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Spoiled Endings

I really liked Rise of The Tomb Raider up until the last thirty-odd minutes. Everything’s coming to a head, set ups are paying off, there’s a boss fight against a principal antagonist. You go to the next area and… There’s a cutscene, and in that cutscene the game ends, wrapping up most of the plot points with a tidy bow but still leaving a bunch frustratingly hanging for the inevitable sequel. You get another nice little plot button if you continue the game to find some more of the collectibles, but narratively, that’s pretty much it.

Which is a bit of a bummer. Everything has been rising to a crescendo, but the last playable moment is a boss fight that you’re pretty sure is just the prelude to that Epic Climax that, well doesn’t really happen (another tip: in video games that Epic Climax should be playable). In any case, it’s a fairly anti-climatic ending. Some of the more interesting plot points brought up (who/what is Trinity? Holy crap Ana is such a villain) don’t get much pay off within the game’s narrative (not with all that potential sequel money).

And the thing is, that bummer of an ending retroactively colors my entire perception of the game as a whole. I really liked it, but the lack of a return on my emotional/temporal investment leaves a poor taste in my mouth. I wanna go back and get all those collectibles and stuff, but right now I’m not sure I can be bothered.

It’s odd, the way a failure to stick the ending can affect your perception of a piece. Mass Effect 3 is really solid game, but it’s best known for its disappointing ending. Never mind some of the great highlights (and the brilliance of the Citadel DLC), Mass Effect 3 is known for reducing the game’s climax to a choice of color. I didn’t dislike it as much as some did, but it still took me a couple years to return to the game’s story mode and clear it with my other two characters.

This doesn’t just apply to video games; I loath the final half-hour-or-so of How I Met Your Mother, and that in turn makes it hard for me to revisit the show as a whole. I love how Lost ended, but some people hate the show just ‘cuz how it ended. And think about it, how many movies were ruined for you in the final act?

At first blush, this doesn’t make much sense. A really crappy middle doesn’t necessarily ruin a movie, not to the degree an ending does. But here’s the thing, the ending is how it ends. Duh. But it’s what the ending has to do: it brings together everything that comes before and provides that oh-so-important catharsis. Flub that and things feel unresolved; you don’t get the catharsis that lets you leave it behind and get on with your life.

I’m not really sure this blog post has much of a big point besides stressing the importance of an ending. Rise of The Tomb Raider is still an excellent game, exploring, hunting, gunplay, and everything else is so much fun – and nothing beats the aha! moment of solving a puzzle, but the disappointing ending took the wind out of my sails. In the case of this game it’s doubtless because of the developers’ want to provide a hook for the franchise, but there has to have been a better way to end the game than with its rushed climax. There’s a difference between leaving your audience wanting more and not giving them enough to feel complete.

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Stuff From 2016 I Wanna Talk About

Every year I do a thing on this blog where I list my top nine movies. Thing is, movies aren’t the only things that come out in a year. So here’s a list of a bunch of stuff in a bunch of different mediums that came out last year that I really liked that I wanna talk about. They may not be the best thing to come out of the year, but it’s stuff I want to talk about.

Book: Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

I talked about this book when I first finished it, and I’d like to bring it up again to talk about how magnificent it is. It’s a concept album made book, where each chapter/short story stands wholly alone, yet is enriched and inseparable from what comes before it. Plus, it’s a novel about the African Diaspora which, really, isn’t a thing that gets explored nearly enough in fiction, especially at this scale and yet so intimately.

Album: Colors Run, by House of Heroes

…while on the topic of concept albums, I’ve gotta mention House of Heroes’ Colors Run. I haven’t listened to it enough yet, I don’t think, but it’s an interesting album that crafts its narrative through implication. It mayn’t be my favorite album this year (Run River North’s Drinking From A Salt Pond and Barcelona’s Basic Man are two strong contenders there), but it’s one that’s really been sticking with me.

Video Game: One Night Stand, by Kinmoku

I’m a sucker for a video game that goes somewhere most games don’t. One Night Stand has you waking up in a stranger’s bed and piecing together how you got there. It’s essentially a point-and-click by way of a choose-your-own-adventure game, but it’s set apart by how warmly and sweetly it handles its subject matter. Plus, the rotoscoped graphics make the game feel like a sketchbook come to life.

Comic: Mockingbird, by Chelsea Cain, Kate Niemczyk, et al.

