“Mr. Robot” And The Golden Age Of Television

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Mr. Robot Golden Age Of Television

The silly, ham-fisted poster for Mr. Robot. Image via IMDb.

The word ‘re-action’ implies that something has already come. Let’s ignore, for a moment, what that something is, and just focus on the final knot of the rope:

Appraisal. Or rather, what the act of valuation does and does not entail — at least in the long run — for an object. Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot (2015), for instance, has been praised virtually without exception, with much of it revolving around the show’s technological accuracy. In fact, while the harshest critics nit-pick this very thing, few mention ‘frills’ like narrative, visual depth, and writing, as if the world begins and ends with their desires, first.

Look closer, however, and Mr. Robot is stuck between a cliche at the show’s start (“What I’m about to tell you is top secret…the top 1% of the top 1%…the guys that play God without permission”), and a predictable narrative arc at the show’s end, with a riddling of bad moments in between. It is pointless to dwell on every mis-step, but there’s the ripping off of the Enron logo for the show’s monolithic E Corp (“they’re everywhere…the ‘E’ might as well stand for ‘evil’”); the stereotype of the Indian pervert, who gets busted — surprise, surprise — for child porn; the stereotype of the ‘prophetic’ homeless man who quips on things others will never understand; the lonely, disaffected youth who is in fact ‘better’ than everyone around him; a Fight Club-level rant against Facebook, prescription pills, and consumer culture delivered to a therapist too stupid to really get it; and, of course, the laughable, clunky shift from Mr. Robot’s use of E-Corp to ‘Evil Corp,’ thus cementing the idea that much of this is happening in Elliot’s mind, and ONLY Elliot’s mind. So much, I guess, for being a ‘psychological thriller,’ as you’re given the key so early that you can’t help but turn.

Yet the mainstream valuation is still there, for just as my words will not change others’ reactions to Mr. Robot, these valuations, in turn, have little to do with the show itself. They bring in too much of the percipient, then assume the perception — whatever it may be — is the outgrowth of something bigger.

To see this in action, one merely needs to go back to the original assertion: that there’s a ‘something’ that’s already paved the way for Mr. Robot and many shows like it. After all, the last few years have been termed a Golden Age Of Television, on par with the last half-century. And while it’s good, I guess, to see that folks aren’t merely pining for the world of yore, let’s review the evidence, piece by piece, so that we’re not merely adding to the noise:

Breaking Bad (2008) was a mere assemblage of cliches rounded off with the sort of camp irreality that could have only hoodwinked (and did!) the very … Continue reading →

Lance Armstrong And The Lie They’ll Come To Love

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lance armstrong lie

Image via FunnyOrDie.

Now that the Lance Armstrong ‘controversy’ is dying down, cycling — they say — is ripe for a renewal. This means new races, new competitors, and, yes, new rules; a fresh way of looking at things. The last two decades (perhaps more) — they say — have been quite shameful. There was no wont towards fairness, no sportsmanship, no real inclinations but that of ego, name. That’ll pass — they’re sure — because our basic human instinct is good, and overpowers the more selfish drives that got us into this mess in the first place. Maybe, but there’s just one nagging problem. Lance does not believe he cheated — at least not really — and they say that he says that he’s still the winner of 7 Tour de France titles, despite being stripped of such years ago, with most public opinion comfortably against him. Yet he persists, for the rules — they NEVER seem to say — are, were, and will not ever be too clear, if not on this point, specifically, then on what the surrounds mean in the long run, over a much deeper context.

Now, is Armstrong merely a psychotic: that is, a man utterly divorced from reality, causal relationships, and the like? Perhaps. More likely, however, is that Lance Armstrong understands the situation he was in a little better than most, and can’t quite reconcile the word “cheat” with what he first saw, in the mid-90s, quite possibly railed against, then dutifully accepted. He has said that cheating was rampant as soon as he came into the sport, and he is right. He’s claimed that cheating is rampant, still, and if you know anything of human nature — much less culture — and recognize the billions and billions of dollars that get pumped in and pumped out of a sport like this, what with the bicycles, supplements, spare parts, and international branding, with every con artist, CEO, thug, petty gambler, and politician hoping for a score, and with so many hands mixed up in so many pockets: well, to assume that cheating, big AND small, is an exception rather than the norm is not just naive, but unforgivably stupid.

