Tuesday, November 25, 2014

One Day, One Room

"And so, as kinsmen met a night
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips
And covered up our names"

Emily Dickinson

Note: This post is about story endings. Dragon Age, Arrietty, 10 Items or Less and an episode of House, M.D. Consider yourself spoiled...

The fictional concept of the life-changing chance encounter intrigues me. In this case I don't mean encounters which then balloon into a full-blown social contract of some sort. I mean those plots in which two people meet, have a conversation or three, then walk away having contributed only (or at least mainly) to each others' personal growth. In some of the best cases it's not even obvious whether anything has changed, given the personality type prone to such shifting depth of character. After all, for most humans, this setup of two people, usually male / female, finding someone with whom their very being resonates, is understood as a sign to form a lasting, binding association. It's usually just a pretext for a proposal scene.

Yet some will not be bound.

It was entirely fitting, for instance, for Morrigan from Dragon Age to abandon the player in the end credits. Morrigan the witch of the wilds, the shifter, the Proteus which cannot be held tightly enough to pin down, transcends the petty rom-com "melt the ice queen" trope and by the end, whatever might bind her to the player it's nothing compared to freedom itself, to the wonders such a personality always sees beyond the horizon. You have learned from each other. Now learn apart from each other.

It is fitting sometimes for fairytale protagonists to live happily ever after... apart. Studio Ghibli had given us some ambivalent partings in the past, but Arrietty broke out of the "ever after" routine so elegantly, so naturally that it forces one to realize how forced a truly Hollywoodized ending would have been. Had this been a standard Disney flick, the hero would have found a way to shrink himself down to borrower size and quo his status to the cute girl under the floorboards. In fact, Wikipedia informs me that Disney tacked on an extra monologue to their American release of the movie, reassuring their emotionally fragile audience that everything turned out alright. Sick. Pathetic. Idiotic. I've never read the books but as far as the movie went, within the context of that wistful discovery of a clandestine world in the interstices of the human one, within the atmosphere of half-glimpsed magic, there seems to be no room for the assumption that two teenagers can change the world. Arrietty and Sho are strong persons, and that strength includes the ability to incorporate the knowledge of each other without breaking their own personalities. That they walk away from each other of their own accord, even with tears in their eyes, is a greater lesson to any young mind than the idiotic Disneyed assumption that the universe must adjust itself to fit their wish-fulfilment. This was the story of their encounter. The rest of their lives remains external to that story.

"This is our pact: we live, we work, we're just getting started... we'll never see each other again."
Thus ends 10 Items or Less. When the world seems to have lost all you would keep, when you've already worn out whatever you thought you had at your core and you've already begun to deconstruct your life, what are the odds of running into someone who inspires you to keep moving? If you did, would you have the strength to walk away? The two characters empower each other, but there is no room in each other's lives for the other's world. Most would disagree and would have them alter their place in society to suit each other. The protagonists are not most people. For strong individuals like Freeman and Vega's characters, each too-powerful influence in one's life is a threat to that life itself, to the fragile individuality which is existence.

Few pop-culture figures have exemplified this like Doctor House. In his role as a modern Sherlock Holmes, in his self-destructively obsessive pursuit of truth, his antisocial skepticism, innate distrust and his outright egocentrism, House was the prototypical angry nerd for a generation.Yet individuality does not preclude the existence of other individuals, and the show's writers took care to provide House with many encounters with other interesting one-shot characters to play off of. To me, the most emblematic drove the episode One Day, One Room. Much of the credit goes to the actress' intensity in portraying a philosophically antithetical kindred spirit, an equal and not simply a foil for House as most patients and underlings were. This episode, unlike most others, gave us a battle of will and intellect, an existential debate snuck into television's lowest-common-denominator torrent of pablum.

They're a perfect match, but they're not the type to match. Life goes on, and life is individual, independent. Integrity is life. House ceased to be House when he stopped being the type to close the door on a day like that one, and that's when I stopped watching the show: when they began to humanize him. Inhuman, statuesque coldness has created some of the most interesting characters we'll ever read, watch or play. They represent an inhuman ideal, higher and more grandiose than anything to which social apes aspire, and we should celebrate them while they're still being written, because every House eventually gets locked away in a mental institution to get normalized, Ghiblis always get bought out by Disneys and Morrigan will never draw as many fans as Lara Croft. The world is still sliding downwards and these are just little pebbles caught in the mudslide of pop culture.


Friday, November 21, 2014

Welcome to the NHK

"Stroke of luck or a gift from God?
Hand of fate or devil's claws?
From below or saints above
You come to me now"

Garbage - A Stroke of Luck

I have seen this series then bought the original book several years ago. I have never wanted to talk about it. I did not even really want to watch it. I just had to.

