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Verified Fiction

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Feb 15 2014 · 118 views

Essays, Not Rants! 100: Verified Fiction
 
I’m an African prince. Well, sort of. More my Dad is a Chief in Ghana. Long story short, when we were there (while living on the ship) a local chief decided to make my Dad a Chief too. Far as thirteen-year-old Josh saw, he was given an ornate bracelet and, by the nature of him being my father, I became an African prince.
 
Don’t believe me? It’s fine, but hey, makes for a fun story huh?
 
I mentioned last week that my Dad told me a lot of stories growing up. Like I said before, some were Star Wars in nature, others dealt with superheroes, but among my brother and my favorites were stories of Zhuge Liang, a Chinese strategist who always had the smartest solutions. Sort of like King Solomon of the Bible, only, well, Chinese.
 
Anyway, my Dad would tell these great stories. I don’t remember any details, just that Zhuge Liang was really smart and sometimes his adventures had him winding up in present day or going on adventures with Star Wars characters. Some other stories he’d tell my brother and I were from when he was younger; adventures with his brothers or stories of when he’d lived on a ship in his twenties. Point is, they were great stories. Like that whole African prince thing; they’re cool and fun, something to tell others down the line.
 
Which, like many things in my life, makes me think of a movie. In this case it’s Secondhand Lions. Heads up, I’ll be discussing the ending of said movie, so: ten-year-old spoilers.
 
In Secondhand Lions, Walter is sent to spend the summer with his elderly grand-uncles Hub and Garth. Little is known by Walter, his mother, or the community about the brothers; just that they spent a long time overseas and are probably sitting on pile of wealth. There are theories as to what they did, one of the most popular being that they were bank robbers. According to Garth’s stories to Walter, they spent the years in Africa, fighting for the French Foreign Legion during World War I and later their own adventures including a notable escapade with a sheik before finally returning to the States.
 
Now, the central tension in the movie is the issue of whether the stories are true. When asked point blank, Hub tells Walter that it’s not so much the veracity that matters but that the meaning is true. That is, though a story mayn’t be true, ideals like honor and love are.
 
We don’t quite get an answer through the film’s climax — in fact we get a story in favor of the bank robber theory. It’s only at the very end, set years later, that Walter meets a man who’s grandfather — an old wealthy sheik — told him stories about two wild Americans who opposed him. For both men it’s a moment of realization that there were actually some truth to those stories.
 
I’m taking a class this semester called Historic Epics of China and Japan, for which I’m currently reading The Romance of Three Kingdoms. I’ve heard of this book before, mostly that it’s a cultural touchstone. Part way through the book, though, a major character was introduced: Zhuge Liang.
 
Yeah, the same guy my Dad told me stories about when I was a kid is a key player in a book I’m reading at university. There’s something exciting about this, in a way not unlike Walter meeting the sheik’s grandson: it’s a sudden realization that hey, those stories my Dad told me were actually rooted in Chinese culture. There’s a sudden added truth to those half-remembered stories I grew up with. That and Three Kingdoms is a great piece of literature.
 
We live in a world of stories. Not just those we watch/read/play, but ones we hear from and tell each other. With that, it’s always to find out that some of those more outlandish ones are actually quite true.
 
A couple years ago I was reading TIME when an article caught my eye: it was about foreign chiefs in Ghana. I read it, amused at the fact that hey, my Dad might not be the only one. Then I looked closely at the picture in the article, real close. On the chief’s wrist is a bracelet, one not unlike the one my Dad has.
 
Well whadaya know.


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Heart of a Child

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Feb 08 2014 · 120 views

Essays, Not Rants! 099: Heart of a Child
 
I grew up in the 90’s with a steady diet of Lego, Jedi, superhero cartoons, mecha anime, Power Rangers, and Ninja Turtles. All this was peppered in with bedtime stories from my Dad, some of which were about the Chinese strategist Zhuge Liang, others were about Han Solo and Luke Skywalker going on adventures, and still others about Superman and Batman teaming up to fight bad guys.
 
There are side effects that come with this; the firm belief that giant robots are awesome, for example. Others are the ingrained image of a mulleted Tony Stark at an anvil, or memories of Captain America and Iron Man showing up on Spider Man’s cartoon. But then, those are all cartoons and stuff, puerile parts of childhood.
 
Only not.
 
A lot of the stuff I grew up with is being tapped and turned into cinematic fare these days. Sure, there’ve been Batman and Superman movies since well before I was born, but a movie about Iron Man? And Captain America? And one where they team up with the Hulk and Thor? In a movie? Eight year old Josh would be giddy at the idea (as twenty-two year old Josh still is).
 
