Tag Archives: artificial family

Can Art Be Fun?

I’m still reading a bunch and my current book, Extra Lives, is essentially critical theory on video games as literature. This divide between what makes something ‘art’ is something I’m kinda big on, so it’s a fascinating read. There’s one thing that Tom Bissell says which struck me: that because video games must be, by nature, fun, they’re seen as being less artistic or literary than other mediums.

Which, well, kinda has a point. When was the last time you went to an art museum and had fun? And not the sorta fun you get from the unintentional humor of some paintings, but actual ‘fun’ (which is really hard to describe, has few cross-lingual analogues, and was explored heavily by Huizinga, but bear with me). Chances are slim that unless you’ve seen a particular statue of a man punching a horse in Vienna, you haven’t, and even that monument to equine assault was probably intended as serious. See, ‘high’ art is meant to inspire ponderings, not for you to have plebeian fun. You stand there, think, say a couple ‘mmhmm’s for good measure, and move on to the next one.

But that’s art, like art art; what about, say, books? The divide is even more stark there. No one’s gonna argue against Ulysses as a literary masterpiece, but at the same time it’s hard to describe it as being truly ‘fun.’ Enjoyable, maybe, but much of that pleasure probably stems from a mixture of latent masochism and the sunk cost fallacy. That and, y’know, trying to sound intelligent. But besides Ulysses (which I legitimately love), there are other Great Works by, say, Hemingway or Melville that you’d be hard pressed to describe as being legitimately enjoyable in and of themselves, especially when compared to ‘lesser’ genres like science fiction and fantasy. Point is, the Great Works can’t bother with the frivolities of fun-ness.

You even see this in comics, arguably already a ‘lesser’ form. Watchmen is heralded as one of the best comics ever and is all doom and gloom. Compare it to Sex Criminals, which is much brighter, much funnier, and much cruder, but takes its story no less seriously. Though Criminals is held in some esteem (TIME named it comic of 2013), it’s seen as being nowhere near as literary or iconic as Watchmen, perhaps due to its adult subject matter and relative newness, but probably also because it’s so goofy. Never mind that it deals with depression, intimacy, and a host of other things, it’s too silly and too fun to be considered serious art.

Which brings me to games. If a game’s not fun, you’re not gonna play it; plain and simple. Games have to be enjoyable on some level to maintain player involvement. Thus gaming becomes a very visceral experience, whether it’s your curiosity that’s been piqued by Gone Home, the sheer beauty of Journey, or the exhilaration that comes from fighting Covenant in Halo. It’s experiential on a level that no other medium is, and thus has to make the audience want to experience it for the sake of the experience (as opposed to, say, the story or visuals).

And here is where video games run up against the brick wall of literary merit. Games are, like Sex Criminals, seen as being simply too fun to be real literature. No matter how serious they are, by virtue of being leisurely they can’t be art. The Last of Us is a gripping story about fatherhood, loss, survival, and so much more that the player is forced to experience rather than just observe. Even when it’s at its darkest and bleakest, it remains ‘fun’ to play in the sense that the game works. No, the violence of the game mayn’t be enjoyable per se, but it holds your attention and makes you want to keep going. But because The Last of Us is ultimately a piece of software that’s developed and patched rather than born out of pure artistry like, say, a book; it’s relegated to being mere diversion. And because of that, it can’t really be art.

Which is a bummer. Because I think art should be enjoyable on at least some level. That much of what makes comics, well, comics is that it’s illustrated shouldn’t be a detractor, just as in order for a video game to work it has to be on some level fun. Writing off games because of that would be like lambasting books because you’ve gotta turn the page, or disliking Aaron Sorkin’s work because you insist on watching it with the sound off. Let’s get off our high horses and be willing to afford fun mediums their due; games can have all the mindless glee of Michael Bay (Army of Two: Devil’s Cartel) and the melancholic tenderness of The Fault in Our Stars (The Last of Us: Left’Behind*).

‘cuz hey, let’s enjoy it.

