The wrath of angry writers

The Shining: Warner Bros, 1980

Behind the Curve – The Shining (1980)

I watched The Shining with some of our friends (yes, I have friends), and we were all struck with the fact that it wasn’t particularly scary. Parts were certainly unsettling, but nothing really haunted me. Perhaps decades of horror television, movies, books and games have desensitized our culture too thoroughly. Like how Psycho once made women faint in the theater, but nowadays it wouldn’t fluster a third grader. Perhaps the film’s prevalence in pop culture has spoiled too many of the punchy moments

The Shining: Warner Bros, 1980
The Shining: Warner Bros, 1980

What I did admire about The Shining was Jack Nicholson’s over-the-top performance as Jack Torrance. Of course that’s not news. It’s a classic role. Everyone already knows Nicholson steals the show. But that’s not exactly what I glommed onto. Before he goes into his wild, abusive, scenery-chewing, sociopathic mania, Jack Torrance is fundamentally a writer. The only reason he took the position at the Overlook Hotel was so he’d have peace and quiet to get some writing done.

It’s a desire for which I have great sympathy. Right now I’m living with my parents and I’m just an hour away from my fiance. At this moment I’m working to make it as a freelance writer/videographer, I’m planning a wedding, and I’m trying to establish myself in our local community through volunteering. Add to that friends I’d like to keep, my fiance’s family events, and various housework I’m charged with, It feels as if I barely work on my personal writing projects. The idea of 8 months in seclusion with nothing to do beside write is downright tantalizing.

This will sound bad, but I even sympathize with Jack’s resentment of his family. Now I love my family, but but you need to understand how frustrating it is to be a creative and feel like you’re being kept from your work. It’s easy to resent your loved ones for the merely existing. Taking up time. Keeping you from work. Jack explodes at his wife for interrupting him and later accuses her of ruining his life. I agree that such cruelty is inexcusable. But I understand how one gets to that point.

Of course, the irony about us angry writers is that it’s often our own laziness, poor time management or lack of will which makes us unproductive. Jack pushes his wife and son away throughout the movie, demanding absolute peace in order to do his work. They oblige, but Jack still gets nothing done. We see Jack throwing a tennis ball against the wall while his typewriter sits idle.

The Shining: Warner Bros, 1980
The Shining: Warner Bros, 1980

I do the same exact thing. There have been times when I pushed my fiance away so that I could write. And then what do I do? Watch YouTube. Play video games. Everything except write. Why? Who knows. Maybe during those times I really needed a break.

Predictably, we angry writers get nothing done in these situations. It makes us even more frustrated, and there’s a temptation to put the blame on our family as Jack Torrance does. Or, we could take responsibility for our actions and try to manage our time more effectively. I choose to view The Shining as a cautionary tale.

 

Coming up:

  • Show: Sopranos (S01E11: Nobody Knows Anything) (1999) – Monday, November 2
  • Documentary: Food, Inc. (2008) – Thursday, November 5
  • Game: Fallout (Interplay Entertainment, 1997) – Monday, November 9
  • Movie: Hellraiser (1987) – Thursday, November 12
  • Book: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Dave Eggers, 2000) – Monday, November 23

Criticizing the Dense Epic

John Schoenherr's illustration

Behind the Curve – Dune (Frank Herbert, 1965)

I don’t think I’d do well in the Dune universe. I tend to assume the best of people, and when I talk I find it hard enough to get my point across without packing my sentences with secret phrases and warnings. It seems that no one in Dune can comment on the shapeliness of a Bene Gesserit’s ass without packing that statement with veiled threats as to what would happen if his friend left him hanging for the high-five. But I suppose the characters are good fits for the author, because Dune is one of the most well-stuffed books I’ve ever read.

During the first third of the book, I mentally categorized Dune as Sci-Fi Game of Thrones because of the political intrigue and betrayals (although I guess Game of Thrones would actually be Fantasy Dune, since Dune came out 20 years earlier). But as I read, enough new ideas and themes to fit a whole series of books were introduced. The GoT comparison began to feel woefully inadequate.

John Schoenherr's illustration
John Schoenherr’s illustration

Dune is a dense epic. At various times it is a political thriller, a commentary on religion, a commentary on gender roles, an environmental manifesto, a war novel, a survivalist story, a meditation on the nature of time and space and a swashbuckling adventure. By my count, at least sixteen characters play significant roles in the plot, and some of them aren’t even introduced until the very end.