For many shut-ins around the world, Welcome to the N.H.K. has probably been one of the hardest things to watch - and the most important. The novella was good, setting the harsh merciless tone of an insider spilling the beans about a closed system. The series however, expanded with more and more dirty secrets of would-be information-age Boo Radleys, hit so many weak points in the conceit of the maladjusted that it grew into something fascinatingly painful. It is a niche product. Most will find it only a parade of seemingly disconnected grotesqueries and ludicrous behavior. However, it's much more for those of us who live through our reflections in the darkened windows of our safe apartments, for those of us who flinch at the sound of laughter and for whom escapism has ceased to be an -ism and simply become the only option.

It's brutal stuff. Given that many of its target audience especially around the turn of the millennium believed themselves to have discovered or invented online games or pornography or living off takeout until your parents' money runs out, I'm willing to bet the sheer shock of seeing their secrets aired made many of the series' viewers cringe... episode after shamingly understanding episode. In many ways it would have been much better if the show had been only another cavalcade of mockery directed at nerds living in their mothers' basements. We have made a cilice of The Second Kind of Loneliness and welcome each new stab of condemnation as confirmation that the universe is pushing us into the first kind. But understanding... compassion... worst of all, hope? No.

I wanted to stop watching the series several times during each episode. As it carried on I consoled myself that it would devolve into some predictable cliche and finally I might discount it, dismiss it, detach myself from any uncomfortable traces of empathy. Ah, the coup de grace. That the series would take even the grand gesture from me, that the deus ex machina comes not from the world of freaks and losers, of cat ladies and dog men but from the hated mundane world, that not literature or visual arts or science trivia or dreamy roleplaying but crass chicken-wire occupies the climax - this was a stroke of genius.

And it doesn't end. It never ends. No-one knows this better than those counting the midnight hours listening to footsteps outside their doors. People like us don't get grand gestures and we don't get happily ever afters. Here is the cruelest insult to insult the story throws at you: not a sappy delusion that finding a kindred spirit will fix a sick world, but the image of the gradual, trudging grind of something which might be called personal progress.

Derision, I was used to. Delusion, I waded through. Plausible hope, though, that was a low blow.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Black No. 1

This is one of those intriguing works of art which recursively work their way from parody to an excellent embodiment of their target subject matter. Yes it ridicules the superficiality of 90s goth subculture but at the same time there's something undeniably "goth" about the macabre image of an over-the-hill Morticia Adams hollowing herself out to feed her own facade. The act described is itself emblematic, an avowal in the self of the hollowness of existence.

"'Just paint your face' the shadows smile
Slipping me away from you"

- is indeed like loving the dead.

Smells to me like more teen spirit. We all know the dope hat is wearing you, but when those big top tricks are all we have, they make us as happy as we're gonna be.
Love the dead.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Calling All Cats - Battery In Progress, Go Arrest the Man

"Every time I go to try to leave
Some kid's pulling on my sleeve
I don't wanna but I gotta stay
'Cause drugs really got a hold on me"

Eminem - Drug Ballad

Is there any more socially acceptable addiction than entitlement?

By now, everyone's seen the video of an actress walking around the streets of New York and getting catcalls every 6 minutes. You have to have seen it. It's a rule. If you didn't see the original, then no problem, there are now seemingly dozens of copies of it complete with commentary on how each and every one of those catcalls is like a rape against all of womankind and men should be ashamed of themselves, etceteree, etcetera. And unfortunately the only ones actually arguing against it in the mainstream seem to be the idiots on Fox News defending the right of men to act like mindless pussy-seeking bloodhounds. No offense to bloodhound owners. (Your dogs are ugly though.)

The problem is not the video in itself. We need this sort of thing. Hell, I was surprised... Manhattan, really? New York, constantly billing itself as the most modern, cosmopolitan city on the planet, can't get past this tired old routine? Too bad it's framed in the simplistic dualism of men as aggressors and women as victims, or it could have simply been one more useful tidbit of social awareness.

Harassment is a funny word. I'm a man. I've been "harassed" on the street. I've had homeless people follow me around asking for money, entertainers try to use me as involuntary audience interaction, activists trying to get me to sign petitions, shoppers with their arms full asking me to open doors for them. A couple of weeks ago I stepped off the bus and had a pocket bible shoved in my face. That certainly matches the extent of interaction the actress in the video suffered at the hands voices of those bestial males. So let's acknowledge right off the bat that the primary problem here is not male aggression or even as I'm framing it, female entitlement, but puritanism or some vaporous Victorian consternation that you would even allude to a woman's white-meat in her presence. The subject of ding-dongs and hoo-hoos is still taboo - has to be if sexual frustration is to continue as the magnificent tool of social and interpersonal control it's always been. However, the clip's more a condemnation of active sexuality over passive use of sex-appeal and that is directly anti-male given the prevailing human attitude toward mating rituals. Women sure as hell are not stepping up to assume the risk of rejection for themselves.

