We’re Out of Our Goddamn Minds: Mass Effect 3 (spoilers, spoilers, spoilers)

As the title of this post implies, I’m going to jump on the Mass Effect 3 ending critique bandwagon and ride it just this once. Also, as the title warns, there are spoilers, but why would you be reading a post about the end of Mass Effect 3 if you hadn’t finished it already?

At first, there was a shitstorm of criticism about the ending to this game, because outwardly it makes no sense and leaves a lot of unanswered questions. What happens to your teammates and former teammates: Tali, Garrus, Wrex, Jack, et al? What happens to all the fleets in orbit around Earth? And why the fuck is Joker flying the Normandy–your ship–through the Mass Relay, away from Earth? These are pretty valid questions. Shamus Young, writer of the Experienced Points column on The Escapist website made good points in an article about the controversy. It feels weird for me to explain this, because most of the people I know who would be reading this are certified experts in literature (teachers, journalists, and former English majors working at Starbucks) and high-grade film snobs, but Young points out the three things a good story needs, as far as the ending goes: Affirmation, Explanation, and Closure. Essentially, this is what the result is of all the hard work the characters put in, why it happened (what universal truth do we learn), and what happens to the characters and those associated with them after their victory or defeat. As far as I can tell, not one of these three ideas are adequately addressed at the end of Mass Effect 3.

The Indoctrination Theory

There is a theory, gaining support on the Web, that Shepard was indoctrinated by the Reapers from the moment s/he came into contact with the first Reaper of the series, Sovereign. If you’d like to see an example of a decent explanation of this theory, check out this YouTube video (if you don’t want to sit through 20+ minutes of video, keep reading). The video’s a bit convoluted and there’s a lot of text to keep up with, so the guy from The Angry Joe Show has a video explaining it a bit better.

Those are long and sometimes repetitive, so here’s a basic synopsis. The entry on Reaper indoctrination in the codex in ME3 states that those who are indoctrinated suffer from headaches, hearing buzzing sounds, hallucinations, and so on. The Rachni queen in ME1 tells you that the Rachi’s songs (their method of telepathic communication) were clouded with oily figures. Shepard suffers from headaches after exposure to the Prothean artifact on Eden Prime (where the Reaper Sovereign was also present). The rogue, indoctrinated Spectre Saren was very adamant about joining (synthesis) with the Reapers. In ME2 “The Arrival” (downloadable content), Shepard is exposed to a Reaper artifact that causes hallucinations and headaches. In ME3, the child Shepard sees at the beginning can also be seen running into the same building outside of which we fight the first Husks of the game, and which is blown up and set aflame by a Reaper laser. The indoctrination theory writes the kid off as dead at this point. Anderson doesn’t seem to notice him, and later, when the shuttles are being loaded, the soldiers don’t hurry him aboard. Later, Shepard has weird, dark dreams involving the kid and oily shadow figures. Also, James asks you what some buzzing noise is.

More evidence for this theory is the eyes of the indoctrinated. Eyes of Saren and the Husks are a turquoise-blue with two concentric circles and two dots as the irises. We see this later in ME2 in the eyes of the Illusive Man, whose goal, it turns out, is to control the Reapers through their own technology. When you choose either the Control or Synthesis endings to ME3, and the energy appears to be burning burning Shepard away, you see the same eyes, more or less in him/her.

More evidence claimed relies heavily on the charge to the beam in London and the final conversations on the Citadel/Crucible. The video claims that the instant Shepard is fried by Harbinger’s laser, everything that follows is not real (7:08 in the first video: “The next scenes can’t be real. That is a fact.”). I’ll address the factualness of that “fact” later. What does seem to be a fact is the presence of the trees and shrubs from the dream sequences behind you as you stagger toward the beam. Another fact is the infinite ammo pistol you get so you can dispatch the last Husks and poor, poor Marauder Shields. Also facts are the straight shot to the console when aboard the Citadel, Anderson’s displacement in time and space, and the Illusive Man’s appearance from … somewhere. This also happens: you shoot Anderson in the gut when the Illusive Man busts out some angry Reaper-based mojo. You also happen to be bleeding from the gut. The god-child appears as the child from earlier in the game and, subsequently, Shepard’s dreams.

The rest of the theory goes that the Control and Synthesis options are not the “correct” options–that they’re tricks that end up in indoctrination for everybody and are to be avoided. This holds some water because, interestingly, the morally dodgy choices in ME2 of saving Genophage data (created through barbarous means) and giving the Collector base to the Illusive Man (seen as repugnant because he’ll just use it for evil) turn out to save lives in ME3. Saving the data saves the Krogan woman, Eve, thus rallying the Krogan fully to your cause. And saving the Collector base yields the computing power of the destroyed Human Reaper head, supposedly adding to the effectiveness of the Crucible. Those were Paragon/Renegade tricks, so why shouldn’t the end of the game be one too? Answers to that in a minute.

So if we combine all that with Sovereign’s soliloquy about how everything they’ve done (Mass Relays, technology left behind, indoctrination, etc) is to guide organic life in a certain direction, and the Prothean VI’s explanation on Thessia about something else guiding the Reapers (and thus the patterns of extinction), you can come to a theory that Shepard was indoctrinated the whole time.

