Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Return: 4 Reasons It's Okay Your Favorite Shows Died

Hey all. I'm back. I quit for a while and I wasn't sure I wanted to keep bloggin'. But screw it. I do. That's right. I refuse to die. I must go on. I can't go on. I'll go on.

And with that in mind, here are five reasons things shouldn't necessarily keep going on.

4 Great Shows That Got Canceled (and 5 reasons why that's a good thing).

A lot of everyone's favorite shows were TV shows that were short-lived, that died an unjust death. We all want our favorite to go on for years and years. But here's the thing: we have plenty of evidence that they shouldn't. Is is sad we don't have twenty years of Arrested Development? If they'd been able to turn out episodes like "Taking A Stand" or "Shock and Awww" for twenty seasons, yes. But, in the spirit of my return, let's look at how the shows that died as martyrs are maybe better dead.

4. Firefly
This is the one that's always brought up. It was 14 glorious episodes (well, 13 1/2-- "Objects in Space" kinda sucked and the half of "Heart of Gold" where Joss Whedon tries too hard to prove he's a feminist is pretty gross), and Fox murdered it.
And not even Adam Baldwin could stop them.
It was simultaneously one of the best Westerns and one of the best science fiction shows of all time, and almost a decade after it was canceled fans refused to accept it. We got a movie (which was pretty strong), some comics (which were not), a... pen and paper roleplaying game? God, Firefly fans are nerds.

It came out right as Hollywood was starting to embrace the geek, but never really got the legs to become the franchise everyone wanted it to be. Imagine a world where, instead of every Marvel superhero getting a movie (Thor? seriously?), we had a Firefly film franchise. Nathan Fillion in a new movie every year, playing Jesse James in space, gradually robbing the entire goddamn universe.

And also making, like, 5 sequels to Slither.
Think how much happier the entire internet would be. We could turn on our TVs every Tuesday night to a brand-new episode of Mal Does Awesome Things and Wash Is Still Alive.

Counterpoint: Cowboy Bebop
Hey, you know what other show combined grungy sci-fi and Westerns while simultaneously playing to basically everything geeky and still managing to be incredibly cool? Cowboy Bebop. It's one of the handful of anime (alongside Akira and Miyazaki films) that you don't have to be a colossal turbonerd to get into, it's received pretty wide critical praise, and the soundtrack kicks all manner of ass. Seriously, so much ass.
Pictured: probably smarter than Jayne.
Like Firefly it threw a ton of great stuff in a blender (Charlie Parker, Sergio Leone, Bruce Lee, William Gibson, Jackie Brown, Han Solo) and produced a pretty exemplary show. And, like Firefly, it had a short, one-season run  (26 half-hour episodes and a movie, so pretty much the exact same length).

You know what it had that Firefly didn't have? An ending. A really great one. The series opens with the main character, Spike, thinking about his past life as a Triad smuggler and enforcer. Elements of this past life pop up throughout the series. As a bounty hunter, he is reminded over and over that people who have done the things he have done inevitably pay for these crimes. The series' best episodes constantly drive this point home: Jet, an ex-cop, hunts down a psychopath he arrested whose current crimes he holds himself responsible for. Faye is buried under crushing medical debts she will never, ever pay off. The show hammers over and over this idea of debt and responsibility, and then, when it reaches a good enough length, has the guts to pull the trigger on it.
Well, shot their finger-guns at it.
I know that everyone who watched Serenity thought, as soon as the finale started "oh my god what if these characters die?" But can you imagine if they had? Like I said, Mal's basically a more heroic Jesse James, and why should he be exempt from that fate? If the man's dedicated his life to working against a system, what kind of life is he going to have once that system starts crumbling? If, instead of ending with "let's have lots more adventures! (ps please renew our series)," that show ended with Mal dead, but ultimately victorious, knowing that-- like the Operative --he was creating a world that he had no part in? His crew saved, but him intentionally staying behind because he knew that once he won this fight he no longer had a purpose? Not only would we not have to be resentful because there wouldn't be any more Firefly, we would have had the best goddamn finale in the history of science fiction.

3. Arrested Development
Oh man. This one hurts to think about. I freaking love this show. I think it's the best that television comedy has ever been. And yes, it is a goddamn crime that it only got three seasons to share its beautiful, beautiful material with us.

A lot of people--including the show's creators-- point to its cancellation as a perfect example of what's wrong with American audiences. It was a smart, complex show that rewarded careful viewing, played a huge amount with metacomedy, and operated on multiple levels. The showrunners had thought-out, longterm plans, and so many jokes going on that it's impossible to catch them all in one sitting.
Example: Franklin has his own microphone. Think about that for a minute.

And now, of course, the long-rumored revival looks like it's actually going to happen. It'll be a few years late, of course, but these characters we love and their complex comic universe are finally going to return. Surely there's not another case of this happening that I'm going to comically point to as evidence that we should be concerned, right?

Counterpoint: Futurama
Look, the first four seasons of Futurama are masterpieces. Then it was... well, unjustly canceled by Fox (who seem to feed off of nerd tears). And then they got the movies which were... okay, taken, but Bender's Big Score and Into The Wild Green Yonder were decent, if a bit fanservice-y.

But then the show came back, in full force. Renewed, given more freedom, the entire staff of voice actors and writers back. It was gonna kick ass, it was gonna be Futurama as we'd all loved it, it was going to move Fry and Leela forward and give Bender more adventures and do great things. It certainly wasn't going to be one of the most disappointing things I've ever seen.
It wasn't going to devote its season finale to jokes that were unfunny ten years ago, delivered with the grace and timing of a car crash.
The Futurama revival is probably the greatest warning to comedy writers ever: don't revive your show if you've forgotten how to write it. There were good jokes in it, but I can only think of one or two consistently good episodes. Nothing even approaching the level of "Roswell That Ends Well."

