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May
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Arrested Development Season 4 — Identity

SPOILERS

Watching season 4 of Arrested Development, I started to notice two closely-related themes. The first is “rights.” Specifically, having the rights to your story, or your identity. The second is “impersonation.” At some point in season 4, nearly every character either impersonates someone else or takes on a new identity, and learns something about themselves in the process. It’s this ubiquitous impersonating that I want to talk about here. Note that in nearly every case, the impersonation fails in some fundamental way. These are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head:

George/Oscar: In the past, George has always controlled how and when Oscar is mistaken for him. But now, thanks to the maca, or whatever else is affecting George’s hormones, their roles have been reversed, and now Oscar is impersonating George Sr. of his own accord. George has lost control of his identity, and Oscar has taken it. Note that Oscar’s identity is irrelevant. It’s only George’s that comes into play.

G.O.B./Tony Wonder: In order for G.O.B. and Tony Wonder to fully realize their feelings for each other, each has to impersonate the other, which leads to what must surely be the most narcissistic consensual sexual act in history.

G.O.B. also takes on the persona of “Getaway” and has a song written about him as a result, but the role of Getaway is a massive failure.

George Michael: In a more traditional form of impersonation, George Michael becomes the Internet genius George Maharis, who is able to date actresses and create million-dollar startups, while the real George Michael simply wants to prove to the world what an amazing woodblock performer he is.

Maebe impersonates a guru in order to tell Lindsay how she really feels about her, but in order to pass as a guru, she must use language that her mother is incapable of understanding.

Lindsay, of course, puts on a wig and masquerades as Cindy Featherbottom, combining the names of an ostrich and her husband’s Mrs. Doubtfire ripoff identity. In doing so, she frees herself to realize that her liberalism has always been an act of defiance, and not her actual identity. She’s one of the few characters to have a victory, in that she finally removes her wig and proudly announces that she is Lindsay Bluth.

Tobias becomes all of the following: The Thing, Rock Monster, a Registered Sex Offender, a Theralist, and the The Invisible Girl. Tobias is so caught up in playing roles that he is utterly oblivious to everything going on around him. His entire life is a neverending “yes, and…” improv nightmare.

Lucille/Lucille 2: In previous seasons, it was always a given that Lucille Austero was the secondary Lucille, but now the tables have turned. In fact, in Austerity, Lucille Bluth is referred to explicitly as Lucille 2. Even Oscar’s affections switch Lucilles.

And of course, there’s Andy Richter, whose quintuplet brothers are constantly impersonating each other.

Have I missed any?

Jan
5th
Sat
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On Looper

Okay, so Rian Johnson asked me to explain my criticism of Looper. I was just mouthing off on Twitter, like you do, and then suddenly there’s the writer/director of the film questioning my half-ass bitching about his film. Now, this is not what I would do, but he turned out to be pretty decent about it given what a dick I was, so decided that it was worth it to go a little deeper and provide a writerly critique. By “writerly” I mean that if a friend showed me this movie and asked me for my feedback before he sent it to his agent, here is more or less what I’d say. [Spoiler: It turns out that the more I thought about it, the more I liked it, and I end up eating crow.]

First off, there are many things I quite liked about the movie. All of the social sf stuff was interesting and well-handled. The world felt lived-in and established. The fear and uncertainty of this post-depression world are palpable, and go a long way to explaining why our protagonist is who he is. The directing is spry, lean, and the film is gorgeous to look at. And fucking hell. Bruce Willis, right?

On twitter, I bitched about the “jaw-clenchingly sloppy” time-travel stuff, and I accused it of not adhering to a “strictly-defined set of plot rules.” I wasn’t expecting to have to defend those remarks, but guess what? It’s the 21st century and what you say in public is open to discussion. I wasn’t even drunk. I was just tired and in a bad mood. In retrospect, both of those statements are incorrect. But something about the film bugged me, so what was it?

