The Sacred and the Popular

21 Aug 2015

A couple weeks ago, Bob Chipman’s review of Adam Sandler’s Pixels was making the rounds. His various descriptions of the film are most certainly worth the price of admission (that is, the price of admission to his YouTube channel – Google advertisements – not to the movie itself): “Retro-gamer Jumanji”; “Scott Pilgrim but for assholes”; and “the worst action movie storytelling since Transformers. The second one”. Even if you have no interest in Pixels, nerd culture, or reviews in general, there is something about it that I think will merit a chuckle or two.

Still, the review manages to grate a little bit. It is not, in itself, bad – although it does come from the “angry shouting critic” family of media commentary. Yet even then this appears to be one of those situations where that tone and manner are wholly appropriate. It grates because of what reviews like this have ended up becoming for the broader community of nerds on the Internet.

There is no point in pretending that nerd culture is A: any one thing anymore (if it ever was) and B: some sacred trust that is immune from exploitation and monetization. There have long been (often successful) attempts to, without shame, trawl through precisely the kinds of identities that exist at the margins of popular culture. Pixels is neither the most heinous nor the most abrasive. It is simply the latest. There are those that have felt it necessary to use the phrase ‘cultural appropriation’, but if there is a parallel to be drawn to between Pixels and, say, The Cleveland Indians, the difference in degree is most certainly a vast gulf. Identities are frequently borrowed for the express purpose of making people money and, very often, those people have no connection whatsoever to those identities.

As Wyatt Arndt puts it, “I assume Pixels will be an uninspired, kind of garbage movie, but it appears to be a game now of who can review it the worst”. He’s right, of course, but I suspect that the reason that nerds have come out so vehemently against this film is because we feel personally invested in that which is being appropriated and mocked. For many of us that identity was hard fought and came with a cost; and for others it was that identity which gave us solace when we were otherwise excluded (or excluded ourselves) from our peers. Pixels may be a bad film, but it is made worse because it comes across as an attack on who we were – and, in some way, still are. The characters, the culture, and the ideas belong to us, and when we see them utilized so abjectly comes across as a personal affront to that which we define ourselves as.

The problem is that those nerds grew up and, in a lot of ways, took over. That culture does not exist at the periphery anymore. The popularity of Game of Thrones or Battlestar Galactica is a perfect example. Halo and World of Warcraft too. Nor is the Web any longer a place that we can retreat into to get away from the mainstream. It is the mainstream. Even Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering have become far more popular and widespread than we, in our basements1 as young nerds, could have possibly imagined. The Internet has brought people together from vast distances and permitted collectives to form that would have otherwise been impossible, but along with this bridging of like-minded nerds is the introduction of those cultural artifacts and keystones to a wider audience. It is not that the sacred has become profane, but rather that it has become popular. We have to watch as others take part in our lifestyle, but without the having the tradition or experiences that brought it to us.

Nerd culture was once a battleground and many of us still remember how difficult an experience it was – and now we have to watch as people, as others partake in that which we fought for without any sort of respect for those that came before them. It feels like an attack and so we respond in kind. The problem is that Pixels is not an attack. It’s just another shitty movie, but rather than letting it pass us by and disappear into obscurity we’ve made it a symbol and have transformed it from yet another mindless Adam Sandler flick into an icon that we can rally ourselves against.

It can be fun to rage against entertainment that ends up not being very entertaining. There are video game reviewers that have developed personas entirely around that premise and become quite successful in doing so. For those who are particularly good at it, those reviews end up being a source of entertainment themselves.2 It can be tricky to balance being interesting with being angry with critique. I do not think it unfair to suggest that even those who are experts often end up favoring the first two aspects with their reviews. Honest, thoughtful, and nuanced analysis is tricky enough on its own, so it only becomes more difficult when you are attempting to add the other layers that are necessary for the kind of widespread popularity that is needed to succeed in these businesses.

