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Frequencies Open: Anita Sarkeesian and the Youtube Trolls

I haven’t been on this blog for a while, for which I apologize to all three of you who care. Lately I’ve been concentrating on my movie blog and my neverending quest to generate hate mail. But today I feel compelled to write another academic blog, in support of fellow cultural commentator Anita Sarkeesian.

I had never really heard of Sarkeesian before this week, although my fiancee insists that Sarkeesian’s vlogs are of uniformly excellent quality. Sarkeesian runs a website called Feminist Frequency, where she posts pop-culture analysis, much like I do here (only to a much larger audience. On a related note, does anyone out there have $150,000 to spot me?). Recently, she started a Kickstarter to fund a project: she wishes to do a video series on tropes of video games concerning women. As a result of her project, she has been called a “cunt,” (though I suppose that could just be English people being English) been reported as a “terrorist,” (presumably because her Armenian features make her look vaguely Middle Eastern), and accused of “Jewry.” (admittedly not a terrible slur unless one is an anti-Semite) She has also faced death threats and attempts to censor her project, which is less funny.

Now, I’m at least somewhat tempted to write this off as Youtube and 4chan just sucking; Youtube has the most consistently shitty discussion threads on the internet, and 4chan is, well, 4chan. But then I read a discussion thread on The Escapist, which usually has a somewhat better community. This thread was full of self-congratulatory nerds spewing straw men and lies. This made me mad. After venting about it on Facebook, I decided to do something constructive about it instead, and address some of the common ways people on the internet are defending calling someone a “bolshevik feminist jewess.” (thank you Youtube commentor haploguy)

1) Why Did She Ask For $150,000 For Youtube Videos? This line of criticism feigns reasonability by suggesting that she is ripping people off. This is a weak argument, though, because she is not just producing a Youtube video of herself sitting in front of a laptop. If you look at the production still on her Kickstarter (it is towards the bottom of the page), you will see that she uses a nice-looking camera, an attached boom mic, a professional lighting kit, soundproofing, and a red screen background for later editing. This is not the world’s most expensive setup, but nor is it free (she also appears to have a camera person, though I do no know if she pays them). Moreover, she is not just posting them on Youtube, she is also running a fancy-pants website, as mentioned above. That stuff isn’t free. Plenty of other sites have attempted to fund internet video projects through Kickstarter; one of my favorites is JourneyQuest. As far as I know, no one has accused the JourneyQuest crew of being “rapist swine.” (thanks, Youtube troll funkyzeit987! Rape sure is funky!)

2) What About Image Of Men In Video Games? This one is quite pervasive, and is definitely a critique that is employed against any feminist pop-culture analysis. The underlying assumption, I guess, is that any cultural critique must automatically address all injustice ever; one of the Escapist commentators suggested that video games are never criticized for racism, which must mean that he has never heard of Resident Evil 5. In addition to the innate implausibility of such a thorough critique, this argument also often leads to people saying that media that shows unflattering images of both men and women is somehow “equal” and unsexist. This argument is plainly false: if I steal $100 worth of stuff from you, and you steal $100 worth of stuff from me, that doesn’t mean things are “equal,” just that two people are being shitty. Even if deformed, super-scarred God Of War protagonist Kratos is as sexy as Youtube used Lishaaaaaaa seems to think.

3) She Just Hates Images Of Sexy Women. This is a corollary of point 2. It is an especially infuriating argument when applied in this instance, because Sarkeesian isn’t just saying that scantily-clad women are bad. She is talking about tropes, or common roles. All of her suggested video topics (such as “Damsel in Distress”) are about behavior more than graphics. Which means that her videos seem more likely to address that than bouncy boobs (but see #4 below). It also mistakes sexy for sexualized; for those of you who cannot make the distinction (like Youtube commentator and latent male appreciator englishhacksaw, who manages to totally miss this point when he says “Do you think we bitch and moan when the majority of our male protagonists are super buff, chiseled jaw, alpha male hunks?”), sexy images show attractive people, whereas sexualized images present their subjects as objects for sexual consumption, thus stripping agency. The majority of sexualized images are of women; the major exceptions are images of gay men.

4) She Is Going To Make The Following Bad Arguments, Which I Will Defeat Posthaste. So, have you come to us from the distant future, Youtube Comment Guy? How else would you know exactly what Sarkeesian is going to do? Because otherwise, you are speculating, which is another form of the Straw Man fallacy. One committed by Youtube commentator and poster child for anger management issues TheRPGguy94 when he claims (spelling and punctuation included) “Once again you’re use of Bayonetta as some sort of symbol for sexism shows how thick headed and completely unaware of the subject.” Which is not actually a sentence, but whatever.

