BG44 – The Shameful Joys of Deus Ex: Human Revolutions

Futurismic have my latest Blasphemous Geometries column devoted to Deus Ex: Human Revolutions.

A lot has been made of this game’s boss fights and the myriad niggles and irritations that conspire to make its game-play something of an uphill struggle. I will not deny, this game inspired more rage-quits than any game in recent memory. However, rather than seeing these irritations as products of genre-confusion and outdated game design, I decided to consider these problems as part of the game’s central aesthetic and sub-text. I conclude that, whereas the original Deus Ex games were all about empowering the player, Deus Ex: Human Revolutions is all about claustrophobia, prejudice and being forced into a position of willing servitude:

Taken together, these racial and economic narratives combine to create an almost intolerable atmosphere of disempowerment. Whereas Deus Ex sought to empower its players, Deus Ex: Human Revolution constantly reminds them of how worthless and incompetent they really are. Playing DXHR is like spending an afternoon with a depressed and alcoholic mother who is not only disappointed with what you have made of yourself, but also insistent on letting you know how she feels about your failure as an individual. However, as unpleasant as DXHR can be, it is an intensely enjoyable game. Indeed, the game’s real thematic power lies not in its narratives of disenfranchisement and oppression, but in the fact that it keeps us coming back for more in spite of them.

All too often, reviewers tend to assume that any mechanic that is not fun is broken. I simply could not disagree more, all mechanics tell a story… you just need to open your mind and play the story that the game wants to tell.

Red State (2011) – Nothing to Say and No Idea of How to Say it

It seems difficult to talk about a Kevin Smith film without also talking about Kevin Smith.  Since his debut Clerks (1994), Smith has excelled in the art of bundling himself up with his artistic output: When Smith made Clerks, he was making a film about himself, when Smith made Chasing Amy (1997), he was making a film about something that happened to him and when Smith made Dogma (1999), he was making a very personal statement about his own religious beliefs. Aside from a habit of making very personal and autobiographical films, Smith has also been very open about the experience of making films and the experience of… well… being Kevin Smith. When Peter Biskind wanted to write a book about the dark side of Miramax, Smith was there to provide him with quotes. When the critics sharpened their knives and leapt on Jersey Girl (2004) and Cop Out (2010), Smith made it quite clear what he thought about film critics and the industry as a whole. Smith is the logical consequence of the cult of the auteur: the director who makes every detail of his life available in the hope that this might somehow make his films seem more interesting. A habitual over-sharer, tantrum-thrower and general emotional incontinent, Smith is a wonderful figure to write about and when he announced that he would fund, make and distribute Red State alone, writers could not help but write about Smith’s latest project.  Which is somewhat odd given that this is arguably Smith’s least personal film to date. Red State finds Smith attempting to reboot his directorial career by moving into the thriller genre.

I adore thriller and horror films because, in my view, they come very close to being what Alfred Hitchcock once described as ‘pure cinema’. Thrillers are all about drawing upon plot, actors, dialogue, theme and cinematography to enclose the audience in a bubble of pure cinematic affect.  A good thriller drags you halfway out of your seat and keeps you crouching in the darkness, because of this, thrillers frequently demand a high standard of technical filmmaking. A thriller cannot hide behind lavish special effects, celebrated performances or noble themes… it has to work as a piece of art.  Despite containing some brilliantly realised elements, Red State is one of the most technically dysfunctional films that I have ever had the misfortune of seeing.

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Treme: Season 1 (2010) – Questioning the Value of Community

One of the enduring themes of David Simon’s award-winning series The Wire is the idea of the quiet apocalypse and of a society that is drifting into terminal decline not because of war or disease or alien invasion but because of stupidity, selfishness and the fundamental short-sighted perversity of human nature. After an uneven attempt at tackling the War in Iraq with Generation Kill (2008), Treme sees Simon teaming up with fellow Wire alumnus Eric Overmyer to take another look at America’s inevitable end.  However, unlike The Wire, there is nothing quiet about Treme’s apocalypse as the end of this particular world was caused by Hurricane Katrina and the collapse of the New Orleans levees that flooded the city leaving thousands of New Orleans residents, dead, disenfranchised and scattered to the four corners of a nation that simply did not care about the destruction of one of its most historical and culturally vibrant cities.  Treme is about the on-going attempts by the residents of New Orleans to rebuild their lives and their city. Treme is a story about community and returning home but, as you might expect from a series helmed by David Simon, the picture of community it paints is far from idyllic.

