Sunday, April 13, 2014

Parafanfiction and Oppositional Fandom



Over the course of the last week, I've been working on a very involved project called "The Parafiction Museum." This project, incidentally, is why there wasn't a Storming the Ivory Tower last week. The assignment was to create an entire catalogue for a fantasy exhibition of contemporary art. Alright. That's pretty straightforward.

I, of course, decided to host an exhibition based around the most confusing idea I could find: Parafiction.

Now, all of this is explained within the essay for the catalogue (which can be viewed here, although I recommend downloading it since Drive visually compresses PDFs) and I won't go on too long because A. the essay in the catalogue is already 2000 words not counting all the information on individual works so I'm bloody sick of writing and want to go break rocks in Minecraft for a while and B. I actually do think the essay does a good job of explaining what Parafiction is and why it matters. But the essay is written for a fine art audience rather than you weird fandom people, and I want to do a little bit of work contextualizing why its important particularly to fan works and transformative works.

So what is parafiction?


Sunday, March 30, 2014

Creating As The World Falls Down

As a kid, the part of Jim Henson's famous fantasy film Labyrinth that always freaked me out wasn't a part full of strange monsters or weird settings. It was a sequence towards the end of the film when the protagonist, Sarah, has escaped from a strange illusory costume ball (literally--she's stuck in an actual crystal ball) into a vast junkyard in which, strangely, her bedroom sits, with all her toys. In her room, which sits separate from the rest of her house, she is handed toy after toy by a strangely unsettling junk-covered creature.

The sequence is unnerving in part simply for the intrusion of elements of the Labyrinth environment into the mundane setting of Sarah's room, and perhaps that alone is enough to explain my consistent feeling of discomfort during the scene. Special shoutout in particular to the moment where she opens the door, expecting to see the hallway, and instead comes face to face with the blasted wasteland and the bustling figure of the junk woman.

But beyond that simple disorienting intrusion of the labyrinth into a recognizable home environment, there's also, I think, the recognition that at no other point does Sarah come closer to failing in her quest, and the implications of that are fascinating to me.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Fixing Up Frozen

Let's talk about the most important song in Disney's hit cartoon Frozen.

Yes, indeed, let's talk about "Fixer Upper."


Alright, alright, claiming that this is the most important song in the whole movie is a little ridiculous, considering that this is a film that includes "Let It Go," which I'm pretty sure even strange frog people living beneath the seas of New England think is basically the best thing ever, but I wanted to start things out dramatically to effectively counterbalance the opinion I've seen expressed about this song before: that it's the least important song in the film, and should probably have been cut entirely.

In sharp contrast, I think the song has an important function within the narrative that makes its inclusion logical, even if the action and tone both take a hit as a result. In the process of picking this scene apart, I want to untangle, to some extent, what makes a particular narrative beat successful and how that success can come at a cost to other elements of a film. Every film is a bit of a fixer-upper, and the way we deal with the problems of this, and all other, art forms decides to a large extent how much we get out of our experiences.


Sunday, March 9, 2014

Love Me, I'm A Liberal: Arrow and Faux Leftism Pt. 2

Last week on Storming the Ivory Tower, the evil villain with a tragic backstory Penstroke the Terminator, having gathered a team of supervillains, was attempting to use the dread power of close reading and critical analysis to destroy Arrow. The show, not the character. Having explored the various ways in which the character Brother Blood serves as a representation of more radical leftism on the show to be attacked in favor of at best weak centrism and at worst pro-corporate, pro-1% ideological positions, Penstroke the Terminator now brings forth two more villains in order to demonstrate, once and for all, the failures of The Arrow Show!

Can anyone stop this madman?!

Stay tuned after these messages from our corporate masters!
BWAAAAOOOOM SERIOUS JOURNALISM FOR SERIOUS MODERN SUPERHEROES

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Liberal from a Distance: DC's ARROW and Faux Leftism (Part One)

No, Lord Humongous, there's no point in raiding any oil refineries at this stage of the plan. Yes, I know, but you'll just have to--

Wait, wait... it looks like our... guest... has finally woken up.

No, no, don't pretend you're still asleep! The sedative should have worn off by now. I know you can hear me. Why don't you... open your eyes?

Pictured: a media producer's worst nightmare
Yes, you understand now, do you not? You recognize my face and know the true meaning of fear! For I, of course, am the dreaded Penstroke the Terminator! 

And I have vowed to destroy... Arrow.


Sunday, February 16, 2014

Fluttershyness is Nice

Shyness is nice and
Shyness can stop you
From doing all the things in life you'd like to

I don't think that there's any particular contradiction between aiming a particular narrative at a younger audience and still imparting a slightly more complex, nuanced message, or in transcending the rote lessons that so many children's shows fixate upon. Generally speaking, I think this idea is getting generally accepted by writers on the better children's shows (and it's long been accepted by the best writers of children's stories, of course). Still, it's always wonderful to see a really well put together narrative with a nuanced treatment of what could otherwise be a quite trite issue.

And is there anything more rote, any lower-hanging fruit, than "character deals with stage fright?"

There's probably a few things, but it's got to be in the bottom ten at the very least, to the point where I remember getting quite sick of such episodes when I was a kid. The narratives are straightforward: character admits to having stage fright, zie has to go on stage anyway, zie learns that being on stage isn't so bad after all and sometimes you need to just face your fears head-on to fix them!

But look at the lesson, as relayed by Fluttershy, at the end of the My Little Pony episode "Filli Vanilli:

"Sometimes, being afraid can stop you from doing something that you love, but hiding behind these fears means you're only hiding from your true self. It's much better to face those fears so you can shine and be the best pony you can possibly be."

What a breath of fresh--wait, that's pretty much the usual cliche, isn't it?

In fact, it's a message that actually bothers me a lot, because there's an implicit character judgment in this message, a sense that someone's admission of discomfort or fear is this "hiding from your true self," a deliberate self-hindrance. Taken to extremes it implies that those suffering from more extreme anxieties generating their feelings all on their own, and they can just get over it if they really wanted to.

But I don't think that the message the show claims to be offering is the one that they're actually offering. In fact, I think this episode does a good job of illustrating how a stated moral might be belied by the actual content of a text--in other words, a text can say "This is the message of this story," and we as readers can say, "Yeah, but this that these and those elements of the story directly contradict this claim!" Famously, we could say, just like Blake does, that when Milton writes Paradise Lost and sets out a full explanation of why Satan is an evil, fallen being and God is right to cast him down, he actually ends up writing a story way more sympathetic to Satan than anything else. He is a poet, says Blake, and is of the Devil's part with out knowing it.

This episode, like Milton, is taking another stance (although I think everyone involved is quite aware of the text's implications!) and it's worth shedding some light on just what makes this narrative so different from the norm, what it's really teaching us, and how structurally that lesson is conveyed.

And I think the best way to do so is to frame the lesson not through Fluttershy's moral, but through a song by The Smiths.

My Little Morrissey: Sadness is Magic

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Breaking the Habit RPG

For a long time now I've been fascinated by the way games suggest certain modes of play, modes of behavior, narratives, and, ultimately, ways of understanding the world. As games as a medium grow in cultural prominence, it's always worth taking a step back and analyzing just what games are teaching, not just from a lit crit kind of perspective often mobilized in these conversations but from a purely play-oriented perspective.

It's especially relevant in the case of a game like Habit RPG, which is explicitly built to help you reorder your existence. The game's premise is simple: it provides a framework whereby you can gamify your existence. You create a customized system of tasks to complete and rewards--in multiple forms--that you receive upon fulfilling them. The interface is simple, with three major task classes--repeated habit-formation classes that have simple plus/minus inputs, daily tasks that are checked off (with rewards for completing streaks of those tasks), and one-off to-do tasks that you simply add once and complete once.

The core of the game, however, is the interaction between these three task classes and an RPG-like system whereby you gain experience and level up for completing tasks, and lose health for failing to complete them. There are other bells and whistles--costume upgrades that can be bought, pets that are randomly dropped by defeated tasks--but that's the core gameplay. You complete tasks to level up. The reward system is hooked right into the same system that has been used by diverse entities such as skinnerboxy Facebook games or the maddeningly addictive click and wait games such as Candy Box, Cookieclicker, or A Dark Room: Humans seem to really like big numbers turning into bigger numbers.

The central logic behind the game is that a habit takes, according to the site at least, 21 days to build or break. Thus, built into the system are rewards for streaks of 21 days. Tasks change color as you complete (or don't complete) them, which allows particular interactions with certain abilities (i.e. spells that when clicking on a different colored task provide a different amount of XP). The game thus offers both instant and long-term rewards for adhering to the tasks you set for yourself, which of course contrasts to the often arbitrary, hard to discern, intangible rewards for good behavior in real life.

It's already been quite useful for me, ensuring, among other things, that I actually bother to eat three times every day, no matter how depressed or lethargic I feel. Oh, and I've got a perfect streak of waking up before ten every day, which is pretty remarkable. Even something as seemingly untamable as sleep habits can be rewired if you're provided with an external reward system. It's pretty great! It's even helping me slowly but surely get over my anxieties about actually replying promptly to people's messages.

All in all, it's a good game, and I see no reason to dig deeper into its workings. See you next week!

Yup just look at my cool pixel avatar and don't read further! Nothing to see here folks!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Across the Sea of Faces: Music and the Roar of the Crowd


For one reason and another I've been pondering crowds quite a bit over the last week or so. I'm fascinated, actually, by the dynamic, present in various art forms, where a crowd is used not as a symbol of accompaniment but of isolation. Like, check out Will Eisner's iconic cover for his graphic novel Invisible People:


I love everything about this cover. The stark lights and darks, the way everyone is turned away from you... it's a perfect indicator of the isolation and inhumanity present through the rest of the comic.

