Writing

The All Too Familiar Case of Rebecca Thane

Rebecca Thane has been here too long to put up with your shit. She hates the runners, so repelled by the economic injustice of the dominant system that they choose to live outside of it, but somehow actually fighting against it is just a tad too far. She’s watched as the rich and powerful have killed her friends without reproach, and she knows that no matter what she does, she can ever rival the blood on their hands. She is not here to object, or to protest, or to run. No, like all good revolutionaries, she is here to win.

Unsurprisingly, Rebecca Thane is a secondary villain in Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst. She is introduced angry, yelling at your boss Noah for refusing to do anything other than sit on the fence. She has a point, of course, but the anger is what matters here, a telltale sign that she could take things “too far,” whatever that means. Never does the game ask if anger and violence are perhaps reasonable responses to society-wide systemic violence, even while you’re kicking dudes off skyscrapers.

Instead, Rebecca Thane is another Daisy Fitzroy, another Marlene, another black woman doing the work of revolution because somebody has to, and ultimately condemned by the text for her efforts. Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst is another in a long line of games that wants to sell the idea of revolution and condemn the politics of it. The back of box tagline reads: “Fight Oppression. Claim Your Freedom,” the game opens with a text crawl saying “Citizens have been made willing slaves,” and Faith’s first act is to break free of mandatory corporate surveillance. Fight Oppression. Sign up for Origin today.

Six hours later, the game ends with a monologue where Faith proclaims that by stopping Kruger’s plan they’ve “started something.” They haven’t brought about revolution, but they’ve lit a spark, and finally people can start to fight back. Somewhere, Rebecca Thane is sadly shaking her head. Does all the work of her and her dead friends really amount to nothing? Maybe in twenty years, Faith will have grown tired of the moral high ground when it doesn’t do a damn thing to bring progress any closer. Maybe Faith’ll meet a young runner herself, disgusted with how angry and violent she’d allowed herself to become, and maybe that runner will break away and declare that after years of accepting oppression, they’ve finally started something.

Maybe.

The Dinner Lady

People think I’m weird because I don’t like butter. They say, “what’s wrong with butter?” as if I could produce an answer that would satisfy them. “Nothing,” I always say; except the way it sticks to the bread, existing in this gross mid-point between solid and liquid, making my mouth feel wrong. “I just don’t like it.”

After taking a bite, I place my sandwich back down in my lunchbox, and slide it off to the side. I login to the computer – admin for both fields, because teachers are smart – and load up internet explorer. For the last week, I’ve been playing a flight game. I enjoy the way the plane rolls when I tap the keys, the way it rises when I hold the accelerator. I’ve gotten into a routine, tuned myself to the calming movement on the screen. I type in the address only to find the website has now been blocked.

“No one else today?”

My breath tightens for a moment, and I look up to see the Dinner Lady coming down the steps. She comes in some days, asks me about how things are. I know she’s part time, but I haven’t been able to work out any kind of pattern in her appearances. Don’t they give you schedules? I think they give you schedules.

“No one else today,” I reply.

“God, I don’t know how the hell you see in here,” she says, turning the light on.

“With my eyes,” I say, smiling. Unless my eating is particularly loud, people walk through the hallway without turning to notice the kid sitting in the alcove. At first I kept the light on, but I quickly became tired of people asking me what I was doing inside.

Behind me, she opens the door to the main hall, and steps inside. I hear her pulling off a chair from the one of the stacks along the edge of the room, and a moment later she returns, setting it down next to me.

“What happened to Elliot?”

“He’s sick,” I say, “He wasn’t in for register this morning.”

“That’s a shame.”

I take another bite of my sandwich. Usually I’m a fast eater, but with someone else present I always take the time to be extra careful. I pause, looking directly at the screen, so as not to talk with my mouth full. Mum tells me that it’s easy to forget, which means it’s important to remember.

“So what Joshua did was get bright idea of playing football inside the dining hall,” the Dinner Lady says. “Anyway, long story short, bam, he hits a table and now there’s food all over the floor. I came in here to hide.”

I sent my sandwich back down, turning to face her flicking me a guilty little smile.

“Is he going to get in trouble?”

“Yeah, probably.”

“Good,” I say.