*Writer’s note: The Last of Us: Left Behind is arguably superior to The Fault In Our Stars, but I’m having trouble thinking of a good comparison. Blue Is The Warmest Color is remotely somewhat thematically related, but nowhere near as poignant as Left Behind; recent romantic films like About Time may be as tender and sweet, but they lack the beautiful tragedy of The Last of Us’ DLC. Perhaps Left Behind is remarkable on its own, not just as an extension of a game or as a story, but for being a piece of literature that is, frankly, incomparable.

But that’s a rant essay for another week.

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Leslie Knope: Friends, Family, Feminism

I’ve recently begun watching Parks and Recreation, and by recently begun I mean about five seasons in two weeks. The miracle of Netflix.

In any case, the show’s fantastic and I lack any sort of Netflix Binger’s Remorse (and wanna get caught up as soon as I can). One of the reasons it’s so great is its bucking of typical sitcom trends.Parks and Rec isn’t a mean show. Whereas a lot of other sitcoms, including the prior one with Greg Daniel’s name attached: The Office, create their comedic situations through conflict between the main characters, much of Parks’ humor comes from the outside. Thus in The Office you’d have one character trying to con over the other, to much amusement. The Big Bang Theory thrives on the rest of the group trying to get one over Sheldon. The Parks Department, however, is always a team. Sure, there will be parts where they compete, but it’s never malicious. They’re a team, a team against the frustrating citizens of Pawnee, the snooty residents of Eagleton, and other departments in their government.

This teamwork lends the characters a strong sense of family. Now, this isn’t there from the beginning, rather they grow into it — and their roles in said makeshift family — over the seasons. And here’s another thing Parks does that most sitcoms don’t: they let their characters change and develop. All of the main cast is surprisingly well rounded. Sure, some seem one note at first, but as the show progresses we get to know them more and find facets of them we would never have expected. When the gruff Ron shows that he cares, or as Chris grows less self-obsessed they feel more rounded and we can really watch their bonds form. It makes them feel more real.

Neither are the characters forced to remain professionally stagnant. Leslie doesn’t stay the deputy director of the Parks Department, instead the writers let her career progress. See, it’s a risky move, they’ve proved that the bunch of co-workers interacting works, but they’re willing to go past that formula (which also shows in the developing characters). Tom too ends up leaving the Parks Department and tries his hand at entrepreneurship. It’d be easy for a recurring joke to be his constant failures. Instead, we see Tom try his hand, and yes, we do see Tom fail, but we also see Tom make changes to his approach and outlook in order to eventually succeed. It’s refreshing and really cool to see happen in a sitcom.

Parks and Recreation is an inherently political show, albeit on the scale of the local city government of a small town in Indiana. Leslie Knope is very obviously a feminist. Yet the show doesn’t preach it at you. Rather, we see Leslie combatting sexism in the often very out of date systems of Pawnee. For example, Leslie’s approach to the very male gallery of councilmen isn’t to become disheartened renounce it as an Evil Symbol of The Patriarchy, rather she wants to change things by being the first woman on the board. Feminism in Parks is an active thing. There’s no lecturing and posturing about feminism about it, instead we see why we need it and what can be done. Furthermore, the show doesn’t get caught up in its hubris: Leslie may spout rhetoric on occasion, but she isn’t on some sort of a pedestal. She’s not perfect because of her beliefs, rather, she’s a relatively normal, multifaceted human being.

So yes, Parks and Recreation is such a refreshing show. I’d seen bits of it prior, but now I’m finally sitting down and blasting through it. It’s a great show, and I want more shows like it.

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Why I (seldom) Write About Ships

I grew up on a ship. I also like writing.

Now, these two should go hand-in-hand. Write about living on a ship, it’s what you know! But then, who lives on a ship. No one would believe that. So I write science fiction. Because it’s easier to believe folks living on a spaceship than on a real ship. Less time explaining stuff. Also, I really like science fiction.

But, and I do get asked this, why don’t I write about a real ship instead? After all, then I can reap the prestige literary fiction. Why do I waste my talents/history on science fiction?

Because, surprisingly, living on a ship is actually quite boring. Yes, you travel, but that’s hardly unique (you could do the same in a bus or plane). The actual parts of living on a ship are terribly routine. You wake up, go to school (or work, but I went to school), come home, read, homework, video games, eat, whatever, sleep. Whether we were in Sierra Leone or Barbados, that’s what we did. Life is life.