There is nothing whatsoever sloppy about the plot of Looper. It’s very carefully crafted.  It’s not the “rules of the plot” that bug me. What bugs me has to do with causality, and how it’s represented in Hollywood films about time-travel.

***SPOILER***

There’s a very clever scene early in the flim (mild spoiler here) in which a fleeing man from the future is abducted. The bad guys catch him by torturing his younger self, thus crippling him in the future. The conceit of the film, we come to learn, is that the past can be rewritten, and when we rewrite the past, the effects of that rewriting immediately overtake the events of someone who has returned from the future. Strictly as a storytelling device, there’s very little problem with this, I don’t think. Back to the Future employed essentially the same tactic: make changes in the past and those changes are immediately reflected in the history of someone visiting from the future. If we’re doing “time travel qua magic” which is essentially what’s happening here (and which is the only kind you can do, obviously) then you’re in the clear. There’s nothing wrong with the plot.

And the movie tells us this. Bruce Willis practically breaks the fourth wall in the diner scene explaining to his younger self that the temporal dynamics aren’t the point. He smacks the table and talks derisively about drawing diagrams. (And as he does so, dozens of fans of the movie Primer look down at their extensive diagrams and weep for their lost youth.)

**HEAVY SPOILER**

So, fine. I admit it, Rian. You’re off the hook. You have defeated me. When I go back and think about all the things that I thought were plot holes, I realized that they’re all allowed in this framework. I think the word “sloppy” comes up because this framework covers a lot of sins. How was Bruce Willis able to return to the past in two entirely different ways: first hooded, and second not hooded? Which one “actually” happened? Well, the past was rewritten at some point along the line so we don’t have to worry about such things. We don’t have to draw the Feynman diagram for this because it doesn’t fucking matter. Hell, maybe it makes perfect sense, but I’ll never know because I’d have to be insane to want to work it out. See what I mean?

Two paragraphs of hair-splitting ensue:

1. What ultimately disturbs me about this, though—and I openly admit that this is some nerdy shit—is that it creates problems with actual physics and actual causality. Let’s say that I have written a note to my future self by scrawling it with a knife into my arm. The plot logic tells me that the future has now been changed, and that now it is always true that Joe has had this scar on his arm from the time he was in his mid-twenties. Simultaneously, the scar from that event appears on Old Joe’s arm. But since this event now must always have been true, it should be no surprise whatsoever that Old Joe has this scar on his arm because he has had it for thirty years. In other words, there is some timeline in which it is true that Joe’s cut has healed into scars. It must be true because we see the scars. But the plot requires that Old Joe not be aware of this scar until the moment in the past that its causal wound has been incised. So whose scar healed? Not young Joe, because he shot himself in a field. Not Old Joe, because the whole times we’ve seen him, he hasn’t had that scar.

2. Now, you might say, “But the past has been changed just now, so it’s only just now that he has that scar.” And you’d be right. But now he has always had that scar, so he should have the concomitant years-long memory of the scar, and — and here’s the point of all this— this memory should affect how he now behaves. The physical scar must also engender a thirty-year knowledge of that scar’s existence, giving the new version of Old Joe an abundance of new information. But it doesn’t. He behaves as thought the scar has only just appeared. The logic of causality doesn’t allow you to have it both ways. 

But here’s the problem with the laws of causality and those of us who get real worked up about them: time travel breaks them out of the gate. So if you want to tell a fun time travel story, you have to tell logic to fuck off at some point. And you don’t get proper causality and a fun movie.

You can approximate it, but then you end up with Primer. Primer is a very difficult movie to watch. I thought it was really smart. But was it fun? I enjoyed Looper much more than I enjoyed Primer. I might argue that Primer is the greater artistic success, but then again, I’m a guy who once wrote a comic with an anthropomorphic taco in it, so “art” clearly isn’t something I know about or aspire to.

So that’s what I think about that.

