Jon McCalmont on Prometheus, Myths and Calvinball stories

At his consistently exceptional ‘Ruthless Culture’ blog Jonathan McCalmont has a great meta-review of Prometheus, in which he locates the film within the broader constellation of ‘myth-making’ in films and modern popular culture that is so prevalent right now. Having not seen Prometheus yet, I can’t really agree or disagree, but his analysis of wider popular cultural obsession with mythmaking is very convincing. But I had a few reservations – possible fault lines in his argument, I guess you could call it.

McCalmont (rather convincingly) argues that “as a culture, Westerners no longer crave stories… they crave mythologies” and he suggests that Prometheus is an attempt at critique of  that obsession with mythologies (coming at the expense of the ‘neat, self-contained story’ which has indeed rather taken a backseat to trilogies, series and the rise of the ‘franchise’). McCalmont says:

I believe that Prometheus is best understood as vicious critique of the tendency to seek answers to big questions and to weave these answers into some kind of escapist fantasy. Far from providing us with a mythology that makes sense and answers all questions, Prometheus suggests that life is nothing more than a series of random events leading not to Tolkien’s meaningful ‘turn’ but to a sense of profound bafflement.

As I said, I can’t really comment on this aspect of the film, and whether or not it succeeds. But there’s something funny about the way he mixes up the difference between “Big Questions” (aka the metanarratives that post-modernism has been so utterly against since forever, but which it has never really gotten rid of) and questions of the decidedly non-big variety. He notes that,

Though ostensibly a mystery, the plot of Prometheus is really nothing more than a series of doors slammed in characters’ faces by a cruelly indifferent universe. The film begins with a group of humans voyaging to the stars in search of Big Answers to Big Questions.

But some of the questions he lists are not big questions: they are (or should be) answerable, quite straightforwardly, e.g.:

  • What did the android say to the alien upon its awakening?
  • Why did the alien respond to a first contact situation with psychotic violence?

The answers to these are not “because there is a god” or anything meta like that. And that’s the crux of it, I think: if Prometheus is like LOST and other “Calvinball” type stories, it’s only because such straightforward questions are warped, twisted, or deliberately obscured as if obscurantism were somehow a statement about the degeneracy of meta-narratives (or even a statement about anything at all other than the arbitrary whim of a storyteller/mythmaker). And this is why I was a bit on the fence when McCalmont states his thesis as the following:

To my mind…attempts to wring meaning from the text of the film are hopelessly deluded as Prometheus is quite explicitly a film about the absolute futility of seeking Big Answers to Big Questions.

But obscurantism is not anti-metanarrative, in fact it’s just a reinforcement  the meta-narrative of an “indifferent” universe. McCalmont makes the claim that “Mythologies differ from scientific explanations in so far as the logic they use to explain events is narrative rather than causal” which I’m also not so sure about. Science is, after all, it’s own mythology. Chris Bateman’s forthcoming “The Mythology of Evolution” touches on some of these issues, with Bateman saying,

the imagery of evolution threatens to distort our understanding of the incredible history of our planet. There is no science without mythology, and the only way to reveal the facts is to understand the fictions.

Bruno Latour has a great quote about the operation of science, saying (and I’m paraphrasing) that it has to explain one thing in terms of another thing, and then that thing in terms of a third, and so on until it ends up looking more and more like a fairytale. Count the number of intermediaries between “you” and the alleged Higgs-Boson.

So where are we, then, on the issue of Big Questions or metanarratives, and why does McCalmont’s piece seem so indicative of the current? I agree wholeheartedly with his assessment, and his term “geek spiritualism” encapsulates it perfectly, but I don’t think we’re even remotely close to a myth-less state, and I don’t narrative obscurantism actually does point to a lacuna or disavowal of metanarratives. I think we’re in a situation where we’ve internalised the post-modern disavowal of metanarratives (the “Big Questions” will never be answered satisfactorily) but perhaps the effort has not been taken seriously, since we can’t disavow the metanarrative of science, as it works so damn well for us at the present. (As an aside, many critics of postmodernism have pointed out since the very earliest phase of its adoption that a disavowal of metanarratives can become itself a metanarrative.)

