July 23, 2014

The Master, Moriarty, and the Rise of the Brah Villain

Back in the day, villains like Moriarty or The Master looked like this:


The Master

These days, they look like this:


The Master

Is the replacement of the dignified British gentleman with the snarky, smart-ass young British brah a commentary on current young, white male society, or just a coincidence of appealing to a younger demo with the heroes of said franchises?

Old Sherlock

New Sherlock

Old Doctor

New Doctor

Although if we look at a show like Luther, especially in its second season, we see a lot of the young, white, privileged male as sociopath.

So are young, white males the new, hip villains (at least on the BBC)? The same way Russians were in the 80′s and serial killers in the 90′s? And if so, what does that have to say about our own insecurities?

What I’ll Miss Most About Almost Human

We’ll never get to see how the plot threads Almost Human was developing will come together, and that’s too bad because on top of great chemistry between the leads and what seemed to be an interesting mythology the series was revealing, what I think I’ll miss most of all is how it was revealing that mythology.

There’s a fair amount of traditional exposition throughout the show, world-building on the order of understanding the Blade Runner-esque relationship between humans and their robot servants. But the larger society was always hinted at more than explained (hell, we don’t even find out what city we’re in until the finale). And no better example of this arose than The Wall.

Somewhere toward the end of the show’s brief run, there’s mention of a wall. It’s not brought up in a briefing. No one asks, “Hey, what’s that?”, followed by a lengthy explanation. It is simply a given of this world. Context lets us know that the world on the other side of this wall is a place to be feared. But who or what is on the other side of that wall is not explained. Or why or when it was built. It just is. And it’s been there the whole time the show has been going. And the only reason we didn’t know about it until now that it hasn’t been relevant.

One of the shows final aired episodes involves an inventor seminal to the creation of the robots that drive the show, and it is [spoiler alert - does that even apply to a canceled show?] only at the end of this episode that we even see the wall. And even then we’re only left to guess at why the show’s heroes are shocked to learn that a particularly pernicious piece of code originated on the other side of the wall, or why they think it’s impossible that the criminal they’re chasing would even consider going to the other side of that wall, which is exactly how he evades them.

We’ll never find out where all that was going, but that it was going there without a clear sit down and explain the world session is rare. If it was happening that way because no one in the world of the show knew what the wall was or how it got there or what was on the other side, that would be one thing (essentially, that’s almost all of Lost). But that we were left to the task of discovery on our own, with no character to ask “Hey, what do you mean ‘The Wall’?” was refreshing, and displayed a certain level of faith in the audience, and assumed return of that faith that all would be answered organically, not by Basil Exposition.

I hope other shows take that risk. Of course, given that Almost Human got canceled, I don’t think that’s likely.

I Know I Shouldn’t Like This, But…

In the latest Talking Pictures podcast (subscribe), Kevin Smokler, special guest Justin Sondak, and myself discuss movies that defy our genre expectations. For example, I love me some action and plot, but some of my favorite movies are Lost in Translation, Once, and the Before trilogy, which lack those things in a big, bad way.

What movies do you like in spite of your genre preferences?

Let Us Now Praise Hyper-Specific Toys

Latest Hotcha Zimzam video covers my recent trip to Philadelphia Comic-Con and the extremely specific collectibles therein:

Here’s the other “The Homer” memorabilia in question.

Sherlock vs. Elementary: A Feminist Reading

This discussion gets pretty spoilery, so if you haven’t watched either Elementary or Sherlock, proceed with caution.

When Season Three of Sherlock (now available on Netflix streaming) first aired, Dr. Wife and I had a pretty big discussion on the portrayal of women on the show. While showrunner Steven Moffat has been taken to task before over his portrayals of women, I’d always found Sherlock, given the caveat that everyone on the show is defined in relation to the main character, male or female, to be fairly balanced. But upon further discussion, and comparison to its ugly stepsister in the states, it became a little more complicated.