This is nothing new, of course, but when it's done well it can be a quite powerful effect. In particular, if you can convey the sensation of being a part of a crowd and isolated, rather than simply talking about the sensation of being alone in the crowd... well, that's a powerful effect.

It's hardest to pull off, I think, in music. Oh, it's easy to convey the sensation of being in a crowd--we have a long history of live recordings that are specifically designed to put you in the audience. In rock music, in particular, the goal is to capture the sensation of being in that mass of humanity, galvanized by the performance on the stage.

So how do you take those techniques and use them to make the individual listener feel isolated somehow?

Let's dig into that question and look at the way the roar of the crowd adds to a song's atmosphere and message.

Strapping Young Lad--Hope

Hope by Strapping Young Lad on Grooveshark

Let's start heavy.

Strapping Young Lad's "Hope" only uses the sound of the crowd briefly at the beginning, but the use of the crowd sets the tone for the rest of the song's content. In fact, this is a song where the sonic qualities are far more important to its overall effects than the fairly simple lyrics.

The two things the song hinges upon are that crowd roar at the beginning accompanied by that opening riff, and the long section in the middle of the song of just relentless, repetitive grinding. This is a song of palpable rage and bitterness, and the roar of the crowd highlights that bitterness by highlighting the alienation from that crowd.

The constant binary set up in the song is one of the singer (Devin Townsend, of Ziltoid fame) from an unspecified "you," although the crowd sounds at the beginning suggest that the "you" is meant to be the crowd itself. It's certainly in keeping with other songs on the album--most notably "You Suck," an energetic and catchy song all about, surprisingly, how much you suck (and also how much your band sucks, your girlfriend sucks, SYL sucks, and just about everything else sucks).

There's a kind of all-encompassing fury here at the plight of the speaker, who seems to be at once caged and omnipresent, a thing of compressed, diamond-hard anger. "I am what I am," he screams, "because I have no hope, no faith in your hope!" It's a weird thing to sing after the opening. It feels like a song about isolation, but it's juxtaposed with the crowd noises and the melodic intro that sounds like it was custom made for live shows. The scene seems to be one of a band telling its audience to its face how revolting it is.

There's a real antipathy here. And that antipathy emerges in the grinding midsection of the song. This bit goes on for far too long. It's repetitive, sonically torturous, a musical equivalent of a repetitive stress injury. It's perfect. Like the long outro for The Beatles' "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" it goes on for an agonizing time frame, abusing its audience, pushing the listener to the breaking point.

The combination of this sensation, completed with the disorderly conclusion of the song juxtaposed with the the earlier crowd-pleasing, singalong melody bits, creates a sense of alienation between band and audience, a codependent, destructive relationship that, paradoxically, you have to be invested in--you have to perceive yourself as fitting somewhere in the dynamic between crowd and band--in order for the song to have the greatest impact.

The sound of the crowd is the vehicle for finding yourself somewhere in the song's logic, precisely so that you can find yourself pushed away by it once more, and away from other humans as well.  

Collide--Human

  Human by Collide on Grooveshark

The crowd flows throughout "Human" as a kind of backing drone. It is a muted roar, accompanied by muted humming tones that carry the whole piece. The effect is one of constant accompaniment.

This accompaniment has the effect, though, of emphasizing the overriding sense of desolation and emptiness in the song. The constant refrain in the song, the recurring question, is who will fix you when you're broken, who will catch you when you fall?

The oncoming personal crisis is inevitable, a given in the logic of the lyrics. It's not a matter of "if" you fall but "when"--that word choice seems very deliberate. And it's described in universal terms--we're only human, the singer whispers, we're all only human. The crowd responds, bringing to the fore the notion of that unity, the shared experience of isolation.

But to share isolation is a paradox, just like the paradox in "Hope" of being pulled into the dynamic of the song only to be rebuffed. It is to know that others feel what you feel but to find no comfort or consolation in it. There is no answer to the question posed by the song. No one steps forward, offering to mend your broken heart. There is only the acknowledgment of that experience of collapse.

Against this lyrical backdrop, the crowd emphasizes not the unity between singer, crowd, and individual, but the isolation between the three members of the trinity. This divide is most apparent halfway through the song, as the singer melodically moans, drawing the last word out at length: "Say goodbye, human." As her voice fades, you are left hearing only the muted hum of the crowd. The rhetorical "you" of the earlier lines has been, by the admonition to say goodbye, transformed to a very personal, and more than a little threatening, "you." By rhetorical I mean that replacing the "you" of the first few lines with "one"--i.e. who's gonna catch one when one falls--makes for... well admittedly an extremely awkward sentence, for sure. But it still makes sense as a thing to say as an abstract consideration of the human condition.

But there's no way to transform the imperative language of that last line into an abstraction. It is directed at the individual listener. The creepiness of that line is emphasized by the slightly metallic, inhuman sound of the vocals. Collide's music is often on the verge of the inhuman, filtered, manipulated, and sometimes overwhelmed by digital stylings. It is music that seems to be on the threshold of a radical break with the biological. In the context of "Human," that break feels deeply alienating, because it suggests that you have been abandoned not just in personal life but in the course of human evolution.

You are "only human."

And you have been left behind.
 
Pink Floyd--In the Flesh 

In The Flesh? by Pink Floyd/The Wall CD 01 on Grooveshark
Pink Floyd by In The Flesh on Grooveshark

Really two songs, "In the Flesh" is the logical predecessor to both the previous examples. For Collide, the influence is tangible in their other homages to Pink Floyd's work (covers of "Breathe" and "Comfortably Numb," references in song titles like "Tongue Tied and Twisted"); for SYL the shared preoccupations are obvious. The same antipathy for the audience that drives "Hope" drives these songs. For Pink Floyd, however, there's a deeper political and philosophical statement being made about rock music itself.

"In the Flesh" roughly bookends the narrative of Pink Floyd's ambitious concept album The Wall. The first version introduces the central conceit of the album (and film). The story is of the rockstar Pink, and the album follows his slow descent into alienation from his audience and everyone else around him. Ultimately, this dramatic pulling away from humanity results in him adopting a sociopathic, fascist fantasy persona--the disguise that the audience must claw through if they want to find the genuine, wounded individual locked beneath a mask of authoritarian posturing.

The second version of the song represents the emergence of this new persona and the beginning of the violence the newly minted Hammer Army--his fans, now reenvisioned as a mob of violent authoritarian thugs--all too eagerly unleashes upon the world. The use of the roar of the crowd here is obvious. It is at once galvanizing and repulsive, echoing some of the latent contempt of SYL but still drawing the listener in via the draw of the roaring mass of humanity. It is all too easy--especially after an album's worth of misery for the lead character--to find the omnicidal rage on display here darkly alluring, even while being repelled by the fascist message.

And that's largely the point of the song and the point of the album. It's widely accepted that certain works can deconstruct the genre of which they are a part, exposing its dark underbelly and taking the logic of the genre to horrifying conclusions. The Wall is, among other things, a deconstruction of the entire rock genre, exposing the way in which the roar of the crowd and the charismatic figure of the rock star can combine to form a noxious, authoritarian dynamic.

The song must be engaging in its overblown theatricality for it to work. We might compare it to, say, "Be Prepared:"

 

I mean, I'm sure I'm going to horrify both Disney and Pink Floyd fans with this comparison, but I think it's important to recognize that both songs only function because they're at once horrifying in their violence and compelling in their actual musicality. They must be engaging for their threat to seem real, for the draw of the despot to seem believable.

And that's the fascinating line that the use of the roar of the crowd in the beginning of "In the Flesh" walks. The song invites us at once to feel the alienation that drives Pink's tortured psyche, the internal revolt against the logic of the crowd, and the draw of that roar, the seductive sensation of being swept away by something vaster than oneself. By using the same sounds as live concert recordings (not to mention actual live concerts!) Pink Floyd here deconstructs the entire scene, exposing the dark potentiality within.



Each of these pieces, then, makes use of the roar of the crowd in subtly different ways, but each uses the sound to highlight gaps of association between individuals and masses. None of them are particularly optimistic about the ways in which those gaps might be filled--one fills the gap with rage, another simply languishes in despair, and the last fills the void with a destructive, self-absorbed fantasy of autocratic power. Oh well. Not all narratives have happy endings, and this is just as true of music as any other medium.

But what these examples demonstrate is that any effect that can be introduced into a medium or genre can be modulated and manipulated by the savvy artist, precisely because these effects gain particular connotations that can be, with some work, upset and even reversed completely. When these games of reversal and overthrown expectations are played well, the results are deeply engaging.

Circle me on Google+ at gplus.to/SamKeeper. Follow stormingtheivory.tumblr.com for updates, random thoughts, artwork, and news about articles. As always, you can e-mail me at KeeperofManyNames@gmail.com. If you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave some thoughts in the comments below.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Heywoood Jabrony, or, Notes from the Center of a Fandom's Implosion

There's nothing like a continuous ongoing storm vast enough to dwarf planets to really make a place inhospitable.

This is why I have begun to reconsider my decision to relocate this blog to the center of the Great Red Spot.

It's also why lately it's been harder and harder to shut out the noise and just enjoy My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Because the raging storm surrounding Bronydom has gotten so loud I can even hear it over the icy winds of Jupiter.

Pictured: countless, countless terrible decisions.
Things have gotten particularly bad lately, in part due to the shutdown of the heinous rape-joke blog Princess Molestia by Hasbro, and the reactions from within the fandom and without to that event. However, the storm's been raging for quite a while now, largely involving the question of male roles within the fandom, feminism, the systematic suppression of female voices, the relationship between Bronydom and wider questions of women's involvement in geekdom, and the rise of a horrifying reactionary sect of bronies that have positioned themselves as staunch supporters of the masculine supremacy movement that seems to have infiltrated countless web spaces. (See also: fedoras.) The interference of outsiders who condemn the fandom as a whole whipped those winds further into a tempest, resulting in a complex interweaving of zephyrs that make navigating the various problems difficult. It's hard to sit back and assess the problems of a community when you're being buffeted by howling winds of outrage from multiple sides, and no group involved in this ongoing conversation seems inclined to howl less loudly.