I find myself agreeing with McCalmont’s analysis of the dual cultural and market forces that are driving the increased mythologisation of popular culture:

The problem highlighted by the very existence of Prometheus is that the demand for synthetic mythologies is now so intense that it is beginning to distort the nature of popular culture. With fans demanding mythological depth and investors demanding the type of monies that accompany owning people’s fantasy lives, the market for self-contained stories is beginning to shrink.

But I think his  argument is a bit of a kludge – narrative obscurantism of the Calvinball type isn’t the same as a real or genuine disavowal of metanarratives (including the metanarratives and myths of science). To my knowledge, one of the few people to take seriously the challenge of a meaningless, indifferent universe is Quentin Meillassoux and his acausality. But again we find the same tension as in McCalmont’s piece – Meillassoux believes in a fundamental, hyperchaotic and meaningless layer of reality as the only necessary and non-contingent layer of the universe, yet at the same time, the universe at present remains contingent and explanatory mechanisms like science remain accurate, and may remain so until long after humans have disappeared from the universe.

McCalmont ends his essay by saying that he fears for the future of “self-contained stories” in the face of increased myth-making, and that Prometheus, while terrible, perhaps “contains the future of all popular culture.” Which I think is an accurate assessment, but I don’t agree that self-contained stories are a “solution” to the problem of metanarratives. But I remain sympathetic to the desire for less mythologising – though perhaps only because most, if not all, modern attempts at it are so utterly shit.

Television Credits

This is the second time I’ve been interviewed for GoodGame, the ABC TV’s flagship weekly videogame show, and this time they didn’t cut down the entirety of a two hour interview to one grab of me saying something about “homoeroticism”. Which is nice.

Here’s me talking about Permadeath (you remember the Permanent Death saga, don’t you?) and looking rather smashing in my KillScreen T-shirt. I’ll be invoicing them for the promo later.

My thoughts on The Social Network

So that Facebook movie everyone’s been going on about – yeah, it’s pretty fucking fantastic. The music is great. The pacing is excellent, at the start particularly so. Jesse Eisenberg is perfectly cast as the neurotic genius, and Justin Timberlake is a fantastically smug and insecure friendship wrecker. Aaron Sorkin’s pared-back way with words makes the movie seem as though there is absolutely no trimming left un-shaved. It’s altogether a very lean film. Very fit.

Yep, I have no complaints about the movie whatsoever. It’s great! But you know how all those people said it was a “missed opportunity”? Well, okay so maybe only Lawrence Lessig said that – but it seemed like the critical consensus at release was that it didn’t really go into detail about the revolution that Facebook has inspired, which is true. But it also spectacularly misses the point about that revolution.

You don’t need to explain what Facebook has done, least of all to anyone that would be reading your review online. And why? Because there is already a better than ONE IN THREE chance said person using the internet to read your damned comments about The Social Network uses Facebook already. The ubiquity of the Facebook revolution (whatever that means) is probably more powerful and more potent than the actual content of its transformation.

According to Google’s numbers there are about 1.5billion internet users in the world (as of 2008). As of today-ish there are 500million Facebook users. One in three. One in three internet users has a Facebook account and is (probably) intimately acquainted with the site and at least a few of the major services it provides. Status. Photos. Comments. Friends.

Lawrence Lessig, et al. – your comments are officially irrelevant: everybody already uses it.

As a short aside, the movie would be as dull as shit if it actually was more about the changes to society’s concept of privacy; sharing; over-sharing; friends and friendship; networking; and a million other ideas all subtly touched by the gently caressing software hand of Mark Zuckerberg and co. Yes, those changes are all really interesting things and they all really happen and have greatly been affected – but in no way would beating people over the head with the implications of those things constitute a good film! We already know that stuff, so it’s neither new nor interesting.

So as a history of the founding of Facebook, it adds something to the picture of the site. We now know a little bit more (albeit, through the distorting lens of Hollywood) about how, and perhaps even more importantly why, the site came into being. And the fact that the why is pretty much like any boring, reasonable, real-life story is also fascinating.

I was reading the other day about creative writing, American university MFA programs and whether they stamp out creativity. One of the questions the article asks is ‘What about other forms or writing, like the personal essay?’ Well, the personal essay of which this is (somewhat loosely – okay very loosely) an example is the perfect vehicle for explaining all those shocking and amazing and terrifying things Lessig talks about in his review-type piece.