It also committed the cardinal sin of sacrificing its characters and love of toying with continuity--which were, like Arrested Development, always the show's strongest suit--for the sake of laughs. Suddenly Zoidberg has been working at Planet Express sixty years (despite celebrating his "five, ten, or twenty years" anniversary previously). Bender is immortal, even though one of the defining episodes for his character dealt with his fear of being forgotten after his death. The crew travels back in time and changes history, despite time travel both being impossible except by fluke accident in their universe and already established as operating through self-fulfillment.
This happened
More to the point (and less nerdishly) the show became really heavy-handed. The plots got flimsier justifications, the satire went from being clever to being cartoonishly hamhanded (compare "Future Stock" to "Attack of the Killer App"). It feels like the writers knew what episodes from the first four seasons were good, but not why. Their attempt to do a touching episode about Fry's past plays sappy music over his father telling him how much he loves him, which, considering Fry's parents were shown to be so awful that they barely knew he existed, is a clumsy and transparent attempt to follow up "Jurassic Bark."

I don't think this will happen to Arrested Development. I hope it doesn't. But we should remember that just because a show's coming back doesn't mean it will be the show we want it to be.

2. Breaking Bad
This one's a little different-- series creator Vince Gilligan has a definite end in mind and the fact that the next season will be its last is only partially because it is too damn expensive for AMC to keep making. But still. I'll miss Walter. I'll miss Mike. I'll miss Jesse. Even if they don't all die horribly.
Not a possibility I'd put money on.
While I know that the show's not ending "before its time" I'll still miss its presence. It is massively smart TV, and is willing to take us through bleak moral waters. It's got some fantastic actors in it, has them playing complex, interesting characters. TV will be a more interesting place without the story of Walter's continuous moral decline, Jesse's struggles for identity, and the blood debts they owe each other.

I do wish that it could be a continuous presence. TV needs a show like this around, one that makes our sympathies uncomfortable and has us constantly second-guessing its characters. I would love to see a show that explored this kind of darkness and these kinds of crimes, and had a network willing to keep pouring money into it and never, never stop making it.
Dear Hollywood: I would like 8 seasons of Mark Margolis drowning children. Thanks, Jasper.
At least, I think that. And then I think of...

Counterpoint: Dexter
Dexter is basically the exact show I'm thinking of. Although it never got as good as the past two seasons of Breaking Bad, it was everything I wanted: a dark, morbid show with a sly sense of humor, constant tension, a troubled and troubling protagonist played by a brilliant character actor, and a willingness to push how much the audience could sympathize with a protagonist who became increasingly monstrous.

It constantly asked us how we felt about its main character. Just like we shouldn't want Walter White to get away with what he does, we shouldn't want Dexter to exist. He kills bad people, but only because it gives him a sexual thrill and a feeling of power. At its peak, the show could make you so incredibly worried he was going to be caught, and hate yourself for wanting him to stay free.
Turns out we'll cheer for anyone who wants to kill Trinity, though.
Like Breaking Bad, Dexter had a story to tell: the former is about how Walt's pride and need to be important is inevitably turning him into a figure of fear and death, and the latter about how Dexter struggled with human urges, only to be forced to accept that he could never exist without being something toxic to everyone around him.

And then it told that story. And kept going. Season 5 is decent, but Season 6 was just a meandering mess. Because once you've resolved the question of what our protagonist is, once you've gone as dark as you can go, there's no point-- without the continual moral conflict it becomes Michael C. Hall as Stabby Batman. And while that's cool and fun, it doesn't advance the medium and it's nowhere near the show as it could have been.
This shot justifies a lot, though.
If Cowboy Bebop is a lesson that a show should build towards a thematically-appropriate ending, Dexter is a lesson that it should make sure that's the ending. And, while I'll miss it, I'm glad Breaking Bad is refusing--just as Mike advised--to take half measures.

1. Twin Peaks
 Oh man, Twin Peaks. Show me someone who doesn't love this show and I'll show you someone who doesn't know what makes life good (or, inexplicably, Roger Ebert). It's quirky, charming, and it was the first show to elevate the complex, multi-character melodrama from soap opera to art, paving the way for basically every serial drama on TV right now.

It was David Lynch coming off of Blue Velvet and building up to Wild at Heart, and it was a level of strangeness and imagination that you never see on broadcast TV. Even more importantly, it was an institution: one of the most popular shows of its day, with a whole cottage industry sprawling over books, cassettes, collectibles, and a theatrical film. Imagine a show with the market saturation of Lost done by one of the most brilliant artists of his medium.
This show beat Cheers in the ratings.
And then, of course, the network ruined it. They made Lynch reveal the mystery too soon, leaving the show treading water. And then, after this period of mediocre episodes, they canned the show just as Lynch finally got it back under control, leaving it on a cliffhanger that promised real conflict and drama to come and raised a huge amount of questions about the show and its universe.

Counterpoint: The X-Files
The X-Files  betrays a fairly heavy Peaks influence. The quirky mystery, the  nightmarish quality, the charming, implacable agents staring down the mysteries of the cosmos. Hell, Duchovny got his start on Peaks, as one of the bright spots of that show's slump.
You now have no excuse not to be in love with David Duchovny.
And The X-Files was great. It jumped from mystery to mystery, went weird places, had lovable characters, and was a beautiful blend of pulp adventure and surreal horror. It could handle camp comedy, gruesome horror, and unsettling dread. It helped usher in the modern era of television that requires more viewer engagement and active watching (not to mention getting Vince Gilligan enough cred to start Breaking Bad).

