Monthly Archives: January 2012

Game Over: When Bad Things Happen to Good Videogame Characters

Death by a thousand pixels

Two nights ago, I noticed that my boys, ages 10 and 13, looked—there is no other word for it—depressed.  Two weeks ago, I wrote about their obsession with/addiction to Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, including this: “for all the seeming fantasy, what the game—most games?—embodies are the very same strictures surrounding American school and work life.  Playing the game must be fun, too, I guess, but the real joy seems to be advancing to the next level—only to work toward surpassing that one, ad infinitum.”  But they didn’t look happy now.  My younger son should have been especially happy, because my older son had helped him beat a tough part, much to my chagrin—I’ve told them repeatedly that they should not play each other’s turns or games, since the playing, not the winning, was the point.  You wouldn’t ask someone to eat your ice cream for you.  They persisted anyway.

But now, they weren’t down because they had lost.

They were down because they won. It turns out that they beat the game. 

And with that victory, a kind of defeat: my doctorate of philosophy calls for a diagnosis of Existential Crisis, one that usually doesn’t set in for another few years, the nagging, gnawing, corrosive question that sets in at adolescence and, in some cases, never ceases: Is That All There Is?

It turns out that once you get to the last level, beat the last villain (in video game parlance, “Boss,” which seems weirdly Marxist to me), and rescue Zelda, the credits roll (Dear Fellow Old People: video games have credits), and play simply starts over at the beginning again. 

I asked them: what did you think would happen?  The point of the game was, as always, to kill monsters, beat bosses, acquire money (“Rupees,” which seems weirdly Asian Subcontinent), and move one level closer to finding Zelda.  It couldn’t go on forever, could it?  Did they think victory would reveal a secret code for a secret club or secret game? That a crisp $20 bill would pop out of the Wii? No, but—and here I paraphrase—they didn’t think that winning the game would feel so much like losing it.  Not just emotionally—really, all that happens after you win is that you go back to where you started, same as when you lose.

For all the scholars who suggest that video games are texts ripe for analysis, or that they even surpass more conventional narratives like stories thanks to their interactivity and player control, the end of the video game seems very different to me from the ending of a story.  As Walter Benjamin says in “The Storyteller,” readers intuitively understand all of life through the end of the story, which represents a kind of death, or through the actual death of a character:

The nature of the character in a novel cannot be presented any better than is done in this statement, which says that the “meaning” of his life is revealed only in his death. But the reader of a novel actually does look for human beings from whom he derives the “meaning of life.” Therefore he must, no matter what, know in advance that he will share their experience of death: if need be their figurative death—the end of the novel—but preferably their actual one. How do the characters make him understand that death is already waiting for them—a very definite death and at a very definite place? That is the question which feeds the reader’s consuming interest in the events of the novel.

In other words, as human beings we can never understand the full significance of our own lives, because we must live them, from our perspective, and can’t reflect on our own ending, because we’re, ya know, dead.  But we can contemplate the full life, objectively, of a fictional character, because the beginning and end of the story delineate the full beginning and end of their existence.  And so through fiction—the figurative deaths that are stories and the more real but still fictional deaths of characters, we may understand something big—Death!—that, by its very nature, eludes our grasp, and therefore we may take comfort. As Benjamin concludes, “What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.” It’s uplifting.  Really.  So we think that we’re sad when our favorite characters die or our favorite stories end, but we also, on another level, feel good, or, if you’re Aristotle, experience catharsis, a purging of the bad emotions, once you’re through.

Or, as Frank Kermode understood it, narrative endings are not only dress rehearsals for death, but they are inextricably linked to our apocalyptic sensibilities: “Fictions,” Kermode says, “whose ends are consonant with origins satisfy our needs.”  The conventions of story itself dictate a beginning and an ending; for every “Once upon a time,” a “Happily ever after.” He goes on to suggest that “one has to think of an ordered series of events which ends, not in a great New Year, but in a final Sabbath.”  Or a Black Sabbath, if you’re not feeling particularly rapturous.  Kermode relates the endings of all stories to the endings of all things: narrative endings as death, but also death as a narrative ending, “the End is a fact of life and a fact of the imagination.”

