Category: Media

I’m a media studies graduate and with that comes a raftload of tools that I’m repeatedly told aren’t actually useful for anything, to which I counter that I like using them and enjoy the experience of applying those tools to all the media around me I partake in and therefore my life is enriched and overflowing with wonderful experiences of interconnectivity. By this point the other person has usually wandered off. Anyway, this is the category for anything that I think of as being connected to ‘media’, whether it’s a type (like TV, music, movies or so on), a brand (like Disney! Hi Disney!). This category also covers my weekly critical engagement column-type-thing currently called Story Pile.

Story Pile: Highcumberland Jubilee

I love Jimmy Buffett.

I know, I’m not cool.

I’ve mentioned that I grew up in a media bubble. This space was one where I couldn’t really buy new albums, and my exposure to pop music was little snippets of music from – I kid you not – television ads for compilation albums of ‘the hottest songs of the’ etcetera. When I started engaging with pop music, it wasn’t the pop music aimed at me, it was the pop music that’d been aimed at my dad, because in our secret cupboard, we had hidden away, vinyl records of satanic, dangerous, wild music, like The Eagles and The Moody Blues.

Dad also owned every Jimmy Buffett album, in some form or another, from High Cumberland Jubilee through to Coconut Telegraph, mostly on old vinyl, and once, he tasked me to record all his vinyl onto tape so he could listen to it in the car. I took to this task, and while I was at it, I made recordings for myself, to listen to in my room. They anchored to my soul, singable music that I listened to over and over again, and became my bedrock for learning such ridiculous ideas as fictional narrative in music.

I’ll restate that: Jimmy Buffett is the place I realised that stories in songs can be fake.

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Is Elmo Black?

I brought this up a little while ago and I thought at the time it’d be a simple enough question. I wanted to make sure before I went in on it, though, that I knew whether or not I was dealing with something obvious to people who weren’t as far as I am as outside of American Blackness.

It reads a bit like a trick question, I think. Elmo after all, is not a black person, he is a muppet. Not only is he not human, he’s not an African-American, and if nothing else, he’s red.

Why then, would I ask if Elmo is black?

First, Elmo is a character who is performed. Elmo is not someone you inherently perform when you get the Elmo puppet; look at all the many lovable scamps making hilarious jokes about Muppets saying dirty words when they get their hands on an elmo toy. There’s a style guide to Elmo; he has a vocabulary and a characterisation, and those things are built on what the character’s already done, the image he projects to the audience. Those details are made up of a history of Elmo performances, which are themselves informed by the people who have creative control over what Elmo ‘should’ have and do, starting with Elmo’s creator, the first person to make an Elmo, and  define the character as he should work.

That creator, Kevin Clash (who is it seems probably a bad dude, alas, but this is not the venue for that conversation), is a black man. He defined Elmo’s voice, and vocabulary, and mannerism, and also puppeteered him for decades, too – which means that Elmo’s manner and behaviour was all being defined by someone who lived and experienced blackness. Even though right now, Ryan Dillon is Elmo’s primary puppeteer, and Ryan Dillon isn’t a black man, the upshot is that Ryan  Dillon, performing Elmo is going to perform some of what Kevin Clash performed.

In this way, the question becomes: Does Elmo inherit blackness from Kevin Clash? Does he do or relate to the world the way that a black kid might, especially in the context of a life that isn’t tainted by the way our world oppresses black kids? To what extent does the blackness Kevin Clash put into Elmo’s performance still persist as Ryan Dillon attempts to continue playing that character faithfully?

Elmo is a performance; Elmo is a character defined and created by a black man; does that black man’s performance bring with it blackness?

This is why I asked the question.

I don’t have an answer, by the way. The answer as best can be understood is if black people, other people who know how it is and what it means, to perform blackness, can look at Elmo and intuitively grasp that he’s ‘meant’ to be black, or that he’s a participant in their experience.

Popstars Was Weird

Australia has a really unpleasantly comfortable relationship with reality TV.

I understand that just because I dislike reality TV doesn’t mean it’s an inherently unworthy media form, but I think that Reality TV’s relationship to Australian culture can be seen as a symptom, because its a kind of illness. There’s a lot of shows we could be making that we’re definitely, definitely not making, because it’s cheaper to make reality TV shows, and that means our entire TV model is biased towards making these cheap shows and trying hard as possible to drive engagement with them, and seemingly because of our national character perhaps, we drive these engagements with the most awful, antisocial kind of stuff. The reality TV show is something that we’ve been doing for my whole life, more or less, in the controlled space of the lifestyle and vet program, leading around the prolonged misery dare of The Block and House From Hell, or the pseudovoyeuristic ‘game show’ of observing assholes with Big Brother or the ‘documentary’ of rich people problems like Sylvania Waters, and, of course, the utterly empty promises of reality TV in the form of the talent show.

There’s an industry pumping these things out; for a brief time there I thought it was worth my time to keep some framing in my mind to tell which ones came from England and America and Canada and also the ones from Australia, because these shows were made by a business that then outsources them, then the resultant products are merchandised across all the countries that speak the language and for some reason we here in Australia have a remarkably deep desire for these shows.

And I remember a first one.

It wasn’t necessarily the first. I don’t know. I don’t care. We’re getting to a very specific place, just bear with me. See, Australia had this reality TV show back in the 90s, called Popstars. An idea that started in New Zealand, proving that not everything they did is better than we do, Popstars is your basic formula talent show. Information about it in hindsight is scarce: I seem to remember that it was about building a pop group out of a variety of participants, rather than any one person winning.

Popstars was participated in by a bunch of people nobody remembers, and it was staffed by a bunch of other people nobody remembers. I literally only have had this show held in my memory by TISM making fun of it, referring to a choreographer as ‘that bloke from Popstars that looks likes the Paddlepop Lion and who you could tell was so enjoying his chance to bully a bunch of twenty year olds,’ and if that song, BFW, didn’t have its own timelessness to it, I would have absolutely forgotten Popstars.