Eine Kleine Counterargument

I’m a big fan of strategy games, and one of the first rules in chess–and in debate, or at least its modern incarnations–is to never play on your opponent’s terms. The first video I linked in this post states at the end that any counter argument to the indoctrination theory must (must!) answer a series of questions, which, of course, it provides. Luckily, I’m not out to debate anything. I’ve found that little truth can be found in picking sides, and the truth I’m attempting to find in this post isn’t the merit of the indoctrination theory, but the worthiness of the ending to Mass Effect 3. Still, I think providing the posited questions and my answers to them may help iron out issues with the ending as a whole. So here they are in order. Some I’ve answered pretty thoroughly, others I couldn’t answer well at all.

What do the dreams mean?

Dreams often manifest as a collection and parsing out of events, images, and psychological issues. Those who played ME3 for a few hours after first getting it may have had interesting and thematically relevant dreams that night. Someone who just saw a child murdered by a giant robot, and who has been in a constant state of battle since before the Mass Effect series started is bound to be stressed enough to have nightmarish recurring dreams.

Why does nobody notice the boy?

In the beginning, Anderson is checking out the next room, which was on fire and possibly full of Husks, so he probably wasn’t paying attention. The fact that the boy disappears silently after Shepard looks away means nothing. It’s a common device for creating tension. Also, the boy is in the duct work, and the destruction of the building doesn’t necessarily mean his death, though it would be hard to imagine his survival. At the launching pad, the Destroyer is looming overhead and soldiers are shooting at Cannibals and Husks, and are probably too occupied to grab the kid. The doors to the shuttle don’t close until the kid’s on, so perhaps someone noticed.

Why would Shepard be immune to indoctrination?

Possibly for the same reason Shepard’s the only one (aside from a Reaper-modified Saren) who can survive the mind meld the Prothean beacon lays down on him/her in the first game. S/he is strong willed and a unique specimen of humanity and organic life. It’s possibly the same reason s/he was being considered as humanity’s first Spectre. (Even considering Cerberus’ investment in the matter, Shepard would still have to be top notch to convince the council.) Granted, Saren was supposed to be special, too, and strength of will has its limits. But the hero of this game could never be an Average Joe type, and had to be kind of a superhuman in some way or another.

Why does Harbinger take a special interest in Shepard?

Because Shepard killed Sovereign. A single person figuring out how to murder a killer robot as old as time should garner that kind of attention.

Why are there trees from the dream around the beam?

Supposedly, Shepard is mortally wounded. When people are near death, they supposedly sometimes hallucinate, even seeing people or things from the past.

Why does your sidearm have infinite ammo?

A plot device, perhaps. Perhaps the same reason time slows down when you have to kill Eva the evil Cerberus robot and make the final shot on the Reaper on Rannoch. It’s perhaps a game-based manifestation of intense focus that’s designed to get the player from Point A to Point B with as few frustrating retries as possible. Can you imagine trying to get past Marauder Shields with just a pistol if he had the same stats as the Marauders you faced just minutes ago in the missile defense mission?

Why does the beam lead directly to the panel that opens the Citadel’s arms?

I’m going to interpret this as a gameplay point. If we’re going to be stuck in slow motion for the duration, players aren’t going to be amenable to wandering through corridors for 15 or 20 minutes, especially if we’re not allowed to save at this point.

Why are there corpses everywhere on the Citadel, just like on the Collector ship?

There was a conversation about the beam’s purpose, which was to take people up to the Citadel. And the characters assumed it was to grind people up to create another Reaper like the one in ME2. If that’s true, the bodies make sense. If it’s not, then the beam is simply a plot device to get us onto the Citadel, at which point it makes no sense within the story (unless you’re a diehard believer in the indoctrination theory) and we see some lazy writing start to surface.

How did Anderson enter the beam before Shepard?

Unknown. Perhaps Anderson wasn’t knocked out before reaching the beam, as Shepard was.

Why was Anderson teleported to another location and how did he arrive at the panel first?

If people are being led to the beam by the hundreds, they can’t all appear in the same place. The beam has to scatter them (in a controlled way) so they don’t beam into each other. It’s possible he beamed into that very room, or into another that we don’t get to see because it complicates gameplay.

How did Hackett know that Shepard made it to the Citadel after Hammer was destroyed?

That’s not clear. Perhaps Anderson checked in without telling Shepard. Perhaps the transmitter is an implant and has a tracker.

Why is Shepard bleeding at the same spot Anderson was shot?

Shepard is holding that spot on his/her body as he walks down the hallway with the Keeper. It’s a previous wound, probably from Harbinger’s blast.

How come the Normandy escapes with Shepard’s last two squad mates?

That wasn’t true in my game. I went through the last battle on Earth with Liara and Garrus, but the Normandy scene on the unknown planet included Joker, EDI, and Liara. Looks like Garrus pulled the short straw. Still, why would they flee through the Mass Relay? If Shepard is really dead or dying, they have no more reason to stay, unless they wanted to keep fighting. If Joker saw the energy bubble coming out of the Crucible, perhaps survival instinct would tell him to turn tail and run.

Wouldn’t the explosion of Mass Relays cause supernova-like destruction as put forth in The Arrival DLC?

It would seem so, unless destruction via Crucible energy is much more controlled than blowing one up with an asteroid. This just seems to be a hole with no answer as far as the ending of the game is concerned, and doesn’t have much bearing on the validity of an indoctrination theory.

Why can’t Shepard kill the Keepers or Anderson?

Probably for the same reason you can’t just go on a murder spree on the Citadel (before Reaper control) or shoot Udina in his office in the first game. There’s no point to it and it would needlessly complicate things.

What is the growl that Shepard hears on the Citadel?

If the Citadel is Reaper tech or related to Reaper tech, it probably makes the same kinds of noises that the Reapers do when it’s in destroy-the-galaxy mode. That or the growl can from outside, because in Mass Effect, we can hear shit in space.

