Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Get Your Witch On

You may have noticed the internet is all in a tizzy over that Witcher 3 thing. Even Conan O'Brien got in on the action, being the most informative game critic out there today. He says it's good because he had sex on a unicorn.

But for those of us who already regularly have sex on unicorns, the Witcher games have been pretty lackluster. Convoluted controls, overlong cutscenes - masquerading as "gameplay" with some dialogue options for the same taciturn frowney-face protagonist - and run times that rival Dragon Age for "Get on with it." Put simply, these games are shit for everyone except the cretinous gamerbros who need gobs of jiggling fanservice as it's their only sexual experience.

Which is a shame because the source material is goddamned brilliant. Created by Polish fantasy author Andrzej Sapkowski nearly thirty years ago, the Witcher stories and novels are the most interesting thing to happen to the genre since Tolkein named his angelic entities "wizards." While a vast and complex cosmology of converging spheres and dwindling elves fills out the setting, the stories remain largely focused on Geralt of Rivia and his interactions with very common people.

Not just commoners, but "common" in the sense that their motivations and failings are entirely human. A king who loves his possessed sister too much to have her put to death properly, a village that wants to keep the troll under their bridge because it does all the upkeep and collects tolls - despite a standard high fantasy setting, Sapkowski populates his world with very small and familiar dramas. Geralt himself is largely just a glorified exterminator, clearing away bothersome critters and not getting himself involved in any epic goings on. For the most part.

This allows for much of that gray morality that's so popular in sword and sorcery these days. But rather than just an excuse to get lost in high seriousness and graphic rape, this moral ambiguity forces the reader to question the usual genre assumptions. In one instance, Geralt happens upon a gloomy old castle where he is greeted by a charging, snarling monster. The monster, seeing that it cannot scare off Geralt like other interlopers, resignedly invites him in for a drink and regails him with the story of how a witch's curse gave him all the tusks and hair.

He keeps regailing Geralt, telling of how he tried to get into the spirit of being a monster. When an unweary merchant stumbled into the courtyard, the monster demanded "Your daughter or your life!" The merchant protested that his daughter was only eight, creating a very awkward situation where the monster sheepishly withdraws and hands the poor man a sack of gold out of apology.

Which of course leads to merchants showing up from all over with daughters to ransom to the monster. About here is where most "dark" fantasy would stop, asking you to recoil at the callous greed of these merchants. Sapkowski is better than dark, and goes on to show the relationships between the monster and these ransomed daughters - one of whom even rides on his back like a warrior queen, naked, as they joyfully raid caravans together. These memories go on for page after page, the titular Witcher not even figuring into the tale until the very end.

Sapkwoski is a good enough writer to create a basic, taciturn hero as a vehicle into his world for the reader. With that accomplished, he goes on to turn traditional fantasies and folk tales upside down, challenging the reader's assumptions about society and morality in ways few "serious" literature can manage these days.

"The Lesser Evil" highlights all of these qualities in what the reader will gradually recognize as a remixing of the classic Snow White fairy tale. A girl prophesied to bring terror to the land escapes the woodsman hired to cut out her heart and hides out with seven gnome bandits for a couple years. She emerges as a mercenary queen, bringing just as much terror to the land as prophesied, though whether due to demonic possession or the cruel circumstances of her own life is a distinction Sapkowski does not make, leaving the interpretation to the reader.

Finally, there are the elves. You can't pitch a brick without hitting the pointy-eared buggers in this genre but Sapkowski again does something unique and thought-provoking. His elves are just as doomed and diminished as Tolkein's and just as persecuted by the more successful human kingdoms as in The Riyria Revelations, but unlike in previous works - and much like Snow White - it's given them a real chip on their shoulder. These aren't the high alien creatures of Middle Earth, somberly accepting their fate, but active people with a violent will to survive. They frequently attack humans, and Geralt, but rather than making them villainous this only highlights their desperation. When captured and interrogated by an elf chieftain, Geralt sees that even though they are superior to humans, they are still dying out and are already lost. This isn't a triumphant revelation for him, but something sad and melancholy. And he, the sword and sorcery hero, can't do anything to change their fate.

However, they are not victims. Far from it, they're terrifying forces of the wild, kept in check by the weak walls of villages and the humans' higher birth rate. Though Geralt - and Sapkowski - feels their pain, no one is about to bear their neck to an elven blade. It's a situation reminiscent of the Indian Wars in 19th century America, where the encroaching white men are certainly now seen as the villains of history but that doesn't make the Sioux or Apache necessarily nice. Wars of extermination have no good guys, just survivors. It's a harsh, unsentimental view of history but one Sapkowski embraces and manages to convey in rousing pulp adventures.