If I had to compare Treme to any other TV series of recent times, my choice would be to compare it to David Milch’s gritty western drama Deadwood in that both series are character-based dramas and both series are ultimately about the evolution of the community that these characters are a part of. However, while Milch’s series allowed the characters to dictate the action by effectively having them to walk out their door and interact with whoever happened to be walking past, Simon’s series is far more traditionally structured. Treme is built around a series of more or less discrete emotional communities composed of characters who interact chiefly with each other.

 

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Limitless (2011) – Mega Mega White Thing

They say that cocaine can make a good man great.

The also say that it can make him into a tedious jabbering fool.

These things are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

One of the more intriguing sequences in Charles Ferguson’s Oscar-winning documentary about the credit crunch Inside Job (2010) reveals that, prior to the crash, a number of New York brokerage houses and management consultancies allowed their employees to pay for sex on their company credit cards. Ferguson uses this revelation to add a tinge of decadence to his depiction of Wall Street institutions but it also raises the question of a degree of kinship between betting large amounts of other people’s money and a lifestyle littered with cocaine and high-class escorts. Ferguson hand-waves this association with some waffling about pleasure centres in the brain but what if the link is not neurology but a question of peer groups? Are the sort of people who tend to do well in banking also the sort of people who tend to enjoy coke and hookers? Does a fondness for coke and hookers mark financial executives out as ‘our sort of chap’?

Neil Burger’s Limitless is a science fiction film about a man who discovers a drug that unlocks the untapped potential of his brain. Initially a struggling science fiction writer, the film’s protagonist soon morphs into the sort of arrogant, swaggering, bollock-talking bell-end that seem to dominate the world’s financial institutions and, as long as he keeps taking the pills, there’s a good chance that this particular bell-end will wind up President.

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The Art of Not Being Governed (2010) By James C. Scott – A Weapons-grade Meme

For providence ordained that the people with gigantic proportions and the greatest strength would wander the mountain heights like beasts with natural strength.  Then, on hearing the first thunder after the universal flood, they entered the earth in its mountain caves, and subjected themselves to the superior force which they imagined as Jupiter.  All their pride and ferocity was converted to astonishment, and they humbled themselves before this divinity.  Given the order of human institutions, divine providence could not conceivably have acted otherwise to end their bestial wandering through the earth’s forests, and to establish the order of human civil institutions – Section 1097

So says Giambattista Vico in the conclusion to his masterwork of political philosophy The Principles of a New Science of the Common Nature of Nations (1725).  Cruelly overlooked at the time of its publication, Vico’s work has since gone on to capture the imagination of thinkers and artists including Isaiah Berlin, James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, Northrop Frye and Samuel Beckett.  What has ensured the immortality of Vico’s vision is neither the fundamental correctness of his argument nor the soundness of his methods but the power of his central narrative.  Vico argues that all of human affairs can be accounted for in terms of a cyclical progression through three distinct ages: the divine, the heroic and the human.  As humanity moves from stage to stage its approach to language changes and as its approach to language changes, so do its attitudes to law, reason and the nature of government.  Ever upwards humanity tumbles until its thinking becomes so efficiently rational that it becomes incapable of seeing beyond its own selfish interests resulting in societal collapse amidst what Vico called “Barbarie della Reflessione” — the barbarism of reflection.  Having returned itself to an age of primitive superstition and savagery, humanity begins again its upward journey.  Forever moving upwards.  Forever passing out of the shadow of barbarism and into the light of civilisation.