So Dune has a lot going on, but that’s not necessarily bad thing. It just means there are a lot of plates spinning. Does Herbert balance them all? Of course he does! This book is a classic, and for good reason. It would be incredibly ignorant or arrogant of me to suggest otherwise.

What I will say is that you sacrifice some of your focus when you crowd your book to the rim. There are things the audience is going to miss. I just finished the book, and honestly couldn’t tell you why House Harkonnen and House Atreides hated each other in the first place. Their feud sets the whole book in motion, and I had no idea what was motivating them. But then again, the Atreides are all noble and selfless while the Harkonnen baron is a fat blob who literally rapes little boys, so maybe we’re meant to assume they’d hate each other on priciple.

John Schoenherr's illustration
John Schoenherr’s illustration

Dune puts me in mind of some of my early novel outlines. There’s a tendency for young writers, especially in the fantasy and science fiction genres, to make their first book as dense as possible. They’ve read Dune and Lord of the Rings and mistakenly think depth is just being complex. It’s not, and often the biggest disadvantage of young writers is not knowing when to cut.

Remember that Herbert and Tolkien were both seasoned storytellers before writing their respective masterworks. That’s the only reason they were able to write dense epics and maintain a feeling of cohesion. There’s no rush for young writers. Personally, I’m immeasurably relieved I never tried to write any of the dense epics I planned. My failure might have been colossal enough to put me off writing entirely.

 

Coming up:

  • Movie: The Shining (1980) – Thursday, October 29
  • Show: Sopranos (S01E11: Nobody Knows Anything) (1999) – Monday, November 2
  • Documentary: Food, Inc. (2008) – Thursday, November 5
  • Game: Fallout (Interplay Entertainment, 1997) – Monday, November 9
  • Book: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Dave Eggers, 2000) – Monday, November 23

Creative masochists

Indie Game: The Movie: BlinkWorks Media, 2012

Behind the Curve – Indie Game: The Movie (2012)

I listened to a podcast about New Media storytelling, and one of the panelists made a comment that affected me. He said that gone are the days when a writer can hermit himself in some house on the hill, working in a vacuum and only appearing to send work to publishers. Gone are the days when a wall separated the writer from his readers. Technology like Twitter and Facebook make it easier than ever for fans to engage with creators. If you’re a grandfathered presence, like Cormac McCarthy for example, you can safely ignore these venues, but newer writers can’t claim that luxury. Today’s audiences expect, no, demand author engagement.

Jonathan Blow - Indie Game: The Movie: BlinkWorks Media, 2012
Jonathan Blow – Indie Game: The Movie: BlinkWorks Media, 2012

All well and good. But here’s the thing: I don’t want to! The guy on the podcast talked about it as a good thing, but what’s so great about being more available to audiences? Audiences are scary!

And there we see the irony inherent to a certain brand of creative: anxious, reclusive, socially inept people who’ve gone out of our way to pursue a career that puts us directly in the public light. A career where we pour out our hearts and minds into our work, creating something uniquely personal. Something that makes us vulnerable. And then we offer it up for public skewering.

We are creative masochists. You see this in Indie Game: The Movie. Jonathan Blow, developer of Braid, became infamous for his defensiveness and omnipresent participation in discussions regarding Braid, even though those discussions were overwhelmingly positive. Fez developer Phil Fish actually quit game development altogether after a Twitter war that flung a lot of vitriol his way.

I love the process of creation. I believe I have something worth saying. But people like me: we’re not wired for public relations.

If you’re a human and you’re reading this, it means you’ve found my website. May I ask how? It can’t have been easy. Sure, I make posts on Facebook and Twitter, but that only helps if you’re among the 20 people following me. I could try and be better at promotion, but part of me just doesn’t want to. Part of me is terrified by the idea of acquiring readers.

Indie Game: The Movie: BlinkWorks Media, 2012
Phil Fish – Indie Game: The Movie: BlinkWorks Media, 2012

And this was before I saw Indie Game: The Movie. It didn’t help. I felt queasy watching Fish dealing with the emotional roller coaster that is social media, the negativity from impatient fans. Certainly Fish bears partial blame because of his – let’s call it “outspoken” – presence on social media. But I still feel physically sick when I imagine myself in his shoes.

