Posts tagged ‘good and evil’

Sanderson Jones: Taking Liberties

August is a painful month for Edinburgh locals. Not only do some bastards bugger off for the entire month, renting their homes out as “party flats,” but every nook of the city is hastily transformed into a dozen-seat venue for a variety of talent, all of whom spends 12 hours a day ambushing passers-by with advertisement postcards.

Getting into any of these shows is a trial, as the Fringe follows the typical UK festival tradition of nurturing a cramped, surly chaotic atmosphere all but devoid of accessible bathrooms. Sanderson Jones‘ show, tucked away in the Five Pound Fringe ghetto, initially was no exception. The venue was on the top floor of a hole in a wall, the door to which was completely blocked by amateurs with power tools bashing a groove in their stoop and pulling out the wall’s wiring. Customers who dared approach at the show’s start time were snapped at to go into a nearby bar to wait, then thirty seconds later were snapped at to form a queue up the stairs and go go go! Since this has happened at every Fringe show we’ve attended (aside from the power tools, a nice improvisation) in the past three years, I’ve come to assume there’s special courses in July, where staff have to act this scenario out again and again through intensive role-play until they’ve got it note-perfect. Bravo, GRV staff – your hard rehearsals were not wasted. Once in the small venue, piercing electropop was playing at roughly six billion decibels while a webcam projected the growing audience’s image on a small screen. Our hopes were no longer high.

But then! Sanderson Jones leapt out, with his lovely red beard and skinny jeans that removed all threat of progeny from his future, and accused my husband of pedophilia. It was funnier than it sounds. His loose theme was how prurient hysteria and paranoia threaten freedom of speech for all, and he approached a genuinely uncomfortable audience threshold with his “I’m drawing a children’s book about prophets of monotheistic Middle Eastern religions, guess which one this is!” bit. He compared the concept of fatwās to cynical advertising campaigns (drawing on his experience as an advertising seller for the Economist magazine), which was a little Bill Hicks, and used Venn diagrams to illustrate the problems of being both a comedian trying to connect to audiences via funny and being a human being trying to connect to other human beings by any means necessary.

And, to make some point or other, the webcam turned out to be a chekov’s gun, ambushing unsuspecting wankers on chatroulette with the sight of a couple dozen strangers waving cheerfully, or wearing creepy masks. I sincerely believe he was making a real point, but was too amused by the half-dozen or so naked cocks that came on screen and rapidly nexted away from us. (For once, South Park didn’t lie to me.)

There were some weak points in the show. A long segment on the Brook Shields photograph removed from the Tate Modern didn’t entirely pan out, despite Jones’ offering of one of his own nude baby pictures as an alternative (awwwww…the cute little ginger toddler). Having that photo up on stillscreen was too creepy to laugh around – which may have been his point, so, good attempt there. And, while his material is generally innovative and personal (despite a few seemingly mandatory “women I want to fuck don’t want to fuck me” bits…which Hicks himself regrettably fell into too damn often for me to deify that talented man), he doesn’t seem quite confident enough. He encouraged audience involvement but was rattled several times afterward at then being talked back to, calling fairly quiet “I want to play too!” outbursts “heckling.” You try to break through the audience’s individual shyness…meh, that’s what you get. It’s just seeking approval from the man in the spotlight everyone’s paying attention to, not repeated drunken screams of “free bird!”

Overall, the guy’s got a lot of potential, and I hope to see more of him.

reasons to be cheerful #2

Tom Wait’s I Don’t Wanna Grow Up. Perfect Friday song, making the trudge to another day being ground in the gears a little lighter.

This isn’t a music video. This is a dreamscape id-dump via Jim Jarmusch. Waits stuffs himself onto a tiny set, defiantly attempting to remain in the cramped world of adolescent fantasy – the rock god on stage with a guitar and a frame of lights. Intercut with this image is a spacious envisioning of the same concept – Waits trundling around his backyard (…probably, given that there’s a thousand photos of him and that tree) on a kid’s bike in a devil-horn cape, a red fuck-me pump on one foot and his usual black boot on the other, showing off a rather tragic set of teeth. Other times, in the same outfit, he’s enjoying a martini and cigar in a Coffee and Cigarettes bar. If there’s any message in this beautiful mess, it’s to leave nostalgic sets adolescent freedom in the attic and start defying whatever rigid definitions of an adult man or woman piss you off most in the now.