Here’s the thing, I’m not eight anymore. How does a movie work to appeal to me now? Characters like Batman and Spider Man have had several incarnations in various media for various audiences. Adam West’s Batman differs sharply from the one in Justice League who in turn differs from Arkham Asylum’s. Sure, there’s the same character but differences in tone and style. There are many different ways to interpret characters and genres these days.
 
Especially Batman. Christopher Nolan approached the Caped Crusader from a much more mature point of view than we’d really seen on screen at the point. He deconstructs the idea of a superhero throughout the Dark Knight Trilogy. This is how Batman would work in a ‘real’ world: masks bought in bulk to avoid suspicion, for example. Gone is the romanticism of being a superhero.
 
Nolan’s Gotham is awash in a gray world of corrupt cops, sold-out lawyers, and mob rule. Batman himself is not entirely in the clear and, as he Commissioner Gordon puts it at the end of The Dark Knight, isn’t the hero Gotham needs. This is Batman for a more grown up, more adult world, a blurry world where right and wrong aren’t quite distinct.
 
Then on the other end of the spectrum we have Pacific Rim. The movie has, as director Guillermo del Toro put it, the heart of a 12-year-old and the craft of a 48-year-old. The movie is brimming with the hope and excitement you had when you were 12. There’s little attempt to ‘grow up’ the mecha genre, at least as far as growing up means how everything must be brooding, dark, and deathly serious. Sure, characters die and sacrifices are made, but it’s a clear view of Good and Evil; it’s that idealistic dichotomy.
 
Pacific Rim, like The Avengers, is a reconstruction of its genres. The Avengers acknowledges the problems of having a team of six superhero egos, but factors overcoming it into a plot. Pacific Rim makes Kaiju terrifying and Jaegers awesome, crafting a movie’s world where it not only works but is acceptable. These are movies that have grown up but remember the romanticism of being younger.
 
There is, however, yet another point on the spectrum: The Lego Movie. This movie doesn’t give a rip about growing up. There’s no playing at re/deconstruction; instead it takes it’s idea — a movie about Legos — and runs with it. It’s a movie about being a kid, about those times when you built a spaceship and ran around your room making laser noises and chanting “spaceship!” over and over again. If anything, The Lego Movie is an ode to childhood in the purest sense. It doesn’t just have the heart of a child, it’s about being a child.
 
Is one way of doing it better than the other? Nah. I love the grittiness of The Dark Knight as much as I love the colorful cacophony of The Lego Movie. I was ten once and these movies, with all their different interpretations, remind me of what it was like.


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The (Lego) Hero's Journey, Part One

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Feb 01 2014 · 131 views

Essays, Not Rants! 098: The (Lego) Hero’s Journey, Part One
 
I had the pleasure of attending an advance screening of The LEGO Movie on Thursday at my university. Now, you have to realize, I’ve been into Legos as long as I can remember, have a couple models on my desk, and have been making Lego movies in one form or another since I was ten.
 
In a nutshell: The LEGO Movie is fantastic. It’s beautifully animated, superbly cast, downright hilarious, and has a great plot. Now, the plot’s not anything groundbreaking, in fact it follows John Campbell’s monomyth to a tee.
 
Wait. The LEGO Movie makes use of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey?
 
Yes.
 
First, it serves to outline what exactly The Hero’s Journey is. Joseph Campbell postulated that myths and legends from around the world followed a similar structure. One where “a hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man” (Campbell). Translated, it’s a mythic arc that stems from a lot of ancient myths. It’s also been used in more modern media; George Lucas consciously set out to create a myth when he created Star Wars. The Wachowskis used it in The Matrix and thatgamecompany followed in closely enough in Journey that much of the soundtrack’s titles match individual steps of the monomyth.
 
With that, it bears mentioning that Campbell’s monomyth is hardly the only structure out there and a quick google search brings up several different takes on it. My favorite is the one on, go figure, TV Tropes, mostly because theirs allows for some leeway in the steps and rearrangements.
 
Now, this is hardly new. I’ve mentioned before how Aristotle talked about this in his Poetics and also how formulas exist for a reason. It’s also not bad. To do something like this doesn’t so necessarily mean a laziness of storytelling so much as, when executed well, displaying a mastery of it.
 
So how does this work with The LEGO Movie? The film adopts the monomyth and puts it to use for its story. All the key players are there: we have the very normal Emmet who wants very little to do with adventure until along comes Wyldstyle, who drags him out of normalcy and gives him the Call to Adventure. There’s the evil President Business with his right hand minifig Bad Cop. Vitruvius is the Obi Wan to Emmet’s Luke, with Batman (yes, the Batman), Uni-Kitty, and Benny the 1980-something Space Guy filling out the rest of the team.
 