So why are we doing this? To be honest I don’t know. I guess the inner need to have my voice heard out weighs my social cowardice. It’s a paradox in my nature. I need to speak, but I hate it when people hear me.

 

Coming up:

  • Book: Dune (Frank Herbert, 1965) – Monday, October 26
  • Movie: The Shining (1980) – Thursday, October 29
  • Show: Sopranos (S01E11: Nobody Knows Anything) (1999) – Monday, November 2
  • Documentary: Food, Inc. (2008) – Thursday, November 5
  • Game: Fallout (Interplay Entertainment, 1997) – Monday, November 9

Why aren’t we sick of love stories?

Star Trek TNG: Paramount, 1988

Behind the Curve – Star Trek: The Next Generation (S01E24: We’ll Always Have Paris) (1988)

If we looked at all of the art ever produced in the history of mankind, the theme of love would come up something like 90% of the time. I can’t think of a single other topic that’s been so thoroughly covered in our entertainment. And yet, somehow as a public we’re not absolutely sick of love stories (for the most part anyway). That doesn’t work with anything else. Zombie stories have been fairly popular in media lately, and people are completely sick of them. But not love stories.

Star Trek TNG: Paramount, 1988
Star Trek TNG: Paramount, 1988

There’s an argument to be made that it’s an endlessly fertile subject because no love is the same, and I agree with that to a point. Details are what make stories fresh and original. It’s why the relationships in Fun with Dick and Jane and Mr. & Mrs. Smith feel different, even though both involve long-married couples reinvigorating their relationship.

But the same is true in non-love stories. Apocalypse Now is basically a retelling of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but once again the details make the difference. I don’t buy the adage that every new story has been told before, but a whole lot of them have. Details are what make it fresh and open up new ground to cover.

But with love stories, I find the ground isn’t all that different. This episode of Star Trek partly concerns Picard encountering a woman from his past whom he left to pursue a career in Star Fleet. She’s married now, but Picard still thinks about her and asks, “What if?” And the theme of regret over letting love slip away is pretty groundbreaking – if you’ve never seen Casablanca.

Snape in the Harry Potter series is another prime example. His central motivation is his love of Lily Potter, who married another man. There’s a similar story in Adele’s popular song, “Someone Like You,” a tune that’s scientifically engineered make me cry.

Star Trek TNG: Paramount, 1988
Star Trek TNG: Paramount, 1988

Even I, a man with a laughably small pool of romantic experience, have written about lover’s regret. There’s a creative nonfiction piece I wrote in college about the extreme unrequited love I once held for a girl in high school. I never had the guts to ask her out. The ironic part is that she probably would have said yes; I heard somewhere that she once had a thing for me.

Today, I’m happily engaged to a woman I’ve dated for 4 years. That girl from high school barely crosses my mind, but it’s still tempting to wonder what could have been. I wouldn’t anything, but it’s natural to wonder.

Probably most people have a person from their past about whom they wonder the same thing. Even if you eventually married the first person you asked out, you still look at others and wonder what it would be like. It’s natural. And maybe that explains why love still holds appeal for us. It’s based in so many universal desires, universal cravings. The feelings are so central to the human experience. Even if you haven’t personally experienced situations like those in the story, you understand the emotions involved. You empathize. It’s a shortcut to your readers’ hearts.

 

Coming up:

  • Documentary: Indie Game: The Movie (2012) – Thursday, October 22
  • Book: Dune (Frank Herbert, 1965) – Monday, October 26
  • Movie: The Shining (1980) – Thursday, October 29
  • Show: Sopranos (S01E11: Nobody Knows Anything) (1999) – Monday, November 2
  • Game: Fallout (Interplay Entertainment, 1997) – Monday, November 9

Hurt so good – Whoopsie War stories

The Hurt Locker: Summit Entertainment, 2008

Behind The Curve – The Hurt Locker (2008)

I’ve developed my own personal filing system for America’s wars, and I wholeheartedly invite the education system to adopt it. There are two categories. The first is the Hell-Yeah Wars” These would by your World Wars One and Two, your Revolutionary War, your Civil War. Conflicts that pretty much everyone can admire. We look at them, we understand the reasoning, and in the end most people agree that America was the good guy.

