Rick; Morty; Story

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That’s Rick, that’s Morty, and that’s… hm.

Reduced to an emotionless husk after Game of Thrones’ “Rains of Castamere,” I embarked on a quest to discover and consume my soul animal, a goat with cataracts high atop the Pidurutalagala in Sri Lanka. After being granted shelter by a chapter of Buddhist monks, I underwent months of “legit” Buddhist hazing rituals, which included drinking whatever mixture Pat made at lunch (mostly hot dog water), cock fights, and much more opium than I’d been accustomed to (some opium).

Turns out I took a bad nap after ingesting some expired baby carrots that I’d found under the couch sitting out on 42nd street. That’s called a K-hole. I read about it in a book that also said it’s a common problem for intelligent people.

Firmly on the mend, I cast off the Snuggie, put the Snuggie back on, and swallowed a Denny’s Grand Slam like I always do when feeling less than fresh. Then I wrote a regrettable, come-to-Jesus personal essay.

However, when it’s not busy apologizing, single/hand/clap is a “blog” (byte level onanism fer gadssakes) where I write about things. Sometimes those things are TV shows. This is one about a TV show called Rick and Morty, specifically an episode called “Meeseeks and Destroy” which you can either watch or live vicariously through me.

I thought the episode was especially neat. I don’t get around to touching the B-story, which is a clever inversion of the A-story: Rick’s family chooses to embrace their chaotic lives while, in the A-story, Morty learns to value the safely-contained thrills of a story rather than experience the terror of choosing his own adventure.

Anyway, here’s a review or something?

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It’s not often that a stinger on a TV show, let alone a stinger on an Adult Swim animation, resonates with its episode’s theme. Even “theme” is a tall order for a programming block born of absurd classics such as Aqua Teen Hunger Force (although there is Venture Bros.). Further, that it happens on Rick and Morty, a show which began as a copyright-infringing YouTube short largely concerned with scrotal-lingus, is particularly surprising.

Or maybe it’s only natural.

After all, co-creator Dan Harmon has culled a lunar cult around the thematically rich Community. Harmon and Justin Roiland, Rick and Morty’s other half, immediately established their new series as an interstellar action-comedy based in cruelty and triteness that is distinctly Earthling in origin. Every week, Morty and his family are trapped within sci-fi, late-night sushi caliber nightmares that either play on their weaknesses and uncertainties, or it’s an episode about cybernetically-enhanced dogs. Even super-scientist Rick’s cunning has been called into question. Harmon and Roiland’s ensemble isn’t as thoroughly (or bluntly) treated as, say, that Halloween episode of Buffy,  but it might just beat Angel most weeks.

We’ve located the program on the Whedon Scale. Great.

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Despite heavy promise, Rick and Morty simply hasn’t had the time to mature into a showpiece of character growth. In five episodes, however, it has demonstrated a knack for explosive, imaginative stories to which Morty and his kin feel satisfyingly essential. Those familiar with Community’s stranger side know that Harmon and his writers love to toy with fiction tropes. Harmon’s oft-mentioned “story circle” is a method of story-breaking honed from Joseph Campbell’s tropes-a-poppin’ hero journey (which I used to justify my disproportionate affection for a Nintendo game). The creator’s loftier experiments in rearranging the building blocks of story have resulted in many of Community’s best episodes, and Rick and Morty’s latest episode, “Meeseeks and Destroy,” shares the same Lego Freestyle Bucket. The episode has an easy joke in its title, but it poses a difficult question. Specifically, amid all the fairy tale merriment, Morty attempts to answer the episode’s most prominent query: is it possible to mold life into narrative? What is a “good” story, if you’re the one living it?

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Perhaps it’s due to his limited mental capacity or any of the various injuries he’s suffered in the name of his grandfather’s science, but Morty, granted passage by Rick to any location in time and space, hazards a classic guess: he and Rick enter a “fantasy-type” world where giants hoard gold up in the clouds and peasants treat to their ye olde blemishes down below. After a quest-giver turns the duo on to treasure and the opportunity for heroism, Morty is convinced: outsmarting a giant, absconding with his gold (which, in this universe’s sick logic, probably turns out to be crucial funds for a lifesaving operation or tuition for Giant State University), and spreading the wealth to an impoverished kingdom are, in his opinion, three easy story beats for crafting his own, living epic.

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Rick, unsurprisingly, takes a more cynical stance. Morty’s insistence on vapid setting and saccharine altruism, as well as the lack of potential for any real scientific discovery, leaves him nonplussed and irritated. He’s probably read it before in Hero with a Thousand Faces. For starters, we have the strange land, the crossing of the threshold, and the encounter with the guardian. “Meeseeks and Destroy” plays a familiar song, but it’s “Sk8r Boi,” slowed, reversed, and layered with Sylvia Plath from inside a basement wall, delivering a muffled one-woman performance of the Satan scene from The Adventures of Mark Twain. As Morty’s story continues, Campbell’s hero tropes are warped into moments of disappointment, terror, and repulsion.

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Even after the adventure stops “going so smoothly and adventurously”– meaning after the giant suffers a fatal head injury and seizes to death, after the two are charged with giantslaughter by giant Serpico-style dics,  after their case is thrown out by a giant Atticus-esque defense attorney who literally speaks up for little guys, and after they are left to descend the courthouse’s gargantuan steps– Morty stalwartly defends his adventure. Rick repeatedly states that Morty need only “say the word” and his portal gun will instantly deliver them from danger. Morty declines, asserting that “adventures have conflict,” but forgetting that conflict is rarely under the hero’s control.

The thematic kernel of “Meeseeks and Destroy” is how very little reality shares with the dramatic arcs of fiction. Morty has access to Aesop’s entire suite of fables, plus staircase-shaped people to boot. Unfortunately, the classic fairy tale strokes are muddled by the chaos and consequence of real life. When Morty realizes that he cannot be both author and protagonist of this realm, he’s sent tumbling down a very dark slope.

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Very dark.

In the episode’s most potent encapsulation of theme, Morty is nearly raped by a jellybean man– and thankfully, despite the inherent silliness in those last few words, the situation is not played off as a joke. The jellybean’s sexual assault is captured in jarringly fluid animation. Moments after the attack, Morty trembles, shudders, and attempts to conceal his trauma from Rick out of shame. The tone of this scene and the details of Morty’s PTSD are real enough to mirror scenes of sexual assault captured on film such as Stoker or TV shows like that other episode of Buffy. The only differences here are the medium of animation and, of course, that the aggressor is made of candy. Jellybean people are comically absurd to imagine, but assuredly would not be as satisfying when fully realized and standing before you, a universal fact. To find amusement in reality, a layer of separation between the observer and the observed is necessary. A zoo gorilla is fascinating until it shatters its glass; a Velociraptor is rad until it opens a door.

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That’s what Harmon and Roiland are attempting to convey in “Meeseeks and Destroy.” If jellybean people existed, some of them would be rapists. The inherent sadism in fiction, that protagonists suffer for the entertainment of the audience, doesn’t translate to lived experience. Real adventures, what Morty seeks, are either tragedies or near-tragedies and never glorious. Even the stair-shaped people know that. So, after Morty and Rick reach the foot of the steps via the magical flight of a mucus man, and after bequeathing cash unto the villagers, and after the king of the grateful peasants is revealed to be none other than the jellybean rapist, and after Rick and Morty escape, but not before Rick fires a laser through the sex offender’s jelly-filled skull– after all that and the credits– we’re left with a stinger:

A man we can only assume to be some kind of police chief (a Commissioner Gordon, given this scene’s similarities to The Dark Knight) is presented with a box of explicit photos. He is told the photos belonged to the freshly deceased King Jellybean; we can imagine their subject. The commissioner winces and delivers an order to his subordinate.

“Destroy it. Our people will get more from the idea he represented than from the jellybean he actually was.”

The morals, motifs, and themes we attach to stories are literary fabrications, lies told with optimism. When the truth is devoid of meaning, teaches nothing, and comforts no one, what’s wrong with a bit of artful embellishment?

The camera zooms out. Behind the two officers looms the stone effigy of Jellybean, his fingers curling over the shoulders of a beaming child.

American Dad comes on.

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Things

Let me tell you some things I’m just now figuring out. They’re things I wish I could have known five years ago, but I suppose that’s the point of personal growth or whatever you call this unsettling, slightly raised discoloration. I’m not sure where I’d be had I begun reciting these mantras then, but it’s probably not working at the help desk of the library of the University where I earned my first, “practice” Bachelor’s and am now collecting a second, plus some more debt, all of it a mere 30 glorious minutes through cow shit and unfinished landscape paintings from my childhood abode, where I vacay on weekends to do laundry and resume my high school job because, oh yeah, I’m filthy, stinking poor.

So that brings me to my first Thing, which is sort of rote and tired but still probably isn’t actually heard enough: stop regretting things. As the great (or so I’m told) 20th century philosopher Alan Watts explains in the super-good Her, the “us” that was “we” twenty seconds ago no longer shares that “usdom” that makes “we” “us.” In a more science-y way that I don’t fully grasp, it’s the idea you heard from that dick at work who gets all his trivia from podcasts guest-starring Neil DeGrasse Tyson and feels spiritually liberated from the material plane because he smoked weed twice (everyone knows it happens after four): we are not composed of the same atoms that composed us a minute ago when we thought we had sneaked that fart. Even that fart is an entirely new fart from moment to moment. Every day, we are fresh farts. So don’t be so hard on yourself, because no one was seriously hurt and she’s almost ready to forgive you.

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Feels good, man.

You’ve taken a series of increasingly colder showers, finished that whole six pack of wheat beer by yourself (good job!), and the Council has seen fit to absolve your sins. It’s now safe to proceed to my second Thing, which is actually the primary Thing this post is concerned with, other than the necromancy of this dead, dead blog.

