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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Green Screens: Nine Perfect Strangers and Manipulation

Nine Perfect Strangers brilliantly explores how savvy operators manipulate people--and audiences. Unless... it doesn't. What do its bewildering and contradictory story choices say about self help, cults, hippies, and the harm art does?

Masha exists in a world of green. Green trees, green bamboo, green rooms, green screens... The resort where she gathers together her "nine perfect strangers" in the miniseries of the same name is awash in the natural greens of the jungle, and her most personal inner sanctum is as well. The walls are lit with green, behind the banks of monitors on which her client/subjects are displayed, monitored with hidden cameras.

Masha from this space controls the scenario of the series. At the outset, she gathers together a group of strangers for her luxury wellness retreat in which she will help them shed the hangups and traumas holding them back in life. She develops the scenario with absolute authority, choosing who attends, who is put in what scenario with the other perfect strangers, who secretly receives what drug when, how to manipulate everything from diets to recreation.

Masha is an actress waiting in her green room to emerge and manipulate her captive audience. She is a consummate performer, and as a viewer it felt like even apparent moments of weakness could not be trusted, might be another part of the act leading her subjects to put aside their doubts and submit to her. The green reminds me of green screens as well. Masha is more than an actress: she is also the producer of special effects, viewing the tape and making corrections. In a very real sense, she incites and controls the narrative of the series; it would not exist without her character's constant intervention. The longer I watched Nine Perfect Strangers the more I felt like that was part of the point, like there was something being said here about the nature of manipulation, the ability of both art and individuals to construct a comprehensive reality.

Which made it kinda weird and awkward for me when the series concluded with Masha just being completely vindicated in her "put people through traumatic drug experiences" method of therapy? Like, the show spends kind of its whole runtime playing with the audience's head, exposing us to all the weird manipulative shit Masha does and then pulling back just enough to make us doubt ourselves, only in the last episode to just be like... well that was all fine, literally everyone lived entirely happily ever after, no further questions! Also, Masha was totally right all along and dosing people with psychedelics is going to lead to a world mental health revolution! Wow!

I don't know what to think of Nine Perfect Strangers. I've been chewing on this draft for like two months and that's not JUST because during that time I was technically homeless for a little while. It's also because I spent most of the series thinking it was about one thing when it turned out to be about another, I guess, which is happening more often these days than I like to admit. I was just as blindsided by this as I was by the endings of Wonder Egg Priority and The Haunting of Hill House. Am I losing my touch? 

I'm not even completely sure that I AM. After writing all that out above, all that stuff about Masha and the green screen, I got to thinking, well, maybe the ending IS meant to be ironic. I keep feeling haunted by the possibility the show's conclusion is, like, a dream sequence or a fantasy. The climax of the film involves Masha meeting with her dead daughter in a psychedelic-fueled hallucination, so, it's possible? And it would make a certain sense: if the series as a whole is Masha's manipulation of not just the other characters but us as viewers, then ending with a version of reality more amenable to her than getting hauled away to prison, as it looks like she's going to be, fits.

That reading sort of pulls out the subtext and makes it text: there's a parallelism between the capacity of rich self help weirdos and entertainment media more broadly to transfix, to mollify, to provide easy answers to hard questions (for a fee). It's an interesting take partly because it's one I find troublesome. Does art really have such malign power? I bristle at this, if only cause I'm so sick of moral scolds using this to demand the excision of all the art I like. But by the same token, it's weirdly a breath of fresh air. In a cultural moment where "the dangers of media" consistently target violence, sexuality, and dissonant aesthetics, it's refreshing to have something go hey, maybe the people or stories telling you they're sweet and safe and trustworthy are the ones you've gotta watch out for.

But I also can't shake the feeling that I'm in on a trick the show's not in on itself, which throws the whole analysis totally out of whack.

Certainly the actual marketing, all of which I completely missed because Sarah just started watching the series blind cause she liked some of the actors, treats this as not a horror story but an uplifting dramedy. Actually the chipper like and subscribe from a (the?) (I have no idea) Good Morning America host at the end of this trailer probably says much about the intended audience. I, succinctly, am not it. So it might just be a disconnect between the visual rhetoric and story conventions I'm used to, where horror elements continue escalating toward annihilation, and conventions where they just, don't?