5) Feminists Hate Men. This one makes me especially angry, as I am a feminist and I have no hate whatsoever for my own gender. Anything that mentions the “F Word” is assumed by many to be a screed about man-hating written by a hairy-armpitted lesbo who needs a good deep dicking. This is so offensive that I am livid just typing about it. There have been some women who have advocated radical sepratism as a part of  feminism; such views, however, have never been a part of the mainstream of feminism, or even universally a part of more radical feminist critiques. Holding all feminists liable for the views of a few Dworkinian separatists is like holding all gamers responsible for the actions of some video gamers who shot a bunch of their classmates in Colombine. Which is something gamers frequently bitch about. This is lost on Youtube Limbaugh listener SomeGuy4435, who claims that user pancakeycakes is “not a feminist, just a little weird” because she thinks doors should be held open for everyone. Sorry, SomeGuy4435, pancakeycakes is a feminist. She’s just not what you have decided a feminist is (aka a “feminazi”).

As I mentioned above, I am a fellow cultural critic, and feel some solidarity with Sarkeesian. We are both trying to talk about larger cultural trends and analyze society through its textual artifacts. I don’t expect that I would agree with Sarkeesian 100% on everything she believes on this issue; I believe, instead, that the sharing of her perspective makes the sum total of  public discourse a bit better. When one of us is told to shut up, because her view is not that of the commentator, the world becomes a little poorer, which is sad.

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WRPG/JRPG/RPG Part One And A Half: Or, Why Japan Isn’t What You Think

I still haven’t pulled together my thoughts on the Extra Credits videos (I blame Cracked.com), but that’s fine, because I realized that I had not yet teased out all the implications of my last post. Specifically, I haven’t addressed a common idea in modern American nerd culture that effects the perception of a wide range of cultural exports from Japan, including RPGs: the idea that Japan is some seething ocean of perversion out of which all that is vile emerges. This idea has come about as a result of several texts, including hentai (or pornographic) games and animation, as well as more mainstream artifacts (anime like High School of the Dead and games such as Record of Agarest War or Ar Tonelico Qoga). The pornography needs little comment upon; it’s not like Japan has a monopoly on disgusting porn. The more mainstream texts pose a more interesting question.

High School of the Dead, for those of you with lives who still read my blog for inexplicable reasons, is a Japanese animated series and comic book set during a zombie event occurring in present-day Tokyo. As the name would indicate, the series is strongly influenced by the Dead films of George Romero. It is also strongly influenced by breasts. Although the characters in the franchise are mostly high-school age, all of the women are built like a matching set of brick shithouses. The frames of the comic and television program seem to be attracted to the no-no areas of the women in question, staying fixed on the aforementioned body parts as though scared that boobs are capable of dismembering cameramen. It gets old really quickly. Record of Agarest War, on the other hand, is the world’s most tedious strategy RPG. It has about five trillion different stats and around seventy point totals to accumulate and spend. It’s also fairly difficult if you don’t buy the downloadable character powerups, which is dastardly in a way I never thought possible. It is about as much fun as doing Bill Gates’ taxes would be. The designers, apparently recognizing this, decided to “spice things up,” by which I mean “further ruin them,” by inserting cut scenes of the female characters in deshabille. You “earn” these scenes by convincing the girls to trust you, a trust you proceed to violate by spying on them as they bathe. Classy. Ar Tonelico Qoga, one of the most bizarrely named games ever made, does away with the pretext almost altogether by undressing its female characters during its battle sequences. That’s right, to proceed in the game, you have to force the women you are with (one of whose listed age is 17) to strip down to her underwear. The most messed-up part is that the women, not naturally being inclined to get naked on command, have to be bribed first with sweets and other gifts.

Now, it is tempting to allow these games and television programs to stand in for Japan as a whole. And indeed, many folks on the internet do just that. The problem with such conjecture is that it ignores one fact: all of the things I listed above are available in America in English-language versions. The makers of these artifacts may be Japanese, but American consumers apparently have shown enough interest in them to spur their importation. In these days of streaming video and modded consoles, it is tempting to view our access to the cultural production of other nations as absolute and unfettered; in fact it is neither of those things. The collection of texts that we are given as representative of a country are always a portion of the whole, and not always the most representative portion, either. Many Japanese cartoons and video games have little or nothing to do with the problematic  narratives espoused above; Super Mario may present women as damsel-objects to be rescued, but it doesn’t reward your efforts with a still shot of Princess Peach in a teddy (unless there is a very special level to that game I never found).

So if Japan isn’t a non-stop porn shop, than why is it perceived that way? Neo-Liberalism. Seriously. The  Neo-Liberal economic project suggests that market-driven specialization is the natural fate of an increasingly globalized world economy. As a part of this process, nations are assigned roles based on what they are “best at.” This is why most cars that are “Made in America” are made in large portion from parts manufactured elsewhere. This Neo-Liberal specialization has begun to bleed over into the production and exportation of cultural texts as well. Look at Hollywood’s international reputation: in other countries, America is the birthplace of huge, wasteful, spectacular summer action films and little else. Try to tell the average non-American about subtle indie films or clever Apatow-esque grossout comedies, and their eyes will glaze over. America makes Iron Man and John Carter, and that’s all, as far as the world is concerned (this argument oversimplifies, but you get the point).