You know what it wasn't good at: answering its mysteries. Whereas Twin Peaks never had a chance to answer a lot of its central ones, The X-Files proved why this was a good idea. Fans of The X-Files wanted Mulder and Scully to hook up, they wanted the mythology resolved, they wanted concrete answers, and they never realized that the show's best parts were its refusal to do that. The things that made the show work were its characters and tone, the fun of exploring the unknown. The charm of both shows was both based on the way they made viewers think and probe at the work.
"Did someone say 'probe?'"
I would love to know what happens to Agent Cooper after the Twin Peaks cliffhanger. But, let's be honest: no answer would be good enough. Twin Peaks was a town built on dozens of mysteries and secrets, and any attempt to answer them all would be guaranteed to be frustrating. And more than that, it would be a betrayal of the show's spirit, as surely as revealing the truth rather than leaving it out there was when The X-Files tried it.

Twin Peaks was a show about how mysteries were journeys, about how the important thing wasn't the solution but the questions raised in pursuit of it (Lynch was originally planning to never even reveal Laura's killer for this exact reason). Cooper doesn't need to know how the Black Lodge works or what BOB is, he simply needs to confront them and defend his humanity. If anything, ending the show on a point of ultimate ambiguity--leaving it existing in such a way that it would constantly spur questions, theories, and a perpetual unresolved mystery--was exactly what it deserved. The whole point of this column has been that what we, the audience, want isn't necessarily what's best for the work itself, that it's better to be wanting more than disappointed. And Twin Peaks exists on that principle more than any other show I can think of.
Also, when God closes a door, He opens a window. And outside that window is Wild At Heart.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Know What Nothing Means: A Joan Didion Retrospective

“One thing in my defense, not that it matters: I know something Carter never knew, or Helene, or maybe you. I know what "nothing" means, and keep on playing.” --Play It As It Lays

I've been busy this summer. Not with this blog-- sorry guys --but with studying, grad school prep, learning Russian and doing a ton of reading. And one part of that reading was really exciting: tearing through an absolutely massive amount of Joan Didion.

Didion has a new book out, called Blue Nights. And while I don't exactly want to celebrate this-- the book is about some very personal tragedy --the first book in 6 years from one of America's best living writers deserves something, given that I've read 4 of her 5 novels and a ton of her essays over the past 3 months. So I thought that I'd do something to honor this tiny woman with her huge, lethal, weaponized language and put together something about her and her incredible works. These are five of her best books, making them some of our best books. Note the themes, the strengths, the obsessions and moral responsibilities she shoulders over and over again.

An act made even more impressive by her frail, bird-like bones.
Run, River (1963)

"In that moment before either of them spoke, it occurred to Everett that Lily was not as pretty as she had once been. No one had ever called her beautiful, but there had been about her a compelling fragility, the illusion not only of her bones but of her eyes."

Run, River, Didion's debut, is a strange book. Didion has said it's her least favorite of her works, criticizing the nostalgia in it-- she wrote it in New York, having just left California, and the book is a tribute to the beauty, strangeness, and cruelty of California's cultures and land. I'll defend it as a great read and a stirring book, with the addendum that it's not necessarily a great Didion novel. It's a little more sentimental, which also makes it a little more raw, with less wit and more bluntness. There's little of the delicate construction or intensely clever structure of her later works, and more excitement and melodrama.

It is, out of all of her fiction, the most Faulknerian, which is part of where my soft spot comes. Like Faulkner, Didion was the heir to a dead tradition (in her case, the Westward pilgrims and land-owning planters that first colonized the state) and wrote a work that attempts to address both the nobility of that tradition and the failings and sins that led to its death. Some of it-- such as the scenes in which Lily, the main character, falls in love with her future husband Everett --are intensely powerful and real, without the distance or coyness that can sometimes dampen her work. Some of it (such as the last page, which commits the sin she would ever after avoid of feeling the need to give the book a clean resolution rather than the anticlimax or the painful fading that she does so well) is clearly the work of a beginner. If you're not sure about the postmodernism or experimentalism that characterizes her other fiction, or if you want a book that is more of a straightforward "good read" and less weird, start here. I guess the best description is "this is the Didion book I would recommend to my parents," which isn't to imply that it's not a perfectly fine novel.

And the fact that she was still in her 20s when she wrote it will make you hate her.

As opposed to hating her for being so damn stylish.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem / The White Album (1968, 1979)

"In this country so ominous that to live in it is to live with antimatter, it is difficult to belive that 'the good' is a knowable quantity.... It is a network kept alive by people whose instincts tell them that if they do not keep moving at night on the desert they will lose all reason."
--"On Morality"

I've grouped these two together for an important reason: they are, thematically, continuations of each other. Both are essay collections about 1960's radicalism and counterculture: Slouching Towards Bethlehem from within Haight-Ashbury in the middle of it all, The White Album from nearly a decade later, looking back with the benefit of hindsight and through a lens of personal suffering.