Because that's finally what makes the Witcher stories so good - they're just plain fun. From getting drunk with the monsters to talking down a psychokinetic princess, Geralt's life is never dull. That Sapkowski manages to weave such complex and literary themes into rollicking good fantasy yarns places him in the upper echelons of the craft, alongside Jack Vance and Philip K. Dick.

The Witcher stories are some of the most thoughtful and creative work by any writer alive today. Shame everyone only knows it for those video games full of scowling and tits.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Defensive Denialism

The reactions to Seymour Hersh's excellent article on the Obama administrations spinning of Osama bin Laden's assassination have been hilariously, pathetically predictable. A great wailing and gnashing of teeth denying the well-researched article, followed by tacit admission that it's true. Not all of it, at least not yet, but the most important point - that the Tier One Target was outed not by some courier tortured by the CIA but by a Pakistani snitch, as predicted the week of in 2011 by the always on point War Nerd:
The hard part was finding him. And no chopper, no buffed SEAL, no cool NSA traffic analysis found Osama. A snitch did. Some sleaze of an informer fingered him, that’s how he was got.

That's what really angers people about the Hersh story today. Not that Obama lied or all the office politics of how to anounce the killing, but that this was not some Hollywood ending to what most had at the time assumed to be an interminable manhunt. That it was craven politics and greed - not the much vaunted "tradecraft" of the spooks and spec ops shovelheads - that ultimately sealed Osama's fate.

In fact, it's even worse than us cynics have been saying for the past four years. The old Saudi golem wasn't just turned in by a snitch, but presented gift-wrapped by the ISI. Hersh details how not only did the Pakistanis provide the floor plans to Osama's compound, but guaranteed no interference from Pakistan's military and even cut the power to all of Abottabad. An ISI bagman even led DEVGRU on a tour of the house, the only shots fired being into Osama's decrepit old arse.

And decrepit he was. An invalid, living under house arrest until he could be traded for more kickbacks to ISI officers and more freedom to tinker in Afghanistan, where they and Benazir Bhutto first started the Taliban in the 1990s. That should depress people the most about the Hersh story - that it was the crooked as sin ISI that not only fingered Osama's hiding place, but built the hiding place specifically so they could finger him at the opportune time.

It's a complete refutation of the Zero Dark Thirty narrative... And that's why Americans are trying so hard to ignore Hersh. When not engaging in desperate denials, most reactions tend to be "So what? He's still dead." Which is very true, but it denies the importance - or lack thereof - of how it all went down. To reiterate: there was no firefight, Osama never resisted, the SEALs were never in any danger. The whole thing was as stage-managed as the Jessica Lynch rescue in the early days of the Iraq debacle, a spectacle of heroism for all the heartland rubes.

America is a culture that sanctifies military service while relegating the actual fighting and dying to poor and desperate nobodies. Where police can engage in the most blatant abuses, murdering citizens in broad daylight and on camera, only for millions of Americans to offer them the benefit of the doubt. Where peaceful protests are ignored until a pharmacy gets singed, because property - and propriety - are valued above human life.

Because if Americans actually stopped to take a clear, honest look at their lives, it would be horrifying. A flat expanse of mediocrity and conformity, worse than the darkest imaginings of life under Soviet communism. A spiritually bankrupt existence where fast food and petty malice are the only legal pleasures. The only logical responses are to flee, blackout with chemicals, or embrace a fantastical narrative where the CIA actually gets positive results and designated heroes like the SEALs slay the monster with selfless daring.

Such a culture wants the escape of mythic heroism, needs it, and so will never stop to process the ugly truth presented by Seymour Hersh. Who's got time to consider the amorality of great power geopolitics when there's a very important election in eighteen months?

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Rot the MCU

I have not seen Avengers: Age of Ultron. And I don't intend to. Not just because I hated the first one, or because Joss Whedon is an overrated hack, but because I despise everything this latest bucket of blockbuster cliches represents.