But video games seem not to provide Benjamin’s comfort, Aristotle’s catharsis, or Kermode’s closure at all.   There is no Once Upon a Time or Happily Ever After, only the grim, relentless Middle—just like our own real lives.  As I wrote in the other blog, main character Link looks and seems a lot like Peter Pan. But it’s not just the pointy ears and pointy weapons, the green clothes, or the shock of hair.  Like all video game characters, and like Peter Pan, Link is, for all intents and purposes, immortal and eternally youthful.  You could make the same case, I guess, for all fictional characters—that they revert to being alive and young when you start the book or movie again.  But that’s symbolic.  Thanks to endless “lives”—the word gamers use—and concomitant reincarnation (a word no one uses) with each reset or replay, Link lives, and dies, again and again and again.  As a father, I find no sentence weighs heavier on my heart than when one of the boys tells me, when their game time is over, that “I’ll just play until I die.”  He’d like that, I suppose.  The shift to first person—“I” die, not “Link dies” or even “my game ends”—makes clear that the games are about defying death, but they also focus relentlessly, discordantly, on death itself.

You thought you had it rough?

But if Link cannot ever die, if there is no final level—since the thing resets ad infinitum—no sense of an ending, then it feels like there is also no point.  The Onion, as always, gets it hilariously right: “Video-Game Character Wondering Why Heartless God Always Chooses ‘Continue’”:  “ORANGEBURG, SC–Solid Snake, tactical-espionage expert and star of PlayStation’s ‘Metal Gear Solid,’ questioned the nature of the universe Monday when, moments after his 11th death in two hours, a cruel God forced him to ‘Continue’ his earthly toil and suffering.”  In the end, “God,” of course, is revealed to be “Orangeburg 11-year-old Brandon MacElwee,” who “offered no comment on His greater plan for Snake, saying He was ‘too busy trying to get to the part with the knife-throwing Russian girl.’” 

But players realize that they are not gods, or God, and that the never-ending levels and never-ending deaths in video games provide a different, cautionary lesson than those in stories: the ironic moral that there is more to life than acquiring points and money, more to existence than merely getting to the next level.  And I said this to the boys, concluding that “this is why I don’t let you play the hard parts for each other.  All you’re doing is speeding up the end, and it’s the playing  itself that’s supposed to be the fun part.” 

With that, my ten-year old looked at me, eyes bright and wide, and said, “I understand now.”

Time: It looked like I was gonna finish in 50 minutes, but then I decided I wanted to find the Benjamin and Kermode quotes that you probably didn’t read anyway, which took me overtime to 75 minutes.  I’ll finish faster the next time I play.

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I Have Issues with Fictional Characters’ Names

I’m teaching Henry James’s “Daisy Miller: A Study,” a very frequently taught short story, in my just-started American lit class.  If you haven’t read it, or read it a long time ago, it’s an ostentatiously written drama from 1878 about a group of privileged Americans living in Europe and their reaction to a new-money girl, the title character, as seen through the perspective of Winterbourne, a young man who finds her, in a word repeated a million times, “pretty.”  Nearly everything about the story is ambiguous or could be argued from either side, which is one of the reasons it works so well in a class: is Daisy a strong, free-spirited proto-feminist, or a foolish girl?  Does she understand the way the vicious polite society talks about her behind her back—and if so, what does this say about her behavior?  Does Winterbourne really love her—or does Daisy really love him—or are they both toying with each other in different ways?  Does Daisy—does Winterbourne?—understand what she—or he?—is doing?  Does Daisy’s [do I really need to say Spoiler Alert about a story that’s over 130 years old? Fine. “Spoiler Alert.”] death at the end suggest a misogynistic society, a kind of death wish, recklessness,  or just a fogey author who needs to punish his own literary creation?  Is Daisy “innocent”—another repeated word throughout the story—or, in the words of Jimi Hendrix, experienced?  Is this even a fair question?  Does Winterbourne experience an epiphany at the end thanks to some revealed information, or has he learned nothing? And over a hundred years of scholarship more.

HOWEVER.  For all the complexity, intricacy, and layered ways of reading, one aspect stands out: for all of James’s painstaking realism and period detail—clothes, speech, scenery—Daisy’s and Winterbourne’s names are so heavy-handedly symbolic that they threaten to bring everything down.  “Daisy”=fresh, lovely flower; “Winterbourne”=bearing or aspiring toward cold. ‘Cause you know, winter kills flowers! So much for subtlety.    

Maybe it’s more complicated—Daisy’s real first name isn’t even “Daisy;” it’s “Annie.” Her last name “Miller” could be analyzed, and Winterbourne’s first name, “Frederick,” could be worked in.  But the headline “WINTER KILLS FLOWER!” is inescapable.