But on the other side, you have the Whoopsie Wars. These are wars where America’s reasoning is kind of muddled and unsympathetic. They also tend to be against much less impressive enemies. Here you have your Vietnam War and, of course, your Iraq War.

The Hurt Locker: Summit Entertainment, 2008
The Hurt Locker: Summit Entertainment, 2008

You can sense the difference between these two in their respective stories. Hell Yeah war stories tend to be inspiring and heroic tales about fighting for a better tomorrow. They’re all about working for something greater than yourself, a righteous cause that’s worth dying for. They’re also full of that absurdly noble, almost jingoistic patriotism that right-wingers eat up. And it works. These stories, when done well, will have the world’s biggest pacifist fist-pumping by the end credits.

Whoopsie War stories don’t have the advantage of a righteous cause to inspire us. That’s why you see them focusing more on the nitty-gritty of war. They often deal with personal struggles facing individual soldiers. That’s why these movies tend to feel more realistic and typically do a much better job portraying the true horrors of war. Examples would be Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, and now The Hurt Locker.

Hell-Yeah War stories sometimes touch on the horrors of war, but usually just to show us how much the other side needs to die. Anything more complex jeopardizes that fist-pumping feeling we get during the climactic final charge. In Whoopsie War stories, however, the horror doesn’t need to be balance by that kind of catharsis. You don’t feel any of the Hell-Yeah consolation that at least everything’s happening for a reason, for the greater good. Whoopsie War stories are spartan in their simplicity: Bad stuff happens. See how it screws up these soldiers.

In The Hurt Locker, you never get the impression that the soldiers are fighting for something greater than themselves. They’re mostly fighting so that they and their friends don’t die. They’re not freeing the oppressed or making Iraq a better place. Most of the local populace seems to either fear or downright hate them. It’s hard to make our guys look like heroes in that environment.

The Hurt Locker: Summit Entertainment, 2008
The Hurt Locker: Summit Entertainment, 2008

Which is why it’s interesting how the main character, William James (a man so maverick he needs two first names), and many soldiers like him can turn into war junkies. At the end of the movie (spoiler) he returns home for a few brief scenes before we see him on another troop transport, evidently having signed up for another tour in Iraq. In the beginning of the movie, we admire James’ fearless and flippant attitude towards danger, but at the end we can’t help but pity him. Because James can’t stop himself, and it’s eventually going to get him killed. He’s not a courageous hero; he’s a man with a death wish. And what really stings is the knowledge that all his work, all his sacrifice of life, family and sanity are mere drops in the bucket for a war effort with no real endpoint.

 

Coming up:

Note: I’m going to be changing my release cycle a bit, starting next week. From now on every week will only have 2 posts: on Monday and Thursday. The SECOND Monday of the month will now be a game, while the FOURTH Monday of the month will be a book. All other Mondays will be TV Show episodes. Thursday will now alternate between Movies and Documentary. Thanks for your patience! Check out the updated schedule below.

  • Show: Star Trek: The Next Generation (S01E24: We’ll Always Have Paris) (1988) – Monday, October 19
  • Documentary: Indie Game: The Movie (2012) – Thursday, October 22
  • Book: Dune (Frank Herbert, 1965) – Monday, October 26
  • Movie: The Shining (1980) – Thursday, October 29
  • Game: Fallout (Interplay Entertainment, 1997) – Monday, November 9

Being the outsider

Sopranos, HBO: 1999

Behind the Curve – Sopranos (S01E10: A Hit is a Hit)

There’s a saying among comedy and music circles: “All comedians want to be rock stars and all rock stars want to be comedians.” It reflects a primal instinct in all of us to be something that we’re not, to be part of this or that group. You see it in this Sopranos episode where Tony tries to find acceptance among the more straight-laced rich guys in his neighborhood, while, Christopher tries to remake himself as a music mogul like Massive G or the old-school Italian gangsters.

Sopranos, HBO: 1999
Sopranos, HBO: 1999

I’ll always feel camaraderie for the outsider, since I’ve been one most of my life. Throughout high school I was always on the fringe of social circles. I’d occasionally talk with the nerdy kids at lunch or during class, but I was never included in gatherings outside of school. Part of the fault is certainly mine for being so shy, but I still came to think of myself as someone who doesn’t quite fit anywhere.