This was, Armstrong argues, his inheritance, and, unsurprisingly, few want to buy it. In their perspective, whether they realize it or not, context is meaningless, and individual choice — like individual freedom, responsibility, and those mythical, now-tattered bootstraps — trumps all. It’s a wonderfully American myth, and one that mirrors everything that Americans wish were true, and most, for all we know, believe to be true. Yet there’s obviously more to this ‘thing’ than Armstrong, because while he may be a bit loftier of a con in a network of a million smaller cons that get manufactured every single day in the name of sportsmanship, he is also the first in line, the most visible, and therefore the most unconscionable. It is his (not their) affront that matters, for it is … Continue reading →

ISIS As The Old You

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ISIS Flag

Image via PRI.org.

A few weeks ago, a silly, overlong article made the rounds, angering quite a few people before the predictable quiet. No, it’s not the terrible, bigoted, poorly-researched piece it was said to be, but amidst all its details, the political suggestions (many of them quite solid), the REAL issue was still obscured, and Islam — a 1500 year-old phenomenon — was still left blurred by mystique. The problem is that Graeme Wood’s essay has everything you’ve come to expect of political backtalk: trite observations, vague yet over-the-hill fear-mongering (apparently, ISIS controls a region ‘larger than the United Kingdom’; much as, using similar logic, a band of sea-lions might control half of Antarctica), accusations re: American tolerance of such, and, of course, the requisite contradictions, such as when the author calls the group ‘dystopian’ in one breath and ‘medieval’ in the next. Yet despite the 10,000+ words spilled on the subject, the key to understanding ISIS is not to be found in a bulleted look at Islam, but somewhere in the past, wherein today’s bullshit tends to linger, if only so that it’s mistaken for something else — something harder to explain — tomorrow.

In other words, for all of the books on Islam, for all of the articles, the fear, the PoMo-level analysis on both sides, the beheadings, ISIS (and everything else like it) is little more than the old you. Now, just stop and think what this entails. There was a time, recall, when you — assuming you’re a white Christian in America — put on a stinky old vest, smeared your face with mud, recited a few nonsensical sermons, and still won your converts. This was when things were good. In more difficult times, you’d swap your vest for armor, find a horse, and lance a few skulls in Jerusalem. A century or two later, in Constantinople, you’d pillage, rape, and even destroy your Lord’s churches — for what’s a vow, really, when you know what’s best in your heart of hearts? And this was Christianity in power, at a time when amusements were at a minimum. There were no other outlets, and little else that could be called ‘purpose’. Sometimes there’d be war, and sometimes there was peace, but peace — you’d come to understand — was merely preparation. You never quite knew what for, exactly, but such is faith, and God’s love is narrow and stippled with requirements.

But perhaps you’re neither Christian, nor white. Let’s assume you’re, oh, I don’t know, a Chinese Buddhist. If lucky, you might have seen yourself in a Chinese king — Taizong, say — who felt the need to send his armies where they did not belong, partly for reasons of empire, and partly to help Buddhism as a kind of ‘charity’. Sure, you might have railed against superstition here or there, but given the nature of your era, you couldn’t help but replace one superstition with another, and even adopt that condescending smirk as … Continue reading →

BlueInk Review: Unprofessional, Dishonest, (A)pathetic

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BlueInk Review Scam[UPDATE 11/11/2015: I have just received a phone call from Patti Thorn, owner of BlueInk, indicating that she has refunded my money. She has apologized for the review, apologized for the way BlueInk handled my complaint, and admitted the review should have been handed over to another staff member and re-written. I am thankful for her honesty and willingness to admit error, even as I indicated that, out of fairness, I cannot take down this post, only amend it with this note. To BlueInk’s credit, they did not ask me to alter this article in any way, nor guilt, manipulate, or entice me with any promises.]

