once there, Ellie, the first known human immune to the zombie fungus, can be studied to develop a cure. Except, plot twist! In order to do so, the Fireflies have to perform a fatal biopsy Ellie. Somewhat inexplicably, a killing Ellie is the first solution they think to try (what if it doesn’t work?), but whatevs. If killing things works every time for Joel, it ought to work for everyone else too. So Joel kills all the Fireflies and their leader to save Ellie, unconscious on the surgery table, and takes her back to his brother’s utopian settlement in Wyoming. Ellie probably would not have consented to this—but then again, she’s not of age to give informed consent by pre-apocalyptic standards. Finally, Joel lies to her to keep her from knowing what really happened.

The game ends with this as an open question: was Joel right? Saving Ellie means sacrificing the relationship of mutual respect they have built and acting once again as her protector, first and foremost—was that the right choice? More obviously, it means potentially sacrificing the future of the human race to live a normal life with his new daughter. This dilemma is also left open, though the rest of the game gives the sense that, despite the constant horrors of the post-apocalyptic world it portrays, humanity fucking blows anyway, so who gives a fuck.

The game leaves these questions open in part because it has no mechanism for letting you answer them for yourself, which is unfortunate. That said, there does seem to be a slight bias in how it portrays these questions, in the form of the privilege it lends to the POV of whichever character is the Player Character. Interestingly, when Joel kills the Fireflies and rescues Ellie, he’s the Player Character, including a Bioshock-esque illusion-of-choice to murder the surgeon about to cut Ellie open. However, when Joel tells this final lie to Ellie, she is the Player Character. To me, this would suggest that the game respects her agency more than Joel does. According to The Last of Us, the world is not worth Ellie’s sacrifice, but her right as an individual to choose to sacrifice herself anyway is more important. God bless America.

Unrelated: as fun as it was, this game could have been a quarter as long and just as good. The whole game really only follows a single gameplay loop: hide, kill, search for supplies. Push the button, open the door, repeat. Unfortunately, you can’t spend that much money to develop a game this pretty and sell it for less than $60, and you can’t sell a game for $60 unless it’s at least 15 hrs long. I wonder if developers would ever add a short mode and a long mode to games, like some games have an easy mode and a hard mode. Then again, I’d probably play the long mode on every game anyway, because I’d be afraid I’d miss something.

Fantasy (flash fiction)

January 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

It’s all about boxes, borders, barriers. He walks into a new room and immediately looks for the walls. He sits in the corner, facing the door. He feels free. She builds worlds in her head—universes peopled by aliens and powered by magic as vast as her imagination, then ties herself down with their laws and rules. Give her freedom, and she’ll find herself a cage. Maybe it’s something about the invasion of brusque, digital geometry into their lives—first their living spaces, then their thought patterns expressed in stucco squares and wireframe polygons. Maybe it’s the real world, which tells them that they can be anything and do anything, with its fingers crossed behind its back all the while.

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