Before I move on…

Before I move on, there are additional questions raised by the video on indoctrination theory.

If everything that happens after Shepard gets knocked out on the ground is not real as the video states, and all of it is an internal struggle in Shepard’s mind, how are any of the endings possible? Shepard never makes it to the Citadel, never not-shoots Anderson, never shoots/suicides the Illusive Man, never confronts the god-child, and never destroys, controls, or becomes one with the Reapers. The Mass Relays never have a reason to blow up. The Reapers are not destroyed; nor are the Geth, nor anyone aboard a starship. Shepard somehow makes it to a pile of rubble instead of staying where s/he was blasted by Harbinger. In short, the last-sequence-as-hallucination theory makes no sense because if the trip to the Citadel is a dying dream, then there is no choice and there is no ending.

The eyes as a sign of indoctrination. Indoctrination is essentially becoming one with the Reapers, however that comes about. The Illusive Man had the eyes, as did Saren and the Husks (now sing Saren and the Husks like “Bennie and the Jets–tell me when you get that out of your head). We don’t see the eyes in Shepard until the actual Control or Synthesis endings. It’s not necessarily true that Shepard had those eyes all along because we just see them once Shepard is changing–not necessarily burning away. It’s possible that the process of control or synthesis makes that happen and we’re watching their creation.

Does it Matter?

Ooh, I know this sounds like a cop-out question, but stick with me. The indoctrination theory is all well and good. I honestly don’t care if it’s the ending BioWare meant to have. What I do care about is how it was executed. Assuming the indoctrination theory is “correct,” it was so obtuse that it took players many weeks and philosophy classes to suss it out. If we’re going to talk about what’s correct, though, let’s start with not having an epic 120+ hour sci-fi game series that has an ending so ambiguous that it has to be explained by literary theorists and Internet philosophers.

However we got to that ending, indoctrination or something else, the choices we are given–Control, Synthesis, or Destruction–yield only one slightly different ending narrative out of three possibilities. Is that OK with everybody? Can we just have a big goddamn zero at the end of this epic? That kind of final erasure of characters, setting, and motivation is a device used to fuck with an audience. Ren and Stimpy did it in the “Space Madness” episode to comic effect, but that was less than twenty minutes long. And Inception did it to say something about a world in which reality was truly a relative thing, but that was about two hours long. A hero-based story about, collecting allies, making moral decisions, fostering peace and cooperation between enemies, and beating the odds during the attempted destruction of organic life by giant robotic shellfish needs an equally impressive ending. I say this not because this is an entertainment product and I expect an entertainment product ending. I say this because the story we got in all three games, up until about two-thirds of the way through ME3 is not about a zero sum game.

Hey, Wait! Nihilism?

It could be argued that BioWare always wanted this series to come down to a big fat zero. Hell, the first Spectre we meet is named Nihlus, and he gets shot in the back of the head just as the first mission is beginning. And if you look at each game as a progression, there’s not a lot of real progress made. Let’s say you save the council and put up Anderson as your recommendation for the first human councilmember. In ME2 Udina is still pretty much running the show. If you let the council perish, and set up Udina instead, there’s still an alien council in the second game. Nothing changes. In ME2 the decisions you make can cost the lives of your squad mates and crewmen aboard the Normandy, but in the third game, anyone who dies is either replaced by someone unknown but equally competent, or is completely nonexistent and unable to help you gather the resources you need. Destroying or saving (controlling, anyone?) the Collector base determines whether or not you have a super fast computer for the Crucible. Does any of this make a difference in the end? Not really. Apparently, the amount of resources you gather determines how many of the three final choices are available to you. But this still doesn’t give you the satisfaction of knowing whether you did the right thing. Everyone is still dead or stranded on a distant planet, future genetic stability from initial population not looking great. So what are we to believe–that we made all those decisions, saved all those lives, and rescued all those people from slavers, mad scientists, and Reapers for nothing? Not even the indoctrination theory answers this.

So who shall we tell to go fuck themselves?

The initial reaction is to get up in BioWare’s grill about this. It’s their story, their game, and their mistake. This is bolstered by the hints dropped (see the second video I linked earlier) that BioWare has something else coming that will fill all these holes. So, wait, they released an incomplete game? What a bunch of asswipes, right? But since when is this not a commonly accepted practice in the videogame industry? The Call of Duty and Medal of Honor series do this, and charge players extra money, without blinking an eye. The Mass Effect series itself has about $57 (about the cost of ME3) of extra in-game usable content, including “The Arrival,” which is apparently a key to understanding the indoctrination theory. And the people complaining bought it all with minimal griping. So let’s say that it is true: Mass Effect 3 isn’t really the end, but is sort of a Breaking Dawn, Part 1 and that the true ending is really a DLC or two away. That’d be OK, right?

No. Not right. Not right at all. Mass Effect 3 was sold to the public at least implicitly as the third and final chapter to a great series, after which BioWare would clean their hands of it and move on to bigger and better projects. It wasn’t sold to us as a dead horse that we’d have to beat with a new sticks, which BioWare would sell us once the old ones wore out, until they could find a way to write a good ending. And then we could all learn to love again.

But maybe it’s our fault. Maybe we’re the indoctrinated ones, following the destructive path of videogame logic so blithely that we don’t see what’s right in front of us. Maybe by spending those 120+ hours playing games instead of reading books and interacting with real people, we’ve become so stupid that we don’t know a good ending when we see one. Maybe they were right when they said I should have gone into plastics.