But then, those are the characters, what about the plot?
 
Emmet is an ordinary minifig, one who receives his Call To Action to leave his town and help save the world. After his initial Refusal of the Call he must Cross the First Threshold, meet The Mentor, enter the Land of Adventure, and, well I’d love to say more but the movie’s not out ‘till this coming Friday and I really don’t want to spoil the movie. There’s a second rant essay coming a couple weeks after it’s released where I’ll break down the plot proper.
 
Is this post then just a big introduction? Sort of. But I will tell you this: The LEGO Movie is a magnificent piece of storytelling that you should really go see. There’s an earnestness to it seldom seen these days that makes it pure joy to watch. Plus, it really puts The Hero’s Journey to work, lending it an instantly classical feel that adds to it’s very, well, Lego-y feeling.
 
Go watch it when it comes out, then come back here in a few weeks for my monomythical breakdown.
 
Get it, because it’s Lego? And I’m breaking it down?
 
...I’ll see myself out.


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Gamey Education

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jan 25 2014 · 160 views

Essays, Not Rants! 097: Gamey Education
 
For some reason, my high school World History teacher saw it fit to skip over the entire Ottoman and Byzantine Empires. This thus left me with the general feel that those empires were a completely disposable era of history. That’s high school in South Carolina for you.
 
This all changed when I begun playing Assassin’s Creed: Revelations.
 
The basic conceit of the Assassin’s Creed series is built around genetic memories; that is the idea that your DNA has the memories of your ancestors and, if you’re lucky, your ancestors were hooded assassins. You spend much of the game romping around Crusades-era Jerusalem, Renaissance Italy, or Revolutionary War-era USA (depending on the game). What adds to the fun of stabbing soldiers in the back is the attention to detail the team at Ubisoft put in these games. Landmarks — both famous and less so — are rendered in game for your scaling pleasure. Not just that, though, every landmark/city/person of note you encounter is accompanied by a database providing a quick rundown of the Hagia Sophia/Boston/Cesare Borgia.
 
So back to the Ottoman and Byzantine Empires. Revelations follows Ezio Auditore as he travels to Constantinople and his exploits therein. You’ll encounter a young Suleiman the Magnificent, Selim I, and Sehzade Ahmet, among others. Investigating the surroundings in Constantinople reveal those afore mentioned database entries and bits of history. Steadily, you begin to put together a functional history of the Ottoman Empire as well as the remnants of the Byzantines. Or, in my case, everything I know about the Ottoman Empire I learned from Assassin’s Creed: Revelations.
 
This is something that makes the Assassin’s Creed series relatively unique: they’re history lessons. Sure, the main plot of the game seldom revolves around real life incidents, but bits of actual history find their way into the plot (eg: how horrible the Borgias were). These games are decidedly not educational games, but by immersing the player in the world, you wind up learning stuff anyway. You’re able to recognize places like the Rose Mosque and the Basillica di San Lorenzo since you use them to navigate the city. Figures like Niccolò Machiavelli stick in your mind because of their importance in the game. You’re not so much taught by the game was you are immersed. You’re learning by doing.
 
There’s another game I’ve been playing a lot this past week; Kerbal Space Program. It’s an independent game by Squad wherein you run, well, the Kerbal Space Program. What makes it different is that it’s a bizarrely realistic space simulator where getting into orbit requires managing thrusters, detaching stages, adjusting your angle of ascent, and paying attention to your apoapsis and periapsis. You also learn what words like apoapsis and periapsis mean.
 
Kerbal is more intense than Assassin’s Creed in it’s ‘educational’ department. In order to be half-decent at the game you are forced to learn these concepts. Even if you’re not exactly clear on the math —and if you’re me, then you’re definitely not clear on the math — you wind up with a working understanding of stuff like thrust-to-weight ratios and atmospheric drag. Why? Because you have to. The information isn’t just background set dressing or details to make it seem more real; it’s vital knowledge to making sure your rocket doesn’t become a fireball. Though that’s fun too.
 
I love video games and it annoys me to no end how often they get written off as meaningless drivel. A game like Kerbal Space Program teaches players rocket science, though more for the fun of it than any practical reasons. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty worked as a functional analysis of Meme Theory (amongst a lot of other stuff) — back in 2001, before memes were a thing. I learnt a lot of my eight-year-old vocabulary from the Pokémon games. All this to say that you can learn a lot from video games.
 