Last month I wrote about Lev Grossman and The Magicians.  As much as I love the novel and admire the marriage of magic and realism, the main character’s name, Quentin Coldwater, still leaves me, um, cold.  A book-smart kid from Brooklyn (something I know a little about) is far more likely to have a name like Chang, or Furci, or Jackson, or Reddy, or really, for that matter, Grossman.  Like Winterbourne, Coldwater connotes someone chilled in his emotions, and “throw cold water on” means “criticize something that people are enthusiastic about,”  both of which describe Quentin well.  (“Coldwater Creek” and women’s apparel, less so).    

And the alliteration is reminiscent of real-life writer Quentin Crisp; of course, Crisp changed his name from Dennis Pratt.  Quentin Coldwater is closer to Faulkner’s Quentin Compson, but for me is most reminiscent of superhero names—especially recent X-Men villain Quentin Quire—and the never ending litany of Clark Kents, Peter Parkers, Lex Luthors, and Bruce Banners.   OK, Bruce Wayne doesn’t have alliteration, but he has two first names, along with Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Steve Trevor (Wonder Woman’s love interest).   Speaking of Steve, Dr. Stephen Strange gets—who could have seen it coming?—mystical powers! Dr. Victor Freeze develops cold powers!  And Dr. Victor Von Doom’s parents should have changed every name involved.  I don’t know what he’s a doctor of, but I’m guessing it’s not English.  As J. Jonah Jameson (triple alliteration!) slyly notes, of Dr. Octopus, “Guy named Otto Octavius winds up with eight limbs. Four mechanical arms welded right onto his body. What are the odds?”  Pretty good, I’d say.    

Would you take a college course from this man?

The Wizard of Oz pits sweet but sassy Dorothy Gale (meaning: “a very strong wind”—cyclone?) against wicked Mrs. Gulch (“a rocky ravine”).  The Bourne Identity’s Jason Bourne—Quentin Coldwater gets the Winter, Jason gets the Bourne—rediscovers his true self after losing his memory and becoming, quote unquote “born,” if you will, by fighting the covert operations who had previously employed him.  Guy named Bourne gets amnesia.  What are the odds?   Lev Grossman held a contest in December on his blog to provide a last name for one of his main characters, Julia.  The result: Julia Wicker. Gal named Wicker winds up becoming a witch.  What are the odds?   

But what’s the alternative to non-symbolic names?  While Hermione Granger gets both mythological allusion and a last name metaphorically fitting her reading habits, title character Harry Potter gets the Everyman treatment—no allusions, no symbolism.  But then, the LACK becomes the point.  His nonsymbolic name symbolizes his very ordinariness and relatability.  The Big Lebowski’s unliterary name is itself funny, and like Daisy, he then anoints himself anew. (The Dude also Anoints.)  I would quote Juliet’s “What’s in a name?” here, but Romeo and Juliet’s names have become symbolic, even if they didn’t start that way. 

When names belong to fictional characters, then, they’re either already filled with meaning, or we can’t help but fill them with meaning ourselves. 

Even if it would be unfair to warn women with floral names to stay away from Winterbournes , or Coldwaters, in real life.  Maybe they should, just to be on the safe side.

Time: 60 minutes, not counting making the My Name Is Daisy Miller image or, as usual, uploading.

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Don DeLillo is Not Dead

Also: Not Dead Yet

While it seems impossible to believe, some people don’t know who Don DeLillo is; or, as I say to students, he’s the most famous author they’ve never heard of.[i]   And many of those people, including my non-academic acquaintances—yes, I have some—presume that Don DeLillo is dead.  They’re surprised that he’s not.

Their assumption raises a few interesting problems for teachers and scholars of living authors.  The first is the notion that the only authors worth studying must come from a previous era, a line of reasoning that English Departments discarded decades ago but that the general public may not have.  Not that they don’t read, or even prefer, living authors themselves, but that living authors don’t produce Literature, only books, and ideally bestsellers.  We can’t, in this line of thinking, really know an author’s place, value, or contribution in his or her own lifetime, as though authorship were akin to sainthood.