The other possibility is that they lost their goddamn minds and/or fired their best writers (or sent them to work on their Star Wars project) right before they got to the last pages in the script. But, the general consensus seems to be, this is the company that put together two engaging and immensely enjoyable games, and made an improvement upon those in the third game until the very end.

Hell, even Han got boarded sometimes.

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PG-13: Our New Crutch

Let me get this out of the way first: I liked the Hunger Games movie overall. I liked the acting and the pacing of the story. I also liked the book series. But that doesn’t for a second mean that it’s a sacred cow and that I’m not going to complain about certain things. Also, past this point, there be spoilers, so if you haven’t read the books or seen the movie and don’t want to know what happens (the dog dies in the end), go away.

Great. Now that we’re alone, get out the lotion, because this one might be a little rough. I went and saw Hunger Games yesterday, and something struck me as odd and somewhat off-putting. That something was the camera work. Through the vast majority of the movie, the camera bounces around, which is a technique usually employed when there’s a lot of rough action, like running up a hostile beach (Saving Private Ryan) or away from a zombie horde (Dawn of the Dead), and which are appropriate when the characters in Hunger Games are actually running. But the shaky-cam is in almost every scene, it seems: conversations in the woods, character close-ups during the Reaping, and pretty much any time we really needed to focus on the grief or horror of a situation. We need those scenes to hang in the air so we could feel that noose tighten, but director Gary Ross keeps literally shaking us loose from that focus by not allowing those important moments to breathe.

Something else on the shaky cam. It is usually used for action sequences because it’s a plot enhancer, and doesn’t necessarily convey the emotional state of a character. It gives the illusion of rapid movement, which can bring the audience’s adrenaline level up, but that energy rush is not emotional content. The emotional content is what we see the characters doing in that scene. In Saving Private Ryan, for example, there are soldiers who are madly scrambling up the beach, but there are others who are calm and collected, which is something that lets us understand much more about who they will be later on in the story. During the calm moments, the camera is calm because we need to see how the previously mad-dash and steady characters each react to the non-action. The trouble with the cinematography in Hunger Games is that in those shaky-cam sequences, there’s so much of it that we can’t really tell which character we’re looking at, never mind how they’re reacting to the imminent threat of death. It’s clearly a stylistic choice to show the madness and confusion of the bloody brawl in front of the Cornucopia, but it doesn’t have to be turned up to eleven. There are quiet, still moments in the film, but not nearly enough of them when it really counts, when we most need to see a character act outside the threat of death. This is why, among other reasons that aren’t within the scope of this post, characters aren’t as strong as they should be.

Now here’s the real complaint. The shaky-cam action sequences don’t convey a sense of panic as much as they hide the grisly brutality of the Hunger Games. One of the reasons why the books are so compelling is that they are open about the violence and callousness that are central to the story. It’s a series of books about children killing each other, and then learning that it’s a better idea to kill the adults instead. The book and the movie end with the main characters telling the people who supposedly control them, “Nope. We’re not doing it your way anymore. We’d rather kill ourselves.” This is a grim, violent series, with a grim, violent ending. There’s nothing happy about it.

But, the argument goes, the book series is labeled as young-adult, and the target demographic is 12-21, so we need to get a PG-13 rating so the young readers can see the film. Bull shit, man! How is it that we can have a teen/tween audience read a book where, among other atrocities, a twelve-year-old girl is practically disemboweled, but should there be a movie made, we have to tone down the violence. Suzanne Collins keeps reminding us in the books that the audiences in the districts have to watch the unfiltered violence on television. Fine, but we’re not those people, are we? We’re just watching a movie. Should we have to watch that kind of violence? No. Not all the time, but in this case, yes. The story is inseparable from the brutality, and it’s a bit dishonest to suppress that in the movie. It’s true that a film’s success largely depends on grabbing the right demographic, but at some point, you have to take a stand for the integrity of the work and tell the folks down in marketing to get with the program. The books, if rated, would be slapped with a big, bold R, so why should we nerf the movies? Most (I’d say 75%) of the people I saw waiting in line and in the theater for Hunger Games were seventeen or older, and I’ve never known anyone who had trouble getting into an R movie underage. Is getting that 25% into the theaters with no questions asked so important that it’s worth changing the movie?

I bring up artistic integrity because grief, anger, and panic are the driving forces of the books largely because we know exactly what kind of danger our characters face, both in the arena and in the districts. If we nerf that danger, something has to replace it. In this case that something is going to be the love triangle, which is the hallmark of teen/tween-centric entertainment. The love triangle in the Hunger Games books never really worked because it always felt artificial. Gale had no real character development until the end of Catching Fire, so the obvious answer always seemed to be right in front of Katniss. Making her pine after Gale, and be kind of sad to have to settle down with Peeta at the end of the series never really worked because it didn’t feel organic. In the film version, taking Katniss out of her head and viewing her from the outside did a lot to make that love triangle seem more natural. But, again, that was never the driving force of the story. Taking the sense of danger out of the movies (if there are more on the way) will force them to be about the love triangle. And, dear God, we don’t need another Twilight.

Not a shield.

Celebrity Zombie Apocalypse

Now that the second season of The Walking Dead is about three months away, I thought I’d start a series of theme posts as a sort of countdown. As a first post in the countdown, I’m going to list the seven famous people I’d want in my general vicinity as survivors during the zombie apocalypse, in no particular order.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

This may seem like an odd choice, but I have my reasons. First, he may be older and slower than he used to be, but he can still probably swing an axe with devastating results. Also, as someone who used to train physically, he could help develop a physical exercise regimen for those in the group who are less in shape. Also, say what you will about his role as the former governor of California, he does have charisma and leadership experience. Also, as an action movie star, he has held all sorts of weapons, which, even if he hasn’t fired a real weapon at a real target, means he still has more experience than many potential survivors.