I mean, duh. But so we’re clear: wonderfully funny comic with a savage feminist streak that has a lot of fun in a comic book world. It’s too seldom we get to see women as fully-fleshed out characters in comics, and Bobbi Morse is so winning its hard not to love it. Also, major props for being one of the first Marvel comics with an all-women creative team. Man, I really wish this comic was still going.

Television Show: Stranger Things, by the Duffer Brothers

I’m a sucker for 80s movies. I’m also a sucker for movies like Easy A and Super 8 that have their own takes on the aesthetics of those movies. Super 8 marches brazenly into that field with a dose of horror. So yes, there’s D&D and 80s movies references galore, but what really makes Stranger Things better than being just an ersatz Spielberg film is its characters. Be it the boys and the new friend Eleven, Hopper and Joyce, or Nancy and Jonathan; the show is filled with those quiet relationship moments that made 80s films so wonderful. That it tells a delightful science fiction story in the process is just the icing on the cake.

Play: Vietgone, by Qui Nguyen

Look, theatre’s really white. Sure, you’ve got Hamilton flipping things around, but, that’s the exception that proves the rule. So along comes Vietgone, which features a mostly-Asian cast that tells a love story set against refugees immigrating to the US after the Vietnam War. Besides its fantastic use of language to invert the typical understanding of the other, it tells a damn sweet story in its own right – that features people who don’t look like your usual romantic leads from a unique background. It’s plain wonderful, and also the only play I’ve paid to see more than once.

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Letting Different People Be Different

One of the many (many, many) things I love about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is that the hunky guy Rebecca is pining for is an Asian guy (named Josh, but that parts not important right now). It’s incredibly refreshing — when was the last time you saw an Asian male as a romantic lead, let alone an object of sexual desire by a white woman in fiction? But that leads me to another one of the things I love about the show: it’s not a big deal. No one cares that Josh’s Asian. Even when Rebecca has Thanksgiving with him and his Filipino family, there’s none of that usual other-ing that happens when you see character entering into a space that’s foreign to them. That’s also great.

But part-and-parcel of Josh’s Asian-ness being a non-issue is that he gets to take on a character archetype Asians never get to have — he’s a bro! He’s an idiot. A lovable idiot, yes, but an idiot still. Why’s this matter? ‘cuz when you have an Asian guy in fiction, chances on he’s going to be the smart guy or the dork or, y’know, both. There’s a very specific space in fiction that Asian characters are allowed to inhabit, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend throws that to the wind. It goes on: a middle-aged man is bisexual, the professional psychiatrist is a black woman, the underachieving stoner next door is a brown girl.

I saw The Magnificent Seven this week (#AsianCowboy) and though it’s a flawed movie, it’s still terrifically entertaining and, on another level, absolutely wonderful. The latter of which I’m blaming on how it handles its diverse cast. Race is hardly touched on in the film, which, y’know it doesn’t have to. But instead every member of the titular seven gets to be a rough-and-tumble jackass of a cowboy. Billy Rocks the #AsianCowboy goes toe-to-toe with the Mexican and Chris Pratt, while Red Harvest the Native American makes fun of their food. Every character gets to give as good as they get. There’s no token minority put on a pedestal, everyone has an edge.

Which applies to the action bits too; everyone gets to have their cool bits, with Billy Rocks winning a shootout and throwing knives while saving Ethan Hawke. He’s not the Asian journeyman on a mission, he’s a cowboy (with a knife speciality). Again, this is an Asian character in a role usually off-limits to people that look like him (or, well, me) getting to do things associated with the role that usually doesn’t happen. This doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with, say, Shanghai Noon, where Jackie Chan plays an Imperial Guard on a mission in the old west who’s more martial artist than cowboy. The problem comes when every single narrative about an Asian in that time period is that narrative. So getting to see an Asian character be the quintessential American cowboy — dude, that’s dope.

When Alan Yang won an Emmy for an episode of Master of None, he gave a great speech pointing out how despite there being the same number of Italian- and Asia-Americans in the US. the former group has some of the most celebrated stories in fiction, while Asians have, well, Long Duk Dong of Sixteen Candles. The narrative of Asian-ness is shockingly limited, despite how long they/we’ve been a part of Western culture. In other words: the roles Asians are allowed in fiction is usually one of a handful of archetypes. Diversity and inclusion means changing that, means letting Asians be the dumb bro or the badass cowboy, means letting the lead of a tv show about being in your 30’s be an Indian guy, it means letting you ragtag band of space rebels have Asian actors, it means making your superhero a first-generation Pakistani immigrant or a half-Asian kid. Let different people be a part of different narratives.

