Category Archives: Theoretical

MCU: The Millennialist Cinematic Universe

 

“Apocalyptic” or some variant is one of the words most commonly used to describe Avengers: Infinity War. (Go ahead and Google it.) But what do we mean when we talk about the movie as apocalyptic? Christian eschatologists who consider Christ’s Second Coming to be an actual future event have fallen into two broad camps. Postmillennialism is a brand of Christian eschatology which holds, in MLK’s formulation, that the arc of the universe, though long, bends toward justice, and the material realization of God’s kingdom is within the grasp of humankind; we can and will, in short, create heaven on earth. Premillennialists hold, by contrast, that the world is headed for an apocalyptic reckoning—a trial by fire—and that all we can do is prepare for that time of trial. There are other eschatological views, of course, and most are quite old, but this dichotomy has been active in American popular culture since about the late nineteenth century.

These two traditions represent different types of Christian temperament, if you’ll forgive both my reductionism and my broad generalizations. Postmillennialism makes heroes of builders, whereas premillennialists make heroes of martyrs. In postwar America, for instance, postmillennialists often were those who embraced the American Century and the exceptionalism of the United States, seeing the period of prosperity and world leadership as an opportunity to make the world a better, more just place. At the same time, premillennialists built themselves a cottage industry of prophesying social decline, reading the tea leaves of current events as signs of social collapse ending only in nuclear disaster. Taken to extremes, each temperament has a sort of dark side. Postmillennialists tend toward confidence but sometimes arrogance. Premillennialists tend toward wariness but sometimes hysteria. Both represent different ways to embody hope.

These eschatologies inflect pop cinema, too. I think it fair to say that certain kinds of entertainment embody certain forms of eschatology, especially those which traffic in romantic modes or motifs. Our genre films, in other words. One might regard horror films as premillennialist, since in such films that which you fear almost always turns out to be both real and worse than imagined. You could (and should) perhaps place Dr. Loomis in Halloween (1978), for instance, the same continuum as Howard Beale and Jack van Impe.

By the same token—on that token’s flip side—a great many of our superhero films are essentially postmillennialist. Leaning heavily on mythic typologies, heroes make their world a better place, restoring justice and expanding its reach and scope. The protagonists who survive horror films aren’t usually those who are full of hope; it’s usually those who are prepared or willing to do what it necessary to survive. But the protagonists of superhero films exist to impart and embody hope itself. Crises in superhero films are usually resolved by a contest of might, but that’s because in superhero movies, as in popular mythology, right makes might. The recent Justice League film very explicitly invokes the trope that we now need again—and are indeed living in—a new golden age of heroes. These heroes heal the broken world as they heal themselves.

But the Marvel Cinematic Universe guys into this trope far more convincingly than does the DC Universe. How many times has Tony Stark learned to be a better man and as part of a process of self-reformation also saved the rest of us? What is Captain America other than a representation of the struggle to be righteous in a deeply unrighteous world? The bildungsroman—even one featuring middle-aged characters—has been wed to the hero of a thousand faces in nearly every MCU film to date to varying degrees of success. The structure of these movies forbids that they end in defeat for the heroes, because the defeat of the heroes would also cut short their moral development. It would deprive the audience of hope, and the world would be made manifestly uglier and more depraved. While a premillennialist might see this as a necessary and inevitable precondition for eventual redemption, postmillennialists see backsliding as unnecessary and avoidable. Premillennialists don’t create superheroes; they build fallout shelters. Postmillennialists fight for denuclearization and write stories about radioactive spiders turning neighborhood kids into good-natured crimefighters.

Again, I’m using these terms analogically, and very loosely at that. My more theologically-literate readers undoubtedly have pulled out so much hair at this point that they’ve practically scalped themselves. The point I wish to make is simply that apocalypse narratives are almost always about hope, but there are different ways to think about apocalypse, and they operate in very different ways. Not always mutually exclusively, natch, but as I said: this is more a matter of temperament and tone. And I don’t think we can understand the failure of Avengers: Infinity War without bearing this in mind.

Aaron Bady wrote one of more flaming hot takes on Infinity War. His most incisive observation is as follows:

 

There’s an extractive, exploitative relationship between the Avengers “team up” movies and the standalone single-hero stories, the same relationship we see between the Infinity Stone MacGuffins and the stories that the various Marvel movies have built around them. The Infinity Stones are the real story, the big picture, the driving force behind their master-narratives in the same way that capital always thinks it’s the “job creator.” But this is exactly backwards, in exactly the way extractive relations of exploitation tend to condition their beneficiaries to misunderstand what is happening: The Infinity Stones and the “team up” movies are spending the currency whose value was built out of the sweat and blood and human labor of the standalone movies. Infinity War is the moment when profits are extracted from the richness and depth of their stories, skimmed off and collected and sold: “Look, we killed Spider-Man, Black Panther, Bucky, Gamora, Loki!” they say; “Look how it makes you feel!”

But it’s a bad movie. It’s a bad movie in the way extractive economies are bad stewards of their chains of production; it takes interesting, complex, and very delicate stories and it reduces them to extremely simple versions of themselves, massively degrading the underlying system. They are complex ecosystems, these stories, their development a function of careful nurturing and adept pruning. Infinity War looked at those stories and saw fields, turned the fields into grain, turned the grain into money, and then spent the money. Infinity War learned the lesson of Game of Thrones: people are so desperate to feel something that they will mistake narrative sadism for powerful storytelling.

