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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Saturday (12/26/15) 10:41pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  The Better Angels of Our Nature, Play Unsafe
Movies:  Raising Arizona, Miller's CrossingBarton Fink, Star Wars: The Force Awakens
TV:  <none>

The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker
This is Steven Pinker's tome about a dramatic, steady decrease in global violence over the course of human history.  He marshalls considerable evidence for this counterintuitive conclusion, and speculates as to its causes.

Occasionally someone will ask me "if you could live in any period in history, which one would you pick?"  And, being the logical killjoy that I am, I usually answer that I'm fine with this current one, because I don't want to die of smallpox, or cholera, or deal with dental care that involves yanking things sans anaesthesia.  But now we can add to that: you don't want to live in the past because, no matter who you are, the past is where you're much, much more likely to get stabbed in the face.

And the book spends most of its length making this case very well.  "But what about genocide?  That only happened in the 20th century!"  Right.  Because we only invented a word for it in the 20th century.  Because we only decided in the 20th century that 'genocide' was a bad thing.  Prior to that, it was just a normal thing that happened in war, with no sense that it was inhuman or immoral.  "But what about the world wars?  They killed people with terrifying, mechanized efficiency!"  That they did, and they mark two upticks on a graph that slopes exponentially downward over time.  Go back five hundred years or so, and you have three or four wars starting in Europe every year.

This is where the book is at its strongest -- with no real speculations, just mountains of collated data.  It starts with the truism of "things just seem more violent because news *always* over-reports violence", and plays that out over the largest possible scale, starting with reconstructing rates of violent death for prehistorical peoples, and then working forward through the Greeks, the Romans, the wars of religion that wracked Europe for centuries afterwards, and then the slow aggregation of nation-states after that.

It then goes into speculations about *why* this has happened.  Here it's on shakier ground.  It's still interesting, as he goes into detail about the psychological forces that move people towards or away from violence.  His overall argument seems to be that a move towards logic, reason, and greater communication has moved humanity to a point of greater empathy and towards government systems that make it unnecessary to keep a hair-trigger armed defense against your fellow citizens.

He builds interesting, cogent arguments for this, but I would have appreciated even more effort listing out and addressing all the various counter-arguments.  His case is more nuanced than "people are fundamentally good" or "people are fundamentally evil", and given how many belief systems seem to be founded on one of those two statements, I'm sure there are lots of folks smugly dismissing this entire section.

All in all, though, it's still a really good read.  Whether you agree with Mr. Pinker or not (personally, I have no reason to disagree with him), it's still a fascinating overview of psychology, sociology, and violence through the ages, and a welcome respite from the desperate, fear-peddling media.

Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley
This is Graham Walmsley's book about incorporating improv techniques into tabletop gaming.  I won't have much to say about this beyond "I'm glad it exists".  Obviously I'm thinking a lot about the common ground between improv and tabletop RPGs, and I am by this point a fairly experienced improvisor.  This book lists out some basic principles of improv, and gives examples of how you can best incorporate them into RPG play.  It's a well-written, slim volume that presents its ideas clearly, presenting a sort of menu of techniques in general categories.  And it is nice to have some reassurance that what I've learned in one venue has clear applications to another.  But generally these are ideas that I've already taken to heart, and applied as best as I could in what gaming I've done.  So I'm not sure the book is much use to me (he said haughtily), but I'm glad it's out there, a polite guide for the RPG community, many of whom, I'm told, are stridently anti-improv.

Raising Arizona
This was the second film from the Coen Brothers.  It's about a married couple who kidnap a baby to raise as their own.

I find this movie fascinating, because it shows us the Coen Brothers trying to do something that's as different as possible from Blood Simple, their (phenomenal) debut film.  So on the one hand, it shows you the range that they're capable of: where Blood Simple's characters were natural and grounded, Raising Arizona's characters are heightened and whimsical; where a single gun confrontation in Blood Simple is an abjectly terrifying nightmare, a massive gunfight/car chase/loose-dog-pack pursuit is madcap and fun.  Tonally, it's a film negative of what we saw before.

And yet.  And yet, many, many things stayed the same.  As freewheeling as this world is, you can viscerally feel how tightly controlled everything is.  The shots are still precisely balanced and symmetrical, often with slow, patient, repetitive starts to scenes.  The dialog is still delightfully "written", with characters effortlessly spouting elaborate syntax and erudite vocabulary.  And while it verges further from Fiasco territory, there's the same basic structure in place: a first act that sets up a lot of strong desires (Hi wants to resume holdups, Ed wants a baby), and then a crime that kicks everything off (the kidnapping), and then chaos as more and more people caught up in the consequences.