Someone out there, or more likely tens of someone’s out there, are writing blog posts, magazine articles and personal essays explaining the highlighting the profound changes that Facebook is out there actively affecting in the world right now. I’m contributing what small insights I can provide. The Social Network is not for that.

The Social Network is an ordinary story about relatively ordinary people. Boy gets hurt by a girl. Boy creates horrible website. Boy becomes billionaire. The steps between each moment are made ever so slightly more visible; more real. The myth of the genius-neurotic who has that one idea that changes the world cannot survive the film The Social Network. Yes, so-called ‘genius’ is one part of it but it’s not the whole story. If that’s where the story ended it would not have been a very long film. Genius isn’t enough to get Facebook to 500 million users, and nor just pure tenacity – as demonstrated by the characters of the oddly named Rowers. They proved that – by refusing to give up, they still never ended up getting control of Facebook , nor I imagine did they go on to create or invent an even better idea.

There was a scene early on in the film where Zuckerberg and his friend and CFO Eduardo Saverin come out of a lecture Bill Gates was giving at Harvard. They’re stopped by three guys outside who want to congratulate them on ‘the cool job’ they did on Facebook. It struck me at the time just how identical they were to Zuckerberg’s cohort. Same clothes. Same manner of speaking. Clearly just as bright, or they wouldn’t have been at Harvard.

Yet someone invented Facbook, but it wasn’t them. Why is that? The Social Network shows us a sliver of the practicality behind that why.

Life at the Top

The Chaser’s ‘Life at the Top’ skits were my favourite part of the most recent series. They featured a group of Aboriginal Australians, probably in middle age or elderly, sitting around in a bush setting discussing issues pertinent to the (then upcoming) 2010 Australian election. Watch the first video and then I’ll explain why I loved it so much.

The video opens with the peppy jingle that opens and closes each skit, building a cheery picture of ‘Life at the Top’ (referring to the ‘Top End’ of the continent). An image of a single tree with yellow sun behind, red ground below appears, conjuring up a digitally re-mastered version of the Aboriginal flag, itself a symbol with great meaning for indigenous Australians. The tree brings to mind ‘the subaltern’ who, unconcerned with issues like work and productivity that much of western civilization slavishly obsesses over (think the protestant work ethic), instead has an altogether different set of priorities – perhaps gathering and socialising under a tree.

An establishing shot shows us the bush the gathered indigenous Australians are within and that they are sitting in a circle. Subtitles are added for the benefit of viewers not familiar with the language they are speaking in, and the first words, “Did you see the Great Debate?” are a juxtaposition that confounds out expectations. The Aboriginal language is made comprehensible, and is demystified. Any expectations or prejudices are blasted away instantly by the banality and normalcy of their conversation.

“Yeah, all those irrelevant questions about refugees and the economy.”

“They should let online Journos ask about the real issues… like Lindsay Lohan.”

“Or MasterChef.”

“Or Paul the Octopus.”

“Surely people aren’t sick of hearing about the octopus yet.”

The banal continues, and the Aboriginal elders are treated lovingly and respectfully just like everyone else; a too often rare occurrence on Australian television, where they often fall into stereotypes.

“I didn’t see the debate. Did they ask about indigenous affairs?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. It was a serious debate.”

The punch line sends a wry smile spreading across the face of everyone who acknowledges the great debt we owe to the first Australians – The Chaser are pointing out the travesty in the situation. The state of indigenous affairs in Australia really is beyond shameful. I have no new or special insights into the issue, but the facts speak for themselves. Here’s some choice quotes from the Wikipedia summary page for contemporary issues facing indigenous Australians:

  • “According to the United Nations, the quality of life of Aboriginal people is the second worst of the planet.”
  • “[Indigenous] Students as a group leave school earlier, and live with a lower standard of education, compared with their peers.”
  • “Indigenous Australians as a group generally experience high unemployment compared to the national average.”
  • “Due to lack of access to medical facilities, Indigenous Australians were twice as likely to report their health as fair/poor and one-and-a-half times more likely to have a disability or long-term health condition…”
  • “Indigenous Australians are jailed five times more often than black males in South Africa under apartheid.”
  • “Many Indigenous communities suffer from a range of health, social and legal problems associated with substance abuse of both legal and illegal drugs.”