Well, except for one thing.

Popstars had a ‘winner,’ of a sort, there was something that came out the other end of its extrusion, a bubblegum pop girl band called Bardot. Bardot had one album, also called Bardot. They are eminently forgettable; I cannot tell you how their song sounded, nor how well their album did. I thought at first they were a complete stone dropped off a cliff, a complete nothing of a band, but no, it turns out they had a ‘successful’ album and a ‘successful’ follow-up album. They dissolved in 2002, to pursue solo careers, which based on subsequent releases, they immediately caught, then went home. Popstars continued for a few more years, tried to make a few more bands (like ‘Scandal’us‘), and was eventually outmoded and displaced by Idol, which it directly inspired.

Now, there are two reasons to remember Bardot.

The first reason to know about Bardot is that Bardot had two number one hits in Australia, that not even Australians of age at the time remember, was nominated for ARIA awards, and lost to Savage Garden (because we live in a society). Despite this, you can’t get them on Spotify. You can’t find them on any online streaming service, at all. You can’t buy them on iTunes. And this is because the licenser responsible for owning all their music has declared that it wouldn’t make enough money to make it worth doing.

They own the music.

They don’t need to pay anyone royalties.

They are saying that it wouldn’t make them enough money to do the paperwork required to stream these songs.

That’s kinda devastating.

Anyway, here’s the other thing about Bardot that’s worth remembering. You might imagine so far that this being a bubblegum pop band created in a public television program to manufacture a band there’d be some criticism of the band as being ‘fake’ in some way. Artificial. Also, the selection of performers was a range of Photogenically Attractive Skinny White Girls, which furthers the comparison to mannequins or dolls.

The people making the album took this criticism on board, then and what we got was this album cover.

It’s clear the aim is to riff on the criticism – ha ha, let’s present them as mannequins, as plastic dolls in plastic clothes, suggesting we can tell that people think of this as a ‘fake’ band!  That’s you know, so far so what, and hey, look, they’re people who make media involving women that treats them as objects, this isn’t news or meaningful. That’s not really the thing about this cover that’s bugged me. Though I guess at the same time, boy, I bet there are a lot of people who had their bimbofication or dollification kinks awakened here.

No, what’s haunted me about this album cover for decades is that this is a professionally made album cover, made by people who were ostensibly professionals, and they didn’t think to look at the transparent plastic ‘lead’ they gave the model in the front right to hold to connect her to her ‘dog’ that is, yes, ha ha, artificial. Because the way it’s positioned, the way it’s plastic, the way her hand isn’t tangibly holding anything – it absolutely looks like she’s peeing on it.

Story Pile: Haibane Renmei, Kinda

This is about Haibane Renmei. It’s also not really about Haibane Renmei, not really.

Let me explain.

Haibane Renmei is a generally highly-regarded, extremely pretty and artistically significant entry in that genre of media about sad looking girls suffering as a metaphor for some big ideas. It’s safe to say it’s not my cup of tea and I say that as someone who doesn’t even drink tea. Nonetheless, it is beautiful and atmospheric and thoughtful and poignant and everyone I know has a crush on someone in this story, even the people who aren’t massive lesbians.

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Implying Barbie

No, this isn’t about bimbofication.

Sorry.

Wait, who’s waiting for that take from me? Never mind.

Point is, Barbie.

I am somewhat sympathetic to people who are unhappy with Barbie. After all, Barbie is absolutely a juggernaut in the media landscape of our lives. Barbie is so vast that she can – and of course I mean the media brand and company and so on and so off, whatever – basically choose how a significant volume of the things in media around us get represented. And that means criticising Barbie’s representation of, say, women, is a really valid and good pursuit because the brand is in a position to not just represent reality, but to set rules for how other people represent it. It’s an enormous power, and the way that Barbie, for example, presented girls as almost always white for a long time is definitely a problem.

Still, there’s something about barbie and other dolls that feels like it’s sometimes missed, which is that these dolls are made to be played with, and playing with a doll – the ‘play pattern,’ as the industry says – involves dressing the doll in clothes.

There’s a bunch of stuff about Barbie that doesn’t make sense if Barbie is meant to be a representative of a real human body; her preposterous proportions, her torpedo-shaped boobs (and I again, promise, this isn’t about bimbofication), her giraffeish neck and her bobbly top-heavy head, those things are all elements of the doll’s design that exist to make sure that Barbie’s default state is presenting a literal, actual clothes horse.

Now, Barbie is by nature, implying that she is a prop for her clothes, and you can get into the semiotics of that, but at its core, a lot of what Barbie is trying to do is ‘look right’ when scaled down to a tiny shape that also has distinctive, visually observable hips and shoulders and boobs. I’m not saying she’s not built to a particular standard (and that standard is the one our fatphobic society, in which we live, definitely wants to validate).

At the same time, though when you look at boy’s toys, there’s a similar implication of the toy’s purpose. The natural way a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toy sits is a pose that brandishes weapons, arms and legs tense and ready for action. The play pattern of these toys is what tends to get referred to by Hasbro as ‘battle play,’ where the figures get hit against one another, to represent a narrative, to describe a combat where there are winners and losers.

That’s why the dolls – which are dolls, let’s not kid ourselves – the dolls for boys are made to have things like being easily gripped and handled; it’s why they have neutrally combative stances; it’s why their proportions and design are built towards making them tough and durable, more than making them posable.

This isn’t meant to be something revolutionary! This is not only a known thing about Barbie’s design, it’s been known for years, since basically she was first made. And it puts us in this weird place where people, sensitive to the real problems Barbie has been part of have to try and grapple with all the problems of Barbie even the ones that are about what Barbie is trying to do (as a doll) and the things Barbie is trying to imply by how she is.

Ripperology

You know what, I don’t say this kind of stuff very often, so here.

