Rematch

Sticky

rematch

I have an essay over at The Rumpus. It’s about my name, my dad, and Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!

One afternoon I downloaded Punch-Out!! on the Wii U Virtual Console. A lot of memories came back, and it only cost thirty cents.

The first fighter, Glass Joe, whom I’d had such difficulty beating, has a record of 1 win, 99 losses. As an adult, I was able to knock him out in less than a minute. Once you’ve figured out the pattern, it’s not that hard to win.

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Dodging Von Kaiser

I used to think the key to winning was strength and brute force. Then I realized that Punch-Out!! is more of a puzzle than it is an action-based game. Develop a higher level of thinking and use your wits to survive. Don’t make the same mistakes.

I still can’t finish the entire game, but there are endless opportunities to try and figure out the patterns. Video games are great that way, giving you a second chance in a way real life doesn’t.

When you lose, Punch-Out!! encourages you not to give up: “Start training. Make a comeback!”

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Arrival isn’t THAT Great

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I think people are so underwhelmed by sci-fi that when a merely competent one shows up, they go apeshit over it. It happened with Inception, and it’s happening again with Arrival. 

In Arrival twelve ebony ovoid spacecrafts land across the globe, touching down in the United States, Russia, China, Australia.  Their arrival has no discernible pattern, their inhabitants no clear reason for landing, leaving everyone wondering – why would aliens land in Montana?

The U.S. military, led by Forest Whitaker, assembles a crack team of, well, two people. Louise (Amy Adams), a linguist who is so awkward she might as well be an alien on earth herself, making her the perfect candidate to talk to extraterrestrial beings. And Ian (Jeremy Renner), a mathematician. The craft opens every 18 hours, allowing the humans inside. The entrance corridor is long and empty, and it leads an equally hollow room where the humans attempt to converse with the alien species and ask them, “What is your purpose on earth?”

Directed by Denis Villeneuve (Sicario), Arrival showcases striking images from the mundane – Louise’s empty home, Louise’s empty classroom – to the out-of-this-world – the ebon spacecrafts hovering feet above the landscape, with earth’s military vehicles poised to fire. Balancing silence with unsettling noise borrowed from Lost’s Smoke Monster, Arrival slowly builds tension. It presents us with stark landscapes, vast empty space, and makes us wonder what will fill it.

On the spacecraft, Louise attempts to converse with the alien species – I won’t spoil what they look like, because a big part of the tension is the reveal of the alien lifeforms. On the ground she delivers rudimentary lectures in Linguistics 101. Meanwhile, the military is keen to blow the ship up ASAP leading to world conflict because even when faced with a common enemy, humans just can’t get along.

By the end of the film, Louise comes to a revelation about linguistic relativity (aka the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) in which our language defines our thought process. Human language, English specifically, is linear. It runs from left to right and ends with a period. The alien language is cyclical. What would it mean if she learned their language? How would it change her thought process? The film’s conclusion requires a huge suspension of disbelief that, due to the film’s manipulative storytelling, it doesn’t earn.

The screenplay by Eric Heisserer (based on a novella by Ted Chiang called “The Story of Your Life”), fails to fill the empty space created by the direction and cinematography, and it fails to fill the characters too. Adams’s Louise is alone and awkward, a linguistics expert who knows all the language but has no one to talk to. We are led to believe she is this way because of flashbacks that, on the surface, appear to be a cheap way to define her character. These flashbacks are revealed to be flash-forwards, a revelation that comes a good hour after anyone actually paying attention should realize it. Amy Adams radiates through her radiation suit, but the actor, who could perform through a lead shield if she had to, has nothing to work with here. But the back story turns out to be in the character’s future, meaning she has no backstory, and we see no reason for her to be the bitter woman she is for the majority of the film. Without a backstory, we don’t know who she is. We know who she is to become, but why do we care?

Renner’s mathematician is named Ian. The name recalls another famous cinematic mathematician, Jurassic Park’s Ian Malcolm, but Renner’s character lacks the wit and charm of Goldblum’s lothario. The fault lies on the hackneyed script in which characters toss off quips that feel less like a human being’s attempt at levity and more like cheap Hollywood one-liners. They don’t lighten the mood, they ruin it.

One example of this occurs early in the film, when the characters enter the alien craft for the first time. It’s a long, ponderous scene, filled with extended silences, slow camera movement, and lingering shots of a long empty vertical corridor. The characters are lifted on a hydraulic platform into an opening at the bottom of the craft, an aperture that opens every 18 hours. Inside, a character familiar with the inside of the craft tosses a glow stick into the air. The stick lands on the wall, showing us how gravity is manipulated inside the craft. “Yeah, that just happened,” he cracks, as if he fell out of Reality Bites and into this 21st-century sci-fi film. Tension has been masterfully built, but instead of a pay-off, we get a lazy joke. The tension is broken, and the actual alien reveal is cheapened as a result.