When I went away to college, I resolved to be more friendly and outgoing. To make friends. For a while it worked. There was a social group in my freshman dorm that I’d hang out with, go to lunch and football games with. But gradually, the feeling that I didn’t quite fit came back with a vengeance. It was a nagging reminder in the deepest recesses of my brain that I couldn’t quite suppress. I saw it in the conversations where I had nothing to say, in the lulls and looks after I did say something.

Tony’s realization that he’ll never fit in with his rich neighbors comes when they go golfing at the country club. At the beginning of the scene, Tony seems to be enjoying himself, feeling included. But then the rich guys start asking him about things related to the mob; famous gangsters and the authenticity of The Godfather.

That’s when Tony realizes he’s not really one of them. He’s merely a curiosity. He realizes that the rich guys put on a facade with him. They talk about Tony behind his back. Maybe they still like him, but he’s certainly not one of them, and he never will be. Tony is different in some undefinable way.

That’s how my freshman college friends saw me, but I only sensed this vaguely at first. It crystallized when I found out they had all arranged their housing for next year without me. That hurt, but I don’t really hold it against them anymore. They meant no malice by it. I simply wasn’t one of them.

When I was around, I sensed them all putting on a face. I knew they talked differently, acted differently when I wasn’t around. Probably they talked about me behind my back. Maybe they made fun of me. Maybe they still liked me in a patronizing sort of way. I’ll never know. Eventually, I accepted this revelation. I was thankful that I knew where I stood and free to find out where I did belong.

Sopranos, HBO: 1999
Sopranos, HBO: 1999

In Sopranos, the rich guys themselves don’t seem to know why they treat Tony differently. They admit that their own professions are just as sleazy as the mob, yet they exclude him out of instinct. It’s like the episode title: “a hit is a hit.” You can’t quantify a hit, you just know it. To them, Tony is not a hit. He’s not one of them.

 

Coming up:

  • Movie: The Hurt Locker (2008) – Friday, October 16
  • Book: Dune (Frank Herbert, 1965) – Monday, October 19
  • Show: Star Trek: The Next Generation (S01E24: We’ll Always Have Paris) (1988) – Wednesday, October 21
  • Documentary: Indie Game: The Movie (2012) – Friday, October 23
  • Game: Fallout (1997) – Monday, November 2

Stranger than Fiction – Our inevitable mass surveillance

snowden

Behind the Curve – Citizenfour (2014)

I don’t quote blurbs often, but Citizenfour truly is a “real-life thriller.” Several times during the film I caught myself thinking, “This is a tense movie – oh, right. It’s real.” If you don’t know, it was made by Laura Poitras, one of the first three journalists Edward Snowden contacted, and primarily documents the first eight days of the now famous leak in a Hong Kong hotel room.

Everything about this movie feels a little surreal. Like it was supposed to be fiction, but somehow the wires of fate got crossed and it ended up actually happening. Little details like Snowden unplugging the hotel phone so the receiver can’t be remotely activated, typing his password under a thick blanket, speaking with his wife about strange men appearing outside their home asking for him. It all feels like something out of a mob movie, and you need to remind yourself that these aren’t actors. A lot of the dialogue could have been in an Orwellian Sci-Fi thriller and no one would have noticed, which just goes to show you how insane the capacity for surveillance is in modern technology.

snowden

Whatever the benefits of these mass surveillance programs, the NSA should not have been implementing them without the permission of the American public. I consider Snowden a hero for calling them out and bring this out into the light. Even so, the man feels a bit like a crusader for a lost cause. All evidence points towards our inevitable mass surveillance.

We live in a data-centric world where everything we do is recorded. Websites track your internet history for advertisers. YouTube keeps analytics on when you start or stop a video. Just about everyone has a phone with GPS that we carry with us at all times. Cameras are everywhere, including the sky. And if all that fails, we’ll cut out the middleman and spy on ourselves (be sure to follow me on Twitter!). It’s kind of funny when conservatives get up in arms against gun regulation because they don’t Washington to have them on a list. Such a list already exists. Corporations use it to put Smith & Wesson ads on your Facebook feed.