The second is what I think of as the Back to School Problem.  If you’ve seen the movie (1986), Rodney Dangerfield (who is, in fact, now dead) plays his usual self-deprecating schlub.  In the words of IMDB’s tagline, “To help his discouraged son get through college, a funloving and obnoxious rich businessman decides to enter the school as a student himself.”   When Dangerfield’s character needs to write a paper on the novels of Kurt Vonnegut (who is also now dead), he hires Vonnegut himself to do the work.  The cameo alone is funny, but the punchline is that Dangerfield fails the paper, not just because the professor knows right away that someone else wrote it, but also because “whoever did write [this paper] doesn’t know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut.” (Warning: offensive language)

The joke, as usual I suppose, is on the professor, who, we understand through dramatic irony, only thinks she is an authority on Vonnegut’s work.  Or worse, she (unknowingly) believes that she knows Vonnegut better than he knows himself.  Despite decades of reader response theory and deconstruction, despite cases where authors themselves have claimed not to have understood what at they wrote at the time, despite authors admitting only a hazy notion of how their work would be interpreted, in the popular mind, the author is still the best, and maybe only, authority on his or her work.  Shakespeare can’t tell you that your, say, Lacanian readings of Hamlet weren’t what he intended.  Well, how could they have been?  And contemporary critics understand that intentions are not the only point—if not beside the point entirely.  But Don DeLillo can still tell you that your, say, ecocritical reading of White Noise isn’t what he intended.  Or, as he has suggested in interviews, that he never reads critical or literary theory.  And, unlike, Back to School, it would not be a joke.  If students worry that they’re not entitled to form opinions on Shakespeare because his work is centuries old, endlessly discussed, and firmly canonical, they can feel equally constrained by the living author, because they can still be proven wrong, if the author only says so.

Which takes me to my final problem.  DeLillo, unlike, say JD Salinger (who died only recently), is not only alive but still prolific.  The last decade alone has produced The Body Artist, Cosmopolis, Falling Man, Point Omega, and the new collection of short stories, compiled from 1979-2011, The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories.  This work alone could be the envy of many authors—consider that in about the same time, Jonathan Franzen produced a single novel, Freedom; in only a little less time, Jeffery Eugenides wrote The Marriage Plot.[ii]  So in addition to what I see as the indisputably Great Novels—White Noise, Libra, and Underworld—such an output is astonishing.     

And these works can’t help but change how I read DeLillo now.  Point Omega is almost the anti-Underworld (Overworld?), so sparse and imagistic as to be nearly inscrutable.  If Underworld overwhelms readers, Point Omega underwhelms them, by design.  Libra is often read as speculative fiction, a conspiracy-minded counter-narrative to the prevailing Kennedy history.  But rather than taking on what could have been a similar approach to 9/11, DeLillo completely eschews paranoia in Falling Man, surrendering his anointment as chief shaman of the paranoid school of literature.  And Angel Esmeralda, for me, provides the greatest pause.  Perhaps I shouldn’t admit that I had never read the first story “Creation,” published in 1979, but reading it now reveals a writer interested in mixing breezy eroticism into his usual—and now, arguably since White Noise, semi-suspended—absurdist, black humor. 

Overall, what the collection—and the past decade’s work—demonstrates is an author who is unrepentantly alive, in all senses of the word:   animated, energetic, relevant, and changing.  It gives the reader a lot to live up to, and much to look forward to as well.

Time: OK, I have to admit that I forgot to pay attention to the clock today. I know, I know, that’s my whole schtick.  Maybe 60 minutes? Probably a little over.  Not too much, though.

[i] Chances are that this isn’t even true, since many have not heard of Joyce or Faulkner or even Austen, but I like the line.

[ii] Not that these aren’t great achievements, I hasten to add, since Franzen and Eugenides are alive and likely to get annoyed at such comparisons.

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That’s Against My Alignment: Peter Pan, Legolas, Link, and Finn


I missed my chance to get into Legend of Zelda when it first appeared.  And—heresy!—I’m more a fan of the Lord of the Rings movies than books. I did have two big Dungeons & Dragons years, when I was 11 and 12, before discovering heavy metal, which in retrospect wasn’t that big a jump.  And I’ve reread Peter Pan again and again—JM Barrie’s, not Walt Disney’s, little egomaniac, the one who brags about all the pirates he’s killed and thinks that “to die would be an awfully big adventure”—notions that would be sociopathic coming from an adult but seem naive, even endearing from a child.  And I’m really enjoying Adventure Time. 

Finn’s name was Pen in the pilot. Too close to Pan?