The Dinner Lady says nothing. She maintains the silence until I move my hands away from the keyboard, her eyes intent on studying my reaction. I don’t know what she thinks she’ll be able to work out. I’m not very interesting.

“Was that the wrong thing to say?”

She shakes her head. “How you been doing lately? With everything?”

“Fine,” I say, which isn’t a lie. Ever since I got the diagnosis, people have been asking me big questions like this. They never sound big, they’re the same questions I’ve always been asked but I can tell that isn’t the whole truth. It would be a lot easier if adults said whatever it was they wanted to say, because when they don’t, all that happens is that old words become new. Why does anyone think that would make it easier?

“School’s gotten easier,” I say, realising that her silence meant I was supposed to continue speaking.

“Are people being a little nicer now?”

“I think so,” I say, taking another bite, expecting the Dinner Lady to ask something else, but she’s still sitting there, waiting for me. “Mum says that people just need to get to know me, and that it’s easier one on one.”

She nods, and rubs the left side of her face with her finger, my words only registering in so far as she can tell when I am and when I am not talking. I’m not stupid, I know she’s come here to say something specific, but she still hasn’t managed to work out the right way to do so. I used to be so sure that feeling went away as you got older.

“What is it?”

“Joshua.”

“Oh.” I look at the table, bite my lip. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to say it was good that he’s getting in trouble.”

The Dinner Lady laughs, for a moment, before placing her hand on top of mine. I tense up, but after a second I realise that she isn’t grabbing or restraining me. I can feel the slightest shiver pulse through her hand, and fall onto mine.

“Just tell him to sit somewhere else, alright?”

“What?”

“Tomorrow.”

“I, uh –” Her hand tightens around mine, and I look back in her direction. I don’t like to make eye contact often, it’s too much of a commitment. Her eyes look so much older than the rest of her.

“Okay,” I say, and she takes her hand away.

She gives the table one last tap before standing and picking up her chair. I turn back to the computer to find something new to do to past the time; there’s still thirty minutes of lunch left and I’m going to need to occupy myself somehow.

I call out to the Dinner Lady as she’s walking up the steps, making sure that she turns the light off before leaving.

April O'Neil: A Day in the Life

Megan Fox's Mikaela does not fare well in the Transformers movies. She exists to be an object, obviously, but that objectification is worth examining further. In the first movie, she is an object of desire and status, Sam's (Shia LaBeouf) attainment of her an affirmation of his heroic status. In the second movie she is an object of resentment as Sam has to contend with the fact that Mikaela is a human being with needs of her own. Finally, in the third movie she is an object of hatred, no longer on screen yet very much present within every action that Sam takes. She was a bitch, obviously, and Sam didn't need her. He's way happier with this nicer, better, hotter new girl. 

These movies are awful, and their treatment of Fox (both within the movies themselves and in the winder culture) is deplorable, yet they always left me wondering. Michael Bay's Transformers movies are such perfect illustrations of the toxicity and violence of masculinity that I've always wondered if, if made with an ounce of self-awareness, it could become something worthwhile.

That movie totally exists in the 2014 film, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Despite his role as just one of several producers, Bay is inexorably linked to the new TMNT. He's arguably the biggest name attached to the film (the series is referred to as the Michael Bay TMNT films), and it owes a great debt to Transformers visually, tonally and conceptually. It's a dark and "realistic" live action movie based on a popular 80s kids franchise, with a greasy, lens-flare laden cinematography, a tonne of bro-out humour and starring none other than Megan Fox.

Yet TMNT diverges from the Transformers formula in its very first scene, as Fox no longer stars as object, but as our protagonist, April O'Neil. Although the film's gender politics are not that much better on the surface - the camera still leers, a gross older man and a gross teenage turtle both try to fuck her for the entire movie - April's role as protagonist means we see this world through her eyes. Through this framing, intentionally or not, the movie becomes an illustration of just what it is like to be a woman in a Michael Bay movie.

In the opening act, Will Arnett (his character has a name but I guarantee you that nobody on earth knows what it is) says flat out to April that she should be happy being the "froth." He tells her that she has been hired to look pretty and deliver puff pieces for the evening news, that this is why she is valuable and that should be enough for her. Arnett functions as an audience surrogate here and throughout the film, transparently helping April out of a desire to attain her; even his repeated acts of kindness and assistance are acknowledged as nothing more than ploys to get into April's pants. He wears a fedora. It's hilarious.