Japan makes all kinds of things. It makes quirky documentaries about the complicity of their nation in WWII atrocities (The Emperor’s Naked Army Martches On). It makes silly comedies about sumo wrestling (Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t). It makes teen comedies (Kamikaze Girls) and social issue films (Battle RoyaleGo) and movies about pop music (Linda, Linda). It even makes several animated series about sports (Prince of TennisPrincess Eight). But all the internet seems to see is the porn and the smut, and it makes for a startlingly incomplete picture.

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WRPG/JRPG/RPG Part One: Orientalism

So I’ve decided to break up what will most likely be my epic post about the idea of the JRPG into several posts. This is because I have a lot to say on the subject. I still need to finish the Extra Credits series on the same subject, so I feel that I’m not ready to respond to their specific claims as of yet (blame my two senior theses). Moreover, there are several important issues involved, so I feel that it is best to respond to them in a compartmentalized fashion.

For those of you who don’t understand the distinction between WRPGs and JRPGS, but still feel compelled to read a long internet screed on the subject, what is being discussed here is two styles of video games. RPG, in this context, refers to a style of computer game dominated by statistical concerns that are rather more transparent to the player than in other styles. In an RPG, your avatar (character) consists of an icon and a series of numbers measuring the icon’s supposed ability at various tasks. This distinction is important, because most other games go to lengths to hide the statistical values that they run on from the player. A first person shooter measures avatar aptitude in numbers as well: X gun does Y damage against Nazi with Z hit points/health. The player is typically not told these values directly though; at best, the player gets graphs or lines showing the relative values of the performance of various things. For a long time RPGs were also distinguished by their relatively complex character advancement methods, whereby an RPG character would gain new powers through acquiring various points for various actions, as well as through relatively deep “gear” systems that let players customize the loadout of their characters by finding progressively better items of equipment. Recent action games, however, have co-opted these tropes, blurring the lines between RPGs and games of other genres. WRPG refers to games made in a style common to Western design studios, whereas JRPG refers to games made in a style popularized by Japanese studios.

Now the theory portion of today’s blog. There was once a dude named Edward Said. This dude was a scholar with an interest in English literature. He was also of Middle-Eastern descent. He became interested in the literature of colonialism, which is to say, literature which derived from or addressed the period in which Western powers exerted physical hegemony over other peoples and landmasses. He decided to write the definitive postmodern critique of East/West relations as enacted in culture; thus was born his most influential and well-known work, Orientalism.

Orientalism was a book describing an attitude Said contends typifies East/West relationships. Conveniently, Said labels this attitude Orientalism. Orientalism, according to Said, is a way of knowing foreign cultures through reduction and Othering. In the process of Orientalism, the Middle East was transformed (in Western understanding) from a vibrant collection of vastly differing cultures into a homogeneous landmass with a set of traits defined as existing in opposition to the West. Said’s Orientalism creates a set of dichotomies between East and West – where the West is strong, the East is weak; where the West is masculine, the East is feminized; where the West is hard, the East is soft. Moreover, the portrait of the East as feminine and diffident also allowed Western authors to portray the East as perverse and ignorant. All of this cultural creation served as an elaborate justification for Western colonial rule over the East.

Japan was never a Western colony, and yet many of the same attitudes evident in Said’s critique of 19th and 20th century European literature apply to the WRPG/JRPG distinction. JRPGs are often described by their critics as idiosyncratic, weird, and formulaic. They are portrayed as perverse and restrictive. The (mostly male) lead characters are derided as overly concerned with strange fashion and too feminine. In these lines of criticism, I find echoes of Said’s Orientalism. This is most evident in the names involved: the JRPG is specifically, nationalistically, racially coded as “Japanese,” whereas the WRPG is coded as the relatively international and nonspecific “Western.” Thus Japan is specifically excluded from the normalizing Western world, which further exists as a threat to other cultural producers: stay within our rigidly defined boundaries or we might decide to exclude and deride you as well. Further, the JRPG is feminized by the ways in which its iconic avatars are coded, and made alien by the labels of perversion and idiosyncrasy.

Now it should be noted here that the presence of Orientalism does not mean that the WRPG/JRPG dichotomy is innately false. It just serves as a marker that something is amiss in this easy categorization. The main problem Said had with Orientalism is that it is a way of knowing that obfuscates important truths from us; I feel that the presence of Orientalist signifiers in the RPG dichotomy similarly shows that this way of viewing RPGs is overly reductive and inhibits insightful commentary. I hope that by showing this Orientalism, I have helped you, my loyal readers, see through the easy categories presented by the media. In the next few articles (at least two more), I plan on articulating my arguments and actually addressing the relative truth values of the dichotomy head-on. Stay tuned!

