Stationary Wandering

Guest post by: Ain Bailey

She makes lists of fantastic things. Scrawls improbabilities on crisp sheets of unlined white paper, or yellow tablets, creased and lined. It doesn’t matter which, she is merely daydreaming. Nonchalantly she admires the slant of her letters or the swirls of her words, downplaying the concepts behind them. She focuses on her penmanship and distances herself from ideas that ache.

She thinks maybe she is hungry for milestones. Eager for big events to mark the passage of time, to document her evolution, to prove that she is moving forward in the world. What else could it be? She was not the child who grew up believing in fairy tales. She did not fancy herself the sleeping princess nor the one locked in a tower waiting to be saved. Her hair was not overly long and golden and her father was not king. If she had any part in make believe stories, she was a fairy or a mermaid; petite, autonomous, unattached and free or a unicorn; rare, ancient and alone.

In her past there was no thought of love and its attendant minions. To her weddings, marriage, baby showers, and all that came after, were not even real enough to be fantasies. Now these themes spill into her most mundane moments, caress her face distractingly, when she is focused on other things. It is a tickle, a distant glimmer, an un-sneezed sneeze.

Maybe she is just seeking tradition, longing for special events to break the monotony and give her something to anticipate. When she thinks about it a part of her does ache to bring magic back to a Christmas ruined by retail work, by far-flung family, by growing up. She imagines her preoccupation with love is because she wants something to look forward to.

Some meaning that can turn a random Tuesday, or weekend, into something more. This is not a thing she will analyze because it is not something she can control anyway. This is one thing she cannot do alone.

In her youth, she envisioned a future as a single mom, shepherding her two children from school to home. When she even thought about it, at three year intervals, maybe four. She used to wonder then if she would remember being twelve and imagining herself at thirty with her children’s school aged hands held tightly in hers. She is thirty now and there are no children, no prospect or planning for them either. She starts to feel wistful, disappointed and maybe just a little old, until she remembers that nothing about her life now, is how she imagined it then. Small relief, but enough to push the question away.

Maybe she just wants to belong, to someone, to something. She doesn’t believe in cliques, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t need one. Maybe that is the reason why her pens run so quickly out of ink. She daydreams family, a small and new one, creating itself as it goes. She dreams of holidays that belong to only them. Plots them out on the calendar so that they fill in the days that society chooses not to celebrate. She names them, and then forgets the names.  She writes them down and then scribbles over them until it is like they never existed.

She dreams of vow renewals although she has never even been asked to speak them for a first time. She dreams of honeymoons each year, although she has yet to have the original one. She plans her wedding makeup and chooses wedding dresses in her head, accounting for her body type, of course. Her fantasies are realer than she would ever admit. But she is not admitting anything at all. She is nothing if not a realist.

She wonders if she should have stayed with those who were ready, who would have spoken, and meant in their way, the words she is just beginning to realize she wants to hear. Could she have swallowed her discontent for the promise of a dream that never used to exist and is still forming? Would that have been better than how she feels now, untethered?

She does not write these questions down. She is not analyzing this thing. Only scribbling meaningless words on the borders of pages and imagining how it might feel to believe in magic.

The Tao of Ashton

 

Guest post by Matt Huttner

The stage is set. We are at the Teen Choice Awards, which, if I remember my classics, Dante referred to as the 6th Layer of Hell, and Ashton Kutcher steps up to the plate to deliver what will undoubtedly be absolute drivel. This is the star of such cinematic gems as Dude, Where’s My Car? and My Boss’s Daughter, a man whose scene-chewing acting cannot stand up to the likes of Cameron Diaz and Katherine Heigl. He has just been handed a strangely appropriate giant surf board, and turns to address his adoring fans. The content of this speech should fall safely between ‘Woooo! ” and” Yeaaahhh!” What does he do?

He fucking KILLS it. His speech is insightful, structured, and important. He speaks with a passion and clarity rarely seen anywhere, let alone in D list celebs. He is self-deprecating and honest, and delivers a message that should and will inspire a generation of future leaders.

