Monthly Archives: October 2019

Arthur Fleck and Emmet Brickowski

I saw Joker this week. It’s a movie that’s exceptionally well crafted, and also a movie that’s profoundly disturbed and ill-equipped to handle its subject matter to the point where it enters into the realm of very bad taste. This movie is one that kinda really hates women and also merrily parrots the idea that mentally ill loners are the cause of mass shootings but ultimately doesn’t have anything to say about anything, left me feeling really icky as I left the cinema.

So maybe let’s talk about something else I also did this week that I did really like: putting together a LEGO set while listening to music and drinking a beer. The set, Emmet’s Dream House/Rescue Rocket, is based on The LEGO Movie 2, and is, um, exactly what it sounds like. I built the Dream House (you can choose which one!) because it’s absolutely adorable. Though it ultimately plays a minor role in the film, Emmet’s Dream House is actually pretty dang important to his arc in the film.

The LEGO Movie 2 exchanges Bricksburg of the first movie for Apocalypseburg, a world where everything is dark, bleak, and edgy. Except for Emmet. He builds a house on the edge of town for him and Lucy. This house, by the by, is not dissimilar to a house they crashed through shortly after they first met in the prior movie. Which is a very cute touch because, hey, history. Now Lucy hasn’t got any time for domestic tranquility, because this is not what their life is about (it’s dark and broody!), and so dismisses Emmet out of hand.

When Lucy, Batman, Benny, and several other characters get captured by General Mayhem, it’s up to Emmet to go after them. But he needs a ship. So, using his Master Builder skills, he takes apart his dream house and rebuilds it into a rocket (a rescue rocket) to go save his friends. He’s quite explicitly dismantling his dreams in favor of doing the right thing, since, well, they’re worth it. In space, however, he runs into trouble and is saved by the enigmatic, badass Rex Dangervest. Unlike Emmet, Rex is a Master Breaker — a skill he demonstrates by destroying Emmet’s Rescue Rocket.

Rex is undeniably cool: he’s edgy, he has pet raptors, he’s wise to the world and everything Emmet is not. Emmet wants to be him because, hey, that’s what the world of Apocalypseburg needs now, right? It’s 2019; heroes are anti-heroes, it’s a crappy place, and there’s no space for the happy-go-lucky Emmet. Building stuff’s not cool; breaking stuff is.

Joker is a weird movie in that its protagonist’s fate is to become an iconic villain, not terribly unlike Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels. But once Revenge of The Sith sees Anakin’s (poorly executed) arc reach his fall, the movie neither lionizes him nor wants us to sympathize with him. We’re not cheering him on as he massacres children in the Jedi Temple or slaughters the Separatist leadership, we’re supposed to mourn his fall from grace. Joker, however, has Arthur cross a line quite early on and asks us to stay on board with him even as he (and the film) goes more off the rails.

Using a vague, unnamed mental illness to ask for the audience’s sympathy, the movie almost wants to bill itself as The Portrait of the Mass-Murderer As a Young Man, though with not point to its depravity other than “look what society made him do.” Joker’s murders are portrayed as him lashing out from his patheticness, a hurting man gaining the semblance of control. It sparks a movement of sorts, with others taking up the cause of a killer clown who puts the wealthy in their place. But here too the movie is muddled. There are only two camps the movie will let you, the viewer, fall into: either you are part of the system that tramples downtrodden people like Arthur, or you are a member of the downtrodden for whom Joker is your martyrial icon. The latter an extrapolation; the film’s finale sees Joker’s unconscious body carried by rioters like a perverse Pietá, and the unruly masses watch him in vigil.

The Joker is a fantastic villain. Mark Hamill’s portrayal of him in the Batman cartoons and Arkham Asylum video games offer a twisted, psychopathic maniac with outlandish plots to steal and destroy. The Dark Knight positioned the Joker as chaos personified, a Hobbesian foil to Batman’s belief in justice and order. That film, with its psyche split into the Freudian trio of Batman, Joker, and Harvey Dent, explored the idea of heroism and villainy, and whether goodness can stand in the face of men who just want to watch the world burn. Joker, conversely, has no such ideas, instead choosing to echo the manifestos of white terrorists I see on the news and play it off as some profound observation about life.