The similarities in description and appearance between Zelda’s Link, LoTR’s  Legolas, Peter Pan, and Adventure Time’s Finn are plain enough, even down to recurring greenleaf jammies (with Finn alone feeling blue).  Real-life Orlando Bloom stands on one end of the realism spectrum, and Finn—whose head is pretty much a Have a Nice Day button in a pillowcase—seems barely more than a sketch (and his flowing golden locks appear only once, as far as I know, as a kind of punchline).  Yet I’m more interested in what they suggest about the intersection between coming of age and morality, to say nothing of coming of age and mortality.   

Missing Link? [groan]

As a videogame character, Link is the least ambiguous.  After watching my kids play Legend of Zelda:  Skyward Sword and asking them a battery of increasingly annoying questions, it seems a pretty standard quest narrative.  While it looks more interactive than good ol’ Super Mario Bros.—which is culturally where my familiarity with video games ends—the plot, as usual, boils down to: Save the Princess.  In fairness, it looks like 25 years of progress has revised the plot a little—Link and Zelda are now looking for each other, rather than the straightup damsel in distress scenario.  But there’s still the jumping, the shooting and slashing, the accumulation of life and money toward the possibility of advancing to the next stage.  So it’s interesting that for all the seeming fantasy, what the game—most games?—embodies are the very same strictures surrounding American school and work life.  Playing the game must be fun, too, I guess, but the real joy seems to be advancing to the next level—only to work toward surpassing that one, ad infinitum.  The kids are hooked, but this is surely someone’s version of hell.  Yes, the levels advance, but the methods of advancing seem limited to killing monsters.  This is not so different from Legolas, whose job in the film is also, it seems, to kill monsters, tally the points, and, like Link, look like a Pantene model in the process.

My hair wouldn’t look like that after weeks in the woods

On Adventure Time’s episode “What Have You Done,” Princess Bubblegum—whom Finn, needless to say, saved in the Pilot but with whom he has since had a more or less egalitarian relationship—tells Finn that he has to make the Ice King—a kind of cartoonish, buffoonish Saruman  voiced by SpongeBob—scream and cry.  Finn sees the request as cruel and uncharacteristic.  In what seems like a throwaway line, Finn says, “I can’t just beat up the Ice King for no reason.  That’s against my alignment!”  And with that, we see the sly, subversive morality at work that makes Adventure Time the true link—as opposed to Link—and legatee—as opposed to Legolas—to Peter Pan.

As geeks everywhere remember, in Dungeons & Dragons players chose their characters’ moral category, called alignment, as casually as they chose their accessories, another option of many, ethics as capricious option.  In the Basic version of the game, there were three alignments—Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic.  In retrospect, the choices are more interesting than I thought at the time, since they eschew the obvious binary of Good and Evil.  Alignment here seems more akin to how well and closely people hew to rules—which, given that D&D was, in fact, a game, seems fair enough. The Advanced version of the game, though, introduced more, and more complex, alignments, and thereby created more trouble.  You now had two categories, with one from column A and one from column B, Chinese menu morality.  The Category A remained Lawful, Neutral, and Chaotic, but now you had to add the B of Good, Neutral, and Evil.  This creates the possibility, first, of the redundant Neutral Neutral category, which seems to encompass only Switzerland.  But it also creates seemingly contradictory categories like Chaotic Good and Lawful Evil.  

But anything was possible—a Chaotic Good character was Machiavellian, capable of breaking rules for the greater good, while a Lawful Evil character was law-abiding but in the service of dark forces.  As a kid, I never thought much about Alignment and just had the characters behave as I would, which was, obviously, Lawful Good. 

Yet the purpose of the game, as it borrowed from Lord of the Rings and as Legend of Zelda would eventually borrow from it, was to move the quest forward and advance to the next, escalating challenge.  And the only ways to do that, as it was for Legolas and would be for Link, were acquiring gold and killing everything in sight.  In D&D, nothing you fought could ever be innocent.  Only the characters—and the human players hiding behind those avatars—could be.  What Finn alone realized is that the world, and its concomitant quagmire of morality, is complex.  One obvious good, loyalty—here, following the orders of a trusted friend and Princess—directly contradicted another, equally obvious good, justice—not harming someone without known cause, even if that someone was a total creep like the Ice King.  Adventure Time, for all its often satirical, winking references to a post-Peter Jackson/George Lucas/Stephen Spielberg world of stories, nevertheless transcends its cartoon morality.