Let’s take both shows’ approaches to its female characters. Although a relatively minor character in canon, Irene Adler is basically the go-to main female character for most adaptations cos, well, sausage-fest. She’s the Princess Leia of this universe. In Moffat’s interpretation, Adler is a brilliant criminal who, although a lesbian, is brought low by her attraction to a very male Sherlock. Her sense of agency is undercut by her obligations to both him and Moriarty, and the need to be rescued by Sherlock after being thwarted by him.

Rob Doherty‘s Adler has a history with Sherlock established long before we encounter him as an ex-pat living in New York. They had a relationship in which they were mutually attracted to each other’s genius before she was ruthlessly murdered by a serial killer whom Sherlock eventually learns was an assassin working for a mysterious new foe known as Moriarty. When Adler turns up alive and threatened once again by Moriarty he seeks to rescue her only to find…wait for it…[MAJOR MAJOR SPOILER NOW]…she is Moriarty. Adler was simply a persona she adopted to manipulate him.

In its second major gender shift in characterization (the first of which we’ll get to shortly) Elementary re-genders Sherlock’s perennial foe. This is a Moriarty with no less agency than any male interpretation and no less a match for our protagonist intellectually. While in subsequent episodes it becomes clear that Moriarty’s exposure to Sherlock (mostly through correspondence) is “reforming” her, it’s still a reformation that is very much on her own terms. Her decision to break out of jail is very much a decision. It becomes clear she could have broken out at any time. She chooses to be imprisoned. Her agency remains intact, even in jail. This is still an Adler somewhat defined in her relationship to Holmes, but with many more levels of complexity.

Sherlock‘s Mrs. Hudson is probably the most well defined and complex female character the show has to offer, although even she appears to be there to literally serve Sherlock. This is not to say she lacks a rich backstory, and it’s clear that she performs her actions out of a deep debt and devotion she has consciously chosen. So while it’s a stereotypical female role, it’s embodied by a very real person.

Elementary‘s Mrs. Hudson is still largely an offscreen presence.

Molly Hooper exists only in the Sherlock universe and has no real equivalent in the Elementary universe. While an accomplished scientist, much of her screen time is devoted to show how insensitive Sherlock is to her swooning, although she begins to slightly outgrow that role in Season Three.

Sherlock‘s Mary Morstan is also a character of considerable agency, embodying however, the Untrustworthy Woman. For what it’s worth, her deceptions are revealed to be at least in part committed out of a sincere devotion to John Watson. Although even here her most defining characteristics seem to be there to highlight John’s own addiction to danger. Still, she seems to be an equal partner in the emerging team that is herself, John, and Sherlock. We’ll see if/how this plays out in Season Four.

There is, as of yet, no Mary Morstan on Elementary for reasons that will become immediately apparent.

The key differentiator in terms of portrayals of women on Elementary is the fact that Watson has been recast as a woman. (Which is not to say that there could not still be a Mary Morstan, but so far her character has been defined as strictly heterosexual.) But the story of Elementary has been as much about her initial obligation and progressive liberation from Sherlock. She exists first as his sober companion (in this interpretation, his chemical addictions are something he’s recovering from), a position of considerable influence as opposed to his lapdog though she is, as with canon, his intellectual inferior.

Over time, though, she becomes his apprentice, sharpening her skills as a detective and choosing a new life path on her own, granted with considerable influence from her time with Holmes. This most recent season in particular, though, has seen her growth and her agency evolve, as major plot points have included a dalliance with Holmes’ brother Mycroft, against Sherlock’s wishes, and her own agency around choosing to move out explicitly because she needs to be her own person, apart from Holmes, while still assisting him with cases. It is, in fact, Holmes ultimate reaction to this that frames the season finale cliffhanger.

Watson’s growing, evolving sense of agency as a function of self-discovery makes her not only one of the most evolved female characters in the history of Holmes interpretations, but one of the most evolved female characters in modern pop culture.

None of this is to say that Sherlock is a poorly constructed show. Quite the opposite. From a writing perspective, it is actually the far superior show. To most shows on television, actually. Moffat is a master of dialogue and his version, on the whole, is vastly more entertaining. At the same time, his female characters are less nuanced and display less agency and complexity than Doherty’s. Doherty’s vision is serviceable as a show, basically on a level with any of a myriad of CBS procedurals, but attaining levels of feminist portrayal unmatched by Moffat.