Do rather than watch. Do, create, engage, interact: okay, I know my verbiage is edging dangerously close to a presidential fitness campaign or a corporate PowerPoint slide, but there’s a kernel of truth wedged somewhere between Michelle Obama’s pearly teefers. And this is a painful truth to grapple with for me personally because I love watching. Bad TV, good TV, Netflix, Serious Film, video games, people in and out of their natural habitat. There’s a lot to learn from just hanging back and absorbing information and, as a wealth of blogs and serious criticism suggest, there are new perspectives to be gleaned from all that entertainment we binge on, too. That last assertion is the entire crux of this humble project of mine, after all. There is good work to be done with pop culture.

However, even if pop culture is your work, it shouldn’t be your everything.

Love you, Roger.

Love you, Raw Dog.

I’m overusing the second-person pronoun and, it occurs to me, sounding a little preachy. Let me just ‘fess up like the reverend’s daughter: this is squarely my own problem and any resemblance shared with a problem of yours is unintentional and purely coincidental.

That said, you’re on the internet right now. So.

It’s a sentiment I’ve heard echoed by several creative individuals I respect very much: one mustn’t be defined by consumption. By “consumption,” I don’t mean tuberculosis; in fact, I’d be morbidly curious to see a person defined by tuberculosis.

Go be that.

Before you get real stupid and start licking toilet seats (that’s not even how you contract TB, dummy), consider more productive activities. You know that guy, possibly the same guy from before, who corners you at work and proceeds to summarize the third season of Felicity at you until you’re dead? No one wants to be that guy, primarily because he licks the handicap stall clean at night like a thorough mama cat, but also because of the Felicity thing. That guy is boring. I’ve nearly been that guy, bathroom hangup notwithstanding.

Don’t get comfortable with the same old mediocrity. Try to fail at something new every day.

I’m a work in progress. Am I a writer? Sort of. Game designer? I’ve got a notebook. Every endeavor I’ve pursued in life has spawned infinitely many sub-goals; sometimes it becomes a point of frustration. I feel like the football player who crosses the field by taking half the remaining distance with each attempt. Maybe no one ever “gets there,” to a point where they can sit back and say, “yeah, that’s the final passage of my novel, now I can finally eat that bullet and go to heaven.” That’s mostly because it would be a really weird thing to say before you killed yourself, but it must be at least partially due to the fact that humans invented the concepts of inferiority and jealousy, or maybe dolphins did. We all want to be other people, or have other people, or have what other people have, or have what other people don’t. We’re busy looking at the next guy or girl or dolphin, thinking “what a desirable blowhole, wish I had that blowhole,” thinking “that blowhole will really fill a gap in my life,” committing this fallacy of perceiving life’s possibilities as finite, like a 500 piece puzzle or the radius of a dolphin’s blowhole. Make your own fucking puzzle. Drill your own blowhole. That geyser of blood means you’re livin’, dude! 

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Also, here, I’m not a doctor but I have a few rolls of Charmin Ultra soaked in Windex and you can just jam those up there and I think pray to a god. Next time, get that done professionally. I know a dude who flunked out of veterinary school and likes to look at small animals from the inside-out in his treefort. He built it last year. It is pretty sick. And slightly unstable because this dude’s no carpenter, but he can tell you absolutely everything about Felicity, including Keri Russell’s current home address.

Maybe you’re a failed dolphin, but at least you tried. What’s important is that you keep the dream of self-inflicted, transhumanistic mutilation burning inside. 

I’ll keep writing.

Hold the Whipped Cream: Feeling Good About Feel Bad Fiction

Due to the oh-so-timely nature of single/hand/clap’s triannual posts, pop culture bits of the here and now are subject to be spoiled at any time. Unless the spoilery feature in question is inspired by wheat beer, however, I’ll try my best to offer a warning. This is that. If you haven’t seen last Sunday’s Game of Thrones episode “The Rains of Castamere” and don’t truck with that study about spoiled stories being more enjoyable, I would recommend coming back later. Please, come back.

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No, but for real, though? Really?

This week in internet rage, once-mild-mannered Walgreens cashiers throughout the Midwest leveled pyroclasmic paragraphs at Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, hoping their sweaty words might banish his corporeal and ethereal forms from the extant realm. Of course, these are folks, like me, who hadn’t read the books and as a result lacked the hindsight and conditioned, Zen-level self-restraint of readers who had no doubt drafted the same livid letters on Windows ME, a dozen years earlier. I get it. I was gutted, too. The red wedding of “The Rains of Castamere” gives the show’s fans about as much quarter as it spares for its blindsided guests. It’s going to take a lot of Tide to save those tablecloths.

If you sense a shade of twisted glee in my words, you’re not mistaken. Fiction without misfortune is a game of Twister without sexual tension. Discomfort, grief, and pain provide the bursts of euphoria that many readers, viewers, and video game players, myself included, continue to chase in their pop culture diet. “The Rains of Castamere” is one of only a handful of wedding episodes I’ll defend to Internet Death (this season’s hard-earned Parks and Rec union being another). I don’t donate hours upon hours upon hours of my life to make-believe bullshit just to experience fleeting happiness spurred by a protagonist’s easy achievement. Success in fiction is the necessary relief of tension before plot can resume. Stories need conflict like Batman needs Joker, like Maher needs Coulter; otherwise, where’s the beef?

Okay, so I hope Bill Maher isn’t Batman; forgive the squeaky metaphor.

My favorite part of David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, outstripping Trent Reznor’s grinding compositions and James Bond’s best performance since that time he went gambling, is the trailer. As the camera creeps toward an icy manse, propelled by Reznor’s torturous static, the tagline boldly asserts itself as “THE FEEL BAD MOVIE OF CHRISTMAS.” Okay, we’ve all seen a handful of other films that are arguably feel-worse: Stoker and Sucker Punch both come to mind for two completely different reasons (guess which one I hate). Considering books, the selection of spirit-eroding fair expands to an incalculable list. For a novel to be considered Real Literature, an element of Total Bummer seems mandatory. When the commercial yang of Real Literature has the Happy Ending covered from every sun-soaked angle, however, a reprieve in the shade is refreshing.

Ooh, I hope it's a wedding! (screenshot courtesy of Chad Concelmo and Destructoid)

Ooh, I hope it’s a wedding! Mother 3, a prime example of storytelling laced with heartbreak.(screenshot courtesy of Chad Concelmo and Destructoid)

I’m not a sadist. I’m not fixated on the battered adjectives “dark” and “mature.” I don’t obsess over the character studies of Neon Genesis Evangelion or blare Smashing Pumpkins in my black bedroom with a skip-protected Sony Walkman. In my experience, however, the day-to-day of a human being doesn’t feature much closure. The tidy, satisfying, “agreeable” narrative is a human invention, born out of a distinct lack of poetic justice on Earth. To support that claim, here’s a repulsive anecdote plucked straight from my own, pathetic day-to-day. It’s no red wedding, but it’ll do just fine.

A few days ago, I drove past the local strip mall and settled at a stop sign. A young woman standing at the sizzling street corner grabbed my attention. Her clothing–a brown knit cap, a green hoodie, dark jeans– struck me as somewhat insensible given the weather, the humidity being one step above swamp and one step below Swamp Thing’s anus. She pivoted her ragged cardboard sign, a prop of hardship nearly as iconic as the plaid knapsack and bindle, to appeal to passing traffic, to appeal directly to me. I only read as far as “Out of —–” until I was overcome with a volatile mixture of shame and selfishness that pinned my eyes to the intersection ahead.

Some psychological defense mechanism buried in the reptilian region of my shitty psyche prompted the following rationalizations:

She might be a crook. She just wants money. I could be robbed. Even if she doesn’t rob me, she’ll probably just waste my twenty bucks. 

Causeless suspicion gave way to an inflated sense of futility.

I could give her less but then I’d have to go all the way to the ATM (a whole quarter-mile away). Anyway, there really isn’t any room for me to pull over (except for the nearly empty Arby’s parking lot on the corner) and I don’t have time to talk to her (the iced coffee I had left for being the far more urgent matter).

And then, because it was inevitable, the washing of my hands entirely:

Someone else will come along.

Deep down, I knew she wasn’t a thief. If I had actually suspected her, I wouldn’t have arrived at the weak conclusion that her knight would come along with his twenty bucks and fulfill the destiny bequeathed unto him and certainly not me. I wrote that happy ending as a psychological tool, a rusted shovel to bury the nagging, inconvenient truth in its tiny coffin.

So I kept driving, obviously. My glance only wavered toward the rear view mirror a few times on that long stretch of road between Sonic and my secret shame. Once I tasted the needless cream whipped atop my deliberately chilled, chocolate-flavored coffee, I had nearly forgiven myself for my valiant failure. Then, I turned back onto Washington.

Is she still there? Oh, please let her not be.

She was, of course. As I approached that contentious corner, a spontaneous burst of neurosis froze my hands to the wheel and my foot to the pedal. I drifted on for three blocks, detouring. She probably hadn’t even noticed me pass; thank god for that. I’d have felt way worse if she’d made eye contact or if, like, I’d spotted a single, tiny tear crawling down her cheek. Or if she slowly mouthed “why” and fell to her knees in my rear view. Good thing I didn’t look.

You want whipped cream on that? You do, right? Of course you do. What? Under your fingernails? I'll get the pliers. And more WHIPPED CREAM.

You want whipped cream on that? You do, right? Of course you do. What? Under your fingernails? I’ll get the pliers. And more WHIPPED CREAM.

Back at my lot, I rattled a coffee-bereft Sonic cup and peered in at the remaining pile of ice, unrecognizable as such having been completely transformed by whipped cream.

Maybe they won’t know it’s just frozen water if we fucking murder it underneath this sugary cow shit. 

My left leg dangled from the car door, not ready to commit to pavement.

I should go back.

I spent about fifteen minutes deliberating, swinging my foot like a pendulum, weighing my guilt against my willingness to be inconvenienced.

I should do it. I’m going to do it.

As I doubled back to satisfy my conscience, a Hallmark Original Movie premiered inside my head, without commercial interruption. I was already doing it.