Now then, I have a few more ideas to send Kerbals flying into space I wanna try out.


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Playing With Expectations

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jan 18 2014 · 121 views

Essays, Not Rants! 096: Playing with Expectations
 
In celebration of the wonder of Netflix, I decided to watch Drinking Buddies the other night. The premise is nothing new, Luke and Kate are coworkers with incredible chemistry who are, unfortunately, in relationships with other people.
 
What makes the movie such a joy is how the film plays with this idea. All the building blocks are in place, but the plot dances around them and subverts them. The scene where the Luke and Kate would/should kiss and fall in love is there. However, well, they don’t. Not then, and though the sexual tension is brimming between them, it never happens throughout the plot. Instead, the film looks at Luke’s relationship with his fiancée and Kate with her boyfriend while exploring the nature of Luke and Kate’s relationship. It’s been classified as a romantic comedy of sorts, but it disregards elements of the genre at will. Drinking Buddies teases the idea of a romance, but ultimately tells a story about, well, drinking buddies.
 
For someone who consumes as much media as I do it’s always fun to see a story that does something different (in a meaningful way, as opposed to just adding lesbians). Pacific Rim hit every beat the usual blockbuster does, but did so while running its own commentary on the world as it is. But I’ve written extensively on that movie (and will continue to do so), let’s look at another movie.
 
Like (500) Days of Summer (so much for something new). Like Drinking Buddies, it’s been billed as a rom-com and it, for all intents and purposes, at first seems to shape up to be one. One of the earliest scenes is of Tom and Summer sitting on a bench holding hands, a ring on her finger. We’re told this takes place on day 488, so we know it’s near the end. As an audience, we expect Tom and her to end up together, even as we see their relationship fall apart.
 
Many of the tropes of the romantic comedy are in full effect, yet they’re used almost ironically. Tom’s happy walk after getting together with Summer concludes with a flash-forward to his dejection after they break up. The whole idea of Meeting The One is taken brutally apart. But then, the narrator did say it was a story of boy meets girl, but not a love story. It plays with what we’d expect from the sort of movie it is, ultimately giving us something very different. And y’know what? It works.
 
Similarly, one would expect Scott Pilgrim vs The World would be a relatively straightforward movie: Scott fights Ramona’s seven evil exes in order to be with her. Basically an action movie’s formula mixed with a romantic comedy. Easy.
 
Only, this is Edgar Wright; it’s never that simple. As I said a couple weeks ago, the movie offers an interesting look at what’s vital in relationships. This isn’t what you, heck, this wasn’t what I expected at all when I first saw the movie. The movie seemed simple enough going in, but proved itself able to supersede both genres to create something new. Edgar Wright gave us an honest look at relationships through a comedic, video game-y, action-y lens. It did something different.
Back to Drinking Buddies, a movie unlike much else you’ll see; it’s slow, the dialogue is improvised, and not much happens. It’s a slice of life. I saw it based on a poster I’d seen a few months ago outside an independent cinema (and hey, Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick) and while watching expected it to go the rom-com route. But it didn’t, and it didn’t in a way that made for an interesting story. And for that, it succeeds.
 
Writer’s note: The discrepancy that I harbor an intense dislike for Blue Is the Warmest Color yet really liked Drinking Buddies is not lost on me. Especially given the critical/audience dissonance on the former (that is, audiences didn’t like Drinking Buddies as much as critics did). Chalk this one up to personal taste.


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I Didn't Get Blue Is the Warmest Color

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jan 11 2014 · 223 views

Essays, Not Rants! 095: I didn’t get Blue Is the Warmest Color
 
There. I said it.
 
A lot of press surrounds Blue Is the Warmest Color for one reason or another, and with it winning a bunch of awards and ranking on some year end movie lists, I decided to see what all the fuss was about.
 
Long story short, I wasn’t a huge fan. Short story long, well, that’s what the rest of the post is for.
 
The concept seems interesting enough; we follow Adèle and the ups and downs of first love in her relationship with Emma. It’s something we’ve seen before, this time in a lesbian context. So far so good, but things fall apart when the concept leaves the paper and gets on screen.
 
Blue Is the Warmest Color is visually dull. Sure, there’s a lot of blue in the beginning, but it’s there almost indiscriminately (rather than in a way that would relate to Emma and her blue hair). The camera angles are repetitive; it’s the same medium close-ups and close-ups over and over again with framing just a little too tight. It wouldn’t be so bad were it not used for the majority of interactions. But then, maybe that serves the story. There’s little attempt to beautify the action. When Adèle eats it’s messy and pasta sauce dribbles down her chin; crying in the movie is snotty and unattractive; and dialogue is (at least translated) to sound banal at times.
 