So the bind is how to evaluate a show that is scoring on all of the things I usually look for in a show, at least technically and artistically. Which is not to say I don’t look for good representations of women, but I don’t usually consider that an evaluation of artistic merit so much as a social merit. But maybe I should start.

The Wharton Web Conference

I’ll be speaking at the Wharton Web Conference on July 15th. I’ll be giving a talk called Links as Language, which you may know from these parts.

Here’s how it looked in 2011.

I’ll be updating it a bit to encompass some new developments.

This is a big deal for me as it is my first truly professional gig as a speaker at a major conference. More than that, it’s a conference I’ve come to know and respect over the years. Former keynoters have included Steve Wozniak and Felicia Day (whom I actually got to meet!). And last year, Anil Dash gave one of my favorite talks of all time.

This year’s keynote comes from danah boyd. I first heard about her after missing her talk at SX and regretting it for the rest of the week as that’s all anyone could talk about. Glad I’ll finally get to hear her speak.

If you live in or near Philly (or just feel like flying out) and have the means, I highly recommend attending. There are a lot of great speakers, including some who are in my time slot (I’m up against Jessica Ivins and NASA, so I won’t complain if you skip).

Hope to see you there!

Net Neutrality and the Moral Hazard of Game Play

We’re about to enter a world where business will reward being nice. This is rare. And it’s about to all come crashing down if net neutrality is overturned.

Right now, if I want to start a business that in any way involves delivering content, the only differentiator is the quality of my content. I pay the same price to deliver that content at the same speed over the web to the same people. I can compete with the largest companies in the world and pay the same price. Other distribution channels, no contest. The corporations win. But if I want to have someone be able to load my web page, it will cost them and me the same. Which makes the only differentiator pleasing the customer. I, as a content creator/business owner, can focus on that. Not on profit.

If, on the other hand, I cannot afford to compete with larger corporations, I cannot get my business off the ground or, at least, the odds change dramatically. This, generally, means fewer good ideas see the light of day. Worse yet, the wrong thing gets rewarded.

The moral hazard of game play is a concept that asserts the power of how a system is incentivized. For example, in school, you are rewarded for getting good grades, not for learning. So, if you can get good grades another way (by, say, cheating) so much the better. Alternative learning structures, like those that will not advance students until they demonstrate understanding of the material by teaching it successfully, or building something that requires understanding of key concepts, reward actual learning.

Currently, we have an internet that leans toward rewarding customer service, user experience, and quality content and, to be fair, the ability to grow an online audience. You can’t buy your way out of those requirements or, at least, your money isn’t the only path to success. If we lose net neutrality, we’ll create an internet that leans toward rewarding profit. The more money you have, the more voice you will have. Which is how it’s been since, well, forever. So, nothing new but, it was nice to think we could have tried something different.

So, to sum up: Net Neturality = Reward good content and treating customers well. No Net Neutrality = Reward making/having lots of money no matter how you treat the customer (or anyone else for that matter).

Proof of Concept

I’ve started a new podcast with my Empathy Lab co-worker Kayne Lermitte called “Proof of Concept“. Basically we talk about digital strategy from the point of view of our changing tech world. The first episode is, naturally enough, about net neutrality and we discuss the idea that just because a big company might have the right to do something, it doesn’t necessarily make it a good idea. Our most recent episode explores the death of scarcity and how we might make money when content becomes infinitely replicable.

You can subscribe via iTunes or go direct to the source.

The One Glass Problem

Picture a room with one glass of water. Into this room you put about a hundred people. Over time, the people get thirsty. They fight. They cheat. They steal for that glass of water. Every day one more glass of water is put into that room. No more. Over time, the weak are weeded out. The most ruthless, deceptive, or powerful survive. Some days one person gets the water. Other days someone else. Some conspire to team up and divide little sips for themselves at the expense of the others. But the few who are left have learned that survival depends upon being cruel and selfish.

This goes on for decades.