Carl Jung was pretty thorough in his archetypes, but he left out forest-dwelling towheaded swashbuckling perpetual-adolescents.  Taken together, they represent an interesting combination of Jung’s Hero and Innocent, a counterintuitive combination.  [UPDATE: see Comments section!] For Jung, the Innocent (or Child) must undergo an Initiation.  But unlike the folkloric tradition, these four blondes never move on; like their model Peter Pan, they remain youthful and ready to repeat neverending initiations—adventures.  By the end of “What Have You Done,” everything works out for Finn, and the moral universe makes sense again.  His Lawful Good remains untarnished.  Peter Pan is gleefully Chaotic, but against the unambiguous evil of the pirates, he is positioned as still Good.  But can Legolas or Link truly be called Lawful without any sense of legality’s labyrinths?  Morality, unlike games and archetypal plots, is rarely linear or sequential.  If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then its mortar is moral certainly. 

No wonder these characters, despite whatever age they may be, all personify youth.  No wonder they never age.  No wonder there is never a final level, last episode, concluding installment.   It was easy for me to be sure I was Lawful Good when I was eleven, too.

Time: 60 minutes. This was a tough one to write, maybe because I don’t know these topics as well as previous ones.

UPDATE 1/31/12: I wrote a followup to this entry, about Link, death, and video games, called Game Over: When Bad Things Happen to Good Video Game Characters.

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I Have Spent Hundreds of Hours Watching Actors Run, and So Have You


When is the last time you’ve been chased—not figuratively, not tag, not because you had the ball, but because someone was actually after you physically, legs whirling arms pumping heart readytoexplodeinyourchest?  When you were a kid, bullies after school, or maybe a neighbor’s dog?  Once?  A few times?  Or were you the one doing the chasing—you were the bully, or the dog?  For me, the answers are never and never. 


Let me ask you something else.  When is the last time you saw a movie involving a chase?  Unless you like subtitles, chances are that it is, in fact, the last time you saw a movie.  I just saw Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.  Just as action sequels have abandoned Roman numerals for the  academic paper style of Title-Colon-Subtitle, MI: GP has also ditched any pretense of plot or character in favor of adrenaline uncut by the tedium of story.  A maniac wants to start a nuclear war to protect our precious bodily fluids.   Or not.  This maniac’s reason was…  I forget.  It’s really not that important. It’s only there to get people chasing each other. 


The characters are aforementioned Maniac, as well as Tom Cruise (Tom Cruise), The Girl (Paula Patton), Comic Relief (Simon Pegg), and The Other Guy (Jeremy Renner).   Don’t get me wrong—I liked the movie, a lot.  But if a Modernist like Proust and contemporary novelist like Don DeLillo also seem to have abandoned plot, it is because, in part, they created a self reflective response to modernity’s ontological paralysis.  MI:GP does the opposite: non-reflective, nonstop motion.  So maybe I was hasty to say that MI has jettisoned plot.  Really, what it has done is revealed what Aristotle in his poor-quality running sandals didn’t enumerate: all plot is chase, all chase is plot.  Contemporary movies just ditch the pretentions.  

Case in point. MI’s opening: a cleaned up looking Sawyer from Lost being chased and, later in flashback, chasing.  A prison break-out scene, with lots of chasing.  A Kremlin break-in scene, featuring—chases!  Also: chasing—in a sandstorm! In a car!  In a car in a sandstorm!  At a fancy party, for some reason! Down an escalator into traffic! In a futuristic self-parking multi-storey car garage, which was actually cooler than it sounds.   OK, one (pretty awesome) scene, with Tom Cruise climbing a sheer glass skyscraper from the outside, was not strictly speaking a chase scene, although it was A Race Against Time. I guess. 


Of course, other movies have been pretty up front about chase-as-plot/plot-as-chase.  Tom (of … and Jerry) and Wile E Coyote have no delusions of their Sisyphean existences.  Run Lola Run was just that.  Catch Me if You Can won’t be sued for false advertising, even if, in the end, it turned out to be a developed character sketch of the symbiotic, symbolically familial relationship between chaser and chasee.  (This does not happen, for example, in MI.) And the movie that first got me thinking that I’ve wasted my life watching chase scenes was, of all things, The Tourist, which has even less illusion of plot and character than MI:GP.  The Matt Damon oeuvre consists primarily of running, sometimes with MD half glancing over his shoulder at who is pursuing him, at other times giving the full head turn, and, in a radical genre revision, The Adjustment Bureau features Damon  holding Emily Blunt’s hand while being chased and doing head-turns.