Ripperology is some of the worst kind of awful nerd garbage that exists.

Ripperology, or the ‘study’ of the murders of ‘Jack the Ripper,’ a dude who is about as historically verifiable as Jesus Christ, is the modern day pursuit of some kind of useful lasting information present in our modern day and available in any meaningful way about how in a city of three million people, one particular murderer was able to avoid capture from police. This is all done by breathlessly poring over various historical sources, which are of varying importance and impact, but also, crucially, reading a lot of people writing about those same sources, and building their own cases.

It also, when it crosses my path, seems to heavily relate to yelling at women on twitter, which I’m sure is just coincidence.

This isn’t me saying that ripperologists can’t have their fun, I mean, if they were dressing up as an elf or a Touhou I’d be defending them, but Ripperology exists in this weird space of somehow treating itself with a kind of seriousness and importance as if it’s a kind of forensic science. It’s the kind of people who will breathlessly butt heads about the possible meaning of journals whose authors admit they falsified them, delving deep into complex and elaborate webs of ‘scholarship’ about a subject with precious little actual information to it, but also in order to try and make it somehow hard to explain something that has a really simple explanation.

You don’t need some master of intrigue to get away with five crimes against marginalised people in a city of millions in a part of town already renowned for its criminal behaviour. You don’t need him to be an outcast prince or a secret surgeon or a dude with an exotic foreign-acquired brain disease or a vampire.

Do I have any special disdain for Ripperologists, too? Not really. I bet I know someone who has a pet theory about it, and as far as pet theories and conspiracies go, it’s pretty harmless to have one. It’s probably as goofy as Velikovsky believing that Jupiter farted out Venus at some point. It’s just this particular one, the idea of being captivated by this one.

It’s, like Pineapple on a Pizza, a game, essentially. People are playing their theories against one another, back-and-forth and joust and juke. It’s just, as someone who cares about games, a seemingly really awful one, a game is basically the most morbid and tedious kind of storytelling game, a sort of Dungeons and Dragons campaign where there’s no dungeon master nor rulebook but everyone is still going to be as obnoxious a rules lawyer as possible.

Story Pile: Dropped Stuff

I watch a bunch of stuff these days, thanks to Netflix, and as a media criticism junky, I find myself enjoying having a platform to write about almost everything I watch. There’s some reasons I don’t write about some things – for example, any media that tends towards including sexual assault, that tends to just get junked. Anytime a work is actively homophobic or where I’ve learned a central creator or person involved is particularly a known bad person, for example.

There’s a lot of reasons to do this! I kind of hate when I talk about something and people immediately want to change the subject to not what I talked about, or want to use a particular artist as an avenue to complain about something else. This has happened to me a few times, where what I will think of as very well intentioned people will interrupt me talking about thing A to instead try and make the conversation about thing B, believing it to be more important.

And sometimes I’ll consider a work too large to talk about, like Longmire, which is pretty bad, but it has some good stuff, but it does a bad job with it, and yeah okay, I kinda just summarised the whole series and we’re moving on. Sometimes, rarely, I’ll just ditch on a piece of media because it kind of bores me and there’s nothing in it I want to talk about. And sometimes I’ll ditch on a work for some other reason and I find myself yet wanting to say something.

And here’s a little round-up.

Pitch Perfect

I wanted to like this movie. I really thought that making a Sports Movie that was a Musical movie like Hercules that had some reason to do diegetic musical numbers could be really cool and it’s full of great actors. If nothing else, it has John Michael Higgins, Mathnet alumni and later Legend of Korra voice actor! I like the stuff that dude does!

Pitch Perfect then introduces Rebel Wilson, and what ensues is a set of jokes about how clueless she is about Jewish culture that I cringed myself inside out and closed the movie. Jokes about being from a backwoods in Tasmania who has no idea about how Jewish culture works just smashes my sense of disbelief because:

  1. There are Jewish people here, you know
  2. American media is full of Jewish people, and that’s what we watch on TV.

Anyway, realising that Rebel Wilson’s character would be hilariously quirky and not eventually punished for being an arsehole (because hey, can’t make the fat girl feel bad for being shitty), I didn’t feel any reason to go back and try more of this one. Basically she made such a great example of a first impression of a miserable arsehole I felt it best to not actually hang around and give her a second chance proving it.

Barely Lethal

This movie has Jessica Alba and Sophie Turner and Samuel L Jackson and Rachael Harris and Steve-O, wait, really? What the hell? And the premise is pretty robust; teen assassins made by a government organisation to kill people, but one breaks away to have an ordinary life as high schooler, and she approaches becoming a normal girl as an assumed identity through research and performance.

I was pretty on board with this movie being generally pretty funny and kinda okay, and I was honestly almost considering throwing a suggestion to my friends as an example of a spy movie about girls and their feelings and maybe the whole strain about performing as a girl could give my friends some comforting trans girl feels.

And then in the peak of the movie, the villain randomly calls another girl a tr*nny.

Just.

Y’know.

There, just randomly.

The thing with comedies in this way is that it’s pretty much always going to be the jokes that sell you on whether or not you engage with a story. They need to show you that you’re following along, that you understand the relationships and the characters, and the kind of world they live in.

And in this one, the only mention of trans people is a really hurtful slur and it’s wielded as an offhanded punchline.

And well, that sucks.

Ghost in the Shell

There’s a conversation around this movie, and it does directly connect to my work. There’s elements of representation, there’s questions of identity, there’s transmedia and transnational media, there’s cyberpunk and commercialisation and the real failure states of expensive movies and also the potential ramifications and moral relationship to these controversial works and the trajectory of Scarlett Johansson, as a bankable action star to generally a deeply embarrassing person.

That’d be great, that’s one of those things the Story Pile is great for. You dive in on a piece of media, then you use it as a tangent point to talk about those other things you want to.

And yet.

yet.