April never accepts Arnett's logic, or even entertains the possibility of a relationship with this dude clearly twenty years her senior. She remains resolute in her quest, which unfortunately for her is to try to convince the news to run a story about Vigilante Turtles, so she's fired pretty quickly.

It's important to say at this point that April is an idiot. She wrecks her own career, leads the bad guys to the Turtles, and is incapable of reacting with anything other than complete and total earnestness to everyone no matter how obviously evil they may be. April is not a Strong Female Character, she is still written as a woman within a Michael Bay movie. However, when she fucks up, the audience are brought along on that ride, and experience every beat with empathy for her position and her humanity, and her place at the centre of the movie is never questioned.

At the end of the film, April and the Turtles save the day, and Arnett is still hopelessly pining after her. He never gets April as a prize, or the reward of a catharsis for finally acknowledging her as a person. The epilogue centres entirely on April's newfound feeling of belonging, and the movie ends with her smiling between two idiots, finding comfort in her sense of accomplishment with what she's been able to achieve, yet still having to navigate their unwanted advances, Just another day in the life.

I don't think that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is an amazing, progressive movie (in fact, I think all this praise just shows it meets a very low standard of basic decency), but it does deserve a lot more respect than it ended up getting. In a movie world in which noted Strong Woman Black Widow has done literally nothing but show up to propel dudes forward for over half a decade, a blockbuster marketed at young boys which invites them to acknowledge the humanity of women that other films so violently deny is something that has to be worth something. 

On Lego Games

The LEGO games have always traded in parody, drawing upon popular iconography of a particular franchise and then heightening it for comic effect. However, their success comes not from the comedic undermining of the subject matter, but the distillation of its subject matter to the core values. LEGO Star Wars: The Prequel Trilogy‘s silent narrative captures the adventure, tone and thematic conceit of Star Wars arguably better than the movies on which it is based.

Traveler’s Tales have kept this up for over a decade now, taking an approach to adaptation which centers on identifying the essence of the source material and applying it to the established core design. Nowhere is this more obvious than LEGO Marvel Super Heroes, a far more effective way to understand the appeal of comic books the movies they draw from so regularly. The game revels in its characters, bouncing them off of each other in every puzzle and every cutscene, showcasing a incoherent cliff-notes Marvel Universe which embraces the ludicrous joy of its conceit rather than to (as is the trend in more mainstream adaptations) grapple with the logistics of its existence.

Whilst this element of the LEGO games is fairly widely understood, what struck me when playing is how this approach to adaptation remained true in terms of the game’s more formal design. In addition to adapting and distilling a fictional universe, LEGO Marvel Super Heroes is an adaptation and distillation of modern video games, with how it frames its open world, highly scripted level design, and a trillion-and-three collectibles.

It isn’t that the game has these elements – almost every AAA game contains one or more of them these days – but that LEGO presents them nakedly, without the need to burden itself with context. The open world makes no attempt tobe anything other than a constructed sandbox in which you may destroy and explore; even superheroes need to carjack every once in a while. The scripted level design is merely a series of explicitly colour-coded signs onto which you must move the correct character, ad infinitum. You are not collecting coins and completing side-missions to improve the effectiveness of your weapons, or your gang, or your war effort, you are doing it because the number is low and dangit, the number should be higher.

These design techniques are no less effective than in an Assassin’s Creed, or a Destiny, or a [insert 75% of recent AAA Games here], but they do feel a great deal less exploitative. A LEGOgame is a passive experience of consumption, wherein you follow simple instructions in order to get more things, which unlock more simple instructions to follow. But that treadmill stands honest and alone, rather than to motivate the player through a narrative, or to trap the player inside a marketplace.

Just as LEGO games serve as an accessible introduction to the appeal of their chosen narrative source material, so too do they serve as an accessible introduction to the appeal of their formal source material. Alone, neither of these elements explains the series’ cultural staying power, but putting them together makes it a lot easier to understand just why the LEGO games have managed to be one of the last kids’ games standing on consoles.

I Hate Sword Art Online

For reasons unknown to science, I watched all fifty episodes of Sword Art Online. The show had been sold to me as, among other things, “The Smartest Anime I’ve Seen In Years,” and “not entirely a waste of time, I guess.”