Lost Season 6: winnowing down the Candidates

The Candidate: KwonsLost Season 6: The Candidate

It’s more than a little sad that the most engaging moment of the last several episodes was the mutual death scene of two characters that have been entirely wasted for two seasons: Jin and Sun Kwon. While entire episodes have been devoted to the eternal romantic connection forged by unconsummated crushes, the only enduring marriage among characters was reduced to a pale reflection of the Desmond and Penny saga, leaving Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim little to do but tag along with B-storylines and spout “Have you seen my spouse?” in alternating episodes. Their long-awaited reunion consisted of a beachside embrace and a hurried conversation in a polar bear cage acknowledging that they’ve produced a beautiful child.

It’s wonderfully human that neither of them mention Ji Yeon, carefully, as they argue whether Jin should leave Sun to die alone in the rapidly filling submarine. The right answer is, of course, that Jin try to escape so that their daughter will potentially have one parent to raise her rather than her terrifying and immoral grandfather. But in this moment, neither wants to be without the other, and Jin’s sacrifice of his own life is flawed self-indulgence.

The two of them are losing their hard-earned future, but the fight for the island’s future is losing much more, particularly a woman who was determined to stand against her father’s selfish machinations to align with those who would control its mysterious and dangerous energy source. But who thinks of this as their linked hands come apart – certainly not the plot, which lost this thread two years ago. Sun was no longer a nascent force of big business but a forlorn wife, needing her husband to be a whole person.

A lot happens in this episode – far too much, really. The Kwons wrap up their attenuated  storyline in minutes, and die. Sayid suddenly redeems himself with a heroic sacrifice. Lapidus dies (possibly), practically off-camera and entirely unnoticed by the other survivors. Jack embraces the way of faith, spelling out the rules of engagement Smokey seems to be held to, and Sawyer refuses to play along with anything he doesn’t understand. Boom. More importantly, Smokey himself is finally confirmed to be evil (at least from the survivors’ point of view), as he is a very resentful babysitter saying anything that might manipulate the Candidates into killing themselves off with some handy C-4. After too many episodes of long green walks, separations, reunions, and seemingly portentous chats that are so often retconned as to be meaningless, this episode was felt rushed and almost slapdash, with promised character revelations whizzing past basely seen.

The entire series is feeling like narrative Calvinball, and the final revelation will be the rules we should have been playing along to the entire time.

Kick-Ass: why?

Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl

a rare un-bloodied moment for Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl

“What works on the page doesn’t always work on the screen, asshole.” – Dave Lizewski

Of the two Kick-Ass texts, the comic is far more faithful to the world it depicts (one seemingly defined by a lack of Alan Moore). The fundamental difference is that the graphic novel blatantly loathes its audience – and is therefore able to more accurately and comically present that group’s foibles and masochistic fantasies – while the film abandons this worldview mid-Act 2 in favor of pandering to the demographic.

Dave Lizewski is an Asperger’s-esque teen who suffers from what he describes as “the perfect combination of loneliness and despair,” which drives him to nick an identity from the comics he adores (obsessively, of course – no fictional fan has any other interests). The film and comic diverge pretty quickly, despite a surface similarity. Both present the sudden but natural death of Dave’s mother as both a vague motivation and something to be resented for lacking a good revenge arc. Neither seems to mourn very much, only noting the effect it’s had on Dave’s dad, who would do well to attend a support group hosted by Charlie Swan. Movie-Dave is a lovable loser who tries to make friends with those even more socially outcast than his geek-clique and picks two men who’ve repeatedly mugged him as his first heroic effort. Comic-Dave seethes with resentment that others don’t see how wonderful he is and picks relatively harmless-looking graffiti taggers as his first target. Unexpectedly (for the genre), both Daves fail spectacularly and spend several months recovering in hospital, and both choose to continue putting their bereaved father through financially ruinous hell rather than give up their delusional identity.

Watchmen was one of the first in-universe texts to confront the fact that anyone who chose the vigilante lifestyle would not only be mentally disturbed but probably only make the world a more dangerous place through their efforts. Kick-Ass attempts to update this concept to the 21st century by using cell phone cameras and Myspace as a direct conduit to Coincidental Broadcasts, upping the childish cynicism by half, and lowering expectations of audience IQ by at least as much. One cover announces its mission statement for the slower readers:

Sickening Violence: Just the Way You Like It!