So it could be then argued that the film wants to discard the hyperrealism so frequently found in ‘normal’ film, and this supposedly honest look at a relationship will be shot accordingly. Basically, the antithesis of (500) Days Of Summer, which, like Blue Is the Warmest Color, was more of a story about love than love story, except this time rather than seeing things through Tom’s hyperrealistic, romanticized point of view it’s told ‘realistically.’ Cool.
 
Only all that is thrown out the window when it comes to those scenes. Y'know the source of half the film’s press and, arguably, a large amount of its problems. Now, they’re shot in that same non-hyperrealistic way as the rest of the film: the lighting is stark and harsh and there’s no sweeping romantic soundtrack in the background. Yet it lacks a sort of emotional honesty. There’s no prelude to any of Adèle and Emma’s scenes and, barring the third, there’s nothing of pillow talk. They just happen.
 
Granted, this is hardly unique to Warmest Color, but it struck me as jarring that a film that focuses so heavily on relationships would have this be so abrupt. Worsening them is the lack of character showing through in the scenes. There’s no dialogue between Adèle and Emma nor attempt for their relationship (beyond the obvious) to show through their actions, it simply transpires as a sort of pseudo-pornography devoid of personality.
 
But then personality isn’t something the film thrives on either. Emma, the focus of Adèle’s affections, comes off as just another, albeit lesbian, Manic Pixie Dream Girl. It’s when Emma enters the story that Adèle is brought out of her unsatisfactory heteronormativity into a more interesting life. She’s quirky, she’s an artist, she’s different, and she has blue hair makes her stand out, especially when juxtaposed with Adèle’s bland surroundings. Now, Emma is by no means the worst offender, Adèle does not achieve a ‘happily every after’ through her and Emma has a measure of an inner life (though it is still primarily defined more by outlying qualifiers [her job, class, sexuality] than her own personality), yet she still plays the part. That aspect of their relationship feels like something we’ve seen dozens of times before. Adéle’s character suffers in a similar way; she feels defined more strongly by her nature as bookish, working-class teacher than by some of her other traits.
 
Not to say it’s all bad. There’s a fight between Adèle and Emma towards the end that is powerfully acted and genuinely compelling. For me it was the first time I suddenly felt myself really caring about their relationship and it became painful to watch, in a good way. The film does have its moments of excellence, it’s just bogged down in all the rest.
 
Which then confuses me as to why its receiving all those accolades. Now, I’m aware I’m someone who tends to harp on the idea of ‘high art,” but I found the only thing truly remarkable about Blue Is the Warmest Color to be its frank approach to LGBTQ themes. Have it be about a heterosexual relationship and it’d be all-but-mediocre.
 
It’s not enough to praise a movie simply because it features an LGBTQ romance at its center. It’s the same problem I have with Christian films or some approaches to women protagonists. As much as I’d like to see a good LGBTQ film, I can’t bring myself to just give it an A-for-effort. So yeah. I didn’t get Blue Is the Warmest Color when I watched it and, given its overlong three hour runtime, don’t much feel like trying again.
 
Writer’s note: Look, I just didn’t get it. Maybe if someone broke it down bit for bit and explained just why it was so great, sure. But ‘til then, I don’t understand the fuss.


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Relationship Advice from Scott Pilgrim

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jan 04 2014 · 158 views

Essays, Not Rants! 094: Relationship Advice from Scott Pilgrim
 
Scott Pilgrim vs The World is one of my favorite movies. There’s the video game-y nature of it; a world that’s realistically unrealistic where fights look like Street Fighter and people explode into coins. With that, Edgar Wright and team put a great deal of love into making it; sound effects are borrowed everywhere from Legend of Zelda to Seinfeld. It’s a great movie.
 
For those of you who haven’t seen it (or fall outside its fairly narrow demographics), here’s a rundown of the plot: Scott Pilgrim falls in love with Ramona Flowers, but in order to be with her he has to fight her Seven Evil Exes. Mixed in with that is his struggling band, dealing with baggage from an old relationship, and breaking up with Knives Chau. Again, it’d be easy for this to be pure pulp and just a fun, silly story, but Wright and team give it its due. Though their world may not be strictly realistic, the characters and their relationships are. We see the effect ‘meeting’ Ramona’s exes has on Scott and we watch tension build between them (especially when Knives is involved).
 
So where’s this relationship advice, you ask? In the climax, we find out that love isn’t enough for a relationship.
 
