TMD's Creatively Named Blog
Early on in Borderlands 2 the player encounters a fence of electricity in between them and their goal. Claptrap, the voice over the radio, tells you there’s a fusebox on the other side and that if you run fast enough, you won’t take damage from the fence. Your objective changes, now saying to run into the forcefield. So you do, and it deals damage to your shield and pushes you back. Claptrap suggests you do it again, he says you weren’t running fast enough. Seeing as this is a video game and voices-over-the-radio are seldom wrong, and your objective once again tells you to run into it. You do, and the same thing happens.
Undeterred, Claptrap tells you to try again, only for you to once again be electrocuted and pushed back. He then starts to make another suggestion for how to run through it when another voice on the radio comes in and tells you to just shoot the fusebox. And to ignore any advice Claptrap gives you.
It’s a funny moment, in no small part because the player is used to games and objectives being helpful. Borderlands 2 is effectively using the tropes of the medium itself to screw with you. It’s like a betrayal by the game, a really funny one. But it also serves to highlight the contract between a player and a game.
See, when it comes to entertainment there’s this sort of unspoken agreement. The movie’s arc will come to a head and resolution, the book’s narrative will conclude in some way, this essay will make a point at the end that warrants the five minutes you spend reading it. In video games, completing objectives will both advance the plot and progress the player. When the voice on the radio gives you an objective, you do it.
Which is what makes that gag in Borderlands 2 so great. These narrative contracts are vital to maintaining reader interest and telling a good story, but there’s a lot of fun to be had in breaking them. Community, for example, plays fast and loose with the expected promise that a tv show doesn’t know it’s a tv show. There’s something a little unsettling when a character in a tv show refers to ‘seasons’ or seems acutely aware that it’s a show.
Yet in the series finale a couple weeks ago, the characters envisioning how they’d want the Season Seven of their friendship to play out give us a unique look into each character’s psyche. That each scenario is introduced by a truncated version of the show’s opening only further draws the viewer in. What’s key is that the breaking of the rules service both story and humor.
For another example it’s hard not to mention Ulysses. The James Joyce novel eschews much in the way of the plot that’s expected of it. Bits of stories are started and continued, but nothing is ever truly resolved as the modernist novel captures the wandering minds and lives of a fairly average day in 1904 Dublin. Had the book instead followed a more traditional structure, we wouldn’t have one of the greatest books ever. More importantly, it wouldn’t have felt half as realistic and emotionally true to life as it does.
But if we’re talking about books breaking narrative contracts, nothing quite beats Denis Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist. In an increasingly frustrating fashion, the narrator tells the reader that he, as the storyteller, could do anything he wanted, like set the titular Jacques and his master off on a great adventure. But he doesn’t. Instead the book is one of unmet expectations, where the reader neither gets to hear the true story of Jacques’ loves or is even given a proper ending to the book — rather the reader is given three to choose from. But as an exercise in playing with narrative, it excels.
All this to say that rules are meant to be broken. That said, rules have to be broken right, like in Community or Ulysses. Because unless you’re Denis Diderot, there’s not much point in doing it just to prove a point. Or if you want to screw with your player.
Now I’ve just gotta finish Borderlands 2.
Alright. Quick one today because it’s my birthday and I have plans.
I talk a lot about science fiction and how often it works as a way to commentate on current events and what not. Sometimes, it’s a lot easier to look at the interplay of fiction when it’s something that happened in the past (See: Gojira). The Cold War too, which was also when modern science fiction began to really take shape, has great influence on the stories of its time.
Ray Bradbury opens his short story “The Last Night of The World” with a simple question: “What would you do if you knew that this was the last night of the world?” The answer isn’t wild revelry, rather the husband and wife at the center await the upcoming end with simple acceptance, living the last night of the world as if it were any other night.
Published in early 1951, the short story tries to capture the mindset of people who have been living under the threat of nuclear annihilation for two decades. In Bradbury’s view, these people are powerless to change anything about their fate, and thus they feel that they have no recourse but to accept the end of the world. There’s little concern for a matter of how the world ends, it’s just described as like the closing of a book.