Bethlehem (composed, with the exception of 1961's Vogue essay "On Self-Respect", of essays written 65-67) was, at its publication, a fairly controversial work. Not because it was some conservative pro-status-quo treatise, which the counterculture could shrug off, but because it was one of the very first books by a leftist author who believed in the causes and ideals of the radical movements of the 60s and criticized them, not out of anger, but out of disappointment at these groups' small-mindedness, their selfishness and inability to unify. At its core this noble philosophy can be expressed as "you know you'd get more done if you weren't high all the time," but there's usually more to it than that. "Where the Kissing Stops," her incredible essay on Joan Baez, is both a tribute to Baez's great work and a sigh of frustration at the way that Baez allowed herself to become an icon of protest without ever seeming to commit or believe in a concrete cause. This is Bethlehem's great strength: a recognition of the nobility of 60's radicalism and a dread at its own self-indulgence, at the rickety nature of it and the selfishness it veered to. There's anger in it, but it's not disdainful-- it's an anger at wasted potential, and it's one that turned out to be incredibly prescient.
Now available on your upper-middle-class parent's iPod.
"I had, at this time, a sharp apprehension not of what it was to be old but of what it was like to open the door to the stranger and find that the stranger did indeed have the knife."
--"The White Album"

The White Album, however, addresses many of the same themes through a lens of bitterness and pain, through the knowledge that she had been right and that the center of this unfocused rebellion had not held. It draws its title, not from any great love of The Beatles, but from Didion's fear that perhaps the event which encapsulated both the fallout of the 1960's and the turmoil of her personal life after them was the Manson Murders-- senseless bloody chaos justified with meaningless references to rebellion and the broad strokes of "counterculture." The book is written in the shadow of the 1960s and written with a sense of terror and dread, a chronicle of both Didion's struggles with depression, vertigo, and anxiety and of the nation's.

Do you know Christopher Walken's scene in Annie Hall? The one where Waken shows up for about 90 seconds and is dripping with existential dread and calm self-destruction, a scene that comes off both as a joke and as a terrifying truth? The one that Jawbreaker beautifully, beautifully sampled in "Jet Black?" The White Album is a book that possesses all the fear and magic of that scene-- something darkly witty and strange and uncomfortably warm, but also a little glimpse into Hell.
"The sound of shattering glass, flames rising out of the flowing gasoline."
It's a powerful, powerful work, and probably my favorite of her nonfiction. There's a beautiful connection that she draws between the personal and the political-- between her constant traveling and America's obsession with where it should go next, between second-wave feminists' feelings of powerlessness and futility of their political efforts with her own feelings of being trapped as a woman in a world that denies them autonomy. It's a model for memoirists and essayists to strive for, in which it seems that the author cannot write about any other subject and the subject could not be written about by any other author.

Play It As It Lays (1970)

“By the end of the week she was thinking constantly about where her body stopped and the air began about the exact point in space and time that was the difference between Maria and other.”

Play It As It Lays
is quite possibly Didion's best novel-- or at least, in fierce competition --and a perfect companion piece to the nonfiction collections I just talked about. It's the story of Maria-- a film director's wife, loving mother of a mentally-damaged child, lover of a self-destructive Hollywood mover --and her slow decline into oblivion.

The book is beautiful and the most raw Didion's ever been. There's an incredible balance going on here: more than anything else she's written, the fragile balance of her language and the painful, burning migraine of the emotional intensity of the book manage to support each other. It's a book of incredible loneliness, as Maria becomes more and more distant from the world at large, more and more focused on things she has lost and keenly aware of the disregard that the men in her life have for her. There are so many moments of quiet horror here, from the brutal-- Maria's illegal abortion, which is calm and bloodless and yet aches with an incredible sense of panic --to the mundane: Maria sleeping by the pool, trying to convince herself it is because of the summer heat and knowing that it's really because she can't bear to sleep in a house she still considers her husband's.

Play It As It Lays, like The White Album is simultaneously confessional and political. It never says "Maria was destroyed because even during a time of social change and movements for equality we never tried to actually help middle-class women find a freedom from oppressive social mores and a comfort with their sexuality," but it recognizes that its tragedy is not purely personal. It's not a book about women, but a book about one woman and the burdens on her and how she was never equipped to carry them. The best comparison is the photography of Cindy Sherman-- like Didion, Sherman makes work not about the struggles of women but about the life of this woman, while never pretending that the two aren't inextricably linked. If you want to know the feeling of this book, browse Sherman's magnificent "Film Stills" collection-- some of the finest art photography of all time --sip bourbon, take benzodiazapan, sit by the pool on the evening of a hot day.

"Carter could not remember the soft down on her [daughter's] spine or he would not have let them put needles there."
It's also John Darnielle's favorite novel, and that man's recommendations have never steered me wrong.

Democracy (1984)

 "By which I mean to suggest that Inez Victor had developed certain mannerisms peculiar to people in the public eye.: a way of fixing her gaze in the middle distance... a noticeably frequent blink, as if the photographer's strobes had triggered a continuing flash on her retina.

By which I mean that Inez Victor had lost certain details."

When I said that Play It As It Lays was in fierce competition for the title of Didion's masterpiece, this is its rival. And they really ought to share that title, as it's impossible to compare them. Play It As It Lays is searing, elegant but also unrelenting. Democracy is as meticulously constructed and as coolly elegant as a Rennie-Mackintosh piece. If you look at Play on they recommend Baldwin's Another Country; for Democracy they recommend Mailer's Armies of the Night.

Which isn't to imply that Democracy's coldness is at all a demerit against it. It is a book about coldness. It is a book about Inez Victor, nee Christian, a senator's (and failed presidential candidate's) wife, and the way that a life lived in public, a life spent considering the consequences of every action and how every word will play, has slowly picked away the parts of her that one could call human. About how her own memory of herself and awareness of who she is is being replaced by the public image of herself and the stories about her in magazines. Inez is an outsider to the actual political business that shapes her life, instead viewing it from an enforced distance and watching herself be shaped as though she were an objective narrator of someone else's story.