Let’s back up. What’s the biggest in most romances? It’s, usually, the moment where the guy decides to throw it all away and go after the girl. Harry runs through New York to find Sally. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan meet. Lloyd Dobler holds the boombox over his head (although, wonderfully, this isn’t the climax, but you get the idea). It’s that Big Moment of Love.
 
Scott Pilgrim, being at its heart a romance, plays this trope straight. Having lost Ramona to Gideon, Scott decides to set out to the Chaos Theatre to win her back by fighting Gideon. He arrives, fights his way in, and tells Gideon he wants to fight him for Ramona. When asked why, Scott responds that he’s in love with her. Scott thus earns The Power of Love and is awarded a flaming sword (from his chest!) with which he duels Gideon.
 
Great! That’s our Big Moment of Love! If there’s anything years of movie-watching should have taught us, know that Scott knows he’s in love with Ramona, he’ll beat Gideon and live happily ever after.
 
Only that’s not what happens here. Instead Scott gets himself killed.
 
Fortunately, however, Scott got a 1-Up earlier in the film and, after some brief soul-searching, uses said 1-Up to confront Gideon again. Again, Gideon asks him if he’s fighting him for her. Scott’s reply is different: “No, I wanna fight you for me.” And this time Scott earns the Power of Self Respect, gets a purple flaming sword, duels Gideon, settles things with Knives and Ramona, and fights Gideon again. With the Power of Self Respect.
 
Herein Scott Pilgrim vs The World suddenly does something that most romances don’t. Love isn’t enough. Thus far Scott has been fighting the exes simply because he has to if he wants to be with Ramona. It was Gideon who orchestrated the whole thing and, the first go round, Scott fights him like any other of Ramona’s exes, so he can be with her.
 
Only that didn’t work out.
 
The second time round, Scott fights Gideon for himself. This guy’s been screwing him over all along, yanking Scott’s chain. So Scott fights him not to win over Ramona, but to get his own back. Scott isn’t playing Gideon’s game anymore at that point, this time he’s engaging him on his own terms. The idea implicit is that in order for a relationship to work, you have to be able to be a person in your own right.
 
Sure, Scott Pilgrim vs The World is hardly the only place you’ll see this. (500) Days Of Summer did something similar: Tom gets his life together after Summer, dragging himself out of the routine and finally into doing something he loves, no longer looking for love to solve all his problems. What makes Scott Pilgrim special is that in a movie with bass battles and subspace highways we have an interestingly important commentary on relationships.


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2013 in Review

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Dec 28 2013 · 109 views

Essays, Not Rants 041: 2012 in Review
 
That’s right people, I’m doing it again.
 
Once again instead of a usual post I’m going to look through some of the posts from this year and link ‘em. Because it’s something appropriate to do at year’s end and not because a buddy of mine and I watched two movies in two separate cinemas and last night and I’m working today.
 
Five Most Popular/Viewed Posts
 
#5: Two More Hours
On occasion my blog posts are, there I say it, topical. This usually happens during those weeks when I get time to see a new movie (this last semester was spent mostly working on a movie of my own). One of these was Ender’s Game and in that post I explain why it needed two more hours. Hence the title.
 
#4: Science Fiction, Parables, and Gravity
I had a creative writing class this semester that took a hard approach to genre fiction so a handful of my posts were rants essays of my addressing some of those thoughts. I do like this one because Gravity was fantastic and I love getting to talk about science fiction.
 
#3: Projection and Empathy
This is one of those spitball essays where I figure out what I’m writing a paper on that, surprisingly, found quite an audience. So here’s to you, dear readers, for reading me bouncing thoughts. And yes, I did quite well in that class.
 
#2: Too Many Characters, Too Little Time
Behold, another instance of me being topical. I really enjoy Game of Thrones (even The Red Wedding, though that’s a very different sort of enjoyment), so writing about it was fun. I still stand by this post, and I still want Joffery to die, and I still haven’t read the books.
 
#1: Why I (seldom) Write About Ships?
Another one of those that grew out of my creative writing class, this one’s my defense of setting my stories in space. It ended up being a rather bloggy post, mostly due to me talking more about me than stuff, but I do really like it.
Fun Fact: My dad shared this one on Facebook, giving me one of my busiest days and instantly propelling it to the second most viewed post of all time (behind that one post that keeps catching search queries).
 
And there we have the five most viewed posts. As with last year, what follows will be a few posts that I really like, for various reasons. These posts are also posts that aren’t in the afore top five.
 
