Depiction and Endorsement in 2018 (or, how to criticize Blade Runner 2049)

blade_runner_2049_screenshot-30

I first envisioned this post as a “New Year’s Resolution,” but I got too bogged down with other stuff in January to post it then. Better late than never, though.

Now that Blade Runner 2049 is out on video formats (meaning that I can take some lovely screenshots of it), I wanted to revisit the critical reception the film was greeted with back in October 2017. Partly, this post is about Blade Runner 2049, and its legitimate faults. But I also consider the film’s reception to be emblematic of trends in political criticism that were ascendent in 2017. I personally consider these trends to be leaning in a direction that is, shall we say, unproductive. Buckle up.

Within 72 hours of its release, a backlash had solidified against Blade Runner 2049. Feminist critics didn’t like its treatment of women. New York Post critic Sara Stewart established the trend early with her October 4th article “You’ll Love the New ‘Blade Runner’—Unless You’re a Woman.” By October 9th, this particular gripe had spread like wildfire, spawning think pieces like Rosie Fletcher and Sam Ashurst’s “Can We Talk About Blade Runner 2049’s Problem With Women?” and Charolette Gush’s “Why Blade Runner 2049 Is a Misogynistic Mess.”

These headlines are clickbait-y. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they were written by an editor, with no say at all on the part of the author. The actual articles beneath the headlines are more nuanced. Still, though, let’s be realistic. It’s the late 2010s. Plenty of people share articles on social media, hit “like” or “angry face,” offer up their own hot takes, and draw lines in the sand based solely on clickbait headlines, without ever reading the articles in question. It is impossible, in this day and age, to truly separate out the quality of the criticism in these individual pieces from the realities of the ecosystems in which they circulate.

Anyway, within days, lines had indeed been drawn in the sand. (At least on my social media feed.) Blade Runner 2049 was proclaimed to be problematic. It had “iffy politics” that “aren’t that futuristic.” That is to say: it didn’t imagine a future that was particularly progressive. Blade Runner 2049 quickly became a Bad Object, something that no one was willing to defend, less they themselves be labeled “problematic.”

I am not going to defend Blade Runner 2049 in this post. In fact, I am going to criticize it. (Quite harshly, at that.) But, along the way, I’m also going to criticize the dominant forms that cultural criticism had begun to take in 2017. I think that those forms are bad, and I think that we can do better in 2018. Prepare yourself: this is going to be a long post.

Continue reading

The Limits of Disempowerment

realistic_female_fps_anthropy_02

Ian here—

For years, I didn’t know what to do with Anna Anthropy’s Realistic Female First-Person Shooter (2012).

It is, shall we say, a “minor Anthropy.” It’s not one of the games that she includes on her itch.io storefront. If you want to play it, you have to head over here. (It is, unfortunately, Windows-only, although Mac users should feel free to look at this video of the game in action on YouTube).

But despite its somewhat tossed-off status, it is a game I was serious considering including in my article on fumblecore games. There was just one problem: it seemed completely incompatible with my argument. So I swept it under the rug, but kept it in my memory, blinking in the back of my brain, challenging me, keeping me honest.

I think I’ve finally figured out what I want to say about it now, and it’s mostly thanks to the students in my “Frames, Claims, and Videogames” class. I didn’t even teach Realistic Female First-Person Shooter in that class. Instead, my thoughts began crystalizing as students reacted of Alyson Macdonald’s Twine game Female Experience Simulator (2013), one of the most contentious games we played in the course.

Continue reading

Personal Puzzles

sym_screenshot_header_image.jpg

Ian here—

When you first start playing Eli Piilonen’s The Company of Myself (2DArray, 2009), it feels as if someone found a way to perfectly weld together a diary entry with a puzzle platformer. This was back in the heady days in the wake of Jonathan Blow’s Braid (Number None, 2008), when the public at large was still reeling over the idea that puzzle mechanics could mean something. And, at first glance, The Company of Myself seems to take this trend and go somewhere quite confessional with it. Its central mechanic of cloning yourself to solve puzzles stood as a perfect expression of feelings of self-reliance. And not just any self-reliance, either, but rather that specifically incorrigible mode of self-reliance that emerges when one is a bit too much of an unreconstructed introvert, refusing even the most basic forms of assistance because you desperately wish to not bother, or to be bothered by, anybody.