If only the dialog were lazy, the film might be redeemable. But the story is nothing more than a one-note linear trip from one side to the other, with no one human or alien experiencing any growth or change during the journey. And for a story that tells us it is about circular thinking, the actual writing seems even more lazy by comparison. It’s like watching a two-hour long Buzzfeed video posted by a high school acquaintance on Facebook. “This linguistics professor talked to an alien and you won’t believe what happened next…” Either the writer doesn’t understand the material, or he doesn’t expect the audience too. Either way, it’s insultingly reductive and simplistic.

Even the title makes no sense. Arrival of the aliens occurs before the movie begins. The film is about Louise trying to communicate in an alien language. Lost in Translation was taken, but perhaps a better title would have been The Purpose. That’s her main goal: what is the alien’s purpose? And in doing so, she discovers her own purpose.

However, the alien purpose, Louise’s purpose, and this film’s purpose, is selfishness disguised as selflessness. [Here is where we enter into spoiler territory.] The goal of the aliens is to teach Louise their language. As linguistic relativity suggests, if she can learn their language, truly learn it, she will think cyclically. In other words, she will cease to live a linear life and she will know the future. They do this to create world peace, not because they want humans to be at peace, but because the aliens will need human’s help in 3000 years. The aliens are helping the humans in order to save themselves. (As a sidenote: if the aliens want human civilization to last for three more millennia, perhaps they should give them a way to stop burning fossil fuels instead of forcing them to create the insane amount of CO2 that must be generated by the hundreds of military vehicles occupying the alien landing sites.)

On a personal level, by learning the future Louise learns that she will marry Ian, have a child, get divorced, and that child will die from a terrible incurable illness. The movie ignores the fact that cyclical thinking would likely drive a person insane (as any sane woman would if she learned she would one day marry Jeremy Renner), and instead has her accept the fact that she won’t change a thing just because she knows it will end badly. In other words, Louise will bring a child into this world knowing that child will die a long painful death, but she will do it anyway because it brings herself joy. She’s like the aliens –only interested in self preservation.

If the aliens goal was for humans to have world peace, we have no idea whether or not they succeed. Through the flash-forwards, we learn that Louise will teach other people the alien language, but she herself will be unable to communicate with her husband, but the film shows us no broader consequences. Does the alien language does anything to change human nature?

Arrival ends as if the aliens are satisfied. They leave, thinking they’ve done their job and saved humanity. But neither Louise nor the film have any sense of consequence, neither on a global scale nor a personal one. The entire story boils down to Louise learning that even if she knows the future, she wouldn’t try and change it. Yes, there is no such thing as true altruism, but Louise’s actions are callously selfish, like those of many Americans. The global let’s all get along message is a cute but hokey concept cloaked in sci-fi dressing. Underneath it, we’re all doomed.

 

Pop Culture Trains, Ranked

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18. Train (band)

17. Snowpiercer

16. Polar Express, movie version

15. Little plastic trains, Ticket to Ride

14. Darjeeling Limited

13. Shy Guy’s Perplex Express

12. Link’s trains, Spirit Tracks

11. Mrs. Cabobble’s Caboose

10. Orient Express

9. Thomas

8. Polar Express, book version

7. Demon Train, Spirit Tracks

6. Charge Man, Mega Man V

5. Quad City DJ’s C’Mon ‘N Ride It (The Train)

4. Hogwarts Express

3. Midnight Train to Georgia

2. Phantom Train, Final Fantasy VI

1. Soul Train

Toothless

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(Final thoughts on Joe Gould’s Teeth by Jill Lepore. See my initial impressions here.)

Joe Gould was a man obsessed. In the 1930s and 40s, he wanted to record everything ever said in a collection called “The Oral History of Our Time.” “Joe Gould’s Teeth” by Jill Lepore begins as Lepore’s attempt to find the hundreds of notebooks rumored to contain the History. The History was never confirmed to have existed. “Shouldn’t someone check?” Lepore asks.

Gould was made famous when New Yorker writer Joe Mitchell profiled Gould in the magazine in 1942. The Joe Gould paradox reminds me of a 1920s Bling Ring — the group of teens who wanted to be famous, so they stole from famous people, then ended up famous themselves, in a subjunctive way. Lepore writes, “Very little of what most people write is saved, and nearly all of what is said is lost. That’s why Gould was writing the thing in the first place. […] Gould wanted to save the ordinary; the ordinary was hard to save. But when “Professor Sea Gull” appeared, it made Gould famous. And what famous people write is saved.”