Now, I had heard that Ashton was branching out as a tech investor, but I assumed that was the typical vanity project of an overly-capitalized star. We no longer just have to contend with celebrities going after the acting-singing-modeling trifecta (see Murphy, Eddie and the seminal “My Girl Wants to Party All the Time”) but nowadays when Snoop Dogg runs a Pop Warner football team or Britney launches a new fragrance, no one bats an eye. These ventures are usually successful, but only in the way that things powered by unlimited money and global fame often are.

Ladies and gentlemen, this changes everything. If Ashton possesses this kind of talent, we need to move quickly. Let’s bring in Seann William Scott to hear his thoughts on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Do you think Gucci Mane is available for the next carbon offset summit? Hell, Dennis Rodman is already helping out with the North Korea situation.

What are the takeaways from Chris Ashton Kutcher’s breakout performance? First of all, although he summed it up far more eloquently than I will, the principles of his speech are worth repeating here: opportunity looks like hard work, smart is sexy, and build a life, don’t just live one. Really powerful stuff.

From a higher level, if you’ll indulge me in a conceit, I think this teaches all of us to ask the following question: what if Ashton Kutcher’s career up to this point, or any other inexplicable annoyance in our lives, is nothing more than akin to drinking a warm can of PBR beer? Hear me out.

Many of us, in our vulnerable early teenage years, are introduced to drinking via bargain-basement, terrible beer. And indeed, smuggled cans of Natty Ice furtively chugged in the back of Teddy Lee’s Subaru are just gross. Unless you can appreciate them as the first steps of a life-long journey; as a rite of passage that might lead to a rich, nuanced world of adult pleasure.

Going forward, when I encounter something obviously offensive (much like almost all of Kutcher’s movies), I’m going to pause for just a minute. What if this is heading somewhere? What if this actor, musician, artist, teacher, coworker, or parent has a deeper level, and all it will take is a few face-twisting swigs before I can get to it?

All of us are guilty of pigeonholing people, most of all ourselves. I’m not saying everything has a silver lining, and this is certainly not another tired plea for you to be nicer to that geek in high-school, because one day he will be a wealthy entrepreneur. Or to go ahead and rewatch the Fast and the Furious heptalogy to mine undiscovered genius. Spoiler alert; Paul Walker is a moron.

But it is a call to seek talent in unexpected places and keep an open mind. I for one am now examining my own life, and seeing where and how I can completely step out of the ways I have previously defined my personality, lifestyle, and career and surprise everyone in a positive way.

Play: The Last of Us

How the Best Zombie Movie of the Last Decade Could be a Video Game

Guest post by Ryan Ring

There is hope in video games, and I have seen it in one of the most bleak and hopeless places imaginable; no, not Detroit, but rather post-Apocalyptic America as depicted in The Last of Us.  A lot has been made of the increasing status of video games as a form of entertainment, and even a form of artistic expression (though I would argue there has been “Art” in video games since, in 1983, Shigeru Miyamoto introduced the most famous Italian brothers this side of the Corleones).  However, despite this tantalizing tagline, few games have really been able to transcend the limitations of their platform, and gaming culture in general, to deliver something that is truly culturally significant from a storytelling perspective.  In fact, those games that have broke into the cultural consciousness have done so for purely superficial reasons (extreme violence, new technology, commercial success, etc.) instead of for their artistic viability.  That is, until now.

There are already innumerable articles on the merits of The Last of Us as a game, and it is a great game, but my intent here is to focus on the merits of its story rather than its gameplay, and what it could mean for video games as cinema.  Now, I fall in the camp of people who don’t believe spoilers ruin a viewing/reading/playing experience, but before I go on, I should mention it will be difficult to discuss this game without divulging some of the critical plot points and events in the game, so you should assume from this point forward there will be some spoilers, though I will attempt to limit their impact.