So what is it then that makes living on a ship special? Relationships. Bonds. The sense of a weird sort of family formed by virtue of having no one else.

Like in Firefly. I’ve found that show to be the most honest take on life on a ship. Sure, my ship was lacking in the fugitive doctors and smuggling part, but there was certainly that sense of community. On the show Jayne may antagonize Kaylee, but when the chips are down he’s as ready to protect her as the captain. Serenity’s crew has a decided “we’re in this together no matter what” mentality. Sometimes it touches on the idea of family, but, as cemented by Mal’s speech at the end of Serenity, it’s about making a home. You want a story about life on a ship? About what makes life on the ship special? Look at Firefly and Serenity.

But that feels pretty obvious, y’know, Serenity is a ship, of course it’s going to have parallels. What about when there’s no ship?

Well, this might explain one of the many reasons why I love Chuck. Over the series, Team Bartowski and the other characters slowly come together to form, well, a crew of sorts. Even though the lot of them don’t always get along, they’ve formed a sort of family. Yeah, it’s very similar to my example from Firefly above, but it’s that idea again. For much of the series Casey doesn’t even like Chuck, but again, will come through for him when it counts; as will the others for him. Everyone has this forged bond with each other. That’s the essence of life on a ship.

Sure, there’s the incredible sublime feeling of being in the middle of the ocean at night, the ship’s running lights extended less than a stone’s throw away; but it’s nothing that can’t be transported elsewhere or substituted. Because that’s just setting, it’s not the interesting part.

I suppose that’s one reason I love writing science fiction; it gives me liberty. If I want to explore the idea of home I can add a plot device that threatens it. Could be, say, a mysterious box that shows an alternate world. Wanna stress the bond between the Captain and his Bosun? Arrest one of them. There’s a great freedom in a world where you get to make the rules.

Not to say I don’t put everything in science fiction. One of my short stories I’m the most proud of is set in a small town (though there’s a ship in a character’s past) and the screenplay I’m working on with my brother is set in the real world, though on a boat. But the former is about coming home and the latter is about an adventure. Writing about a ship in and of itself is boring. It’d like be writing about everyday life in the suburbs or a city or anywhere.

But writing about home, about family, about leaving? That’s interesting. So I seldom set my writing aboard an actual ship; but I always write about life on a ship.


Writer’s Note: Yeah, did something this week. Something almost…bloggy. Stuff in this vein may show up again; for now it’ll have the tag ‘bloggish.’

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Time Doesn’t Flow Linearly

Well, actually time does go linearly in real life. But this is fiction I’m talking about. Y’know  those stories where events are told in the order of the sequence of events? Well this isn’t about that.

Lost’s early episodes followed a basic format: focus particularly on one character on the Island all the while showing us flashbacks to their life before. We see Sawyer’s escapades as a con man while we see him attempting to pull a con now. Charlie failed repeatedly when he was given responsibility, so now he’s trying desperately to prove himself worthy on the island. By juxtaposing who they were before with who they are now, we’re given a very clear picture of the character. Telling it in the order it happened just wouldn’t be the same. Flashbacks (and flashforwards) aside, Lost also used the character Desmond – a man unstuck in time – to tell stories that took place all over a timeline. This wasn’t for exposition or drama, it was the earnest story of a man trying to get his mind to stay still.

But enough harping about Lost. Let’s chart new territory!

Firefly* has an episode, “Out of Gas”, which stands as probably my favorite (*y’know what I said about charting new territory? I lied). It’s my favorite since it really hammers home the constant theme of being an Artificial Family, but it’s a fantastic achievement in storytelling. See, the story does not take place in ‘order.’ There are three concurrent storylines: the ‘present’, the train of events leading up to the ‘present’, and the moment when each member of the crew joined the ship.

It’s vital for the episode. “Out of Gas” is about the crew and their bond, so we need to see motivation. It’s also needed to build tension in the plot. The more we see of how Mal got to be bleeding out in a derelict Serenity the more invested we become — especially when we see him thinking back on meeting his crew.