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What ARE Midi-chlorians?: Why Explaining Things Is A Bad Idea

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace is a film that many fans are unkind to. And not without reason. Without engaging in a protracted review (which isn’t really the purpose of this blog), it is fair to say that the film fell short of the (perhaps unrealistic) expectations of its fan base. This occurred for many reasons, most of which I will not be detailing here.

One problem in the film, which I would like to use here as a jumping-off point, is a single line of dialogue: young Anakin Skywalker’s “I’ve been wondering. What are Midi-chlorians?” The line is uttered, seemingly out of the blue, during a conversation Anakin is having with Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn. Qui-Gon answers the question at length, explaining to the young Force-user that Midi-chlorians are microorganisms that produce the spectacular powers used by the Jedi and their Sith adversaries.

This seemingly innocuous exchange, in my opinion, does immesurable harm to the Star Wars franchise. Previous to this conversation, the Force acted as a plot device. The Force did whatever the creators of the franchise wanted it to. There were no real limits on its potency; this is fine, because plot devices exist only to move forward the plots to which they are attached. Thus Obi-Wan can use the Force to sense the deaths of billions of people but cannot exert it to defeat Darth Vader at the end of New Hope. Audiences generally don’t question these kinds of plot devices, since they function less as expositional elements rooted in reality and more as preconditions upon which plots depend. The purpose of the Force is to allow action to happen; the important parts of it are that it allows dudes and ladies to jump around with laser swords and lift crap with their mind, not that it is generated by sci-fied versions of bacteria and organelles.

This seems like a minor quibble, but it is a thread that can be followed throughout a wide variety of genre work. One other narrative arena in which the tendency to explain plot devices works to the detriment of the text is the superhero genre, both in comics and in film. Elaborate origin stories, though something of a necessity, tend to come off a bit flat. Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film spends something like an hour setting up Peter Parker’s origin. The problem with this is that Spider-Man’s backstory contains precisely two important bits of information – Peter got his powers from a radioactive spider bite, and Peter decided to use his powers for good after his uncle is killed by a robber. The rest of Peter Parker’s personality traits (his nerdiness, his crush on Mary Jane, his sarcastic wit) are less elements of his backstory and more active character traits to be shown in the present of the film. Comics, in a way, have a historical advantage in telling this kind of story; as episodic fiction, they can spend a few issues telling us a story about how the hero came to be. But even this seems to be something that many comics creators are edging away from, as they discover something that filmmakers have long known: exposition and backstory are crutches of weak storytelling.

The harm done by such explanations is that they pull their viewers out of the diagetic world (that is, the world within the text). If the Force has an explanation that seemingly echoes a naturalistic scientific view of the world, than what about the film’s employment of faster-than-light travel? Or its bizarre alien races – how could the Hutts as a species have avoided mass starvation due to immobility? Opening the door to one question opens the door to many others. Filmmakers, take my advice: lay off that cocaine, and leave your McGuffins alone.

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Hungry For Life, Thirsty For Racism: The Hunger Games and the Unmarked Category

Okay, so I lied in the last blog post where I claimed I would be doing my epic post about modern computer RPGs. As it turns out, I spent Spring Break sleeping in until three in the afternoon and watching Babylon 5 DVDs. So sue me. I’ll get around to the big RPG article one of these days.

In the meantime, a weird little controversy has sprung up around a movie that works well as an illustration of one of those points of theory that I love so much. The Hunger Games, aka Battle Royale light, came out last week to astonishingly awesome box office numbers, probably causing Hollywood to begin to contemplate starting blockbuster season a month earlier next year. The movie is based on a book, for those of you who live in a cave, and is supposed to have three sequels in the works. Now, I haven’t seen the movie yet or read the books, but for the sake of this argument, that is unimportant.

The controversy around the film is centered on the casting of actors of color to play major parts in the film. Web site Jezebel.com has an excellent summery of the issue, as does Racialicious.com. For those of you who can’t be bothered to click through, basically, Twitter was afire recently with people upset at the choice to cast a young African-American woman in the role of Rue, as well as the inclusion of Jewish icon Lenny Kravitz as Cinna. The first problem with the comments of these fans is that, in the books (as excerpts posted on both the sites linked above prove), both characters are described as dark-skinned. Presumably these readers assumed that Rue and Cinna were just tan.