 

Echoes of this picturesque rendering of the process of civilisation can also be found in the 14th Century Arab polymath Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah (1377).  Ibn Khaldun argued that there was a fundamental currency to civilisation known as ‘Asabiyyah’.  Asabiyyah represents not just social cohesion and in-group solidarity but also group consciousness and the capacity to think and act as a single political unit. The social groups with the greatest amounts of asabiyyah were nomadic tribesmen and this great sense of social togetherness allowed them not only to accumulate wealth and power but also to assure the smooth transition of wealth and power from one generation to the next allowing the creation first of hereditary dynasties and then of civilisations.  As the generations pass and the descendants of the tribesmen become increasingly used to the trappings of civilisation, their asabiyyah slowly ebbs away.  Eventually, the dynasty’s asabiyyah levels are no longer sufficient to maintain a grip on power and the civilisation falls into decline until another group of nomadic tribesmen turn up and use their greater levels of social cohesion and political unity to make a grab for power. As Voltaire so memorably put it:

 

History is only the pattern of silken slippers descending the stairs to the thunder of hobnailed boots climbing upward from below.

 

These traditional accounts of the rise of civilisation emphasise the role of the state as agent. Growing and developing in a structure-less vacuum where life is nasty, brutish and short, the state is presented as the only institution capable of providing the sort of stable and conflict-free communal living that is necessary for human flourishing.  Under this view, people existing outside of the state system are either passive entities waiting in misery and poverty to be embraced by a nearby state or they are highly organised state-like entities poised to make the final step up to civilisation by themselves.  The circularity of this definition is obvious: only states have agency and if an institution has agency but is not a state then it must be about to become a state.

 

James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed takes a hammer to this neat little circle. Scott suggests that, far from being the passive victims of Hobbesian circumstance, many non-state groups actively choose to adopt such ‘uncivilised’ characteristics as illiteracy, religious extremism and reliance upon hunter-gathering modes of subsistence as part of a coordinated strategy for evading state control.  This suggestion that one can be uncivilised by choice is not only a radical departure from traditional state-based models of civilisation, it also provides us with a central narrative so powerful that it rivals that of Vico’s tumbling savages, Ibn Khaldun’s decaying nomads and Voltaire’s fleeing slippers. The Art of Not Being Governed is a book that shakes our notions of civilisation to the very core and, as a result, can only be described as a masterpiece that deserves to influence the artists and thinkers of the future in the same way as Vico’s works have influenced those of the past.

 

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Storytelling (2010) by Christian Salmon – Botching the Modern Argument

I am going to begin this piece by presenting you with some insights.  Hot off the digits and delivered fresh to your pre-frontal squire :

  1. Human neurology is such that we prefer engaging with narratives to wrestling with raw data points.
  2. This fondness for stories means that we are inclined to draw a line of best fit through the facts, eagerly accepting those claims that fit our narratives whilst turning a blind eye to those facts that contradict or complicate the story.
  3. This tendency to seek out narratives means that it is considerably easier for people to sell us a story than it is for them to convince us of isolated facts, even if the facts are more obviously true than the competing stories.
  4. Advertisers, politicians and all forms of demagogue are aware of these tendencies and factor them in to their dealings with the public.

These four insights can all more or less be inferred from the title of Christian Salmon’s book-length essay Storytelling – Bewitching the Modern Mind.  They are also the only insights that the book contains.  Sadly, instead of fleshing out these concepts and painting a picture of the dangers inherent in such lazy thought patterns, Salmon prefers to indulge in a number of weak forms of argument that are, somewhat disappointingly, rife in the non-academic non-fiction sub-genre.

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The Reckoning (2003) – Who Narrates The Narrators?

In the introduction to his The Function of Criticism (1984), Terry Eagleton writes :

“criticism today lacks all substantive social function.  It is either part of the public relations branch of the literary industry, or a matter wholly internal to the academies.”

The problem, according to Eagleton, is that criticism is only of social use when there is a robust public sphere.  A public sphere, according to Habermas, is an intellectual void in between the sphere of public authority (dominated by the state and the law) and the private sphere (dominated by the exchange of commodities and the market).  In the sphere of public authority, the government and ruling elite speak with authority, determining values and the prominence of some ideas at the expense of others.  By contrast, in the private sphere, this kind of ordering is done according to the demands of commerce.  Criticism, according to Eagleton, currently lacks a social function, as the private sphere has come to dominate those matters that were previously considered to be exempt from the marketplace.  The role of the critic still exists, but he has no constituency and no natural subject matter.  An example of this kind of modern-day criticism can be seen in R. J. Cutler’s documentary about Vogue magazine The September Issue (2009).  Anna Wintour is a private sphere Doctor Johnson : She takes it upon herself to decide what will be ‘fashionable’ in a particular season and the commercial interests that make up the fashion industry abide by her judgement.  The same process exists in the sphere of public authority.  When a problem affects the state, the ruling class make a decision and the apparatus of the state then enacts that judgement.  While the members of the ruling class may be determined by democratic or aristocratic means and members of that elite may be more or less open to public opinion, the process is the same.  The people no more get a say in the day to day realities of how the state is run than they do in determining whether purple or mauve will be the fashionable colour to be seen in this autumn.  The process is just as autocratic as it was during the heyday of the 18th Century critic.  As Eagleton quotes, the criticism of the time was characterised by :