But again, that structure is working with a completely different tone.  It's a story with, in the end, no real consequences -- it's similar to Burn After Reading in the way the story kind of implodes and disappears at the end, leaving almost no trace of its passing.  And everything turns out fine for everybody who isn't evil incarnate -- that is to say, nearly everybody.  It's fun.

Miller's Crossing
This was the Coen Brothers film that followed Raising Arizona.  It's a 1990 neo-noir that follows a 20's mob enforcer who uses canny manipulations to try to survive a city-wide gang war.

For me, this is the film that takes all of the Coen Brothers' idiosyncrasies to an exaggerated point where I can't quite connect to the material any more.  Sure, I can appreciate Miller's Crossing intellectually -- the byzantine set of double-crosses, the mannered dialog, the thorough, stylized mise-en-scène -- but it's a cold, distant appreciation.  Part of this is that the story, this time, just gets *so* complicated.  Blood Simple pushed right to the edge of what I can grok, plot-wise, as a viewer.  Burn After Reading blew right past that into a sort of breezy, deliberate chaos.

But with Miller's Crossing, it's very complex, and it's played straight, and as a viewer I'm left a beat or two behind the action: "Wait, who's that guy? and who's he double-crossing? and why?"  Everybody is lying to everybody, and everybody has a hidden agenda, and according to wikipedia I missed out on a good chunk of the plot.  And most of the characters play such tough-guy (and, in Verna Bernbaum's case, "tough gal") façades that it's hard to empathize with them.  If nothing obviously affects characters emotionally, then I'm more watching the plot play out rather than feeling it.

That said, it's still a good movie.  The plot is byzantine but sound, the performances are great across the board, and they do a great job of creating a stylized version of 1930s gangland.  There's even room for rather brutal gallows humor, with Gabriel Byrne wryly commenting on everything as much as he can get away with, and with lots of humor from characters acting resolutely like themselves.  Caspar sees everyone giving him "the high hat" in every scenario, and the Dane is threatening everybody all the time.

The movie strikes me as a misstep, and I'm happy to see them walk back to relative comprehensibility with Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, and (especially) Fargo.  But for some people, it's among their favorite Coen Brothers movies, and I can understand that, even if I don't feel it.

Barton Fink
This is the Coen Brothers' 1991 film about a New York playwright who is lured out to L.A. to a job writing for motion pictures in the mid-1940s.  This was the movie they wrote while they were suffering crippling writer's block on Miller's Crossing.[1]  So naturally, it's about a playwright who comes out to the west coast and gets hit with crippling writer's block.

It's strange -- it feels like, with Barton Fink, they were actually aiming to make something *more* mannered and distancing than Miller's Crossing.  They make their title character flatly hypocritical -- a leftist caricature that claims to "speak for the common man" but clearly wants nothing to do with anyone common.  The hotel that forms the main setting for the film is wince-inducing, with buzzing mosquitos, peeling, glop-glued wallpaper, and a color scheme suggestive of putrefaction.  And the movie's plot plays out like it's daring you to hang on, with a first half of nails-on-chalkboard inaction as Barton fails to write more than a single paragraph, and a second half that, out of nowhere, blows out into a crazy, Grand-Guignol murder case.

And yet for all that, Barton Fink is an easier movie to hold on to than Miller's Crossing.  Sure, your emotional response is not one of "I like this hero and I like hanging out with this setting," but it's making you feel *something*.  You're cringing, but you're engaged.  And when the plot goes to crazy-town, that's a clear shift.  You *know* we've gone to crazy-town -- on some level, you start wondering if this is all in Barton's head, or if it's supposed to mean something symbolic, but again, you're engaged, and you're interested in where the Coen Brothers are going with their material.

So: not an easy movie, but a good one.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
This is the first Star Wars film from the new Disney takeover of the franchise.  It's set thirty years after Return of the Jedi, and follows a desert scavenger who gets caught up in the ongoing battle between the rebel forces (now part of the "Republic") and the Empire (now represented by "The First Order").

First and foremost: yes, it's good.  Finally.  We can all heave a sigh of relief.

Specifically, the first half is damn impressive.

From the first scene, it's clearly eschewing the dead, plasticine, instantly-dated CGI of the prequel trilogy.  It's nice to see a return to the beaten-up, pratical-effect, "lived in" look of IV-VI.  In retrospect, that specific design style might be my favorite thing about the original trilogy.  Sci-fi films tend to split into two categories: there's the shiny, clean future -- one that either bespeaks a utopian society (Star Trek), or conceals a terrible secret (Logan's Run).  And then there's the grimdark sorts of movies, where the tough, gritty mise-en-scène conveys just how nasty this dystopia is -- but really that's just the *present* in the guise of *fiction*, man.  (This comprises everything from Blade Runner to the BSG reboot).  Star Wars casts a limitless shadow on modern science fiction, but to my mind, the original trilogy are the only sci-fi films worth mentioning that combine this broad, wide-eyed optimism with that decidedly non-shiny aesthetic.[2]

So basically, from those opening shots, we know we're doing better than the prequel trilogy.