And yet the comic is less insulting than the film, which promises graphic deconstruction and provides Rambo-esque clichés. Dave gets beaten down, but then gets Real Mad and kills bad guys with a Gatling-enhanced jet pack and a rocket launcher (with no fear of the justice system). He gets the assigned most beautiful girl in school, after shamming as a GBF in order to amass the Nice Guy points that will make her owe him a relationship. He rescues one of the city’s only genuine superheroes and becomes he school “protector.”

All this with nary a synapse spark over committing mass murderer.

In a straight popcorn flick, this might be good enough, given that Kick-Ass was the hero of the movie named after him. But he’s not. He’s a mildly irritating prologue glommed onto Big Daddy and Hit-Girl’s star turn. From the moment the appear on screen or paper, , Kick-Ass becomes part of the audience. This works – on its own level – because the father-daughter team is both more competent and far more interesting than the talentless and asocial imitative fanboy. Watching real superheroes do their thing is his natural level. The film demands a suspension of disbelief and basic humanity appropriate to a later Die Hard sequel, then flings an affectless and brainwashed 11-year-old serial killer at us.

She hacks and slashes her way through a room full of stereotypical thugs – and there is something primal and wonderful about that sight familiar to any fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, just as it’s oddly heartwarming that a father would train his daughter to be tough rather than decorative, how not to freeze when faced with the physical threats a small and pretty girl is likely to encounter as she ventures into the world.

Kick-Ass, Big Daddy and Hit-Girl

Father-daughter bonding, Macready-style

But Buffy spent entire seasons mourning her lost potential of becoming someone who didn’t spend her nights killing other sentient beings. Hit-Girl and, more importantly, her father have no such qualms.

The film takes the easy route again by giving Big Daddy the standard Antihero’s Journey – a good cop framed by the Mob he refused to work for, which somehow leads to his wife’s suicide – and a clear mission of revenge. Comicverse Bid Daddy made this story up and picked a target at random. He was just an accountant, and obsessive comic book fan – an adult Dave Lizewski and obvious sociopath – who ran away from his career and wife into fantasy, kidnapping his daughter and raising her to live out his violent daydreams. He never comes near the bad guys, sending his daughter in alone and watching from a safe distance through the scope of a sniper rifle.

Hit-Girl, the only real superhero (and innocent), is the only comic character who catches a break in the end.  She avenges her father’s completely deserved death and gives up mass murder in favour of a relatively normal (if bully-proof) life with her mother. Actually, Dave’s father, whom the comic never marginalises as much as the film does, also breaks even. His son gives up getting beat up and running up hospital bills, and he even begins to move on from his paralysing grief to begin dating again. Big Daddy and the local Mob branch all die badly, and Dave (thank god) is roundly rejected by the object of his obsession when he confesses his deception and “love.” He tries to comfort himself that he’s changed the world by inspiring a legion of mentally unbalances poseurs, but the last frame goes to one of these deluded souls, the Armenian about to become pavement pizza when his homemade wings fail twenty floors up.

The uncompromising comic is a far superior story…but neither is worth the time it takes to see – or review – them.

protest or forget: the Beast Below

Protest: The Beast Below

Protest: The Beast Below

Once every five years everyone chooses to forget what they’ve learned. Democracy in action.

An often excellent episode, The Beast Below struggled to fit in some emotional bonding between this new Doctor and his companion (and the audience). Amy hasn’t had time to change out of her sleepwear before being thrown into an adventure of unimaginable horror – and nearly thrown out of her tenure as a companion after only a few minutes in the Tardis.

Part of the splendid set and character design, the Smilers had an image worthy of gracing a generation’s nightmares but didn’t really do much. They embody the police state the Doctor immediately sees – continuing the Sherlock Holmes-esque attention to detail that led him to a solution last week – but they are not the horror, and neither is the titular beast below who carries the remnants of the British, Welsh, and Northern Irish people on its back. The true monsters, as Rod Serling continually remonstrated, are us.

Except that’s not quite it. Every other country in the world, when the Earth was blasted by solar flares in the 29th century, was able to get it together to make colony ships and seek their new fortunes. Only England and its hangers-on – once the Scots abandoned them, bless their wise ginger heads – were left behind, listening to their children cry, and not building a fecking spaceship! Even though they were entirely capable of whipping up an airtight city/massive torture device, sans blueprints, once they’d “trapped” a beast capable of carrying one.

Perhaps they were waiting for Rupert Murdoch to do it for them, having voted against a 2% VAT raise that would have funded a publicly built ship?