By focusing so small Bradbury is able to make implicit statements about those with power. Though the short story lacks actual overt commentary, “The Last Night of The World” is an indictment against the Cold War and the associated political atmosphere. There is an undeniable link in the short story between the end of the world and the actions taken by leaders during the Cold War.From the point of view of the story, the world can only take a certain amount of guns being constantly pointed at each other before the plug is pulled.
In this story, people can adapt to the constant fear of death to the point that when the end finally comes it is not so much greeted as it is all-but-ignored. Humanity can get used to anything, even if it means adjusting to a constant expectation of the end of the world. The end of the world has progressed beyond inevitability; it has become expected.
Compare this to Star Wars, released 26 years later. Written and directed by someone who actually did grow up in the Cold War’s tensions, the movie disagrees vehemently with Bradbury’s message. Luke Skywalker grew up under the Empire, or at least the far reaches of it, and dreams of fighting back. He’s not resigned to his fate, rather, he jumps at the chance to do something about it.
See, Star Wars has to be seen as a piece of Cold War literature. You’ve got the Death Star threatening to destroy an entire planet, reminiscent of the whole nuclear risk thing. A lot of contemporary (American) writings painted the Soviet Union as a faceless, evil, Galactic Empire-esque nation with the United States as the noble underdog espousing a rugged individualism. In light of all this, Luke Skywalker being able to rise up and destroy the Death Star is a statement that, hey, they can win. Not at all unlike how Pacific Rim is a millennial anthem, Star Wars was a generation growing up under the threat of nuclear doom saying that things would get better.
Writer’s Note: Do give “The Last Night of The World” a read, it’s short and findable online. Also, I feel like there’s a connection between the Cold War atmosphere and the idealism of ‘80s movies, but that’s another post for another day.
Essays, Not Rants! 167: I’m Going To Use The Word ‘Intertextual’ Because I Want To
Intertextuality is a fun word to say. It’s an even funner concept: it’s the idea that one text will reference another. And I'm on a vacation of sorts this week so I'm gonna write about it.
See, when intertextual literature lets its world be informed by the outside. Chuck, for example, uses it to inform characters. Characters’ references to Tron or Back to the Future lets us into their heads and gives us an idea of who they are. When Casey tells an amnesiac Morgan that there are only three Indiana Jones movies, we know that he does actually care about the guy he’s always found insufferable. First off, the show at-large is tapping into the general consensus that Crystal Skull, the fourth Indiana Jones movie, was comparatively awful. But more importantly, it’s got Casey entering into Morgan’s nerdy world, something he usually doesn’t entertain. But because he does, we know how far both his character has come but also his relationship with Morgan. Outright telling Morgan he cared would be clunky (and also not true to the character), but the smaller reference feels far more natural. All because of an Indiana Jones reference.
Of course, when talking about intertextuality and characterization, it’s hard not to bring up Ulysses, but that’s mostly because I’ve read it and the book’s kinda taken over my head. The tome portrays a day in Dublin from deep within a couple characters’ minds. Bloom and Stephen, the main characters whose heads the book spends the most time in, both use contemporary culture in their thoughts, but both do differently. Stephen, the intellectual young man, quotes and references Shakespeare and Catholic funeral rites. The former because it’s what he’s familiar with, the latter because of residual guilt over his mother’s death. Bloom, on the other hand, being a rather normal middle-aged man, has advertising slogans and popular songs crawling through his head. Since Ulysses is meant to be as close to life as literately possible, it wouldn’t make sense for it to not have this. Intertextuality here serves to make James Joyce’s Dublin feel even more real. Then there’s also the fact that much of what they reference has to do with their own internal conflicts (see Stephen and his mother) and also elucidates more of the book, but that’s an essay rant dissertation for another day.
Intertextuality, however, extends beyond simple references. Star Wars is deeply intertextual, although it takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far far away where contemporary pop-culture isn’t a thing. Rather the plot as a whole is heavily influenced by traditional mythology as well as classic Japanese cinema. Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress featured many ideas and plot beats that were integrated into Star Wars. This isn’t to say that Star Wars is derivative, no more than The Lion King is for taking a lot from Hamlet (or, for that matter, Lion King 1/2 and its relationship to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead).
Rather it makes you realize that literature — and that’s literature insofar as film, books, video games, television, comics, and any form of telling a story — is inherently interconnected. Everything references something else and now, with the internet making pop culture osmosis prevalent enough that I can mention Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and know that a good many of you will get it even if you, like me, haven’t read it.