The writing about politics and politicking in this book is incredible-- the way that everything is constantly weighed and considered, the three different overlapping conversations that can carry on at once. There's a lot of Democracy that reminds me of a tragic, Vietnam-era West Wing.
"I am the Lord they God. Thou shalt never get off the boat."
The book takes place against the backdrop of America's withdrawal from South Vietnam-- ending with those last helicopters leaving the embassy --and its use of that as a backdrop, rather than a central focus, allows it to be an incredible book about the politics of Vietnam. As it approaches the end, and Inez's personal problems escalate, Inez and the narrator (who is a fictional Didion, writing a novel based on Inez from a world where the events the novel is based on are history) become less invested in them. Democracy recognizes its inability to treat the scope of America's failure with due magnitude or to even comprehend it, and the paralysis that sets in is beautiful and terrifying. There's something almost Zen about it, as Inez realizes how little the politics of her husband matter against the fact that America's failings and the freedom that comes with accepting the scope of a world she cannot effect.

It's also, like all of Didion's novels, about love, desire, infidelity, family, need, and self-awareness. It's short and beautiful.

So that should be a good reading list for you. Find the book that looks the most exciting and read it sometime-- none of her books will take you longer than a couple days. If nothing else, pick up We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live, the 1100-page collection of all her pre-2005 nonfiction. And Joan-- thank you for all you've done for your readers and for literature, and know that however helpless you may feel or have felt in the face of tragedy and despair, you've helped s many of us through it.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Video Game Zombie Killin Squad

(Hey everyone-- sorry for the long-ass hiatus. I've been taking some time off to do some more personal studying and writing and I've decided to change the format of the blog some. It's till gonna be about %50 literature, but with more personal stuff and more of me writing stupid things about pop culture. Whatever, I don't care. I'm just gonna write about video games and comics here until I get some more big serious literature stuff written)

And really, what better way to start talking about stupid pop culture than by doing it with the man I've talked about stupid pop culture with for... shit, seven years now. Sol posted a thing about which video game characters he'd kill zombies with, and I'm gonna do the same.

So let's go by the same rules: fast zombies, me and 4 buddies, no stupidly cheap characters-- this includes Harlan Smith from Killer7, because he's technically seven incredibly skilled assassins who happen to sometimes share a body and that's just cheating. What polygonal nerd-buddies would I trust with my life?

1. Urdnot Wrex (Mass Effect)
Let's be honest, I could really just stop the list right here.  If you haven't played Mass Effect, let me explain some of what it's like to spend time with Wrex. Come the end of the game, you're going to be climbing the outside of a giant space station, under heavy artillery fire. And Wrex will be alongside you. Charging skull-first into your enemies. Your robotic enemies encased in high energy shielding. He has a plasma shotgun, and it is not as dangerous as his forehead. He routinely turns trained soldiers into chunky salsa with the power of a brisk jog, imagine what he could do to zombies. Plus his people are immune to pretty much all degenerative diseases, so I don't think I need to worry about him getting infected. It would probably just make him angrier.

In a game chock-full of badasses (even the ones voiced by Steve Blum and Keith David), Wrex still stands as the king. He is so manly that Steve "voice of Wolverine" Blum's character treats him with awe. He is so manly that he has four testicles. Not a single member of Wrex's entire species has ever died from natural causes, and he's lived to be over a thousand years old. That scar on his face? That's from a 200-foot tall sandworm which he killed by himself, on foot. He has multiple backups of every major organ. 99% of his people are infertile due to a weaponized plague, so he has about 800 years of bitterness and sexual frustration to take out on the undead. His in-game class-- alongside allies such as "Operative," "Technician," and "Soldier"-- is Battle Master. In the second game it's mentioned that the clan he rules is starting to consolidate power by having the largest population of fertile females, and I will give you two guesses as to why-- and each one better be "one of Wrex's giant swinging pairs."

Here he is on the traditional Krogan Pimp Throne.
So yes, if I need to pick four virtual imaginary friends to defend myself, I'm starting with Wrex. He'll do just fine.

2. Henry (No More Heroes, No More Heroes: Desperate Struggle)

Henry, about to do battle with a nightmare version of an anime schoolgirl. It's a weird game.
Travis Touchdown is the protagonist of No More Heroes and its sequel, and he's one of the greatest assassins in the world. But let's be honest: no one wants to spend any time with Travis. He's... well, he's a sociopath and an unlikable nerd. His only friend is the guy who runs the store he rents his anime and wrestling videos from, his girlfriend is just, for 90% of the games, leading him along for money, and his only applicable skills are a direct result of being too self-involved to have a conscience. He's a terrible person (beautifully so-- his character arc over the two games is one of the most interesting and smart ones I've ever seen in a videogame).

Henry, meanwhile, is Travis's equal, if not his superior. He's got an impeccable fashion sense, a cool Irish accent, a smoking hot wife, and used to be the greatest killer in the world before cartoonish lightsaber duels with super villains became too boring for him. Every time he shows up he kicks ass, slices someone to ribbons, and makes Travis look like a joke by comparison.
Admittedly, not that difficult.