It’s all very Green Eggs and Ham: So I will chase them in a box. And I will chase them with a fox. And I will chase them in a house. And I will chase them with a mouse.  And I will chase them here and there.  Say! I will chase them ANYWHERE!

But why is this entertaining—and it is—once you’re over, like, four?  There’s the evolutionary biological approach to why we should really run for, you know, exercise (watching other people run doesn’t count, I guess), as espoused and popularized by my brother, Al Kavadlo, personal trainer and body philosopher.  Or, as no less than the New York Times reported (link found courtesy of Al), neo-cave men are exercising via brief bursts of cardio “to replicate how a prehistoric person might have fled from a mastodon.”  Especially if that mastodon has a high-caliber handgun, or those cave men need to chase that mastodon for food.  Or better yet, if the mastodon has a briefcase with the Soviet nuclear launch codes.

There’s also the problem of middles.  Beginnings of stories are, in their way, easy.  Not easy as in anyone can think of them, but easy in the sense that if you don’t have one, you don’t actually have any story at all yet.  So you simply have to have your premise, your setting, your mise en scene, your dramatic situation.  Then once you have that, you also have your ending already mostly in place.  Hollywood conventions dictate that in the end, the status quo must be restored: the nuclear disaster averted, life going on as though nothing happened.  The end of MI: GP even states as much—Comic Relief is incredulousness that no one realizes that they were this close to annihilation, which is really [snort] more cosmic irony than humor, Comic Relief.   The same is true in superhero, police procedural, and monster movies: the end means villains vanquished, life reverts to pre-movie normal. 

So it’s really the middle—in screenwriting parlance, the second act—that causes trouble.  How do we get from the opening’s disruption to the ending’s restoration?  The best way seems to be: Run There.  Even those darling Pixar movies all have the same middle—a long, madcap chase scene.  It’s a kind of immediate quest narrative, with the quest’s moving object continuously, tantalizingly out of reach.  Or a physical enactment of Derrida’s difference.  Or performing the id’s eternal ceaseless WANT IT NOW AND I WILL CHASE YOU TO GET IT. 

So, what’s the best way to get from Act One to Act Three? Taking a car is acceptable as long as you total it.   Better yet, if there’s conflict, Run. But by God, far better than Tom Hanks, that guy Tom Cruise can run, as a few posters on YouTube have already noticed. 

The first third of MI:GP is just running foreplay before Cruise finally tears after someone, and he is still riveting to watch as he runs.  Johnny Depp’s runs vary according to his character (Jack Sparrow=predictably flouncy; the tourist=artificially self-conscious), and Matt Damon, for all the Bourne Adjustments, still looks like he wants to smile like he’s in a stupid race.  But Tom Cruise genuinely looks as though the fate of the world hangs on his every ephemeral step. He’s an old-fashioned locomotive, all moving pistons and visible machinery, heat and steam rising, picking up speed so that he’s creaky at first but after a few seconds you can’t believe how nimble and quick he still is. 

It’s a snapshot of how I feel about all chase movies—my first response is, This again? But when it’s over, I think, This! Again!  

Time: 70 minutes. I’m over time. But how can you interrupt Tom Cruise running?

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The Meaning of Like

More Buttons

One sure sign of adulthood is the urge to complain that the kids these days overuse the word “like.”  As in, “I was, like, working on my blog? And then I, like, got hungry? So, like, I, like, made, like, a, like, sandwich?”

[Stops clock, makes sandwich, eats, returns to blog]

But that’s not my problem.  The grownups who disrespect Like as an emptyheaded Valley Girl tic at best and the Decline of Western Civilization at worst tend to “Um” a lot themselves.  Same idea, and less endearing.  It helps the brain keep up with the mouth, which is not a generationally-specific problem. 

I even like “like” for “said.” As in:

“So then, she was like, I can’t believe it.  And I was like, Believe it.  And then she was like, No way.  And I was like, Fffyeah.” 

Here, “like” embodies the postmodern intersection where narrative collides with neurology.  Any attempt to recreate dialogue word for word becomes an artifice and fiction, limited by the teller’s cognitive constraints of language and memory.  “Like” provides healthy transparency; not “She said, ‘I can’t believe it,” but rather, “It was like—and I paraphrase, for I am only human and therefore limited by the margins of discourse and recall—she said, ‘I can’t believe it.’”