I can’t bring myself to watch this movie. It’s far too bloody dull.

3.6 Roentgen

What the hell. This is a meme. Let’s talk about a meme.

In HBO’s Chernobyl, a series about the single greatest anthropocentric disaster in recorded history (so far), there’s a sequence where a bunch of scientists standing in a reactor building to manage a nuclear reactor that’s just exploded do a scan to check the level of radiation. The reaction they get is 3.6 Roentgen per hour, which is, in the scheme of things with you and I, in our modern day, ridiculously high; a person gets about .6 Roentgen every year in our modern lives. So that’s six times a normal yearly dose in an hour. That’s really high.

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Fargo, Season 2, Episode 9

Hey, have you seen this episode of Fargo? No? Interested in it? Care about spoilers? Don’t care about spoilers? Well, okay, look, no matter how you cut it, this is a thing where it’s worth being deliberately ambiguous about what it is, and with that in mind, here’s a break and an image for the twitter preview so you can be pretty sure whether or not you want to read on.

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Story Pile: Titans

You know, one thing I’m really glad of, in this current era of missing the point in the most catawumpus ways, is that nobody’s gone out of their way to try and make a standalone Teen Titans live action TV series. It’s just such a bad idea to approach the Titans in a way that isn’t already ensconced in a larger media space.

I mean, think about it.

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Counting Cards

Gosh it’s been disappointing month for me and video.

See, one of the things I wanted to talk about this month of magic was the way in which magical tricks and routines are often extremely elaborate sequences of small, familiar, repeatable techniques. This is the root of the show Fool Us! by Penn and Teller, because when you get down to it, magicians who have been practicing magic for a century or more between them are going to have a lot of experience with the building blocks of magic, and magicians are going to work with those pieces. There really are only so many ways you can mess with perception, after all, and it is hypothetically possible to know most of them.

Imagine then, what it is that you get to be one of the people known for the inventing of one of these techniques.

This unassumingly seemingly-British fellow is one Alex Elmsley, who was so good at magic, he’s actually Scottish. Elmsley was a computer programmer, mathematician and in his opinion ‘amateur’ card trick magician, which is a hell of a thing to call yourself when you’re also known as inventing a technique that gets used almost everywhere now.

The technique involves manipulating a small number of cards in a way that leaves people assuming they know the position or number of them. This technique can make a hand of three cards look like a hand of four cards, or a hand of four cards look like three – and it scales up and down. It’s a fantastically clever effect, and you can use it in a dizzying number of tricks – sometimes it’s the whole of an effect, sometimes it’s just a moment.

Elmsley called it the ‘ghost shuffle’ but nowadays, it’s known as the Elmsley Count, which is one of those examples of massive significance attached to a name.

Anyway, what I wanted to do was share a link here to a video of Elmsley’s work on Youtube, the Tahoe sessions, which is a two hour sequence of him doing tricks, but then demonstrating them, and it’s great and educational and fun. I watched it one night a few weeks ago and really enjoyed it. When I went to get the link to share here, though, turns out I’d been watching a pirated version, and it was unavailable on Youtube any more, even for money!

He’s charming, he’s funny, and he was exceptional at simple, subtle, clever magic tricks that nonetheless looked brain-meltingly difficult.

Story Pile: Shade

Fact is, poker wasn’t always legal.

It’s weird, really, when you talk about Poker as this modern sport with this enormous culture and giant piles of money associated with it, where there are books and histories and luminaries and a hall of fame. It’s weird because poker not only wasn’t legal for a long time but it’s kind of still not really ‘properly’ legal, not everywhere. There’s a lot of stuff in the history of the game that means that if you’re interested in the way cards can be manipulated, if you’re interested in card magic, there’s a very small group of people who are interested enough to pay you, and there’s a whole world of people interested in paying you if they don’t know you’re doing magic.

There is a rich intersection of the criminal, the gambler, the drifter, and the completely fake wizard, and it shows in the stories we have about these people. It shows because when you find out that guys like Dai Vernon and Ricky Jay were involved in the production of a movie.

The movie, which I didn’t know about until just this year, is a 2003 neo-noir con movie called Shade, which stars Jamie Foxx, Melanie Griffith, Sylvester Stallone (wait, really?), Gabriel Byrne and Stuart Townsend. If you are a fan of the 1990s crime comedy Shooting Fish, which also starred Townsend, and you’re reading this, I guess I’d say, hi, my sister, I’m not sorry I never returned your VHS copy, but I am sorry I lost it.

Anyway, Shade.

We are going to have a bit of a weirdness, though. See, this movie has both a very generic name and a very low profile. It’s not a ‘great’ movie, it’s not a beloved classic, it’s not one of those movies that someone has helpfully ripped into thousands of high quality images on the internet, that I can easily grab and put in my blog article as a way of breaking up the flow of the text and making it clear when I move on to a new point.

So…

Sorry!

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August Shirt: Subject Outline Shippendon

I didn’t have a magic themed shirt design for this month.  What I did have was a new class, and with it, a joke, and that joke got made into a shirt.

Here’s the design:

And here the design is on our friendly gormless supposedly unisex Redbubble model:

 And here’s the design being modelled by the Teepublic ghost:

This design is available on a host of shirts and styles.

You can get this design on Redbubble or on Teepublic.

Story Pile: The Prestige

The Prestige was a 2006 thriller film that’s pretty much successful enough and attached to enough big names in the mainstream movie space that it kind of sits in that space of oh, I’ve heard of that. It’s also a movie built around a twist, and it’s a movie with – well, with prestige.

It’s got Michael Caine! It’s got Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale and Jacko Wolverine and Scarlett Johannsen, and David Bowie! This is a movie with some cred, and that means that it’s a little more seen than most of the ‘magic’ movies I thought about talking about.

