The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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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.

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Just, Ruinous: Poker Face and Interview with the Vampire as Superhero Stories

Our culture is saturated with superhero stories, but as those stories turn towards action adventure narratives it's up to a detective story and an epic vampire horror serial to ask "just what is a hero?" 

For all that superhero media dominates our cultural moment, little of it feels interested in heroism as a concept to interrogate.

I can sort of understand the turn away from heroism as a subject in itself. It's sort of a boring topic--I wrote one big essay collection on (super) heroism, for example, and then tried to do more and realized I was bored to tears of writing about superheroes, and scrapped it. And now I'm facing down the prospect of introducing this article and going, "oh god, what the hell do I mean by 'heroism' anyway?"

I guess it's at heart a question of what one, as an individual, can do to be a good, probably exceptionally good, person. This takes as given a sense of goodness through individual actions, rather than the realm of "join your local revolutionary communist party or at least try to get your workplace unionized". If you've come here looking for a narrative about the heroism of abandoning individual action for collective organizing, sorry, you want HIS 310 Andor And The Russian Revolution, in the next lecture hall over. No, we're gonna take that premise of individual goodness as given, if only to deconstruct it a bit later.

What's wild to me is how much super*hero* media foregrounds the super part, relegating heroism to an assumed position within a narrative framework that comes with a flashy costume and enables wild adventures. For the stories that do take up the question more directly, it seems profoundly metatextual, a question not of "is this the best way to be a good person in the world?" but "can I, Starlord, convincingly position myself within the narrative as a heroic lead?"

This is the particular focus of the weirder superheroes right now, characters like those in Doom Patrol or Umbrella Academy. Fitting for their postmodern origins, these characters face two core struggles: first, whether society and the audience can accept misfits as heroes, and second, whether they can get over their interpersonal drama and stunted psychologies long enough to save the world. Fighting for "heroism" as metaphor for social acceptance and personal growth is a reasonable narrative framework, I suppose... though one that's hampered in these shows by--I am so so sorry, gays--frustratingly flat character writing, a tendency to introduce moments of catharsis that are quickly reversed to accommodate interpersonal drama and the ongoing need to leave the central conflict unresolved, and a reliance on people shouting "FUCK!" as an all purpose punchline. Look I said I was sorry, gays, I'm not happy to say this either! The show in this genre I was *most* invested in, The Nevers, jettisoned the dead weight dragging the writing down (Joss Whedon) then immediately went on hiatus for two years and got cancelled with its episodes dumped on *Tubi*. The world is full of tragedy!

If it makes you feel any better, at least we can give these shows points for effort and an occasional glowingly brilliant idea, which is more than I can say for most superhero media right now. The phrase "phoning it in" comes to mind. I honestly could not tell you what Love and Thunder is going for beyond "getting Taika Waititi more money for Our Flag Means Death". Certainly I don't think these stories are particularly interested anymore in broad questions of what "heroic" behavior might be, unless they want us to apply seriously a conflict as abstruse as "should you wipe the memories of all your friends and loved ones so they don't know you almost collapsed the multiverse", or whatever the plot of that spiderman film was. I mean on the whole it's pretty hard to take seriously any moral message you could derive from a film that quite literally was "what if we did Enter the Spiderverse but everyone was a white guy", a morally repulsive exercise.

The last bastion of heroism-as-subject winds up being either the quasi-arthouse DC flicks (The Batman, Joker)... or something that comes completely out of left field. Maybe it makes some sense that questions of heroism, finding themselves submerged within the genre that has "hero" right in the name, would ooze its way out of culture through other genres and shows.

Shows like the mystery series Poker Face, for example.

Poker Face is certainly structured, shot, and written much more like Columbo than like a contemporary superhero show. Every week we see a new murder in a new locale in the first half of the episode, and then in the second half reluctant hero Charlie Cale wanders into the story and eventually finds some justice for the victim. We know whodunnit; the show is instead an episodic *howcatchem,* a subgenre with its own history and heroes distinct from superhero stories. But it seems notable that its central hero does have her own superpower. Sort of. See, Charlie has an uncanny knack of knowing when someone is bullshitting her.

If Charlie's superpower, such as it is, were played up just a little bit more, a la Sherlock, it'd be annoying as hell to watch episode after episode. Luckily, her super- or mildly-powered capacity to instantly and accurately tell when someone is telling a lie mostly involves, for the viewer, her occasionally saying the word "bullshit" when she didn't mean to, or her brow furrowing and her smile slipping a bit out of place. It really only works because Natasha Lyonne can so perfectly capture, through expression and body language alone, the pivotal moment in a conversation with a stranger where you realize, "ah jeeze buddy you're a real piece of work--wait did I just say that out loud?"

The great thing about Poker Face, from a hero narrative kinda perspective, is how little time it spends fucking around. It's episodic, structured, each episode has its own little self contained setup and resolution, which means that every episode sort of has to get to the point and start making use of Charlie's powers. You know Doc Future's Surf Dracula tweet? "back in the day if u did a tv show called surf dracula you'd see that fool surfing every week in new adventures but in the streaming era the entire 1st season gotta be a long ass flashback to how he got the surfboard until you finally get to see him surf for 5 min in the finale". We can see see Charlie Cale surfing in a new adventure every week.