A couple of months ago, I submitted my book, Woody Allen: Reel To Real, to a popular pay-for-review site called BlueInk Review. Now, I knew the risks, for I’d seen the complaints against Kirkus and other ignoble book-review services; I smirked at BlueInk’s poor website design which accosts you with its ‘legitimacy’ as opposed to a sampling of good writing that can speak for itself; I saw the 300 word-limit rule for reviews, an obvious labor-saving measure dishonestly presented as some sort of charity to “busy readers” and “industry professionals”; the Google searches which turned up nothing — nothing — except de facto ads written by its own staff, rather than any real analysis of the service and its benefits; as well as the reality that most of the books they’d push as ‘good’ were actually selling fewer copies than my own — with many not having had a sale in months — despite Reel To Real getting almost no press upon release. This last fact, especially, alerted me to the true extent of BlueInk’s pull, for if I could make something out of nothing, purely on the strength of reputation, and personal outreach, what’s preventing BlueInk from forging their own reputations, and minting new ‘names’ as per their stated goals? At any rate, I didn’t have to wonder very long.

My review came back on time, but anonymously written. People, as a rule, do not wish to attach their names to garbage, and this was no exception. Jesus, I thought; where does one even begin? I mean, I had to proofread the thing, myself, pointing out obvious errors in everything from pagination (they printed out a 12-pt, Times New Roman MS Word document and counted that as the completed work, reducing the true page count by half!), to the odd misuse of universally-understood phrases, to the reviewer’s allusions to things that simply never occur in the book, to the fact that I was continuously quoted out of context to argue against ‘points’ I’d never made. Ridiculously, I was openly accused of everything from ad hominem to refusing to provide evidence for claims, despite that the book — this not an opinion, now — gives a scene-by-scene evaluation of many films, provides hundreds of references to 50+ years of Woody-related writing, and responds to dozens of critics virtually … Continue reading →

Review Of Errol Morris’s “The Unknown Known”

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Errol Morris Donald Rumsfeld The Unknown KnownErrol Morris’s excellent 2013 film, The Unknown Known, will indubitably be compared to 2003’s The Fog Of War, and many — for reasons irrelevant to the films themselves — will not like this. They’ll point to how ‘slippery’ Donald Rumsfeld is, vis-a-vis Robert S. McNamara, and how difficult it was for Morris to tease out the answers that he (and his audience) wanted. They’ll point to the facade that Rumsfeld erects, and use that impenetrability as a means of keeping the film from greater company. And, of course, they’ll note that Rumsfeld’s charisma — at least here — and his well-placed pauses, the odd philosophical quips, the memorable phrasings, are quite at odds with the man’s total lack of integrity. In fact, they will probably hate him (and the film by proxy) for it, since Rumsfeld is unwilling to provide the sort of resolutions that they, as beings with moral biases, absolutely need. If un-exacted, there is a feeling that something is, for lack of a better phrase, not quite ‘whole’. And given that we’re dealing with a film — that is, a work of art — it’s all too easy to extrapolate this lack of ‘wholeness’ with an aesthetic one, for while The Fog Of War is clearly a superior film, it is superior for reasons almost 100% contrary to those typically given, even as both films are far more alike than not.

The short answer is that The Unknown Known does less with more, and while it is an error to merely expect answers from an art-work, the answers that Morris’s latest film provides are not only more tame (which is forgivable), but often limited to base political queries that have already been much dissected elsewhere, as opposed to Fog Of War’s more transcendent ones. In the earlier film, for instance, Errol Morris extrapolates “11 Lessons” from McNamara’s life, thus allowing the former Secretary Of Defense to opine on things beyond war or the details of some now-hazy political event. By contrast, The Unknown Known has a stellar first half — as good as anything Morris has ever done, really — with great poetic visuals, memorable little quips from Rumsfeld that get polished and inverted at the narrative unfolds, and a controlling metaphor that subtly posits his tens of thousands of internal memos as pointless, even duplicitous exercises forced upon the White House staff over many decades. The image of “snowflakes” (Rumsfeld’s affectionate term for these documents) only adds to this effect by twisting our normal associations with snow into something altogether different — sinister, even — as the film moves through wintry scenes. But while Fog Of War keeps this sort of thrust for the entirety of its 107 minutes, The Unknown Known’s second half devolves into a far more ‘informational’ film that, ironically, doesn’t offer any more information than we’ve already learned in the past decade, making its utter dependence upon context (as opposed to what’s on the screen) frustrating. Yes, … Continue reading →