The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Nerd-On-Nerd Violence: Why Is Geek Star Wars Crit So Lousy?

"Star Wars fanboys don't know what they're talking about," grouses Mr Plinkett! But aren't all these bad Star Wars theories, Red Letter Media's popular garbage videos included, totally characteristic of fanboy analysis? And does geek culture encourage us to disengage from the empathetic core of the Star Wars franchise?











There's loads of bad Star Wars theories out there, and as we've seen previously a lot of them have pretty nasty real world subtext. Nevertheless, I don't think most Bad Star Wars Theories set out to be propaganda for Space Nazis, or for real world oppression. I mean some of them totally are--I don't know what else to call the Catholic take from the first of this series that conspicuously extended the possibility of redemptive grace only to white characters. The same site also published pieces claiming that magical opposition to Trump was proof he was an agent of the Lord, so, safe to say that propaganda is their primary aim.

But even there I think the argument fundamentally runs on the same kinds of geek culture engines that empower MatPat's terrible defense of the Death Star: a casual and strategic lack of empathy paired with smug nerd superiority.

While all fandoms have popularity and mastery struggles, the whole nerd persona in particular is seemingly grounded in being smarter than everyone else in the room, and using that as justification to treat everyone else as a social experiment, to treat everything as an interesting and amusing thought problem. Of course MatPat can make glib jokes about Alderaan's destruction. He's not actually concerned at all about the impact of what he's saying or the logical endpoint of his ideas, despite the patronizing lectures about "normal people's" suffering. It's totally disingenuous.

I mean if he cared about other people his videos wouldn't be such aesthetic assaults, holy christ. He wouldn't have given the fucking Pope googly eyes.

To really get at this dynamic, though, I think it's worth shifting focus from Matpat, though, to zero in on the grand master of Midichlorian freakouts: Red Letter Media's Mr Plinkett. Plinkett's coverage of the Star Wars Prequels is as infamous as it is influential, pairing together a running gag about Plinkett being a serial killer with women locked up in his basement with a sneering critique of all the places where the prequels fail to live up to the vaunted legacy of the original trilogy. 

The thing about Mr Plinkett though is that his analysis mostly just... isn't that interesting. To steal Phil's phrase, it's worse at being criticism than the Prequels are at being movies. MatPat is so outrageously loathesome in his analysis that it's impossible for me not to get furious, but Plinkett is just kind of dull and unpleasant. There's no real analysis in his videos that goes beyond the high school english level, and this is I think key to his success among nerds. He's pandering to his audience as particularly informed, while not actually offering any information meaningfully outside what pop culture provides. It's, say it with me folks, low effort, high impact.

A lot of Plinkett's Star Wars analysis, such as his predictably shitty opinions of Rogue One (he didn't like it), hinges on three core principles of what makes a good Star Wars film:

Character, story, emotion.

No, really. His brilliant commentary is literally "does it have a good story about good characters that make me feel good things." His criteria essentially boils down to judging a film as good if it was... a good film. It's totally solipsistic, but it positions the subjective as a privileged objective critique of the films' merits. Oh and, conspicuously, once you get outside the realm of white dudes Plinkett just can't seem to feel emotions for characters that he, coincidentally, doesn't like very much.

If we're scrambling for intellectual superiority points, basically, I think I've probably got this in the bag. In looking up Plinkett's educational background (I've started doing this because lately I've realized that a lot of Internet Shoutymen have effectively no qualifications--Total Biscuit for example has a fucking law degree) I found this delicious quote: 

There were some aspects of film school I enjoyed and I learned a lot from, but I found most of it to be frustrating because a lot of the theory and aesthetic stuff seemed subjective and pointless to me. Film school and art school in general have always seemed to be a contradiction. You can't teach creativity or inspiration.