I wasn't alone. Critics received the show skeptically, and a lot of the skepticism focused on theme. I was going to put a decent quote here from The Guardian but then I remembered it's institutionally genocidal against trans people so here's Karisa Langlo in CNET saying basically the same the Guardian and a slew of other critics said: "I'm not sure if this is meant to be a critique of wellness culture and the asymptotic finish line of self-improvement, a critique of the poor rich people who pay money to have their traumas cauterized, or a critique of plot mechanics themselves. Or maybe it's not a critique at all..." I found numerous reviews questioning the finale just as I am. Was it a dream sequence? A lot of folks seem to hope it is, if only because the alternative is so troubling. After all, one of the nine strangers, Lars, is there as an investigative infiltrator, researching the methods that led to the literal death of a previous patient. When confronted with the story of the patient's apparently drug induced heart failure, Masha derisively declares that he died of having eaten too many cheeseburgers (!). Depiction doesn't equal endorsement, I told myself confidently in that moment--clearly this is Masha's mask coming off. By the end of the series, I started wondering if endorsement was exactly what the creators had in mind.

It feels so weird writing an article this bewildered, this characterized by me not quite knowing what to say. I'm not sure it makes for very entertaining reading, though I'm trying my damnedest! So what the hell am I doing here? Maybe just trying to make sense of the fact that I was totally on board with the series for all but the last like episode and a half, and I want to salvage something from the whole stretch that I really liked.

Hell, midway through I was thinking about using this for Room For You Inside, my consistently haphazard and deranged schedule slip prone series about Pink Floyd and the rise of neoliberalism. I mean it fits, right? An environment constructed according to a grand total vision that slowly in concert with the cast goes mad. And I had this whole throughline worked out for how it would connect to the broader thesis.

Hippies were the key.

Now, I think there's value in that counterculture, and I like a lot of the music, but let's be real, hippie politics often sucked. John Lennon for instance wasn't exactly subtle:

You say you'll change the constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it's the institution
Well, you know
You better free your mind instead

Lennon penned truly the consummate shitlib song, an anthem for former hippie boomers who had their fun then settled down to a comfortable life of voting against their children's futures. It's a narcissistic conception of societal betterment: free your mind, through meditation, psychedelics, [mumbles quietly] being a rich rock star, and good living, and everything will follow. Don't talk to me about the institution! Nine Perfect Strangers spends most of its run time seeming to deconstruct the institution of self help and its reliance on exactly these assumptions about the world, only to imagine, in the finale, all the people, living life in peace, after the natural healing of psychedelics frees them all. (Also George Harrison was robbed.)

Of course, "natural" is doing a lot of heavy lifting here, as it always did for the hippies. The green screen and the green of Masha's forest are equally constructed. I mean, are those bamboo stands really native to that region? Forgive me some skepticism. Again, I actually thought that was like, the point? That Masha's nature retreat was in fact a high tech immersive theme park experience: plants cultivated and a whole compound heavily automated, with all sorts of technological affordances to, say, lock people in their rooms and monitor them. Even the goat that the men slaughter with bare hands is Masha's domesticated pet!

Yeah they kill a goat. More on that in a second.

This kind of thing is "natural" (despite the cultivated and technologically supported nature of the experience), counterpositioned to a variety of artificial things. Like the artificial lives of the instagram model and lottery winner couple, upset because being rich and successful and young has made them bored. Sure. But there's also the artificiality of [thunder rumbles] Pharma. This rears its head initially in the form of a disabled former football star's addiction to painkillers. Later, and more significantly, it appears in the story of a grieving family, admitted on scholarship by Masha, trying to recover from the suicide of a fourth member a few years prior. 