Some of Travis's enemies have included a sentient earthquake machine, an actual wizard, a ghost, a sexy version of General Grievous, and a character who is clearly Charles Goddamn Bronson, and yet the fight with Henry at the end of the first game is the most difficult the series has ever been. Henry has the fashion sense I envy, killing skills that would put Beatrix Kiddo to shame, and a lightsaber he wields like Inigo Montoya. Yeah, I think I'd do great with him between me and the hordes of undead.

Henry T.: Stealing your kills, dream girl, and title since 2007.

3. Leon Scott Kennedy (Resident Evil... let's be honest, only RE4 matters)
Seen here in his natural habitat.
I need at least one character here who has experience fighting zombies, and who isn't from Space or the magical wonderland of Suda 51's brain. And, indisputably, Resident Evil 4 is the greatest any game about killing zombies has ever been or ever will be. It came out 6 years ago but you could rerelease it today and it would be Game of the Year by a mile.

And Leon is its star. After having murdered a Romero Zombie outbreak so hard in RE2 that they promoted him from rookie cop to Secret Service solely on the basis of his skill at Firing Rockets into Abominations, he spends most of the series' brightest moment murdering an undead Spaniard every ten seconds. The man kills around 1500 zombies over the two games he stars in and he does it so well that the government makes it his job. He's armed with a giant shotgun, a Dirty Harry revolver, a sniper rifle and (unless you were an idiot and didn't get the Red9), the most beautiful handgun in the world. Not that he needs them-- he demolishes most of his foes with roundhouse kicks, stabbings, and suplexing their skulls into the ground. When confronted with a giant spidery mass of spines and tentacles he decides that the most American thing to do would be to kneecap it, run up its spine, and stab it in the eye, which is surrounded by teeth.
After telling it that it was Small Time.
Leon has another advantage unique to him: he is a god. damn. idiot. I know that seems like a skill I might not want my zombie-killing buddy to have, but I don't want to be obsolete. As long as Leon's around I can sleep securely, knowing that he is protecting me from zombies and I'm protecting him from jamming his combat knife in a power socket in an attempt to kill lightning and gain its power. Leon is guaranteed to follow me and remain loyal because I know the secret to how doorknobs work and the magic words that make can openers obey me. Leon's brain is %75 murdering zombies, %10 AMERICA, and %15 moping about Ada Wong. And I can use that-- as long as Leon's around I'll be guaranteed a place in the group as "The Guy Who Puts Up With Leon," which, given that it means I'm essentially steering an anti-zombie ballistic missile, isn't a half-bad role to have.

4. Rose of Sharon Cassidy (Fallout: New Vegas)

That whiskey is glowing, and she's still going to drink it.
Provided that this zombie outbreak goes apocalyptic, I need someone who can survive after all human civilization has been destroyed. And that means Fallout. And because I can't just put in one of my protagonists from the Fallout series, and I can't honestly count "having Ron Perlman narrate me" as a legitimate choice, that means Cass, from the series' best entry, New Vegas.

All the sidekicks in New Vegas have applicable skills that make me want them on my side. Arcade Gannon can talk about books and has medical experience, Veronica can make people explode with her fists and fix everything, Raul is voiced by Danny Trejo. But Cass wins on three counts.
  • She's the daughter of Cassidy from Fallout 2-- making her genetically predisposed to ass-kicking and more representative of my love for the series as a whole.
  • She's the most skilled character with a shotgun, the official zombie-destroying weapon.
  • Booze.
Drinking so hard the game counts it as a legitimate skill.
Just being around Cass makes whiskey more potent. As long as she's your companion, drinking a nice bottle of wasteland bourbon makes your character healthier, and her presence negates the existence of liver damage or hangovers. Don't have any booze? She'll make you some out of bread, rotten fruit, and battery acid. Having Rose of Sharon Cassidy around guarantees that the apocalypse turns into a party, even as she is destroying everything nearby in a hail of bullets. And if we're going to rebuild society, or endure the bleakness of a world filled with the undead, I wanna be drunk 24/7 and not have to worry about the consequences.

Cass is the perfect blend of killing machine and someone I wouldn't mind hanging with when the dead rise from their graves. And I really, really want to see Leon get drunk and talk about his problems.

She is still more eloquent than Leon Scott Kennedy

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Triumph Playlist

" 'You're not punk, and I'm telling everyone!'
Save your breath, I never was one!
You don't know what I'm all about,
like killing cops and reading Kerouac"

--Jawbreaker, "Boxcar"

Up at the top of this blog, there's a mission statement that says "punk-rock literary criticism." And I wanna talk about that now. I could talk about the critics who inspire me (Marx, Koestler, Foucault, Said, Zizeck, Bakhtin, Butler, Fish), but I know what you're thinking: "another blog about Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of the groteqsue and Foucault's theories of power and authority? Like that's never been done before!" Also, it would be hard work. So let's talk about the punk thing instead.

If you've read, like, any of this blog, you may have noticed that music is kind of a big deal in what I do. It's usually in the background, but the essential premise of this thing I write is "dude, the literary canon is pretty punk rock." So I was hoping we could talk about that some. Yeah. Let's talk about how much we love rock and roll. We're cool kids. Awesome.

Anyway, all posturing aside, these are 5 bands who I think really represent what the mission statement of this blog is. If you've got any of their stuff, this is what I'd recommend as the best accompaniment to my various rambles and discussions. Also, I'm not finished with Didion's Democracy yet, which is why I'm doing kind of a fluff piece.
Wow, it's like if Chuck Klosterman was even less of a real journalist!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Thoughts on Blood Meridian

"A ritual includes the letting of blood. Rituals which fail in this requirement are but mock rituals."