No, the horror is specifically within “us” the British people, who cannot conceive of altruism. The Doctor (admiringly) describes the ship on first glance as an idea, as “Britain but metal.” They are searching for a new home, but bringing the worst of the old one with them, the paranoia and self-made horror that they give themselves the option not to face.

The episode not only captures a peculiarly self-loathing twist on The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas but the UK’s pre-election gestalt, being presented with two choices that are not choices at all, but allow one to stop contemplating the self-made nightmare we live in and – more importantly – accept that this is how it must be rather than seeking the hard work of possible solutions. It was the designers of the city who chose to feed “protesters and citizens of limited value” – including children who tested poorly – to the Beast. That can’t be blamed on the panic that would drive a people to trap and torture a benevolent creature who intended to rescue them from the beginning (and continues to do so even after centuries of torment). This is heart of darkness territory.

It’s deliberately written into the text, providing one of my favorite Doctor Who characters of the last few years: Liz Ten, a middle-aged, confident, compassionate Action Queen who seeks to truly serve her people even if it gets her sent to the Tower – historically not a good end for a monarch.

Liz Ten: The Beast Below

Liz Ten: The Beast Below

Even Liz Ten, lionhearted, dutiful Liz Ten, chooses every ten years to continue this nightmare. She was, in fact, one of its architects. What hope is there that the rest of us wouldn’t slam down that ‘Forget’ button in a heartbeat, facing the same choice?

The Doctor proves to carry this within himself as well, even before he realises this is more than another fun adventure. He judges his new companion rather harshly, without thinking – “Oh lovely, you’re a cheery one!” – and presents her with his own unfair binary decision. When Amy hesitates about running off into an unknown police state, on her own, in her pyjamas, he replies shortly: “This or Leadworth. What will Amy Pond choose?” And he’s gleeful when she meekly accepts: “Ha ha, gotcha!” It seems that neither a pep talk – perhaps including his new Number One Rule of “you don’t ever decide what I need to know,” on pain of immediate abandonment – nor a quick detour into the Tardis to get a pair of pants on was a viable option.

And he’s awfully quick to snap out “Nobody human has anything to say to me today!” after being able to at least face the horror, unlike everyone else, if not think through it. Fortunately, Amy out-Doctors the Doctor by seeing an obvious detail once his anti-human blinders were crazy-glued to his temples and saves both the poor beast and the vaguely intra-genocidal race on its back, and there’s hugging all round, and we can safely move on to the rest of the season without dissolving into blobs of self-loathing recrimination.

To sum up, pretty dark stuff for a children’s show. Pretty dark stuff for a post-watershed adult show, really. I like it, a lot, and I like that the hero-lead of an action show has the character depth to fuck up so badly and come back from it a little wiser.

…but is this Doctor Who?

Lost, Actually: Happily Ever After


symbolic Driveshaft/Dexter Stratton ring

Happily Ever After is another episode that offers possible big-picture answers, but filtered though one character’s heavily biased perspective. Here, they break out Desmond, Lost’s go-to guy for bringing the heart to lacklustre mini-arcs. Introduced in the second season premier, Desmond is a modern-day Odysseus, spending much of his adult life attempting to simultaneously return to his first love while running from himself – first into a monastery, then the military, and finally the seven seas. He was the rare Islander who got exactly his desired happy ending after much travail – helped along by a contemporary Penelope not content to simply wait at home when she can fund a worldwide search – so he deserves a little celebratory hyperbole where love is concerned.

Daniel and Charlie, however, don’t. And unlike Jacob and the Man in Black in Ab Aeterno, they don’t have a real reason to alter their conversation to suit their reluctant disciple’s mindset. They’re speaking from the heart…unfortunately. Bizarro-world Charlie is following the example of noted relationship guru Bella Swan, seeking near-death experiences in order to have visions of a lost love. Fellow musician Daniel is moved not to compose a Michelle for the 00s but spontaneously emit advanced quantum mechanics equations in his sleep (which is actually a adorable nerdlinger reaction to love at first sight) after spotting a pre-blind date Charlotte. Their Harlequin descriptions (“I’ve seen something real. I’ve seen the truth.”) resonate with Desmond when he has his own magnetically-induced visions and ultimately lead him to resume his role as the helpful visionary spanner in the works.

nerd love

nerd love

There was an awful lot of arc-y goodness in this episode, particularly the hint that Eloise and Charles Widmore are the architects or maintainers of the flash-sideways universe and quite possibly at odds in that venture, but the bulk of the character interactions gave lip service to the Power of Love. Only one kind of love, mind you – platonic or parental or any other sort of love has no place saving the world. No, long-term relationships are a person’s sole anchor (or Constant) in a real world, and the only motivation to return. (Sorry, Ji Yeon.)