Of course, this is a selfish want — I wanna see more people who look like me in fiction doing everything. But then, don’t you wanna see more people who look like yourself in fiction?

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Do Spoilers Spoil?

Darth Vader has Luke Skywalker on the ropes, cornered, defenseless, and missing a hand. But rather than killing the Rebel, Vader offers for Luke to join him. Luke refuses. Undeterred, Vader throws doubt on those Luke trusts and utters one of the most famous lines in cinema:

“No, I am your father.”

It’s shattering, throwing everything Luke knows into disarray. But Luke doesn’t join Vader, choosing instead to cast himself into the abyss below.

Also, that scene’s a big honking spoiler. It upends everything we, as viewers, have been told thus far, paints Obi Wan as a liar, and Yoda one by omission. It also profoundly effects Luke and colors his motivations throughout all of the next movie. Big twist, big development, so, y’know, spoiler.

But do we call Han getting frozen in carbonite a spoiler too? I mean, he’s basically becoming mostly dead and that plot point necessitates the first act of Jedi and is partially responsible for the downbeat Emprie ends on. So why isn’t that the big spoiler? It’s not as catchy as the Vader quote, no, but isn’t it at least as big?

Which makes me wonder, why do we call spoilers spoilers? Now, I’m not talking about people who go around trying to find everything out about a movie before it happens. I mean more the idea that finding something out ruins a story for good.

‘cuz I knew a lot of of the big spoilers for Game of Thrones going in. I knew Ned died. I found out about Robb’s death by accident. A friend of mine unintentionally spoiled another couple deaths. But it didn’t make any of the moments any less dramatic. Or even less shocking, since the impact still hits in a big way. Because you’re not really watching Game of Thrones to see who dies, but rather for the how of it. “Ned dies” is uninteresting, but “Ned dies as a show of force by new king Joffrey to prove himself” has kick. The why and how of it is more interesting that the what. If you know Robb’s gonna die, you keep wondering what it is that’s gonna do him in at the end. And when it really comes, that’s the whammy.

Nothing really beats the impact of, say, Han’s death in The Force Awakens when you first see it not knowing it’s coming. But watching it again let’s you appreciate the finesse of it all the more. When you’re less concerned about having to pay attention to every what of the story, you look more for the bits of set up and pay off. But don’t just take my word for it, it’s an actual fact. It doesn’t ruin the story, so to speak. Instead it changes the approach of the narrative.

But for turns like that, even if we know that Vader is Luke’s father and Ned dies, the characters don’t. It’s a beautiful dose of dramatic irony that heightens the tension in its own way because you wanna see how they’ll react to it. How is Obi Wan gonna react to Qui Gon’s death? One of the reasons “I am your father” is such a magnificent twist is because of the effect it has on Luke as a character. Watching his response – throwing himself into the pits of Cloud City – is a thrill born out of character. The story still has a hold even if you know what’s coming.

See, that’s the thing: a good story doesn’t revolve around That Twist. Empire still works knowing that Vader is Luke’s father. You lack the shock, but it’s no less compelling; you still want to see how we get to that point. A good story shouldn’t rely on one plot point being the big twist. The Prestige still works when you know what’s coming because the process of reaching that reveal is so well done. Watching characters make the choices that takes them to the ending you know has an allure itself.

All this said, I don’t like being spoiled. I swore off the internet after the Lost finale aired so it wouldn’t be spoiled before I could watch it. But watching the series again, it is no less powerful because the catharsis works just as well. Fiction – good fiction – isn’t consumed to find things out; it’s to feel. If a spoiler really ruins the story completely, than it probably wasn’t that good a story in the first place.

If this feels inconclusive, it’s because I’m still thinking about it all. Did knowing that Charlie died in Lost affect how I watched the show? Did knowing Kreia was the villain affect the choices I made while playing Knights of The Old Republic II? There’re more rants here for other days.

That said. Don’t tell me how Rogue One ends.