And it works, the way a strip-mine “works.” Spider-Man: Homecoming did interesting stuff with youth and with a youth’s relationship to a figure like Tony Stark—and with Tony Stark’s burgeoning feelings about playing a “parent” role—and so Infinity War brings that to a climax by making Tony Stark watch a terrified young man die in his arms. Black Panther came out of nowhere to be the biggest movie in the franchise, by far, a character whose narrative was rather uniquely tied to actual world history—and uniquely detached from Marvel’s historical timelines—and so Infinity War put him in his place by making his death meaningless, random, and utterly disconnected from everything that his story had been. Gamora’s relationship with her father was a mix of complicity, love, and hate, all forced on her against her will as a child; her death was her (inadvertent) assistance to his plan where he kills his darling. And Loki is a character who has died many times and always come back; when Thanos kills him, it means something that he declares, “No resurrections!”

So on and so on: if we feel things with these deaths, it’s because they are climaxes to stories that other movies have carefully developed. But only as end-points, only as final withdrawals. Infinity War has nothing to add to what those previous movies say about youth or about complex feelings about parents or about the African diaspora; moreover, because all of its deaths are transparently going to be taken back, it has nothing to say about the finite nature of life. Indeed, even though Thanos’s pseudo-Malthusian motivations would seem to be related, on some level, to Tony Stark’s discovery of a perpetual energy source in the first MCU movie—and his decision to make it into a weapon, instead—it doesn’t develop the problem of societal limit points that it might otherwise seem to be thinking through; other than linking the two characters in their final battle, the fact that Thanos can only understand power in terms of the power to destroy is a fitting climax to Iron Man’s story without doing anything interesting to develop it.

Bady leads himself into several tangents in the course of his essay, and I don’t endorse all of them wholeheartedly, but the quoted observations above do speak to my own experience of watching Avengers: Infinity War.

Extractive economies as a metaphor for everything that’s wrong with Infinity War wouldn’t be my first choice, though I think Bady’s use of extractive economies would apply just about as well to what I’m about to say. The reason mainstream superhero comics don’t work for me is that they are deliberately, calculatedly inconsequential. The big companies maintain the illusion—or, for fans who lack any semblance of self-awareness, perhaps a mass delusion—of continuity of each character’s own history as well as the continuity of the history of each one’s shared universe. Couple the impossibility of doing this over the course of decades (with anything less than a Jaques Tati-level control over the sheer number of moving parts and revolving door of creative teams for each title) with the marketing imperative of grand events every few years: narrative stunts that utterly upset everything we thought we knew about the status quo. These stunts are always resets or reboots. They themselves are also inevitably reset or rebooted.

 

I’m old enough to remember the death of Superman. It made front-page headlines. DC even experimented, for a while, with the novel idea that Superman would be replaced—not with Clark Kent, but with one of four potential heirs to his title. This, of course, could not stand. Clark Kent was eventually reborn. He took his title back. And after some fiddling with his costume and hairstyle, he was plain ol’ Superman again, back to doing Superman-y things. And out of the event, DC gained a new villain for its writers to play around with: Doomsday, who peaked a bit early, it must be said. They also gained the characters of the two surviving heirs, one of whom was unfortunate enough to be played by Shaquille O’Neal in a film adaptation. But none of it really mattered in a macro sense. The nature of the DC universe wasn’t really altered. The most interesting storyline in modern comics—“A World Without Superman”—did not become the new reality. After a requisite mourning period, the hundreds of characters who comprise the DC universe woke up on day and, market imperatives be praised, no longer had to grapple with the reality of Superman being gone. They could just go back to the way things were.

When I raised this point with a friend of mine recently, he pointed out that continuity and consequence aren’t really the point of such events. He pointed out that Peter Parker dying in Tony Stark’s arms at the end of Infinity War is a genuinely tragic moment for both characters, and that it’s a moment which builds on the established relationship from Civil War and Homecoming. Which is to say, it doesn’t matter if Peter’s death is undone in the end: what matters is how emotionally traumatic the moment is for Tony and Peter, who must have felt that moment so keenly. A corollary point could be raised for the death of Superman: even though Superman came back from the dead, it doesn’t erase the emotional response of the DC universe to his death, especially for characters like Lois Lane or, indeed, Lex Luthor. The point is that Superman was always going to come back; the point is that when he died, everyone else felt it, and that made it meaningful.

All stories—whether in comic books or not—build relationships, and when a character dies, it is always in some ways about the surviving characters. The audience is meant to process the death of a character not only via the audience’s relationship to that character, but also through the responses of the other characters in a text. From that perspective, my friend is right. Peter Parker’s death is incredibly meaningful for Tony, and we are meant to feel that loss through Tony. The fact that Tony is there for Peter is incredibly meaningful for Peter, and we’re meant to feel the poignance through Peter.

But my spirits weren’t crushed like Tony’s are, and I’m not sure that Peter will even remember that moment once the great retconning of the finale-to-come takes place. That’s because I know that this is only the midpoint of the story. I know that the MCU is a world of heroes who save the world. Everything done can be undone. Instead of feeling Tony’s loss in the moment, I can only objectively perceive that he’s feeling loss. What I actually feel is the supreme confidence that this, too, shall pass, and thus that it is but another obstacle, no different narratively from any other.

The arc of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is long, but it bends toward justice, in other words. This particular arc is substantially longer, and happens to be separated into two films, but it’s no different from the arcs in any of the standalone films. So while other fans and critics were totally gobsmacked or heart-wrenched or infuriated by the ending of Infinity War, I found myself simply floating along in a cocoon of postmillennialist complacency. But the death of half the sentient beings in the universe should be narratively different from every other obstacle. The fact that it won’t be highlights the shallow postmillennialism of the Avengers series.