However, to stretch the metaphor further, Surf Dracula can surf each week... but to what end? While the show has an episodic structure, it also has a sense of seasonal progression that grapples with this question. Charlie starts and ends the season in pretty much the same place--deliberately, comically so in fact. Instead of Ron Perlman hunting her down across the US, necessitating her episodic wandering, she's got... Rhea Perlman (no relation, very funny Rian ha ha) hunting her down across the US, necessitating her episodic wandering. What changes is her self perceived agency. She's presented with the option to go on the run and continue, as her sister puts it in the finale, "the Charlie Cale show", or go to work for the mob, and she chooses to keep getting herself reeled into situations.

Let's linger on that conversation with her sister Em for a bit, actually, as it sort of makes up the crux of my sense of Charlie as a hero. It's a weird conversation, coming right at the end of the season and acting as something of a centerpiece of the final episode. Charlie is on the run from a frameup, and goes to her sister for a way out of Atlantic City. Her sister gives her a dramatic dressing down, blaming her for... something to do with their father, calling her ruinous, and suggesting that she chooses to get herself in these kinds of traumatic situations. The upshot is that Charlie isn't welcome in Em's life.

I think there's a sense in which the show is presenting Charlie's sister as basically correct that Charlie chooses the somewhat madcap life she leads. I also think the show ultimately views that choice as heroic.

Now, I'm gonna be a bitch here in a way that I don't think the show necessarily intends--this is my politics not necessarily the show's. I think, all things considered, the show treats Em as a somewhat sympathetic character and there's something very interesting in how she really does seem like she's from a completely different series which Charlie's sort of collided into.

But I turned to Sarah after that sequence and I said "I fucking hate suburbanites. They're all scum."

Cause I think that sorta fundamentally what Charlie does, all this getting into situations that she does, is what is known as "being a good person". And it turns out that "being a good person" means being maybe a little bit ruinous from time to time because "being a good person" is hard and often bites you in the fucking ass and gets you tangled with other kinda ruinous people.

I think that there is a fundamental sort of middle class suburbanite ethos that getting into situations is a prime sin far beyond anything else, the ultimate crime of being disruptive. Like, you don't get involved in Situations, because that's what the police are for, and the notion of someone like Charlie who gets in Situations but is resolutely Not A Cop is just *such* a major faux pas. Call it... nextdoor mindset, or true crime mindset: a kind of alienated busybodydom, an atomized paranoia where you're simultaneously up in everyone's business, but not particularly interested in looking past surfaces. It can be found everywhere but feels particularly at one with the atomized psychogeography of the suburbs, with their untrained barking dogs, sterile lawns, and multi car families necessitated by a lack of transit infrastructure. Yeah they're doing just fine.

The structure of the show, contra nextdoor posting and true crime podcasts, invites sitting with a whole variety of weirdos and figuring out hey, what's the deal with these guys?

The conversation with her FBI contact Agent Clark, "uber for stoolies" as she puts it, is interesting in the context of the show's wider themes. He's very blunt about the fact that despite being a fed, he can't protect her--he has to use a burner phone to talk to her, presumably because he doesn't trust his own organization. But also, due to their chance meeting, he was able to nab an incidental villain from the first episode, a character whose secrets her friend was killed over. In Charlie's words: "She did the right thing when she saw something awful, and she actually did something about it, and you killed her for it." A chance meeting with Clark in an otherwise unconnected episode set off the chain of events that lead him to both resolving that dangling thread in the first episode, and get her out of immediate danger in the last one. None of that would have happened without Charlie's own willingness to do the right thing when she sees something awful, but also her willingness to try to understand and suss out the actual truth of situations, not just their appearances.

So you have a series of individual episodes that are self contained moments of surf draculosity, that come together in a pleasing whole as Charlie's actions come together to get her out of a scrape. In this sense the show actually has the exact same structure as anime classic masterpiece Golden Boy, another celebration of absolute freaks. It's a good structure, and it's weird how little serialized superhero shows seem to have hit on it as a formal solution to the genre.

What I suppose it does lack is a certain amount of badass avenging beatdowns. Charlie might be a great detective but she's not the World's Greatest Detective--who for a long time now has mostly "detected" some gang members or goons on which to inflict lasting head trauma. There's a whole power fantasy model of heroism that seems to amount to being a bit better than whoever you're punching. The token agonizing over whether a character "is a hero" can be resolved by the presence of someone who's dropping a busload of children in the river. As Sarah put it to me when I described this article to her, heroism seems to be having the opportunity to utilize the skills you already have to accomplish an outcome you already wanted to achieve.

The central deal with the devil in the recent serialized Interview with the Vampire adaptation between narrating character Louis de Pointe du Lac and the seductive and amoral Lestat de Lioncourt is a deal of this self serving nature. The series is fairly open about this, in fact--Louis describes to his modern day interviewer, newsman Daniel Molloy, how trapped he felt in his home of New Orleans at the turn of the century, and the seductive power Lestat offered. The results are bloody. As Molloy sardonically summarizes, "Take a black man in America, make him a vampire, fuck with that vampire, and see what comes of it."