Plinkett sees himself, clearly, as one of the Elect. I mean if you cant teach creativity or inspiration, it's gotta come from deep inside, right? It wells up mysteriously and before you know it you, the Creative Type, are making jokes about torturing women while whining about the Trade Federation being boring villains.

What Plinkett seeks to do with his videos is, above all else, set himself up as an authority superior to The Fanboys. Plinkett's whole shtick is about superiority. Or, well, his shtick is about a posture of self deprecation that masks a sense of smug arrogance. One might argue that Plinkett, slovenly, overweight, mumbling, and a serial killer, is not meant to be an admirable figure, that this is meant to be a satirical picture of toxic and failed masculinity along the same lines as Dril. But that's not actually true, is it now? You're not supposed to DISAGREE with Plinkett. You're fundamentally supposed to see that he is right and is in fact superior in intellect to George Lucas and to "the fanboys." He might be outrageous, but the Plinkett persona is not intended to be wrong.

Plinkett notably goes on at tedious length about how contemptible The Fanboys are, picking them out as an easy target to laugh at for their excessive enthusiasm for the Prequels (allegedly). This is ludicrous. Plinkett is just as much a fanboy as anyone else, he just has drawn the boundaries of his fandom to worship only the original trilogy as Pure Art, not the prequels which only the Bad Fanboys accept. The basic action of slavish devotion to the object of fanatical obsession is the same; all Plinkett asserts with this is that his fannish tendencies are inherently superior and, therefore, he transcends the category of fanboy.

This possible counterargument, then, that he's somehow not supposed to be looked up to is bullshit. That's not the actual content of the videos themselves. Their whole purpose is to get people to champion his arguments for why the prequels suck. In that context the self-deprecating humor and serial killer shtick is in this conveniently ambiguous space where he can always fall back on irony as an excuse for his cringey edgelord horseshit.

The fundamental appeal here is that when you're kind of a loser it's easy to find other losers to bully. When, I ask, will nerd communities do something about nerd on nerd violence?? This isn't somehow transcending being a nerd, it's just being better at playing the game of nerd hierarchy fights than everyone else, and assuring your own fans that they can hold themselves at a smug, ironic distance too. The point is to be perceived as the smartest person in the room, and to leverage that for clicks.

Which hey, in fairness, I'm covering all this stuff because I know it'll get views, but god damn at least I'm bothering to engage the thing I'm parasitically feeding off of, and I'm openly disclosing that fact. Shamelessly disclosing it, in fact. Making theater out of it, even. Buy my game; subscribe to my Patreon! The point is that I'm not necessarily playing a different game at all and I'm not going to claim to be better than these writers on the level of the geek culture dynamics we're all feeding off.

But it's possible to have lines you don't cross even within this clickbaity bullshit economy and one of them should, I think, reasonably be "don't argue that actually nazis are good," and another should probably be "don't make extended jokes about violence against women."

Still, I don't exactly love these dynamics, or being caught up in them. The smug nerd persona is a kind of luxury in a way--you can afford to be angry or smug about random points of canon because you're not actually empathetically invested in the contents of what you're analyzing. I'm not really capable of clamping down on my emotions in that way, though. I kind of hate arguments like MatPat's Death Star defense not only because it's vile, evil logic, but because it also inspires in me such an uncontrollable response of revulsion and anger to that evil logic that it becomes highly stressful to even engage with.

Tearing down a terrible idea in public is intrinsically a performance, a kind of show, and also an utterance that does things, a way of pronouncing something anathema. And I don't think that this is strictly a bad thing. I'm always going to come out in favor of punching Nazis, for example, because the cost of NOT punching Nazis--the cost of allowing them a public platform--is so high that it's the only reasonable course of action. But I'm also pretty ill suited to punching Nazis myself because I find confrontation of even mild sorts so quickly becomes overwhelming, debilitating, disassociative. Nor am I fond of the way it becomes a feedback loop--the forceful nature of my response itself provoking anger at not being able to perform nerd disinterest properly, leading to more fury at the original provocateur for getting under my skin so easily.