Chipman’s reviews are a great example. Check out his recent review on Terminator: Genisys. It is a careful navigation of anger, fun, and criticism. He understands not just that the film is bad, but why it fails, what is wrong with it as both a film and an installment within a broader franchise. While you can see that same sort of interpretation with his look at Ant-Man, there is much less of the “angry shouting critic” and much more of the philosopher. Of course, his quieter Ant-Man review has 160,000 views while his Pixels review has 1.9 million. The former is a much stronger piece of criticism; the latter is funnier to watch; and I would go as far to suggest that his Terminator Genisys review is his best at hitting all three of my imagined pillars of review.3 This is not a slag against Chipman or his style, but rather it should be taken as an indication of how hard media critique can be.4 It is much easier to gain popular success by being loud than by being thoughtful.

Of course, this is precisely one of the undercurrents in angry responses to films like Pixels. Nerds do not really have a problem with movies being made about their darlings, but they want those movies to go beyond surface explorations of the culture that they are attempting to participate in.5 It is a desire for writers and directors to stop taking the easy approach and show that they understand what it is that they are making films about. They should be taking care with what they are doing instead of using nerd iconography as a backdrop for some other story. Less Dungeons & Dragons: The Movie, more Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Less Transformers, more Love is Strange. Less Fantastic Four, more The Avengers. Don’t exploit nerds, celebrate them.

I can appreciate that desire, but it seems to be a wholly futile one. The widespread acceptance of our hobbies and imagery means that the film and television industries – among many, many others – are going to attempt to capitalize on that popularity. As a long as there are people willing to watch Terminator Genisys or The Big Bang Theory, those kinds of products are going to be made. Railing angrily (and often incoherently) against them might make us feel good for a spell, but it isn’t doing anything productive.

And that’s okay.

I do not believe that everything needs to have use-value beyond satisfaction. At the same time, understanding the ways that media work (or do not work, as the case may be) is incredibly important. It provides references and frameworks for artists and creators to organize their thoughts in such a way that, with any luck, will make their future creative endeavours better as a result.6 Art is not progressive. That is to say, that novelty does not necessarily ensure that recent works are superior to prior ones, but learning lessons from those that came before allows for unexpected newness to reveal itself. It allows us to find the alien in long-familiar territory. Whether we appreciate particular instances of originality or simply discard it in favour of comfortable traditions, having access to the unexpected is a vital part of the human experience. Further, as I imagine is the case with any good liberal arts major, I believe that being able to make sense of the relationship between a society and its art tells us a great deal. Who we are, as peoples and individuals, is connected to the stories we tell and those that we choose to listen to.

Entertainment for entertainment’s sake may be a fine way for us to consume media, but it seems to me that nerds do not really believe that to be the case. That our stories and symbols should not simply be the subject of a mindless gaze, but rather that authors and directors should take care with these sacred artifacts. Yet we insist on replicating those trespasses onto the stories and symbols of others, because it is precisely that manner that allows us to gain popularity and success. The question, I suppose, is in whether or not we want to be better than that which we are critical of or simply replicate its transgressions for ourselves. It might be foolish of me to suggestion that we, as whatever qualifies as nerds these days, can make a decision together and refuse to engage in that which we hate, but I can make that choice for myself – and do my best to convince others without resorting to the angry theatrics that I find so unpalatable, even if they are an easy method of achieving success.

  1. This is the common shorthand for a shared experience that may never have taken place in people’s basements – although it certainly did in my case.

  2. Jim Sterling and Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw come to mind, but they certainly are not the only examples.

  3. Not that I have seen all his reviews, but I feel that I have bounced around enough his backlog to get a decent sense.

  4. This is all without getting into his “Really That Good” series of reviews, which are exactly what I want from a critical mind: lengthy, thoughtful, and careful explorations of a film and its original context, as well as the changes that arise because of its growing distance from that context.

  5. I acknowledge that I am generalizing here. I don’t pretend to be actually speaking for all nerds, but rather to a common argument from the community. Forgive the shorthand.

  6. There are filmmakers and writers galore that prove this point, but perhaps none better than Quentin Tarantino, whose passion for westerns, historical war dramas, and kung-fu flicks has led to his unique (and often strange) cinematic style and his mastery of the craft. Like or loathe his movies, his expertise is undeniable.