All this to say that intertextuality isn’t going away, and isn’t necessarily bad. Rather, it’s a fancy word for a normal enough thing that, when used well, adds layers to a story that wouldn’t otherwise.
I haven’t seen any of the old Mad Max trilogy, more for lack of bother than anything. Pop culture osmosis ensured I knew what it was about, though; post-apocalyptic wasteland, lots of leather, cars, machismo. So Fury Road flew below my radar during much of the lead up to its release. That is, until the press surrounding it started to discuss how it was surprisingly feminist and was [annoying] a lot of Men’s Rights Activists.
That got my attention.
Fury Road, despite seeming a super-macho movie by way of its car chases and apocalyptic grit, features Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa as the film’s de facto protagonist with Max essentially falling in to her quest to escape the Citadel with five of the villain’s wives. Furiosa is fantastic. She’s introduced as an elite in Immortan Joe’s army, one with enough sway that when she serendipitously changes course during her mission, no one in her escort questions her. And of course she kicks butt. Furiosa goes toe-to-toe with Max when they first meet and continues to prove herself plenty capable action-wise throughout the film.
But as unexpected as it is to see a woman headlining a Mad Max film, it’s expected that she would be plenty capable in the world. After all, she’s a fighter, someone hardened to the film’s post-apocalyptic setting. Where Fury Road gets really interesting with its character portrayals is with the wives. By all rights, these five should be damsels, albeit ones rescued by a woman instead of a man. They’re not fighters, not drivers, not politicians. In a world like Mad Max’s Australia, what use are they?
The film gives the wives a surprising amount of agency. We, as viewers, are first clued into their escape when we see their empty room in the citadel, “We Are Not Things” scrawled on the walls. This is the central thrust towards them: the wives are not things; they are people.
So they aren’t the load, and they aren’t just Furiosa’s cargo. When the raiding party catches up with Furiosa’s War Rig, one of the villains steadies a shot at her. In response, one of the wives, Splendid, opens the door and places herself — and Immortan Joe’s unborn child — between the gun and driver. It’s an epic moment, one of those big reversals in an action scene that cause a shift in how it all plays out.
Splendid’s actions give credence to their manifesto of not being things. When she puts herself in the line of fire, she’s doing so of her own accord; neither Max nor Furiosa tells her to do it, she makes her own choice. Furthermore, her actions indicate that she knows her own value; she knows how she can be useful in a battle despite being a noncombatant. It’s also worth noting that Splendid’s not out there alone; the other wives are helping hold her to the side of the vehicle speeding through the desert, thus showing that all of them are in this and they all know what they can bring.
Much of Fury Road plays out without dialogue, with visuals being as, if not more, important to storytelling as words. This also makes it a big teacher in the lessons of showing instead of telling: we’re not just told the wives don’t want to be considered things anymore, we see them actively fighting for and using their own agency. We’re not just told that Furiosa’s demanding of respect through others’ reactions, we’re shown it again and again by how she handles herself. With it, the film lets its female heroines make interesting choices. One of the wives loses hope, another one has great faith in their journey.
In other words, Fury Road has a surprisingly feminist bent by writing its women as people.
Eventually you get to the point when you realize if you keep putting off this list until you’ve seen everything you wanna see you’re never gonna write the darn list. So I’m writing it.
So here’s my list of top nine movies for 2014; nine because I’m leaving a space for movies I haven’t seen but want to. And it’s my list, so it’s very, well, me. I liked Birdman well enough and loved Godzilla, but neither quite made the list. These are the ones that I liked best.
9. John Wick
I have a soft spot for action movies, especially when they’re really slick action movies with Keanu Reeves doing what he does best. But what really sets John Wick apart is the incredible world building. There’s a deep background to the assassins and mafia that made me really want to know more. Also, it’s beautifully shot.
8. Gone Girl
Y’know that thing where you’re enjoying a story and then it changes gears? Like how Black Swan went from ballet drama to psychological horror? Gone Girl does that with ease, masterfully unfolding its plot like a magnificent murder mystery. Also, it’s decidedly not a date movie.