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To Tell The Truth

How do you tell the truth? Saying “Alice and Bob broke up” may be what happened, but is it the truth of it all? Breakups are messy business; did Alice break up with Bob or Bob break up with Alice? Did Bob break up with Alice for Charlie? Suddenly there’s a narrative attached to the happening, which in turn colors our perception of what happened. It may be less accurate, but it could be closer to the truth. Maybe the truth is Bob feels like his heart’s been ripped out. But there’s gotta be a better way to say it.

Enter fiction. And writing in general, actually, since trying to capture that elusive truth is one of the things poetry does so well. When Matthew Dickman describes the act of a dance in “Slow Dance” as “The my body // is talking to your body slow dance” it’s decidedly not factual (bodies, um, don’t talk). Heck, it’s not even strictly grammatically correct. But, what it does do – along with the rest of the poem – is describe the truth of that dance “with really exquisite strangers.” Throughout “Slow Dance” Dickman invites you into a space where he paints a picture of all those thoughts and feelings that accompany dancing with someone. He’s crafting an experience for you to be a part of, letting you know how it feels to be there. The truth of it all.

It really is poetry’s modus operandi, that, sharing a truth. For all the silliness of Lewis Carrol’s “Jaberwocky,” it vividly places you where it was brillig; in “False Security,” Sir John Betjeman makes you feel like a child again, where going to someone else’s house at night is an adventurous quest in and of itself. It’s not enough to tell you what’s happening, it’s about telling you the truth of what happened.

But poetry does it through image-heavy words, how do you show it? Take a look at musical Fun Home, which I recently saw before it closed (thank you, Nathan). Towards the end the narrator, Alison Bechdel, expresses how she wants so badly to remember how things were doing a pivotal point in her youth, but how does memories fade quicker than she can remember them. The play illustrates it beautifully, with the furniture that’s made up the set of her home (where her memories have played out) receding into the stage as she chases after them just moments too late. Again, not ‘realistic,’ but heartbreakingly true. How better to communicate the realness of memories fading away? It works.

Which brings me to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, because a lot of my thoughts and ramblings have been pointing towards that show lately. The show’s musical numbers are largely born out of a heightened emotional state, be it feeling excluded at a group hang or the stress of a parent coming to visit. These songs sometimes serve as a culmination of a sequence and let us into the singer’s mind. A striking example is the song “You Stupid Bitch,” wherein Rebecca finds herself at one of her lowest points — everything she’s been striving for has blown up in her face. So she sings this song rife with self-loathing, this incredibly harsh, unflinchingly brutal song — a song that she has the imaginary crowd join in on. Now, in the real world, people don’t get a musical number when their depression closes in on them. But, that feeling of despair with a crowd in your head singing your ills is absolutely true.

I talk a lot about how fiction’s all a lie. But it’s a lie that tells the truth. Because sometimes the lie of fiction tells the truth better than a factual account. Least that’s the best way to explain Bob’s really sad poetry about the breakup.

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Visible Diversity

So I recently started Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Finally, I should say; you’d think with a Marc Webb directed pilot I’d have watched it sooner. Anyway, once you get past the somewhat off-putting title (which, as the theme song says, is a sexist term and the situation is a lot more nuanced than that), Crazy Ex is a lotta fun. It’s a musical equal parts cynical and idealistic set in a relatively mundane setting where no matter how outlandish it gets, the character relations stay heartfelt. It’s great.

But that’s not what this post’s about.

Look in the backgrounds of a scene in Crazy Ex or the backup singers and dancers in a musical number. It looks unlike a lot of what you usually see on tv, and not just because of the singing and dancing. Crazy Ex has made an effort to fill its background with people of all colors. Not just one person-of-color in the background, but a variety of folks who you don’t usually get to see on tv (or in media in general). I mean, c’mon! When was the last time you got to see an Asian guy as part of a musical number! Where he wasn’t the token background person of color? Since there’s, y’know, a few other non-white people populating the scene?

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has been remarkable at filling out its cast – both main and bit players! — with people who aren’t white. The person protagonist Rachel obsesses over is an Asian guy named Josh (*cough*). The Major Client she has to land for her law firm is black, some of the peopler competing in the guac competition at the Taco Festival are Latino. And the people at that Taco Festival also run the racial spectrum.

Am I making a big deal about a small thing? Yes. Because it’s a small thing worth making a big deal about.

It’s easy, all so easy to fill out a scene with a bunch of white people peppered with the occasional sprig of diversity. But what Crazy Ex does that’s so cool is take that diversity and ratchet it up several notches, and then make those sprigs of diversity visible. You don’t have to squint to find your background minority.