But the thing with telling a story out of order is that it can quickly become confusing as to just which parts are happening when. “Out of Gas” skillfully avoids confusion by giving each ‘timezone’ it’s own palette. The ‘present’ is very cool; lots of blues dominate the scene. The sequence of events leading up to the ‘present‘ — Simon’s birthday celebration and so on — is relatively untouched. The past is very saturated; colors are brighter and richer, almost dreamlike. This color washing means that we can instantly tell when each scene would be set linearly. Combined with deft writing and setups that informs us whether each part takes place way before, before, or now, we never get lost in the storytelling. The end result is a beautiful episode about family and Home that wouldn’t have worked any other way.

So now let’s take it another step further. What if a whole movie were set in anachronistic order?

Enter (500) Days of Summer. Y’know how when you look back on a relationship or a period of your life it doesn’t quite come back in the order it happened? Yeah, this movie is like that. We start on Day 488 of Tom and Summer’s relationship, which is long after they’ve ‘broken up’ (it’s complicated). Then we see Day 1, then we go forward 200 odd days, then back to Day 7. The movie avoids temporal confusion in two ways. First off, the movie’s incredibly postmodern. We have a narrator reminding us here and there as well as title cards that pop up most of the time to introduce a new day (be it forward or backward in time). Second: Tom and Summer’s relationship happens in stages. Are Tom and Summer in the flirty stage? Then it’s in the early days.  Are they really close? Towards the middle. Tom trying to win her back? A bit later. Trying desperately to get over her? Towards the last hundredish. Finally moving on? Almost 500. Basically: as confusing as it sounds, it’s not.

But why not just tell the story in order like a normal movie?

Because (500) Days of Summer isn’t out to tell a love story. It’s a story about love as remembered. What better what better way to capture the highs and lows and the humor and desperation than to show it all in contrast? We laugh empathetically when Tom’s best morning ever (Day 35) cuts forward a couple hundred days to where we see him dejectedly walking into the office. It’s self-aware and honest, something that its nonlinear storytelling helps push along.

If well done, this sort of storytelling can do wonders. One just has to look at any of many How I Met Your Mother episodes, or Vantage Point telling the same story from different perspectives, or even Bataman Begins to see how it can be used for humor and/or drama. It’s fun, so long as everything stays clear in the audience’s mind.

In any case, I hear Memento is pretty good…

Also: buy my book In Transit! It, well, yeah, it takes place linearly.

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So the other day I was looking for lunch and ended up ordering shawarma at a falafel joint. As such there is a picture of me taking a Thor-sized bite out of it on Twitter. To those curious, it tastes more like a doner kebab than a gyro, just different toppings and stuff. And more Middle-Easty.

But why shawarma? I was hungry, but why’d I pick some middle-eastern delicacy over barbecue, burgers or brisket? It wasn’t cheaper and I wasn’t even sure if I liked it (but I like meat, pita bread, and food, so there’s that).

If you stayed to the end of the credits of The Avengers — and by the end I mean the end after every last name has rolled past the screen — you’ll have seen this wonderful little scene. It’s the titular heroes sitting in a restaurant and eating shawarma. There’s no dialogue; it’s just them eating after the battle.

It’s a quiet scene, and a bit of a joke too since there’s no big epic stinger as was the case for the other Marvel movies.

But it’s important, because it’s about them. The shawarma scene shows that after saving New York City and the world, they need a break. Again, it’s about them, taking time together at a point where there’s nothing left to say.

I’m not going to lie: these sorts of scenes are my favorites. I love character relations in my media (see: Firefly, Community, Super 8…) as much as I love adventure.

So what are some other great examples of quiet character moments?

Avatar: The Last Airbender is rife with them. The episode ‘The Runaway’ focuses on the personality clash between Toph and Katara. We’ve got shenanigans aplenty in town and bits of excitement strewn all over. But the best part?

Toph and Sokka sit down and talk about Katara and how they all work together. It’s just talking, but it accentuates who they are.

Better still is a moment during the finale. Team Avatar is getting ready for Aang to confront the Fire Lord and save the day. Everyone knows there’s a massive epic battle coming up. One of the ‘members’ of Team Avatar, Zuko, spent most prior episodes as an antagonist. He’s helping them now, but he feels like an outsider.