One day that same group of people wake up and there’s 100 glasses of water. More than enough for the hard scrabble group still alive. How will they behave? Will they be grateful? Will they smile and relax and say to themselves “Thank God! Now there’s enough for everyone.” ? No. They will behave the same way they always have. It’s how they are now conditioned to respond.

In a condition of abundance, they will behave as if there is scarcity.

To some extent, this is what we’ve been seeing for the last 20 years with old media reacting to digital realities of abundance with a scarcity mentality, be it artificial scarcity imposed via store front frameworks that treat digital goods like physical goods (to a point) or intellectual property plays like digital rights management meant to scare consumers into behaving as if there is one glass in the room.

This is as much a personality thing as anything else. Alpha male behavior like one-upsmanship and lack of cooperation and whoever dies with the most toys wins mentalities are rewarded in the one glass room. They are unecessary, anti-social, and counterproductive in the 100 glass room. But there are learned values at stake. It is offensive, heretical, and downright suicidal to cooperate or give in the one glass room.

The old world is about maximizing profit. The new one is about maximizing satisfaction. Because with 100 glasses in the room you can focus on things like user experience and thick value and still come out ahead.

The profit margins aren’t the same for 100 glasses, but the room is a lot less bloody.

2014 Oscar Preview

So usually I go on and on and on about these things, but this year I’m only going to make predictions in the major categories. And cinematography.

Best Cinematography

The Grandmaster
Inside Llewyn Davis

Will Win: Gravity

Should Win: Gravity

American Cinematographers Society, BAFTA, Critics Choice, and 15 critics circles agree. Also, it’s pretty obvious that good cinematography had something to do with making this movie work.

This is the first film I’ve seen that justifies 3D, in large part because, as Alyssa Rosenberg observes, it understands that the role of 3-D is to pull you in, not push things out at you. Validating 3D is no small feat, much less with camera movement that has to account for all three dimensions being fair game not just for the camera, but for the subjects as well.

(By the way, part of me wants Prisoners to win because, seriously, who has Roger Deakins gotta blow to get a win up in here? This is his 12th nomination!!!)

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

Before Midnight
Captain Phillips
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street 

Will Win: 12 Years a Slave

Should Win: 12 Years a Slave

A critical darling and, had it been eligible for a Writer’s Guild Award, a strong contender, but we’ll never know. Oddsmakers like it, too, with Philomena as an outside spoiler.

I’m tempted to go with Before Midnight here but given the improvisatory nature of much of the dialogue this feels like a weird award to give it over say, Most Fucking Amazing Actor awards for the leads. And adapting what could be an unforgiving narrative in the wrong hands into material that actually moves while still giving the characters room to breathe is an astounding feat.

Writing (Original Screenplay)

American Hustle
Blue Jasmine
Dallas Buyers Club

Will Win: Her

Should Win: Her

Critics Choice, Golden Globe, WGA, and another 12 critics circle wins to boot make this a favorite. Watch out for American Hustle, though, which got some BAFTA love.

As my second favorite film of the year I’d be hard pressed to give it to anyone else. I’ll have 10,000 words or so later on just how awesome Her is, but it manages to get the technology and the human relationships right, which is almost unparalleled in cinema.

Best Supporting Actress

Sally Hawkins—Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence—American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o—12 Years a Slave
Julia Roberts—August: Osage County
June Squibb—Nebraska

Will Win: Lupita Nyong’o

Should Win: Lupita Nyong’o

There’s a fairly decent fight here between Lawrence and Nyong’o, with the former boasting a BAFTA and a Golden Globe and the latter boasting a metric fuckton of critics circle awards and a SAG win. Oddsmakers put Nyong’o over the top, but it’s hard to imagine Hustle will walk away empty handed.

I’ll be honest. I’ve only seen Nyong’o and Lawrence’s performances here, and they’re both fantastic. But Nyong’o digs deeper (kind of has to) and leaves a more lasting impression.