A few days ago, I finished Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, Or The Evening Redness In The West.

And then I sort of wandered about in a daze for the rest of the day-- the way I did after first watching Apocalypse Now, or hearing Shostakovich's 8th quartet for the first time. It's a book that's emotionally draining the whole way through and then, in the last fifty pages or so, hits you in the gut like a stab wound. It's a serious contender for the greatest American novel of the past thirty years. Maybe fifty. It's the closest thing contemporary literature has to its Heart of Darkness and McCarthy does for the bloody and empty American West what Conrad did for the Congo.

Which is to say, transforms it into a vessel for all our sins.

So, since it obviously affected me pretty powerfully (the last time I felt like this after finishing a book was The Sound and the Fury), let me share some of the most memorable things about it with you. For the sake of readability,  let's set that list at 5.
"Top 5 Most Horrifying Scalpings! Go!"

Saturday, July 9, 2011

4 Great Books For Summer

"We kept our friends at bay all Summer long,
treated the days as though they'd kill us if they could.
Wringing out the hours like blood-drenched bedsheets."
--The Mountain Goats, "Dinu Lipatti's Bones"

I've never understood people who say that summer is a time for easy reading. In large part, this is a consequence of being (until now) in school-- I have much more time and ability to tackle, say Ulysses in the middle of summer than I do in November (project this summer: a ton of Cormac McCarthy). And I don't read at the beach-- if I have to be outside during 105-degree Southern heat I am going to be underwater.

So these books will not necessarily be easy or light reads. But they will be reads that you should tackle in the next few months, before the heat breaks, while you're huddled inside whatever you can find with air conditioning, because these are books for which summer, heat, light, and the long slow days are going to feel beautiful and perfect. Books that will make you grateful for summer being here, even though, again, 105 degrees. Jesus, sometimes I wonder if I hate the South. Which leads us toooooo....

Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Revue of Reviews (Or: TV Tropes is full of idiots)

"So safely with your software, miles from the front line
You hear the way their sad voice sings, and you start to imagine things
Oh, any excuse to write more lies"
--Morrissey, "Reader, Meet Author."

So I know I don't have an editor, but if I did he'd be on my case right now to get back on this blog and give you guys what you want. And while he doesn't exist, he's right-- I've been moving from Asheville to Wilmington, but I'm all settled in now and I oughta get back to The Triumph because dammit Jasper, we have papers to move!
"And get me some photos on that Michael Chabon fellow! He's a menace!"
 So, while I work on a couple longer posts, I wanted to put up a shorter bit here encapsulating a recent hobby of mine: reading idiots' terrible, terrible opinions about literature. This won't be a smart post-- this is me in the mode I was back when I worked on The Gutrotter, in which I find terrible things and mock them angrily.

I've been reading the TVTropes Wiki some, and, despite having a useful premise as a website, it has one of the worst user bases I've ever seen in my life. And one of the highlights of that is my least favorite thing in the world: geek anti-itellectualism. People who need to be smart about everything, and so rationalize everything they don't enjoy as being beneath them. And let me tell you-- it is hilarious how much they want so badly for great literature to be stupid. So I've put together some of my favorites here, in which people whose favorite books are in the Star Wars Expanded Universe try and explain why Pulitzer-Prize-Winning authors are idiots.

Keep in mind, these are all from a wiki whose purpose is to analyze narrative and examine story. These aren't just random dipshits-- these are people who, essentially, consider themselves literary theorists and are supposed to be educated commentators on culture. This is a website that is supposed to be a balanced, comprehensive wiki of narratives and art.

Of Mice And Men:
"Oh let me puke, this story (And I'll question the validity of that statement later) is boring, boring, boring, the villain is kinda non-existent and ridiculous flat...Who's the villain (Or the closest approximation)? CURLEY! Or in my opinion, Steinbeck. Look this isn't an internal conflict, cause there's no internal dialogue, tell me one thing about George that the book doesn't say about him, SHOW, DON', TELL, apparently Steinbeck had never heard that little tidbit. And don't make assumptions about me, I like subtle works, which does not mean boring ones." --Phrederic
Phrederic has apparently never heard of "internal conflict" and thinks that every story has to have an evil villain for the hero to defeat-- mostly because internal conflict means a character considering they might be wrong, which is vastly less believable to him than battles in space. (This marks the beginning of a trend in these reviews). According to his profile page, he is an ultra-manly Nietzsche-loving rebel who loves fighting and "has a succulent red exterior." Also, he loves Naruto, wrestling, and Warhammer 40,000.
"I do enjoy subtle works."
"...The world building isn't complex, it's California, Steinbeck lived in California, right near where the story took place."
Because describing a real setting perfectly is the lazy option when you can make up a fantasy world instead.

Paradise Lost
Oops, I thought there'd be a review of this. There isn't-- no one's taken the time to write one up. But hey, at least there's 21 pages and 8,000 words about the best fanfiction involving Harry Potter characters boning each other.