Star Trek Beyond did something similar. Not only is the background crew of the Enterprise noticeably more diverse, but, once again, the featured people in the background aren’t all white. The crew members we see disappear into a cabin while making out are an Asian guy and a white woman (*cough*); the woman we follow as the bridge is evacuated is an Indian woman. Heck, the leader of the super high tech space station, Commodore Paris, is played by Shohrer Aghdashloo who was in The Expanse. She’s the person who tells Kirk, what to do, by the way; and that’s great.

And this is the part where I have to mention Rogue One. Because, again, diversity! Heroes! Chinese actors! A Middle Eastern actor is the pilot! Diego Luna! Forest Whitaker! But! But but but! It’s also the small stuff in the background. The Rebel troops we see in the trailer are racially diverse (and the LEGO AT-ST set coming out features a black guy as the generic rebel trooper). Again, these are small details that give the world a fuller feel.

And it’s friggin’ important. Because this is fiction, and fiction reflects reality, and reality is remarkably diverse. White-as-default isn’t gonna fly anymore. Yes, I have a personal investment in this because, growing up, I didn’t see a lot of heroes who looked like me. Over the years I’ve gotten used to turning on the tv or sitting down in a theatre and not expecting to see myself represented (or represented as anyone other than The Other). Yeah, I try and fix that in my own stuff, even if it’s just a student film.

But.

It’s changing.

Star Trek Beyond firmly proved that Sulu wasn’t the only Asian on the Enterprise and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is inclusive as crap in who gets to be in its musical numbers and who gets to be  multi-faceted people on tv. And Rogue One, well, I’ve already ranted about that.

If this is the sign of fiction-to-come, I can’t wait.

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Nothing’s In a Vacuum

San Diego Comic-Con brought with it a new teaser for Netflix and Marvel’s upcoming Luke Cage, featuring said hero beating up bad guys. Ordinarily, this would be cool enough, because, duh. But, before this ass-kicking takes place, we get a shot of Luke putting up the hood of his jacket. It’s a precise shot that focuses a lot of attention into the act: Luke doesn’t just wear his hood up, he deliberately puts it on before heading in.

Luke Cage is making a statement with this teaser: a big black man in a hoodie can be a hero.

Which, given, y’know, everything, is really wonderful.

“So what?” my theoretical straw man asks, “Maybe he just wants to hide his identity.” Which, fine, and sure, a domino mask would be cliché, but it’s still a conscious choice the creators made. And an important one.

Entertainment doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It reflects and comments on the world around it. Luke Cage is coming out in a world wherein being black and wearing a hoodie is grounds for distrust and villainization. For a myriad of reasons, popular perception paints a very negative picture.

And that’s why Luke Cage wearing a hoodie matters. It’s a counter narrative to the scary  black man, offering a decidedly different take on it. Sure, he’s still imposing, but he’s the good guy and the hero of this show, the hero. There’s this wonderful hint of antiestablishment about it, which is one of the things that’s got me excited for this show.

One of the other things being that Mike Colter is really hot.

But anyway.

Fiction, and the imagery it creates, exists beyond the work from which it originated. Like I said before, nothing is created in a vacuum anymore, especially not since the rise of Web 2.0 has democratized content generation and facilitated and even greater osmosis of pop (and ‘real’) culture. We are, in many ways, exposed to a lot of the same news and memes, though our takeaways and lenses may be wildly different. Fiction, then, sits in a place where it can comment on it.

Luke Cage is going to be Marvel’s first movie/tv property with an African-American lead (until Black Panther), so there’s a lot riding on it. One of those being the question of what exactly a show about a black character is. Based on the trailer, it seems that Luke Cage is fully aware of its position.

It might not, being a tv show by a major studio/storyteller, be able to take an overly explicit stance (something, by the way, which hasn’t stopped a few of Marvel’s comics from having particularly dope commentary*), but that doesn’t mean it can’t still play with our expectations, whether through imagery, music, or plot. I keep campaigning for different narratives, and it looks like that’s where this one’s headed.

I’m excited.

*Spider-Gwen Annual #1 has a black, female Captain America attacking Donald-Trump-as-MODOK. It’s amazing. Captain America: Sam Wilson has recently been dealing with aggressive, militarized police. In Mockingbird you come for the fun and humor, but stay for the biting feminist commentary (and also objectification of male characters).

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