I smile as I see her leaning against the stop sign, still doing her thing. She wipes beads of exhaustion from her brow until the sweat overwhelms her hands, runs down her face, from the creases of her hazel eyes. I coyly slip into Arby’s and emerge after five short minutes, carrying a large sweet tea.

“I hope you like sweet tea,” I say sheepishly as I approach with drink outstretched. It’s a funny thing to say because that’s exactly what I brought. My joke isn’t lost on her.

“Doesn’t look like I have much of a choice,” she laughs, flashing her whites. Somehow the single gold tooth only enhances her charm. She’s a tramp with a heart of gold and a tooth to boot. I hold her bindle while she accepts.

Voracious, she empties the cup in moments and pries open the lid to scoop out whipped cream. While we chat, she swirls gobs of the stuff onto her finger and into her mouth. I’m tantalized by a speck of white hitching a ride on her dimpled chin. Soon, I can’t resist the temptation to dab gently at the cream with a thumb. I’m surprised; I had no romantic intention, just an unwavering sense of humanism and a few bucks to lend, but now it seems that my measly twenty dollars is the least pressing matter on both of our minds. Her false tooth testifies with a sensual glint. Using my opposite thumb I tap her button nose affectionately while the same hand’s pinkie finger tucks a few adorable strands of dirty blonde hair behind her ear, with some effort. As I lean in to impart her with a taste of my altruism,

she crosses her eyes,

grunts like a caveman,

and takes a frothy dump, right on the dry grass.

She was gone. The street corner had been vacated.

As fantasy disintegrated, disappointment faded into a vapid smile.

Someone else came along. That’s great.

After pulling into Arby’s and ordering a large sweet tea, I counted the change.

Damn.

I’d had to break that twenty.

Schoolhouse Rock tells us that Necessity is (literally) the mother of Invention. With fiction, that’s true in a couple of ways. The sunny tales we tell our children, those were invented of the necessity to explain a reality so incomprehensible and frightening in its totality that it needed to be divided into verdant meadows and creaking forests. The grass of the idyllic meadow is soft and inviting; provocative fairies and vaccinated animals drink from dinky acorn tea cups and recline against La-Z-Boy mushrooms. There will always be time for excursions to the meadows, but be wary: the tea cups brim with high fructose corn syrup. A protracted visit will leave you fattened, sluggish, and entirely devoured.

Pictured: Labyrinth, a film ostensibly intended for children.

Pictured: Labyrinth, a film ostensibly intended for children.

If you can crawl away, do so. Pull yourself up, careful not to tip over, and let that momentum carry you stumbling into the sanctuary of the abyssal forest. The sun of the meadow cannot penetrate the forest’s thick canvas. Slivers of light skip across the suggestions of a world primordial. Your eyes slowly adjust to the hue of obsidian. Rustling leaves are drowned in the ringing of ears are drowned in perfect silence. The thrill of fear urges your limbs forward.

George R.R. Martin’s squat outline leans against a mossy rock. He lives here, apparently, and listens as the trees whisper tragedies. You wave but he evades eye contact and turns his head affectedly. He’s thinking of killing someone. You attempt to conceal your bruised ego with a cool-looking shrug before carrying on.

The forest can never be fully learned. Its trees uproot and shift with each visit. However, the mementos you return with are precious. They inspire further exploration. As you continue, you note that the forest has another constant: this land is at an incline.

You ascend into new darkness, pioneering the black, and begin to feel good about feeling so bad.

Yeah. Just don’t kill Arya.

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Project Silverscreen NEO: Stoker

Although the true nature of Project Silverscreen is the subject of heated discussion among web historians, most scholars can agree that it was almost certainly a feature of this very blog and was likely focused loosely on classic film. Unfortunately, since the last entry was recently dated a frightening 36 billion Tweets old, a fresh re-branding has been prescribed and will be carried out posthaste.

This is Project Silverscreen NEO.

Preface Postface: As Stoker is relatively new and I am relatively kind, this review avoids explicit spoilers. However, for the interest of discussion, some plot details are inevitable.

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Stoker is:
Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Nicole Kidman

Do people change?

Fictional ones do, at least. Fiction is so brimming with hero journeys and three act lives that a pop culture consumer might start to buy into the idea. Maybe the extra self-reflection awards some journeymen with deep, corrective insight; in my experience, though, comparisons with the reductive growth of calculated protagonists lead only to pangs of dissatisfaction and romantically-distorted expectations. Sugar helps the medicine go down, but it is increasingly difficult to detect a trace of medicine in the power fantasies and manic pixie dream diets today’s film audiences are trough-fed.

Stoker is an overdose. In the cold dialogue and colder performances, one immediately tastes the bitter hint of a movie that shouldn’t work. In Stoker, characters crave violence (and, fair warning, carnally: the movie might have been renamed Stroker, as the film’s school bully keenly suggests) and yet this violence is not fetishized or padded with exaggeration. In Stoker, there are no characters that serve as moral ciphers. In Stoker, there is only a chilling absence where the protagonist should be. It’s fucking nuts, then, that Stoker is not only a fascinating study of sociopathy but a riveting film in its own right.

Let’s get my problems with the movie out of the way; there are two. First, the film is top-heavy with clumsy, expository exchanges that sound about as natural as an Emo Philips joke. India is supposedly attune to details and sounds that others overlook, but the idea that housemaids and caretakers walk around spouting Information like JRPG NPCs is difficult for me to reconcile with the rest of the movie, which is subtle, suggestive, symbolic, and nowhere near as jarringly loud these two points of contention. The second of said points is Stoker’s high school “bullying” scenes, which seem to have been culled almost entirely from Nickelodeon’s Doug. In one scene, the school’s head bully shouts blatant rape threats while sitting behind India in art class and capturing her crude likeness in a nude sketch. The teacher, somehow oblivious to the first 90% of the bully’s extreme abuse, responds to the hubbub with the verbal equivalent of a slap on the wrist; the scene ends. The extent of the school authorities’ absolute terror under this kid’s reign becomes clear in the second “bullying” scene, in which Head Bully makes a few more rape jokes while perched on a discarded armchair throne (one of four or five which are inexplicably sitting on the grass near the sidewalk that India uses as a detour on this particular school day). He’s presented as a secondary school sultan or, alternatively, a Heathcliff villain. His jokes (which are about as sophisticated as you’d expect from a cow-licked, adolescent shit) didn’t offend my sensibilities, but the ridiculous, cartoonish representation of bullying did; it’s lifted straight from an after-school special, sans rape-related content. Maybe these blunt scenes are meant to reflect India’s heightened senses; whatever the case, they simply do not match the measured confidence with which the remainder of the film is conveyed.

There. I’m done bitching.

Criticisms aside, the majority of Stoker is gorgeously composed and very much in line with director Park Chan-wook’s filmography. Certain shots and transitions in Stoker are every bit as striking as the best scenes from his Vengeance trilogy. On the surface, Stoker fits right in: it even features the breathless two-act construction of many of Park’s films, leaving the audience disoriented and unable to calculate how many minutes are left until the resolution in Act Three allows them to expectorate Acts One and Two into the nearest porcelain bowl. However, like an icebox with something sinister resting beneath the Chunky Monkey, India’s story is frostbitten to its core.

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In previous Park films, we meet good people who are forced into nasty situations. “Sympathy” commands an equal share opposite “Vengeance.” On a broader level, it’s commonly accepted that a palatable movie requires someone the audience can get behind, or else the film must punish the shit out of those unruly, fictional bastards until they redeem themselves on their death beds. Stoker absolutely refutes such a narrative while remaining completely watchable (for those of solid constitution), maybe even enjoyable or cathartic. Park’s New England mansion is inhabited by disassociated personalities who shock and disgust in their defiance to change for the better. India does not see herself as one person, but rather as a stalk of wheat arrested by the wind. There is a girl for every angle of her face; each change in her environment creates another India and destroys the last. Stoker’s is a curiously Zen-like representation of sociopathy, a meditation on the result of Self absolution. The concept of India as one comprehensive being does not exist. Consequently, she only feels responsibility toward Newton’s third law. She is almost purely reactive.

India’s actions are told in a boggling, recursive fashion. Pieces of the film’s plot are pressed flush into place only to be yanked later and jammed elsewhere. You’ll spend as much time hashing out Stoker’s particulars after the credits as you will deciphering India’s muted expressions during the movie. Revealing scenes force the viewer to return to previous events and expand the initially elided account.

It’s not just the storytelling: every element of Stoker is duplicitous. The characters, India, her mother Eve, and psychotic charmer Uncle Charlie, flip like dynamic billboards. The direction moves like a magic eye puzzle, driven by clever transitions and juxtapositions. The dreamlike composition is sometimes symmetrical, sometimes starkly contrasting. The plot, to reiterate, doubles back on itself in mystifying contortions like Ouroboros or an advanced chapter of the Kama Sutra.

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Perhaps Stoker warns against the dangers of expectations. India loses herself in letters, books, memories of her father, and detaches from a tragic reality until she discovers her criteria for happiness has been disturbingly and permanently altered. We watch romantic comedies and underdog tales and our expectations are skewed to demand marked character growth, three clean acts, and a happy ending to boot. Then again, by attempting to extract a simple lesson I might be missing the point entirely. Maybe, like India the loving daughter, the point does not exist.

Here’s what I do know: during my sophomore year at university, I was enrolled in a class dedicated to the reading and writing of the “personal essay.” I did honest work in that class. I wrote about depression and personal ghosts, or at least the figments I then mistook for phantoms. My best essay, however, ends with a sunny spin. There is the classic implication of real “corner-turning” and the uplifting promise of a “lesson learned.” I’d like to be able to defend the essay’s final paragraph and say that it wasn’t just manipulative artifice. I’d like to say I’ve changed, that I’m different now.

I can say that my professor loved it.

stokermirror

If you, unlike that professor probably, dug Stoker, check out Chan-wook Park’s trilogy of excellent thrillers: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy,  and (my personal favorite) Lady Vengeance. If you didn’t dig Stoker and are probably a much happier person for it, watch them anyway. Take your medicine, it’s good for you.