The Road
"The writing style of the the Road is terrible. No punctuations, long run-on sentences, and no quotations to let you know who's speaking at any point in the dialogue." --Snitchy
 Snitchy thinks that the guidelines he learned in 9th-grade English about writing 5-paragraph essays should apply to all literature. Snitchy thinks that Cormac McCarthy just made a bunch of typos and his editor fell asleep on the job. If Snitchy ate like he reads, he'd give a gourmet restaurant a bad review for not putting ketchup on his steak and refuse to tip the waitress because she didn't place the food directly into his mouth.
The only reason Snitchy is still alive is because Cormac McCarthy doesn't want to hurt his writing hand by strangling as hard as it would take to reach Snitchy's windpipe through his chins.
"Imagine if the Star Wars films were about watching R2-D2 and C-3PO go about their business in the rebel bases instead of watching either the space battles or other more interesting characters. That's what the Road was like. A strange world populated with interesting events and characters, but we are forced to watch the two least interesting characters experience these events from the periphery"
Snitchy thinks that the most critically-acclaimed novel of the past decade should have been more like Star Wars, and would rather read about explosions or people hitting each other than the inextinguishable hope of a dying humanity as expressed through a father's love. Snitchy thinks that a book whose entire theme was about how ordinary people need human contact to remain human should have focused on space-knights and starship battles.
"I say R2, are we still the good guys?"
"Beep boop beeeoop."

Critic Profile: Deboss
Deboss views himself as a critic of literature. He likes to freely hand out his opinions on books, their importance, and what works have real literary value.

"The mandatory component for English is both too large and too focused on 'classics'. Any literature that has to be required to get readership, isn't a book worthy of being read. I honestly can't think of any exceptions. History of literature would also be cut from any class that doesn't have "history" in the name, and none of them would be required. There's nothing worth learning there unless someone is already interested. ...Also, no state funded field trips to go see plays. They're a form of art that will hopefully die soon anyway."
Deboss is a literary critic in the same sense that a tapeworm is a food critic.
Hey look, it's Guy Fieri.
Deboss-- whose avatar is an anime girl's ass-- is who inspired this blog post. The things Deboss has to say about books are the most insipid things I have ever heard in my life, and the fact that he's allowed to post on a site that supposedly bans people for being too negative is why I decided to highlight the goddamn morons who populate that site's literature discussions.
 "My advice would be to further promote Table Top Games since those require reading and interpretation without all the bullshit that normal literature classes have. Combined with the fact that children are rarely if ever exposed to anything worth reading, it's not surprising that they don't pick it up."
 Deboss thinks that a D&D Player's Manual offers more to the soul than "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Deboss is such an idiot that it makes me wonder if his skull is still soft, but then I realize that it must actually be pretty thick because how else do you explain the fact he wasn't aborted?
"Shakespeare was the most unpleasant work I've ever been exposed to. I've seen most of Uwe Bol and Seltzer Burger work, and I'm including it in that statement. Part of the unpleasantness comes from the idea that it's impossible to dislike it, and the answer is greater exposure to Shakespeare. The sooner the works of Shakespeare are forgotten, the better. Given the power, I'd make teaching it a capitol offense."
 Deboss is to literary criticism as John Wayne Gacy was to the world of comedy, and Deboss's posts are to my faith in humanity as John Wayne Gacy was to fifteen-year-old boys. Deboss has a college degree and only books he reads are Animorphs and Star Wars novels-- and he thinks this makes him smarter than the rest of us. Deboss is such an idiot he can't even manage to be illiterate correctly. The process by which his brain tries to shit out intelligent thought most closely resembles a botched suicide.
Deboss thinks this should be taught in schools and Orwell shouldn't.
OK, Shakespeare Should be Safe
Okay, sorry... I went to kind of a dark place there. I'm sure that people like Deboss are just flukes and the fact that they're allowed to post this on a site that bans people who try and point out that anime involving the sex lives of 12-year-olds is creepy doesn't reflect anything on the site's policies or problems. Instead, I'll look up some Shakespeare and watch people refute his points. Everyone loves Shakespeare, there's no way that a site this huge, about narrative tropes, is just an echo chamber for anti-intellectual nerds who hate real art. I'll look up my favorite Shakespeare play and I'll see someone praise it for inventing so many of the tropes that the site is supposed to catalog.Something that'll keep me from turning into Shane McGowan by the end of the night.

"This review focuses on Macbeth, but will also contain my criticism of Shakespeare's works as a whole. Shakespeare makes rational men mad and the greatest of critics weak kneed and fawning. The man is the foremost writer of the english language, and we consider his works to be on the same level as the greats of today. But I ask you this? Why... The plot is simple and the Aesop is dull and cliche, Ambition Is Evil. And the editing is simply awful. Macbeth is full of disappearing characters and dropped plotlines."
"I wanted the cool, conflicted Macbeth back, I wanted him to achieve victory over their dull and flat enemies. But instead of making an Anti Villain Shakespeare decided to throw him off the slippery slope to save himself the trouble of making the work complex at all."
You are shitting me. This jackass thinks that Macbeth-- whose biggest character trait was being an easily-distracted dimwit --was a cool conflicted hero? He thinks that the play was trying to teach us one specific, easily-reduced moral? He thinks that a 400-year-old play we only have in copies of copies should be expected to have a tight and flawless structure that can hold up against modern works?

"And I would agree with that this is a character study had his character not been so inconsistent, the man is almost bipolar."
 So What Have We Learned?
Well we learned that the internet is awful. That's a thing we learned.

But seriously though, even though I just picked one play these attitudes are pretty representative of geek/nerd culture. And considering that I spent a ton of time recently playing Shadows of the Damned and Fallout, that's a culture I'm part of.

So consider this my return after the hiatus of moving and getting set up in a new/old town. I'm back and I'm gonna keep fighting to talk about how classic, serious literature is cool and relevant and actually pretty fuckin' good, not just Important. Because, to quote Tony Hoagland (probably America's best contemporary poet, who of course has no TV Tropes page because there are no lasers in his works)
But I hate those people back
from the core of my donkey soul
and the hatred makes me strong
and my survival is their failure.