I feel compelled to navigate the tempest, though, in part because I want, somehow, to find my way back to a show that I still love but am increasingly alienated from, in part because I feel loyalty toward a show that helped nudge me towards an internal acceptance of my identification as a genderqueer person, and because... well...

Let me put it this way. When the show first came out and Bronydom became a clear, persistent subcultural group on the 'Net, some people thought that, as Tumblr user Rincewitch puts it, "maybe the wider than expected demographic appeal of my little pony is a bellwether for the destigmatization of femininity."

Well, I didn't just think it.

Almost exactly two years ago, I wrote a whole god damn article proclaiming that it was the case, and that My Little Pony would open up a new golden age for feminism as traditional gender roles collapsed like the houses of lies they were!

WHOOPS.

This is, without a doubt, the single biggest critical blunder I've ever made. Worse than that time I accused Sequart of editorial gender bias, without knowing that their archives had crashed prior to me writing my article, resulting in most of the articles (including all of the ones written by women) being lost. Worse than the time I tried to persuade the Lovecraft subreddit that Cthulhu was boring and overused. Worse than my attempts to shoehorn references to Lord Humongous into all my writing.

I literally could go back in time to the middle of the Somme Valley in 1914 and cheerfully proclaim “This will just be a nice summer war!” and in 1919, as we travel to his place of exile, Kaiser Wilhelm will look me in the eye and you know what he’ll say? You know what he’ll find most pertinent to bring up, what he’ll take the greatest issue with?

He’ll say “Man you sure were dead wrong about Bronydom being a bellweather for the destigmatization of femininity, weren’t you?”

So, all of this in mind, I feel a certain amount of responsibility for the clusterfuck that the tempest within the fandom, and the wider climate instability between the fandom as a whole and its detractors, have become.

In honor of the memory of what the fandom could have been--and, frankly, still is when it's at its absolute best!--I want to try to navigate the storm and provide something like a history of how the fandom foundered, what its challenges were at the outset, and where we might go in building a better fandom.

Trigger warnings for sexism, rape culture, and homophobia.


Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Children of the Night, What Music They Make: Horror in Music

I want to talk a bit about horror in music and how it's a thing that exists. This is kind of an odd way of framing this exploration, but I'm doing it this way because some people seem to think it DOESN'T exist--i.e., that horror can't be effectively expressed in music alone.

People like Charles Darwin.

So look, I like Darwin. I think he's a smart guy. But he's said some pretty stupid things, and I want to take this opportunity to talk about one and why it's so silly. Check it out:

"Music arouses in us various emotions, but not the more terrible ones of horror, fear, rage, &c. It awakens the gentler feelings of tenderness and love, which readily pass into devotion. In the Chinese annals it is said, "Music hath the power of making heaven descend upon the earth." It likewise stirs up in us the sense of triumph and the glorious ardour for war. These powerful and mingled feelings may well give rise to the sense of sublimity."

Oh Charlie, Charlie, Charlie. What the fuck were you thinking.

Now, to me, this is a pretty self-evidently stupid statement--hell, I've already written an article on horror in electronic music, even, which probably stands on its own as proof against this concept. It's stupid largely because of the absolutist terms in which he's working. Music simply does not express horror and fear, full stop. Also, wanting to go slaughter a bunch of other humans has nothing to do with rage, apparently. Ok, if you say so Charlie.

But maybe it's not fair for me to start an article on horror in music by picking on Darwin. After all, he was writing in an earlier, barbaric era--a time before humanity developed its pinnacle of artistic brilliance, Marilyn Manson.

This is the face of the apex of human evolution.
Horror, that logic runs, has developed quite a bit over the past century or so, especially in darker genres of music, and it's anachronistic to subject Darwin's theories to an analysis dependent upon cultural products of the present era.

Well, I'd at least acknowledge some validity to that claim if not for the fact that I pulled this quote from Denis Dutton's The Art Instinct, a text that argues, broadly, that it is possible to understand human artistic endeavor from the perspective of evolutionary psychology and biology. I'm not unsympathetic to that claim! I think there's a lot of potential for the understanding of art practice through the lens of biological models of vision, for example, and that necessitates at least a passing understanding of how evolution has generated particular kinds of eyes.

I take issue, though, when the obsession with a Darwinian model of sexual selection as the sole driving power behind human achievement leads people to say shit that's just fucking stupid!

For example:

"Darwin would not deny, presumably, that a musical soundtrack could be appropriate for a horror movie; he is only claiming that the raw horror a dramatic story might incite could never be produced by music, any more than anger or fear could be produced by music. Music's natural ground is--as you would expect from an adaptation of sexual selection--romance." (Dutton 213)

Uuuugh. It's actually difficult to know where to start with this quote. It's such a mess of nonsensical ideas tossed together. And it's not taken out of context, either--Dutton is legitimately arguing here and elsewhere in the book that music is obviously a product of sexual selection and therefore obviously incapable on its own of expressing certain emotions. Now, the fact that he and Darwin are willing to accept calls to war as allowable despite the fact that unless you're going to the battlefield to find your Kismessis I suspect strongly that boning is not on your mind when you're trudging out to lop the heads off the barbarian hordes should suggest how ridiculous an assertion this really is. In fairness, later in the same chapter he blithely states that "Annexing music wholly to the procreative interests in the way that sexual selection suggests misses a great deal of the art itself as we understand it today" (Dutton 218). If that's the case, though, why frame music this way from the beginning, and why leave Darwin's nonsense so completely unexamined critically? Why not take a moment to consider the obvious contradictions inherent in sectioning off a seemingly arbitrary set of emotions as incapable of musical expression?

So, what I want to do here is talk about a few expressions of fear and horror in music--Gothic music, in particular--and how it most emphatically can match other media in terms of expressing horror.

The Gothic Poet

If you're familiar with my article on poetry and horror from a few years back (which is actually, unlike much of my work from those early days, probably still worth re-reading) you know I'm not satisfied with the presence alone of creepy things. There's gotta be something more to a horror poem than just mention of vampires and zombies. Narratives take advantage of horrific events for their power, movies and comics and paintings take advantage of uncanny visuals, and to my mind the greatest advantage poetry--and music!--has is the modulation of expectation and language and the complex disclosure of information.

This is part of why I'm focusing on gothic music in this article. The other reason is that I really love goth, and I think it deserves sort of a wider visibility than it's gotten despite "gothic" stores like Spensers and Hot Topic. So, if this article gets a bit gushy, step back and try not to let the gushing get on your shoes.

Anyway, it's worth taking a moment to talk about the poetic focus of a lot of early bands sort of broadly gathered under the umbrella of goth, deathrock, and dark romantic postpunk whatever. I think this genre is particularly useful here given the way that many of the bands, particularly the early bands, use more than simply the subject matter to carry the meaning and mood of the music.

This isn't horror, really, but it's a good example of the kind of poetry games that these bands like to play:



I love the careful threading of meaning through the song. Particularly the second stanza:

God knows everybody needs
A hand in their decision
Some of us are not so sure
I seen his own held out
For a ride on television
I think he's still in Baltimore

The slow delivery masks the meaning quite a bit, actually. It took me an actual reading of the lyrics to get that the "he" of the fourth line there is God--God knows that we all need a hand; his own is held out to pick up a ride. He's going nowhere fast, though...

These are the kind of games these gothic poets play with the lyrical structures. The movement from line to line, and the way those lines are delayed and separated by the vocal treatment and the structure of the song, demands attention and forces the audience to put the pieces together.

Which is quite powerful when used to create a sense of uncertainty, foreboding, and fear.

Check out the song "The Dog's a Vapour" by Bauhaus:



I love, love, love the gradual escalation of the song toward the possessed, mantra-like conclusion, building up from that toned down beginning to its repetitive, screeching climax. Can't express fear in music my ass. This song is deeply, deeply disturbing, at least to me. And part of that comes from the way the lyrics are paired with the music and broken apart into a series of audible stanzas. In fact, let's break up the lyrics according to their auditory stanzas:

The moon sheds light
when all is dark
the dog's reaction
is to bark.
Is that the moon's fault?
Tell me true

Tis the dog's nature
So to do.
The moonlight fills all heaven with mirth
The dog's a vapour
Belched by earth

No matter how you break the song (and I've sometimes seen it broken after "mirth") there's an odd looping discontinuity between the end rhymes. The first stanza seems to end with "true," a rhyme without a pair, unlike "dark" and "bark." Then we complete the rhyme in the next stanza with "do," but that in turn is followed by the "mirth" line, which again leaves us hanging, waiting for a resolution. And finally we receive it in the form of the titular line: "The dog's a vapour belched by earth."

This creates a sense of winding and weaving, incompleteness, occlusion. Even though we could write the lines thus:

The moon sheds light when all is dark
the dog's reaction is to bark.
Is that the moon's fault? Tell me true
Tis the dog's nature so to do.
The moonlight fills all heaven with mirth
The dog's a vapour belched by earth

which produces a kind of sing-song, nursery rhyme quality to the lyrics, we're still left with the strange meter that begins with regularized iambic tetrameter (the MOON sheds LIGHT when ALL is DARK/the DOG'S reACtion IS to BARK), collapses in the middle before finally pulling its shit together at the climactic final line. It never quite comes together in a regular way. And when it is sung, the line endings and stanza endings break the poem even more, disguise its meter. The song is thus unsettling not just for its dark, surrealist subject matter, but for its very structure, which is fraught with fissures of discontinuity. It is unsettling because any resolution that we find is then counterbalanced by another misstep.