Best Supporting Actor

Barkhad Abdi—Captain Phillips
Bradley Cooper—American Hustle
Michael Fassbender—12 Years a Slave
Jonah Hill—The Wolf of Wall Street
Jared Leto—Dallas Buyers Club

Will Win: Jared Leto

Should Win: Jonah Hill

BAFTAs tried to make this interesting by handing a win to Abdi, but Leto’s got the lock with a Globe, Critics Choice, SAG, and countless circles.

I know I’m supposed to say Fassbender here, and he does give an amazing performance, but I was really impressed with Hill. It felt like a career-defining performance. A Joe Pesci in Goodfellas kind of performance. Then again, I liked Wolf more than most, so I’m prepared to be alone on this one.

Best Actress

Amy Adams—American Hustle
Cate Blanchett—Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock—Gravity
Judi Dench—Philomena
Meryl Streep—August: Osage County

Will Win: Cate Blanchett

Should Win: Brie Larson

The only win that’s more of a lock than Leto is Blanchett. Pick the award, she’s won it. And no, the controversy will not sway the Academy.

That having been said, the controversy was enough to make me uncomfortable enough to not actually get around to watching Blue Jasmine, so I can’t speak authoritatively. I can say that Brie Larson gives one of the most overlooked performances of the year (along with Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station) and this seems as good a place as any to complain about it.

Best Actor

Christian Bale—American Hustle
Bruce Dern—Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio—The Wolf of Wall Street
Chiwetel Ejiofor—12 Years a Slave
Matthew McConaughey—Dallas Buyers Club 

Will Win: Matthew McConaughey

Should Win: Chiwetel Ejiofor

As the awards season unfolded, it really seemed like Ejiofor was the early favorite, but then McConaughey started racking up win after win, garnering a Globe, Critics Choice, and SAG award with only home team BAFTA’s showing Ejiofor the major awards love. Even the oddsmakers consider DiCaprio the next most likely win (possibly based on his Globe win), but I’d like to think of Ejiofor as a spoiler regardless.

McConaughey had an amazing year. An amazing two years, actually. Consider Magic Mike and Bernie last year and Mud, Dallas Buyers Club, and The Wolf of Wall Street this year (and 2014 is off to a good start as well with him absolutely killing it on True Detective). All that having been said, Ejiofor gives an incendiary performance that carries the most satisfyingly difficult film of the year. He has to flex pretty much every muscle an actor has to take Northup through his paces. It’s hard to imagine a more demanding role, and he inhabits it fearlessly.

Best Director

David O. Russell—American Hustle
Alfonso Cuaron—Gravity
Alexander Payne—Nebraska
Steve McQueen—12 Years a Slave
Martin Scorsese—The Wolf of Wall Street 

Will Win: Alfonso Cuaron

Should Win: Steve McQueen

Cuaron has dominated all of the things, but the most notable is the super-predictive (like 90 plus percent) Director’s Guild Award.

Cuaron does an amazing job with Gravity, taking the visual fluidity he experimented with in Children of Men and taking it to a whole new level. I’m convinced he’ll make the next, and probably the best, feature film to be told in a single, continuous shot. But all of the things that make McQueen an amazing director, on display in Hunger and Shame, come to fruition here. This is a film that demands to be seen, and McQueen takes that almost literally, using the long, held shots he refined in his first two films to powerful effect, unflinching in the face of horror but also in the face of hope.

Best Picture

American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf of Wall Street 

Will Win: 12 Years a Slave

Should Win: 12 Years a Slave

The Producers Guild Award really threw a wrench into this one. The first tie in their history. Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. And those are our top contenders. In the end, Slave has racked up more awards. A BAFTA, Critics Choice, and a Globe, not to mention far more circle awards. But that half-win from the PGA ain’t nothing, and neither is Cuaron’s likely directing win (Picture/Director splits are less rare now, but still not the norm). But in the end, and maybe it’s just magical thinking on my part, the oddsmakers are siding with Slave, and that’s good enough for me. But be prepared for Gravity to sneak in here if the Academy decides to go all Color Purple on this one.

12 Years a Slave was my favorite film of the year. Here’s why, but to sum up, we haven’t had any films about slavery from black directors, and this film is why it’s important that we finally did.