As to Poul Anderson’s “only one fantastic assumption” rule. I think it’s a good, smart rule. I think that rules exist for a reason, and I think you should also immediately break them whenever it’s convenient for you to do so.

(What we mean, by the way, by “only one fantastic assumption” is that in an sfnal story, it’s a bad idea to significantly alter the world in more than one way. In the case of Looper, the “real world” is violated in two ways: time-travel, and telekinesis. )

Here’s the reason that the breakage of this rule bothered me in Looper. The message that I took away from the film is this: being given a second chance can save you from self-damnation. All three main characters exemplify this theme: young Joe gives Cid (the little kid) a second chance by blowing away his older self. Old Joe is given a second chance by his future wife (not to be confused with Lisa, Johnny’s “future wife” in The Room (if you don’t get that, you really need to watch The Room)). And of course Sara (Emily Blunt) has been given a second chance as a mother. The character stuff is all very well done here and Johnson never bashes you over the head with it. (As you can see, I’m talking myself into liking this goddamn movie the more I think about it.) 

What does that have to do with breaking a rule of science fiction, though? Here’s what: time travel is the “fantastic assumption” that illuminates the theme of the film. It does so beautifully in the film’s climax, by tying all three main characters’ second chances together in a single tableau. (Fuck you, Johnson. I admit it. It’s a good movie.)

Telekinesis, however, does not do this. It’s not thematically related to anything, so far as I can tell. It serves the plot only obliquely, by creating future Cid as a terrifying boogeyman who sets the events of the film in motion. But it’s not necessary. Cid could have just grown up to have been a really vicious guy and it wouldn’t have changed the film any, from what I can tell. In other words, the fantastic assumption of telekinesis is irrelevant to the plot.

Is it cool? Sure. It, and its effect on society is beautifully portrayed when Sara is talking to Joe about how TK men hit on her and how she stymies them with her more powerful telekinesis. And it makes for a super badass climax with some really bitchin’ sfx. I didn’t understand, however, what any of this had to do with a movie about second chances. Was there a secondary theme running through the film that I missed? (It’s possible; I’m pretty stupid.) Was it just there to be cool, and it didn’t need another reason? (Not everything needs a reason.)

Either way it would have been fine. But here’s why it rubbed me the wrong way: it created in me an expectation that telekinesis was going to relate to the primary theme of the film, and/or that telekinesis and time travel were going to be correlated in some way by the plot, because I have internalized the rule of only one fantastic assumption (sometimes being a writer can fuck up your culture ingesting experience). We can’t hold filmmakers responsible for all of our misperceptions, but on the other hand, the job of a storyteller is to keep stupid people like me from getting false expectations. So when my expectation didn’t quite pay off, I was disappointed.

Here’s my question. When Young Joe makes his character-defining choice, he does so by shooting himself in the chest. It seemed to me, even at that moment, that he could have achieved the same effect by simply shooting off his own hand. This would have forced Bruce Willis to drop his gun, giving Young Joe time to cross the field and dispense with him and not die in the process. The reason I ask is that it seems to me like a plausible solution to the problem that allows the movie to have a happy ending, and also allows the first person narrator to not be narrating from the grave, which is something that always takes me out of a story. Plausible enough to think that it might have been a contender for an alternate “Hollywood” ending, and I wonder if it ever occurred to anyone.

Okay, there it is. I take it back. I’m man enough to admit that Looper is a good movie. It hangs together as a story. We can agree to disagree about the finer points of causality and the  ”fantastic assumptions” thing, but ultimately that’s probably inside baseball stuff that nobody who’s not a writer even cared about.

Fine, then.

Looper is currently available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and probably Target and Wal-Mart, too, although I watched it on Amazon Instant Video because I could do that without standing up. It stars the kid from 3rd Rock from the Sun, Bruce Willis, and Jeff Daniels. As a bad guy

Jan
4th
Fri
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I Have Fixed the Plot of The Matrix

If someone can get me a time machine, I can go back and warn the Wachowskis about the massive and totally avoidable plot mistake in their landmark film The Matrix. While you work out the time machine part, I’ll explain what I mean.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The Matrix is one of my favorite films of all time. Maybe my favorite film of all time. But it has one or two glaring flaws that keep it from being simply perfect, and these imperfections are motes in my eye that demand satisfaction.