And, in fact, even when we think we've come to the end of the rhymed couplets, we receive one last line that throws everything out of balance once more:

The dog's a vapour
Belched by earth
The dog's a vapour
Belched by earth.

There's something in you.

Tis the dog's nature
So to do
The moonlight fills all heaven with mirth
The dog's a vapour
There's something in you

The dog's a vapour
The dog's a vapour
Belched by earth

The dog's in you

Now instead of rhymed couplets, we've got one rhymed triplet--the ominous declaration that "There's something in you!" paired with "true" and "do." Now, on top of the anxiety of unbalanced lines, we have another irresolution: just what is within us? Why is this line being drawn into the couplet describing the dog's nature? The song begins to break down even further at this point, with previous stanzas repeated irregularly, divorced from their actual rhyme schemes, and each time the final rhyme with "mirth" is deferred, pushed back and superseded by this strange interloping new line, held in anxious tension...

Until the final climax of the music, when they repeat the earlier statement: "The dog's a vapour belched by Earth." And then, the resolution that we know is coming finally arrives, and the seeming triplet is resolved once more with the eighth unique line of the poem:

The dog's in you.



Ha ha ha holy fuck.

I don't know about you but that gives me the willies. I don't even know for sure what it means--that's part of the fear, in fact, that the meaning of the song as a whole is occluded like the meaning of the individual lines are occluded by their strange placement--but it sure doesn't sound like it means anything good. If I could take a stab at it I'd say it has something to do with humankind's dark, bestial nature breaking out and asserting itself--not exactly an unheard of theme in horror, right? And when these lyrics are paired with the cataclysmic finale of the song, I really do think it reaches a level of terror matching your average horror film.

But, ok, you might say, this is still working on the level of lyrics rather than sensation. It's not, like, really music. Now, granted, that's a bullshit argument because love songs have lyrics too, but sure, I'll indulge this train of thought for a moment.

Horrible Structures

If one side of early goth is the darkly poetic, the other side is just straight up bonkers, and derives its dark edge less from comprehensible lyricism than from deeply unsettling abstraction--there's a lot of affinity between goth and surrealism--and dissonant composition. I'm just going to speed through a few examples here for the sake of time. Check out this track by Christian Death:



This is another example that isn't necessarily fear-inspiring, but is illustrative of the kind of games these bands play. The dominant mood here is one of tension and anxiety, and it's not, I think, caused (just) by the hoarse vocals and the organ and bass combo... no, it's the weird time signature.

This'll take a bit of explanation for those unversed in time signatures. A time signature is just the number of beats it takes for you to get back to the beginning of a repeated musical phrase. Think of it like this: if you tap your foot along with the high hat or bass drum on this track, you'll tap your foot a certain number of times between the beginning of a line of lyrics and the beginning of the next line of lyrics. Normally, this will be four or sometimes three taps.

Here, it's seven.

Roughly mapped out it's sort of like:

1         2         3      4         5      6     7        
Growing with time growing with fear [pause]
1           2     3          4    5   6     7      
Growing all alone to disa......ppear [pause]

This is an unsettling kind of structure because it feels truncated. We're used to simple four beat measures, and multiples of four like eight, so when you drop down to seven the rhythm feels off-kilter and unresolved. Paired with the alternately raspy and screaming vocals and you have a recipe for a jarring, somewhat unpleasant but, in my opinion, quite captivating song.

You can push this even further into the realm of what the fuck if you embrace even more dissonance and unnerving sampling:



Yeah, gotta love that clip from The Exorcist at the beginning. It sort of turns Dutton's statement on its head--rather than music backing a horror movie, a horror movie backs music. I kind of love that, in a way. And I think it kind of shows why that statement is so silly--it's not that the music becomes creepy because it's the score of a horror movie, the horror movie is creepy because of the score--a score that is often shrill, dissonant, and unnerving in its own right (think of the music from Psycho, for example).

In this case, the song is... I don't know, it doesn't hit me on a visceral level the way, say, The Dog's A Vapour does, but there's something about the sheer incomprehensibility of the song, the madness of it, that's creepy for sure. The tone of the song, and the lack of comprehensible lyrics, create a sort of blankness into which you stare, hoping for meaning. And then, of course, there's the elated howls at the end of "My body begins to burn!" What the hell is that about? Jesus christ goths are weird. Anyway, yeah, unnerving compositions, how 'bout that.

Gothic Love

There's one last kind of interesting wrinkle to this, and that's gothic love songs. This is the place where I think the argument most obviously falls apart, because there's quite a lot of romantic gothic music that draws its power from a mediation of sexuality and fear. It's the adrenaline rush of those combined emotions that makes the music so sexy.

For example, here's this track from gothic metal band Type O Negative:



Apparently this song is about deceased frontman Peter Steele's desire to make a woman orgasm so hard she passes out. Which. All I can say to that is. Yes please? Peteeeer why are you dead? [cries over old copies of the Playgirl in which Steele posed naked]

BUT I DIGRESS

The song draws its power from the dark, animalistic lust--threatening, fearful--paired with intensely passionate eroticism. It's the interplay between fear and desire that gives it power. This wouldn't be successful as a song about procreation--the all important subject matter for evolutionary psychologists--without tapping into an emotion that music, according to Darwin and Dutton, can't express in the first place.

You're good enough for me, Peter Steele. You're good enough for me.

Too bad you were a raging homophobe. And are now dead.

Anyway, the point of all this is that there's some rich potential for horror in music that shouldn't be overlooked, there's some really incredible gothic music out there that you might not be familiar with, and you should never get so carried away with a singular theory that you are forced to warp the history of art and music in a really nonsensical way in order to make your theory work.

I mean, goths don't like it when you ignore their entire genre of music. And we've got bats. So many bats. RELEASE THE BATS! RELEASE THE BATS!



AAAAUUUGH! BITE! AAAAUUUUUUUUGH! BITE! Follow stormingtheivory.tumblr.com for updates, random thoughts, artwork, and news about articles. As always, you can e-mail me at KeeperofManyNames@gmail.com. Circle me on Google+ at gplus.to/SamKeeperIf you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave some thoughts in the comments below.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The World is a Cruel Place: Theme in Attack on Titan

The last episode of Attack on Titan came out yesterday (I mean, it did if you watch it illegally, which I ended up doing out of sheer exasperation after 90% of the finale was spoiled in anachronistic order by Tumblr. Thanks, guys! Thanks a lot) and the internet buzzes with the sound of exclamations of joy, rage, and confusion, in equal measure.

I wasn't originally going to say too much about this show, actually, since I think the basic thematic structure is pretty easy to sort out (I mean, they straight up prattle about the humiliation of being in a cage multiple times during the show; you don't get much more overt than that). However, there's some weird pieces that folks are having some trouble fitting together, and there's some interesting stuff going on with the adaptation of the story and the question of how successful it is, so I figured, what the hell, might as well swoop in and give my take on the whole thing.

Besides, the alternative was an article on erotic fanfiction, and I need some more time to do research before I put that one together.

Yes. Research. Indeed.

All joking aside, browsing porn based on Harry Potter is a true descent into madness, and I need to process what I have seen before I can write anything coherent about it. So, let's talk about something a little more sane, like giant naked photosynthesizing cannibals. Significantly more sane. [shudder]

The Miner

Apparently Attack on Titan: The Animated Series has decided that the best way to convey information during the climax of the series is through vast walls of text. Thus it was that this image materialized on my dash:




...with the tags "#important" "#probably."

And it is, actually. I think this image does an excellent job of summarizing some of the main themes in the series. Those themes revolve around the concept of Freedom. This story, seen in that context, becomes a clear fable with a somewhat unclear resolution.

The Miner is our Everyman figure, the dude we're supposed to identify with. For that figure, the Wall is not an icon of protection but an icon of restrictive state power. Without the wall that is defended by the Military Police (a more direct arm of the State) he would be able to live and work where he pleased. The wall is thus a stand-in for the State, and he is literally undermining that state power in the process of digging under the wall. That's, after all, what undermining is--it is the act of digging underneath the fortifications of an enemy wall in order to weaken the foundation or even lay mines--explosives--that will destroy the wall. The Miner is thus a Miner in a military sense of the word, a lone warrior against the State.

His friend acts as a foil, urging complacency and acceptance of life as it is. The State's agents are always watching, after all, and it is not their lot in life to seek something greater. The Miner persists, however, and...

...And what? A lot hinges upon this ambiguity at the end of the story. Either the Miner and his friend escaped beneath the wall, or they were destroyed in the attempt--the story is unclear. If it is the former, the suggestion is that a determined individual can undermine the State, no matter how deep the roots of the State seem to run; if the latter, that the State is an implacably destructive force that will do anything to retain its power.

It's the Libertarian ur-fable, really. Everything boils down to a question of whether or not people are restricted physically by governmental authority.

And it has particular relevance with the revelation that there are Titans within the walls. This means that the threat from outside and the threat from within--the threat of state power--are really one and the same.

So, this story occupies a weird space within the narrative where on the one hand it's clearly a legend that has symbolic value within the setting, while on the other it helps unlock some of the underlying ideology of the show for those of us outside of the narrative, and on the third hand (presumably we're piloting Crimson Typhoon a this point) it serves as a hint about the weird, supernatural nature of the walls.