Imagine, if you will, a MCU that had the guts to kill off all the characters that are erased at the end of Infinity War. No resurrections (as Thanos declares, improbably, of Loki), no takebacks, no loopholes. Can you imagine a MCU like that? In a universe where literally half the major characters are simply wiped out in the span of five minutes, such a travesty would be genuinely unjust. It would feel like a violation. That is, it would feel utterly wrong—but only if all the films leading up to it failed to build a universe in which things like this happen. Of the Marvel movies so far, really only Thor: Ragnarok actually countenanced the failure of its heroes to save the day. But because the film takes a humorous and callous attitude toward the destruction of Asgard, the ending still feels like a victory. 

Some narrative choices might lead you to think that it’s a victory that comes with a cost, but the film doesn’t really delve that deeply into what otherwise would be a series of personal cataclysms for the film’s hero. Thor’s allies from the first two films are killed without any emotional register, and he loses no one else besides Odin, who dies on his own terms anyway. All the Asgardians who die are part of the faceless crowd. (Except Skurge, I guess? Anyway, the film plays his death as a meaningful sacrifice.) And Thor: Ragnarok takes no time to mourn the passing of so many people. Infinity War picks up right from that moment, and utterly obliterates any chance that the MCU will reckon with the death of Asgard or most of its diaspora. It’s gutless and cheap, and nobody seems to care except Thor, who is utterly traumatized. 

Now: can you imagine a MCU where every major character who survives the finger-snap of doom will have to live the rest of their lives sharing a trauma like Thor’s?

The answer is no. It’s obviously no. Because a MCU that would force the original Avengers to live out their lives with that level of psychological damage would be a MCU that would force its audience, too, to live out its life (or at least however long it took until the next reboot) with the permanent and fundamentally unjust deaths of Peter, Bucky, Wanda, T’Challa, Strange, all the Guardians save Rocky, and more. Such a move would surreptitiously end a third of its money-making franchises. Such a move would enrage not just the un-satisfiable nerd demographic (which will hate everything you do no matter what anyway, unless it unrestrainedly loves you for utterly fathomless reasons) but also the general audience whose only investment in Marvel is through the MCU. Ignore, if you can, the corporate suicide of trying to move merchandise over the next decade which is based on characters who died so ignominiously. Think, if nothing else, of the parents who have taken their kids to these movies over the years. Think of the kids who have grown up with these characters. Think of the people for whom the MCU is, as many claim, the equivalent of a modern mythology. Everything about the narrative and market logic of the MCU militates against Infinity War, by itself, being consequential.

If the ending of Infinity War were to matter, it would require the decision-makers at Marvel Studios to commit to the consequences of such a catastrophe. They can’t. They won’t. Nobody who understands anything about storytelling or marketing would expect them to. The MCU is a fundamentally postmillennialist franchise. The tragedies are always little tragedies—or, at least, the big tragedies are held in narrative abeyance. The real tragedy might be seen, it might even be felt, but it holds no power. Everything comes right in the end. Infinity War is not the end, it’s a midpoint. A relative hiccup. Even if you don’t believe that, never fear: your faith (or lack thereof) still will be rewarded.

Avengers: Infinity War feels wrong—or refreshing, I guess, depending on how you felt about it—because its structure violates the narrative logic of the MCU. In one very important way, this is what makes Thanos a great villain: perhaps the greatest of the MCU so far. He’s a villain whose very presence perverts the narrative logic of the entire franchise. But only for a moment. There is simply no way that the MCU can retain its branding and grapple adequately with the horror of what Thanos has done. Of course, Thanos did what he did to give the MCU’s creative team a reason to break its first Avengers trilogy into two films. The choice before Marvel Studios is thus, abstractly, fairly simple. It can embrace the radical upending of its entire brand posited by Infinity War, or it can turn Infinity War’s sequel into just another story where the heroes save the day. 

There’s no way that it won’t be the latter. But that makes Infinity War itself a failure as a standalone film. And as an event that purportedly ties together a dozen-plus other storylines, it will inevitably turn out to be even more inconsequential. This is what makes it a failure as a nexus point or even as the first of a two-parter. Unless Marvel Studios wants to commit to having every MCU film from here on grapple meaningfully with the finger-snap of doom (which, again, it can’t and won’t), this cliffhanger is utterly meaningless. The narrative logic of the MCU will erase it with its own snap of the fingers. Temperamentally and tonally, Infinity War is out of phase with the MCU, even though it pretends to be the MCU’s lodestone.

There’s nothing wrong with a film being postmillennialist, but there’s everything wrong with a film not comprehending that it’s fundamentally postmillennialist. Avengers: Infinity War does not embrace that it is part of a postmillennialist franchise, hence its arrogance in thinking that the finger-snap of doom is consequential. A good postmillennialist story could still grapple meaningfully with loss and violence and seemingly senseless destruction. Black Panther practically nails the perplexities of utopian process. Think of Yondu’s sacrifice at the end of Guardians Vol. 2, for instance. Or Pietro Maximoff in Age of Ultron. The tragic fate of Tony’s parents and Cap’s desire to undo the tragic fate of Bucky—whom he’d thought lost over 60 years ago—give emotional and psychological structure to Civil War. And when beloved dead characters come back—such as Phil Coulson or Groot—even that can be handled well. Groot didn’t magically get to come back as his old self; he grows up a new creature into an expanded family. And that moment when Nick Fury explains to Coulson that he warranted the unprecedented experimental procedure because he, too, was an Avenger—it was a moving recognition. These resurrections are fitting and just, and they are earned by the embedded postmillennial narrative logic.