The Style Guide: On Trilogies [Episode 3]

17 Aug 2015

Good things come in threes. Which is why The Style Guide has made its third episode. Perhaps somewhat obviously we have moved onto the topic of movies that come in sets of three, discussing their merits and nuances – and not to mention lamenting those that no longer come in three. I’m looking at you, Die Hard series.

Check it out on The Style Guide website. As always you can subscribe in iTunes. And we can still be found on Twitter @StyleGuideFM.

The Style Guide: On Sequels [Episode 2]

10 Aug 2015

Remember that hit new global phenomenon? You know, the podcast that tries to better understand the nuances of stories and styles? It’s back with an all new episode on sequels and, spoiler alert, we talk about a great many different sequels. If it is a movie that follows another movie, you can be pretty sure we thought about it. Do sequels matter? What is their narrative purpose? Is there a better way to continue playing with particular characters? And, most importantly, which sounds better: The Style Guide Into Darkness or The Style Guide’s Bogus Journey?1

Check it out on The Style Guide website. Or you can subscribe in iTunes. And we can still be found on Twitter @StyleGuideFM.

  1. Note, we don’t actually answer that last one. Clearly the answer is The Style Guide: Tokyo Drift.

The Enemy is You

08 Aug 2015

Matt Gemmell:

We live in an age of ubiquitous information and communication, so distractions have never been more pervasive. We have too many choices of what to look at or focus attention on. The internet is a glittering carnival of diversions, and that’s wonderful – until you need to get some work done.

The enemy here isn’t the net, of course; it’s you. You’re the one being distracted. Willpower can be a dwindling resource, and the problem is compounded by background noise, low blood-sugar, or a poor night’s sleep. Sometimes it’s all we can do to just check our email and maybe read the news.

There is too much information for us to experience it all, but how do we go about deciding which media are worthy of our attention? Such a task seems nigh impossible given the overwhelming plurality from which we must make our selections.

How do we orient ourselves towards satisfaction? It is difficult to be satisfied in the face of overwhelming plurality – we must try everything for ourselves. Even when we stumble upon something pleasing, the possibility remains that there is something grander or more resplendent. When situated in the discourses of capital and evolution, satisfaction, complete and total, is impossible amidst the perception of infinity. The curation of possibility attempts to overcome infinity – by limiting it. Algorithmic curation, thus far, is not concerned with satisfaction, but exposure.

The Style Guide: On Origin Stories [Episode 1]

03 Aug 2015

Dave and I started a weekly podcast on which we meander through story, style, and form. It is a nerdy exploration of – and an attempt to think critically about – the media that we consume. Each week will follow a different topic. We will be liberal with our on-topic spoilers, but our show notes will always warn you when we have spoiled something unexpected. For our first episode, we tried to understand origin stories: What are they? Why do we tell them? And are they any good?

That first episode can be found on The Style Guide website. If you prefer, you can subscribe in iTunes. Finally, we can also be found on Twitter @StyleGuideFM.

Come for the nerdiness, stay for the Lion King references.

The Sandbox Reborn

16 Jul 2015

Patrick Lindsey for Paste Magazine:

Life, too, is a sandbox. The world is filled with an infinite number of opportunities and setbacks, all swirling around in the quantum chaos that is our daily life. This is perhaps the most valuable lesson I’ve extracted from my time with the game—failure is okay. Inevitable, even. The important thing is that you pick up your crown, dust yourself off and live to rule another day.

The way that I interact with video games has always been difficult for outsiders – that is, outsiders to video games – to appreciate. There is a degree to which this is my fault, as I am not particularly emphatic when explaining my experiences with the medium, but there is still a broad societal sense that they are not worth the time or energy spent on them. This, of course, has been said of numerous endevours throughout human history. You would think that this would eventually become a lesson learned: popular and idle judgements about art forms are usually proven to be foolish when those art forms enter the mainstream. This is precisely the reason I am not particularly interested in changing hearts and minds on the topic. Society will turn towards the medium or not. It will remain on the periphery or not. My enjoyment probably should not be caught up in that ephemera.