The term “privacy” is quickly losing meaning in the information age. Your secrets, or at least evidence of them, are recorded somewhere. Someone with the appropriate access or hacking skills could find them if they really wanted to. Most of us go through life blissfully ignorant of that fact. But now and then, one of these databases will be breached, as was the case at Ashley Madison, and all that information will come pouring out into the open. Even on accounts that were supposedly deleted.Snowden blanket

Consider the information that was released: names, addresses, credit card numbers. Everything needed to target Ashley Madison users in real life, because that’s what the hackers intended. That’s what gave their attack teeth. Granted, when the “Life is short, have an affair” site gets hacked it’s hard to feel bad for the victim. But let’s imagine it was something else. What if a pro-life hacking group targets women who received abortions at a local hospital and releases their information? That’s not wild an idea.

This culture of massive data collection and storage is new, and I don’t think anyone can say what the future looks like. What is certain is that mass surveillance isn’t going anywhere. Someone will always have your information from this day forward, whether it’s the government or a corporation or both. The best we can do is implement policies that regulate the use of that information. Average Americans will need to come to terms with a certain level of exposure in their lives. I’m interested to see what that acceptance will look like. Perhaps once all our secrets are democratized, we won’t pry into each other’s business as much.

 

Coming up:

  • Show: The Sopranos (S01E10: A Hit is a Hit) (1999) – Wednesday, October 14
  • Movie: The Hurt Locker (2008) – Friday, October 16
  • Book: Dune (Frank Herbert, 1965) – Monday, October 19
  • Documentary: Indie Game: The Movie (2012) – Friday, October 23
  • Game: Fallout (1997) – Monday, November 2

Crying in the holodeck – Main character death

Natasha Yar Skin of Evil

Behind the Curve – Star Trek: The Next Generation (S01E23: Skin of Evil)(1988)

For the record, I didn’t intentionally pick the episode where Yar dies (spoiler) for my TV show edition of “Behind the Curve.” That’s just where I happened to be in the series.

I don’t know what the official Trekkie verdict is on this episode, but it’s definitely a mile marker in Star Trek history. I watched the entire Original Series, and they never once killed off a main character. Red shirts, yes, but never anyone whose name we knew from a previous episode. This was definitely a step outside the franchise’s comfort zone when it came out.

Natasha Yar Skin of EvilSo did they pull it off? For the most part, yeah I guess. Granted, the death itself isn’t very dignified. Yar gets zapped by an evil space oil slick during the first 10 minutes of the episode. Zap. Dead. And after the initial shock it feels like the characters more or less forget about it for most of the episode. Maybe I was hoping for more because I have a soft spot for Yar. With more fleshing out, I think she could have been a great badass action girl.

But even with those hiccups, I think they pull it off. My measure for a good main character death is whether I’m emotionally impacted. I cried at the end of the episode when they played Natasha’s recording to her crewmates, even as my higher brain thought it was a bit cheesy.

Main character deaths are tricky in episodic fiction, and I’d like to hold up Yar’s death in Skin of Evil as an interesting academic counterpoint to something at the opposite end of the tonal spectrum: Game of Thrones (yes, I’m going to spoil stuff here).

As you may remember, the last season of Game of Thrones ended with Jon Snow receiving more new chest holes than a Whitechapel prostitute circa 1888. Now, I like Jon Snow. He’s one of the most likable characters that was left on the show (and isn’t he dreamy??). He’s certainly more engaging than Natasha Yar ever was. His death scene was poignant and well executed. Yet, it had no emotional impact whatsoever. It just made me frown and think, “Why do I watch this show?”

When a top-of-the-line drama that spends $6 million per episode is having less emotional impact on me than a lighthearted space adventure show with Styrofoam sets, something has gone wrong.

Jon Snow deathOne explanation for my disappointment is that Jon’s death cuts off interesting plotlines before they had a chance to go anywhere. Earlier that episode they were setting up some conflict between the Night’s Watch and their new Wildling neighbors that I sure would’ve liked to see. Not to mention that big zombie horde that I thought someone was starting to address. They did this with Oberyn’s death in season 4. He’s introduced and vividly characterized. For seven episodes they tell us he’ll kick excessive amounts of royal ass. It looks like he’s about to do that, but whoops! You’re dead now. And we’re all like, “Is that it?”

I know that killing important characters out of nowhere is kind of Game of Thrones‘ thing. That’s what made the series cool and unique in the first place. Ned’s death in season 1 works for the same reason as Yar’s death: nobody sees it coming. And though sad, we come away with a sense of resolution. We feel that it’s the inevitable conclusion of Ned’s journey.