I'm not really going to shed a tear over MatPat or Plinkett or the casual haters of Rogue One, even if it is, I guess, a little unfair to position them as responsible for me ripping them a new asshole. But that doesn't stop that shutdown of empathy, that triggering of a sadistic response, from being debilitating and overwhelming and unpleasant. Despite how much I've made my name through ripping things to shreds, it's not actually something I enjoy all that much, not when they're this high stakes at least. It can so quickly become all-consuming, and this is one way I'm actually not into being all-consumed.

#VoreJokesAreOkNow

#BecauseGriffinMcElroyWasInForbes

It's easy to slip into the performance of rage as well as a kind of constant thing, an unending search for new targets to be ostentatiously angry about. Even though preliminary responses suggest that my audio for these articles is pretty entertaining, recording and transcribing and editing it was a huge drag because I was constantly conscious of how much it took advantage of the same dynamics that enable these theories, the same patterns of nerd superiority. It's just so easy. It's easy on the Left and it's easy for the apolotical nerd garbage milieu, which is why you have so much wailing and gnashing of teeth about midichlorians. The horrible racist caricatures in the prequels do far more to make the prequels barely watchable, but sure, midichlorians are the worst things to ever happen in the history of ever. 

Ugh see what I mean?

But even as I'm leery of participating in the culture of nerd cage fights, I'm not really sure how else to engage these shitty takes. Like, the alternatives seem to be not engaging them, which I honestly think is out of the question given how popular these ideas are, whether through the popularity of individual actors like MatPat, the popularity of takes like "it's just impossible to relate to Rogue One's characters," or both in the case of Red Letter Media's hugely influential takedowns of the Prequels. Like it or not, someone's got to challenge these arguments and this is kind of my job. If I'm going to be angry about it ANYWAY I might as well get paid to do it and, hopefully, improve the world minutely by taking them down.

I could, I suppose, really try as strenuously as possible to take Plinkett's arguments say point by point instead of attacking his mode of conveying those points, but... why? What is there to gain from that accommodating approach, when it's not necessarily in the minutiae of whether or not the opening scroll of Episode 1 isn't exciting enough or whatever, but in the overarching methodology and persona, where the shittiness emerges?

I don't, in essence, have any reason to think that Plinkett should be taken in good faith here as having something in particular of interest to say about violence and masculinity and so on with his persona, nor about the narrative operations of Star Wars. I have no reason to respect what he's doing because he's so clearly not interested in deep literary criticism. He's interested in getting popular for complaining about Good Storytelling on the Internet for money.

This makes it easy to treat his arguments about The Force Awakens and Rogue One with similarly little trust. I would be inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt on their criticism of the characters in these films if they could establish a solid coherent argument for why criticisms of these characters cannot be applied just as equally to the thin archetypes of the original movies. I have not seen this, for the most part. I have seen some statements about Rogue One feeling rushed, which I can accept as a critique, even though I think that there's a solid rationale for its rushing. I can almost accept the critique I just saw today god help me that Rogue One's characters have no agency... except for the fact that the whole film is ABOUT characters not having agency in the face of huge nightmarish military-industrial systems of domination, making that critique deeply boneheaded. But like, at least it's, you know, a lit crit argument (even if it's bad).

The assumption though that the characters are self-evidently bad, and that nerd fuckboys have a privileged position from which to judge the transcendental goodness or badness of characters, that Mr Plinkett is one of the Elect, is ludicrous and not something I'm going to entertain. Moreover, this is all happening in the context of the vitriolic hatred of these films offered by white supremacists. I would be much more forgiving of MatPat and Plinkett and the general haters if we weren't in a fascist moment in history, but we are, therefore they are welcome to Get Rekt.