As the rest of the internet seems to have done a decent job lambasting the Twitterers for their inaccuracy, I’m not going to go into that. Rather, I am going to take this opportunity to discuss an element of theory known as the unmarked category. In brief, the unmarked category is the category of the default, the category which is assumed to apply. In the case of race in America, the unmarked category is white. The easiest way to filter out the unmarked category is to think of it in terms of how an average member of a society would describe somebody; in America, a comedian might be described as a “Black comic” or a “Hispanic comic,” but not typically as a “Caucasian comic.” Whiteness is assumed, and any deviation from this norm has to be called out.

The unmarked category is behind the racism present in these Tweets. Let’s be charitable for a moment, and assume that the Twitterers (you know what, I’m just going to call them the Twits from here on out) skimmed over the character descriptions that clearly portray Rue and Cinna as people of color. That’s reasonable; honestly, I often go over character descriptions quickly myself, as I prefer characterization through action. In that case, the Twits built a picture in their heads free of input from the author. And in that picture, all the characters they loved so much were white as the driven snow. Then, when the makers of the Hunger Games film made casting choices for those two characters that accurately reflected the source material, the Twits decided to complain in highly-racialized terms, making it clear that they were incapable of admitting people of color into their mental world. That’s pretty messed up. Two of the comments in particular stand out to me: someone claiming that Rue’s death is less sad because she is black, and another claiming that Lenny Kravitz is incapable of portraying Cinna because the character is supposed to be kind. Both of these comments reflect noxious cultural sub-currents; both of them shown the effects of the normalizing power of the unmarked category.

The next time someone says we live in a post-racial society, you might want to remind them of this.

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A Tale of Two Effects: ME3 and Kuleshov

So Commander Shepard walks into a cafe on the Citadel, and Kaiden is there to meet him. This version is a Maleshep, bald with a grizzled face that belies his Paragon status. Kaiden has sent Shepard an e-mail suggesting the rendezvous. During their conversation, it becomes clear that Kaiden’s interest is more than friendly – Kaiden has invited the protagonist to the cafe in order to make a declaration of love. Some might say that this declaration is ill-advised. This Shepard, after all, has just renewed his relationship with dangerous ex-Cerberus operative/male gaze object Miranda. But this isn’t an article about why Kaiden is infatuated with Shepard. This is an article about Russian film theory and its application in modern game design.

Lev Kuleshov was the grandfather of Russian Montage, often considered to be the world’s first school of film theory. The Montage theorists, such as Eisenstein and Pudovkin, examined the ways in which the intersections of shots through cuts led to the creation of a product greater than the sum of its constituent elements. The Russian Montage theorists were not academics; rather, they were a group of filmmakers committed to understanding their medium through experimentation. Kuleshov, who taught Eisenstein at one point, is best known for a theoretical construct known as the Kuleshov Effect. Kuleshov cut together a short film featuring shots of a human face intercut with other meaningful images, such as a casket. Kuleshov then asked the viewers to describe the human faces in the various shots. The trick to the effect is that there were no different facial shots at all; Kuleshov simply reused footage of the same actor, whom Kuleshov had asked to remain as expressionless as possible. The viewers; however, characterized the face as demonstrating different emotions at different times. For example, the shot that followed the casket was characterized by many viewers as a face expressing profound grief. The lesson of the experiment is that visual information is perceived by viewers in a way that is deeply informed by other visual information.

During Kaiden’s confession of love, Mass Effect 3 makes extensive use of shot/reverse shot constructions, a technique familiar to anyone who has watched any movie ever. In the reverse, Shepard reacts to what Kaiden is saying. However, the game must serve two masters here. Some players will want Shepard to look receptive to Kaiden’s overtures, while others will want Shepard to reject the hapless biotic. Since the game can’t really predict which path the player wants to take, the programmers present us with a more-or-less blank-faced Shepard. The player is then free to project attentive lust, awkward embarrassment, disgust, or whatever else the player wants onto it. What interests me is the extension of the Kuleshov Effect into other arenas that this shows: the player’s projection of emotion is based less on other visual information and more on the greater experience that the player brings to the game. Clearly, the principles of the Kuleshov Effect extend beyond visual information; the player’s view of the events unfolding is deeply rooted in their overall life experience, as well as their perception of Shepard as a character.

P.S.: Hopefully this weekend I will be writing my epic rant on “JRPGs” as a genre; I was going to wait a while to do so, but Extra Credits have recently posted a three-part video series that I want to respond to. Stay tuned!

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Pontypool And Other Zombie Films: Nothing To Do With The Living Dead

I’ve been thinking lately about the film Pontypool. If you haven’t seen it (and, odds are, unless you are a serious horror fan with a Netflix streaming account, you haven’t), the film is a brilliant piece of cinema about a small town besieged by a unique foe – a linguistic virus which turns its victims into cannibalistic psychopaths. All of you should go watch it immediately as it is excellent. But this is not a review; I don’t really want to do reviews here as I find most reviews pretty boring. Instead, I want to talk about the zombie-film genre, and why Pontypool fits into it.