 

Ken Jeong

Yes. The insane naked guy from The Hangover. Not only is he funny as hell, which would boost morale among the group, but the man is a doctor. Really. IMDB tells me that he earned his MD at the University of North Carolina and completed his residency in New Orleans. Every group needs a doctor, especially one that can make you laugh after you’ve blown off one of your toes because your total firearms experience amounts to mowing down pedestrians in Grand Theft Auto.

 

Anthony Bourdain

Again, there is a class of person that every group needs, and the one I think is most overlooked is a chef: someone who knows how to cook food fast and efficiently, but also has culinary knowledge of wild plants, animals, and fungi. It also helps that professional chefs tend to have a high tolerance for pain and stress, since they spend many hours of their sleepless lives surrounded by fire and yelling. It also helps that they know how to use a variety of knives. Honestly, this was a toss-up between Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern (of Bizarre Foods) because I thought the latter might have more experience in finding and eating stuff that other survivors might skip over. What I really wanted to weigh in my mind was the handicap each one brings to the group. Bourdain is practically a chain smoker, and Zimmern is a little on the heavy side. I chose Bourdain because during the zombie apocalypse, he’d eventually have to quit smoking, for lack of cigarettes, and during his withdrawal period, I can imagine that he’d go totally sick-house on some zombies.

 

Lisa Kudrow

She’s not a doctor, but she does have a science degree and is incredibly insightful. She also trained with the Groundlings, an improv troupe that is famous for having its graduates move on to shows like SNL. That kind of sharp, quick thinking would be crucial in assessing many situations, and in helping keep coherency within the group.

 

Adam Savage

Truthfully, I’d like both of the Mythbusters guys in the group, but if I had to choose just one, I’d go with the one who I think would get a total kick out of the zombie apocalypse, and I feel like that would be Adam. The reason I’d want a Mythbuster in the group is simple: fortifications. Experience in construction is essential when fortifying a place to shack up for the night. It also helps to have knowledge of what commonly found chemicals could be weaponized. Eventually, a group of survivors is going to have to start making their own bullets and bombs, and Adam certainly has experience with things that go boom.

 

Joe Rogan

This one was kind of a no-brainer. He’s a funny dude, which means higher morale, but he’s also a trained kickboxer and has knowledge of various fighting and training techniques. Also, as a comedian and the former host of Fear Factor, he has had to work hostile rooms and has seen people do really dumb shit for money, so he would be a good go-to guy for feeling out the intentions of other groups of survivors.

 

Don Cheadle

Seriously, who wouldn’t want Don Cheadle in their survivor group? He’s the all-around guy that you need in a group–someone who can do anything because he has done everything, if not in real life, then in his mind. This is a guy that, when you see him in a role, you don’t see him–you see the character. That kind of devoted person is something more crucial to the survival of a group than guns, axes, medicine, or leadership, because he is the living embodiment of the will to survive. Also, he was War Machine.

 

Generally, I think the idea of having a celebrity group of zombie apocalypse survivors is a recipe for disaster. Egos will inevitably clash, someone’s pride will take a hit, and the whole enterprise will come crashing down. When I think of celebrities holding out against the zombie hordes, I think of a certain scene in World War Z and shiver. Even in The Walking Dead, one man who has a certain expectation of authority is enough to fray a group’s nerves. Two men of that ilk in the same group is a recipe for chaos. Seven people with celebrity status in the same group? Better hope you get rescued quickly.

“Teats”

My roommates and I were sitting around last night and during a description of a person not in our collective circle of friends, I heard what I thought was the word “teats.” I thought, out loud, that “teats” seemed a little to agricultural to be used as a word describing another person. Of course, the word actually used was not “teats.” Imagine my disappointment. While kind of a base way of talking about a woman, the word itself is great. And it’s so much better than “tits” or “titties” because it’s a high, chirping sound, pleasant to the ear, while the aforementioned alternatives sound flat and uninteresting. Still, using the much more aurally interesting “teats” around a human woman is awkward and should be avoided.

The word was stuck with me for the rest of the night and on through the next morning, and prompted some rather psychotic-looking giggling while on the subway. I didn’t even have my headphones with me, so I couldn’t use the excuse that I was laughing at something on my iPod. I was just sitting there giggling to myself like an asshole. Anyway, what sparked the giggling in the first place was the sight of one of those people–there’s gotta be one every single morning–who had some enormous suitcase on wheels and was trying to drag it around the station while sucking on one of those sweet Starbucks blended whatevers with the domed plastic top. I saw this and thought that maybe, as a species, we’re regressing maybe just a little if we’d rather suckle on some sweet teat than walk comfortably. I mean, the suitcase was flying everywhere, not even on its wheels half the time, crashing in to wall and people, and this idiot was just stumbling around suckling on it like it was mother’s milk. Honestly, if we’re going to have forty-year-old men sucking frozen coffee out of clear plastic teats, can’t we get bars to put rubber nipples on the tops of shot glasses? Because that’s what I want. I want a shot of whiskey, but I don’t want to shoot it–no, no! I want to suck it directly from a plastic teat! I want to suckle from a whiskey teat while wandering around the airport looking for my gate, because this is a free country, god damn it, and if we’re going to regress, we ought to do it with that American can-do attitude.