Still Clapping

One Nerd’s Harrowing Tale

wereback

So- it’s been a while. The disparity between this blog’s date and the date of the previous post is a little embarrassing. Not that I should be embarrassed; you, physically and spiritually attractive, theoretical reader, and I, we both know that single/hand/clap is mostly therapeutic and wholly self-serving. When I shattered that aged Yoohoo against single/hand/clap on the first day of her maiden voyage, I did not intend for the vessel to be so easily lost amidst the roiling eddies of the World Wide Web. I had hoped for new soil to piss on, deeper navels in which to gaze- maybe a few friendly ears or one ear or just my mother.

Hi, mom.

“Hey, how about you indulge some more?” A heckler shouts. I invented him because I am my own worst enemy.

“Buy deeper navels at half-price!” The bot doesn’t come from my psyche but it does offer deep cuts.

I began writing under single/hand/clap for the explicit purpose of indulgence. It’s my own, nerdy way to interface with the pop culture I adore while maintaining a (self) convincing facade of writerly productivity.  Somewhere between departure and the Island of Deepest Navels, I began to focus excessively on the “productivity” part. Eventually, I spent more time worrying about regularity (not a standard concern for a young man) instead of writing regularly. Self-renewing mind traps are sort of a specialty of mine; unfortunately neurosis is a hard sell for mainstream audiences.

Well, reader, theoretical or not, you’re the captive audience for my misery. I’m Cathy “Master Class” Bates and you’re front and center for a surge of literary onanism.

Too gross?

Point is, I’ve done a lot of thinking regarding the fate of single/hand/clap and I find myself unwilling to jump ship just yet. The content will remain more or less the same: one day, heavy-handed film impressions; the next week, a meandering discussion of obscure fiction tropes; three more blood moons and just maybe you’ll find stumble upon a protracted exploration of the intertextuality between William Blake and a cartoon program for children and struggling adults with English degrees.

grandreopening

If you like that sort of thing, great. Maybe leave a comment. If not, I’d be glad to direct you to a variety of top ten lists or slideshows elsewhere.

The narcissism is in the name: single/hand/clap is my little police state.*

*It’s also a ship, the Cathy Bates thriller Misery, and the concept of self-pleasuring, if you’re counting every tossed-off analogy.**

**Oh, so you’re that guy, reader?

Wreck-It Ralph Made Me Cry

A children’s movie brought me to tears.

It’s not how it sounds. It’s not because I’m a simpering, overly-sensitive manchild, although I am. And it’s not because the movie, Wreck-It Ralph, is anything stellar:  the film features some real, resonant moments of emotional punctuation, but these are mostly capping off long stretches of average, goofy kiddie-fare (lots of compound insults featuring words like “stink,” “booger,” and “underwear”).

Wreck-It Ralph wrecked me because not ten minutes into its gorgeously realized conceit, it became obvious that someone had made a movie for me– not the “me” of today, exactly, but the fun-loving kid within. My 16-bit spirit animal.

There’s something weird that happens when we reach maturity. People talk about children “putting away their toys,” as if those toys don’t just get put away by the parents and collect dust as soon as boys notice girls and vice versa. Stuff like Beanie Babies and Small Soldiers action figures occupy a very specific bubble in the life of a growing child. Barring the occasional Woody or Buzz Lightyear, they’re momentary fixations. Thus, the natural order is sustained and from the discarded toy box emerge men and women.

But what happens when the toy grows into adulthood?

Games were a momentary fixation, once. Atari sat alongside toy brands like Mattel and Fisher-Price. Then, Stephen Spielberg brought his sickle down on the wills of young gamers everywhere. E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, the video game, decimated life as we knew it in a brilliant flash of discordant game design. The 2600 was burned in effigy as fallout rained down in pieces of yellow, orange, and brown.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t quite that bad (although the real story is much more interesting). The point is this: the modern video game almost never happened: it almost wilted like a Cabbage Patch; it might have lasted as long as the average Teddy Ruxpin cassette tape. It didn’t, though. Another toy company, Nintendo, dared to bring their Family Computer overseas as the Nintendo Entertainment System. It was accompanied by a plastic gun and a useless robot and arrived as a young medium seeking redemption, biding its time in a cardboard Trojan horse with “TOY” scrawled on every side. Nintendo games sparked the imaginations of children everywhere, the sparking of children everywhere lit a fire underneath the likes of Sega and NEC, and the rest is happy history.

That brings us back to my man-tears.

There is a point early on in Wreck-It Ralph, after the initial, dazzling parade of video game character cameos, when a sullen Ralph gives a cherry to the cabinet-less Q*bert (because video games feel hunger, I guess?), who sits dejected in the squalor of Game Central Station, the arcade’s connecting “hub” where peppy sprites and polygonal heroes bustle between their respective games. Q*bert’s home, coated by a thin film of neglect, has been carted from Litwak’s Arcade. As he gazes up at Ralph with the starved eyes of a Victorian orphan, one can almost hear the mourning of digitized violin.

Honestly, the interaction isn’t meant to let loose the floodgates. It introduces the viewer to the concept of video game vagrants, instills a bit of respect for goodly baddie Ralph, and stirs a pint of sadness for Q*bert’s predicament.

Q*bert’s predicament punched me straight in my ventricles. In this and every other scene of Wreck-It Ralph (the races of Sugar Rush, the rail-shooter gags of Hero’s Duty) is embedded a palpable concern and deep love for the video game medium. The animators, the director– everyone involved in bringing Ralph to virtual life clearly regards Q*bert’s plight with genuine gravity. The scene isn’t extended with manipulative cloying. It concludes briskly and doubles as a referential joke, but because the movie’s sense of care for its subject is so obvious to adult gamers, many of whom are sharing bits of their childhood with their own children, the emotion sticks.

I cried because I am not a glitch.

In 2010, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World bombed gloriously. The movie, a bizarrely invigorating sonnet dedicated to the most intimate crevices of video game culture, found instant cult embrace but could not earn so much as a side-hug from mainstream moviegoers. Scott Pilgrim truly had versus-ed the world, and it appeared that the world had won. Apparently, the general populace was not quite ready for a blockbuster movie about video games rather than about selling them.

In 2012, Wreck-It Ralph earned $49.1 million in its first weekend, double-jumping over expectations. Now, maybe Ralph is enjoying the slower pace of Little League compared to the Major League challenges which prevented Scott Pilgrim from reaching its considerably older target demographic. To understand my optimism, consider the following:

Wreck-It Ralph is a kid’s movie. It’s a pretty decent one at that, lovingly crafted by a video gaming “old guard” and presented to a new generation. DVDs of Wreck-It Ralph will proliferate in households the world over; it will be some child’s favorite movie; that child will grow up regarding “video game” as a viable medium. The child who loved Wreck-It Ralph, who first watched Wreck-It Ralph with her own game-loving parent, might one day introduce Ralph to her children. He might be their favorite, too. It’s a beautiful, romantic cycle.

The film falls flat in quite a few places. Some jokes are lame. Some references are forced. A blunt, unsophisticated theme of acceptance and self-love is regurgitated through simple dialogue.

None of that matters. Wreck-It Ralph‘s message, especially as it pertains to video games and the individuals who have grown up alongside them, is delivered with ringing clarity through the very sincerity of the film. Wreck-It Ralph is true to itself. It’s a movie about games–kids enjoying games and games enjoying kids enjoying games. It’s a movie about fun.

Games excel in fun. They’re super effective at it. “Fun” doesn’t have to mean superficial or anti-artistic, either. Should we need to create a less frivolous-sounding word to describe this level of engagement? Are we truly desperate for games to be recognized as a “medium” by some mainstream “authority”? Perhaps we should enjoy the slow, measurable progress as the rest of human culture grinds to catch up. As Ralph owns up to his “bad guy” core at the romp’s cataclysmic climax, so does Wreck-It Ralph assert that The Video Game should worry less about following in others’ footsteps and forge its own path, for the sake of fun.

Fun will carry this adolescent art form into adulthood.

As I broke from the theater and into the evening chill, I felt nothing but warmth. I came alone and left with company.

Nearing the finish line of the movie’s final lap, Vanellope von Schweetz, a cute-as-gumdrop-buttons kart racer exiled for her buggy behavior, ends up relishing the glitch she previously regarded as a disability. She harnesses her sequence-breaking quirk to instantaneously skip ahead of the competition. She bounds down her own, inimitable road to success. Cliché, sure, but it triggered a memory in my personal debug menu:

I have a friend who spends his races in Mario Kart 64 ramming into walls. He’s looking for the game’s seams. I tear ahead, chastise him, tell him he’s playing the game “wrong.”

He shakes his head and answers, “It’s in the game. It’s fair.” With one final push, his kart slips through a solid wall and leaves me a lap behind.

He thinks it’s fun.

Haikus Regarding the Game Boy Printer

Winter ’98:

Monica Lewinski blows.

Game Boy Printer, too.

Frosts accost us.

Also, your friend is a dick

Who wastes my stickers.

Small hands tug loose jowls

Fading life will bloom again

Printer paper gone.

More printer paper

Spring foliage grows in new shades

Camera shows four.

Summer ’98:

Earth teems with vital odors

And Game Boy Printers.

Autumn air annuls

Life’s many disappointments.

Not Game Boy Printer.

Years later, still cold.

Yet as color parts I greet

Private parts in green.

Seriously, though, I need some new printer paper. For my art.

Hero with a Thousand Masks: Majora and Myth

A black forest. A boy with a sword. A world-devouring god.

The mythological hero-journey formula as mythologist Joseph Campbell describes in The Hero with a Thousand Faces is a well of stories that will never run dry. It’s strange, then, to consider that stories explicitly about exceptional heroes, elect individuals who raise heaven-forged blades against evil and distribute their prize among the people, aren’t being created today. Many modern writers, including Community creator Dan Harmon and Sandman mastermind Neil Gaiman, regard the book as a tool for understanding plot structure. Unfortunately, the ancient stories within–fantastic testaments to human creativity–are mostly overlooked as dusty relics. Today, our popular imagination is funneled into narrowly-defined genres proven to sell. Anything else is weird.