It is, instead, the worst thing I’ve seen with my eyes.

Allow me, for a few hundred words, to get Mad Online about why.

This is Kirito. He likes video games, and is a bit of a loner, on account of being just too good for everyone else. He is the worst parts of every bad shonen protagonist combined, with not a shred of personality to compensate. When he is on screen, he destroys every possible ember of dramatic tension and renders the entire premise inert, which is a problem seeing as he is the main character.

What is that premise? Well, it’s nothing original, there’s at least two other shows with pretty much the same one: you die in the game, you die for real. Sword Art Online is the story of the titular MMO, which a bunch of players log into and discover that their souls are now trapped inside the virtual world until the dungeon is cleared! Dun dun dun!!!

It’s fine. There’s even a little bit of propulsion and tension after the first episode when Kirito runs off to begin his quest, a tiny glimmer of hope that this just might be something worth watching. Immediately, everything falls apart.

The first season functions as a series of vignettes, twelve episodes taking us on a two-year journey of the life of the players inside SAO. It’s a strange approach, in that any momentum built up in a single episode dissipates on contact with air, but not inherently flawed. The idea of compressing time in order to show the evolution of a society is not one without merit, what is without merit is what they do with that.

Sword Art Online may have some ideas about virtual experiences as legitimate expressions of self, but all fall by the wayside of the show’s only true goal: making you think that Kirito is the best. human. ever.

This scenario happens at least four times:

  1. Kirito enters a new town.
  2. Kirito saves a woman from another man with nefarious aims
  3. Said woman falls in love with Kirito
  4. Kirito leaves and breaks their heart

Four times!

Leaving beside the show’s gender politics for a second (oh, we’ll get to them, believe me), it’s just tragically bad writing. There’s no attempt to invest in Kirito as a character, because he achieves everything immediately, everybody loves him the second they meet him, and he will overcome every obstacle through simply being the best. It’s more sad than it is frustrating, because the show is so concerned with selling its power fantasy that it fails to connect emotionally on any level.

Storytelling is an intimate act, we fall in love with stories, we laugh and cry and form bonds with people who never existed. And intimacy requires vulnerability. Sword Art Online is the tragedy of masculinity writ large, so terrified of ever appearing weak that it prevents anyone from ever forming a true connection.

But the show’s terror runs so deep that you cannot even feel sorry for it, as that terror expresses itself hatefully towards everyone who isn’t Kirito. Every other woman is instantly in love with Kirito, due to his skill and strength, and every other man is a vulgar sexual harasser. The worldview is made clear, to Sword Art Online you are either prize or his competition, and the distinction is drawn across gendered lines.

Sword Art Online is nothing unique, merely another in a long line of fantasies, serving up a worldview that is as toxic as it is boring. Not to say there is nothing worthwhile here, one arc telling the story of Asuna and Yuuki is touching and kind, because without the need for its hero to appear strong, the show doesn’t need to be afraid anymore.

Those moments of potential only serve to highlight the failures surrounding them. As with many stories of this type, it isn’t like they’re incapable of caring, it’s merely that they don’t want to.

A Requiem For Margo Dunne

There are approximately three great movies within Gone Girl.

1. The story of Amy Elliott, an exploitation hero who decides that the only response to bearing the weight of silent, systemic patriarchal violence is to become the imaginary villain that women are so often painted as. She invents domestic violence, makes false rape accusations, and convinces the world her husband is an abusive murderer. And we would cheer her on, as these men who think themselves innocent receive punishment for their complicity in horrors so vast and pervasive that they could never understand. 

2. The Story of Tanner Bolt, who is Tyler Perry starring in Scandal but without any moral centre. When he's onscreen, the film suddenly becomes aware that it is inherently ridiculous, and is able to derive a perverse sense of pleasure as it finally accepts all behaviour as performance and readies itself for some sort of Liar's War. 

3. The story of Margo Dunne.

Instead, Gone Girl is the story of Nick Dunne. He is our only point of view character, with the dual protagonist conceit being given up with the very first shot, with Amy centre frame as Nick monologues: "what's going on inside your head?" Nick is a character, and Amy is a mystery. Bitches, right? How do they work.