I think that bit broke down a little toward the end, but it’s a first draft.

A Little Levity: Codpieces, an Illustrated Guide

What with the earthquakes, tsunami waves, and damages nuclear reactors, this week has been particularly tumultuous for many people, and tensions remain high as the health and safety of millions, and potentially billions of people hang in the balance. So, without further ado, I present…

Great Codpieces in History, Vol. I

There are great and numerous drunken arguments that attempt to determine the greatest codpiece in the history of humanity. I’m just going to cut to the chase here and posit that there is no single greatest codpiece, and that there may never be one so gloriously over the top that it would outshine them all—literally, perhaps. But this does not make all codpieces equal. The best way to prove these codpiece-related ideas may not be a best-of list, but simply a chronological list of notable codpieces throughout history. Let’s begin, shall we?

1. Hot Nuts in Warm Places: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne (1759-1766)

It is not my business to dip my pen in this controversy—much undoubtedly may be wrote on both sides of the question—all that concerns me as an historian, is to represent the matter of fact, and render it credible to the reader, that the hiatus in Phutatorius’s breeches was sufficiently wide to receive the chesnut;—and that the chesnut, somehow or other, did fall perpendicularly, and piping hot into it, without Phutatorius’s perceiving it, or any one else at that time.

The genial warmth which the chesnut imparted, was not undelectable for the first twenty or five-and-twenty seconds—and did no more than gently solicit Phutatorius’s attention towards the part:—But the heat gradually increasing, and in a few seconds more getting beyond the point of all sober pleasure, and then advancing with all speed into the regions of pain, the soul of Phutatorius, together with all his ideas, his thoughts, his attention, his imagination, judgment, resolution, deliberation, ratiocination, memory, fancy, with ten battalions of animal spirits, all tumultuously crowded down, through different defiles and circuits, to the place of danger, leaving all his upper regions, as you may imagine, as empty as my purse.

With the best intelligence which all these messengers could bring him back, Phutatorius was not able to dive into the secret of what was going forwards below, nor could he make any kind of conjecture, what the devil was the matter with it: However, as he knew not what the true cause might turn out, he deemed it most prudent in the situation he was in at present, to bear it, if possible, like a Stoick; which, with the help of some wry faces and compursions of the mouth, he had certainly accomplished, had his imagination continued neuter;—but the sallies of the imagination are ungovernable in things of this kind—a thought instantly darted into his mind, that tho’ the anguish had the sensation of glowing heat—it might, notwithstanding that, be a bite as well as a burn; and if so, that possibly a Newt or an Asker, or some such detested reptile, had crept up, and was fastening his teeth—the horrid idea of which, with a fresh glow of pain arising that instant from the chesnut, seized Phutatorius with a sudden panick, and in the first terrifying disorder of the passion, it threw him, as it has done the best generals upon earth, quite off his guard:—the effect of which was this, that he leapt incontinently up, uttering as he rose that interjection of surprise so much descanted upon, with the aposiopestic break after it, marked thus, Z…ds—which, though not strictly canonical, was still as little as any man could have said upon the occasion;—and which, by-the-bye, whether canonical or not, Phutatorius could no more help than he could the cause of it.

Though this has taken up some time in the narrative, it took up little more time in the transaction, than just to allow time for Phutatorius to draw forth the chesnut, and throw it down with violence upon the floor—and for Yorick to rise from his chair, and pick the chesnut up. (2: LXII)

If this was too lengthy or flowery for your sensibilities, our narrator, Mr. Shandy, describes the reactions of a man who is unfortunate enough to have a hot chestnut roll off the table and into his loose codpiece. It is a classic 18th-century slapstick scene, and must be appreciated as such.

2. Do You Bite Your Codpiece at Me, Sir? Romeo and Juliet, dir. Franco Zeffirelli (1968)

I’m sure that there were codpieces aplenty in Shakespeare’s time, but the grapefruit-sized lumps in the trousers of the male actors helped this production take the Oscar for Best Costume Design at the 1969 Academy Awards. Perhaps The King’s Speech could have taken the costume design category this year if only Colin Firth had had the courage to make the cock-pocket sacrifice.

3. Malcolm McDowell’s DeLarge: A Clockwork Orange, dir. Stanley Kubrick (1971)

Again, let’s not dwell on the source material when we have wonderful little images like the one above. Perhaps the more frightening thing about this particular codpiece is the very real possibility that we might just see what’s under it, and it could be the last thing we ever see.

4. Sean Connery’s Floating Head: Zardoz, dir. John Boorman (1974)

Say what you will about the movie, but don’t say it here. This is not a film review. After the obvious, there’s really not much to say about this fine piece of pelvic craftsmanship. It speaks for itself, and is one of the prime examples of a codpiece thought by some to be the greatest in all of cinematic history. We shall see.

5. Humungus’s Humungous: The Road Warrior, dir. George Miller (1981)

Who gives a hot fuck about Mel Gibson prancing around in the desert, when you’ve got a badass like Lord Humungus? Yes, the studded leather pouch makes him an aristocrat. It’s right here in the rules. Look it up.

6. Sting’s Meat Shield: Dune, dir. David Lynch (1984)

This here is another hotly contested Most Glorious Codpiece Ever nominee. Not only is it a character in itself, but it is one of the best parts of this movie, second only to Sting, who chews up every molecule of scenery around him except for this bulletproof cock blocker.