Simple enough.

The Legend of Zelda is weird. Campbell could not have imagined that one of the finest examples of “modern myth” would manifest in a video game series debuting two years before his death. Collectively, the series outlines a rich, enigmatic history for the land of Hyrule that boasts an original pantheon, inspired cultural aesthetics, the rise and fall of several civilizations, and a cadre of predestined heroes.

One installment in particular, 2000’s The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, boldly abandons the series’ established fiction. Its self-contained story and strange, new world qualify Majora’s Mask as possibly the most engaging, succinct primer on Joseph Campbell’s hero-adventure ever created. The mythologist’s ideas leap from the page to the screen and become characters, locations, and play mechanics. Majora’s Mask shuffles and reorganizes The Hero with a Thousand Faces into a virtual experience.

“I believe ‘Nintendo’ is the ancient Sumerian god of phallic foods, yes?”

Before video games, there was Jo-Cam’s own definition of a term he borrows from James Joyce, the monomyth:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man (23).

Most stories adhere to that basic formula on at least a symbolic level; it’s the last part that’s problematic today. Hop in the Way-Back Machine: late 19th century literature began to take cues from burgeoning psychoanalysis. Focus shifted from boons for society toward boons for the Self. Realism birthed the first real character studies. The hero’s adventure developed increasingly personal ends; the “fellow man” part was shuffled under the rug in favor of daddy issues. Odysseus became Woody Allen.

Majora’s Mask’s hero Link doesn’t end his journey at self-improvement; try world-improvement. Writers Mitsuhiro Takano and Yoshiaki Koizumi should be lauded (along with Treehouse scribe Bill Trinen) for their artfully simple and resonant tale of altruism. The game dedicates itself to a theme of benevolence during hardship. It’s the best example of Nintendo best doing what Nintendo does best– creating uplifting experiences in fantastic worlds laced with real darkness. Majora’s Mask is authentic, modern myth.

For those of you playing along at home, let’s take a look at the instruction manual:

According to Jo-Cam, the hero has two tasks (276). The first is to enter a new world by transcending his or her own: the hero discards reality and plunges headfirst into the abyss.

Where Majora’s Mask is concerned, that abyss is Termina, an eerie, supernatural world beyond the edge of reality. Termina certainly meets Jo-Cam’s criteria for “strange”: the world is inhabited by doppelgangers of Hyrule’s inhabitants (Majora’s Mask was completed in just one year by re-using characters from Ocarina of Time) who behave in unsettling defiance to Link’s memory. For players who have followed Link from his previous adventure, the effect is dreamlike.

The seriously bitter icing on this cake: he is faced with imminent apocalypse. Termina (possibly named after Terminus, Roman god of boundaries) is set to terminate. An anthropomorphic moon, complete with crimson eyes and terrifying grimace, will collide with the earth in three days (or 72 hours, as players come to know it) and annihilate everything and everyone in its wake. Sight-seeing is off the itinerary.

The moon is lovely tonight.

Rising against the lunar assailant is Termina’s architectural centerpiece, the clock tower of aptly-named Clock Town. The Clock Tower is Majora’s Mask‘s most important location: it is the spiritual epicenter from which Link (the hero) emerges and the point to which he is continually drawn. Jo-Cam would call it the world navel: “The place of the hero’s birth or the remote land of exile from which he returns … is the … navel of the world.” It’s fitting that the hero’s “birth place” should also be a ticking reminder of his doom.

“Just as ripples go out from an underwater spring, so the forms of the universe expand in circles from the source,” Jo-Cam illustrates, unwittingly describing the symbolic geography of Termina (287). Please refer to the beautifully-rendered map:

Pictured: the navel, the foils, the Others, the turbulent townies.

As the world navel is representative of the hero, its surrounding areas are representative of the hero’s character-testing tribulations. Majora’s Mask’s world map is one big metaphor for the obstacles toward self-actualization. The field wrapping around Clock Town unfurls in each cardinal direction to meet four unique geographic regions: there is humid Woodfall, frigid Snowhead, tropical Great Bay, and arid Ikana. These territories are populated with meaningful foils that drive Link’s adventure. Link’s foils–an insular tyrant, a fallen, would-be emperor, a hero slain in his prime, and a war-monger undone by his ire–provide the hero with trials of virtue.

Other key figures in the adventure are Tatl, the supernatural helper, Skull Kid, the ogre-tyrant, the demon Majora, a destructive aspect of the father, and the Happy Mask Salesman, an androgynous, mysterious vagrant, the only fellow Hylian to hop dimensions with Link, and a vendor of happiness who might control a larger storefront than his patrons would guess. These figures provide the meat of Link’s quest; stick a fork in that for now and we’ll dig in later.

While the stories and game mechanics of many games seem to have been developed completely separately, perhaps with the aid of blindfolds and dartboards, the story and design elements of Majora’s Mask operate symbiotically: the mere act of playing reinforces theme. Likewise, the game’s fixation on masks is significant. As one might expect of a society on the verge of Armageddon, goodwill doesn’t exactly flourish in Clock Town or its outlying provinces. Jo-Cam notes that while monsters lurk outside the hero’s domain (representing the Other, the made-up villain we all blame occasionally), there are also miserable creatures within town. These are the human, everyday tyrants (Jo-Cam needs to find another word for “shitty person”) who spread their misery about Clock Town. In video game lingo, they create side quests. 

As Link aids the victims of the everyday tyrant’s aggression, he accumulates small slices of the human experience– oppression, isolation, joy, love, understanding– and earns masks symbolic of those experiences and emotions. He carries the masks as we each carry our own unique recipe for humanity, a balanced mixture of blessing and burden. This revelation is the boon our lonesome hero pursues: heroism means to face humanity with benevolence, every rotten day. “The elementary deeds of the hero are those of the clearing of the field,” Jo-Cam adds; that makes Link a very thorough gardener (290).

Of course, not everyone’s problems can be fixed in three days.

A note on the game’s three day system: by the end of Link’s time in Termina, he’ll have experienced the same three days over and over. Link will return to his previous state and lose many of the supplies he had accumulated over those 72 hours. A man shuffling past the mailbox at 9:30 AM on Day 2 will always shuffle past the mailbox at 9:30 AM on Day 2. It’s a conceit often compared to Harold Ramis’s classic film Groundhog Day. NPCs don’t tread erratically or stand frozen to the spot, puking the same cryptic advice or meaningless dribble; they go about their business, thank you very much. Beyond achieving an impressively organic, “lived-in” fantasy world, the odd design choice promotes Campbell’s mythological vision in a few different ways.

Just as the game’s masks represent the multitude of human experience, the ability to observe Termina’s inhabitants in various moments of work, rest, and emotion transforms each character into a jewel with several unique sides. Majora’s Mask does not simply offer a variety of characters; it offers a variety of characters in a variety of states. For example, the master swordsman is cool and focused on Day One but panicked and cowardly on Day Three. Observing how each citizen denies or accepts his or her own mortality in the steady march toward apocalypse is fascinating: there’s a lot of real humanity packed into 72 virtual hours.

Similarly to Groundhog Day, a complete hero-adventure in Majora’s Mask will involve dozens of aborted timelines. For every one of Bill Murray’s toaster suicides, Link abandons an entire version of Termina to fiery doom. Well, that’s the implication, at least; it’s difficult to shake that feeling of failure. Not everyone can be saved in three days: even with the moon stopped and evil expunged, the people of Termina will victimize each other.

Mythology, in this sense, is tragic in its view. But in the sense that it places our true being not in the forms that shatter but in the imperishable out of which they again immediately bubble forth, mythology is eminently untragical (231).

Majora’s Mask‘s endless procession of three-day cycles captures Jo-Cam’s philosophy of microcosm and macrocosm. In a mythic sense, an entire lifetime is as fleeting as 72 hours. “True being” is the immortality of one life into the next. It’s the cockroach that survives nuclear war.

A simplification of Campbell’s monomythic cycle (23). Also, Batman.

Momentary disappointment is just a blip in the joy of living: Bill Murray will eventually stop being a selfish prick and get with Andie MacDowell. After a series of failures, Link, too, will meet with his Andie MacDowell. Every hero does.

That’s why there’s adventure.

Yeehaw! First, an overview of the monomythic tropes specifically at play in Majora’s Mask:

The hero, by chance blunder, receives the call to adventure. He heeds it and, with the help of his supernatural guide, crosses the first threshold into a supernatural world, eschewing all earthly comforts until arriving at his lowest point, the belly of the whale. Transcending the challenge, he proceeds to complete four trials of virtue. His goodness proven, he confronts his ugliness through atonement with the father and conquers his negative aspect. An atypical meeting with the goddess bestows the hero his boon (in this case, benevolence to mankind). The successful hero then departs in magical flight and crosses the return threshold to share his boon with humanity (211).

Indeed, wherever the mythological mood prevails, tragedy is impossible. A quality rather of dreams prevails. True being, meanwhile, is not in the shapes but in the dreamer.

– Joseph Campbell, “Out of the Void–Space”

Majora’s Mask begins in a dark forest, where a boy with a sword and trusted steed is searching. He searches for someone important, a companion who followed him into adulthood and back again. This “valuable friend” is never blatantly specified (although there is a strong suggestion) and that vagueness is important to Majora’s Mask‘s thematic strength: Link combs the woods for a symbol of friendship. Friendship, an extension of benevolence, is the only persistent currency during Link’s stay in Termina: material possessions such as Rupees come and go but mementos of friendship are priceless and, in another design choice that is both functionally and thematically sound, permanent.

If friendship is wealth then Link begins his adventure as a peasant. He’s broke save the silent companionship of his horse Epona. The scene is set; something has to happen. An urgent incident must move the hero to answer Jo-Cam’s call to adventure.