For those of you unfamiliar with The Last of Us, the story is roughly a mix of Children of Men, The Road, and 28 Days Later (if that doesn’t entice you, I don’t know what will).  The story takes place after the fall of civilization to a progressive fungal infection that causes hyper-aggression in the host, and the declaration of martial law in what few American cities are left standing.  The player assumes the role of Joel, a grizzled Texan smuggler in the Boston Quarantine Zone, who has never quite recovered from the untimely demise of his teenage daughter 20 years earlier at the hands of a conflicted soldier (witnessed in the gut-wrenching opening scenes of the game).  Through a confluence of circumstances, Joel and his smuggling partner Tess are entrusted by the leader of the “Firefly” rebellion group to transport a young QZ inhabitant, Ellie, to safety.   As it would turn out, Ellie is immune to the fungal infection plaguing mankind and represents humanity’s sole hope for vaccination.  As one would expect, things go awry, the Fireflies fail to make the meet, Tess dies, and Joel is left trying to figure out what to do with this girl he never wanted to be responsible for in the first place.

This all sounds dangerously cliché, but the game navigates banality surprisingly well by skirting overt analogies between Ellie and Joel’s deceased daughter and playing on Joel’s role as something of an anti-hero in what winds up being one of the most expansive and rewarding post-Apocalyptic stories in recent memory.  As such, The Last of Us has shown the potential for the video game medium to provide a viable alternative to big-box Hollywood and all it’s trappings.  One of the major limitations encountered in most video games is the shoddy voice acting, and the seeming disregard for a coherent story.  Some games even pride themselves on the ability for the gamer to determine the outcome of the plot through multiple endings.  Not so for The Last of Us on both accounts.  The voice acting for the main roles is impeccable and the script is subtle and smart.  The cinema isn’t limited to cinematic “cut scenes” either, but is sometimes delivered through in-game conversations and cinematic sequences.  The story is also surprisingly tight, and the inherent length of an epic game like this (anywhere between 12 – 15 hours) allows the writers to fully flesh out the slow progression of the relationship between Joel and Ellie in a realistic and complex way.  The dynamics of that relationship are elegantly mirrored by juxtaposition within the mise-en-scene.   As Joel and Ellie traverse ruined America, they don’t only encounter toddler-size corpses, hanged military officials, anthropophagist butcheries, and other grim scenes, but also settings of sublime beauty like when Ellie stalks a wounded buck through a snow covered wood.  The mood is further accentuated by a superb and understated score by Gustavo Alfredo Santaolalla (Babel, Brokeback Mountain).   It’s apparent the importance of atmospheric details was not lost on the game’s creators.

This brings me to the central question:  What does The Last of Us mean for the viability of video games as an alternative storytelling medium?  As with anything, there are positives and negatives.  A significant problem of course is not everyone has the equipment or the time to play, let alone beat, an epic game like this.  Similarly, the narrative is necessarily spasmodic.  A game must still be a game, after all, and you can hardly avoid the narratively superfluous tutorials, combat sequences, and puzzles present in most games.  In addition, any non-playing spectators would probably be bored to death as my character stumbled through dead ends looking for loot or sat still for five minutes trying to stealthily kill an unsuspecting marauder.

However, despite these drawbacks, there are notable advantages to this platform as well.  Video games, while still subject to some Hollywood-style commercial considerations, seem to suffer from fewer limitations when it comes to subject matter and commercial appeal, at least in terms of story.  In the case of The Last of Us, the content is extremely challenging and at times downright disturbing.  In one scene, the player assumes control of Ellie in a situation where one false step (literally) can lead to her nearly being chopped in half with a machete in a gruesome death sequence.  The game uses this unsparing brutality as tastefully as possible and as a measure to demonstrate the stakes at play at any given time.  The player cannot be certain that either Joel or Ellie will make it to the end of the game, and even if they do, you’ll probably have to witness them perish in any number of ways before you get there.  As such, games in general can offer a level of suspense and uncertainty most conventional films fail to match.  Moreover, the plot of The Last of Us itself resolves in a morally ambiguous way that I find it hard to believe would ever make it through the major motion picture studio screening process.

This is not to say that I believe video games will come to replace movies as visual media, and the realm of games is certainly no stranger to unending reams of sequels and unoriginal properties.  Yet perhaps works like The Last of Us will be the vanguard of a new generation of video games with artistic sensibilities, a refuge for those of us craving original thought, creative storytelling, and ultimately inspiration.  Of course, The Last of Us also teaches us that hope can kill, so until the day the industry regularly releases games of this caliber we will just have to “endure and survive.”