It’s also kind of one of those movies that movie makers seem to like making and movie nerds tend to like talking about, so I feel a bit like I’m treading old ground here. You know, it’s got it all, it’s got a nonlinear framing device, it’s got mysteries, it’s got extremely difficult performances to pull off and some technical tricks and CG that makes it look like you weren’t using CG and it’s a period piece so you get to put everyone in funny outfits and top hats. The only thing it really lacks is singing, which Hugh Jackman would have gotten in there if it was up to him, you know it.

Anyway, I’m going to talk about the movie, which is kind of built around twists, and just mentioning that there are twists is going to be a twist so yeah sorry, I spoiled you that there’s a twist (and I don’t actually care) and there will be more, after the cut. Also I’m going to mention other things he did, like Inception and maybe make fun of people who claim those movies are super complex.

However, in deference to the fact that this movie does Go Places, I have selected my screengrabs for this article entirely at random from a website that has way too many of them. There is literally no way for me to be sure what exact context I’m giving these things, but trust me, it’s not intentional.

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Story Pile: Now You See Me

This month’s Story Pile is definitely picked with a positive bent. It’s pretty well known that magicians are kinda hokey and the idea of stage magic as a central theme to build a narrative around is going to have to struggle uphill against conventions that magic is a practice embraced by dorks who don’t mind practicing in front of a mirror. Sometimes this is done by involving crime in the story, or star power in the production of the movie.

And sometimes what you get out of that is dreadful.

I’ve struggled a bit trying to write about Now You See Me for a bit over a year now, because every attempt to talk about the movie runs into struggling to describe what happens in it, without getting bogged down in how rubbish it is at it. My typical structure fails me here, and so, I’m not going to do that this time. I’m just going to complain about this movie, which is badly put together doofus garbage.

Oh and spoilers for this movie you shouldn’t bother watch.

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Story Pile: Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants

Last year I learned that Ricky Jay had passed away. Someone retweeted someone else who retweeted someone else and they showed me a short video of Ricky Jay at his craft, and I realised… I know this guy. I know this guy because I’d seen him in movies, seen him on Mythbusters, and seen yes, a few of his tricks in old, VHS videos about how to do magic. I’d seen him on the cover of his book in an old second hand store, and read as much of it as I could, knowing that cards were powerful, in a strange, surreal way.

Then someone helpfully linked to Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants show, a VHS production available on Youtube, and otherwise relatively hard to get. This is a video recording of a show he performed off-Broadway back in the 1990s, where he basically got up in front of a room and was ridiculously good with cards for almost two hours. Like, it’s all held together by his patter and his narrative, but it isn’t like the show’s about something that Ricky doesn’t just outright state.

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Making A Big Flag Thread

If you don’t follow me on twitter, and in that case, I’m genuinely surprised you’re here at all, though, thank you, hi, you might be unaware that in May and June I did a long exercise in posting critique of every city flag in America I could find, doing – generally – one state a day for a whole month.The intention was to archive it, on this blog, like I wound up doing for the state flag thread. This is good for me, because it means the work isn’t as ephemeral as it is on twitter, and I get some easy blog posts already made, and it’s good for you, because it means you can actually find the things by searching this central repository of my writing. Win win.

The problem now is scope. See, the state flags were broken up over a week – fifty flags, five days, that more or less worked out. The twitter thread though was an hour a day – more or less – every day for a month. And the number of city flags vary wildly between states – Wyoming only had two or three worth mention, while Massachussetts had three hundred and thirteen. What this meant is that every day I was writing maybe two thousand words plus research plus images of the flags in this thread, and over a month, that’s – well, that’s a book. If you read the whole flag thread, you read a very twittery book.

It’s also big enough that there really isn’t a convenient way to copy it into a document or translate to a webpage. I host the images I put on this blog on this blog – I don’t like the idea that another service going down will make the images fail, or that someone – hypothetically – can change what my blog is showing without my control over it. That means gathering my own versions of all of those flags – and there were almost eighteen hundred flags. Each blog post about them would be quite large, and a lot of those flag comments were just jokes based on a tiny number of extremely basic failings.

I’m not sure I’ve solved this problem yet. One possible solution is to just make the flag thread into an ebook, but that gets into a really fascinating complicated space.

See,  anything posted on twitter is effectively transitory and there’s no expectation of financial remuneration. There’s a certain amount of leeway I get when I post a photo unsourced. I’m not sure, however, about the possible legal ramifications of the use of art owned by cities and states in a different country, especially when if I put the effort into making a good, well-formatted book, I’d be wanting to charge for it.

I mean I could, hypothetically crowdfund a book: Maybe just a book called Your Flags Are All Garbage, and pay an editor or legal department to work things out for me.

Still, for now, that’s an idea, rather than a plan. It’s a funny old thing, really. Creating things is hard, but then translating what we create to useful forms is hard, too.

Story Pile: The Saint (2017)

Aaaaah, they can’t all be hidden gems.

The Saint (2017) is certainly set up to be a hidden gem. I mean, hey, okay, c’mon, check out this breathless spiel. The Saint (2017) is a modern re-adaption of a long-running TV serial about a super cool super thief who flits around the world doing daring heists against extremely powerful evil people, and while he plays with lots of cool toys doing it, he still gives the money away to organisations like Doctors Without Borders and oh he has rad cute friends including a super-stylish lady on the wire who hacks things for him remotely and beats people up and she’s played by Eliza Dushku and there’s a gay black lady who’s on the trail of the villains and there’s a good conspiracy that our hero is the last member of and an evil conspiracy that he’s prepared to fight and it’s all slickly shot and it’s not like the 1990s movie that was bad, this one leans in hard to the stylish super-spy style, and Roger Moore has a guest spot in it,

and

it’s

almost good?

And then it’s very definitely not.

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The Dragon As State

It seems only fitting that with Game of Thrones finally spilled out and bleeding its guts on the floor of the greater media community, that I trot this take out that is simultaneously extremely uncomfortable and also right.