Skull Kid is just as alienated as Link: he’s a socially-stunted brat who’s saved himself a punch in the throat by skirting civilization entirely. Before he stumbles upon the perfect complement to his nightmarish ensemble and succumbs to the seductive nihilism of an ancient god, he’s just a lonely guy with a beak. A touching, wordless, flashback vignette later shows his isolation; how he befriends sibling fairies Tael and Tatl (get it? Tattle-tail? Hmm?) on a rainy night and shares in their warmth; how Majora’s deceitful promise of validation and respect drives him to mug the traveling Happy Mask Salesman; how he gazes into the demonic mask’s hollow with starved eyes. Jo-Cam would classify Skull Kid as the “ogre-tyrant”: he is a fool pretending borrowed power as his own (290).

Emboldened by his previous success, the clownish ogre-tyrant selects another victim– Link. Tael and Tatl, Skull Kid’s fairy cohorts, startle Epona, who bucks in fright and jettisons Link onto the forest floor and out of consciousness. As the cruel misfit gleefully abuses the hero’s magical ocarina with back turned, Link blearily rises and gawks at his aggressor. The fairy siblings alert Skull Kid, who stares back at Link from behind the security of Majora’s Mask. He casually slips the ocarina behind his back as if to avoid suspicion. A moment passes.

Link makes a pass at the thief; too quick, Skull Kid leaps onto Epona and flees. After a rather stunning pursuit involving at least three front flips, Link follows Skull Kid into the hollow of a large tree only to wobble before a sudden precipice of inestimable depth. He cannot regain his balance and tumbles forward. The world falls away as he plunges through space and into the abyss.

A new world has new rules. Skull Kid, or perhaps Majora, now hovers weightlessly before our disoriented hero, arms crossed. His speech is cruel. Epona is nowhere in sight: Skull Kid boasts of having “got rid of it.” Why stop at material possessions and companions, though? As a guardian of the first threshold, the imp must strip the hero of everything he knows (64). Why not abscond with his humanity?

Link awakens from a hex-induced nightmare to greet the reflection–his own reflection– of a diminutive forest sprite (a Deku Scrub, canonically). Skull Kid bids Link an abrupt adieu and disappears behind a magical gate which seals before Tatl can follow, trapping her in the chamber with the transformed Link. She capitulates with a weak apology and proposes a pact: she’ll help Link regain his form and friends if he helps her reunite with her brother, Tael.

The contract of the supernatural helper is begun (57). Tatl is a good fit: she knows the lay of the land, she’s hardly trustworthy, and she’s assuredly supernatural. Advice offered by the supernatural helper enables the hero to pass his inevitable series of trials. The supernatural helper trope is pretty useful in a video game: Tatl speaks to Link and the player, explaining game mechanics and providing puzzle hints.

A gnarled passage opens into the colossal, stone interior of the clock tower. Inside the monument, rushing water is churned by a large, wooden paddle-wheel. Wonderful light seeps from between a sturdy set of doors at the peak of a ramp; relieved to be finally released from the green darkness, Link shuffles his tiny feet to the exit.

“You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?” From the shadows materializes the Happy Mask Salesman, the threshold’s final guardian. He politely introduces himself and offers an agreement: you see, one of his most valued wares was recently stolen from him; it’s horrible, just horrible. Many apologies, but he’s been following Link, and in return for retrieving this precious mask, he’ll restore his humanity– but, busy fellow he is, he really must be moving on in three days. “Why, to someone like you, it should by no means be a difficult task.”

The Salesman is one of the most intriguing figures in Majora’s Mask‘s bizarre gallery: he speaks in vague terms and rarely breaks his painted smile; he comes and goes like a fog and moves like a child’s flip-book animation; on his back he carries a mask for every aspect of Man, and the knowing glint in his half-shut eyes reaffirms the wholeness of his being. He is neither good nor bad, yet he is both, terrifying and hilarious. His androgynous appearance betrays an ancient, mythological role: he is an archetypal hybrid of the father and the goddess (239). He is Fear and Life. By agreeing to his proposal, Link seals his destiny; they will meet again in the end.

Link opens the doors to Termina. Stripped of every familiar comfort, he may as well be standing in the belly of a whale (74).

To simplify a complex sequence, Link struggles through three days in his altered form. He recovers the enchanted Ocarina of Time, plays the Song of Time to return to Day One, and is restored to human form by the Salesman, who chastises the hero for not returning with his mask. Clearly unhappy but not discouraged, the Salesman emphatically explains what already seems obvious: no mask, no future.

There is a legend in Termina which speaks of giants, protectors hailing from the world’s cardinal points: “Swamp. Mountain. Ocean. Canyon.” If awakened, their strength might hold the killing moon at bay. The four giants serve two purposes: on the surface, the quest to awaken the giants is a good justification of the game’s “levels.” In a mythic sense, these “levels” are the hero’s trials, tests of virtue demonstrating Link’s supreme aptitude.

The idea of four giants of four geographic quadrants acting harmoniously also reinforces the game’s simple moral of human understanding. “The dome of heaven rests on the quarters of the earth, sometimes supported by four caryatidal kings, dwarfs, giants, elephants, or turtles” (34). Jo-Cam explains that the meeting of the giants at the world navel symbolizes the culmination of the trials’ lessons and the hero’s progress toward spiritual balance.

Rejuvenated by his rebirth at the world navel, the freshly-human hero sets himself to task. Imagine a montage. Between perilous trials in far-flung regions, Link not only locates his steed Epona, but also stops to:

protect a farm from an alien invasion, inexplicably raise at least half a dozen baby chicks to adulthood, provide an unconventional solution to a man without toilet paper, moderate a city council meeting, restore a small girl’s undead father, race some beavers, play lead guitar in a rock outfit, fight to stay awake as an old crone prattles on about older lore, inform another father of the tragic fate of his son, dance with a ghost, dance with professional dancers, foil the robbery of an elderly woman, usher several lost souls into the afterlife, and reunite star-crossed lovers.

The true hero of myth is a champion of the people. By donating as much time to the plight of the mailman as to his own world-redeeming quest, Link practices a doctrine of altruism and exposes the falsity of Otherness. There is no Other: every villain in Majora’s Mask save Majora itself (an aspect of pure destruction) is just a dude with serious emotional baggage. Majora, the terrible father, represents the primal self-interest that sways us all. “He is the monster avid for the greedy rights of ‘my and mine'” (11).

If he were a lesser hero, Link’s journey may have faltered; Majora’s Mask explores these paths through its hero’s four primary trials. Over the course of the trials, Link nails all the great video game standards: forest level, snow level, water level (a good one; that’s impressive considering  “good” and “water level” are nearly antithetical to most players), and a spooky canyon. “Ho hum,” you say, “Super Mario Bros. 3 had nearly all of those and I got to be a fun-ass raccoon.

Did Kuribo’s Shoe provide a compelling foil for Mario? Did the giant, red Koopa capture the essence of one of Joseph Campbell’s hero variants? Link’s trials are practically guided tours of Jo-Cam’s “transformations of the hero.” Some of the hero’s transformations–the youth cut down in his prime–are beautiful. Others–the champion corrupted by ego and turned tyrant–are ugly.

No matter which quadrant of the earth he hails from, every hero is sewn from the same brittle thread. The prideful Deku King of Woodfall resides within a lavish palace and persecutes the innocent; because of him, his god abandons its people and the swamp’s waters run toxic. Darmani III, the heir of Snowhead’s Goron patriarchy, fell to nature, succumbing to the cold on a solitary quest for his people’s prosperity; never-ending winter reigns. Mikau, the rising star of Great Bay’s Zora, went unprepared in his mission to retrieve Zora eggs from bloodthirsty pirates and was slain; their poaching continues. The wrathful King Igos du Ikana (Igos? Ego? Hmm?) was consumed by the flames of his war against the nation of Garo; his kingdom has turned to ruins. Link averts each of these bleak visions: unlike the Deku King, he is kind and charitable. Unlike Darmani, he knows to depend on others when taking on the world. Unlike Mikau, he has the virtue of foresight. Unlike Ikana, he can forgive. Another hero may have tread any of these roads to ruin.

The Deku King, Mikau, Darmani III, and His Fleshlessness King Igos du Ikana

After Woodfall’s waters have been purified, Snowhead’s ceaseless winter has ceased, the pirates have been bested, and Ikana has been laid to rest, all four giants stand ready. They watch awkwardly from the edges of their respective axes as Link returns to the center for one last, weird dance– a dance with daddy.

The work of the hero is to slay the tenacious aspect of the father and release from its ban the vital energies that will feed the universe. 

-Joseph  Campbell, “The Hero as World-Redeemer”

Okay, so the classic myth has daddy issues, too, but they’re pretty well veiled. It’s Freudian stuff– deep-seated, hush-hush, when-you-say-dad-I-say-dragon type issues. The main issue being: dad has to die. At the very least, the hero needs to smack that tenacious grin off his face.

Just like the hero, the father of myth carries many masks. He can wear the mask of a good and fair king. He might also don the mask of the tyrant, the evil dragon, the world-devouring god.  It’s been said that a person will wear many masks in his or her life. The hero is the king is the tyrant is the god. This idea of the Self as a cosmic grab-bag of personas is perhaps best captured by the Hindu trinity: Brahma, the Creator, Vishnu, the Preserver, and Shiva, the Destroyer are often depicted as one form with three faces, emphasizing the many different modes of this one life.

Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva; Creator, Preserver, Destroyer

Link’s trials have demonstrated as much; during his travels, he has encountered every type of hero: those who wield swords as well as those who tend chickens. The time has come to see which mask he will choose.

Atop the clock tower, Link faces the fool Skull Kid one last time. The giants rattle the earth as they lumber from the extremes of Termina and join to push against the demon moon. Soil and debris hang in the air, caught in the titanic pressure of the collision. Finally, the pressure ceases and the repelled moon floats weightlessly above the giants’ outstretched arms. Skull Kid collapses. Tatl and Tael are reunited. Termina is safe– for a few minutes.