A movie about drumming should not be this intense. But it is, due in no small part to Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons’ phenomenal performances and how far the script goes. By foregoing a moralistic thrust in lieu of about pure drive the movie is able to get grippingly dark. And it works, man, it works.
Christopher Nolan’s greatest weakness probably lies in his portrayals of characters and emotion. Yet Interstellar, for all it’s sci-fi grandeur, is able to remain grounded in people and be genuinely moving. It may border on being overlong, but it expertly weaves in its core of love into a movie about wormholes and time dilation.
5. 22 Jump Street
Being unfamiliar with the original television series, I thought the original was a lot of irreverent fun; but it’s in the second film, I think, that Chris Lord and Phil Miller really cut loose. Blisteringly self-aware, the movie skewers sequels (and itself) while packing in the laughs start to finish.
No, the movie may not be super dramatic, and yes, it is a very warm, very feel good movie. It does it all well, though, and its charm more than ends its sweetness. Plus, it’s a delicious movie rife with heart.
3. Guardians of the Galaxy
I limit myself to one Marvel film on these things, and Guardians beats Winter Soldier by a hair, and that’s probably due to my love of space opera. James Gunn’s effortlessly handles high adventure while keeping it firmly rooted in character. And it’s just plain fun. And the soundtrack’s awesome.
2. The Imitation Game
I actually read Turing’s titular paper a week or two before I saw the movie, which gave it some cool context. The movie, though, is beautifully heartbreaking. Benedict Cumberbatch turns in an unparalleled performance as Alan Turing, a Turing given considerable depth and breadth by a gripping story. The movie plain works.
1. The LEGO Movie.
Could it be any other? I grew up with Legos so the movie appeals to the kid in me. But then the film’s superb plotting and usage of the Hero’s Journey and various tropes is what really pushes it up there while still consistently bringing the funny. Then the movie brings in an emotional beat that you’re simply not expecting yet doesn’t feel at all out of place. It’s simply magnificent and also my favorite movie of 2014. Easy.
Done, in my hand, and covered in supports:
And then some time digging off the supports...
Ain't perfect; sword didn't come out right/at all; but, dude, I've got a TMD I made nine years ago.
People are mad on the internet. As usual. The hubbub recently, though, is about choices made regarding Black Widow in Age of Ultron. Now, I’m a big fan of Black Widow. I’d really like her to get her own movie and Nathan Edmonson’s run on the comics has been fantastic (issue #13 is framed on my wall). And I’ll be the first to admit that a character beat in Age of Ultron did throw me off for a bit. But I didn’t realize the furor until I started reading up on it.
Mild spoilers for the film from here on out.
Most all of it seems to boil down to one particular piece of characterization: In a quiet moment, Natasha reveals to Bruce —who she’s debating entering into a relationship with — that she was forcibly sterilized and she laments being unable to have a normal life. It’s clear what there is to take issue with: The one female Avenger is preoccupied with romance, babies and the lack thereof. It doesn’t matter how awesome Black Widow is, Natasha’s life is still incomplete without a man and children. Hence the death threats against writer/director Joss Whedon.
The beat did get a knee jerk reaction from me, but it made sense enough given her characterization. Natasha’s something of a reformed assassin and her past missions haunt her (as we see in her interactions with Loki in Avengers). Along with that, she’s never had a proper childhood, let alone any semblance of a normal life. We also see that she’s good with Clint’s kids and close enough to the family for the kids to call her aunt. Her attraction to Bruce makes sense, then: Both are damaged people who are trying to atone for their own inner monster. We can also see in it her desire for normalcy (and with it, motherhood). This all makes Natasha a very complex character. She’s torn between the normal life she could never have and atoning as an Avenger. There’s tragedy there too; while Thor enjoys the thrill of the fight, Natasha’s ultimate fantasy is a normal life. She’s forced to make a choice by the end of the movie: continue fighting or run off to find a sort of normal life.
It’s a shame that all of that gets forgotten in light of her grief about being unable to have kids. I’ve seen some people defend the scene by saying that what really was affecting her was that she was denied the choice of being able to have kids — she was denied her agency. Whether or not that’s the case, I don’t think her wanting kids necessarily diminishes her character. If anything, it added the depth detailed in the prior paragraph. There’s a beautiful dichotomy to the cold-blooded assassin wishing she could have a family.