By the way, yes there is still use of passive enticement in the video, and you need only compare the appearances and accoutrements of the actress with other women passing on the street to spot its various elements. Subtle manipulation is not an absence of manipulation. She doesn't need to be in a bikini to be advertising her reproductive fitness or projecting false interest, any more than some stately office manager casually stepping out of his new Lexus or Mercedes should be given a pass on implicitly flouting his social rank and reproductive fitness. Despite that, I have to say the reaction of the men in the video is startling, but instead of going for the gratuitous "men are such pigs" routine, can we acknowledge just how damn... pathetic.. some of these guys are? The video makes a big deal of the guy who follows her, follows her, do you hear, minute after minute waiting for her to speak to him. Instead of just framing that as menacing, is no-one going to point out how degrading to him as a person it is to follow her around like a puppy-dog begging for some scrap of attention? Men are raised to accept this as their purpose, that their role in life is to constantly demean themselves by begging for sex, and the only problem anyone can spot in this is that it might inconvenience a woman when the sexuality she uses to control a few particular men also catches some random flak along the way?

There's a power disparity there, and it's not just societally enforced but built into our evolved drives. Women have to acknowledge this: the power handed by nature to them to control male behavior is an unfair advantage which must be counted alongside larger male muscle mass and not simply brushed off as their legitimate due as a 51% minority.

The video is popular. In fact, that's how I heard of it, as a viral video having drawn a hundred thousand views in its first few days. We are all quite eager to see yet another cliched slam against men behaving badly. Now imagine the men in the video weren't just talking. Imagine one of them grabbed her by the throat and slammed her up against a wall and started slapping her around... and while most passers-by simply ignored it, some, male or female, laughed or cheered him on. Because she probably did something to deserve it. Now that would make things more interesting, wouldn't it?

It turns out videos like that are not quite as popular, not if they involve women beating men, at least. While the catcall video broke 150k youtube hits in under a week (and that's not counting all of the hits on gratuitous reposts trying to leech some popularity) this one has 23k hits in five months. Maybe they just filmed in too trivial or backwoods a venue for their observations to be relev- ah, fuck, it's London. Maybe it's the British accent that's putting everyone off. How about 2 mil hits in six years for a nearly identical video by a major American broadcast network? Wanna watch that and note what the people who mocked a man being beaten by his girlfriend have to say? "He probably deserved it." We know, we all absolutely know that men are evil, primitive, brutish, filthy pigs who deserve whatever's coming to them. We know that because, well, did you see that video with the catcalls? Didja? Huh? You gotta see it. It's all the rage. All the rage.

A woman getting annoyed by men begging for her attention - outrage.
Men getting publicly mocked for being beaten - meh, who gives a crap.

To at least some women's credit, the people who stepped in to stop the woman in that ABC video were a committee of women. Of course it wasn't an outraged in-your-face "you're acting like a crazy person" burst of emotion, but a calm, collected, chuckling and polite aside and subsequent call to the authorities. I guess it's something at least. Their verbal interpretation of the event though is as revealing as anything of the bias into which we're all born. Everyone wants to call the cops on "you guys." Hello, police? There are "two people fighting on a bench" oh and by the way yeah she's beating him up. Yes, a woman standing before a seated man wailing on him and screaming insults as he cringes, and the first impulse? He must be at least as guilty as her.

We already know that. If you're male then you're born the wrong sex. You're stupid and disgusting and cruel and do nothing but abuse women all your life. It's all you think about and don't tell us it's not; we know better. Did you not see that latest viral video? This eagerness to clutch to women's unassailable moral high ground over us filthy pigs continues despite some of the most blatant evidence to the contrary. This time I'm about to cite a video which really has been getting excellent attention: same setup as the others, hidden camera, actors playing out a cross-gender skit of interpersonal violence, 7.5 million views in 11 months. Then again, this last one has a man beating a woman.
Sixteen people file past without intervening, male and female. The four who try to help her in some way (even the fourth who is clearly afraid for his own safety but still feels obligated to do so) are male. What's more, they don't do so by letting the abuse continue until they can pass the buck to the cops. Watch the actor frantically pointing out the camera to the two men who are about to beat him up for raising his hands against a woman.

And this, of course, is taken by feminists only as further proof of men's vile, primitive moral incompetence. We are after all not only metaphorically raping every woman we approach with our dirty lecherous intentions but also metaphorically raping women when we presume to intervene to help them. And of course if you do nothing you're colluding and a metaphorical rapist by association.
This is of course in addition to all the literal raping and battering of women we've all been assuredly doing because, well, we're men. And if we weren't assumed to be doing that, if such fodder weren't provided, then how would women feed their high-horse?