7. The Silver Lining: Labyrinth, dir. Jim Henson (1986)

This one is subtle, for a while, until you see it, and then you see nothing else. Allow me to demonstrate.

Now look back at the first picture. Notice anything different? If you look closely at the credits to this movie, you’ll see that David Bowie’s giant codpiece has its own billing. The ‘80s were a very progressive time in the film industry.

8. Cameo’s Cameo: “Word Up” (1986)

The year of our Lord 1986 yielded a bumper crop of fantastical codpieces, the wearing of which seemed to be spearheaded by musicians. Cameo’s “Word Up” music video is nutty enough on its own, but this red latex monstrosity makes it one of those videos you show to teenagers when explaining what the ‘80s were like. Want a closer look?

not pictured: years of therapy

It all makes sense now, doesn’t it?

9. Comics Get Cocky: Doom Patrol #70 (1993)

Before you ask, yes, that’s a laser cannon strapped to his crotch. Apparently it doubled as the kind of power tool a Cosmopolitan sex advice columnist could come up with. And, yes again, his name was Codpiece. Comic books in the early ‘90s went completely off the rails. I don’t know if it was the heroin, grunge rock, or just post-Cold War ennui, but the lives and costumes of superheroes and supervillains got really weird. Thank goodness we’re past all that now.

10. Stallone’s Detective Shield: Judge Dredd, dir. Danny Cannon (1995)

Again with the crazy comic book stuff gone horribly wrong. At least this time it was its transition to film that caused the real weirdness. Oh well. At least it’s not particularly memorable.

11. Sex Machine: From Dusk Till Dawn, dir. Robert Rodriguez (1996)

I’m not sure what it was about the ‘90s and dick guns, but they certainly were big back then. Perhaps without the Internet being as big as it is now, memes didn’t burn themselves out so quickly. Still, this one, like a very few lolcat macros, stands out in the sea of cock rockets because of its inventiveness and practicality.

There are many, many more codpieces out there, some fantastical, some dignified, and some just plain obscene. Perhaps, one day, we will catalog them all, stand back and gaze upon our collection, and finally find the best one of them all. Until then, however, the search continues. Onwards and upwards, lads.

Efficiency

The Best Thing Since the Wheel

I once made an argument that the rifled gun barrel was the most important invention in human history since the wheel. Granted, it was somewhat facetious, but still well researched. Unfortunately, since a computer crash ages ago took out many old files, I no longer have the original text, but I will try to piece together the argument and evidence as well as I can from memory. The first thing I am usually asked—before I can even get to it, you impatient bastards—is, “What about the Internet?” And my reply has always been, “Shut your yap. I’m getting there.” (The second thing I’m asked is usually, “Why are you doing this to me?” To which I reply, “Just stop struggling, or I won’t be able to make a clean cut.”)

pictured: cheap suit

Anyhoo, one cannot look at the progression of technology as simply a beneficial agent in the evolution of humanity. To gauge something’s importance we must look at it through the other things it helps bring about. Unfortunately, that puts us in sort of a quandary: where do we start? One might argue that we should start at the invention of gunpowder, clearly a game changer, and certainly the beginning of a new era of human evolution. Counterpoint to that, though, is the notion that gunpowder was around for a couple hundred years before someone figured out a better, more efficient way of killing. While gunpowder certainly made killing easier, it wasn’t necessarily more efficient, and it didn’t particularly change the way people did battle or lived their lives—it was simply a bigger badder version of what was already out there. Soldiers still maneuvered in neat columns, met on prearranged fields, and, when they ran out of shot, they still did much of their battle hand-to-hand. People still lived in more or less closed communities, and while they knew almost everything about a twenty-five-mile-radius circle of the world, events beyond the horizon were often irrelevant. Efficiency, rather than a step up the ladder, was a lateral move that opened up room for much more upward technological movement.

At some point, it became necessary to stop unnecessarily wasting lives by lining men up in fields and having them shred each other with increasingly large weapons. Someone figured out that if you could stand a mile away and shoot the guys operating the man-shredding artillery, you could then just have the rest of your guys walk over and take the territory with a lot less hassle. The other guys, understandably irked by this trend, would develop (or steal) these rifles and then try and shoot the guys who were shooting their artillerymen and officers. And thus was born the sniper: a man separate from the line of battle, who would shoot important targets and other snipers in order to disrupt the enemy lines. This also allowed, in normal life, people to hunt for food over much longer and safer distances than before, with accuracy and killing power that made providing food much easier and much less risky.

Back in battle, though, we now see fewer open columns on open fields, and we see front lines growing farther and farther apart as the range and accuracy of standard infantry weaponry increases. We also see the standardization and mass production (efficiency again!) of ammunition, which allows for such innovations as the machinegun.

Cover is more important if the enemy can hit you easily from several hundred yards away, or can spray hundreds of bullets a minute at you when you get close. In order to flush men out from cover and make them vulnerable to the more accurate rifles and machineguns, artillery adopts the rifled barrel, increasing accuracy and range. But then the enemy starts shielding their locations with new building materials and techniques, some of which have applications in the civilian sector, improving the quality of life for the home base. To penetrate these shielded locations, bigger payloads must be used, which means innovations in explosives technology and in manufacturing and machine building.

With men and equipment spread over a wide area, quick, efficient communication becomes increasingly important. The horse messenger gives way to the telegraph, but since telegraph lines historically follow the railroads, they are a little easy to find and cut. Telephone lines can be put up wherever, and are great until they, too, are cut. Radio is easy, and, as time and technology move on, the equipment for it becomes smaller, lighter, and easy to carry. The main drawback is that anyone can listen to radio signals, so coding has to become a very serious art. Finding a less breakable code becomes more and more important, but there is only so much that a human coder can do in a given amount of time, so we start building machines that can do the calculating and coding for us.