In a way, all writers want to be Gould, a man who suffered from Graphomania. Lepore writes that graphomania “is an illness, but seems more like something a writer might have to envy, which feels even rottener than envy usually does because Joe Gould was a toothless madman who slept in the street. You are envying a bum: has it come to this, at last?”

Gould biggest mental weakness appears to be his lack of introspection. He once wrote, “The fallacy of dividing people into sane and insane lies in the assumption that we really do touch other lives. Hence I would judge the sanest man to be him who more firmly realizes the tragic isolation of humanity and pursues his essential purposes calmly.” By his own definition, Joe Gould is fucking crazy. He turned against friends at the drop of a hat. He destroyed property. He whipped out his penis at parties and measured it. He was anything but calm.

But Gould also wrote this, “If we could see ourselves as we really are, life would be insupportable.” Maybe he was more sane than I give him credit for. He knew if he were to look into the mirror of his soul, he would crack. Or maybe he did look into that mirror, and that’s why he was a broken man.

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As Lepore meticulously traces Gould’s steps back in time, she stops envying the toothless crackpot. She realizes Gould’s work wasn’t about preserving history as it is, but shaping it in a way to further Gould’s own racial biases. Involved with the eugenics movement and friends with the viciously anti-Semitic poet Ezra Pound, Gould’s so-called “History” drips with white superiority. “History, [Gould] liked to say, was fiction.” That is why it’s important to know who writes your history.

Joe Gould’s Teeth is a very short book–151 pages–not including copious footnotes and resources at the book’s end. In the end, Lepore appears to realize she doesn’t give a shit about Gould’s Oral History. “Shouldn’t someone check?” she writes again. “Not me.” She seems to think, Why should anything this man have curated be put on display? What gives him the right to have a voice?

Her decision to stop looking makes “Joe Gould’s Teeth” a book not about his Oral History, or his teeth, or even Gould himself, really. Like “Orange is the New Black” in which a white lady serves as the gateway to a story about non-white inmates, Joe Gould’s Teeth is a Trojan Horse. Its most intriguing subject isn’t Gould, but Augusta Savage, a black artist who is the object of Gould’s perverse obsession.

Gould said he loved Savage. He pursued her constantly, despite her repeated pleas for him to stop. Lepore writes, “He said he was trying to save her, but really he was trying to drown her.”

Lepore assembles as much information as she can — or wants to — about Savage. Joe Gould is sad. Pathetic. Pitiable. But Savage is a travesty, a woman trying to make art about her race during a brutal time when the vast majority of people wouldn’t give a shit about her, or anything she has to say, as a black woman. Simply by trying to make art, she was often accused of “want[ing] to be white.”

I wanted to know more about this tragic figure. Either there isn’t much information about Savage (I found a kid’s bio about her online, but not any other published work after some cursory Googling), Lepore gave up, or she’s saving a book about Savage for later.

At the end of Savage’s life, “Some people believe she collected as much of her work as she could, and smashed it.” Joe Gould’s Teeth is, in a way, Lepore’s attempt at not necessarily rebuilding her work, but finding the pieces, showing them to us, and saying, look what once existed.

*

I have to wonder how much Joe Gould’s obsession and objectification of Savage affected her self-perception. We don’t know why she did what she did. But if she felt worthless or ashamed because of her treatment by Gould — and white society as a whole — it’s infuriating.

This book made me very angry at times. In my blog post about Joe Gould’s Teeth, I said I wanted to kick Joe Mitchell’s grave. Joe Mitchell is the New Yorker writer who spun Joe Gould’s story into a folk legend in 1942, and tore him apart posthumously in 1964, all for the purpose of serving Joe Mitchell. That asshole wouldn’t even deliver the eulogy at Gould’s memorial service.

But I realize that kicking Mitchell’s grave would make me more like Mitchell himself, attacking a man who could no longer defend himself. And maybe it would also make me like Gould, a man unable to control his primal impulses. I know that if I were to kick Joe Mitchell’s grave, or Joe Gould’s teeth, that the dead men wouldn’t feel it. But me, I would hurt my own foot.

Meo Tempore

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(Thoughts on Joe Gould’s Teeth by Jill Lepore – Part One – Meo Tempore)

Joe Gould’s Teeth by Jill Lepore is about Lepore’s quest to find Joe Gould’s “The Oral History of Our Time” a rumored, but never validated, collection of umpteen notebooks filled with historical everyday observations. Joe Gould was made famous in 1942 when New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell said the Oral History existed, and famous-er in 1964 when Mitchell said the Oral History didn’t.