With rare exceptions, Marvel Studios produces execrable fluff that would fail on its own merits. Robert Downey Jr. played the one good Avenger in 2008's Iron Man, and has continued to play him in ever more inferior movies. Thor and Captain America, multi-million dollar productions that met lukewarm receptions, have gotten their own sequels simply out of the Avengers momentum. And the Hulk, despite netting a very fine performance from several actors, is still mostly just a supporting act in the larger MCU drama as the films around said actors are frequently cited as major missteps for the era of the superhero film, if cited at all. This all adds up to a worse record than a random sampling of indie horror movies.

The MCU attempts to graft the serialized model of comic books onto billion dollar blockbusters, which both makes a mockery of every deficit fetishist and ran out of creative steam four years ago. Even the stupid fun of Guardians of the Galaxy - which benefits from not having to go out of its way to acknowledge so many B-grade movies - drags at the end because of overwrought CGI and a ridiculous resolution where the characters kill the villain with the power of love. Daredevil avoids the usual pitfall by being a much smaller and focused serialized production. A character-driven urban crime drama that just happens to include a masked vigilante. The summer blockbuster model on which the rest of the MCU operates doesn't allow for that much development or even plot, so you get an ensemble cast quickly thrown together and the audience is just expected to know their motivations. And care.

Have no fear, some purple guy is here!

That's the biggest criticism often brushed off by defenders of this drek - that it's vapid popcorn fare. Something that usually gets movie snobs up in arms but far too many are willing to overlook it as long as it appeals to the shit they read before they graduated to real books. A review by an actual child called out Avengers: Another One for being jammed full of new characters with no development, and the first comment is by some self-important manbaby saying  "the movie was actually made for me: a middle-aged guy that grew up on comics books, and has enough disposable income to totally geek out and buy the movie, the toys, etc..." He goes on at nauseating length, displaying all the entitlement that's become expected in nerd circles these days, as they're infested with resentful, reactionary white dudes.

So naturally there's also been some hand-wringing over all the sexism in the MCU's latest cinematic excretion. Seriously, these rubes are surprised a product of Stan Lee's fetid imagination ain't all that progressive on the lady issue. That's the thing - no matter how much outcry for lady superheroes, the genre is too inherently misogynistic to ever produce anything but damsels and femme fatales. To do otherwise would mean evolving past a mindset where might makes right and then these movies would lose their core selling point.

Fantasy. Not in the spectacle or the "creative" interpretation of Norse mythology, but the fantasy of having enough power to simply reshape the world into what you want, often through explosions. The Transformers films, which are far more similar to Avengers than fussy Whedonites care to admit, was always hampered by the unrelatable CGI monstrosities representing your childhood toys. The MCU benefits from recognizably human ubermenchen - and a token female - who further present a variety of options for the stunted nerds will to power from magic hammers to 1940s steroids to a cross between Hank Rearden and Mega Man.

"Thank goodness for Rodimus Prime!"

But all of that is quickly becoming the grotesque norm across all of American culture. What really makes the MCU project objectionable is that it is the apotheosis of dumb consumption over artistic expression. The official Marvel Studios release schedule all but brags that they're just cranking out meaningless, interchangeable units to be gobbled up with as much thought and care as Twinkies. Market forces, the personal lord and savior of lackwit Americans, can't even slow down this juggernaut of vapidity as all it takes is a few cash cows to keep a legion of mediocrities shipping to the multiplex every summer - still no superheroines though, 'cause Catwoman was shit.

"What's the big deal?" some idiot may ask. "Blockbusters have always been dumb." But at least they used to mean it. For all it's ridiculousness, there was actual creative vision behind cheese-fests like Commando and Tango and Cash. The MCU, in contrast, is a soulless corporate exercise planned, developed, and even filmed by committee considering the copious use of post-production computer animation. And worst of all, it's gobbling up some of the best acting talent of today in years long contracts, from Robert Downey to Tom "Play Dracula Already" Hiddleston, as arc-less characters who exist in stasis for the benefit of maintaining a status quo necessary to draw in new viewers.

He is so much better than this...

And despite all the money these comic geek circle-jerks rake in, American cinema is still a sinking industry. Creative sectors are always the more unstable part of the economy but Hollywood has been on a continuous downward slope for years, owing both to the general recession as the general poverty of good film ideas. The MCU is a corporate accountant's approach to the problem, keep cranking out Product X on the assumption that people will pay for the new model every year, a plan that worked so well for the automotive industry that Detroit looks worse than Pripyat. And it's catching on - the forgettable Dracula Untold is already the launchpad for a "shared universe" of the old Universal Monsters. So is I, Frankenstein but even fewer people saw that awful dud. Money and time that could be going to something else is instead being spent on films that follow the business model of comic books, just because all the First World dweebs keep going to see Tony Stark grab his monkey.