Forgive me, then, if I don’t enjoy a nihilistic film that hasn’t much more to say about nihilism than how it means nothing. Forgive me if I’d rather not watch a film that lionizes the lone gunman and reiterates that mental-illness is what causes mass shootings (it’s not). Forgive me if I’m sickened by a film that climaxes in a self-described mentally ill loner in clown makeup shooting in a theatre of people, barely seven years since a man in clown makeup shot up a theater in real life.

It turns out, in The LEGO Movie 2, that Rex is really an Emmet from the future, who grew disillusioned and believes that the only way to deal with anything is by being gruff and edgy, that there is no space for childish things. But Emmet realizes that, no, his hope and joy is valuable even in a terrible world. Dark grittiness only gets you so far, and expecting everything to be antagonistic and malicious only fosters more of the same. Taking stuff apart is cool and all, but where’s its worth without building something too? Amid an apocalyptic wasteland, it is worth building a bright yellow dream house for you and your loved ones.

This isn’t to say that isolating yourself from reality is the right course of action, far from it. The world’s terrible enough as it is, and though there are times when it’s worth it to engage with it thoughtfully. Emmet, and the other characters in The Lego Movie 2, come to realize that everything’s not awesome, but that doesn’t mean things are hopeless, turns out it’s still worth it to try and make things better, you can still choose joy. I do like a bleak and twisted story (Roald Dahl’s “Genesis and Catastrophe” comes to mind, alongside Taxi Driver and Spec Ops: The Line), but I like them to have a point to it all. Darkness can be used to highlight society’s ills and our own relation to them, but grimdark bleakness for its own sake is, ultimately, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

What I’ve Been Reading

I like reading. Always have.

University was both a boon and a hindrance for that love, though. Courtesy of my course of study, I read a lot. There were classes where I was going through a different book every two weeks. I read books that I might not have checked out of my own volition, like Jacques the Fatalist and Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook, along with books I’d wanted to read but never got around to, like Romance of Three Kingdoms and Ulysses. And that’s not even getting into the untold number of articles, excerpts, and the like that offered background and different points of view on, well, stuff.

Come graduation I didn’t have a  syllabus anymore and so didn’t really have much of a direction of what to read. So I read stuff I’d had lying around (Interpreter of Maladies) and books I’d wanted to read but hadn’t had time for (Ready Player One). But of course, there’s still that itch to read more, and, y’know, learn too. So I kept my eyes peeled for books on topics I found interesting. Interviews on The Daily Show led me to Ashley’s War and White Rage and a trip to the Museum of Chinese in America put me on course for my informal postgraduate study of the Chinese diaspora within the United States. For a while there I enforced a policy of one ‘serious’ book for every ‘fun’ book, so following up a Star Wars: Rogue Squadron book with a sociology book about tabletop RPGs, then Trevor Noah’s autobiography and then Ta-Nehesi Coates’ Between The World and Me. Sure, I was a little generous with my definitions, but hey, it forced me to read more ‘educational’ stuff.

After a while though, I longed to get back to reading a lot of science fiction and fantasy, genres that I love for so many reasons. But there was still the part of me that wouldn’t let me get away with just diving back into old comforts. So I gave myself a simple edict: read more science fiction and fantasy by authors who aren’t white guys. And let me tell you, that has been a wonderful decision.

I remember watching the credits for Arrival and noticing that it was based on a short story by someone with a Chinese last name. Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang was added to my reading list. His stories are fantastic. In addition to the titular one which plays with language and time in magnificent ways afforded only by written fiction, there’s also Division By Zero that posits a relationship falling apart alongside the basic laws of mathematics breaking down. Excellent, excellent genre work, but I wanted more.