Between wars, these inventions make their way into the public sector, improving the quality of infrastructure, manufacturing, transportation, shipping, medicine, and agriculture. And as a natural extension of the one original change toward efficiency, people finally created the machines that gave rise to the Internet.

None of these creature comforts change human nature, of course, and when we’re back to the job of killing, we’ve got airplanes and rockets, then jets and computerized guided missiles, and then satellites and ICMBs. Battle lines cease to exist, and killing becomes global—because it’s more efficient that way. Losing tens or even hundreds of thousands of men in a single bloody battle may have been the order of the day a couple hundred years ago, when gunpowder was relatively new and running someone through with a sword was the tried and true method of killing, but now, losing a few thousand people over the course of a couple of years is considered a disaster.

Promises, Promises

My pledge to you is that I will bring an end to the needless killing. My innovation is, like the rifled barrel, is a lateral step to a ladder with no top rung. The obedience chip will revolutionize the human race, and if you’ll have me (which you will, gladly, once the chip is installed), I will be its leader.

And, yes, I will put dolphins in your Internet. It’s about damn time.

Story vs. Flash

Today, I would like to talk a little about visual storytelling.

Rehashing what has Already Been Said

Most of you, I’m sure, would agree with the idea that a story isn’t a story without someone to tell it, and that a great story requires a great storyteller. I, for example, could relate to you my trip to the supermarket—in fact, I will.

My manservant and I took the supersonic stealth jet for a jaunt to Super Edwin’s Grocery Emporium because, for some reason, he felt that I would not let him have a moment’s peace until I had ready access to sweet, multicolored cereals, which I could consume while huddling under blankets and watching cartoons. I reminded him, with the aid of a sharp slap to his face, that I am considered a supervillain to many, and that, above all things, I desire order, not peace. Anyway, as I sat in the shopping trolley and he pushed me from aisle to aisle, we encountered Good Brains, a NeoBrain Acolyte™ who had recently undergone some kind of epiphany and had begun a new life as a self-styled superhero. Well, right as I had my Laser o’ Death centered between his eyes, he reminded me that Super Edwin’s is a no-combat zone. So as I traded insults with that pompous little ass, my manservant wheeled me into the cereal aisle, where I pointed out which ones I wanted, Good Brains critiquing each one in turn. The little worm even followed us into the checkout line and made a snide remark about how I wasn’t a real supervillain if I had to pay with coupons. I didn’t retort, though it chafed. I just let him go on and on, until finally in the parking lot, I pulled out my Laser o’ Death and reduced him to ashes. I don’t have to use coupons. I choose to.

 

pictured: sweet revenge

 

Now, that is not a particularly well-told story. The characters are one-dimensional, their motivations are based on a random encounter, and the ending is simplistic. And it is still better than any of the Star Wars prequels. I know that picking on these movies is like punching out a one-legged, cancer-stricken child, so I will not dwell too long here. I will simply point out that their failure, and the failure of many new films has to do with the emphasis of visuals over story. Of course, these films can do well in terms of revenue, because as any supervillain knows, it can be surprisingly easy to distract people with shiny baubles and flashes of color. Culturally and artistically, however, they are as dead as Good Brains.

This kind of critique may seem odd, coming from a man who typically will not inflict such disappointment on himself by seeing such movies. But why go and see Skyline when it was obviously going to be a terrible mistake? When friends would come back from it with horror stories, I felt powerfully psychic, like Doctor Mental. Why go see Tron: Legacy when all I understood from the trailers was that it has colors against a black background? Again, friends came back from it and were initially moderately excited, but now, a couple weeks later, can only seem to muster a defensive “meh.”

Even Avatar, a film I did watch, was just so-so. It got much acclaim for its innovative special effects and its lush visual world. And it also helped spur interest in and sales of 3D televisions, which in my book is marked in the “cons” column, but that topic is for another time. The movie also made big bucks, so it wasn’t a totally bad movie. Let’s look at the story and characters to see why it was only so-so. Because what people do for a living doesn’t necessarily define their characters, I’ll describe some of the characters in Avatar without describing their jobs. Our main character has a physical injury, which he overcomes with technology at the price of betraying a race of people. He also has psychological problems, which he overcomes by trying—too late, some would say—to save those people once his deception has been made public. Our love interest is a young woman with a rebellious streak. Our main bad guy is a guy with no moral center or redeeming qualities: he’s racist to the core, viciously greedy, and unquestioning in the face of a lot of really important questions, such as, “Could the conduct I’m supporting be considered evil?” Our lesser bad guy is also a guy with no moral center or redeeming qualities: he’s racist to the core, viciously brutal, and unquestioning in the face of a lot of really important questions, such as, “Has any historical figure ever been allowed to kill enemy and friend alike with reckless abandon and not, in the end, been hanged, shot, beheaded, assassinated, or forced to commit suicide?” I guess in comparison to these guys, our protagonist really does look like a saint, even after fucking over an entire race of people. Thanks, moral relativism!

Honestly, summing up the characters in that way seems like a cheap shot, but if I can make those kinds of comparisons, maybe the characters are flawed, and not in a narratively interesting kind of way. As I demonstrated in my own tale, above, it’s hard to tell a good story with flat characters. You can make them look as 3D as you want, but one-note characters are still uninteresting.

That is, until you make them into an internet porn sensation.