I also appreciated how this first half of the film incorporates some science fiction into the Star Wars franchise.

Let me step back and explain that a bit: I love Star Wars, but I don't think of it as science fiction.  Everybody has draws their own division between "sci-fi" and "fantasy" -- for me, sci-fi answers the question "if <x> were true, what else would be true?", while fantasy answers the question "wouldn't it be cool if <x>?"  Sci-fi tends to operate by "because"s -- there's a monolith on earth's moon because some pan-galactic intelligence left it there as a sort of test.  Fantasy tends to work by "and"s -- wouldn't it be great if there were giant dragons and evil sorcerers and sky castles and magic swords?  Both are perfectly valid -- they just arrive at their counterfactual worlds via different processes.

And Star Wars has, to my mind, always operated purely as a fantasy story, with everything from sound in space to FTL travel to its plot-convenient "force powers" coming from the "wouldn't it be cool?" place rather than any common cause.  But I feel like The Force Awakens is finally stepping back and exploring some logical implications of the world they've established.  Rey is a scavenger because there's a city-sized ship crashed on her planet, because the Rebels routed an enemy that had city-sized ships, and it makes sense that one would crash somewhere.  Likewise, if you have a force of evil Stormtroopers whose sole job is to extinguish innocent people, then it makes sense that somebody, somewhere would eventually decide that's wrong.  It was great to see them briefly flip on the sci-fi switch and build out their world logically for a while.

Meanwhile, the story stayed small -- thank god.  This is one of the lessons that nobody takes away from the good trilogy -- it feels epic, but it's actually focused on a small number of well-developed characters.  This *can* be a weakness in the Star Wars universe -- its plot machinations often make it feel like this is a galaxy that only has a few dozen people in it -- but it gives us enough time to focus in on each character and give the story personal stakes.  Thank god we start out focussed on one pilot trying to deliver one object, instead of the trade-negotiation nonsense that opened Phantom Menace.

On a related note, thank god they reined in the dialog.  I loved how much of the first half of the movie proceeded wordlessly.  The last thing I want in Star Wars is a story that's so complicated the characters have to explain it to me with expository dialog, and this was the opposite of that.  The story was simple enough that, for the most part, we could just watch it happen.

Eventually it falls into absolute lockstep with episode IV, and that was one of its few missteps, for me.  While the name "Starkiller Base" is a great nod to George-Lucas trivia, it is yet another Death Star, and the third time is not really a charm.  At the same time, though, I think I get why they're erring on this side -- if you're restarting the Star Wars movie franchise after an eleven-year absence (and after thirty-three years since anything decent), it's totally fair to clear your throat a bit and assure the audience that this is in line with the earlier films.  I suspect that making something this "normal" on their first time out can give them room to veer further out on the subsequent movies.

But that's only a minor concern on my part, and one more along the lines of "that could have been better" rather than "that ruined the show".  Along the way, there were many other things to like.  Unlike the prequel trilogy, the jokes were actually funny -- here, the humor comes more from characters just being themselves, instead of from (*shudder*) Jar-Jar doing "comical" antics.  Kylo Ren has a meltdown and starts destroying the hell out of Starkiller consoles, and two approaching Stormtroopers stop and carefully back off -- and that's really all you need.  The prequel trilogy strained to shout jokes that the five-year-olds could giggle at, and I'm perfectly happy to see that go away.

And like almost everybody, I'm happy to see a more diverse universe here.  There's nothing intrinsic to Star Wars that makes it have to be about white dudes -- recall that the original Jedi script included a bunch of female X-Wing pilots, and that Mara Jade is one of the most popular characters in the Expanded Universe (RIP).  So having two protagonists who aren't white dudes is just something of a relief.  It's nice to see my friends more clearly represented in this franchise.

So mostly I'm relieved.  I liked it a lot, and I imagine I'll see it again before it leaves the theaters.  That said, I suspect in the long run we'll look back on this one more as "the one that got things back on track" than a competitor with IV or V in its own right.  But it's still a great flick, and given the corporate logistics involved in a project like this, that's better than we could have ever reasonably expected.  That's great.  Now let's see what they do next.

For next week: I'm watching season 3 of Good Eats and season 2 of Last Week Tonight while exercising.  I've also been watching Fullmetal Alchemist.

[1] And given what a plot-logic sudoku puzzle Miller's Crossing is, I'd be shocked if they *hadn't* gotten writer's block on that one.
[2] One can argue that Serenity comes close, but I don't think Serenity has the simple, unaffected moral outlook that Star Wars has.  There's no room for Luke in the Firefly-verse, because Whedon's projects tend to subvert that kind of traditional genre character.

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