The modern zombie genre has its roots in the Dead films of George Romero, which are still the gold standard by which other zombie films are judged. In fact, Romero’s films redefined the term “zombie.” Before Romero, the zombies that appeared in movies were almost exclusively “voodoo zombies:” zombies animated by the magical powers of a voodoo priest. In Romero’s films, the zombies (also called ghouls or the walking or living dead) are corpses animated by some outside force, with its origins presumably within the bailiwick of modern science (hilariously, a precident for this can be found in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space). Without the direction of a sentient leader, Romero’s zombies function as a chaotic force, more akin to a natural phenomenon than a creature with will and subjectivity. In Romero’s movies, the dead are a horrifying, unstoppable tide, the abject come to claim us as its own.

The film 28 Days Later inadvertently changed the zombie landscape in a controversial way. 28 Days features a society-destroying event similar to that of the Romero films, in that it features a horde of unreasoning, ravenous creatures that are the result of a drastic change to the human form. The difference between the two is that the creatures in 28 Days were still alive. The film’s primary conceit is that a bizarre disease, the Rage Virus, has infected England. The disease triggers “rage centers” in the human brain, provoking aggressive and insane behavior. So, are these zombies?

The Wikipedia talk page for the article on 28 Days Later serves as a record of the controversy. Editors advocating both sides post long screeds and lists of links supporting their views. Ad hominum attacks fly on both sides of the divide, with users calling each other “idiots” and worse. Why all the vitriol? Perhaps it is because zombie films, for many, signify a source of sub-cultural capital that defines an identity shaped by a strong outsider ideal. Perhaps old-guard zombie fans feel encroached upon by the movement of the cultural mainstream to absorb zombie texts, represented here by an arty British film co-opting the genre’s style. This, however, is worthy of note and bears repeating: 28 Days Later is clearly and recognizably a zombie film, regardless of whether any actual zombies are in it.

Genres are sometimes hard to define, precisely because we know them so intuitively. I am reminded of the famous statement by Supreme Justice Stewart about pornography (a genre closely related to horror): “I know it when I see it.” Genre definitions are always ex post facto, and thus take careful scholarship and a level head. With these caveats in mind, I am going to venture a definition of the zombie genre and its tropes that will explain the instinctive inclusion of such films as 28 Days and Pontypool in the genre.

1) Zombie is a genre, not a sub-genre. Sub-genres fit neatly within the overriding category provided by their master genre. Zombie films contain strong elements of horror film, and certainly the original Dead films can be conceived of as a horror sub-genre.  But zombie films also contain strong elements of other genres, most notably the disaster genre (wherein a small group of people must survive an implacable attack by a natural force).  Other zombie films contain comedic tropes (Shaun of the DeadDead AliveFido). I can even think of one zombie film that fits within the indie dramedy genre (Make Out With Violence). This suggests to me that the modern zombie film is best detached from its parent genre, set loose into this mean ol’ world to find its own fate.

2) Zombie films deal in the uncanny and the abject. The concept of the uncanny and the abject comes to us through the works of notable coke fiend Sigmund Freud and impenetrable Frenchie theorist Julia Kristeva. The uncanny is that which should be familiar, but is not; an uncanny moment in one of existential dread where our connection to events and perception of causal reality breaks down. The abject is that which is between the subject and object, a thing that has characteristics of both the animate and the inanimate. A zombie is uncanny because it resembles us and yet is not us; a zombie is abject because the state of it reminds us that our lives inevitably build towards our own transition between subject and object, and life and death. The zombie is the moment of death extended, in which the corpse has volition and movement but is no longer human in the fundamental ways that it operates.

3) The zombie is not the main character; rather, the zombie is the ocean that surrounds the main character. The video game industry has an interesting term that it applies to many zombie video games: Survival Horror. Although I feel that this term is perhaps best left in the realm of electronic games, it has merits as a descriptor. It points out that the zombies of the zombie film serve less as an active, dynamic menace (like the Universal Monsters), and more as a hazardous condition that affects the lives of the film’s human protagonists. This is the point at which zombie meets disaster; a zombie horde has more in common with a volcanic eruption than Dracula.

4) Miscellaneous. Zombie films often take place in an isolated location, like a shack or an island. Zombie films typically involve a group cut off from communication with the larger society, either due to lack of access to technology, or due to the breakdown of civilization. Authority and institutional structure is usually helpless in a zombie film, or at least ineffective when compared to individual action. The cause of the zombie film’s crisis is often topical, with such plot devices as alien microbes or bio-warfare Frankenweapons; sometimes the outbreak is the result of the unscrupulous or unwise actions of those in power. Frequently the zombie films invoke a criticism of reason and rationality. Common character types include an everyman protagonist; an innocent, often a young girl; the family seeking to protect the innocent; a businessman or military commander who turns out to be fundamentally immoral; a military “grunt” who is rough around the edges, but grows to love the other survivors (and often sacrifices him or herself at the film’s conclusion); the ineffectual scientist, and the cold-hearted killer.