As a result of colonialism and white settlement, Indigenous Australians have historically been treated poorly, been subject to the worst kinds of racism and in some cases were outright massacred, having been considered little better than animals. It is a stain that is all too often hidden from what Australian’s themselves usually like to think of as their otherwise immaculate nation.

The temptation for those of us who neither wish to ignore, nor to trivialise the plight of Australia’s first inhabitants, is to consider them helpless victims of circumstance – but this is almost as bad the institutionalised racism that sees their concerns brushed aside on a national scale.

Which is why, in the above skit, when one asks whether indigenous affairs were considered by the two prospective leaders of Australia, they are quickly brushed off. It’s a complex bit of comedy and the writing is extremely well done. The quality continues in the second episode in the series. In it, the deal the Government has made with Telstra (the national semi-privatized telco) to deliver fibre-optic broadband to 93% of Australia is greeted with plaudits.

“Faster internet speeds should be the nation’s top priority.”

The line reminds viewers that, far from being helpless victims, Aboriginal Australians probably hold, and are just as entitled to, a view about the nation’s future and direction as any other citizen. Whether faster internet is actually a concern for these inhabitants of the Top End is not the point, but rather that inhabitants of the bush are not to be forgotten or ignored merely for their distance from a capital city.

As an aside, I actually think internet speed could well be an important issue for them – internet in rural Australia is often impossible to get, and creakingly slow when available. See Hungry Beast’s humorous Carrier Pigeon vs. Car vs. rural Internet Speed test in which the carrier pigeon and the car both prove a faster method of transferring 700mb of data than the internet. Yes, really.

“White people should be able to watch Hitler ‘Downfall’ parodies without having to wait. It’s a basic human right.”

We may laugh, but a certain standard of internet access (often set at 1Mbps – faster than many connections still) has been enshrined as a human right a number of European nations. The mentioning of internet access as a human right, however, brings to mind the fact that so many other, more integral human rights of indigenous Australian’s are so easily brushed aside. The former Howard Government’s “Northern Territory Intervention” in which indigenous Australian’s relying on state welfare are treated like children – having everything from their finances to their food shopping managed for them – would not be tolerated if it were foisted upon a community of whitefella’s for the simple fact that it impinges on basic human rights and freedoms. And that’s not to mention the dignity that is stripped from them by having giant warning signs at the entry to their communities warning that “alcohol and pornography” are banned. What must it do to a person to have to live with that outside their home?

[Edit: Nick S. writes in to say “It’s a little-known fact but “income management” has recently been imposed on the Northern Territory’s “whitefellas”, with plans by both ALP and Coalition to extend it to “disadvantaged” communities nationwide. See e.g.’Major Welfare Reforms Support Vulnerable Australians‘ and ‘Abbott backs ALP welfare management bill‘.]

“Thank God the government has finally got it’s priorities in order.”

The delicious irony here is almost self-evident, but when it comes to indigenous affairs, suffice to say it’s nowhere near a top-priority issue for either of the major political parties in Australia. Nor is it on the national agenda of the mainstream media. The Chaser, broadcasting to an audience 1.41 million Australians in their first week, have probably done more to raise awareness than any news outlet.

Each episode is bookended with the peppy “Life at the Top” musical jingle. Let’s watch Episode 3 of “Life at the Top” before continuing. This episode continues the theme of travesty (for more on the distinction between travesty and straight satire, see Ian Bogost’s blog), and while all episodes are cleverly and carefully played for laughs, this one cuts more directly at the issues.

“I think there should be more funding for the arts in this country.”

“Absolutely. Our culture is our identity.”

“We need a healthy film industry to tell important Australian stories like ‘The Wog Boy 2; The Kings of Mykonos’.”

“It is vital that the full ‘Wog Boy’ story is preserved and passed down to future generations of Australians.”

The conversation again exposes triviality and lack of depth in Australian political and cultural priorities, this time using the Australian film industry to make their point. The original ‘Wog Boy’ film was a rather shallow, up-beat affair about the common European immigrant experience (in this case in particular, a Greek ‘Wog Boy’), and the skit leaves vast tracts of room open to suggest that the Australian film industry could look at the wealth of Australian Aboriginal storytelling. Frankly, it has barely even begun to do so.