Exactly why Zach, the deceased character in question, committed suicide is an ongoing question in the series. Eventually it's revealed that suicidal ideation was a side effect of the guy's asthma medication. This causes conflict in the family because the mother knew about that side effect, but it also was the first sign for Sarah and I that something might be off about the series' politics. Like, look, we've both been on a lot of drugs in our time, and frankly? Depression and suicidal ideation are NOT that uncommon a listed side effect. They're also not an uncommon side effect of being poor and traumatized and queer under capitalism, it turns out. Your meds have a weird side effect? Buddy get in line for the bridge. The idea that not, I guess, withholding medication from Zach was some horrible crime was a hard pill to swallow.

This plot point at least made some sense in the context of a reading where Masha's been manipulating everyone. It comes, for one thing, in the context of an earlier revelation from the father of the family. Remember I mentioned the goat slaughter scene? Let's take a look at the aftermath of that, in a scene that's conveniently on youtube. Let me set the stage. The whole group has sat down to eat a feast composed of the pet goat that the men killed earlier in the day, and the father of the grieving family gets up to make a toast. Here's what happens:

I love the build up here. The slow creeping dread of watching Masha's manipulation begin pushing these characters into madness. The way the shot choice puts us almost in the position of Masha observing the consequences of her actions. The way we then are denied interiority as she looks away in a seeming moment of indecision and then looks back, all smiles again, confirming that not only has she been doing exactly what she's accused of but she plans to brazenly girlboss her way through the confrontation.

It's in these moments that the show seems to really grasp the predatory allure of this kind of self help cult shit. Here it seems to verge closer to the vision in Panos Cosmatos's astonishing diptych of films, Mandy and Beyond The Black Rainbow, where the promise of expanding human consciousness actually is revealed as a tool of narcissists, manipulators, and petty tyrants to keep their flock in line. The birth of cults, the use of psychedelics on random civilians by the deep state, attempts to control and manipulate and program and brainwash, all these horrors proliferated through the golden age of psychedelia. I'm not sure it's so easy to separate out that history from the new age healing bullshit that Masha's whole theory of healing is based on.

So I find my way back again to this intriguing possibility: what if the show is precisely about how such snares lurk in areas not apparent? About how Mumsnet is just as powerful a site of cult indoctrination as 8chan? The tendency in the plot for a fucked up thing to be followed by the characters all going, "Wow that was fucked up! Guess we'll stick around and see if she can really make us happy though!" might seem like a structural problem. From this perspective, though, it can be seen as a commentary on the human tendency to second guess our instincts for danger.

Speaking from (recent) experience, it's so easy to ignore misgivings, convince yourself that surely shit can't get THAT bad. I appreciate art about this. Not for me, the old saw about horror movies: oh I would OBVIOUSLY never be as dumb as these characters. I'd bet you not only would but you already have, plenty of times in your life, out of politeness, need to save face, bravado, or simple faith that surely horror is something that happens to OTHER people, other non-protagonist people.

I happened to watch the film Berberian Sound Studio shortly after Nine Perfect Strangers and it conveniently hit a lot of the same notes. This film posits a terrifying hypothetical: what if a British guy were Italian? And it explores this question with incredible power for like 3/4 of a film, then, I guess, forgot to film the ending. Apparently it was upscaled to feature length from a short, and I think it shows in that nothing very much... happens in it, besides a British guy gradually becoming Italian over the course of his work as a sound tech and Foley man for a brutal Giallo film.

Like Nine Perfect Strangers, the film's got a clear surface reading: as the sound tech is gaslit and fucked with by his bosses, he gradually transforms into a facsimile of those shitty bosses. The never seen gruesome sexualized tortures on the screen parallel exploitation in real life. As the lead gradually participates in abusive and exploitative behavior toward the women giving voice to the screaming victims in the film, the lines between the film and his life of film production dissolve, and he is, brilliantly, overdubbed in Italian in "real life". I think the most direct and obvious reading is simply that producing art of such violent depravity corrupts and consumes a person.

Though, again, weirdly all the depravity in Berberian Sound Studio is... kind of tame? Awful, but not "inserting red hot pokers into orifices" awful, more just "shitty metoo worthy work environment" awful (itself an always seemingly shifting target as our society determines which men in power are too big to fail).