Obviously the work of genre definition requires more work than can be reasonably done in a blog entry. Nor am I the only person, or even the only academically-minded nerd, to hold an opinion on these matters. But I hope that this entry proves a useful entry point into the debate for those who read it.

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God Stuff: Some Documentaries About Religion and Bias

I recently watched two Netflix-available documentaries about the Christian faith: Lord, Save Us From Your Followers and The God Who Wasn’t There. Both make interesting arguments, and both contain flaws. Both also serve as excellent illustrations of the formal properties of the documentary form, which I will address in this post.

Documentaries are often held up in modern society to the standards of journalism. That is to say, they are expected to be free of bias. There are a couple of problems with this. For starters, the journalistic standard of non-biased reportage is total BS. Bias arises from the singularity of the human perspective; in other words, bias is the expression of the perspective of the individual. To expect a non-biased perspective is to expect a perspective without perspective, which is satisfyingly Zen, but not particularly possible. Sensible reporters will admit this impossibility, and simply try to present the most unbiased perspective that they are capable of. Even more sensible reporters will cop to their own biases, so that the reader/watcher/whatever can judge the validity of the reportage for themselves.

The second problem with documentaries and the issue of bias is that the strengths of film get in the way. Every medium of communication has its own set of strengths; the power of film lies in its ability to echo the structure of human memory. Films play like a record of our own recollections, in that they show us events through the two senses that make up most of our daily experiences (sight and sound), but also organize the raw stuff of experience through cuts and temporal ellipses. As such, the strength of film is that it can recreate subjective, singular experience. This is counter-productive to the elimination of bias; after all, our daily experiences are constructed almost entirely out of subjective, biased perceptions of event.

Lord, Save Us From Your Followers was not quite the film I was expecting. The Netflix description led me to believe that it would be a sustained critique of Christianity, which is not entirely accurate. Instead, the film is a critique of modern fundamentalist American Christianity. The interesting thing about the film is that the filmmaker, Dan Merchant, is a self-described evangelical Christian. The film talks about how the core of Christian doctrine is a gospel of love, and accuses modern Christian leaders of failing to demonstrate that doctrine when speaking to the world. Merchant doesn’t take the easy dodge of putting the responsibility for these failing on others, either; he takes some of the blame onto himself, most notably in a “reverse-confession” segment in which Merchant apologizes to attendees at a gay pride festival for the failure of Christianity to address them with love (as well as for the efforts to block their access to civil rights and institutions). The film feels personable and accessible, and the director’s ownership of his own bias and perspective contributes to the charm substantially.

The God Who Wasn’t There also features an inaccurate Netflix description: the streaming browser claims that it features noted religious critic/smug jerk Richard Dawkins, but apparently Dawkins only appears in the special features of the DVD release, not in the documentary proper. TGWWT fails in several other ways as well. Its most glaring flaw is its inability to own up to its bias; the director and narrator, Brian Flemming, spends a good half an hour (half of the film’s short run time) discussing the subject before he feels it necessary to mention that his own roots lie in a fundamentalist church and school that taught a very specific version of Christian theology. He doggedly refuses to accept any interpretation of the Bible that goes against what he was taught as a child, a dogmatic conceit that he shares with the people he spends so much time criticizing. In the film’s finale, Flemming goes to the school he attended as a child to confront the current superintendent (the film does not discuss whether this superintendent was the same man in charge of the school during Flemming’s day). During the interview, Flemming rapidly drifts from a discussion of theology and education into a series of emotionally-charged attacks on the school and the Christian faith. The superintendent makes it clear that Flemming did not reveal beforehand that he was a returning alumni. When the superintendent walks out on the interview, my sympathies are with him; Flemming has lied to me as a viewer as well, pretending through most of his film to be interested in an examination of a facinating subject while hiding an agenda born of personal pain and dogmatism.

LSUFYF works as a documentary because it confronts its bias up front; TGWWT fails because it it tries to hide its irrational perspective behind a veneer of reason. LSUFYF gained my sympathies, despite the fact that I am not an evangelical Christian, because it doesn’t try to conceal what it is. As a result, I have a new perspective on evangelicals that allows me to see the possibility of incorporating them into modern society. Heck, the film even manages to make presidential hopeful/crazy crazypants Rick Santorum seem reasonable. TGWWT lies to us in an attempt to hook us before we have all the facts, and is quite dislikable as a result. It is hard to imagine the film winning anyone over to Flemming’s beliefs; it certainly failed to convince this non-atheist. In fact, the film makes me less sympathetic to atheism as a general cause. A documentary that only appeals to those who already agree with its premise is a particularly ugly form of masturbation, without purpose or useful function.