Ultimately there's also just not that much there. The nice thing about Plinkett is that I can't even be that mad because there's so little actual content. His analysis entirely rests upon a subjective positioning of Plinkett's persona as being the final arbiter of who is and is not worth empathizing with. Once you get past the pseudo-theory it's all whining about him not liking a thing because, well, he doesn't like it. Plinkett has a formula, because that's what you use when you can't come up with deeper analysis. The original Star Wars films are good because they have character, story, and emotion and that's all there is to it. Cinematography? Nah. Theme? Nah. Visual storytelling? Nah. Writing quality on a sentence by sentence basis? Pfft no. All the multitude of things that go into a medium as complex as film are gone, replaced with character. story. emotion.

This I think allows us to see the final core appeal of MatPat's videos: this is analysis by people who know nothing about criticism, for people who don't want to know anything about criticism. Find a formula, whether it be a Rule Of Storytelling or a set of pseudo-scientific equations, and apply it to every single text regardless of suitability, and call it a day. So, instead of analyzing the actual content of these movies or how they're produced, MatPat falls back on the one thing nerds love most of all to replace literary criticism with:

Number crunching.

There's a whole subset of nerds who seem to love mathematical analysis of texts because, as far as I can gather, they don't actually know anything about literary analysis. Pretending that one can just Do Numbers to a text until one arrives at its inner truth means they don't have to actually confront the fact that even their favored genre of abnaturalist fiction is utterly opaque to them.

It doesn't fucking matter how much the fucking god damn Death Star fucking costs, though! There's no way that this can be MADE to matter, in fact, outside of the weird hermetically sealed bubble belched up by fat toad demon Baal that is Geek Culture. And notably, it's all extratextual. This whirls away from textual support as rapidly as it possibly can off into the Unknown Regions, extrapolating wildly even when it requires actively ignoring canon!

Like, you know that bit in Clerks where they discuss the ethics of blowing up the second Death Star? I mean, I actually didn't, but as soon as I mentioned I was working on these articles my partner Hex was like wait a minute, Clerks already covered whether or not it's ok to blow up the Death Star, and they concluded it was fine. Now, the Clerks scene is played for humor and I think it's reasonable to just take it as a funny, meandering scene, but I also think it's interesting that even though there's some extrapolation going on here--the assumption that there's independent contractors working on the Death Star--it all sticks pretty close to the logic and the contents of the text. The conversation never, for example, suggests that the danger the Death Star poses can just sort of be glibly brushed aside, the way the destruction of Alderaan is brushed aside by MatPat. This jokey set of arguments is actually better at being criticism of Star Wars than the analysis we see from Mr Smartest Show In Gaming.

What makes this kind of by-the-numbers approach appealing is the fact that you can strip away politics, theme, content, and even the lore and boil it all down to (entirely hypothesized!) data and pretend like that has made clear, just by virtue of being somehow more "scientific" or "rational," the deep inner truth of the film. Anyone with a calculator on their Android can become a critic instantaneously. Low effort; high impact... with the added bonus of smug STEM superiority. It's a supreme irony that so many nerds, who supposedly pride themselves on their encyclopedic knowledge of lore, arrive at places like this where the lore has to be actively ignored in order for the number crunch analysis to make sense.

But it might not, in the end, actually matter very much. The point isn't to arrive, ultimately, at a solid reading, and it might not even be that interested, in practice, in making apologies for Nazis in the name of order. I mean, that's what it's DOING, let's never lose sight of the real world implications of "at least they made the (fictional) trains run on time." An endorsement of fascism over resistance is an endorsement of fascism over resistance, whether it's MatPat's main purpose or not, and it does contribute to the radicalization process we see resulting in the Alt Right, the Dark Enlightenment, and so on.