Is there any way, really, to earn in a narratively satisfying way the return of a dozen dead characters in one film? Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. spent a whole season unpacking Coulson’s resurrection. Groot has (re)grown up before our eyes. Bucky has been redeemed over the course of three films. Each of these characters got a narrative arc of his own over the course of multiple films. Can you imagine that most of the characters wiped out in Infinity War will get similar treatment in their standalone films? Are the sequels to Black Panther or Spider-Man really going to take the time to process this catastrophe? Or will the finger-snap of doom be relegated in those sequels to the same kind of trivial function that “The Incident” (read: the climax of the first Avengers) serves in Netflix’s Marvel series? Forget their standalone films. I certainly can’t imagine that the finger-snapees will return before the midway point of the next Avengers film’s running time. Maybe not even until the climax itself, 3/4 of the way through. Maybe Marvel Studios will surprise me. But I’ve been around comics for a lot longer than the MCU has been around, and there’s not much it could do that would.

Moments like the apocalyptic finale of Infinity War are only meaningful when supported by the logic of the entire narrative. They need set-up and follow-through. Even if you think there was meaningful set-up for the semi-genocide at the end of the film, there will be no follow-through. There can’t be. Bady notes—correctly, I think—that Infinity War’s logic is extractive, not postmillennial. At best, it’s premillennialist, but not consciously; not artfully. Which means that the entire Infinity War saga is just some random thing that happened: a cosmic burp that momentarily interrupted these characters’ lives and left a lingering acidic aftertaste. And if faith in justice and the triumph of hope is rendered inconsequential in what is supposed to be the most consequential event in the MCU, what does that tell you about the MCU’s commitment to the temperament that has made it the premier pop canon of the dawning millennium? ☕︎

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Is it Thursday yet?

Last month, my wife and I finally stopped being outlaws. We had been watching Critical Role on YouTube for several months. Not on Geek and Sundry’s official channel mind you. Nope. Some user had thoughtfully put together his own playlist, updating it each Monday with the latest episode. I fully realize that this is the 21st century, and that a vast majority of people don’t care if they’re illegally pirating stuff. Screw those people. My wife and I spend precious little enough of our money on entertainment, but we figured that if Critical Role had given us nearly 150 hours of joy over the course of the last year, the least we could do is support it in the only way that matters in a marketplace. So we bought a Geek and Sundry Twitch subscription.

Geek and Sundry, of course, is the web-based entertainment company founded by Felicia Day. Capitalizing on the cachet Day earned with The Guild, G&S is home to nerdy shows like Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop and Co-Optitude, which Day hosts with her brother, Ryon. (Wife and I are fans of those, too.) G&S is a multiplatform presence, streaming videos from its official website as well as YouTube. Twitch bills itself as “social video for gamers,” which is apt enough. The platform includes live video streaming and chat functions, so you can watch your buddies play Halo or Hearthstone and comment on the game with other users besides the gamer in real time. Most of the popular channels are devoted to video gaming. G&S offers a variety of shows that are primarily oriented toward tabletop gaming.

What makes G&S’s Twitch experiment so intriguing is that it’s live. It seems, in other words, that broadcast media has come full circle. People from my generation and those even younger probably only know about old-time radio from movies like Woody Allen’s Radio Days (from what you might call his “peak Farrow” period), or perhaps they listen to shows like WPR’s “Old Time Radio Drama” (or whatever else is locally available outside of Wisconsin). While Twitch does allow its users to archive livestreams on their channel pages, the real draw is watching shows that are devised with the affordances and limitations of a live broadcast in mind.

Subscribers from around the world participate in the chat, peppering the hosts with questions, unsolicited advice, and solicited recommendations. While there are some shows designed around the chat function (like the recent trial of The Scavenger), most simply feature a confab of young, charismatic nerds playing games like Rock Band or HeroClix. The genius of Day and Wheaton is that they figured out that there was a fairly sizable niche audience of folks who would enjoy watching young, charismatic nerds play tabletop games. TableTop itself is almost paradigmatic in this regard. Each episode features Wheaton and four celebrity guests playing a different tabletop game, cracking wise about the diegetic absurdities of the games and sublimating their own cutthroat competitiveness into self-reflexive jibes. (Not to mention erecting a mythology around Wheaton’s own incredibly bad luck throughout most of the first two seasons. For instance, you now say, “I just Wheatoned,” when you roll really badly with your dice.) Unlike TableTop, the games on the Twitch channel unfold in real time, so many (though not all) hosts come from an improv background, flexing those theater muscles to carry two- to three-hour games with breezy insouciance.

That’s part of what makes Critical Role so special. As the host and Dungeon Master Matt Mercer opens every episode: “Hello! And welcome to Critical Role, the game where a bunch of us nerdy-ass voice actors sit around and play Dungeons and Dragons!” That’s pretty much it, but it explains very little about the show’s core appeal. What the description misses is just how gifted these actors are and how expertly they deploy their improv skills to flesh out and inhabit their characters. Some, like Sam Riegel and Marisha Ray, use something very close to their own accent and timbre as they play (respectively) Scanlon, the gnome bard, and Keyleth, the half-elf druid. Others, like Travis Willingham and Orion Acaba, demonstrate their professional range to give an Anglicized working-class growl to (again, respectively) Grog, the goliath barbarian, and upper-class twit brogue to Tiberius, the dragonborn sorcerer. The use of accents and different timbre is a helpful marker in the cast’s code-switching, as they flip merrily between their in-game characters and real-life personalities.