P.S.: In preparing to write this essay, I read several of the reviews on IMDB of both films. Don’t ever do this. If ever there was a proof as to the innate worthlessness of film reviews, it is the user review section of IMDB.

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Mass Effect 3, White Knight Chronicles, and Protagonism

Since my primary interest in media is in film, I thought I’d spend my first real blog post talking about video games. No, really, that makes sense.

Recently, electronic gaming giant/tyrannical corporate villain EA released the third and ostensibly final (yeah, right) entry in their Mass Effect franchise. For those of you out there who have lives and meaningful things to do with your time, the Mass Effect franchise is a science-fiction universe. It’s primary texts are a video game series. In the games, players take the role of Commander Shepard, a generic sci-fi hero who is the lone voice predicting the coming onslaught of the super-evil Reapers (seriously, what kind of species allows itself to be referred ti as the Reapers? It’s like they want you to hate them…). Game three is the payoff to the series, in which the Reapers actually invade Earth. Shepard is tasked with gathering allies and saving the planet.

First, one quibble: an event in the game puts recurrent computer program/character EDI into a humanoid robot body. A sexy female humanoid robot body. The Mass Effect series is already well-known for the perversion of its fanbase; with this character, developer Bioware is making it clear that they wholeheartedly embrace that perversion.

But the more important point I want to make here is on the issue of protagonism; that is, the process by which a character acts as a protagonist. The Mass Effect franchise allows its players to customize the appearance of Shepard, choosing a gender and face for the character. Players are also allowed to make decisions regarding his or her actions, moving Shepard towards either the Paragon (Gallant) or Renegade (Goofus) tracks. But the events of the story require certain actions; whatever choices you make, Shepard has to save the Earth. Although I have yet to beat the game, I know that by the end, Shepard will somehow defeat the Reapers and save the day. The only other ending is the “game over” screen you get when you die.

The opening of the game is framed by a child. Shepard first sees the child from a distance, out of a window. Later, Shepard finds the child hiding from the Reaper attack on Earth. The child runs away, asserting that Shepard cannot help him. Finally, the child appears again as Shepard is being evaced. The kid climbs on to an escape shuttle, but is killed when a Reaper war machine destroys the craft. This scene is clearly supposed to have emotional resonance (Shepard later has a flashback dream to the incident), but the autopilot nature of the cutscenes in which the subject is introduced renders it inert. Shepard can’e ever save the child, and there is never even the suggestion that he or she can. Games as a medium are about simulation, and Mass Effect 3 often seems more like an epic film which the player is watching than an interactive game.

As a contrast, I would like to discuss White Knight Chronicles. This game, released some time ago now, is a Japanese role-playing game (I refuse to use the term JRPG, for reasons that I may rant about at some other time). Like ME3White Knight Chronicles allows the player to customize an avatar, although WKC allows the player freedom to customize the body as well as the face (including a slider that increases a female avatar’s bust size; stay classy, White Knight Chronicles). The game’s narrative, like that of ME3, involves a “chosen one” story in which only a specific individual can save the world. The strange thing about WKC is that the avatar is not this character. Instead, the avatar’s co-worker, Leonard, is the special world savior who unlocks the magic robot armor; the avatar mostly just stands quietly in the background, a single player-chosen expression on his or her face. The game almost works like a satire of the concept of the hero as expressed in narrative video games. It is a strangely distancing experience, although not an altogether unpleasant one.

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Welcome to the Island

So welcome, one and all, to my blog! I’ve been thinking for years about starting this thing up, and I’ve finally done it. Good for me.

In this first entry, I feel compelled to set out some rules for you, my hypothetical future readers. Mostly because I am a contentious jerk, and don’t want to deal with complaints later. So pay attention, please.

1) I am going to write about a diversity of subjects: movies, books, comics, television shows, music, and video games. I group all of these things together under the title media texts. I may also move out into other topics, specifically fan culture and other nerdy topics. If these subjects do not interest you, well, move along. Nothing to see here.

2) See the name at the top of the blog there? Spoiler Island. I plan on spoiling the crap out of anything I talk about. To this end: Darth Vader is Luke’s father, the chick in The Crying Game is a dude, and Bruce Willis is dead. It is my considered opinion that any movie, show, or book that is ruined by the revelation of some plot element is not a particularly good media text in the first place. If you don’t like that, well, don’t read. Bye.

3) I am, as my description states, an ACADEMIC nerd. This means that I deal with the texts that I study in an academic way, discussing them as works worthy of deep consideration. I do this without regard for whether the work in question is Citizen Kane or Puppet Master 6. I have long and involved reasons for thinking that works should be analyzed this way; I am not interested in reproducing those arguments here. Some people seem to get offended when writers take things like comic books or video games seriously. If you are one of those people, get lost. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.

So, now that I’ve set a few ground rules, let the blog begin!

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