The movie builds for two and a half hours towards its central revelation: that marriage can be a breeding ground for resentment and pain. It treats this labored point with profundity, as if this bombshell isn't present in every single Mountain Goats song already.

Which is a shame, because if it wasn't so focused on subverting the perfect marriage (which seemed like hell from the start, is that the kind of marriage straight people idealise?) it would have realised that Margo Dunne's storyline contained all the themes it wanted to explore with so much more pathos and empathy.

She's just a lonely woman whose mother dies and whose idiot brother gets embroiled in a national fucking media phenomenon, a brother she has to stand by while he fucks his student in her own home while those very cameras wait outside. But despite her disgust, she stands by him, for what else can she do: he's the only family that she has.

Margo Dunne is the tragic straightman in this whole affair, trapped in between her cartoonishly boring brother and his cartoonishly 'crazy' wife, forced to watch as her world falls apart and her brother walks away from her and back into the arms of his murderwife. While Gone Girl may not work as a metaphor for marriage, it sure works for a metaphor of watching someone close to you suffer through a bad one.

So godspeed to Margo Dunne, may she one day be free of her Brother's bullshit, may she one day find a better movie in which to have her story told.

3:14 AM

I can’t believe they opened
A new shopping centre
In 2015.

My chest hurts.

Who’s that guy
From that new TV Show
Who was once on
That old TV Show
His face, his name,
His credits elude me
Did I make him up?

My chest still hurts
I don’t want to die

OK
Let’s talk about tomorrow
Let’s make some plans
Let’s attempt to understand
The opportunities at hand
Let’s work with haste
And not waste our –

Oh.
I have work.
Never mind.

 

Expand: Belonging

I don’t belong here.

This place is foreign, its edges wrong, moving me more than I can move myself. There are no corners for me to find, no crevaces in which I can hide, no opportunity to feel as if I am somewhere I am meant to be.

Before, I had barely stopped to consider my body. It was me, I was it, we existed in this balance where my thoughts and its actions were perfectly aligned. Now I could not be more aware of this thing, this thing that is me, this thing that doesn’t fit, that doesn’t work, that doesn’t change.

I need more space. I need air, I need time, I need to finally breathe once more. As I jerk forward, I feel the walls brush against me, reminding me of how close they are and will be, of how no matter how smooth I can trick myself into being, they will always be there waiting to catch me, to push me, to guide me along. I can see the exit closing ahead of me, I can see these walls have left me behind and I know, I know that it is too late –

Everything returns to how it was before. The world rotates not around me, but towards me, moving itself to accommodate my failure. I push forward, for the shifting walls allow no way to return, and this time they close behind me. I start to glide, shifting my weight from one side to the other, the walls keeping me on track, pushing me further and further into unfamiliar lands.

And then, I lose the walls. All around they start to turn red, no longer ambivalent, and they begin their attack. This place wants rid of me far more than I want rid of it, it wishes me broken, stuck and unable to take anymore. It wants this story to remain unfinished, it wants to prove for once and for all that it is strong enough to beat me, it wants me to admit it.

No. I refuse.

I ask my body to glide, my body agrees, and together we move through the gaps in the space that were built just for us. The world shifts, grows and shrinks, moves and stops, changes upon our command. Where once it closed the path on our approach, now it opens. Even now, as its anger grows, a tidal wave of blood red making relentless chase, doors reveal themselves before it can make contact.

Ahead, I see the final clearing. It comes closer and farther all at once, as I drive my body forward on this endless straight line, allowing myself to believe that maybe I will escape. I can feel the heat of the world behind me, I can feel the air ahead, and I know that whatever happens I can’t stop. I am on this road until the end, me and my body, my body and these walls, these walls and this anger; everything in conflict yet all guiding me towards one inevitable ending.

I’m tired. I haven’t stopped moving in so long, my body has done so much that it wasn’t designed for, we’ve done more than we ever thought we could. Just one more push, just one more push, one more…

Silence. I couldn’t remember what silence felt like, but it all comes rushing back as the walls slip away and I am once more free. I look around me, searching for some kind of sign as to what lies ahead, and find no indication that anything lies anywhere at all. I can move at will, my body at last in line with the axis of the world. Is there anything waiting for me outside the lines? Can’t I stay here, in the light, for a second longer?

Oh god.

I don’t belong here.