“Nick Giannopoulos speaks for us all.”

For a people group so often left with no one to speak for them in national politics, this line stands out in particular as “travesty” and elicits laughs of recognition.

The final episode of the season, episode 4, is below, and deals most explicitly with Aboriginal Affairs and the issues facing our first Australians.

“I hear the Labor Party might still win the election.”

“Really? Are Labor good?”

“Very good. They have an excellent track record on indigenous affairs.”

“What have they done?”

“They said ‘sorry’ to us once.”

“When?”

“Three years ago.”

“And what about since then?”

“Lots of things. Every week they remind us that they once said ‘sorry’ to us three years ago.”

“If Labor hadn’t apologised we wouldn’t have the standard of living that we all enjoy today.”

“Yeah, we can only hope Labor gets back in.”

The national apology to the Stolen Generation in early 2008 was indeed a high water mark and, many hoped, the first step toward better social outcomes for Indigenous Australians. In this clip, the Chaser team, through the mouths of these Aboriginal Elders, remind us that there is so much still to be done, and that still none of the parties are mightily concerned with them (The Liberal Party fails to rate a mention – it’s former leader was the one who instigated the horrible “intervention” after all).

Aboriginal Affairs are not exactly high on the national agenda right now (are they ever???), and for various reasons. But I feel The Chaser, known for being provocative to the point of offense on occasion, have done loads for the cause with these skits, all while avoiding being either patronising or racist. Indigenous Australian’s are still Australian through-and-through and should be afforded all the same consideration they would be if they were white skinned, urban dwelling voters in a marginal electorate.

Australia is currently in a situation that remains extremely charged with political potential. Is it too much to hope Aboriginal Australians get a bit more consideration afterwards? If any of the pollies have been watching Yes We Canberra, there may be a better chance of that now than before.

Notes on Films #2

So I just got off a nearly 13 hour plane flight, so naturally I watched a bunch of movies on the plane. Not entirely unexpectedly I had some thoughts on them.

Up In The Air (Somewhere over the pacific a fair way north of New Zealand)

George Clooney plays a convincingly detached middle aged man who spends all his time flying. So much in fact that he’s accrued 10 million miles, joining an elite cadre of ultra frequent fliers.

Quite a good film, and quite a sad one too, but I’m going to suggest that it should never be shown on planes. Quite simply, the lie that is Ryan Bingham’s ‘enjoyment’ of doing so much commercial flying is shown up most vividly when the plane on the screen and it’s smooth, quiet, and spacious trip is compared to the noisy, cramped situation that is your real and present environs. It kind of ruins the illusion also when an outside shot shows all of Clooney’s upper torso and head, when the window next to your own seat barely accommodates your entire face when it’s squished right up against it.

The Blind Side (Indeterminate location over the pacific)

A film about a black American near-homeless boy and his adoption by a white family when he gets into a private Christian school on something like a football scholarship. Early overtones of a misguided white effort at atoning for wider social ills through personal action would undoubtedly appeal to ‘down to earth’ folksy types. However too much viewing of The Wire has left me extremely critical of any such simple solutions as simply taking the boy into your own home. Why just one boy, why not 2 or 10, and so on.

Also curious is the game’s seeming inattention to the specifics of actual football playing. For a film that starts with a football play, broken down and narrated second by second by Sandra Bullock’s character, the rest of the film really shows very little actual football being played. Just seemed weird, y’know? Clearly aimed at the Republican heartland.

The Invention of Lying (Indeterminate location over the pacific slightly closer to San Francisco)

I heard from one of my best friends that this “wasn’t that good” but I quite enjoyed it. It’s really an allegorical treatment of religion, and not really about lying at all. Ricky Gervais’ character invents lying in a world completely devoid of deception, and eventually resorts to fabricating the comforting lie that there is an afterlife of paradise when faced with his scared, dying mother.

It’s about life, it’s about death and religion and Gervais paints a picture of religion as convenient lying that is meant to reassure us about the great unknown that is death. An interesting film, even if you don’t necessarily agree with it’s overarching thesis.