That’s what I think Game of Thrones has forgotten. Instead of killing when the story demands it, they’re killing because they feel the audience expects it. The result is storylines that never get resolved: just unceremoniously stopped. Star Trek‘s a Problem of the Week show, and doesn’t have to worry about paying off long arcs. Game of Thrones, on the other hand, demands we wait several seasons to learn what the hell Bran is doing and why it matters. That requires a level of trust I simply don’t have for you, Game of Thrones. Knowing you, Bran might die out of nowhere because Hodor dropped him on a rock or something.

 

 

Coming up:

  • Documentary: Citizenfour (2014) – Friday, October 9
  • Show: The Sopranos (S01E10: A Hit is a Hit)(1999) – Wednesday, October 14
  • Movie: The Hurt Locker (2008) – Friday, October 16
  • Book: Dune (1965) – Monday, October 19
  • Game: Fallout (1997) – Monday, November 2

Thank the Maker – Religion in Government

dragon age

Behind the Curve – Dragon’s Age: Inquisition (2014)

Like the in-law who invites you to “God and Grill,” Dragon Age has always wanted to talk about religion. In previous games it heavily shapes the backstory of most characters as well as the world at large, but Dragon Age: Inquisition takes it up a notch. It deals centrally with the role of religion in government and society. Given the recent Kim Davis controversy, it might be more relevant now than when the game came out.

The game starts with the world literally ripping apart. By chance, your character finds himself in the role of religious prophet and leads the Inquisition, an army of religious fanatics dedicated to saving and “fixing” the world. If that description sounds a bit Crusade-y, that’s because it very much is.dragon age

There’s a deliberate attempt to make you feel uneasy about your role (in case the name “Inquisition” wasn’t enough of a red flag). People seem wary about the Inquisition’s role after apocalyptic threat du jour is dealt with. And since the veracity of your divine claim is up for debate, there’s a nagging suspicion that you and the Inquisition leaders are manipulating the faith of millions of people. That puts you in some pretty poor company.

Jesus told me to

I was a fervent Catholic in my high school and early college days. Since then I’ve drifted away from the Church. But I still believe in a Higher Power, and I believe that following that Power is legitimate justification for certain actions.

Dragon Age: Inquisition doesn’t give us that out. They pointedly avoid confirming any of the various cultures’ religious traditions. You learn bits and pieces about human and elven legends (even meet some of them), but there’s always conflicting evidence or another explanation. Whether you play the Inquisitor as completely credulous or a determined atheist, we the audience understand he could be wrong. Therefore we’re forced to judge the characters’ actions under the assumption that no religion is correct and let the morality of his decision stand on its own.

And that’s when it occurs to me: we should be doing that anyway. We are a multicultural, multi-faith society. We supposedly believe in the separation of Church and State. So how can politicians and civil servants still use God to explain away their decisions and we let them get away with it?

Let’s break this down. Elected officials are accountable to us, their constituents. Their actions are subject to public review and discussion. In order for that discussion to take place, we need to agree on the context of the discussion. I’m talking about having common laws, authorities and national values that all citizens acknowledge. In short, public servants must operate in the broadest common reality. When you base your argument in faith, as Kim Davis did, you are asking everyone in the public to accept your much narrower reality.

templars Cullen and Meredith

And maybe your reality is correct. It’s possible, but nobody living can say for certain. What is certain is that adopting such a position shuts down debate and criticism regarding the decision. Constituents who don’t share your faith cannot meaningfully argue because there is no common ground

Speaking as a Christian, we do ourselves no credit by rejecting secular ethics and authority (particularly those of us who are part of secular ethics and authority). I could understand dissatisfied citizens resisting a law that their faith tells them is unjust. But when you’re in the position of authority, you look a lot more like the oppressor than the oppressed.

Take me to church

I’ve heard atheists suggest that the world would be a better place if we did away with organized religion. It’s always struck me as a bizarre suggestion. I don’t agree with it, and even if I did it’s not the most practical of solutions. It’s akin to saying there’d be no racism if everybody was white.

Dragon Age: Inquisition makes the point that removing religion would cause a lot more problems than it would solve. People rely on religion, build their life around it. And besides that, it’s an integral part of the beautiful diversity in the world.

No, I think religion is necessary. But we all need to be more flexible in our beliefs. Everyone from the fiercest atheist to the pope needs to look in the mirror each morning and say “what I believe might be wrong.”