Josh’s Pick of Three
 
#3: Becoming Iron Man
I wrote a few posts on Iron Man 3, most of them analyzing Tony Stark’s character (hey, I wrote a big paper with him as one of the subjects around the same time). I’m picking this one out because it’s one of those occasions when I pick something apart. And it’s about Iron Man and I had to have at least one Iron Man post here.
 
#2: A Grownup Video Game
I love The Last of Us. It’s all over this blog and I wrote a paper on it. This was written when I was only a few hours in to the game, but it still hits the nail on the head. That game is phenomenal. On a side note, I was thinking of calling the post something along the lines of Adult Video Game or Video Game for Adults, but, well, I feel like I would have gotten the wrong sort of attention.
 
#1: Humanity, Hubris, and Canceling The Apocalypse
Pacific Rim is my favorite film of the year. Granted, I’m still catching up with movies (I really want to see Inside Llewyn Davis and her, for example), but Pacific Rim wins my pick for not only its awesome mechas-fighting-kaiju action, but for its themes. It’s a movie that goes beyond its action into a very hopeful movie about making the world a better place.
I also did a close reading of Pentecost’s speech, which I’m quite proud of.
 
And bam. That’s 2013. Fifty two posts in as many weeks, so here’s to you, readers, for actually reading the stuff I write. See you next week wherein I will most likely cite two completely unrelated works to described a point.
 
Here’s to 2014.
 
Oh, and if you will, watch my movie.


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In Defense of Escapist Fiction

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Dec 21 2013 · 154 views

Essays, Not Rants! 092: In Defense of Escapist Fiction
 
A term that I see thrown around a lot regarding my preferred fictions is “escapist fiction.” You might have seen it before; films like The Avengers and Pacific Rim are just escapist fantasies, especially when compared to ‘real cinema.’ Or video games are just ways to live out a fantasy and science fiction a way to avoid problems and reality.
 
It’s an interesting criticism, to say the least, one that sometimes culminates in me giving up and closing the tab halfway through. The idea is that a lot of fiction (and, of course, video games) are easily written off because they’re escapist.
 
So what exactly is escapist fiction? Wikipedia has a (surprisingly short) article on it that sums it up as “fiction which provides a psychological escape from thoughts of everyday life by immersing the reader in exotic situations or activities.” So basically, it’s genre.
 
As I said before, it’s here that the criticism comes out; the idea being that these forms of fiction are a method of avoiding problems; a means of escape. Rather than confronting or dealing with problems, they encourage readers/viewers/players to just ignore it and go off in a fantasy world. They’re fluff; shallow, non-serious entertainment.
 
I disagree. Hence the name of this blog post.
 
Way I see it, there’s enough of life happening in the real world. Enough irresolvable conflicts, enough wars without a good guy and a bad guy, enough people leaving, enough [crud] in general. Escapist fiction often offers a world where there is a solution, where there might be meaning and, when barring that, action can be taken. Because in fiction, the Evil Empire can be overcome by a backwater farmboy.
 
These ‘escapist fantasies’ are ways out. When life gives you lemons it’s far more fun to read a story where those lemons can be overcome rather than one dwelling in them. Returning to the Star Wars example, it’s at its core the idea that some nobody could wind up as the hero, save the princess, and defeat the bad guys. Luke’s predicament early in the film is relatable to any nineteen year old (or older, as the case may be). Stuck in a lousy job, feeling trapped in the middle of nowhere and wanting to do something more. Something bigger. He does and, by proxy, so do we.
 
Pacific Rim is a ‘millennial’ approach to the apocalypse, one that may not be quite as nuanced and subtle if it were a film by David Fincher and Daniel Day Lewis, but the movie does address ‘topical’ issues. There’s the idea of self-sacrifice, of overcoming grief, and of connection all wrapped up with saving the world. No, it’s not ‘serious’ fiction in the way that, say, The Book Thief or Dallas Buyers Club are, but it’s not to say that reality isn’t woven into its being.
 
All this to say, escapism is awesome. Escapism is coming home from a lousy day at work and running through Renaissance Italy and attacking guards. It’s a way out, a way to do something beyond life. There is a time for more ‘real’ fiction, but that is not to say that escapism is any less serious. In any case, J.R.R. Tolkien defended his work in two sentences better than I did in this post: “Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don't we consider it his duty to escape?" In other words; life can be a bit of a bummer sometimes, so let’s get out of it sometimes.
 
 
On a different note, watch my new short “The Mysterious Glowy Object” now!