So why the controversy? Are strong female characters not allowed to want families too? It seems male characters are — no one’s complaining about Clint Barton having a wife and kids (except those of us who wanted a Hawkeye Netflix series about him in Bed-Stuy like in Matt Fraction’s comics). Even though his personal life could easily be described as traditionally masculine — what with the farm, wife and kids and, always fixing stuff around the house — he doesn’t get any flak for it.
Ultimately, the issue is that it’s the one female Avenger. Since she’s the only one, she’s going to come under closer scrutiny. There are a host of narratives for the male Avengers, meaning that Clint could have his farm and Bruce be hesitant towards action without undercutting The Manliness as we had characters like Thor and Steve (that and, y’know, 70% of movie characters being men). Criticism is inevitable no matter how unfounded if the only female Avenger’s narrative contains shades patriarchal femininity. We need more good stories about strong women so we can have different sorts of strong women. Give us stories about moms, scientists, and fighter pilots saving the world. Black Widow can’t be the only female superhero.
Which is why we need Captain Marvel next year and not in 2018.
I saw Age of Ultron Thursday night and I have thoughts. There’s the obvious nerd-out factor of the film, and it’s really cool and does a lot of things right (and, arguably, does indeed go smaller than the first Avengers), but those are
So let’s talk about how the movie portrays the idea of masculinity. Because it’s actually really interesting.
Age of Ultron, like The Avengers before it and probably every Marvel movie until I get my friggin’ Captain Marvel movie, is very male dominated. But that doesn’t stop it from portraying a variety of roles for the men to take on. Macho men being manly all the time this is not, rather the Avengers portray different shades of masculinity.
Bruce Banner may be the most obvious. His ‘alter-ego’ is inherently violent and destructive, a stark contrast to his more mild-mannered usual self. He’s a violent man who eschews violence. Here’s a man who would rather that problems not be solved by punching.
This serves as something of an antithesis to Thor, who delights in battle (and tries to comfort Bruce at one point by telling him how well he fought). That said, when Thor competes with Tony, it’s not over who’s the better fighter. Instead they’re boasting of the impressive accomplishments of their significant others. Implicit here is that these two who embody traditionally masculine traits (Thor’s the fighter, Tony is characteristically bawdy) are both with accomplished and important women, and both are okay with it. Being ‘manly’ doesn’t mean downplaying the accomplishments of others and sometimes it means deferring to that as the true measure by which they measure themselves.
It’s Steven Rogers, though, who as Captain America is in some regards the paragon of masculinity: he’s brave, physically fit, honorable, a leader, and so on. But at the same time he’s also humble, he hopes for the best in people, is willing to be vulnerable, and knows he can’t always do it alone. He’s a lot like Captain Awesome from Chuck, in that he embodies a sort of ideal masculinity, but without a lot of the toxicity that goes with it.
Which brings me to Hawkeye, who gets a vastly expanded role in this film. Not only do we get a deeper look into his inner life, but we also see his role as a part of the team. Clint is, not unlike his comics counterpart, effectively the most normal of the Avengers. More than that, though, he’s the one with the most normal and fulfilled personal life, making him also the most stable; the least ‘manly’ of the Avengers is also the one who’s got it the most together. Furthermore, within Age of Ultron he carries much of the film’s emotional weight; he may not be the hardest hitter but he is the heart. In many other stories this position is usually occupied by a woman, or the most feminine one if there are multiple (think Katara from Avatar and Kaylee from Firefly). Clint isn’t seen as less capable for it; he, like Raleigh in Pacific Rim, portrays a form of masculinity that’s supportive in nature.
The male action hero has been somewhat pigeonholed over the years. There’s an immense focus on the John McLane, John Matrix, and Indiana Jones type, that is the swaggering, self-reliant, gun toting, never backing down sort. Compare The Expendables, an ensemble cast of very traditionally manly action heroes, to Age of Ultron. The former are all cut from the same hyper-masculine cloth, whereas the male Avengers are more nuanced. None of them are seen as lesser for not being as much of a brawler as Thor or as brave as Captain America. Rather, the film acknowledges that masculinity comes in different forms and that’s perfectly okay.
grew up on a ship
at New York University
frequently found writing in a coffee shop, behind a camera, or mixing alcohol and video games