Oh, right, I should specify that Louis in this adaptation is a creole man. It probably says something that I nearly forgot to mention that, and while I was writing about forgetting to mention it I realized I also forgot to mention that Lestat and Louis are full on screen canonical gay lovers, no subtext about it. The racebending is surely to help solve the uncomfortable racial politics of the original, in which Louis is a white plantation owner. But it, and the explicit queerness, also feels shockingly natural, so natural that it's overtaken the film (haven't read the books, sorry Anne) in my mind as the image of the story.

Its successful sell of the change is deeply tangled with the nature of Lestat's gift. What Lestat offers Louis is precisely the power fantasy of the contemporary superhero. It's not just strength and agility but the ability to slow time, control minds, effortlessly impose your will upon a human. Why, you can even fly! Well, Lestat can. "like Superman?" Molloy asks incredulously. "Not like Superman," Louis responds contemptuously. "Superman is a fictional character." Maybe so, but the comparison--to Superman and to himself, a vampire who *lacks* the "cloud gift"--seems to be a point of some sensitivity. The show can make reference to Superman in this way because superheroes are part of the cultural cloud we're all floating in. No sense in denying it.

Oh Louis, Louis. Every time he tries to play the superhero it all goes dreadfully wrong. Not that he doesn't look great while doing it, of course. If Louis stands and allows the white alderman persecuting him to shoot him with a pistol a few times, before calmly inviting him to reload, well, that's a familiar scene isn't it? Goons love to use guns on superheroes impervious to bullets, and we love to watch them. When he leaves the man's mutilated corpse hanging on the gates strung up over a "WHITES ONLY" sign, it feels well deserved, particularly after several episodes of witnessing how Louis, despite being the successful owner of a night club and brothel frequented by the best of the city, is treated with contempt by his own patrons for his race and the open secret of his homosexuality.

But this act of individual terrorism doesn't serve as any propaganda, but rather a pretext for a retaliatory race riot that reduces Louis's prosperous business and wider community to smoking rubble. Louis attempts to justify himself, to mockery from Lestat: "That garish display of his body like some public art piece, was for your people?" Horrified by his actions having consequences, Louis then saves a young girl from the resulting conflagration... and when she nearly succumbs to her injuries he implores Lestat to turn her into a vampire, their young ward, sentenced to eternal prepubescent stasis. She has an even more deformed morality, her childish lack of forethought paired with endless hunger and the power to bend the world to her whim.

What stands out to me here is not that there's negative consequences for Louis's actions or that he agonizes over them--after Miracleman that's just the status quo of the contemporary superhero. Everyone's got to go through the underworld in the hackneyed heroes journey of Hollywood. And like I said, heroism often winds up defined by simply the presence of someone (the racists and homophobes in Louisiana high society, or Lestat himself) capable of providing justification for what the hero already wanted to do.

No, what makes this stand out to me is the sense in the show that Louis is fundamentally misguided in his attempt to play the hero. He feels guilty for taking Lestat's gift, which is ultimately a gift of personal gratification and empowerment, a way out of the life he finds restrictive. It's an understandable desire but one that clashes with Louis's sense of responsibility to his community and morality (in part because he hates the idea of eating human beings). So he tries to turn his selfish motivations and actions into something more personally heroic--not unlike how he reframes his brothel owner business as a kind of heroic entrepreneurship for his family and community, another instance of doing the work that needs to be done, that others will not.

As a hero, we might say that Louis is precisely emblematic of the "individual terror" that "belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness, reconciles them to their powerlessness, and turns their eyes and hopes towards a great avenger and liberator who some day will come and accomplish his mission". A great avenger indeed...

It's interesting that this show, with its deep skepticism of individual heroism, stands diametrically opposed to the conclusions of Poker Face. Maybe that will change in the future--unfortunately, and absurdly, Interview only has *seven episodes* in its first season, which makes for a tantalizing taste but not really, like, a *real* season of television you know? This short season thing is getting a bit silly. Anyway, so far the serialized storytelling lends itself to a sense of deconstructive saga, a delving deep into the sordid history of the central character and his ongoing attempts to justify his existence to himself and to his interviewer. Maybe it's fitting that Poker Face has a more optimistic perspective on heroism. Charlie may be apart from any fixed community, but the episodic structure and her characterization lends itself to small, contained stories defined by finding personal connection. Oh, and of course there's the fact that Interview is a horror series about gay vampires... though, let's be fair again and note that a weekly murder mystery series could have a *much* more reactionary view of humans than Poker Face or Charlie do!

I'm not sure the contradictory positions of these narratives need to be reconciled per se or reach some final state of synthesis. Rather they're facets of an ongoing questioning of what it is to be, essentially, a good or even heroic person.

And for all the pretentions of modern superhero media toward grandeur and significance, it feels like these visitors from two very different other genres do a much better job interrogating what heroism or villainy are, expressed through what are ultimately, superpowers aside, just more imperfect humans.

This Has Been

Just, Ruinous

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