Dragons, in most fantasy fiction, are governments.

I’ve talked in the past about how fantasy isn’t about some actual historical place (indeed, no media is) but rather is about how we exist in our world, today and now. Werewolves are things like fear of the stranger, the owlbear is the threat of the unknown in the dark of the woods, witches are a fear of women, selkies are a fear of women, the gorgon is a fear of women and you know it’s possible a lot of our myths that have survived haven’t been very cool about women now I say it out loud. Still, with the idea of these monsters representing things that we can then create and ensoul as entitites that we can interact with, that we can talk to and maybe fight, that is, in most narrative, the job of the monster.

The Dragons in Love of Varna, Bulgaria

And the Dragon, as a monster, is big. Dragons aren’t just materially big, but they affect the world around them in a really big way. They change the way food is made where people give up some of their herds to the dragon. They change where people go and move, they make them move in groups or stick together, they make people set up highways and guards and build castles and keeps, and try to live their lives in the hope of avoiding the attention of the dragon. People don’t forget it’s there, and they are aware of its influence, and they know they do things just in case of it.

Sometimes, the dragon is good, and thanks to that, there are things like cures to terrible disease, and safety from dangerous armies and the people just accept a few missing cows as the nature of their life, and it’s okay. Sometimes, the dragon is bad, and there are times when it comes out to destroy things for no good reason.

We even call them tyrants.

There are even things like kobold cults and draconic servants around some – people who exist to handle the management of things for the dragon’s whims! There are people who live in service of the dragon like beaurocrats and police and seneschals and they too, are referred to like creatures in a government.

Then you should look at the dragon in terms of who kills them. What your story can see as a way that a dragon dies. Does a dragon ever get beaten to death by all the oppressed peasants? No. It’s too big, too powerful. The actions of one ordinary person are too little. There is nothing one person can do, and a thousand nothings add up to nothing.

But a dragon can be felled, by a knight, or a cleric, or a barbarian or a priest. A dragon can be swayed by a lone hero. A dragon can be defeated by a lone individual or small group of those individuals, who represent, to the reader, a right way to kill a dragon. There are even small dragons, individual dragons, who don’t want that power and that scale and that scope, and who define themselves by being one creature, not a dragon like those, a thing of the same stuff but not the same type.

It’s interesting, almost like little anarchist cells, really. When I talked about the Tiefling as an avatar for the beneficiary of historical colonialism, there is a cousin to that idea; the notion of the dragonkin, the person-dragon, the dragon that cannot rule – and that be the individual who can look at the power concentrated in bad governments and say, they know, they know that whatever this is, it can end, and needs to end, and are willing to destroy the ways they are priviliged to do it.

A dragon is a government you can fight, or kill, or fuck, in the right way. The dragonborn and dragonkin? Antifa.

And maybe there need to be more stories of dragons torn to pieces with scythes and thresher’s sticks.

Seems That Game of Thrones Is Bad, Huh?

That Game of Thrones, eh?

Now it might be that someone in the past, once, said that by definition The Game of Thrones was doomed to have an unsatisfying ending, and that someone may have said that the whole story was something like, you know, a narrative lootbox and then Game of Thrones ended and its ending was bad, and the ending being bad resulted in a giant pile of people suddenly going ‘hey, has this… sucked for years?’ and suddenly everyone is arguing about when the whole affair went sour, when this prestige TV show worth millions of dollars they’d sunk their life and fandom into might be bad and they should have known it ahead of time.

The really interesting thing to come out of it, though, is the understanding that part of what made the ending of Game of Thrones bad was not, as I once asserted, that they had no idea where they were going, but that they had an absolute, clear, definite ending, and that meant that accomplishing events in the final season was a matter of ticking things off a list, in order to force the time they had to fit the sequence of events they had to show.

And you know what, that’s fair. Maybe it wasn’t a lack of a plan, the problem was too much of a plan. Or maybe it was an inability to contain what they were making along the lines of that plan. Or maybe it was people’s fault, for being too into it, and it got too popular, forcing those poor creators to ruin it. Or maybe there was a conspiracy. I honestly don’t know, or really care. I don’t think there are lessons from Game of Thrones that are specifically really applicable to you and your creative work, beyond maybe, that if you put a lot of sexual assault in your work, people are going to ask exactly what the fuck is wrong with you, and getting defensive just makes everyone start to draw conclusions about that answer.

That’s the thing. It’s too big a work. And based on watching video of the actors preparing for the show, and the special effects crew and the prop makers and the armour fitters and all that stuff, I think it’s reasonable to say that on average everyone who showed up to make that series did a great job. But not everyone’s effort has an equal impact on the outcome.

I look forward to this future where Game of Thrones dissection becomes our personal rite, where everyone has their opinion about what in this series failed, why it failed, how the real problem the series had was this, or that, or the other. It’s great. It’s wonderful to see this practice turned widely mainstream. Hi, everyone else, this is what anime nerds have been doing since forever.

Turns out the real Iron Throne was the friends we made along the way!

July Shirt: UwUnionise!

Don’t let it be said I don’t listen to my twitter followers. I tweeted this, someone wanted it on a shirt, and here we are.

Here’s the design:

And here the design is on our friendly gormless supposedly unisex Redbubble model:

And here’s the design being modelled by the Teepublic ghost:

This design is available on a host of shirts and styles. If you like the look, I can see about making the individual badges into stickers.

You can get this design on Redbubble or on Teepublic.

Story Pile: Geobreeders

I’ve been talking about anime a lot this year. And because I’m an older anime fan, a fan boy, as it were,it’s easy to reach back into a history that’s older than some of you and point to these old classic works, things that are important and influential and you should feel ashamed you don’t know about them, I guess, if my expectation of generalised anxiety and imposter syndrome is usefully applicable.