Notes on films #1

For some reason I’ve been watching an above average number of films this week. I’m no film critic, but here are some brief notes and observations from them in order of appearance:

Zombieland (Sunday night/Monday morning)

Zombieland was great. It was so great, actually, that instead of going to sleep at a reasonable time like I was meant to on Sunday, I stayed up far later than I should have, even as as I needed to get up early the following morning. I got about four and a half hours sleep.

The main character reminded me of a slightly older Michael Cera and it is obvious the film was obviously targeting a young-adult male audience (hey – it is a zombie movie after all). The story is pretty much wish fulfilment for every young boy – when everyone else is dead you can enjoy the best the world has to offer – but there’s also a boy meets girl plot, and Emma Stone becomes the object of male desire. Yeah, little bit of a celebrity crush right there.

A cool visual effect that ran throughout the whole film places bits of text (the protagonists ‘rules’ for surviving Zombieland) inside the world. Only the audience sees it and it serves to underscore the points being made by the continuous narration provided by the main protagonist. How he is speaking to us, or from where, is never really specified, but it gives the film a sort of ‘documentary’ feel and as an abstract layer it helps keeps the film’s tone light. In this capacity, the narration forms an integral part of keeping the audience distracted and not-too-worried about the logical inconsistencies in the world of Zombieland. For instance, why did no one respond to the zombie threat when it became apparent what was happening? Why also is the power still on in so many places apparently bereft of anyone living?

The answer is of course ‘who cares!’ and it maintains this assertion proudly and deliberately. Never is this more evident than in the scenes where Bill Murray makes a cameo. Murray’s accidental death (he was pretending to be a zombie) is visible from miles ahead but it’s easy to accept because we acknowledge that it is just the end of his cameo. Even Murray himself makes light his own death as it’s happening and Emma Stone’s character struggles to keep a straight face at his passing antics.

There Will Be Blood (Monday night/Tuesday night)

I knew I wasn’t going to get through all of TWBB when I put it on late on Monday night, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. Falling asleep as I was, I didn’t think I’d get more than five or ten minutes into it before succumbing to sleep. I was quite wrong, however, as very quickly the musical score (by Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead fame, no less) and the introduction completely devoid of dialogue captured my attention and brought me a renewed sense of wakefulness.

I stopped a bit shy of the half-way mark, right at the point where the son, HW Plainview, gets a blast full of gas and has his hearing destroyed. It was fitting because so much of the film is about the main character, Daniel Plainview and his relationship with his (adopted) son HW. The movie is deeply unsettling, on many levels, with the oftentimes abusive nature of the father/son relationship becoming truly heartbreaking. Daniel Plainviews dealings with the religious fanatic Eli Sunday was also personally confronting as it brought up memories of certain experiences of my own past that, in the cold clear view of hindsight are just as disturbing. Daniel Plainview often manages to turn the rhetoric of the ecstatic preacher Eli back against him, showing off the persuasive power of passionate fervour and the desperate disillusionment of Plainview himself.

Superbad (Tuesday night)

What compelled me to watch Superbad of all possible films? I think after the heavy There Will Be Blood I needed something of a palette cleanser, and while it certainly wasn’t cleansing in any other sense of the word, it certainly did lighten the tone.

Superbad also featured both Michael Cera (hello, a connection!) and Emma Stone, who played only a small part, but a part nonetheless (hello another connection). She has very sexy eyes – I think that’s what I like about her. It’s funny, when the guys finally read the party I kind of assumed that Cera would end up with Stone’s character and the drunk friend, played by Jonah Hill, would end up with Cera’s initial love interest, who was also horribly drunk and only interested in performing sex acts. But they decided that was not to be and the get together scene was left till the last in the mall. Oh well, you weren’t really expecting complexity were you?

While Superbad was full of questionable jokes of varying vulgarity there was one scene that seemed… well… borderline racist, is about the only way to describe it. I’m not sure whether we were supposed to be laughing at, or with the idiotic white male police as they struggled to ask the black female cashier who had just been robbed whether the assailant was African American or Caucasian. Continual depictions of the ineptitude and corruption of the two police officers also proved mildly surprising – I wondered how they got away with it, until I remembered that this was an unrated version of the film and considered that might have an impact.

I’m finished.