Skull Kid suddenly rises, dangling from Majora’s Mask like a marionette or a bad dream. The mask discards its host and the sad husk tumbles to the floor. Majora speaks: “This puppet’s role has just ended.” He announces the selection of his new host by retreating into the gaping jaws of the moon and returning hunger to its eyes. “I… I shall consume. Consume… Consume everything,” the moon bellows. The giants begin to buckle.

Using the portal left by Majora as an open invitation, Link ascends into the maw to find blackness and then–

The last act in the biography of the hero is that of the death or departure. Here the whole sense of life is epitomized. Needless to say, the hero would be no hero if death held for him any terror; the first condition is reconciliation with the grave.

-Joseph Campbell,  “Departure of the Hero”

The final segment of Majora’s Mask leading up to atonement with the father is an ingenious recursion of the hero-adventure. It works as a sort of thematic summary that builds into a well-earned conclusion:

Link is blinded by the brilliance of a robin’s egg sky. In the distance stands a single tree: it is Yggdrasil, the tree of life. At the base of the tree play four children, dressed in white. A fifth child hugs his knees in the shade. They wear the masks of evil monsters but speak with longing and dejection: “Masks… You have a lot. You, too… Will you be a mask salesman?”

He gives each child a portion of his mask collection until he has no more to give. The masks of Majora’s Mask are indeed the game’s only accumulative currency: they represent bonds forged and cherished. In the end, however, the Self must leave behind even the most personal connections and prepare for his reckoning.

Link plays with each child, abiding by the rules of their individual games. One by one, the children depart, questioning the hero’s integrity: “Your true face… What kind of face is it? I wonder… The face under the mask… Is that your true face?”

The last child sulks at the tree’s trunk. He wears Majora’s Mask. “Let’s play good guys against bad guys… Yes. Let’s play that,” Majora muses, playing on the duplicitous nature of the hero. “You’re the bad guy. And when you’re bad, you just run. That’s fine, right?”

Here is the hero’s ultimate test: not to run and submit to the father’s authority, but to fight and become him. It’s time for atonement (“at-one-ment”)The game takes this idea fairly literally. Before the duel, Majora hands you a new mask: the Fierce Deity’s Mask is said to radiate with dark power; it represents the cruelty boiling within every human being. By subscribing to Majora’s “good versus bad” scenario and wearing the deity’s mask, the hero accepts that primal self-interest is an inextricable part of humanity. He must be willing to fight evil with evil (107).

So he kills Majora with his sword.

Myths can be simple, too.

As the phantom moon disintegrates into a resplendent rainbow, Link and his fairy companions are returned to consciousness in the green pastures outside Clock Town. Skull Kid stands at a distance and directs his subdued gaze heavenward. The four giants have turned their attention to him. He remembers a time before loneliness.

“You guys… You hadn’t forgotten about me? You still thought of me as a friend?” Skull Kid shakes, retreating under the brim of his straw hat in shame. The giants issue a deafening call, a bittersweet mixture of condemnation and assurance, and return to their slumber, leaving only the reverberations of their footfall.

Breaking thick silence, the little imp chuckles. “Friends are a nice thing to have.”

Two tropes remain on Campbell’s list: first is the meeting with the goddess and subsequent boon-receiving; second is the hero’s return to his own world and the gifting of his boon to mankind. The Legend of Zelda universe (and Termina itself) brims with goddesses, but the person to deliver Link’s boon isn’t the elegant, feminine spirit one expects.

A jocund chortle alerts the former friends and foes to the presence of the Happy Mask Salesman, who stands with his luggage on a nearby knoll. He gingerly cups his hands around Majora’s Mask.

“Well, now… I finally have it back. Since I am in the midst of my travels, I must bid you farewell.” He strolls past Link and Skull Kid, who recoils with guilt, before glancing over his shoulder. “Shouldn’t you be returning home as well? Whenever there is a meeting, a parting is sure to follow. However, that parting need not last forever. Whether a parting be forever or merely for a short time– that is up to you. With that, please excuse me.”

He takes a few more steps before another thought occurs to him. “But, my, you sure have managed to make quite a number of people happy. The masks you have are filled with happiness. This is truly a good happiness.” With that last casual remark, the Salesman turns and glides into another world.

The Happy Mask Salesman has just given Link, and therefore the player, the succinct kernel of Majora’s Mask‘s thematic intent: be good to people; celebrate people. As fireworks light the broad smiles of Termina, Link mounts Epona and removes himself from this once-strange world to deliver his gospel of altruism.

Okay– so there are a lot of stories that fit on some modification of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth skeleton. Campbell isn’t proposing a new formula; he’s identifying elements universal to all human storytellingMajora’s Mask isn’t unique in that regard. The game is so notable, at least to me, personally, because long before reading Joseph Campbell, before seeing a single story circle or pyramid or Möbius strip, before I knew plots could have structure, its meticulously crafted story resonated so profoundly that I could recognize its power instinctively. The power is called Myth: stories of true heroes who stave despair and share kindness.

[The hero’s] second (task), then, is to return from [the] abyss to the plane of contemporary life, there to serve as a human transformer of demiurgic potentials (276).

We never see the details of Link’s return, nor does he see the joy he has created. Our hero gallops back through those portentous woods and is enveloped by white sunlight. The fiction of Majora’s Mask is over. The real return is non-fiction: turning off the television shifts Link’s burden to the player. The creators of Majora’s Mask hope that the player will emerge from those dark woods with just a bit more goodness to spread around.

Majora’s Mask injects Joseph Campbell’s mythic themes into the virtual universe of a video game. Theory and philosophy, words so important to film, music, and literature, are almost non-existent in commercial video games. There are notable exceptions–the oft-cited BioShock comes to mind–but the scarcity of games with themes in the average consumer’s field of vision is criminal when one considers how well-suited the medium is to dialectic content. No other medium can boast the same ability to engage; no other medium can provide guided tours of ideas and adjust exactly to any audience’s pace.

It’s a game that should and tragically hasn’t been emulated. Majora’s Mask can be admired from many angles–the craft of its story, its ethical center, its fantastic world. In the end, though, Jo-Cam would boil it down to four things:

A black forest. A boy with a sword. A world-devouring god.

And a heaping helping of friendship.

D’awwwwwwwwwww.

I love it a lot.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 3rd ed. Novato, California: New World Library, 2008. Print.

The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Nintendo. 2000.

Questions about Pokémon: Blue Version

  1. Do the different versions represent alternate universes? Are these Red and Blue versions only a sliver on the vast rainbow of existence?
    1. Does each version represent a reality in which urban development endangered the habitats of variable species?
    2. If so, are humans the true Pocket Monsters?
  2. How do Potions work? They just spray on your Pokémon and somehow heal burnt, cut and frost-bitten flesh? Do they sting?
    1. How does a move named “Guillotine” cause only fainting? Perhaps Pokémon necks are especially resilient.
  3. How do Pokémon die, anyway? They obviously do: there’s an entire memorial tower dedicated to Pokémon corpses.
    1. Does everything become a Ghastly? Do humans become Ghost Pokémon if they lead really shitty lives?
      1. There is obviously some set of spiritual beliefs held by the people of Kanto. What is it? How do skeptics feel about the apparently confirmed existence of the paranormal?
  4. If Pikachu is the Mouse Pokémon, does that imply the existence of regular animals in Kanto? How can Pokémon be named after animals from our reality if those same animals didn’t at one point exist? Are there a bunch of normal animals hanging out in Kanto that everyone just ignores because they don’t shoot lightning?
    1. Are Pokémon an invasive species that killed all the regular animals by shooting lightning at them, probably?
  5. How do TMs and HMs work? So they’re compact discs? Are they DVDs? Do they fit into a portable DVD player and play instructional videos on how to use Fire Blast? Who is making these discs (Silph Co., probably?)?
  6. How are Pokémon converted into digital media? What is their file type? Do they retain virtual awareness? How does time pass inside a PC? Is it like Narnia? Do Pokémon live entire lives inside of Bill’s PC?
    1. A common question: what goes on inside a Pokéball? How does that work? If certain Pokémon enjoy certain types of balls more than others, does that mean that a regular Pokéball is sort of like a low-rent apartment?
  7. Why are Pokémon trainers in Pewter City so much worse than trainers in Fuschia? Was it providence that you just so happened to begin your journey in the perfect place to accommodate an ideal difficulty curve?
  8. Why doesn’t Team Rocket just shoot you with a gun? Aren’t they criminals?
    1. Did the existence of lethal creatures discourage military development? Do guns even exist? War?
  9. Why did it take three years for the sun to set in Kanto? Did everyone just shuffle around in a sleep-deprived daze spouting instructional information before that? Is nighttime a technological innovation in the Pokémon world?
    1. How can there be a Pokémon Daycare if there’s no distinction between night and day in the first place?
  10. Why is Kanto’s infrastructure so shitty? City limits are marked by gigantic Duplo blocks, transportation is restricted by a hegemony of HMs (which seem to be in scarce quantity) and vital trade routes are completely shut down by obese Pokémon and obstinate security guards (whose thirsts, however mighty, should not impede public good).
    1. Did Kanto lift an Isolationist policy between the first and second set of games? Where did that passage to Johto come from?
      1. A lot of change occurred in Kanto between Pokemons Blue/Red and Gold/Silver. Industrial revolutions are usually spurred by an initial discovery or innovation. Was there an influx of technology inherited from Johto? The gulf in technological sophistication between Kanto and Johto is enough to fuel a study of its own.
  11. Is Oak omniscient? More likely, has he bugged your Pokédex? How does he know when you’re attempting to ride a bike indoors? Why is it any of his business where you ride your own damn bike?
    1. Where do you keep that bike? In your backpack?
  12. If the Pokédex is already pre-loaded with a complete catalog of information on every Pokémon, why is it even necessary to “catch ’em all”? Is Professor Oak pulling your dick?
    1. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps the Pokédex is a highly sophisticated piece of technology that observes and instantly records data on a Pokémon the moment you catch it. That seems doubtful, though.
  13. Why were you ever friends with Gary?
    1. Is it possible that you did something to deserve his loathing? Think.
      1. It’s probably your fault.
  14. Why does the population of Kanto suffer from a severe combination of tunnel vision and nearsightedness?
    1. Maybe it’s an unforeseen effect of Potion waste in the water system?
    2. Alternatively, maybe strict social norms are in place which prohibit breaking one’s line of vision.
  15. How do I get Mew?