Partly, this is because I’m a believer in the idea that remembering art is enough to make it meaningful, and there isn’t really a bottom threshold on ‘worth talking about.’ I watched a lot of garbage back then, some of which I found it fun to ridicule but some of which wasn’t good in a very boring, tedious way.

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I Like: Dave And Jeb Aren’t Mean

I grew up in a bubble of what I refer to as ‘Christian Replacement Media,’ which is this space full of movies and tv shows where the budgets are low, the talent pool is shallow, and there’s a host of very natural and normal things that the shows can’t depict, because it’s a moral evil to have a character swear. It’s not enough that the work shows people who swear as bad, or that swearing be rare, it’s that swearing at all is bad.

These are stories that try to do moral panic and endangerment and horror of the other by such things as ‘someone grabbed my wrist’ or ‘a black person said hey unprompted, with an accent,’ and the romances in them appear at the last instant, as the boy we’re followed meets a girl and she smiles at him and the music swells, implying they are absolutely going to be together forever.

Christian Replacement Media is a lot of things. Mostly it’s surreal, a sort of heightened reality where the story winks at you and says You know how this is meant to work, meaning they don’t have to show you the things they’re hinting at. It’s media by summary.

Anyway, what that means is that when I discovered Dave and Jeb Aren’t Mean, a podcast about two normal humans with normal frames of reference reviewing the movies of the Hallmark network, I was hooked.

Hallmark make movies that are not Christian Replacement Media, but are designed to form part of that space, the spackle of the entertainment media. You know, you don’t necessarily want to appeal only to those consumers, but if your work fits in their landscape, there’s a large market of the no-swears no-offensive-content as-few-black-people-as-possible media.

These stories are weird and unnatural, and this podcast makes them a hilarious part of the landscape that I heartily recommend you check it the heck out.

Story Pile: Snow White and the Huntsman

Back in February, you may remember – because you read everything I write, right? – that I tried to make a bunch of articles about smooch media, and one of my choices was to try and focus on romantic movies that were doing something interesting and cool and not just another Two Extremely Hot Movie Stars Awkwardly Bump Into Each Other In A Predictable Way.

At first I found there was this seam of ‘romance’ movies that were clearly made for men – my iconic example is This Is War, a movie about two super-spies that compete for a hot girl and an action movie breaks out while they’re doing super creepy abuse of surveillance state technology in order to get emotional upskirts of this girl. Now, I felt in my heart that I’d really like an action movie romance if the romance was just between two people of comparative levels of attractiveness.

That’s another thing. Dudes in romance stories are either tremendous people with the emotional capacity of a grape, or they’re potatoes that get girls because they’re in a designated story slot. There are a lot of movies about ugly dudes getting beautiful women to fall in love with them – things in the mould of Knocked Up or, well, any where the central male actor is known primarily as a comedian and not as a ‘leading man.’

I was honestly really hopeful then, when I popped open Snow White And the Huntsman.

And what I got was an amazing sequence of failures.

Spoilers ahead.

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Story Pile: Solo

Disclosure: Someone I know worked for one of the companies that got Solo made. I don’t know the precise details and I don’t want to pry, but there you go. I don’t imagine they care that much if I think the movie is good or bad, and they haven’t spoken to me about the movie’s quality.


With that in mind, some bonafides up front: I am the Doesn’t Really Think That Much Of Star Wars guy. Not a ‘they were better when I was a kid’ guy or the ‘well this stuff lacks the depth of cinema veritate’ guy, but just someone who has for some reason or another never had that much of a high opinion of Star Wars as a franchise. I have had my fair share of Star Wars media – mostly in the form of videogames, books and my fill of watching the movies – so I am not ignorant of it, I just don’t really think it’s very interesting. It’s a bit like Monopoly – I understand that it has a deep cultural impact and lots of people are very familiar with it but I just don’t think it’s particularly good.

I guess the easiest way to explain what kind of Star Wars fan I am is that I think 90% of the movies are boring and the remaining 10% is all full of Ewoks.

Anyway, Solo is a movie seen as ‘controversial’ because Star Wars fans are just the worst kind of joke. There’s just the silliest kind of swirl of ridiculousness around this movie’s box office sales, conspiracy theories that are one step removed from saying ‘the Jews don’t want a movie about a strong white man to succeed!’ and there’s a lot of noise. Since it seemed Star Wars fans didn’t like it, I thought hey, maybe I should check it out. Maybe I’d like it, if it wasn’t something that appealed to the kind of people who thought Star Wars was good. Right? There’s a logic there, surely?

Anyway, I kind of love this awful movie, but I also kind of hate this great movie.

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Goldshire Inn Ethnography

Before there was photography, there was heliography. It was from around the 1820s, and to make a picture with heliography you needed to get a big funnel-shaped distorted mirror to capture sunlight and direct it through a glass lens and onto a plate of chemicals and it created an image. Things had to hold very still while the sunlight ‘etched’ onto the chemicals, and it was pretty quickly outmoded by photography.

The heliograph was used in its narrow window of time in the – haha – sun, to take pictures of naked ladies, who came in and held poses long enough to get shadowy silhouettes made.

In Game Research Methods, Lankoski and Bjork explain a bunch of different methods for studying games academically. It addresses techniques that are unique to games, ways that games fit in with existing research tools, and challenges that games have that people unfamiliar with them won’t necessarily consider. This is where I first got the idea of Stimulated Recall, where recording yourself playing a game, then watching that playback is a chance to talk about and experience your mental state and give a more accurate accounting of the play experience.

This book also includes a really interesting chapter about understanding the ramifications of ethical disclosure in digital spaces as it relates to subjects (people) and their ability to share information. That’s a big sentence but it’s basically a finding from a researcher who was studying people ERPing in WoW.

Now I’m not going to infantalise you and pretend you have no idea what those acronyms are. For the sake of completion, though, ‘WoW’ refers to World of Warcraft, and ERP refers to ‘Erotic Roleplay.’ It’s got a lot of possible terms but the basic idea is using text roleplay in a game’s shared space to roleplay out sex.