How did Mitchell think something this massive existed? Why did he take this man’s word on it?

Because it made a good story. Lepore addresses this when talking about Mitchell’s two Gould-centric stories, writing, “It made a better story in 1942 if the Oral History existed. It made a better story in 1964 if it did not.”

Joe Gould’s Teeth is also about Joseph Mitchell, a writer whom “admitted to Gould that he made up facts.” And this man is basically the father of creative non-fiction.

His subject, Joe Gould, “did not consider this kind of thing a kindness.” And why should he? Joe Mitchell made Gould, an already mentally fragile man, into a fictional folk hero.

I’m not sure if I want to go back and read Joe Mitchell’s two Gould stories, “Professor Sea Gull” and “Joe Gould’s Secret,” because I don’t trust Joseph Mitchell. I trust Jill Lepore, and not just because of her excellent Wonder Woman book which I reviewed last year.

I trust her because she seems trustworthy. I hate this phrase, but Jill Lepore has no skin in this game. Mitchell was drawn to Gould “because he is me.” Lepore bluntly writes, “Not me.”

She continues, “A century on, Gould looks bleak, his mental illness looks serious, and modernism looks fairly vicious, actually. Gould’s friends saw a man suffering for art; I saw a man tormented by rage. To me, his suffering didn’t look romantic and his rage didn’t look harmless.”

Jill Lepore isn’t a man who needs to validate his own shortcomings.

Validation appears to be Joe Gould’s main quest. It was his mission for the early part of his life when he was interested in eugenics. “One reason Gould was interested in eugenics was because he’d come to understand–maybe his failures had helped him to see–that he hadn’t earned the extravagant opportunities he’d been given in life, he’d inherited them.”

He wanted to justify his racial superiority instead of admitting it was artificial.

And it appears the Joseph Mitchell saw this quest of validation in Joe Gould, a desire he himself possessed. By making Joe Gould “real” Mitchell made himself real. As Lepore writes, “The defense of invention has its limits. Believing things that aren’t real and writing fiction are acts of imagination: delusion and illusion.”

Mitchell allegedly continued working for the New Yorker for almost three decades after “Joe Gould’s Secret” was published in 1964, yet he never published another story. Talk about privilege, getting paid to sit an office all day and never produce. Mitchell and Gould had that in common — producing nothing of value for decades — except Mitchell made a living off of Joe Gould and Gould lived in the streets.

I want to kick Joe Mitchell’s grave.

Joe Mitchell’s grave is located in South Carolina, according to findagrave.com. I don’t know who wrote the blurb on Joe Mitchell’s findagrave.com listing, but that person says that Mitchell “respected people on the fringes, and wrote about street preachers, Bowery bums, bartenders, prodigies, and unsung angels of mercy.” If his treatment of Gould is any indication, Mitchell had no respect for these people, and this line is as much a fantasy as Mitchell’s non-fiction writing. Mitchell didn’t care about these people; Mitchell cared about a story without regard to the subject.

A plaque which appears to be in Mitchell’s burial place in North Carolina reads that Mitchell was “one of the best reporters and interviewers of his time.” A man who made shit up was one of the best reporters of his time. I hope times are changing.

(Read my final thoughts on this book here.)

Bogged Down

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Thoughts on”Bog Girl” by Karen Russell, published in the New Yorker June 20, 2016

Bog Girl is a short story about Cillian, an Irish teen who finds a girl’s body in a peat bog. She had been murdered 2,000 years ago, strangled by a rope, her body dumped in the bog and preserved for two millennia. Cillian decides to keep her, to bring her home, to dress her in his mother’s clothes, to bring her to school. Everyone acts like it’s normal.

I love Karen Russell and I love absurd fiction when done right, but I don’t think she did this right. I’m struggling to pinpoint what she does wrong.

The story reminds me of a David Foster Wallace story I read in the New Yorker years ago, a fiction story about a boy who wanted to kiss every part of his own body. It was absurd and strange, but I liked it then. Maybe it had more to it. Maybe my reading tastes have changed. But “Bog Girl” feels more like weirdness for weirdness’ sake.

After Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Russell’s last short story collection, Russell appears to be veering more toward a fantasy horror style of storytelling. Her last New Yorker story, “The Prospectors” (published almost exactly a year prior to “Bog Girl”) was about kids investigating a haunted ski resort.

My problem with that story, and this one, is in the endings. Russell has never been particularly strong at endings, but horror it’s necessary to have a good ending, I think. Both stories end on similar beats: the “horrors” disappear, and we don’t get to see what consequences the events had on the characters.