In that sense, it's really doing some interesting multi-tiered work, work that shores up the broader arguments made throughout the show about self-determination and the existentialist dilemma. Eren Jaeger's character arc seems to largely consist of his need for freedom and his reluctance to face the responsibility that accompanies this freedom. It's kind of the classical Existentialist problem, actually--if you have absolute freedom, you also have absolute responsibility for everything that happens, and often you can't actually determine what the outcomes of your choices will be. This absolute responsibility is terrifying, which is why it is easier for Erin to accept the orders of Captain Levi aka Reveille and trust in his comrades rather than taking matters into his own hands. Although he thought he was ceding authority to another, ultimately he still was responsible for their deaths, because he decided not to choose differently. As Rush puts it, "if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice."

The show, seen through the lens of Eren's character development and the Miner's story, is thus an existentialist story about freedom, and a fairly coherent one at that.

...At least, that's how it seems on the surface.

The Rewrite

One of the critiques spinning around on Tumblr right now of the series or season or whatever finale is that the studio made a number of unwarranted changes to the narrative. People tend to fall into two camps on this sort of thing. On the one side are the Originators, who (some might say slavishly) adhere to the "original" work. On the other are the Isolators, who claim to see each work as fundamentally independent and judge each upon its own merits.

I'm not a big fan anymore of either position, but I'm more sympathetic to the Originator position on the whole. The issue with the Originator position is that it assumes an Author capable of writing a definitive Work that is not subject to error, ambiguity, flaw, changeability, accident, and so on. You see this with some Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter fans--any change is considered bad simply because it is a change from what the author intended.

If you've been following along for a while, you know how skeptical I am of authorial intent. If there's one thing 20th Century theory taught us, it's that meanings can emerge that are outside of the author's ideas, because our minds are association-generating engines. There is very little change, for example, that Hajime Isayama, the author of Attack on Titan, anticipated the punning I did with the Underminer earlier on in this article. And yet, the associations emerged regardless of the author's intent. Part of interpreting a work is running the risk that interpretation will go against the will of the author, and therein lies interpretation's great freedom. In that sense, interpretation tips on the same existential tightrope that Erin staggers along--interpretation is most interesting when it is risky.

On the other hand, though, it seems ridiculous to me that we should simply ignore alternate versions of a work while doing analysis. This would be the equivalent of saying that we must read each article analyzing Attack on Titan completely independently, never weighing any argument against another, never comparing which reading is the most effective of most pleasing, never allowing ideas to cross-pollinate or interact in any way.

The idea that we cannot judge Lord of the Rings, say, by the standard of the book is simply absurd. It's ludicrous to suggest that we can ever close out the other material we have synthesized in order to judge works completely independently. In that sense, the Isolators enact the same folly that the Originators do, prizing the work as an isolated entity associated only with itself.

Viewing an adaptation alongside alternate versions lets us see where the different versions succeed or fail. I think that side by side comparison is quite useful in the case of Attack on Titan's finale, as numerous plot points were added in order to draw out the conclusion and make it seem like a much larger finish. In the process of adding these plot points, some of the thematic coherency was lost.

The biggest one, of course, is the fact that Eren has to be badgered into fighting against Annie. He's emotional, the others are angry with him, bla bla bla, this is nothing new for Shonen anime.

But in the comic, when Eren asks how Mikasa and Armin can fight against Annie, Mikasa says:

Shingeki no Kyojin 32 Page 38

And Eren's response is to say:

Shingeki no Kyojin 32 Page 41

It sure is. None of the "FIRIN' MY LASER" powerup nonsense we get in the show, just cold, bitter resolve. While the show's take is far more dramatic in the sense that there's a lot of flashy intense stuff going on, I think it's clear that the comic has far more human drama, and even more dramatic lighting when you get right down to it. The lengthy dithering simply serves to mute the drama of this fateful decision.

And when you get right down to it, it's the decision here, not the transformation into a titan, that makes this moment dramatic. In the show, Eren must transform into a titan to avoid spikey death. Here, he does it because he consciously decides to set aside his humanity and harden his heart. It plays much better into this paired theme of his freedom vs the responsibility that is his freedom's price. The interaction between the character and the theme generates the impact (plus, you know, the shadowy, backlit composition of this page, which is really stunning).

If we compare the comic and the anime, then, I think it's clear that the comic has a stronger overall composition. The show has always had issues with pacing, and the attempt to draw the ending out and introduce unnecessary elements that served only to muddy the overall character interactions (what was Levi aka Ravioli doing there, anyway?) accentuated those pacing issues while damaging the show's thematic coherency.

Of course, that said, is the theme really all that coherent to begin with?

The Existentialist

There's some odd incoherency between the different elements of the theme, actually, that I think are worth examining a little. On the one hand, the show is very consistent in how the themes are portrayed. On the other hand, the internal logic of those ideas doesn't hold together very well.

The problem is this:

There's a lot in the show that points to a traditionally existentialist outlook, particularly the idea of the world being a cruel and absurd place in which humans must construct meaning and their own identity but in which the ultimate responsibility for meaning and choice fall upon them. That's where the whole idea of angst comes from, the pain of growing up and being responsible for your life, being forced by your father to pilot Eva to become a Titan-shifter, &c. &c. That's great! It's solid material for a story about an adolescent, particularly, and it's well explored here.

Except the existential dilemma, the existentialist angst, comes from the realization that limits are internal and once you abandon those limits you can jump off any cliff you want with the absolute responsibility of the outcome.

The three walls of Attack on Titan are, however, an external constraint and part of Eren's angst comes from being constrained by these external forces.

See the issue here? Existentialism seems, to me, to be largely inward-focused while the plot of Attack on Titan increasingly places state institutions as an external enemy that must be defeated to achieve freedom. In essence, this injection of a fundamentally Libertarian or Anarchist ethos unsettles the existentialist ideas in the show because it moves the conflict from the introspective to the external world. It's basically the opposite of what happens in Evangelion, interestingly, where the conflict appears to be external but gradually becomes more and more existential as the show goes on until the final battles are fought in the mind, and Shinji must confront the fact that he is responsible for his own happiness.

The introduction of the Miner, who as far as I can tell does not appear in the comic, really does a serious blow to the thematic coherency because it makes far more explicit the Libertarian bent, at least, of the show's adapters. The story seems far more obviously an allegory of the evils of state power than about the need for the Miner to realize his own freedom of action and identity that precedes Minerhood. Whereas Eren's choice in the comic indicates a resolution to action within an absurd and cruel world, his choice in the show, when paired with this story, suggests a need to struggle for survival against a very specific foe (rather than a need to struggle for meaning against an indifferent universe). So, again, the adaptation brings the show into conflict with itself.

Does that uncomfortable conflation of internal understanding of freedom with external achievement of freedom help or hinder the show? I honestly don't have an answer to that question. I think it might be something every fan has to determine for zirself, fittingly enough. The theme itself seems to be effectively carried through the show, so the question of whether or not you agree with the theme itself almost runs parallel to the question of whether or not the show is successful, I think. It's ok to find a work artistically coherent while politically incoherent or even objectionable.

At the very least, it's worth considering what message this show is sending and how that message is changed through the act of adaptation, especially for those engaged in fan art and fanfiction, where the development of new stories and scenarios has rich potential for reconsidered and altered themes.

Regardless, I'm eager to see where the theme goes in both the anime and the manga, which suggests that even if the theme isn't always successful, it's at least intriguing... which is maybe what really matters most, in the end.

SIE SIND DIE TEXTEN UND WIR SIND DIE READERS! AH AH AH AH AH AH AAAAAA. Follow stormingtheivory.tumblr.com for updates, random thoughts, artwork, and news about articles. As always, you can e-mail me at KeeperofManyNames@gmail.com. Circle me on Google+ at gplus.to/SamKeeperIf you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave some thoughts in the comments below.


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Our Love Is Synthesis: Muse, Marx, and "Madness"


Let's talk about Madness.

Specifically, the song Madness by Muse and its accompanying music video.

It's actually a favorite of mine, as is the song. Muse on this track really shows off their versatility--they're a band that's often been compared to a mashup of Queen and Radiohead, but here they sample stylistic elements from Dubstep to pretty excellent effect. You can never say, of Muse, that they don't push their boundaries.

In a way, that's kind of what I want to talk about tonight. I think the idea of pushing and finally shattering boundaries is essential to a lot of what Muse does, and is certainly central to what's going on in this video. The video is fairly simple in construction--it shows a man and a woman in a subway station, circling around each other and finally sharing a pretty intense kiss. This is intercut with images of the band, and images of a riot. Now, we could read this simplistically as just Muse's attempt to build energy throughout the song by using these images of violence--as an adrenaline-boosting strategy--but (surprise, surprise) I think there's a lot more to these juxtapositions than simple appropriation of images we've seen frequently in the media over the last four years.

To get at what Muse is saying with this video, though, we've got to turn (again, surprise, surprise) to some theory.

Specifically, we need to understand the idea of the Hegelian Dialectic... or at least, the Hegelian Dialectic as interpreted through interpreters of Marx. Yeah, already things are getting a bit dense. Look, the problem here is that Hegel, the philosopher that came up with the notion we're going to discuss, isn't necessarily the most important person to write on these ideas. Rather, it's his ideas interpreted through Marx (essentially the father of Communist thought) and through Engels (Marx's collaborator), and then filtered through other thinkers, that we're most interested in. Honestly, some of what I'm going to be discussing is also filtered through my own interpretation of what other scholars have told me, so this is pretty far removed from the source.

This actually works in our favor, though, because what comes out the other side is a highly symbolic, highly romanticized understanding of Hegel's ideas, which fits well with a reading of an emotionally-charged piece of art.

"Get to the point!" you howl and wave your flagon in my general direction!

Don't be impatient! You can't start being an Antithesis until I present my Thesis! You're jumping ahead!

Which is really what the Hegelian Dialectic--or, for Marx, the Dialectical Materialism--is about.

There's a Thesis--this is a state of being, a power structure, a dominant idea.