That, too, is part of the charm. Like any great improv troupe, the cast revels in surprising each other with totally in-character moments of ribaldry or pathos. One of Willingham’s greatest moments in the show, for instance, is when Grog locks himself in an outhouse to have a conversation with his cursed, sentient sword, Cravenedge. Though utterly hilarious, it carries some emotional weight, as one of the other party members, Percy (played with devilish calculation by Taliesin Jaffe), had just recently been delivered from bondage to his own cursed weapon. While Grog doesn’t want to pose a danger to his own group, he relishes the power given to him by the sword, and he’s no more inclined to sacrifice that power than Percy was, even with his growing suspicions. Similarly, Liam O’Brien and Laura Bailey play twins, Vax and Vex (respectively), whose comic bickering rings solidly true, but whose co-dependence delivers some of the biggest emotional impact in the series, especially when one or the other flutters over death’s threshold, instilling the other with uncontrollable panic. All of the characters often make very bad decisions for reasons that make total sense, and it then becomes the job of Vox Machina, their party, to pull their reckless butts out of the fire.

The commitment to character consistency has intersected with the challenges of live broadcast in some interesting ways. Perhaps the most controversial moment in the show’s run so far has been the departure of Orion Acaba after episode 27. Independent of the real life drama surrounding the event, the sudden departure was not entirely out of character for the flighty sorcerer, and his official farewell (performed by Mercer) in episode 37 was a somber highlight in the epilogue to the party’s first full arc without Tiberius. Another long-running challenge for Critical Role has been the incorporation of its gnomish cleric, Pike. Because Pike’s player, Ashley Johnson, pursues a live-action career that calls her away from Los Angeles, where the rest of the cast is based, she’s been missing for huge swaths of the show, not least including its initial few episodes. While she worked on Blindspot in New York City, Johnson telecommuted via Skype for several episodes. The distance and technical difficulties for Johnson meant that Pike was forced into a much more reactive role within the party, but her sporadic appearances also had the effect of reminding the cast and their characters how vital she is to the dynamic of Vox Machina. Indeed, one of the finest moments in the show was Johnson’s surprise appearance on-set for Episode 22, during a shooting break for Blindspot. The delight of the cast members to be reunited with Johnson was perfectly intertwined with the delight of their characters, who had not been together for four weeks. The necessity of having the players actually be present together physically in one place is something that can be dealt with in a live format, but it’s not something that can be “shot around.”

When technical difficulties occur in real time for us, the audience, it’s also about a thousand times more frustrating than a jam-up on YouTube. After all, when we were watching Critical Role on YouTube, we might have to abandon the video if YouTube was being stupid and come back to it later. That sucked. Then again, we rarely watched an entire episode all at once anyway. Critical Role episodes average three hours, and some have stretched past four. Given our schedules, my wife and I don’t usually get home until after 8:30 pm, and we’re usually asleep by 11. So while we were watching on YouTube, it became our custom to watch CR in one-hour blocks or so, breaking each episode into three nights’ entertainment. Besides prolonging the pleasure of each episode, finishing one also meant that we only had to wait four or five days until the next one.

Now that we try to watch Critical Role on Thursdays, when it airs (7 pm Pacific Time for its cast/crew, 9 pm here in the Midwest), that rhythm is severely disrupted. While it’s unusual for us to manage to stay awake until midnight on Thursdays, we usually watch at least two- to two-and-a-half hours as it streams live. That is, unless Twitch poops out on us. Or we poop out from fatigue. Neither of which is the worst thing in the world. And full episodes are uploaded by the next day, so we can pick up where we left off pretty quickly. But Twitch is, in our experience, still rather buggy. And since Critical Role is literally the first regularly-scheduled program that we have made a point to watch at its regularly-scheduled time since we got married,[1] not being able to watch it at that time is so much worse.

Worse, because we usually finish watching each episode on Friday nights. That’s awesome, in the sense that we get to finish the latest episode almost immediately afterward, and on our own schedule. But it also means that we have to wait until next week Thursday to see the new episode, and a less-than-perfect experience makes us all the hungrier for a better experience the next time. Which is usually no less than six days away, as opposed to the four or five it normally was when we watched episodes on YouTube.

There’s a bigger reason why it’s worse, though. After being spoiled for years by services like Netflix, Hulu, and Crunchyroll, which are at their best when you get to marathon episodes in large gulps, waiting for Critical Role each week is practically an exercise in discipline. There’s a reason why the fan-sourced tagline for Critical Role, “Is it Thursday yet?” is how Mercer closes each episode. The hunger for each episode is not felt by each fan alone; we feel it together. That time slot on Thursday is special because that particular time slot really means something. It’s the only time when all of us—the fans, the film crew, and the cast—get together for the Critical Role experience live. In real time. It happens first and for real only on Thursday. Everything afterward, while still thoroughly enjoyable, is not unique. It’s reproduced. That doesn’t lessen the enjoyment of the episode, but it also cannot replicate the sense of live connections being forged in the moment.