That leads to another problem, and maybe what Russell is currently lacking: tension. “Bog Girl” feels like a slack rope, which is ironic given the rope around the Bog Girl’s neck. It tightens under your fingertips at the end, but then the story stops. Does the rope slacken again, or does it break?

Second Guessing

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A video game forces me to make a difficult decision between maturity and idealism.

Bravely Second is a beautiful JRPG for the Nintendo 3DS. The “Bravely” series, which began with Bravely Default, serves as a spiritual successor to the earlier Final Fantasy games. A party of four – Yew, Edea, Magnolia, and Tiz – fight to save the crystals and the world.

The game has a fantasy atmosphere and a combat system based around different jobs like Wizard, Fencer, Bishop, and Catmancer. Yes, Catmancer. Its fantastic writing is both serious and silly, allowing for emotional moments and hilarious ones. One character’s goal is to defeat an alien race known as the Ba’al. She has dubbed herself a “Ba’al Buster.” The twelve-year old in me named her spear the “Ba’al Scratcher.”

This sequel continues to modernize a stale genre. The frequency of random battles is customizable. Difficulty can be changed on the fly. And every line is voice acted with top-notch actors.

Bravely Second also forces you to make difficult moral decisions. They don’t bear any impact on the overall plot, but that doesn’t make them any less thought-provoking. The second one I have encountered vexed me for a two days, and I’m still thinking about it.

Edea’s master, Kamiizumi, asks her to deliver a letter to a pupil: the young Gho Gettar. Young Gho, a bright student with an aptitude for magic, was recruited by the Power Betterment Office. He thought he was getting an exciting new job, but his employer has put him to work doing manual labor in the mill. He is a literal cog in a machine. “Despite all my learning, I’ve been made a fool,” complains poor Gho.

What Gho really wants is to summon a god no one has summoned before. He get the opportunity. A summoner named Mephilia appears, and extolls Gho’s summoning skills. Mephilia tells Edea, “Humans bound and battered by the responsibilities of reality are little more than dull little pigs.” Gho abandons his job and travels with Mephilia to the Miasma Woods.

The manager tells Edea they assign recruits to the toughest job to “build character.” He says, “You have to show these clever clog types what real work is, or you’ll never get anything out of them.” If Gho doesn’t return to his job, he will be fired.

Edea has a choice: let Gho remain in the woods, or bring him back to his job.

If Edea chooses to let Gho remain in the woods, her master, Kamiizumi, will battle her to bring Gho back. If Edea chooses to bring Gho back to his mill job, Edea must battle Mephilia to bring him back.

My first choice was to let Gho stay in the woods. He needs to follow his dream, I thought. Sometimes I’m a romantic and an idealist. Here’s a little bit of what Edea has to say when I make this choice.

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Master Kamiizumi, who had been incapacitated in a kitten attack (don’t ask), appears to challenge Edea, and he doesn’t mince words.

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I changed my mind. I closed the system, and I reloaded my save.

The next time I decided to bring Gho back. Master Kamiizumi doesn’t appear. Instead, Mephelia flips out, and we have to battle her for the right to take Gho back to his job.

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Gho returns to his job, and quickly receives a promotion.

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It all works out!

But I was curious to see what would have happened if I had chosen to let him stay in the woods instead. So I reloaded my save yet again. Gho is happy there, too. “It’s practically too good to be true!” he says.

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Gho is happy no matter the decision. But me, I’m uneasy with both paths.

One of the main reasons I initially wanted Gho to realize his dream in the woods is because his employer tricked him. They recruited him for one job, then gave him another. The argument that Gho needs to return to do the job he promised to do is invalid. His employer didn’t give him the job he thought he was signing up for.

With the prescience video games allow, returning Gho to the factory works out better. Leaving him in the woods, we don’t see Gho summon the god he wishes to. Yes, he’s getting there, but he hasn’t done it yet. Troubling is Mephilia’s statement: “Finally, I can fulfill the promise to my own master…”

What this conflict boils down to for Gho is which master to follow: gentlemanly Kamiizumi or selfish Mephilia. Kamiizumi has Gho’s best interests in mind. Mephilia only has her own.

But both are those facts are only apparent after Edea makes her decision. Until that point, Edea’s central conflict is whether to choose youthful ideology or mature responsibility. I think that romance and practicality are mutually exclusive opposites. You can’t have one with the other.

Perhaps my personal dilemma over Gho Gettar’s crisis is that he must choose romance or practicality forever. For him, there is no going back. The video game might let you see each path before choosing, but the drawback is that once you choose, that’s it. In real life, we can alternate between being romantic and practical, without feeling bound to either path.

Deciding which to be and when is the hard part.