Then there's an Anthithesis--the alienations and contradictions and things left disenfranchised by the Thesis.

And then, when the two ideas come together, as when your beer sloshes into my wine while you're waving your cup around angrily, they create a Synthesis, an new form that arises from the clashing of a state of being and its contradictions. For Marx, who's going to be important for this essay, these referred to material states of being--i.e. the thesis is a way of ordering society that leads to a series of problems and people who have been disenfranchised--antithesis--resulting in a revolution of the ordering of society. The synthesized society then becomes a new thesis with its own contradictions.

Of course, no one actually agrees on anything about the Dialectic. Some scholars even claim that Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis has nothing to do with Hegel's real ideas! It's basically a giant, hideous mess.

But we don't care about any of that, because regardless of their source, the Dialectic is a powerful, powerful meme, with resonances built deep in Western history (compare, for example, William Blake's idea that you need to merge Heaven and Hell in order to create something new). It's less important to me what Marx or Hegel really, truly said and more important to see this powerful notion of a thing smashed against its opposite in order to create a new thing.

What does this have to do with "Madness?"

Only everything.

Let's talk dialectics.


"Madness" is really not a song about madness alone.

It's a song about an opposition.

Love... and Madness.

That structure is repeated everywhere throughout the video and song.

First, we have the lyrics themselves:
And now I need to know is this real love,
Or is it just madness keeping us afloat?
And when I look back at all the crazy fights we had,
Like some kind of madness was taking control
Here's where the opposition is most explicitly stated, but the other verse has a similar structure to it--a state is posited, and then madness is reintroduced into the song. The states of being are worth examining though. Most significant, of course, is the suggestion that one of the two possibilities is "real love." This, to me, seems like the dominant idea or Thesis. We could extrapolate a bit here and suggest that this is a traditional, stable, picture-perfect relationship. It is easily understood, orderly, and genuine.

This notion is paired in the video with two major things: the male character (notionally linked to the male singer) and the militant police state. Look at the header for this section: the video makes heavy use of the "montage" technique, which is widely known in pop culture as "that thing where they show a bunch of clips of people doing stuff really fast so that it seems like lots of stuff is getting done," but which really means a series of cuts between different footage meant to draw out associations between the things depicted. It's a major feature of early Russian cinema (sometime I'll have to get Sara to write something with me on that--she's done research in this area), incidentally, while we're on the subject of Marx. Here, the montaging is used to draw a connection between the man and the riot police. As he walks down the side of the subway car, his motions are intercut with shots of the marching riot police, and finally the sequence concludes with a shot of the woman followed by the police.

So, the thesis here is both the male figure, and the spectre of state power and repression.

This is pretty wild, actually. "Love" being linked to an army of riot police marching in time to crack the heads of the proletariat, or to a guy following a woman through a subway station? Kind of Orwellian, and more than a little creepy, no?

Well, maybe. There's more going on here than what's apparent on the surface, though. First of all, the suggestion in the song is that the concept of "real love" has become a constraint, a box within which the implied relationship is not fitting comfortably. Love is an absolute ideal, a perfect state, just like the state of law and order upheld by the noble police force. The video and song paired together, then, suggest that the Thesis here has started to crumble due to its own rigidity and inability to deal with... what? Well, the Antithesis, in its tripartite form.


The Antithesis is Madness. Here, the comparisons fit a little more readily. Madness can be seen as disorder, chaos, disruption. It is commonly linked to artistry in part because of its potential to upset expectations and preconceptions. It is the entity that won't fit comfortably within an established box like "Love" and "Law" and "Order."

And in this video, it is the disenfranchised rising up from a state of poverty and repression and just straight up wrecking shit.

But what's interesting to me is the fact that the Antithesis is given subjective privilege within this song. The speaker is the Thesis, the Male, the State, Love, but the subject of the song, the driving force within the song and within the video, is the Antithesis, the Woman, the Proletariat, Madness. The word "love" only appears in the second verse. Before that, the idea of love exists only as an implication, a prior assumed state, just as the society we exist within is an unexamined entity that is only given form when it is contrasted with its shortcomings. Similarly, the man and his stated doppleganger is given focus in the second verse. The scenes in the clip above come from the first segment of the song, where, again, montage is used to link the woman notionally with the rioters, passing through the subway backdrop (and what a perfect image of the dream of order opposed by the material reality of crowding, poverty, and refuse!) as a primal storm of upheaval.

It would be easy to read the interactions between the man and the woman here quite shallowly as a creepy dude following a hot chick, but she is, quite explicitly, flirting with him constantly, daring him to come closer while simultaneously seeming threatening. The song, the speaker, the man, and the State, are all overwhelmed and driven by this force that they don't fully understand and don't know how to react to.

Muse's sympathies clearly lie with the antithesis--fitting, for artists. The antithesis offers the possibility of something new and unexplored (like, say, the possibilities of using dubstep techniques within the context of an anthemic Queen-esque rock band's ensemble?) and, rather than a sign of things going horribly wrong, it is a captivating force.

And it is this captivating force that will ultimately take control of the song, the video, and the world.


Can we just take a moment here to talk about how great the structure of this song is? The dubstep qualities to it set up this really excellent sense of expectation which is continually deferred. Normally, in a dubstep song you expect to have some sort of buildup until the bass is proverbially dropped and Skrillex is out another Italian Upright. But in this song, we wait around perpetually for the climax. Just when we think it's finally maybe about to start after the second verse, we get shunted off again as the music tones down again for a stripped back sounding and relatively simple (especially compared to some of their other work) guitar solo. This is in stark contrast to Follow Me, another track on this album that has a much more traditional buildup and break structure including dropped bass and all.

For this song, then, Muse wants to tease us.

For this song, they're drawing the foreplay out... just as the aggressive flirting is drawn out throughout the video, until we finally reach the climax:
But now I have finally seen the end
And I'm not expecting you to care
But I have finally seen the light
I have finally realized
I need to love
I need to love
The confusion throughout the song and video are finally getting resolved, as the woman grabs the man by the jacket and the riot police finally clash with the protesters. Form itself becomes distorted at this point as blurred figures merge into one another. Here, again, love reappears, but it seems to be undergoing some process of redefinition that makes the early question of whether or not it is "real love" immaterial or irrelevant. The singer needs to love, regardless of how it is interpreted.

And in that moment, synthesis occurs.
Come to me
Just in a dream.
Come on and rescue me.
Yes I know, I can be wrong,
Maybe I'm too headstrong.
Our love is Madness
Not, "our love is like madness" or even the earlier "is our love madness," "our love IS madness." I love, love, love that in the video at this point it's very clear that the woman is pulling the man into the kiss. She is the one with all the power here, and it's... it's not even just sexy, it's downright breathtaking. At this point the sexual subtext of the video is barely even subtext anymore. It's basically just straight up text. I mean, the video ends with:


...Which I'm pretty sure is basically the universal movie signifier for "We just fucked." And in the background someone gets hurled against the wall of the subway car. Alright.

The suggestion, then, is that the social upheaval seen in the video is analogous to the kind of emotional turmoil experienced in the song, where the singer has to reconcile himself to a love that doesn't fit within his narrow understanding. Love IS Madness in the end, and the singer acknowledges, as the state ultimately must, that it "could be wrong" and may be "too headstrong," too in love with authority, too tied to existing power structures.

We have here nothing less than a romanticization and eroticization of revolution and uprising. By drawing these notions parallel to one another, Muse suggests that social disorder like we are experiencing now should be seen as an exhilarating start of a confusing, as yet undefined state of being. In that sense, despite the heterosexual pairing in the video, I might even suggest that the video is queering revolution by comparing it to the kind of unstable, rough, contentious power dynamics that you might find in BDSM (not without precedent in theory, incidentally--theory writers, it turns out, are kinky as fuck).

Synthesis is therefore both threatening and compelling, a creative force that we should welcome rather than fear, as the Thesis might.

I really can't quite express just how brilliant I think this video is. It's working on so many levels at once, and it's impossible to say just which is supposed to be the metaphor and which is supposed to be the thing represented. Every set of notions can be switched and jumbled around with another set in a kind of orgiastic mating of symbols. And, of course, it's hot as hell. God, that moment when she just sort of digs her hand into his shoulder... [bites lip]

The point is, this video and song are built entirely upon the Dialectic--the Thesis is confronted by an Antithesis that it can't easy absorb back into its prior state, so it needs to adapt and be changed in order to reach a new stable point. These individual components, though, are reflected across an array of symbols and actors within the narrative, to the point where the nature of the song itself becomes indeterminate and suggestive of new possibilities.

It is in that uneasy territory between opposing things that both art and interpretation hover, finding unity and opposition again and again, madness keeping it afloat.

Human theorists would never be able to adequately diagnose the relationship between the Antithesis and her Thesis. But troll theorists could immediately place it as a dead ringer for kismesissitude. They would think we were all pretty stupid for not getting it. And they would be right. Follow stormingtheivory.tumblr.com for updates, random thoughts, artwork, and news about articles. As always, you can e-mail me at KeeperofManyNames@gmail.com. Circle me on Google+ at gplus.to/SamKeeperIf you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave some thoughts in the comments below.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Company of Heroes: Pacific Rim, Iron Man, Cloud Atlas, and the Power of Ensemble Casts

This is it. The end of the line. The strange entity with a book for a head (and what a load of crap that is! You've read all three Monster Manuals and there's no book headed dude in there, and you're going to give the DM an earful next time there's a pizza break) approaches you slowly and raises its hands in preparation for a spell. You have one chance--one saving throw. You gather your die in sweating hands and cast it across the table. It bounces off the DM's soda, and careens to a halt. 
A one. Oh for the love of Bahamut.
The creature begins to chant an eldrich summoning spell. A spell that sounds suspiciously like... media analysis? This is the worst quest ever, you conclude grimly, as the spell begins to take hold...
I'm bored of heroes but really into heroism right now.