And yet I occasionally have experiences with games that I feel the need to point towards as ‘important’ or otherwise significant. That happens almost every time I pick up Crusader Kings. I do not think it is for everyone, because it is a sandbox filled with madness – and failure – but it is a game that I bring far outside of myself after each playthrough. Lessons, mania, and all.

"A sufficient element of obstreperous individual genius and irony"

03 Jul 2015

Colby Cosh for The National Post:

If someone proposed to build Mount Rushmore today, he would be denounced and abused, possibly assassinated. Having been built, the thing became a truth-revealing treasure, a commentary more penetrating than those of a hundred Tocquevilles or Henry Adamses. So maybe the right approach to Mother Canada is not to resist its tastelessness and its bizarre design. Maybe we should consider embracing it — happily guzzling its advocates’ nauseating blend of patriotic gore, maple syrup and marketing sauce.

In case you were curious, ‘obstreperous’ means “noisy, clamorous, or boisterous”.

Mother Canada

03 Jul 2015

Heather Mallick for The Guardian:

It’s particularly hard to honour the drowned from dry land. So the statue is reaching out its skinny arms to sea while we try not to stare at her bony behind. It’s awkward, and will be worse in winter when ice hangs from her bony fingers and saltwater lashes her eyeballs. It’s a great site for child-scaring. Maybe it’ll ward off crows.

Mother Canada is yet another part of this government’s ongoing project to try to provide us with a history, with a sense of purpose that will drive us into the twenty-first century. It is a deliberate attempt at myth-making, at crafting an identity by boldly proclaiming ourselves to be not merely a nation but a people that is united behind a set of values and ideals that can finally be described as Canadian.

The merit to be found in such a project depends a great deal on whether you believe this nation to be rooted in the War of 1812, opposing communism, and the “kitsch glorification of war”. While it is becoming increasingly difficult to claim that Canada is not a military nation, I find it hard to believe that we, as a people, are interested in gaudy celebrations of ourselves as such. We have never been a people rooted in revolution as Americans are. We were founded, for good or ill, as a continuation of the British Empire – and, as importantly, in opposition to the American empire. Even as we have gradually transitioned towards our own independence, we are still marked as peoples by those initial sensibilities. Yet it was not through war that we resisted Americanization, but rather through the complicated – and tenuous – federal union.1 Disparate peoples coming together to form a body that found unlikely life within the contradiction of division and unity. Project Canada could not have worked any other way and, while it can hardly be said to be without countless faults and missteps, that contradiction is the defining attribute of who we were when we founded ourselves and who we continue to be to this day. Cape Breton (and Nova Scotia with it) has its own complicated history with this ideal of solidarity (and conflict) amidst diversity, even prior to Confederation.

On top of that, I would add that the pursuit of this myth has been a matter of flagrant (although wholly unsurprising) electioneering. With Mother Canada, the Harper Government is pandering to Cape Breton’s economic interests with the suggestion that this will provide both an initial and ongoing stimulus to the region. Hypothetically ongoing, of course, because it seems a live question whether anyone – Canadian or otherwise – would be terribly interested in visiting a 25 metre statue clad in what appears to be an awkwardly draped bed sheet.

I am not against celebrations of national identity nor am I against monuments in Cape Breton (or elsewhere, for that matter), but Mother Canada seems to be both a poorly thought-out expression of Canadian values and a deliberate attempt to garner Conservative electoral support from veterans (and, possibly, Nova Scotians). I just do not think there are any good reasons for us to spend the next few years building a cheap Canadian knock-off of the Statue of Liberty, but hey, what do I know? I’m not the one trying to win an election in October.

  1. Our journey across this continent certainly replicated colonial sensibilities of domination against both the land and the people that called it home, but we have no desire to honour that behaviour of our ancestors. This is not to suggest that it should be simply ignored or forgotten. Indeed I think we need to better remember exactly that history of injustice and the way that it has stretched into the present, but an ostentatious statue in Cape Breton is hardly the best method of preserving the nuances of those memories.