Now, some people react to this discovery with incredulity, which I find kinda tiresome, but yeah, if you have literally never heard of this: People do this. In fact, people doing this is as old as the internet itself. In fact, back in the day, before the internet, people used to write dirty letters to one another, to make up a sexy narrative. Like, written with hand. There even used to be a whole range of clever acronyms for those dirty letters, a hidden language that was designed to convey information to the insiders and keep the communication fast and fluid.

A lot of those letters you see people reading in World War 1 re-enactment dramas, a tearful moment as the music swells and you, the audience, reflect on this humanising moment as this soldier is connected to their home country and given a reason to feel just for this moment not here in this filthy trench?

Those letters were really dirty.

Anyway the chapter is interesting and includes a lot of self-examination from the researcher, who realised that their work was not just about examining the interactions of objects in a space, it was the behaviour of people, and reading logs of people boning meant getting insights not just into the practice academically, but also the way people feel about themselves, and one another. About the meaning of our virtual bodies, the bodies we use to express ourselves, and it’s all very good reading and it’s very interesting about designing your data capture so it takes into account the ethical needs of intimate places that players create. It’s really interesting.

It’s also four years old, and built on existing research into ERP. Which is why I know those things about those filthy letters, and about the heliography of naked ladies. People make stories with one another, and people use technology, and one of the most common things people use that technology for, and make those stories about, is, well, sex. Sometimes weird sex, sometimes chaste sex, sometimes circling around not wanting to call it sex.

I guess I bring this up because I still see people using ‘people ERP on the internet’ as a punchline. Sometimes a website like Polygon or Waypoint will talk about it and in a very hamfisted way I get to watch as other people slap at the topic with a lack of nuance that speaks of embarassment.

People do this. It’s not weird. Try and have some chill about other people’s fun.

Gnome Names

Hey, you know Gnome names? Popwhistle, Grindgear, Bombfuse, Fizzlewist.

Why are they like that, you think?

 

In almost any setting I’ve seen with Gnomes, they tend to follow this kind of rule. Sometimes the setting is a little more Tolkeiny and the Gnomes are sometimes Halflings or Hobbits or (god help me) Kender, but there’s this race of small people who are inventive, tinkery, and have these strangely modern compound names.

Now, names that are modern words isn’t unreasonable, in my culture. I know a number of people who have names like Cloud, South, West, Green or so on. But those names are all old and they’re rarely compound like that. What’s really interesting about the Gnome names is that Gnome names are words in whatever non-Gnome language they’re presented with.

It’s a well-accepted piece of modern lore that people’s names have meanings, phrases or terms that they owe their derivation to. Even basic and boring ones like James and John and Peter have some connection to an earlier iteration of the name, some thing you can translate them to. Gnome names, however, come translated already – Cogwhistle Buzzthump is two compound words in the language of the reader (in this case, English).

From this I can derive two things:

  1. Gnome names are some kind of agglutinative language, made up of bits you can jam together
  2. Gnomes think humans are total assholes who will translate their names into English rather than try and get them right

This is, incidentally, a problem that a lot of recorded history of Native Americans in the United States have to deal with. Peoples names get translated like they’re not names, but are rather titles. So instead of referring to when Mo’ohtavetoo’o was betrayed by The Strong And Steady Digger, we refer to Black Kettle being betrayed by George Custer.

I dunno, Gnome names are racist or something (they’re probably not).

The One Good Bit Of Punisher Season 2

I thought, for a while, about doing a Story Pile about Netflix’s The Punisher second season. I mean I watched the whole thing, how bad could it be, I mean, if I spent that time, surely I could divine something to talk about in it. Then I kept finding it was easier to come up with other things to talk about than it, and with the news that Netflix’s MCU is ending, it seemed somewhat pointless.

I mean the most interesting thing to say about The Punisher season 2 was that it was impressive the way it maintained the badness of the first season. Like, normally media this bad is bad because nobody in charge could tell how a thing was meant to work, and the result is unfocused and sluices down to a worst point. The Punisher instead manages to be bad in a way that’s consistent and reinforces the failures of the previous season, and that’s impressive, in a way.

And that’s the problem with an article about it. Because an article about this series would mostly be me telling you how it sucks just like the last one.

Instead, I want to talk about one scene, one snippet of a scene, even, and it’s the best thing in the whole show. You don’t even need to know any of the characters or much context. It’s spoilery, though, so if for some reason you wanted to take the series seriously and avoid spoilers, now is your chance to get out.

(Why, though.)

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Story Pile: Neon Genesis Evangelion

DISCOURSE CONTAINMENT

Neon Genesis Evangelion is twenty-five years old. It is not a new series. It is not a series lacking in exposition or consideration or study. It is an important text but it is also vitally an old text. There is a degree to which the conversations around Evangelion are not just uninteresting, but are now completely tedious.

You might have seen it the first time, ever, this week. You might be planning on watching it. You might be wavering on whether or not you do. After all, it’s a Big Deal, why not?

There will be no meaningful spoilers for Evangelion. I’m barely going to talk about anything that’s in the show at all. But I am going to talk about this series and some of the reasons it matters, and the most important fact, that this series means a lot less than it matters.

DISCOURSE CONTAINMENT

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June Shirt IV: Arcadia Bay

For Pride month, I felt I could have a little Wrath.

I’ve said that Life Is Strange is ‘a really good fanfiction attached to a garbage-ass canon made by tools.

Here’s the design:

And here the design is on our friendly gormless supposedly unisex Redbubble model:

And here’s the design being modelled by the Teepublic ghost:

This design is available on a host of shirts and styles. This design won’t go well on stickers, because the faux-distress is part of it. I recommend if you get it, you make sure your colour choice is high-contrast with the yellow, so a green or a red.

You can get this design on Redbubble or on Teepublic.