That's kind of the quick, pithy summary of this article, I suppose. I'm bored of, to be more precise, the notion of the Exceptional Hero (nearly always straight, white, male) that a story's arc is built completely around and whose gaze we largely inhabit throughout the text.

I am not, on the other hand, bored of the idea of heroism. As I maybe have hinted obliquely and very subtly before, I'm not too into cynicism and grimdarkness these days, in part because I think it's sometimes used as a lazy way to achieve an illusion of philosophical depth. Protagonists that are genuinely good appeal to me quite a bit, actually, despite the prevailing attitude that such characters are without nuance, boring, or impossible to relate to (see: recent conversations about non-grimdark Superman).

There seems to be a contradiction there, though. Isn't the traditional square-jawed manly, monomythic hero tied intrinsically to the idea of genuine heroism in stories?

Well, no, I don't think so. And I think if you asked most people directly, they would also say that it isn't so. But I'm not sure most people could articulate an alternative--or at least, not quite the kind of alternative I'm looking for. It's not that people think heroism must come in the form of the square-jawed action hero, it's that they have trouble finding another kind of heroism.

One answer we have seen people put forth recently is the diversification of who can be in a lead heroic role. I'm all for that, of course--it's about time we got more women, people of color, and GSD folks as lead heroes!

But my issue isn't just with representation alone (although that's part of it). I think there's a deeper toxicity to the Monomyth--the idea of the Campbellian Hero's Journey that seems to so fully pervade our modern thinking--that's worth addressing. See, the Monomyth, which follows a familiar form involving a Chosen One rising to greatness through a series of trials and becoming a hero, ultimately suggests that heroism is:
  • Extremely rare and frequently a product of destiny or a birthright
  • Ultimately a symbol of not just righteousness but rightness--i.e. the authority to make decisions unilaterally
  • A force of overwhelming gravity upon the plot--i.e. a hero warps the narrative around himself (infrequently herself), and the arcs of other characters are either nonexistent or risk truncation to further the hero's own arc. The pull of the hero's arc hauls everything within its event horizon.
This may not seem overly eggregious on its face. After all, why SHOULDN'T a narrative warp around the gravity of the central character?

Well, to see where this starts to go wrong, consider what virtues and themes are excluded by the very nature of the hero's journey, at least without a strong conscious effort on the part of a creator to pull the narrative in a different direction:
  • Democratic consensus.
  • Companionship.
  • Teamwork.
  • The ability to defer to others.
  • The need for multiple intelligences and viewpoints.
  • The betterment of society through mass action.
  • The ability of anyone to behave heroically.
Now, consider the culture that might emerge from such a media narrative. I don't think it would be difficult to link the Monomyth with such ideas as Manifest Destiny, American Exceptionalism, unprecedented executive power, unilateral decisions made on both a global and local scale... I'm not saying, of course, that Batman makes people into militant cowboys ready to exact vigilante justice against undesirables, but I am saying that in such a media environment, it should not come as a surprise when cooperation is highly difficult or even impossible to achieve, and it becomes harder to criticize and oppose those who DO become militant cowboys.

The strange thing is, none of this is inevitable. In fact, in fantasy, the genre most would associate with the Monomyth, we've long had alternatives. The great progenitor of the genre in its modern form, The Lord of the Rings, is a story with a vast cast of characters whose actions compound across time and space to result in victory. And, of course, there is one other classic arrangement that, while still requiring some amount of gravitational warping around the heroes, is far more profoundly influenced by ideas of cooperation. I'm speaking, of course, of the classic four-player D&D group: Fighter, Rogue, Wizard, and Cleric. Four classes that complement and reinforce one another as a team, all with their own character motivations and arcs, all with their own themes to explore, all forced to work together to achieve a common goal. It's necessary, in fact, for this structure to be present for the gameplay to work. You can't have a single hero and three vague side characters in a game of D&D; it just doesn't work.

"But Sam," you object loudly, throwing your glass at my head (I roll an 18 and dodge, artfully, and the glass shatters against Lord Humongous's giant abs. "You disobey me, little puppy..." he growls), "Tolkien had three books to work with! And you can't just translate a D&D game to a movie screen! They tried! Have you seen that movie? It sucked!"

Oh ho ho ho not so fast my pretty! You see, I am not just a lonely wizard, bearing my trials alone! I have the power to summon a whole team to support my claims, and together we shall complete our quest to bring good storytelling back to these benighted lands!

For my Fighter, I call upon Pacific Rim!
For my Rogue, I call to my side Iron Man III!
And for my Cleric, I summon Cloud Atlas!

AND I'LL BE THE HEAD OH SHIT I FUCKED UP THE METAPHOR DAMMIT DAMMIT DAMMIT QUICK, PACIFIC RIM, ROLL FOR ATTACK!

Pacific Rim: Fighting As One


Pacific Rim is a movie that vibrates with the electric intensity of its convictions. It is a film bound and determined to express the idea that humanity can achieve greatness if and only if it can come together and find ways to cooperate. In fact, I would argue that the vast majority of the plot beats are constructed in order to convey this message. The narrative is simple, but that doesn't make it simplistic.

Consider Newton and Hermann, the two scientists who unlock the secrets of the Kaiju. A number of viewers (and I apologize for continually opening up the conversation on Pacific Rim with these refutations) questioned the point of these characters. I would argue that regardless of your individual enjoyment of them as characters or their segments as parts of the film is secondary to their purpose for the film's themes (and for the sake of wider worldbuilding, but that's another conversation entirely).

To put it another way, you may have gone in expecting nonstop kaiju-crushing action and were annoyed by the scientist segments. And that's ok, I guess, although I'd suggest that it's also reasonable to adapt your expectations as a film proceeds rather than just comparing it to the film that is in your head, but fine, alright, you didn't like them.

That doesn't mean they were unnecessary to the film on a deeper functional level or could be cut out.

See, one of the things their arc does very well, in some ways better than any of the other arcs, is show how victory depends upon a willingness to collaborate despite interpersonal strife or differences of opinion. Newt and Hermann have radically different ways of parsing information and getting results, both quite maniacal in their own ways, but when the chips are down and Newt asks Hermann for help, by god, Hermann steps up to the plate.

It may be worth recalling at this point that "the plate" in this metaphor is a kaiju brain that Newt intends to Drift with via a piece of equipment that literally incorporates a medieval fucking bellows to... I don't know, keep the parts cool maybe? Not a fan. A bellows.

And Hermann agrees to do it anyway.

What interests me about this arc from bitter disagreement to collaboration is that it echoes throughout the wider narrative. Chuck must defend the pilots of Gipsy Danger despite getting into a fist fight with one of them a short time before--and he willingly gives his life in the process. Raleigh learns to be less of a hot shot and trust his commanding officer's decisions (and not to touch Stacker Pentecost again). And, of course, all the characters must open themselves to their drift partners in order to pilot their Jaegers. One of Mako's major developmental arcs is her movement from suspicion for Raleigh to trust--not trust in him in the "I defer to you, Heroic White Dude Hero Man" sense, but trust in their bond, trust in her ability to stay stable in the Drift, trust in his ability to help her to be stable in the Drift, and trust in their collaborative potential.

Those bonds are what ultimately turns out to win the day. The willingness to look beyond difference allows them to destroy the Rift. And here, again, I think there's a great parallel between the overall construction and the story of Newt and Hermann: in the end, their information is not in opposition. Both of the scientists are right, and it is only through the synchronization of their knowledge, rather than their petty squabbling for attention from their benefactors, that the key to the Rift becomes apparent.

Hm, you know, now that I'm typing this up, I can't help but think some academical sorts would be well served by taking note of this part of the film...

This film could have been about Raleigh's heroic journey from the depths of despair back into the height of heroic victory, but it wasn't. It was about all these characters--characters that in another work would be side characters--worked together to achieve victory.

The lesson is quite straightforward, and for that reason, Pacific Rim is my Fighter--straight to the point, a blunt instrument that communicates simply and effectively that there is another way of doing things.

Iron Man III: The Rogue In The Gallery
My inclusion of Iron Man III as a Rogue player may seem contrived--an idea forced into place once Pacific Rim took up the Fighter slot. However, I think the class fits quite well if you think of a rogue as more than a narrowly defined thief. A rogue can also be someone the unpredictably breaks ranks with the main party, a troublemaker, a character capable of getting away with what others wish they could get away with, a rule-breaker.

For a giant blockbuster movie about a playboy billionaire superhero, to put forth a narrative based around coping with severe psychological trauma, the excesses of a military-industrial complex that benefits from the perpetuation of fear and conflict, moral compromise within research, and, ultimately, the simple human act of asking someone else for help and admitting that you can't do everything alone... well, that seems like a roguish act to me, for sure.

And that's what Iron Man III does. It's a film about all these ideas and more. It'd be worth talking about some of the political aspects of the film at some point, but I want to talk about that last idea in particular--Tony Stark's need to ask for help. In a way, this might be one of the most subversive parts of the film, although it's certainly less overtly politically subversive than the Mandarin's ultimate identity.

See, the thing about this movie is that it could easily have involved Tony Stark rising on his own from ruin and clawing his way singlehandedly to victory. It could have involved the removal of all his allies so that he alone would have to face the Mandarin and defeat his diabolical opponent.

That's not what happens, though. Instead, Tony Stark is constantly accompanied, after his fall, by people who he must ask for help and work with to achieve victory. It's only, you'll note, after the fall that this seems to happen--previously, he sets himself up as a target, and a solitary target at that, brashly declaring himself to be the Mandarin's opponent, even though the government (or, hey, I dunno, THE AVENGERS?) would probably be better equipped to deal with a massive terrorist organization.