Desmond, with his decade of love, loss, and reunion can be forgiven a few goggle-eyed flights of near-poetry, but can Daniel or Charlie’s mutual-but-unconsummated crushes with women they’ve known less than three months really be called “spectacular, consciousness-altering love”? It’s unfair to expect and adult audience the show has often forced to educate themselves in classical philosophy and modern quantum physics to roll with that.

After all, that insane giddiness only lasts during a few weeks of infatuation in any ultimately functional relationship. Then, the connection is primarily fantasy, the unreasonable expectation that this time, this person will fulfill every desire, and it naturally doesn’t last beyond actually getting to know each other. Love isn’t something like an eternal first shot of heroin, wiping away all problems and wrapping both in superficial bliss, despite a total lack of specific connection (sorry, 99% of fanfiction.net). Good long-term relationships are better defined as things that make most aspects of your life happier and more interesting, and provides at least a distraction from the rest. And that’s absolutely brilliant.

I think, as a character, Desmond certainly gets that. I hope the writers do as well (although the Jack/Kate/Sawyer romantic plot tumor doesn’t give me a lot of hope).

LA's only tour de stade venue

Vorlons and cylons and Jacob: Lost Season 6

drowning in symbolism

Lost Season 6: Ab Aeterno

I always prefer questions to answers (while demanding the answers that will ruin my fun).  Lost hasn’t been nearly as much fun since it switched from world-building mode to a self-conscious endgame, too often combining glaringly on-the-nose dialogue with half-hearted jungle-walking scenes to pad out time between those revelations. The multi-layered storytelling (providing us with either an alternative reality to be crushed or an extended happier-ending epilogue to the entire series) is a fascinating device – I keep forgetting how amazing it is to have a major network show with an unexplained non-linear structure! – but the stories it tells are (possibly by necessity) more like bullet-point references to well worn tropes.

Depending on where the season heads, Ab Aeterno was either a refreshing break from that trend or the worst example of this tell-don’t-show headache. Concerning the ethical seduction of Richard Alpert, the episode is (possibly) filtered through the point of view of an uneducated 19th-century Catholic who’s recently lost his beloved wife and been condemned to death for the murder of the doctor who refused to save her – so Heaven, Hell, and the (im)possibility of redemption weight heavily on his mind. Both men offer him a version of salvation: Smokey releasing the starving man from his chains and bringing a vision of his lost wife, Jacob providing the immortal Purgatory that will give him time to redeem himself, or at least delay entering the fires of wife-less Hell.

It’s quite simple here: the Man in Black is sexy, persuasive Evil and the Man in White is remote, dissociated Good. Jacob keeps Smokey locked on the island – the metaphorical cork in the bottle – to protect the world.

Even this simple paradigm is a bit complicated: Jacob is a strange Good, bringing an endless stream of unsuspecting mortals to the island to be slaughtered in a vague effort to make Smokey see good in them (just before he rips them limb from limb, dying in agony and bewildered terror?). Their deaths are their own fault, he reasons, because they had to choose the mysterious right path on their own, without any intervention from him. This seems like the logic of a very old god, angered when individuals don’t chose against their own survival without compelling, or any, reason to do so.

Smokey, on the other hand, is much more basic. After releasing Richardo, he feeds him roasted boar, likely from the same menacing beast that feasted on the dead slaves chained next to him. There’s a clear message about life’s brutality there, an understanding and warning of what humans and gods will or must do when trapped. There may be a greater purpose to uphold or face punishment, but without the Cliff Notes, people have to make decisions based on the little information they’ve got.

Whether I’ll love or loathe this episode will depend on whether the Candidates ultimately take the Babylon 5 route and reject choosing between the powerful beings in favor of writing their own meanings on the blank canvas of the universe, or if it ends like the poor Battlestar Gallactica victims, frantically playing a rigged game in hopes they’d be rewarded with their bare lives. If it is (sigh) the latter, I’m joining Team Smokey, even if it does destroy the world (…more than we already have), solely because he’s got a much better grasp of free will, seeking to break the game rather than simply play it.

half a bottle of wine...thanks?