I found out about Ken Liu with his short story “The Paper Menagerie” and shortly thereafter picked up his short story collection by the same name. Loving how he wives unique East-Asian themes into his stories, I sought out his epic fantasy book The Grace of Kings. The doorstopper sized book scratches the itch of the kid who read The Lord of The Rings over and over again and is always delighted when he opens a book to find a fantastical map. But what the book offered that others didn’t was its clear influence by historical Chinese epics like Romance of Three Kingdoms. Not only that but the books have a dramatic aesthetic that harkens more to the Chinese historical dramas that would play on my grandmother’s tv back in Singapore than whatever period drama is currently fashionable. Because why not base a fantasy series on ancient Chinese history?

One other way I’ve gone about finding new books to read has been by looking at websites’ lists of upcoming genre books, taking note of what interests me. It’s how I came upon S.A. Chakraborty and her book The City of Brass. It’s a fantastical book of magic and djinn — and one that draws on Muslim tradition at that. It’s a neat world and a refreshing approach to fantasy. I dug it, got the second book, and am eagerly awaiting the third once she finishes it.

I’m reading and reading a lot. At the risk of sounding hokey, I’m really enjoying reading new stories by people who aren’t usually the ones in the spotlight. And hey, learning new things is cool.

As I said, I like reading.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Fight For Your Life!

Borderlands 2 has a nifty mechanic called Fight For Your Life. Basically, when you run out of health, you’re not dead yet; instead, you have a little bit of time where you can crawl around and shoot while waiting for a revive. So far, not particularly different from some other games: Apex Legends lets a downed player move, open doors, and mark enemies until their timer runs out, and I know there’s at least one Call of Duty that lets you fight while bleeding out and waiting for a teammate’s revive. It’s a cool feature of competitive shooters: if you down an enemy do you wait it out and risk them being revived, or do you rush in and get the execution for more points (and bragging rights)? It forces the player to make a quick decision about what’s more tactically sound, and hey, more interesting choices are always welcome in a game.

The spin Borderlands 2 puts on it is that it takes the idea of fighting for your life literally. If you’re able to kill an enemy before your timer runs out, you’re instantly revived and back in the fight. It adds an interesting dimension to single player, where running out of health doesn’t mean a game over or having to return to your last checkpoint. Thus the player is now encouraged to be a little more reckless because of the chance for a self-revive. Combat priorities are also slightly shifted, when faced with a large group of enemies it’s not quite tactically sound to take out all the weaker enemies first before dealing with the more powerful one since you want an easy kill in case you have to fight for your life. But you don’t want to be overwhelmed by sheer numbers. It creates more choices and tactical options for the player in a firefight; options beyond shoot all that moves. Of course, end up in Fight For Your Life to often in an encounter and you’ll see that timer get shorter and shorter: don’t be too reckless else you’ll have to respawn anyway.

Multiplayer in Borderlands 2 offers yet another space for the strategic interestingness of Fight For Your Life shine. If a teammate goes down during a raid in Destiny it’s in your best interest to revive them quickly since you need their support and if that timer runs out you run the risk of wiping as a team and having to restart. In Borderlands 2, there’s a strategic boon to not reviving your teammate, since they may be able to revive themselves via Fight For Your Life. Risky strategies that involve splitting up become viable. Snap judgements become required, as a downed player can make the call whether or not they’ll be able to kill an enemy to get back in the fight, or if they need a revive. A player a distance away can soften up a foe to give a downed player an assist, but stealing a kill from a downed player can also rob them of their revive and lead to you reviving them as penance.

As my brother and I make our way through our third playthrough of Borderlands 2 (Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode for the win!), I’m noticing a lot of the little details and features of the game that set it apart from contemporary first-person shooters. Much of it is certainly its tone and integration of RPG features that add a nice dose of zaniness into it all. Fight For Your Life, though, is something I haven’t really seen replicated elsewhere, and it’s certainly a nifty addition that I really do enjoy.

Also, yelling “yoink!” into the mic as I steal my brother’s revive kill and before remorsefully reviving him myself will never not be funny.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized