Monday, September 30, 2013

TV Buff: Nazis, demon possession, and alien abduction, all in one handy place in American Horror Story: Asylum

I splurged, and went through all of American Horror Story: Asylum last week. Thoughts on how that went, after the break. Spoilers, although I'm somewhat forgiven, given that the show ended months ago.

So looking back on the blog archives, I see that I never quite got around to posting what I thought about the first season of American Horror Story. I did, however, quote its best scene, so that's something, at least. What that means at the moment, though, is that I need to give some account of the series' premise. The operating idea here is that it's an anthology series, but one not where every episode is a new thing like Twilight Zone, but one where ever season starts afresh, with a new roster of characters (though not necessarily an entirely new cast). The first season revolved around a haunted house and a number of related ghost stories: the murdered other woman, a high school shooting, a hidden early 20th century home abortion clinic, and a lovers' quarrel turned fatal. It had a surprisingly dark ending (for TV, if not for the subject matter), which was either brilliantly countered or horribly spoiled, depending on who you ask, by a saccharine coda.

But what I find so appealing about the series is the concept. Horror--with the possible exception of video games--has been dominated by the short form, in short story and in film. To be able to explore multiple, simultaneous conventions of horror in a sustained manner is a luxury that TV can offer, and, almost devoid of whether it's any good or not, I'm glad such a thing exists. (That's not entirely true; I once said I'd like any sort of ongoing musical series on television, and then Glee proved that statement to be a liar.) Luckily for me, then, American Horror Story: Asylum is good.

The title pretty much gives away the subject matter here. The story takes place in Briarcliff Mental Institution in 1964, a place run by Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), whose philosophy is start with the rod and you never have to worry about spoiling; and Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell), a man who believes that it's pretty much okay to experiment on these "Darwinian rejects"; that women are either unrelenting sluts who need to be taught a lesson or untouchable saints; and may also be a Nazi. Fun guy. There's also Monsignor Timothy Howard, the ambitious father who founded the institution and hopes to use Arden and Jude's efforts there to further his own career. Most of the show takes place in the institution in the past, and it's here we meet the core cast of inmates: Grace Betrand (Lizzie Brochere) who is an alleged murderer; Kit Walker (Evan Peters), who is thought to be the murderer Bloodyface, but claims his wife was actually kidnapped by aliens; and Lana Winters, a reporter who came looking for a story on Murderface, and winds up an inmate. An episode or two in, we also get Zachary Qunto as Dr. Oliver Thredson, there to assess Walker's sanity. Many stories also start with a scene in present day, where someone claiming to be Murderface chases after victims in slasher-esque vignettes.  Lana's story is especially chilling: she goes in looking for a story about Bloodyface, but when she threatens to expose the mistreatments at Briarcliff, Sister Jude has her committed as insane for being a lesbian, using her girlfriend's fear of exposure as a pressure point to get her to sign the papers.

Like the first season, Asylum intertwines a number of different plot lines. Sister Jude slowly loses control of the asylum to Arden and Sister Mary Eunice, her demon-possessed protege. Eventually, her attempts to fight back reach such a failure that she is committed in her own asylum, and driven mad herself through a combination of electroshock and pills. Lizzie and Kit avoid forced sterilizations after being, uh, rescued by aliens. Arden becomes increasingly disillusioned with Sister Mary Eunice and himself until he meets with a suitably Pyrrhic ending. And Lana finally escapes Sister Jude and Arden's monsters only to run afoul of the actual Bloodyface, going from asylum to murder dungeon. A lot happens in thirteen episodes.

Asylum is lacking a bit of the real world punch that comes with the first season of AHS. For me, the show is at its best when it's juxtaposing real life horror with fantasy horror, and implicitly demonstrating how we use the latter to avoid facing the former. For AHS season one, that's most clear in the episodes featuring the high school shooting. Juxtaposing the shooting with ghost stories and other horror-filled stories really drove home the connection for me that this show is about what we are afraid of. Asylum's setting means it doesn't have the same immediacy; a lot of the real-world horror, such as the ability to commit people to asylums for being gay, or the social stigma on mixed marriages, is easier to dismiss with a "we're past that now" sort of mindset. The present sequences could be seen as a response to that, but like I said, they're really more a slasher pastiche than anything else. Which is fun, but not much more than that (maybe a comment on nature vs. nurture, and the foster care system).

There's also the issue that, for me, the whole alien plotline didn't really work. I'll admit that alien abduction is the sort of urban legend that should play well to AHS, but it falls flat. I think the aliens were never really portrayed as horrific--just sort of unearthly. You could argue that they were never meant to be horrific, but then the resolution of Kitt and Lizzie's story really falls flat. (Which it kind of does either way. It's really a dumb sort of resolution.) It would have been easy for the demon-possession plot to go the same way, but it’s saved by two things: the stellar performances of Cromwell and Lily Rabe; and the appearance of the Angel of Death, who adds a whole new level of creepiness to the show when she starts appearing in front of characters near death.

Where it really shines this season, though, is in the depiction of authority, and its involvement in mental health. Many of these patients are only there because someone else in a position of authority--Sister Jude, Dr Arden, Dr. Thredson--has the authority to say that they belong there. As Thredson points out, that's often authority over life and death. And when this power is placed in the hands of people with their own petty agendas and grievances, the abuses can be terrifying. In that sense, it's similar to the power relations in Orange is The New Black. The added wrinkle is that the series directly confronts the very real fear that people have over mental issues, the fear that what we can't trust our own perceptions, and the stigma that we place on those that we mark as other because they fall on a different side of our insane/sane line in the sand. As that previous quotation should convey, one of the most terrible things in AHS is where the wife's husband uses his authority as a doctor to get her committed. The entire season of AHS: Asylum is about that sort of power abuse.

While the story falls flat in places, the acting almost always is enough to keep you going. Jude, Arden, and Thredson in particular have just the right balance of menace and aloofness to carry their roles past little gaps in logic. In the end, though, a lot of your feelings for the season will depend on how much sympathy you can muster for Sister Jude's character, whether she's a good person who went too far trying to instill order after putting her life back together, or whether she’s a hubristic monster who gets what’s coming to her in a system she created—or a bit of both. I think I fall a little too far on the former side. But her character examination in juxtaposition with Lana’s is ultimately the center of the season. Tragedy is very similar to horror, in that both involve a sharp deviation from what we’re conditioned, societally, to consider as the appropriate consequence of a series of events. Both are about what happens when things go wrong, and the punishment of transgressions. The difference between the two, I think, is that tragedy is still a set of logical consequences, that tragedy still has a traceable flow of events, and we can point to where the wrong thing happened. Horror, I think, is more about a break, an ellipses. It’s horrific because it falls outside of our attempt to explain it, sometimes outside of our ability to conceive it (which is exactl why it should have been awesome if the alien scenes did work—but they didn’t.). Jude, and the whole season of Asylum, is perhaps more tragic than horrific. But the horror is always lurking, and what could be better for horror than a good lurk?

To sort of bring things to a close and bring home my point that the show is all about women and authority this season, here’s the final scene, a flashback conversation between Sister Jude and Lana, before Lana was imprisoned, before anything, almost, had started (I love the “end at the beginning” trope):
Lana: She’s talking about the maniac, Bloodyface. I heard he’s going to be admitted here today. Is there any way I can meet him?
Sister Jude: You’re out of your depth, Miss Lana Banana. You want a story? Write this down. A girl like you, you like to dream large. I’d venture you already have Briarcliff in your rearview mirror.
Lana: You make ambition sound like a sin.
Sister Jude: No, I’m saying it’s dangerous.
Lana: Well, what about you? Saving the souls of madmen and killers is a pretty lofty ambition, wouldn’t you say?
Sister Jude: And you cannot imagine what it took to get here.
Lana: I’d love to hear your story some day.
Sister Jude: No. I don’t think you and I are destined to meet again. (This is called dramatic irony.) But I do hope you know what you’re in for. The loneliness, the heartbreak, the sacrifices you’ll face as a woman with a dream on her own.
Lana: You don’t have any idea what I’m capable of.
Sister Jude: Well, then. Look at you, Miss Lana Banana. Just remember. If you look in the face of evil, evil’s going to look right back at you. (Pause, as Sister Jude looks into the camera/Lana) Please, after you.

It’s a necessary scene, as it circles the square in completing the connection between Jude and Lana, and cementing Lana’s character in the latter portions of the series (and that connection still needed to be made at that point; I think the horror of the last episode may be too subtle for its own good). But it’s also, I think, a way of highlighting the major theme of the season, a commentary on how women are forced into roles, and punished—sometimes horrifically, tragically, punished—when they try to break out of them. And to paraphrase Firefly, since the next season of American Horror Story is called Coven and features the Salem Witch trials, the days of AHS looking at the horror in gender roles and abuses of authority have come to a middle.

Later Days.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Friday Quotations: You can rewind time all you want, Braid; all that's gonna do is let you experience that epic burn over and over again

“The excitement that veils something much more sinister - the odd obsession with an unobtainable systemic perfection, often fueled by unrelated emotional pain or longing fostered by society - the thirst for money masked in frenzied experiments to remodel human behavior - an utter cluelessness and indifference to different modes of values or anything and anyone not in the room. This is the language of tech culture of the early 21st century, and the language implicitly embraced by Braid (even if it tries and fails to be critical of this from within). It's a language that just serves as another sad mirror, another small subset of what we are enacting on the earth and all the pain it causes - social, spiritual, environmental. It's a language that Corrypt, in all its seemingly insubstantial, clunky, box-pushing glory, is acutely aware of. It's a language that Corrypt is very critical of in both its aesthetics and design, in a way that Braid misses the boat on.” --Liz Ryerson

Later Days.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Game Retrospective: Myst-use of Time

In the name of dissertation research, I've finished a playthrough of the original Myst.*  My thoughts and the explanation behind the asterisk, after the break.

Monday, September 23, 2013

To the Last Syllabus of Recorded Time

Last Friday, I received the birthday present I bought for myself: Ryan North's To Be Or Not To Be: A Chooseable Path Adventure. For those who have never heard of this literary work, it's basically a comedy choose-your-own adventure version of Shakespeare's Hamlet. And it is DELIGHTFUL. North, writer of Dinosaur Comics and editor of The Death Machine, is a pretty funny guy, and here he gets to let full loose with his humorous acumen. The book was funded through a kickstarter project, and stretch goals included adding Hamlet's father and Ophelia as playable characters. Ophelia is at least as well-fleshed out as Hamlet; Hamlet's Dad feels like more of an afterthought by comparison, but still gets some very respectable laughs. It doesn't stay very close to the source material (in fact, you're in for a lot of mocking if you make the same, bad decisions Hamlet made), but it does involve a text-adventure parody, a chess game, a book within a book, and a rather violent pirate battle. ("You're sure that, should you ever one day write a book about this story or perhaps a stage production, you'd DEFINITELY include this scene. Why, you'd have to be literally crazy to write a story where you journey to England, get attacked by pirates -- actual pirates! --but then just sum up that whole adventure in a single sentence. Ha! That'd be the worst.")

The interesting thing is, as much as North continually mocks the source material, at the same time, the book's absolutely dependent on it. If you don't know the original story, it's still funny, but it lacks that knowing connection that comes from recognizing how and when the book departs from the source material. So here we are, in the year 2013, with a book that intimately about the past--the lineage of choose your own adventure books, including the lineage of Shakespeare--but is also dependent on pop culture references, from Fresh Prince and rap battles to videogame achievements. What does that say about pop culture trends? What does that say about societal values? And what other works say something similar?

Where I'm going here is, if I were to construct a course about Shakespeare and Pop Culture, what would I put on it? What's the syllabus and master reading list here?

Well, here's some ideas. This book, obv. Also:
Kill Shakespeare!, the meta-comic book series where the villains of the Shakespeare plays team up to kill him.

Film-wise, every modern interpretation of Shakespeare ever qualifies--from the Whedon Much Ado About Nothing  to the Mel Gibson Hamlet. I'd gear things more towards works that are loose adaptations rather than exact translations, though. The DiCaprio Romeo and Juliet, set in modern day, is as close to exact as I'd want to get--I'd much rather address 10 Things I Hate About You.

The Shakespeare issue of Neil Gaiman's Sandman is another obvious pick.

I'd love to force students to watch the Macbeth adaptation in Gargoyles, though that's so far from the source as to be barely recognizable. But on the other hand, exposing students to the voice acting of Keith Davids, Marina Sirtis, and John Rhys-Davies seems like the best idea ever.

I'd also like to include more music-based stuff, and pop culture that's less than current (yes, I'm counting "within my lifetime" as current.). Maybe even force students to read Dryden's version of Antony and Cleopatra, "All for Love"? 

The Simpsons episode where they do Hamlet.

I'd like a videogame connection. It seems crazy to me we have a AAA game based on Dante's Inferno, but no Shakespeare games that come to mind.

I'll open the floor to comments: what else belongs on a list of Shakespeare and Popular Culture?

Later Days.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Friday Quotations: The One Where the Fictional Construct of Presenting Thoughts as Dialogue is Challenged

"But how does this intensely private, individualistic view of the mind account for the following scene in the sit-com Friends. One friend, Phoebe, lets slip to another, Rachel, that all the other friends think that she, Rachel, is still in love with Ross. Rachel protests that this is not true and that she is over him, but then she eventually agrees that yes, all right, she is still in love with him. 'But why didn't you tell me?' Rachel demands to know. 'Because we thought you knew!' exclaims Phoebe. What this eschange appears to show is that Rache's feelings about Ross were more accessible to the other friends than they were to her. They all knew that she was still in love with Ross even though she did not know herself. On the other hand, we should not go too far in this direction because the conversation also shows the knowledge that people have of the inner states of others can be patchy. Rachel did not know that the other friends knew, and the others did not that Rachel did not know! In a sense, the humor in this scene is a new take on the familiar, cliched joke about the two psychiatrists (or the two behaviorists, depending on your prejudice) who say to each other when meeting, 'You're fine, how am I?' However, the Friends scene is more interesting, it seems to me, for two reasons: it acknowledges that all of us, not just specialists in the study of the mind, have some sort of access to the thinking of others; and it also acknowledges that thought can be private and inaccessible as well as public and shared." --Alan Palmer, Fictional Minds.

Later Days.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Bibliophile: Murder, violence, and other white leisure activities at McMaster University

 “Books are the perfect entertainment: no commercials, no batteries, hours of enjoyment for each dollar spent. What I wonder is why everybody doesn't carry a book around for those inevitable dead spots in life.”
Stephen King

Well, that was an unanticipated week of blog silence. Let me catch you up:
--I've got a piece coming out at First Person Scholar next Wednesday. Preview: DOOOOOOOOOM.
--The dissertation proceeds at a nonzero pace. Hurrah.
--I will complete Tales of Maj'Eyal. I will. And die trying, if current progress is any indication.
--Scandal is a strangely compelling show. Mostly, though, I just want to give Joshua Malina's character a hug.

And that's that.

This is Bibliophile.

This week, we'll be looking at the new books acquired by the McMaster University Library, after the break.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Bibliophile: Building a Better Game at Laurentian University

“You get a little moody sometimes but I think that's because you like to read. People that like to read are always a little fucked up.”
― Pat Conroy, The Prince of Tides

That quotation almost, almost convinces me I should see The Prince of Tides.

This is Bibliophile.

What a week! I administered and marked the exam for my class, I finished Planescape: Torment (finallllly) and got back into dissertation writing in a big way, and a close friend of mine successfully defended his dissertation.  (Yeah, this is one of those posts that I started then finished at a later date.) It's all good. But are the books all good books? Find out, as we delve into Laurentian University, after the break.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Planescape Papers: The Abyss at Last / Work in Progress: Chris Bateman's Imaginary Games

To inaugurate my return to regular blogging, I've got this sprawling piece. It's doing double duty as work-in-progress notes on chapter seven of Chris Bateman's Imaginary Games, and the culmination of my Planescape Paper series. For a bit of background, the book is essentially Bateman's explanation of Kendall Walton's make-believe version of mimesis; check out the review I did of Walton here if you want a primer on that subject before you begin. And see if you can spot the moment where this post switched from something I was doing for my own reading only to something for mass consumption. All that, and a strongly worded suggestion to Don't Stop Believin', after the break.

Friday Quotations: Yes, We Still Do These

"This is the story of a man, one who was never at a loss."

"Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy."

"Tell me, Muse, of that man, so ready at need, who wandered far and wide, after he had sacked the sacred citadel of Troy, and many were the men whose towns he saw and whose mind he learnt, yea, and many the woes he suffered in his heart upon the deep, striving to win his own life and the return of his company."

"Tell me, Muse, of that man of many resources, who wandered far and wide, after sacking the holy citadel of Troy."

"Muse, speak to me now of that resourceful man
who wandered far and wide after ravaging
the sacred citadel of Troy."

Five translations of the first line of the Odyssey, still one of my favorite stories, and one of the real pleasures of my undergraduate studies. I love all the different translations for "resourceful": "many of many resources," ingenious, "so ready at need," and "one who was never at a loss," which is probably my favorite.

Later Days.