There’s a group hug for reassurance before they set out, and Katara sees that Zuko chose to stand it out. Now, Katara was the one who distrusted him most, the one who just about hated him. But now she turns to him and tells him that “being part of the group also means being part of group hugs”. That’s it, no big spiel about forgiveness or redemption, just acceptance.

Later on the finale Zuko is reunited with the uncle he betrayed. He feels undeserving of even speaking to him and quietly waits at his bedside for him to wake up. When Iroh wakes and sees his nephew, he doesn’t even let Zuko get a word out before capturing him in an embrace. We’ve followed these characters for three seasons, we feel the same relief as the prodigal nephew and the same joy as the loving uncle.

Besides Avatar, I begun watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer this summer. The premiere episode for season two, ‘When She Was Bad’, has Buffy acting remorselessly towards everyone else, friend and foe alike. She alienates and manipulates one of her best friends and later viciously tortures a vampire for information. In the aftermath she’s scared and feels terribly alone.

The next morning she goes to school, unsure of where she stands. The way she sees it she doesn’t deserve to be forgiven or even treated with a shred of warmth by her friends.

But they’ve saved her a seat, they make plans for the day, joke about teachers and the events of the night before. The camera pulls away and their conversation fades out. Without outright saying it, we know they still love her and still accept her as one of them. It’s simple, quiet, and wonderful.

Character moments are special, since that’s our most basic way of relating to them. Like them, we have relationships, we have friends who see us at our best and worst and put up with our crap. We have that sense of familiarity when we see it happen on screen, whether it’s an impromptu game of what might be basketball in Serenity’s cargo hold or a group of superheroes sitting together silently.

In any case, I liked my shawarma.

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Abed, I Know What We’re Gonna Do Today!

My favorite show this past season aired on Thursdays at 8pm on NBC. This was, of course, Community. It also happens to be one of my favorite shows of all time (up there with Firefly, Lost, and Chuck). It’s smart, excellently written, and consistently hilarious.

I’m not sure when my favorite cartoon airs. I know it’s on Disney Channel, but I just watch it on Netflix. Phineas and Ferb, my favorite cartoon, is smart, excellently written, and consistently hilarious.

They’re very different shows: one’s about a group of community college students and the escapades they get up to, the other’s about a pair of step-brothers and their attempts to make the most of the 104 days of summer vacation. The two, however, do share a comedic style that’s right up my alley. Both are meta, post-modern, fourth-wall taunting, and trope playing shows that have far more in common than not.

The foundation for a series such as these is a setting in which just about anything can transpire. For Phineas and Ferb it’s the brothers’ ability to create literally anything in their backyard; for Community it’s the unpredictably goofy campus of Greendale Community College. Both worlds are slightly (okay, very in the case of Phineas and Ferb) fantastical but grounded in some semblance of reality. Both shows have done westerns, science fiction, alternate realities, and musicals. Since they’ve established that reality is malleable in their worlds they’re free to play around with it as much as they want. Of course, their little winks and nods to the audience helps us play along.

Beyond their bouts of fantasy, both shows are very self-aware of not only the tropes they play with, but their own tendency to play with these tropes. Phineas and Ferb knows it has a wealth of catchphrases and so aired an episode set in prehistoric times with the entire episode’s dialogue simple grunts. Yet, due to the nature of the show, anyone who’s seen a few episodes knows exactly what each character means and where the plot is going. Community not only gleefully pointed out that the episode ‘Cooperative Calligraphy’ was a bottle episode but expressed disdain at the very idea of bottle episodes. Within their bottle episode. The result is one of the most cleverly written episodes of the series.

They know what they’re doing, and they know that you too know what they’re doing. So they take you in stride, welcome you to the fold, and have fun.

But all the shenanigans in the world mean nothing if you can’t connect. To that, both shows have a core cast who you quickly grow to love. The Study Group from Community may be involved in hijinks aplenty, but the characters and their interactions are treated with gravitas and respect. Sure, their world may not be real, but the people at the core are. Phineas and Ferb has the titular brothers and Isabella, Buford, Baljeet, and Candace stick together for all the adventures. No matter how absurd their worlds may get, the characters and their relationships are very real. It’s both shows wonderful artificial families that give us a frame and reference for the adventures.