But I do think the simple shittiness of his videos reveals his real goal. It's about making a big clickbaity impact on the internet. Smug centrists like MatPat, people who sit around all day coming up with devil's advocate arguments for why maybe poor people SHOULD die or whatever, don't really care that much about whether they arrive at a coherent system. We can surely see this in the fact that the fascists actually did NOT make Italy's trains run on time--that is, flatly, a lie. But truth is not the point of the exercise, for a lot of these people. This is Tom and Daisy Buchanan, transported to geek culture. What's important is seeming above it all, whether "it all" is the "fanboys" who fail to understand the immaculate grace of the original trilogy, or whether it is the whole notion of taking seriously what the films have to say about the Empire's evil.

I do think that taking the films, for all their flaws, seriously--and taking seriously the content of bad analysis of them--is critical though. I ran into someone on twitter, for example, shortly before embarking on this series, who petulantly demanded that I explain why Rogue One was good... then petulantly demanded I summarize my own article... then petulantly defended his position that people protesting Trump are stupid. This person was making a decision what people are worthwhile, worth empathizing with, and what people were inferior, not worth taking seriously. (And also being a whiny entitled brat, but I'm kind of used to people demanding my articles be given to them in sparks notes form by now.)

These particular types of Star Wars fans must get out of their experience a sense of superiority, of connosuireship, of being pandered to, and they encourage their fans to behave similarly, positioning themselves as superior to mere fanboys, producing arguments for a more discerning class. When they don't get what they want, typically, they throw a tantrum, though.

And nothing is more fanboyish than throwing a tantrum.



4 comments:

  1. The Mr Plinkett character always seemed to me to be a parody of the least-insightful-possible viewer. (And, I should note, he *is* a character, & his stated opinions diverge from those of the Red Letter Media crew.)

    His characterization in the Plinkett reviews is essentially a collection of stereotypes of obnoxious internet trolls dating back to the early 90s (he's basically what people during the spam wars called a "chicken boner" -- someone of a lower class, with various physical and intellectual disabilities, who is unemployed and rants on the internet), and in the "Half in the Bag" series he's a completely different conglomeration of stereotypes (a technically illiterate elderly person whose antisocial nature is only made up for by his gullibility and thus value as a mark). I can't defend him as a good character, but I also can't really believe that he is intended as representative of superiority in any way -- he's coded as a loser whose opinions are, if not bad, at least *basic* and *unlearned*.

    The generally low nuance in his critiques is instead representative of the way he's intended to be taken: as someone who criticizes films on their ability to be successful in terms of being entertaining & satisfying to a large general audience. In other words, by representing someone with only base instincts, this character can be used as a way of analyzing how specific films fail to appeal to those base instincts.

    (If anyone is legitimately treating the Plinkett reviews as insightful criticism, I am not aware of such people -- although I don't doubt they exist, in the sense that there are people who misunderstand all sorts of things.)

    My point here is not that Plinkett is "just a joke" and therefore "shouldn't be taken seriously", but instead that the Plinkett character is a very specific tool for a very specific kind of review -- the kind that doesn't require a lot of nuance because it only criticizes how things fail to be entertaining to a general audience -- and that the overwhemling popularity of Plinkett reviews over RLM's other, more nuanced & interesting series obscures the fact that this group actually has a genuine interest in the social impact of film & in its subtext.

    RLM is, basically, a group of independent filmmakers, and so they definitely lean toward a more shallowly pragmatic angle: they tend to talk about how a film fails or succeeds in engaging an audience as a prerequisite for it to have any impact at all. But, Plinkett is a caricature, not representative of their "serious" reviews. For more nuance, one is expected to watch Re:View or Half in the Bag (or even Best of the Worst, which is essentially limited to flops and therefore has more discussion of technical failures, but still manages to avoid the shallowness & flippant, aggressive tone of Plinkett).

    RLM's coverage of Star Wars in general is pretty shallow: they seem to have a generally low opinion of the fandom & the commercialism surrounding the franchise, perhaps owing in part to the extreme success of the Plinkett reviews (if a specific group of people took a snarky article you wrote as a joke and turned it into your all-time most popular post, what would you assume about that group?), but I also don't think the Plinkett review is representative of that.