Because whatever the truth, it’s likely nobody has it down pat. Faiths should operate like scientific communities; constantly evolving, replacing old ideas when they fail to pass new moral tests. It seems like that would be the way to get closer to the truth.

Granted, I don’t think many will adopt this method. Many would cling to faith ever tighter in the face of such evidence. But it seems to me that the strongest, most stalwart faith is the one that does not fear testing.

 

Coming up:

  • Show: Star Trek: The Next Generation (S01E23: Skin of Evil) (1988) – Wednesday, October 7
  • Documentary: Citizenfour (2014) – Friday, October 9
  • Movie: The Hurt Locker (2008) – Friday, October 16
  • Book: Dune (1965) – Monday, October 19
  • Game: Fallout (1997) – Monday, November 2

Badass Action Girl: Terminator’s female lead

The Terminator: Orion Pictures, 1984

Behind the Curve – Terminator (1984)

I play female characters in some games. No, not for the reason you think. You see, it all started when I was trying to play Mass Effect and having trouble getting into it. Part of my problem was the voice acting for male Shepard, whose dialogue always sounded less “daring space commander” and more “space commander action figure.”

sarah connor 3So I started over as Sara Shepard, a female engineer with freckles and bright red hair. It was going well. I chose most of the same options as before, but Sara’s dialogue brought more emotion to the part. It was certainly easier to listen to, but I wasn’t hooked yet. The turning point came in an early mission to extract information from a sleazy cop. As soon as I walk up, he calls Sara “sweetheart,” tells her she looks good in her “soldier getup,” and asks her to sit her “sweet little ass” down beside him. I was indignant at this chauvinistic pig. So Sara, who generally favored diplomatic responses, said she’d rather “drink a cup of acid after chewing on a razor blade.”

That was the moment I fell in love with Sara Shepard. She seemed to fight not only the Reapers, but ancient social stigmas that say women are not fighters, that women are not badass. I think the bucking of social roles is one reason I found her so compelling. The additional adversity made me care about Sara’s troubles in a way I might not have done for a male Shepard. Mass Effect is my favorite game series of all time, and that’s thanks to Sara.

Since then, I’ve had a soft spot for stories with badass action girls. When done right, a capable but appropriately flawed female character can be extraordinarily compelling. But it’s a balance that’s very easy to flub. I feel most attempts at the badass action girl either come across as robotic or simply irritating. And it doesn’t help that female characters are subjected to an unequal level of scrutiny. People will sour on a woman much faster than a guy if they’re perceived as annoying or a bitch.


The Terminator
‘s female lead seems to play around with this double standard. We first see Sarah Connor as a waitress in a pink skirt, timidly accepting the abuse of entitled diners. She has an evidently disinterested boyfriend whom she can’t stand up to. And when shit inevitably meets fan, she becomes a bog-standard damsel in distress. We actually start to dislike Connor in early scenes because she’s panicky and antagonistic towards her rescuer, Reese (who, by the way, fills the role of protagonist for about 80% of the movie).

But Connor’s arc is one of the most dramatic transformations I’ve seen. After the initial encounter Connor acts much like a child, following Reese’s lead and letting him make decisions. Gradually, she gets more capable (partially due to stories about her own role in future events).

IMG_1541During the climatic final chase is where we feel the power shift. Reese is injured and seems to lose the will to carry on. He tells Connor to go on without him numerous times, but she refuses. Instead, she forcefully drags him along. And even though it ultimately doesn’t prevent Reese’s death (spoiler), it’s an incredibly exciting scene because we can feel all the growth Connor underwent. It’s especially satisfying when you remember how timid she was at the beginning of the movie.

Her strength of character and will to survive makes Connor a 100% certified badass action girl during the last scenes of the movie, even though she’s still not very proficient in combat. She forcefully takes back her place as main protagonist. It just goes to prove that toting a gun and gurgling out one-liners is well and good, but an engaging character arc is real key to creating badass action girl.

 

Coming up:

  • Game: Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014) – Monday, October 5
  • Show: Star Trek: The Next Generation (S01E23: Skin of Evil) (1988) – Wednesday, October 7
  • Documentary: Citizenfour (2014) – Friday, October 9
  • Movie: The Hurt Locker (2008) – Friday, October 16
  • Book: Dune (1965) – Monday, October 19