Nothings adds up: Kanto is a strangely composed, sparsely populated world in which the central phenomenon, the Pokémon themselves, is presented without question. It’s like convincing science fiction.

Ditto

Or perhaps it is science fiction.

From beginning to end, Pokémon  revisits one motif: virtual reality. After an interview with Professor Oak, the player shrinks into an avatar. It’s cute, but what if your new form is more than a simple aesthetic touch? The world outside Pallet Town seems as if it was designed around Red’s success; life’s obstacles fold magically as you sweep the Pokémon League (a feat which absurdly stands as the objectively greatest achievement known to Kantokind) and foil the country’s only criminals. The digital and the biological flirt in a nonsensical fog. Occasionally, however, you are made privy to your fantasy’s underpinnings:  you trade.

The room is clinical, white. You’re unsettled to notice a familiar face sitting opposite the Exchange Module. It’s your own. Suddenly, before you materializes a cable and something called a Game Boy and everything makes sense. Playing Pokémon is to play a game about a player playing a game. You trade Magmar for Electabuzz.

After returning to the lobby of the Pokémon Center, the virtual entity known as Nurse Joy is oblivious to your epiphany. She can’t know that she beholds God.

You fire a knowing glance and mount your bike.

OAK:  PLAYER! This isn’t the time to use that!

You pedal hard.

Project Silverscreen: Satire Edition

This week, Project Silverscreen is inspired by the video release of Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods. The originally intended subject was Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, but instead of prattling on like I have an inkling of authority on the Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction, this week I focus on satire. It’s pretentious!

“Society is binding,” stoner-philosopher Marty posits to his archetypal friends as their RV rolls toward the Cabin of the titular Woods. “It’s filling in the cracks with concrete.” Like so much of Joss Whedon’s future occult classic, Marty’s reflections double as cushioned jabs at the complacent horror genre. Marty, a soothsaying fool in the Shakespearean sense, is the film’s voice of reason; he’s exhausted by humanity’s tropes and wants to give someone else a shot: “Society needs to crumble. We’re all just too chicken shit to let it.”

Yeah, much of what The Cabin in the Woods has to say about the state of horror echoes the groundwork laid out by 1996’s ScreamCabin’s creators aren’t regurgitating the same reflexive study for a new generation, though: while The Cabin in the Woods is an affectionate celebration of horror’s history, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s loaded dialogue and blunt metaphors offer a bleak premonition of the genre’s future and present a counterpoint to Marty’s own prescription of complete paradigm shift. The cycle of blood has churned for centuries: interrupting its flow could bring dire consequence. For example, colossal, eldritch hands might erupt from an arcane fissure and seriously devalue your vacation home.

See, it’s about this cabin in the woods. There are teenagers. You should watch it?

There’s a lot to love about The Cabin in the Woods. Unfortunately, its major twist is also commercial poison. The subtext and sub-terrain that lurks beneath its teen slasher packaging doesn’t translate well to a mass market. Scream, in addition to belonging to a generation of pop culture that was ostensibly more eclectic, had a stylish, sexy aesthetic that practically oozed from its poster, the residue of which would fuel an explosion of video sales, successful sequels and Ghostface masks. The Cabin in the Woods, left to collect dust on the Lionsgate shelf after its wrap in 2009, never had the benefit of shrewd marketing. In addition, its invigorating mélange of ideas can’t be summarized conveniently in a trailer; commercials for the film could only make vague allusions to its depth. One theatrical poster depicts the film as a Rubik’s cube. The Cabin in the Woods has many mysterious cracks on its facade; like a Rubik’s cube, it wouldn’t function without them.

“Filling in the cracks” is also a good way to describe America’s current aversion toward satire. Classically, satire–the boring, words-on-a-page type stuff including Voltaire’s Candide and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, dating all the way back to Petronius’s Satyricon–presents a world of fantasy undermined by the truths of reality. It’s a genre of comedy that’s all about the gaps: what is said and what is meant; the vehicle and the tenor. The Cabin in the Woods is a fun slasher where horror tropes are bandied about like razor blades in a 1970s Halloween bucket; it’s also, like Scream, a study of the genre’s formulaic tendencies; it pecks at the cash-grabbing cynicism of production companies like Lionsgate; and yet, it warns against recklessly abandoning these tested waters, a meditation on the commercial and human ramifications of eschewing the genre’s primal appeal. A considerable portion of Cabin‘s audience will only appreciate the first interpretation; another chunk will write it off entirely and groan that it “isn’t even scary.” When I talk about America’s aversion to satire, it’s that last, prevailing group I’m concerned with. Yeah, I’m talking about stupid people.

But not you, esteemed reader. Them.

So, you shouldn’t take offense to anything I’m about to say. Stupid people are ruining everything I love, including satire, and these are the reasons why:

Stop being so genuine. Sure, you can take everything at face value, say what you mean, act how you want to be treated and be a generally decent dope for the rest of your dim life. I’ll be first in line to steal your wallet and spit in your latté and you can bet I won’t be the last, because humanity is inherently awful. You don’t want spit in your latté? Spit in their latté. You know: Them. Those fucking hipsters that probably drink lattés.

To reflect your new, intellectual lifestyle, you need a new, intellectual pop culture. What better way to simultaneously expose your freshly gnarled core and silence Them into reverent submission than by completely betraying your previous musical tastes in favor of something harder to enjoy? Here’s a quick guide:

  1. Avoid “hooks” or “choruses” or “melodies.”
  2. Do you know of anyone who likes this artist or album? Does this artist or album have the capacity to be liked? Avoid.
  3. Abstract and incoherent lyrics imply that the listener inhabits an elevated mental plane. Imagist Ezra Pound once advised young writers to “go in fear of abstractions;” Ezra Pound doesn’t get your music. Warning: never offer your own interpretation of a song without first receiving and ridiculing another’s.
  4. Practice these phrases and try them out at the next social gathering:
    1. “Their new album is shit.”
    2. “Their old albums were better.”
    3. “I loved [album title] when it was new.”

Once you’ve calculated your taste, start drafting a new “taste profile” for next week. Avoiding definition is crucial: you are only consistent in your scathing hate for everything else. Don’t worry about contradicting yourself; critical thinkers will be too busy admiring your distracting mustache!

So, you’re a misanthropist now. You’ve extended the same wild scrutiny to every facet of your life and you’re simply miserable. Life has assumed a hoary pallor, alienated friends stare past you in glazed trances and your last living grandparent shuffled into 5 o’clock traffic to end your most recent phone conversation. You wake up at one o’clock PM and start drinking at noon. You spend half your waking hours groping a stolen fabric sample while conversing with an old Hieronymus Bosch poster. You begin to wish you could live inside that world with the other demons, blue skidoo right into its sanguinary hellscape and begin your penitence. You watch season three of Blue’s Clues instead. You won’t stop until you breach the underworld.

Bosch has some interesting ideas about flute storage.

In the purgatory of cable (an endless procession of Kitchen Nightmares and Charmed)you see a trailer for a movie. It’s called The Odd Life of Timothy Green and it looks delightful.

Does it?

The film is about a plant boy who sprouts from the discarded dreams of his barren mother and father. His cherubic smile pierces through your 19-inch TV and cleanses your being of impurity.

No.

As His eyes train directly upon your soul, they twinkle with enough radiant sincerity to dissolve forty thousand civilizations into Nirvana. He whispers the antidote to suffering, but His eyes are deafening. You wonder how light can be so noisome.

The boy is not his own.

You squint. He is hollow. Inside his skull, blazing spiders weave into and out of the blackened husk of a wailing infant. The flames consume their flesh as they consume the infant. Their excrement coats the orphan in new flesh. You blink.

The TV screen’s snow frosts the walls of your apartment. As you rise to your feet, the crunch of a half-eaten churro invigorates. Like an old friend, your bristling cynicism has returned. Timothy Green is cloying bullshit, and everyone needs to know. Quickly wrapping your emaciated, Hanes-draped shape in the nearest Snuggie, you burst into daylight, truth seeping from the taut corners of your elated grin.

Yes, Timothy Green is cloying bullshit contrived by cynical bastards for the sole purpose of robbing a naïve audience desperate for life affirmation. You wouldn’t have it any other way.

Somewhere in California, a single tear navigates the tan crags of Dick’s cheek. The Disney executive exhales wistfully.

“You’re welcome.”

***

That brings me to my third point:

There is no problem.

Satire isn’t meant to be universally perceived. Historically, it’s a loophole created to express opinions that you’d never dare to shout from your soapbox. A work can’t be good satire if everyone can parse its meaning. When Mark Twain penned Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it was Huck’s “unsivilized” antics that captured the American audience (composed of both admiring children and disgusted adults), not Clemens’s sly commentary on race, religion, and Southern values. Gulliver’s Travels sailed off the shelves instantly after publication, but not for its critique of humanity: it was adventurous, silly and written as travel literature, a colossally popular genre. Although the savvy reader or viewer may pick up on a comedy’s satirical themes and allegories, most are in it for the poops and farts. Who’s to say which interpretation is more satisfying?

It’s sort of like the fictional country from that book, Utopia: life seems ginchy until you realize everything runs on slavery. A universe of uniformly cynical assholes would be insufferable and just as creatively oppressive as this realm’s infatuation with innocuous schlock like the Timothies Green and Troubles with the Curves. Satire is culture’s big in-joke; it’s okay if you or someone you know isn’t into it. A distaste for satire doesn’t make an individual stupid; in fact, they’re probably more in touch with reality and better equipped to feed and groom themselves. If you are a lover of satire, congratulations: expect to be routinely misunderstood. Don’t sweat it. Just sit back, dim the lights and fire up that Cabin in the Woods commentary track for the third time.

Society will take care of itself.