It works for comic books because they're much cheaper to produce than a summer blockbuster. It's worked so far for the MCU because they've hit on a period where plenty of dumb Gen Xers and Millenials have enough disposable income to consume the same damn movie for over half a decade. But how long can that last? The video game industry, which is comparable in production costs, has staked its survival to franchises with yearly releases and they're perpetually losing money. Even successful development studios have to close up shop because their enormously successful Triple A product - retailing for sixty USD a pop - couldn't recoup their production costs.

How long until the same thing starts happening with the MCU? How much of the film industry will it kneecap in its inevitable death throes? No one with real problems weeps for Jeremy Renner losing a paycheck, but how are you going to escape the bad craziness of this empire in decline without some good movies?

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Baltimore, Media, and Oligarchy

A special post today. Alexandra K kicks off our coverage of Election 2016!

As Morgan Freeman recently said in an interview with the Baltimore Sun, “Fuck the media.” Their usual negligence in coverage has been particularly egregious in the senseless death of Freddie Gray. At this point his tragic end is but a footnote to them; the early peaceful protests failed to elicit much attention outside of the state, but add some riots and fires and the national media bigwigs are falling all over themselves to get the most outrageous images and stories. If conflict sells papers, then conflict and the kind of one-sided reporting that perpetuates widespread prejudices is what the papers will say!

The fact that Baltimore is the site of the latest police murder of an unarmed black man is also a particular plum to an institution that is obsessed with king-making. That’s because Martin O’Malley, the aspiring candidate for the Democratic nomination for President, was mayor of the city from 1999 to 2007, right before serving two terms as Maryland’s governor. O’Malley’s been mulling a presidential run since before his second term as governor ended, but few people outside of the Mid-Atlantic states knew who he was. Now suddenly everyone (who pays attention to what’s going on in the world) knows he who is, and the media is determined to tar and feather him with the Baltimore riots to kill his chances for the presidency. “Baltimore riots hurt O'Malley's already slim chances” crows Politico, the hottest broadsheet in Washington DC politics today. From “Who is Martin O’Malley?” he is suddenly considered the Giuliani of Baltimore for his police policies as mayor.

As someone who grew up in Brooklyn in the 1990s, and who lived and worked in the Washington DC area in the late 2000s, the comparison seems more than a little ridiculous to me. Full disclosure: I’ve been an O’Malley fan even since before I knew he was considering a bid for the presidency, because of his support for renewable energy. When I started working for a solar energy company a few years after that and Maryland had great policies and incentives for the solar projects, that didn’t hurt either.

But that’s also why I never thought he’d never really have a chance to be president: he seemed too liberal. Not only a supporter of clean energy and climate policy, he also defends abortion rights, oversaw the passage of the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act in Maryland, and he’s in favor of same-sex marriage; basically he’s on the center-to-left of most any political issue that you can think of. Even the news outlets that have floated him as a liberal alternative to Hillary Clinton in the primary didn’t really take him seriously.

So the hysteria over his policing policies in Baltimore seems ironic and more than a little suspicious to me now. O’Malley has acknowledged that as Mayor he played a role in shaping the city in which Freddie Gray’s life was taken (even as he’s heavily played defense). Understanding the numerous intertwining factors of policy, history, racism, economics and demographics isn’t something that lends itself well to our sound-bite driven political news culture, but O’Malley doesn’t have a choice but to talk about it; the media has decided he has to. He knows this, and that’s why he’s planning to make Baltimore a central focus of his campaign. That will only be a successful strategy for a relatively unknown candidate if the media decides they want it to be, and my current guess is that they don’t.

During the national coverage of the Trayvon Martin shooting, I don’t remember the media mentioning that Florida’s Stand Your Grand law was passed during the administration of Jeb Bush, but reporters would love a Bush candidacy. I think the media would do anything for a Bush vs. Clinton contest, but I’m not going to speculate on the reasons for that here. The larger point here is about the consequences of media influence; information and how it’s framed is a major determinant of public opinion. Public opinion sways politics, policy-making and current events. Which then goes back to the media. See how it all cycles? Keep your eyes open America. Seek the truth and always question. When O’Malley said “We are all responsible for Freddie Gray,” he was being politically tactful, but think about what that really means too.