Fans of Critical Role are called “Critters,” and both the fans and players commonly refer to the “Critter community.” My wife and I don’t participate in the chat (which goes way too fast), the Reddit threads, or on Twitter, where the cast interacts with Critters on a regular basis. Yet I believe we do feel at least tangentially connected to the Critter community. In old message board parlance, we’re lurkers. But that sense of participation is something that we’re enabled to feel each Thursday night by virtue of the fact that we watch the show live, as it is streamed. The story itself is improvised with each breath and dice roll; the players are putting on a show for us, but they are also putting it on for each other. We, the audience, are simply invited. That invitation to the event itself, though, is always and only for Thursday at 1900 Pacific Time. It is the only time when none of us, collectively, knows what will happen next, and it is the only time when all of us, collectively, get to see what happens next. It is the only time when fear that something could go critically wrong is held perfectly in tension with the sincere hope that everything turns out all right. We, the viewers and players, are bound together in time to each moment.

There is something utopian,[2] I think, in the voluntary discipline of this ritual. Ritual discipline is something I don’t think I have appreciated enough in my life. It is, to be sure, qualitatively different from weekly worship services. It is also qualitatively different from live broadcasts of sports competitions, like football games. While I appreciate worship services far more deeply than sports competitions, I do acknowledge that, much like live artistic performances, there is something necessary to the human experience for events that technically only occur once—here, now, for those of us present—but which are ritually repeated at set times. These things give meaningful shape to our experience of time and space, and the most meaningful of these rituals take narrative form.

One of the great lies told about worship services is that it’s the same old crap every Sunday. In one sense, that’s true. Liturgies are cyclical, and they draw upon the same source material week after week, year after year, century after century. Yet. With each week, year, century, millennium, this circumscribed time with its own circumscribed set of conventions is made new by the fact that those present—here, now—are never the same. We are always older. Always slightly different. Always experiencing this same time in a new way, filtered by our passage through time. We die. Others take our place. They are not us, but we are them. We are made new by our participation in the ritual, by experiencing collectively a totally unique event that nevertheless replicates a set structure at periodic intervals throughout our lives. The narrative structure of these rituals is what gives narrative structure to our own lives.

Like any conventions, though, the governance of our life-narrative is not totally beholden to dogmatic minutiae. There is room for improvisation and surprise. These are also necessary. There is a certain delight, or perhaps catharsis, that can only be had by bonding together with others in the surprises that unfold themselves within the conventions of ritual. That’s why it’s healthy when someone farts loudly in church. That’s why it’s shocking when a pro ballplayer suffers a career-ending injury on the field. That’s why we know when stand-up comic tells us the truth. Are these things always delightful? Cathartic? Perhaps there are better words. Joy and awe. Rituals are not meant to be dry, empty obligations, but celebrations of being alive, and they are meant to inspire gratitude that we are alive to recognize meaning in this moment: here, now, together.

Rituals build communities, and communities thrive on ritual. That is true for individuals, families, villages, nations. It’s true that my wife and I simply don’t have the wherewithal at present to be active in the online Critter community. For now, though, we have made a commitment of time and treasure to experience Critical Role as it streams each week. It is something we cannot pilfer or reproduce and retain quite the same meaning. In finally subscribing to one of our favorite shows, we have finally begun to participate, however marginally, in a ritual that makes the lives of thousands, una communitas sine finibus, just that much more vibrant.☕

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[1] I don’t count Doctor Who, which we typically get from Amazon the day after each episode airs. That’s pretty close, but not really the same thing as watching it as it’s broadcast.

[2] I’ve written very critically about utopia in the past. I’ve changed my previous position on utopianism about 165 degrees. Someday, perhaps, I may elaborate. Suffice it to say that I think utopian hope and utopian process are necessary components of any thriving community. I agree with Ernst Bloch that anti-utopianism tends to stifle positive social change; I disagree with any utopian theorist who views the shoring up of inherited traditions as inherently regressive, weak utopianism or as anti-utopian.


Quote of the week: Williams on “the new social world”

The critical demystification has indeed to continue, but always in association with practice: regular practice, as part of a normal education, in this transforming labour process itself: practice in the production of alternative ‘images’ of the ‘same event’; practice in processes of basic editing and the making of sequences; practice, following this in direct autonomous composition.

We shall already have entered a new social world when we have brought the means and systems of the most direct communication under our own direct and general control. We shall have transformed them from their normal contemporary functions as commodities or as elements of a power structure. We shall have recovered these central elements of our social production from the many kinds of expropriator. But socialism is not only about the theoretical and practical ‘recovery’ of those means of production, including the means of communicative production, which has been expropriated by capitalism. In the case of communications, especially, it is not only, though it may certainly include, the recovery of a ‘primitive’ directness and community. Even in the direct modes, it should be institution much more than recovery, for it will have to include the transforming elements of access and extension over an unprecedentedly wide social and inter-cultural range. — Raymond Williams, from “Means of Communication as Means of Production”

If I were ever to teach a class on film, this would probably be a required text. Williams goes a long way toward clarifying the social importance to every level of society of understanding media. ☕


Whitewatching: up from “underground”

Impish as usual, Armond White’s latest dual review (a common device with him, in which two recent releases are presented as “dueling” for the soul of American pop culture) contrasts Steven Soderbergh’s alleged swan song, Side Effects, with Walter Hill’s latest, Bullet to the Head (which, given Hill’s age and its box office, might turn out to be his big screen swan song as well). What stood out to me in the review was this sentence:

Soderbergh’s Traffic, Erin Brokovich and Magic Mike belong to an era of cynical banality while Hill’s sharp, inventive technique seen in The Warriors, Geronimo and Undisputed went unappreciated (and underground in TV projects like Deadwood and Broken Trail).