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Defying Conventions

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Dec 14 2013 · 130 views

Essays, Not Rants! 091: Defying Conventions
 
I’m still not done spitballing this essay (which is problematic, seeing as it’s due on Monday) but I’ve narrowed in my focus to make it more relevant to the class. Rather than comparing Mass Effect 3 and The Last of Us, I’m going to look at the latter game and how it does away with many of the accepted conventions of narrative video games.
 
Academically. Because I can.
 
See, for the most part narrative video games have taken on three very common tropes. Now, these aren’t bad. Phenomenal games like Mass Effect 3, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, and Halo 4 employ these to great effect. What The Last of Us does is dare to do away with these.
 
Take saving the world. We see it everywhere in games; just looking at my shelf we have Mass Effect and the Jak and Daxter trilogy, all about saving the world (or community or what have you) from some evil. Within these games a lot of the drama comes from the need to save the world. Look at Mass Effect 3, in it Commander Shepard has to save the galaxy from the apocalyptic Reapers. There is great tension in the game due to the ever-present threat of the reapers. Every action Shepard takes, particularly with diplomacy, is heavier because if he fails the galaxy then the galaxy is lost. Commander Shepard must save the day.
 
Joel, the protagonist of The Last of Us, does not have the world at stake. The story is not about Joel saving the world, it is about Joel bringing Ellie to a destination. It’s a video game about a journey where the goal is almost irrelevant. The tension in the story is steadily born not out of any grand importance but out of the relationship between the two main characters. The Last of Us goes smaller and far more personal and manages to pull it off. Here we have a video game with a comparatively small focus, one unlike many of its contemporaries.
 
So then what is the central tension of The Last of Us? In most video games (and even several books and movies) it boils down to the fundamental conflict of good versus evil. And why not? It’s a universal conflict. The central theme of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is such. Will Nathan Drake do the right thing? It’s handled with a deal of nuance better than other games (say, any Final Fantasy), going so far as to have each love interest in the game embody one side of Drake’s duality. Among Thieves is a stellar game about good and evil. Sure, there are a few shades of gray thrown in, but still; a story about good versus evil is not bad.
 
The Last of Us is built on shades of gray. Joel is not a good man. We hear hints throughout the narrative of what he’s spent the twenty years since the outbreak doing. He was a raider, he killed people, he’s been a thief. He is not a nice man, if anything, he’s a hollow man no better than the others in the wastes. So what then of Ellie, the fourteen-year-old you’re charged with protecting? In any other story, no matter the medium, she would be Joel’s morality pet. Instead, Ellie is a fallen character unto herself: she’s willing takes up arms to kill others and will fight to survive no matter what. She is by no means an objectively ‘good’ character in the way Nathan Drake or Shepard are. What we have in The Last of Us is a story that hinges not on any sort of morality. Instead it is a story about surviving at any cost.
 
Which brings us to the third trope. Video games are more than about survival, they are often power fantasies, whether it is mowing down terrorists or fighting off invading aliens. Again, this, along with the other two tropes, is not bad. Video games, like many other mediums, are a form of escapism. In Halo 4 you are the Master Chief, an incredible super soldier who can stop the Covenant and The Didact and his Prometheans. You singlehandedly take on entire armies, thereby defeating evil and saving the world. In Halo 4 you get to be the hero and you are capable of being a one man army.
 
In The Last of Us you are constantly on the run. You never have enough ammo (it’s the only game I’ve played where having seven bullets is considered a lot), you are frequently low on health, and any more than two enemies usually means you’re in trouble. Rather than making you feel powerful, The Last of Us makes you feel desperate. If you miss this shot you won’t have enough ammo to kill the other soldiers hunting you. Unlike many other contemporary games, your health in The Last of Us does not regenerate, meaning if you take damage you have no way to recover beyond expending a valuable medkit. You are not all powerful: you are vulnerable and doing what you can to survive.
 
Though it discards many of the accepted norms of its medium, The Last of Us does it with a finesse seldom seen. The game does not subvert these tropes just for the sake of them, but rather to drive home the theme. The comparatively small stakes, the lack of a grand morality, and the vulnerability all work together to create something unique. The Last of Us is a AAA-studio game unlike many others before it, due in no small part to it daring to do something different. Neil Druckmann, creative director of the game, wanted something to raise the bar for the industry as a whole. It’s arguable this game has helped elevate the medium.
 
Now then. Let’s write this essay.
 
 
What else do I do for school? Make movies. Watch my newest short, “The Mysterious Glowy Object” now!






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josh

twenty-three


grew up on a ship


studies Storytelling

at New York University


frequently found writing in a coffee shop, behind a camera, or mixing alcohol and video games

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