Phineas and Ferb and Community are very different tv shows. One’s aimed primarily (well, more halfway intended) at kids and the other at adults/teens. Yet both shows share a very similar sort of humor and sense of family. It’s no guarantee that liking one show means you’ll like the other, but it’s certainly a very strong possibility. Again: it’s that post-modern sense of humor and slick writing with the artificial family at its core that unites the shows.

This is quality television.

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The Artificial Family

I grew up on a ship. Well, not really grew up exactly, more spent four very key years of my youth onboard a ship. It’s a long story. The thing about living on a ship, though, was that with only two hundred people on board it was a small community. Smaller still were the number of kids on board. I’m not kidding when I say there were a handful. Out of necessity we became more of a family than a group of friends. Life’s changed and gone on, but even though it’s been several several years since those days I still find myself drawn to stories about that sense of community, about building that group of people who aren’t so much friends as they are family.

There’s this Japanese word, nakama, that has no proper English translation. A rough rendition of it means something to the effect of a deep friendship not unlike family. Everyone can think of people fitting that description. And if not, well, I’m so sorry, you’re missing out.

This concept of friends who are family is everywhere in literature. Like Harry, Ron, and Hermione in Harry Potter. Once they became friends nothing stood in their way. They fought with each other, but, when they chips were down, they were there for each other. They were those good friends who came out on top. You’ve got the protagonists of Zombieland, or the members of the Bartlett administration in The West Wing, the heroes in Chuck, Drake and Sully in Uncharted, or the Fellowship of the Ring. It’s that group of friends who, even if they don’t always like each other, will stick together through it all.

Lost shows just how strong that relationship is. The survivors on the island don’t get along. They fight, they steal, they kill; they really don’t get along. But the relationships that form over time are real. They might not always be friends but throughout the six seasons they come to be something like a (highly dysfunctional Arrested Development-esque) family. Their bonds are to the point where in the end, it’s all that really mattered, and as long as they have each other, they will be content.

So what draws this people together? CS Lewis describes friendship as “the moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one!’”. There’s this movie out now called The Avengers that you may have heard of. The titular Avengers are all lonely people in their own way; Joss Whedon said so himself. Their connection that forms comes from being lonely together. Tony Stark and Bruce Banner – the two scientisty characters – have a conversation about it; about having something that is both a blessing and a curse. It was their moment of realizing they weren’t the only one alone. The seed of friendship, leading to that team, that community of people who can’t be broken.

Then there’s Community (did you really think I’d let that semi-forced transition slip by?). The Study Group has the common ground of all being students Greendale Community College. Over the seasons they’ve grown closer and had their moments. Like all of these artificial families; they break at the edges. But the heart of it is simple: they were all at Greendale lacking something, needing someone, lacking stability, or any host of reasons. They found what they needed in each other, creating that familial bond in the process. Yes, they are (in their own words), a dysfunctional and incestuous family, but they are one all the same. A, you know, community. Hence the name.

Firefly, another one of Whedon’s creations that I love, is another example of this bond. The crew of Serenity have been with each other through a lot. They’ve seen the best and the worst of each other and they definitely don’t always like each other. But since they’re there together on that ship, they have no choice but to reconcile and stick with it. They can’t walk away from it because they’re in it together, no matter what. Like the members of Community’s Study Group and the Avengers: they’re alone. They’ve left their lives behind and are wandering the black alone together. By the time the film Serenity rolls around they’ve gone beyond just being crew members who live on the same ship.

So yeah I’m drawn to the story of the artificial family. That sense of building a group of friends who will stick with you through it all. People who find what they need in each other, finding strength in their bonds.

A few months ago I met up with some of the others who had been kids on the ship the same time I was. Most of us hadn’t seen or hardly spoken to each other in years. But when we sat down together it was as if we hadn’t missed a day. Life went on and our ship was gone, but our connection was still there.

Makes sense though, we’re family.

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