Most film critics now pay lip service to the notion that television series have progressed to the point of being on par in quality with the average feature film. White is one of the old school holdouts who frequently peppers his reviews with sleights against TV in the form of pejorative references: if he thinks a film looks like crap, he’ll say it uses “TV aesthetics” or something along those lines. Of anybody working in his field, White is unquestionably the most candid about his prejudices. He thinks cinema is where it’s at, television is not, and that’s that. For this (among many, many other things), he takes a lot of flack. Justifiably so.

Yet I think it’s true that, while most folks would readily acknowledge TV’s ascendancy over the course of the last fifteen years or so, its newfound mantle as a viable medium for sophisticated art is not yet cemented. For one thing, there are very few shows that have attained what you might call canonical status. Even “classic” shows are usually framed in the context of their time, both in terms of the storytelling conventions adopted, but also budgets and available technology. The lexicon of cinema is very well documented by superb critics and widely accepted as a form of high art. The lexicon of TV, while almost as well documented, is not accepted as a form of high art, and there are very few critics who have made their names doing TV criticism. In most respects, TV criticism is from a fan perspective, rather than a critical perspective. There are many shows considered to be “favorites,” but very few considered to be “greats.”

This is evident in the non-presence of TV references in most film criticism up to the present. While shows like The Wire and The Sopranos are oft-cited as examples of shows that created benchmarks of quality — and thus are often represented in reviews of crime stories — it is not apparent precisely why those shows are benchmarks. At least, not in the context of the reviews in which they appear. Ben Affleck’s The Town invited comparisons to The Wire when it came out, but few critics teased those out. The Evening Standard and The Guardian were content simply to name-drop the series. The World Socialist Web Site asserted that the film didn’t have the show’s depth. Not that comparisons to films like The Departed or Heat are less relevant, but apart from both being crime genre and both fuzzing the moral/ethical line between cops and criminals, what are the relevant points of comparison between The Town and The Wire? Are there similar characters? Plotlines? Techniques? Even on a thematic level, do The Town and The Wire even overlap in their perspectives on the whole cop/criminal dichotomy?

This is typical of how film critics grapple with the relationship between TV and cinema. It is as if critics are aware that there is such a thing as TV; they are familiar with some several programs that they watch, or about which they’ve heard from friends, colleagues, or the buzz in the critical ether; they’ve noted the uptick in production values and aesthetic rigor in TV programming. Yet they don’t really know precisely how to merge the two worlds. So you often find TV references dangling just above the surface of film criticism, serving the purpose of telegraphing that the critics are pop culture savvy, without bothering to engage in any meaningful way with that hemisphere of the culture that keeps millions glued to their TV screens every night.

If I may inch out a little further on this limb before a chipmunk’s sneeze knocks me off, allow me to suggest that this is evidence of a prejudice that critics still harbor about television. Not just critics: us, too. I don’t doubt for a minute that most of us, if we’re honest, would acknowledge that the standards we have for TV shows are a bit lower than the standards we hold for cinema. And not just because of the vast differences still intrinsic to the two media. It’s because that’s simply how the culture views them. For all our protestations and bluster, it is my distinct impression that TV is regarded as the lesser medium. To be crude: cinema is for art; TV is for entertainment.

We all know that it isn’t that simple, though; we know it isn’t entirely true. Even a staunch TV-phobe like White is occasionally confronted by the limits of his prejudice. His Zero Dark Thirty review compares the film to “the bland procedural manner TV viewers favor,” suggesting that it’s not so much a case that there are bland procedurals on TV, but that it is the people who like to watch TV that favor bland procedurals. In his review of Silver Linings, he says, “TV shows like Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men and The New Normal turn everyday eccentricity banal.” Skim White’s reviews for yourself. Chances are, every time you find a reference to television, it is in the context of implying its erosion of good taste and standards. Yet when it comes to Walter Hill’s forays into TV Land, all of a sudden TV is “underground.” Banal, bland television gains a potentially subversive edge when the right person uses it. A medium utilized nearly four hours a day by almost all Americans is, by this formulation, veritably avant-garde.

As easy as it is to nitpick the consistency of White’s peccadilloes, in this instance, I think he’s fairly representative of his profession. There are dozens and dozens of TV critics out there who have been doing amazing stuff with their criticism (Alyssa Rosenberg does exceptional TV criticism, for instance), but film still gets the lion’s share of the physical ink, and it still occupies the place of pride in the hierarchy of artistic pop cultural pursuits. Just because this is the way things are does not mean that TV is “underground.” On the contrary. What would be useful, however, would be for film critics to start integrating TV into their discussion a little more proactively. Nobody knows for certain how technology will evolve, but it looks likely that TV and film are going to overlap a lot more in the future, so getting ahead of that curve would be a smart idea for film critics who don’t want to specialize themselves into irrelevance. The first step would be to recognize television’s potential and to start sifting through how much of that potential has been historically realized. Many critics have already begun doing this. I hope White and his kind come in from the cold sooner rather than later. ☕


Reader question: Should Christian movies be more “indie”?

I thought I’d try ye olde blogging standby of answering reader questions in the form of standalone posts. If you have a question you’d like me to consider blogging about, please let me know. The first question comes from Kyle, who posted the following:

I didn’t know where else to post this, but: SERIOUSLY? Nicolas Cage in the new Left Behind movie? Like what?