The Senate is Not the Problem

07 Jun 2015

Now that the Auditor-General’s report on the Senate has been released, Canadians are scandalized by the details: 30 senators with questionable expenses, 9 of whom will be referred to the RCMP for criminal investigations, with a total of almost one million dollars in ineligible spending. Resignations have already been called for and cries for Senate abolition have begun anew. This report comes amidst the trial of suspended Senator Mike Duffy and it seems likely that, unless Tim-Hortons-gate continues to dominate our national discourse, Canadians will again turn their attention to the Red Chamber, but it is time to stop pretending that the Senate is the problem.

Over a decade ago former senator Lowell Murray reflected, “The Senate is not a perfect institution, nor are senators infallible people. There are deficiencies: some of them inexcusable, but these are no more general in the Senate than they are in the Commons.” This is a point that is now being echoed by Senators and MPs alike, many of whom are calling for a similar audit of the House of Commons. Should not all legislators, appointed and elected, be held to account?

When framed in this manner it seems a difficult point to contest, but it is important to look at the broader context of the AG’s report. $976,627 in improper expense claims is certainly a great deal of public money but it took almost $21 million dollars just to fund the two-year audit. Of the $180 million in claims that were subject to the AG’s examination, the improper expenses in question constitute less than 1% of the total. There are certainly egregious offenders and they should and will be held accountable for their misconduct, but are we justifiably outraged or are our concerns hinged on an over-dramatization and partisan outlook on the actual impropriety that has occurred? By no means do I suggest that we should simply ignore the results of the audit. Its outcome will and should have significant consequences for those senators who are found guilty, but what is more important is the concerns that it raises about the internal processes that initially cleared them. If nothing else it is evident that there needs to be a serious reevaluation of the internal governance of our political institutions.

Unless we believe that House of Commons’ fiscal administration to be vastly superior to that of the Senate, it is highly likely that similarly questionable expenses would be found among our elected representatives. How much would it cost to investigate 308 MPs over a similar period? If a similar percentage of expenses were improper, would anyone suggest that we abolish the House of Commons? While it may be nice to believe that being elected is sufficient to curb thoughts of corruption, we should know better than that. The question is whether Canadians are willing to spend millions of dollars rooting out what appears to be a relatively small amount of misconduct, when that money could be better spent on infrastructure, health care, and education. The CBC would be happy to find a use for that money; or perhaps the government could fund any number of the recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

More troubling than another audit is the notion that the Senate and its reform or abolition will be the defining issue of the coming election. While there are legitimate concerns about the continued reliance on unelected legislators in our democracy, it cannot be forgotten that there are numerous complexities involved in changing or removing the Upper House. Even if Western Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador, the Territories, and popular opinion all come together to agree on a potential amendment, all could easily be for naught if Ontario, Quebec, or even PEI were to disagree. What compromises would be involved in order to prevent any one province from vetoing changes to the Senate? Would they be easier to stomach than enhanced scrutiny of Senate (and House) expense claims?

It may be that Canadians are far enough removed from the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords that we are ready for another attempt to open the Constitution, but such an endeavor should not be taken lightly nor should it be promised so easily as a method of gaining votes. Constitutional reform is a difficult tool for politicians to utilize as a method of solving problems due to how little control they have over its use. It is not enough to suggest amendments; our parties and their leaders need to present clear and coherent strategies about how to ensure those amendments will garner not only popular but also provincial appeal. If we allow the next election to be predicated on shaky promises we will disappointed by the inevitable failures that result. Worse still we might ignore the changes that can be made now because we rest our hopes on a long shot.


02 Jun 2015

I know that I would not be here without the racism that founded Canada, but today reminds us that those oppressions echo into the present. With the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Residential Schools coming to a close we need to remember that our actions mark us — as individuals and peoples. “What’s past is past” is never true. History endures within us. Residential schools are a particularly horrific national crime, but we, as a people, committed many others. To be reconciled does not just mean we apologize for the past. It involves recognizing the ways that we perpetuate those crimes in the now. Reconciliation is a process with no end, a relationship of constant renewal, and a hope to do better. The TRC has given us that opportunity.

Let us take the opportunity and admit the faults of those that came before us — and our own. Let us be the better angels of the human heart.