Okay, so here’s the problem. There’s a really stupid piece of exposition at the beginning of Act 2, just after Neo has been awoken, and Morpheus is explaining just why it is that the machines keep billions of humans wired, fully conscious, into vast arrays of complex machinery. The reason, he insists, is that the machines, in combination with a form of fusion, are using the human brains as a source of electricity.

This is incredibly stupid for two reasons. The first is that any form of technology that can harness nuclear fusion needs no extra kicker. Once you achieve the ability to control fusion reactions, you’re done. You don’t need anything else. But we all know instinctively that this isn’t the real problem. The “fusion” line was just tossed in as a sop to people who were certain to be nonplussed by the other part.

The problem with using humans as a source of energy is that humans are not a source of energy. Humans are a waste of energy. We take in food calories, and then very inefficiently turn those calories into heat and motion. The brain does indeed generate a bit of electricity, but that’s because it uses that electricity. For thinking with. For something to be an energy source, you have to get more work out of it than you put into it, and that is the opposite of what happens when you keep humans alive. Keeping humans alive takes a lot of effort and no rational machine would bother doing it unless they had some other reason.

(If you wanted to get some electricity back from people for, say, purely retributive purposes, you could put them on giant hamster wheels and force them to run. It would still be utterly inefficient, but you’d get  Regardless, you’d still be far better off simply burning whatever it was you were planning to feed to the human beings. )

Further, if all you needed us for was our brain electricity, you wouldn’t need to keep us conscious. You could simply lobotomize us, or keep us sedated. The Matrix itself is utterly unnecessary.

"Well, pish tosh," you say. "The point isn’t scientific verisimilitude. The point is a poetic one: the users have become the used. Humanity has become enslaved to its own ideas." Trust me, I get it. If all I had was some bitchy complaint about the film I wouldn’t bring this up. But I have something better. 

I have the fix.

Oh, if only I’d been sitting at the next table when the Wachowskis were writing the “battery” stuff on the back of a cocktail napkin in some Chicago bar. I would have politely interrupted and said, “Excuse me. I apologize, but I’ve been overhearing your conversation and I want to point something out.” I would then tactfully explain why their idea was stupid and made no sense, and then I would suggest the following:

The goal of this plot point is twofold. First and foremost, it creates the justification for the incredibly elaborate premise of the film, which is that all of humanity is unknowingly living in a giant simulation. You have to purchase that concept somehow. Second (a distant second, but still) you have to justify it in a way that conforms to the philosophical metaphor of the film, which is that humans have allowed themselves to become cogs in a machine of their own creation (society), which has gotten so far out of hand that it now controls us.

There’s a much better answer than suggesting that humans are being used as batteries. Instead, suggest that humans are being used as computers. One thing that human brains are very good at is processing information. And this they do far more efficiently than computers themselves (current ones, anyway). And it would be believable to insist that these human brains must be conscious in order for the machines to hijack them for their raw computing power. When people are at their jobs, when they’re at church, when they’re navigating a crowded room, what they’re actually doing is solving logic problems for the machines, without even realizing it. Because if they realized it, of course, they wouldn’t do it.

Now, if you posited the above, then the machines would be required to build precisely the apparatus that is shown in the film. Conscious human brains become a precious commodity easily worth keeping them alive and feeding them. The machines’ plan now make sense.

It also fits the metaphor. Better, I think, to be honest. Because now the machines have turned the tables on humanity. Now we are their machines. We are literal tools, simply things to be manipulated. The battery metaphor is a bit miscued, because society hasn’t turned us into an energy source. Society has turned us intodumb thinking machines.