Sure, their getting hollywood in there, but…..this is not what I want for Christian movies. I think they should stay indie, and try to be innovative JUST like indie films. Continue reading


P. T. Anderson: a narrative of tracking shots

At the BFI’s Sight and Sound, Kevin B. Lee has put together a video essay analyzing five representative tracking shots from Paul Thomas Anderson’s career, explaining how they function as storytelling techniques, and situating them in the context of his development as an auteur. It’s a great video, and I urge you to watch it (and don’t worry — there aren’t any spoilers, if you haven’t seen all the films discussed). One aspect upon which I’d like to comment a bit further is that Lee never uses the word auteur, either in the video or in the accompanying written introduction. Instead, by emphasizing the narrative of Anderson’s development as a filmmaker, he constructs a teleological narrative, one which tells the story of a young, brash, ambitious artist evolving into an older, just as ambitious, but more contemplative and subtle filmmaker. This raises a number of problematic issues which require some elaboration. Continue reading


The dialectic of elections

“Today only [stereotyped] thinking is left. People still vote, but only between totalities. The anti-Semitic psychology has largely been replaced by mere acceptance of the whole fascist ticket, which is an inventory of the slogans of belligerent big business. Just as, on the ballot paper of the mass party, voters are presented with the names of people remote from their experience for whom they can only vote en bloc, the central ideological concepts have been codified into a small number of lists. One has to opt for one of them en bloc if one’s own position is not to seem as futile as splinter votes on polling day in face of the statistical mammoths.” – Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, from “Elements of Anti-Semitism: Limits of Enlightenment” in The Dialectic of Enlightenment

Adorno and Horkheimer were writing in the long shadow of Hitler’s Germany, from which they fled along with almost all of their colleagues in the years leading up to the Second World War. The book from which the above quote is excerpted is a critique of the prevailing philosophy of civilization, one that, in the view of the authors, divides society into individuals (who worship at the altar of individuality), then forces conformity upon them (the better to control them as a collective mass). In the context of the chapter from which that quote is taken, Adorno and Horkheimer argue that anti-Semitism is essentially a symptom of the larger disease, not the cancer itself. Anti-Semitism is an expression of a cultural phenomenon that could be filled by virtually any other attitude that projects fear and self-loathing onto Difference.

What struck me about this particular passage is how uncannily — minus the period-specific references to anti-Semitism and fascism (which was, please remember, considered to be a viable and progressive political philosophy in the early 20th century) — it describes the election politics of the United States in the 21st century. One of the central themes of The Dialectic of Enlightenment is how sameness and conformity preserve the power structure of society by offering the illusion of choice to the average joe. This applies as equally to brands of soup as it does political parties. You don’t have to be a Marxist to appreciate just how much capital (cultural, economic, psychological) has been concentrated in the hands of America’s two biggest parties, and the myriad ways in which that power is wielded by both the parties’ gamesmanship and the sheer inertia of the system against the interests of the individual voters.

By dividing America in twain, the Democrats and Republicans haven’t offered choices to its citizens; they’ve categorized them as being One or the Other. If you are merely One or the Other, then you have little choice but to vote accordingly, which amounts to no choice at all. Whatever the differences between the two parties, consider that they and they alone have — together — monopolized the political establishment of this country for more than 150 years. In their theatrical struggle for power, they have exonerated the use of power itself as a political means. This is why you can hear each party claiming to “Take back America!” as if it had been stolen overnight from its crib.

Despite the changes in cultural values and their respective platforms, both parties have remained. Only those with money can gain entrance to the machine, and only those willing to perpetuate the false (that is, fraudulent) dichotomy as The Real Choice are permitted to stay. Every election is The Most Important Election in Our Lifetime. Only by giving a Mandate to Our Party can Real Change begin. The Others want to Destroy Your Country. Only We are Fighting to Preserve the Real America. Each is defined in opposition to the other, but it’s not a real contest: it’s two bullies dividing the class’s lunch money evenly between them, then flipping for that last quarter. The beauty of it is that they’ve convinced the rest of us that we actually have a stake in whether it lands heads or tails.

I’m not a Adorno/Horkheimer acolyte. But the pessimism exemplified in that quote articulates very well the frustration I feel regarding Decision 2012. It’s not a decision; it’s a coin toss. Worse than that, I know that the machine has won. Instead of seeing elections as an opportunity to direct their own political fate, the American people continue to treat election for political office as a beauty pageant. Good thing, too. We all know that the most valuable quality in an administrator is how often we’d like to have him over for a beer. The personal touch has been mechanized and commodified. In an age when the voice and image of a single person can be disseminated across thousands of miles to thousands of people via wires and electric pulses, it must be reassuring that it’s so easy to believe that, hey, I could easily imagine myself being that guy’s friend! He doesn’t even need to threaten me for my lunch money: I’ll hand it over gladly, because maybe he’ll see me for who I really am. I think he gets me, man. He really cares.

Why else would partisans work the phones on behalf of “Mitt” or “Barack”?

One more riposte from H & A. Substitute “industry” for “the two parties” and “customers and employees” for “voters and campaign volunteers.”

“Industry is interested in human beings only as its customers and employees and has in fact reduced humanity as a whole, like each of its elements, to this exhaustive formula. […] As employees people are reminded of the rational organization and must fit into it as common sense requires. As customers they are regaled, whether on the screen or in the press, with human interest stories demonstrating freedom of choice and the charm of not belonging to the system. In both cases they remain objects.” – Horkheimer and Adorno, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” from The Dialectic of Enlightenment

Yep, they care, all right. You’d look just darling up on the shelf with their collectible Furbies.☕


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