Maybe that's the point though. Maybe the real horror isn't the grotesque Giallo shit but the simple grinding exploitation attendant to a shitty industry. It's not hot pokers but men who feel up women's breasts without consequence because they can. Not occult conspiracies but just old boy networks of exploiters good at taking advantage of the weak and marginalized (the lead character reads very strongly as autistic). In this reading, the corruption is not specific to Giallo but something present in the world which the protagonist has simply ignored until it drew him in completely.

Harvey Weinstein notably did not produce Giallo films.

He did direct The Gnomes' Great Adventure though!

And now that you have this piece of information taking up space in your brain--you're welcome, by the way--maybe you can see what I'm driving at, that dark aesthetics and abusive individuals aren't really correlated in any particularly notable way. Giallo makes for an intriguing subject and allows for Berberian Sound Studio to explore lavish, mesmerizing shots of practical effect work, but it doesn't capture this reality. For that you'd need something more like Mulholland Drive, or like Hannibal maybe, or like Nine Perfect Strangers.

At least, something like Nine Perfect Strangers before the climax completely flips this moral on its head.

In the climax of the series, the cast, minus the grieving family who are acting as channels so that Masha can have her cathartic psychic reunion with her dead daughter, get locked in a sauna as the whole compound appears to be set on fire to destroy incriminating evidence. Except it's actually another green screen, another special effect, a specially built room designed to simulate entrapment and a deadly fire. Just like everything else, it is constructed, orchestrated by actor-writer-producer Masha. Just another way to get people's chakras unclogged or whatever.

After they are released from the simulation room, Masha's assistant, looking on the terrified guests with something like hurt contempt, tells them that of course Masha would never actually put anyone in real danger.

The message seems to be that listening to your instincts about cult shit actually makes you a bad person who isn't ready to open up emotionally or spiritually to the healing power of psychedelics and cult programming. Everything interesting about Masha's character sort of just gets casually undermined by this dumb twist. All the tension of the audience attraction to her despite the obvious way in which she is manipulating everyone around her is just, pppfft, in the fuckin trash. Bye bye!

This is the ending that left me and so many other critics bewildered, though the response wasn't universal! Esquire's deputy editor, who "also writes about style and golf" smugly stated that "the message is 'psychedelics really can help people with their problems' which of course we know they can." Yeah man?? Word?? That's what you got out of this series? 

Cause I think what I got out of it is that rich people live in an entirely alternate reality where the rules are what they make, and that's fine actually.

Where does this leave the question of the metatextual themes, the parallels between master manipulator and media producer? Does depiction equal endorsement after all? I'm left feeling as ambivalent and troubled about this as I am about the literal contents of the show and what it's trying to say. On a very direct level, it's hard for me to say there's actual harm being done here, some direct seduction of the innocent like moral scolds imagine. But aren't those same moral scolds the very people this show is targeted to? Selectively paranoid about prescription drugs but uncritically accepting of the idea that some chemical or cultural conspiracy might be giving their kids autism or worse pronouns? The miniseries feels troublingly like at the very least a barometer of where part of our culture is. It evinces a kind of reactionary tendency that is perfectly comfortable with femininity and feminism, with self help and self care, with the kind of artifice and affordances of people like Masha so long as the experience they're producing hits the right notes.

I think I found Berberian Sound Studio frustrating in its premise precisely because of Nine Perfect Strangers, because of how clearly it lays out the dynamics of manipulation, and how it then seems to partake of those dynamics at the very end. It's not bloody horror movies and their fans that frighten me, but that reassuring sphinx smile Masha uses to convince her audience that everything is going to be just fine.

This Has Been

Green Screens

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1 comment:

  1. I may be wrong, but I think Madoka Magica kind of tap into the kind of idea that you describe. I mean Kyubey is more that shitty boss who manipulates you into taking a job which's going to kill you than the girlboss who brainwashes you because she knows better than you what you need but...
    *realize it describes pretty well Homura at the end of Rebellion*


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