After his fall, though, not only is he required to ask for help, he's required to beg assistance from a child. A loooot of people assumed this bit was going to suck, due to previous bad experiences with child sidekicks, but the writers of this film knew exactly what they were doing in including Harley. In needing Harley's help, Stark is forced to recognize that there is potential in the people around him for heroism, even where he would not expect to find it. It forces him to reassess his ability to rely on other people, and marks the first step towards recognizing that the obsessive building of alternate suits is, in fact, a way of fleeing further and further into himself. (Note that Harley is the first person who asks him if he should be getting psychological treatment for his PTSD, and Stark finally responds affirmatively, admitting that he has a problem.) He is able to achieve victory only through sacrificing countless suits, and only through relying on Harley, Rhodes, that awkward news team fanboy, and ultimately Pepper Potts.

Hell, look at one of the pivotal scenes in the movie, the plane rescue sequence. That whole scene revolves around the idea that Tony can't save all these people on his own, so he needs to literally bind them together via electrical impulses in order to effect a full rescue. What a perfect metaphor for the film's overarching message.

So, part of the message of the film, like Pacific Rim, is that anyone can be heroic, and the heroism of teamwork is more profound than the heroism of a solitary ubermensch--or the villainy of a man who uses and discards his associates, even literally using his team as human bombs.

Furthermore, it shares a diverse cast with Pacific Rim. It's significant to me that this film passes the Bechdel Test--remember the scene between Potts and Maya Hansen where they discuss the ethics of accepting moral compromise for the sake of research funding? I sure as hell didn't expect to see that kind of question being broached in a blockbuster like this, and I certainly would never have predicted that the conversation would play out not between the two leading men but between the two leading women. The severing of narrative focus from Stark's monomythical quest--the reduction of his narrative's gravity--allows that conversation to take place, and the film is stronger for it. It provides context for Hansen's actions later on that in a lesser film would be explained implicitly through the gravity of Stark's narrative, i.e. she would go good because of his presence rather than because she has been brought to a moment of moral crisis that is finally coming to a head.

This could easily have been a very different film. It could have been a film about the singular brilliance of Tony Stark and his ability to triumph even against a supremely powerful hidden opponent. It could have been, like the second film, another exercise in the claiming of a rich white boy birthright passed on from father to son. It could have been about Stark climbing, alone, from the pit to defeat his opponents and save his whatever. It could have been a film that, as the title suggested, was about Iron Man and Iron Man alone.

It was not those films.

It was, instead, a film about finding strength in others rather than burrowing into a monomaniacal savior complex. It was a film about the heroic potential that humans have within them, if that potential is not rebuffed or eroded (Killian and Hansen are a product of Stark's hubris, remember, and the Mandarin is the product of encouraged addiction).

It is the rogue of this team, a film that appeared to be something other than what it was, and, I think, became an unlikely hero in the battlefield that is media.

Cloud Atlas: The Healing Of Small Cuts In Time
I get the impression that viewers constantly understand this movie as being about religion--specifically, the notion of reincarnation and the transmigration of souls across multiple humans through time. This makes it an easy selection for Cleric of the party.

But like the Cleric, the role of this movie, at least in the scheme I'm presenting here, is not to introduce religiosity per se into the discussion. The role of the cleric is to banish evil and, ultimately, to act as a healer.

I don't think you need to believe in reincarnation to feel moved by this film. Rather, you simply need to be open to its core message that the actions we make affect the world far beyond our individual lifespans. This is a view quite compatible with a secular mindset--in fact, quite conducive to a scientific understanding of the world as cause and effect obscured by the complexity of time and space and human action--and it depends upon the kind of ensemble casts that we've been talking about.

The intriguing thing about Cloud Atlas the film is that the stories all channel towards a conclusion at the same time (in contrast to the book, which has a stepped pyramid structure). This means that the tragic ending of one story is counterbalanced and, arguably, undercut by the triumph of another. These moves are wholly intentional, and the film is stronger for this undercutting, because it reinforces the central message of the film: through countless actions, great and small, humanity as a whole moves forward out of ignorance into light. It is the compounding actions of the various characters that ultimately allows the Precients in the future to find a way off of a dying Earth to a new home in the stars. From an abolitionist's conversion, to a tragic love affair, to a battle for the truth, to... alright, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is pretty silly but it still inspires, a synthetic human's attempt to spark a revolution, all the stories lead via coincidence and influence toward an ending in triumph.

And what is the opponent in this movie?

Well, in the previous two films, the enemies were certainly symbolic--the Kaiju of the vast challenges that humanity must unite to conquer, and the Mandarin of a covert military-industrial complex threatening to usurp power from the countless regular people that make up Tony Stark's team (as well as a dark product of Stark's own megalomania)--but they were still very much a material set of enemies.

By the end of Cloud Atlas, however, the recurring enemy gradually loses materiality and acquires a purely symbolic, conceptual nature. Hugo Weaving's various characters transform from quite threatening individuals capable of murder and hideous inhumanity gradually transform first into a sadistic nurse--quite deranged, of course, but ultimately somewhat comical in form--then, into a dignitary among countless dignitaries in an authoritarian regime (he is reduced from the role of central evil to functionary of evil), and finally, into a mythological representation of the central character's inner turmoil: Old Georgie. You can see this role as internal doubt here, in the film's climax:



Pretty sure that's the right clip.

Whatever.

The point is, evil over time degrades while good strengthens (and, interestingly in the case of Sonmi, also becomes an abstraction--a goddess figure). An article from Vulture that I consulted while writing this essay puts it quite well, I think:
He's a figure of evil, control, and enslavement who never displays any loyalty or learns anything over time, and eventually devolves until he's just an idea.
Because Weaving's characters are unable to see beyond themselves, they degrade through time until they lose substance entirely and become a formless boogieman. This is a fascinating and powerful transformation, as it suggests that the monomythic hero is actually potentially quite weak. If our ability to form attachments to others--loyalties, as the Vulture article puts it--we fail to develop and ultimately devolve.

I'm reminded, actually, of another entity that goes on a similar journey away from knowledge and contact with other beings. I am speaking of Milton's Satan, who manipulates his followers, strikes off alone to Earth to spoil God's creation, and ultimately devolves from heroic titan to crawling serpent.

Cloud Atlas does not exactly promise a hopeful future, but it does assert that the countless small cuts in our history caused by humanity's inhumanity can be bandaged, can be healed, can be restored in time. A single messianic figure cannot, however, heal these cuts on her own. She is accompanied by other agents of change, some coming far before or after her own life, and humanity's ultimate salvation is due not to messiahs but to a collaboration between two lowly humans just trying to get by on a decaying world. It is through the action of all of us, not one of us, that these small cuts are healed.

And for that message of healing, Cloud Atlas will be my cleric.

The Wizard: Possibilities Given Form

The Wizard is often described as an obnoxiously overpowered class, growing in ability by leaps and bounds while the other classes lag behind. It's only fitting then that I take the Wizard role for myself, the REAL hero of this story!

...Except, there's more to the wizard than that. The wizard's role in battle is often a support role, warping the battlefield and allowing the different party members to better make use of their talents. It is a role with more to do with coordination than dramatic stardom, although a lot of players might, unfortunately, play them that way.

So, let me try to coordinate this a little bit and explain why I put this article together the way I did.

On their own, these films would be compelling arguments for particular kinds of ensemble casts. Pacific Rim shows that you can create a compelling story from a group of champions fighting side by side against a vast enemy. Iron Man III shows that a film hero can be assisted in countless ways by companions without seeming powerless or extraneous--and that those characters can deeply enrich the film's world. Cloud Atlas shows that you can construct an exceptionally complex film with a staggering number of characters and still have your message come through loud and clear so long as you construct the interweaving of narratives carefully enough.

Each film, on its own, would be an argument that you can make that specific kind of film.

Together, they show that there is a stunning range of storytelling possibility open to writers willing to construct an ensemble-driven story rather than a monomythic story. In fact, while you can certainly get quite a bit of variance within the monomyth, I would argue that these sorts of complex and distributed heroics have much more potential, especially since this structure is somewhat underexplored in recent blockbusters. It certainly seems to force writers out of the narrow and cliche beats of the more slavish adaptations of the monomyth, which is certainly a good thing in my estimation.

So, the films (plus my own attempts to set the battlefield in our favor through the magic of analysis and close reading) are stronger together than on their own. They make a more compelling argument united than they would separate.

Each one is a hero in its own right, a triumphant warrior of the silver screen. Their heroism is in no way diminished by the presence of other heroes. On the contrary, it is compounded, made stronger, and allowed to diversify, just as within the films the ensemble casts allow for far more room for the underrepresented to find a voice, and just as the heroism of individuals is made stronger by unity. As above, so below. The message is clear: heroism can be distributed far more widely, and the benefits to opening our narratives to such distribution are enormous.

I mean, at the very least, my team of epic level monsters pretty much wiped the floor with you just now, Mr Monomythic Strawman.

Serves you right for demanding to play a Chaotic Evil solo game. Maybe if you had invited some other players to our game instead of insisting that there was only room for you and me in the group, this would've gone differently.

Yeah, yeah I'm gonna be that way. Fine. Pick up your dice and go then, you big crybaby! You're just a figment of my imagination, anyway! AND NO ONE LIKES TIEFLINGS ANYWAY!

Ugh.

I'm never playing D&D with Hugo Weaving again.

Follow stormingtheivory.tumblr.com for updates, random thoughts, artwork, and news about articles. As always, you can e-mail me at KeeperofManyNames@gmail.com. Circle me on Google+ at gplus.to/SamKeeperIf you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave some thoughts in the comments below.