No.  It’s the Facebookization of Like—here, regarding something as enjoyable or pleasant—as an inadvertent philosophy of life, the way of viewing and assessing the world.  Online, Like turns from tepid tolerability—the way I think of the word—to the highest form of admiration.  In the absence of an actual comment—and many pages seem not to allow or encourage comments—Like is the only permissible form of praise at all.  It is not even a dichotomy—a twofold world of Like and Dislike.  There is no Dislike.  It’s not even Like or Ignore.  It is Like or nothing.   If you don’t have anything Like to say, you can’t say anything at all.  Some enterprising types can Like something and then click Unlike.  But Unlike [grumble not a real verb grumble] is no Dislike, and it reverts the former Like into ether, faint protest indeed. 

Unlike legions of Facebookers, though, I do prefer the absence of a Dislike button on Facebook.  That Manichean universe of Like and Dislike belongs to YouTube, whose green Likes and red Dislikes on any given clip represent a never-ending battle comparable to that of the Egyptian god Ra—symbolizing order—to prevent the dragon Apep—representing chaos—from devouring the sun every evening.     

Ra vs. Apep, for some reason

YouTube’s introduction of the serpent of Dislike into Facebook’s conflict-free Garden of Like has also had the effect of turning YouTube’s comment section into an Apep-like writhing snakepit of slurs, smears, and disparagement, not to mention aggressively ignorant racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and lunatic conspiracies theories, as documented here and on this video, where the poster was pretty much doing the Youtube equivalent of saying Voldemort’s name in his title—invoking the name and thereby  summoning attention and wrath:

It’s not like I want Facebook to go down this road.  But rather, I worry that, imperceptibly, a generation is being trained to think that the highest—and maybe the only—form of acclaim is Like.  Even Dislike—or the New York Times’ new Meh List—is still part of the limited Like spectrum.  But is Like all there is?  Aren’t there many other worthwhile reactions beyond and separate from the question of Like?

  • Should everyone take a trip to the Holocaust Museum?  Yes.  Is it fun?  Do you Like it?  These are simply the wrong questions to ask. 
  • I read—and just taught a class on—novels representing or responding to September 11, 2001. Do I like them?  Um, I guess.  But I’m interested in, and fascinated by, recent fiction’s attempt to create a narrative around fresh trauma, and in doing so, deliberately and dangerously making the day into something literary, even poetic.  It’s not about Like. 
  • I just watched 127 Hours.  Did I Like it?  It depends on what you mean by Like.  Did I enjoy watching James Franco cut off his own arm?  Drink his pee?  Sweat and hallucinate? Not so much.  The early scenes are filled with anticipation, anxiety, and dread, since the viewer experiences the dramatic irony of seeing Aaron (Franco’s character) forget his knife and not answer his mother’s phone call.  And the money shot of losing the arm—plus the post-op ending—are excruciating.  But it was brilliantly done, it made me feel things that a movie has never made me feel, and I’m glad I saw it. Like doesn’t even enter into it.
  • Do I Like Tabasco sauce?  Grilled asparagus?  Like John Zorn’s dissonance? Like William Faulkner’s or Gertrude Stein’s frequent impenetrability?  Like exercise, even though I always feel as though I’d rather be doing anything else?  Like repeating the same riff on the guitar a thousand times until I get it right?  Like writing? Sort of.  I guess.  If that’s my only choice.  But I relish all those experiences.

For that matter, would I click a Like button on Eating or Sleeping, as Facebook has often, to me absurdly, recommended, despite that both have millions of Likes?  As Nietzsche did not write, what lies beyond Good and Evil and Like?  Where is my Ambivalent button, with a thumb simultaneously up and down?  (I would use it on Henry James.)  Is it better to be feared than Liked, or Liked than loved, or Liked than feared? 

I fear that no matter how good it feels to Like, or be Liked, Like as sole criterion makes the world a little smaller and lot safer.   One measure of adulthood, then, is not whether you’re annoyed when kids say “like,” but rather that you can accept, even embrace, those complex, dangerous pleasures outside the very latitude of Like itself. 

P.S. Don’t forget to Like this post.

Time: 60 minutes, not counting the time wasted reading horrible YouTube comments.

And: I lied. I didn’t make the sandwich until after I finished.

And also: My thirteen year-old son Jonah designed the image at the top of this post. I think it took him more than one hour.  Thanks, Jonah.

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