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    Replies
    1. (Since editing is disabled I have to make this a reply)

      I'd like to clarify: I'm not defending the Plinkett character. He's in bad taste, and normalizes all sorts of problematic ideas. It's pretty horrifying that the Plinkett reviews are so popular: they're not terribly good reviews, and they bank on a kind of shock humor that's not really justifiable.

      I'm just saying that, given the wider context of RLM, I don't think it's reasonable to say Plinkett represents any kind of superiority (although some viewers may interpret it that way because they aren't seeing the context).

      Instead, he's the blunt tool used to say "this film has such massive structural problems that even idiots can't enjoy it from a storytelling perspective" -- and such tools aren't totally valueless.

      Delete
    2. I can see your argument to an extent but I just don't really agree that Plinkett isn't taken sincerely as an authority by people. Here's two illustrative examples:

      "For those not in the know, Harry S. Plinkett is a movie-reviewing character created by RLM’s Mike Stoklasa. The character is often described as ”psychotic” and simultaneously embodies the best and worst qualities of online film reviewers. He’s able to offer thoughtful insights into the inherent flaws of mass-marketed genre pictures, while still maintaining his image as a hateful pizza-roll eating slob— albeit a self-aware one. " from the AV Club

      "What did Hulk think of RedLetterMedia’s classic, and eviscerating, series of 90 minute reviews on the new Star Wars trilogy?

      -Nerdlinger

      HULK LOVED IT. SURE, THE SERIAL KILLER JOKE GETS OLD VERY, VERY, VERY QUICK (BUT HULK IMAGINE SAME TRUE OF HOW HULK WRITE). BUT HE DISPLAY TRULY EXCELLENT SENSE OF STORYTELLING 101! HULK’S FAVORITE THING! IT DO REALLY GOOD JOB EXPLAINING BASICS OF CHARACTER APPROACH, SPECIFICALLY WHEN ASK PEOPLE DESCRIBE THE CHARACTERS WITHOUT USING NAME, JOB, OR CLOTHING. THE ORIGINAL CHARACTERS ALL CLASSIC ARCHTYPES, NOTHING SPECIAL. BUT THE PREQUEL CHARACTERS NO EVEN ARCHETYPES! THEY BIG NOTHINGS. HONESTLY, STORYTELLING 101 SHOULD BE THE HEART OF POPULAR CINEMA-GOING. RIGHT? HULK ARGUE IT THE REASON EVERYONE DIGGING ON CAPTAIN AMERICA. HULK THINK THIS RE-EMPAHSIS OF CLASSIC STORYTELLING SHOULD BE “THE NEW THING.” A CINEMATIC NEO-CLASSICIST MOVEMENT IF YOU WILL." -from, if it wasn't obvious, Film Crit Hulk

      Certainly things like Plinkett's Character Test are treated, as far as I can tell, with the utmost sincere reverence online, and I think it would be hard at this to find analysis of the prequels that isn't fundamentally influenced by these videos. I also do, genuinely, think that this is the POINT, otherwise why, like, keep making videos? Why keep doubling down on this stuff without, as far as I can tell, ever attempting to make the parody more obvious, if we're not supposed to take as sincere the basic critiques he's leveling?

      It's totally possible that I'm wrong about how deliberate all of this is, but I think it's important to recognize that if I am, it's only because I came to RedLetterMedia in an internet landscape that had already accepted Plinkett as an authority on the Prequels, and that dynamic hasn't changed really since I first encountered his videos as we can see from the AV Club piece.

      Delete
  2. I'm glad to see someone butchering this particular sacred cow of nerddom. The Plinkett reviews always bored me and creeped me out, and the fact that so many people who otherwise took a very progressive tack seemed to excuse their grotty mean-spiritedness and shallow non-analysis never ceased to baffle me.

    ReplyDelete

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