The “cloning” mechanic has popped up elsewhere in games—for instance The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom (The Odd Gentleman, 2010)—but The Company of Myself was more ambitious, wedding the mechanic with a personal story of interior life. Or, at least, it seems to do this, until you realize the whole thing is bullshit. The story takes an eleventh-hour delve into the lurid, revealing itself as an over-the-top fiction, rather than a form of sincere self-expression on the part of its creator.

The Company of Myself takes the easy way out, tacking on an over-dramatic denouement that destroys its potential as a diary-game. But … what if it didn’t? Could one actually use puzzles to communicate the intricacies of internal lived experience, in an emotionally sincere way? In this entry, I’ll be looking at two games that try: Liz Ryerson’s intimate and beguiling Problem Attic (2013), and Atrax Media’s more slick and straightforward Sym (2015). Along the way, I’ll also be dipping a bit into Braid, just because it’s hard to talk about contemporary puzzle platformers without doing so.

Continue reading

Lesson Plan: Popular Music, Gender Representation, and Media Effects

fifth_harmon_video-screenshot
Fifth Harmony feat. Kid Ink, “Worth It” (2015, music video directed by Cameron Duddy)

Ian here—

For three quarters in a row, I used Stanley J. Baran’s Introduction to Mass Communication textbook for my Mass Communication course. However, during that time, I drifted away from assigning Baran’s chapter on media effects. I was very upfront to students about the reasons why: I find it dull, and dry. It provides a thorough historical overview of various theories of media effects, from the Frankfurt School to George Gerbner’s “cultivation analysis,” but it doesn’t provide meaty examples of studies of effects in action. So, instead, I decided to turn my media effects week into a feminism week, and use Susan J. Douglas‘ wonderful observations on popular music and its effect on perceptions of gender roles in her book Where the Girls Are: Growing up Female with the Mass Media. The book’s breezy, first-person style is far removed from the distanced overview of sociological theories found in Baran, and a good model for the types first-person observations and analysis I hope to provoke when teaching this material.

Continue reading

Lesson Plan: The Politics of Punching in American Comedy

punch_the_trump_promo_image
Promotional image for mobile game Punch the Trump (Brutal Studio, 2016)

Ian here—

Hoo, boy.

Since November 9th, I’ve been coasting on lesson plan blog posts that I already had previously finished and scheduled. Now, here we are, with my first real “live” post since the 2016 election.

In the coming months, many peoples’ lives will be disrupted more than mine, and it is on me to make sure I contribute as much as possible to make those people feel welcome in this country, and to oppose the policies, appointment, and general behavior of our new president elect. I acknowledge that the disruption I will be facing is much lesser than the disruption many others will be facing. Nevertheless, my own life has been disrupted in its own small ways—as I’m sure many peoples’ has in this nation, even those who are not undocumented, or Latinx, or Muslim, or women, or disabled, or LGBTQIA, or, well, children (who, after all, will bare the brunt of Trump’s bullish climate denial). For me, the most immediate effects (as small as they may be, in the long run), were grappling with the syllabus I had created for my course “Comedy and the Moving Image” at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Continue reading

Lesson Plan: Peggy Ahwesh’s Martina’s Playhouse

martinas_playhouse-screenshot-01

Ian here—

What follows will be quick, because I did not spend an entire day on Martina’s Playhouse (1989) when I taught it in my “Avant-Garde Film and Video Art” course. It shared a day with Gunvor Nelson and Dorothy Wiley’s Schmeerguntz (1965) and Nelson’s My Name Is Oona (1969), for a week themed around parenthood.

I assigned Ahwesh’s interview with Scott MacDonald as reading for this week. I was interested in what sort of reactions the prominent child nudity and role-play in this film would provoke, particularly given that, all things considered, the events we see onscreen aren’t all that strange. (MacDonald puts it well when he reminisces that “The minute I would turn on my little Super-8 camera to make home movies, two of my boys would drop their pants … Any parent sees that kind of nudity all the time.”[i]) There is, however, a real difference between private family moments and public exhibition, and I was hoping that my students had some strong reactions I could bounce ideas off of.

Continue reading