Which is exactly what computers are.

So instead of holding up a Duracell battery, Morpheus simply waves at a banged up old IBM PC. And instead of calling Neo “Copper top”, Switch calls him “Thinkpad.”

Once I explained that, I’m pretty sure the Wachowskis would have made the fix. I mean, come on. But I wasn’t there and I probably wouldn’t have said anything at all because the idea took me almost 14 years to come up with.

And that’s why I need that time machine.

P.S., in case you’re wondering what the other flaw is in The Matrix, it’s a bit more subtle. There’s a line in the script, spoken by Cipher, that reads, “The image translators work for the  construct program.” By this, he means that these image translators are capable of working with the unsophisticated construct program used by our heroes, but it is incapable of rendering the Matrix itself. The line reading, thus, though be, “The image tranlators work for the CONSTRUCT…” But instead, (a most likely confused and overworked) Joe Pantoliano says, “The image translators work FOR the construct,” implying that they are employed by it. If you didn’t notice it before, you will now.

Jan
2nd
Wed
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Out with the Old…

It’s 2013, and that means it’s time to gently nudge aside some concepts and obsessions in order to make room for new ones. Or, in some cases to hurl them aside with such force that they are never seen or heard from again. In no particular, here are the things I would prefer not to encounter in 2013:

  • mustaches. They were fun for a while; they brought to mind images of gents from bygone days, like Victorian druggists, and Tom Selleck. But I think we all know that it got out of hand. Like all fads, its time has come and gone.
  • "amazeballs."
  • bacon. Not bacon per se, because that would be a nightmare, but our obsession with it; our need to wrap things in it, deep fry it, coat it in chocolate. Bacon is a most competent and versatile foodstuff, to be certain. It’s had its solo and it’s ready to step back into the chorus for now. It’s time for another meat to take center stage.
  • Keep Calm and Shut the Fuck Up
  • dubstep. If it’s in a Microsoft commercial, it’s irrevocably tainted. Fortunately, there literally a billion other kinds of electronica.
  • That fucking Gotye song. For the love of Christ.
  • Uggs. It wasn’t funny the first time.
  • Steampunk. I mean, come on already.
  • Adorable ukelele-based music, and anything else that has ever been associated with Zooey Deschanel. Zooey herself is a talented actress and singer, and is encouraged to stick around, but to abandon every current trapping of her personality.
  • the Higgs boson. Sure it’s great that we (probably) found it, but there’s a lot more to physics than just that one elusive particle (which really isn’t even what matters, but rather its associated field). Plus, nobody except actual scientists actually understands what the hell it is anyway.
  • Japanese culture. We get it. You’re weird. Calm the fuck down.
But hey, I’m not just here to hate. Here are some things I’d like to see more of in 2013:
  • cheese. We’ve spent so much time talking about bacon that we’ve pretty much forgotten cheese. Let’s make 2013 the Year of Cheese.
  • saying things with an outrageous French accent. I doubt this will catch on, but it’s something I like to do, and I don’t want to do it alone.
  • gerbils. Gerbils got a bad rap with that urban legend, and it’s not fair. Gerbils are nicer than hamsters and it’s a safe bet that the Tibet-lovin star of An Officer and a Gentleman never actually used them in the manner described anyway. Let us rehabilitate these blameless pets and post pictures of them instead of baby kittens and baby hedgehogs to our various feeds. That, or capybaras—the world’s largest rodent—of whom I’ve been a fan for years.
  • retro science. Let’s get together and talk about superconductors, string theory, chaos theory, fractals, and other stuff that used to get science writers hard but nobody really talks much about outside of actual science. A Cooper pair is just as exciting as any gauge boson.
  • grammar and usage. It could happen, and wouldn’t the world be a better place if it did?

Keep in mind that these are simply my preferences and that if you want to create a totes amazeballs bacon sculpture of Skrillex with a mustache, that’s your business.