“its partisan bias, the vituperation, the dogmatism, the juridical tone, the air of omniscience and finality”

Of course, the importance of the three spheres varies significantly over time.  As I suggested in my review of Sidney Lumet’s The Offence (1972), the moral corruption of the state, the ruling classes and the church, mean that a form of moral public sphere has opened up.  One in which rabble-rousing journalists compete with traditional intellectuals and people equipped with social networking tools to impart some kind of moral sentiment upon a supposedly individualistic and relativistic general public.  Paul McGuigan’s The Reckoning, a cruelly over-looked adaptation of Barry Unsworth’s 1995 Booker-nominated novel Morality Play portrays a similar shift in spheres of debate : A moment in history in which the church and the state began to surrender their moral authority to a burgeoning public sphere.

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BG 17 – Red Faction : Guerilla

Futurismic have my Blasphemous Geometries column about Red Faction : Guerilla.

This piece was slightly wild.  I initially took as my inspiration Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces : A Secret History of the 20th Century (1989), one of my favourite pieces of writing about music.  the first chapter of the book begins with a song-by-song and almost line-by-line examination of the music of the Sex Pistols and I was struck, as Marcus was, by the enduring power of the opening line of Anarchy in The UK : I am an Antichrist, I am an Anarchist.  That desire to destroy and reject everything struck me as central to a proper understanding of Red Faction : Guerilla.  But then I came up with the idea of the idea of a suicide bombing simulator and was amused by the similarities and I let that Idea simply carry me home.

The Trap, The Wire and The Loop : Individualism as a Political Force

Over the past week, I have been thinking about two particular works.  The first, is Armando Iannucci’s spectacular In The Loop (2009) and the most recent of Adam Curtis’ documentary series The Trap (2007).  Both works examine the social and political fall-out from Tony Blair and New Labour’s decade or so in power.  Both present us with a post-modern political landscape in which facts and values are not only seen as open to manipulation by people in power, but where facts and values are seen solely as expressions of personal preference.  Far from being a hyperbolic and polemical accusation or a satirical construct, this understanding of human cognition is shared by people on the left and the right and has come to dominate the political and conceptual landscape to the extent that it is almost impossible to think of an alternative to it.  However, some films, such as those of Paolo Sorrentino present a radically different vision of human cognition.  One in which rational self-interest serves as a mask for much deeper and darker passions.

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Rosemary’s Baby : Whimper Against the Machine

Polanski week has seen me write at length about the cinematic technique, intellectual pedigree and philosophical themes of Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy but for Rosemary’s Baby (1968) I would like to take a different approach.  Arguably one of Polanski’s best known films, Rosemary’s Baby is wonderfully acted, perfectly paced and so tightly written and shot that not a single frame feels out of place or fails to pull its weight.  From the famously ‘Doris Day’ soap operatic opening scenes to the macabre ending, it is close to being a flawless work of cinematic genius.  However, where The Tenant (1976) and Repulsion (1965) are quite clearly about the descent into madness via sexual repression, Rosemary’s Baby deals in the more fantastical currency of witches, Satanism and the birth of the anti-Christ.  The use of such fantastical imagery invites us to wonder what the film is really about.  Rosemary is clearly not mad, nor is she sexually frustrated.

Rosemary’s Baby is a snapshot of social power dynamics in 1970s New York.  It is a film not only about the treatment of women at the hands of a powerful Patriarchy, it is also an account of price exacted from the young by the elderly in return for the transferal of power to members of a new generation.  Despite being a film about unearthly creatures, Rosemary’s Baby is ultimately a profoundly temporal film about man’s inhumanity to man (and especially woman).

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