Violence and Entertainment: Some Thoughts

In the wake of the commonplace mass shooting that occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, blame has been thrown in every direction as a means to pivot away from any real action. Mental illness is further stigmatized while the notion of gun control is entertained, but not considered with honest intent. The president has fallen on the age-old rhetoric that blames the glorification of violence as presented in our media, specifically video games and film. These mediums aren’t to blame for the ills of society. I recall a similar instance from my youth, one that involved casting blame on a rock and roll star following the mass shooting at Columbine. Video games (Doom) and films (Natural Born Killers) were scapegoated as well, but Marilyn Manson became the figure of cause, or in his own words, “the poster boy for fear,” in an arena where the artist had no business.

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Violence in entertainment has been normalized through the ages. Shakespeare had to compete with a bear-baiting arena that stood within walking distance from The Globe, where dogs were set against bears. Violence is an unfortunate byproduct of the human experience, to which entertainment falls short of reality. Does entertainment glorify the vices of violence and drug dependency? Absolutely. Can entertainment have a psychological impact on the person? Studies conclude our violent media doesn’t make a violent mind. I’d ask the POW’s whom the United States government exposed to singular songs on repeat at volumes too great to withstand, but that’s use of media as a means of torture. I guess I’ve never met a person who watched Breaking Bad, and decided to try their hand at cooking crystal meth.

Still, I will say that though some media is horribly toxic (especially without proper context or critical thinking skills), mass shootings don’t stem from a ‘life imitating art’ philosophy. No one kills a police officer because they could in Grand Theft Auto. No one shoots up any array of social settings because of the music/images associated with Marilyn Manson. Such arguments serve only to pivot from the issue, with the intent of leaving it unaddressed. Jim Carrey possibly disagrees with me, as he decided to not promote a violent film he had acted in, following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. He drew parallels of self-importance, and saw his participation in the production of the film as something bigger than what it was. While I admire him wanting to bring attention to the issue, the source of his conviction was one rooted in error.

There’s a greater cultural problem that won’t be solved through a singular idea, and Americans need to acquire the skills of civil debate if compromise is to be reached. Without adjustment the shootings will continue. Even with adjustments the shootings will continue. Resolution won’t come overnight, and the first steps shall not yield instant results. There are growing pains ahead if we are to grow from these events, but the ‘pivot blame game’ falls on the same old arguments that have-time and time again-been reduced to falsehood. Video games, music, and movies entertain, and at times provide a coping mechanism by means of catharsis. Should we ban the work of William Shakespeare before the influence drives more teenagers to kill themselves and each other?

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Greater insight is necessary. What of violence in the real world? News programs use significant portions of their broadcasts to examine violent events within any given community, and break them down in such a way as to have the viewer feeling relieved. They’re left with a feeling of, ‘at least I’m not that bad,’ which serves complacency. They speak of wars in foreign lands with a particular cruelty, and equate their human condition to a sordid less than. Further down the pipeline is a subculture that celebrates the tragedies our society bears. Before the shooting at Virginia Tech, the shooter made a video where he paid homage to the school shooters that had come before him, even naming a few. When the Vegas concert shooting left 58 dead, and 851 others injured, particular online message boards discussed how he’d fallen short of the ‘high score,’ by referencing the mass shooting in Norway that left 80 dead in 2011. Violence is encouraged in a way that mimics the most morbid of support groups. There’s enough real world influence to claim our entertainment is not as harmful as some would allege.

 

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison: Book Review

A few years back I watched a video where black children were presented with baby dolls. One doll had a black skin tone, and the other white. The children were then asked questions that sought to have them pass judgment as it appealed to their preferences. Across the board, when they were asked which was the ‘good’ or ‘pretty’ doll, their answers indicated the white doll met that criterion. When asked which doll was ‘bad’ or ‘ugly’ the black children consistently decided upon the black doll.

I’m white, and that video was painful to watch. Their answers suggested a deep-rooted self-loathing/hatred that’s socially programmed at an age too early to repair. My heart sank with their honest opinion based answers.

When I came upon The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, I was somewhat familiar with the premise; the story of a black girl named Pecola Breedlove who abhors her blackness, and desires the white traits of what she believes constitutes beauty. She covets the likeness of Shirley Temple, damaging any hope of finding self-love in her blackness. But what complicates Pecola is not grounded in isolation. There’s a passage that reminded me of the video on doll preference. When a few black boys begin to bully Pecola, Morrison’s narrator observes,

“It was their contempt for their own blackness that gave the first insult its teeth. They seemed to have taken all of their smoothly cultivated ignorance, their exquisitely learned self-hatred, their elaborately designed hopelessness and sucked it all up into a fiery cone of scorn that had burned for ages in the hollows of their minds-cooled-and spilled over lips of outrage,” (65)

What makes Morrison’s work so intriguing (aside from a style of prose that hooks) is her ability to create backstories for a larger community. Morrison creates a bigger picture, before zeroing in on her focus. She’ll use entire chapters to establish other characters, bringing their obscure silhouettes to the forefront. Pauline Breedlove is the mother of Pecola, and as her past is brought up to speed we’re left to reflect, “So she became, and her process of becoming was like most of ours: she developed a hatred for things that mystified or obstructed her; acquired virtues that were easy to maintain; assigned herself a role in the scheme of things; and harked back to simpler times for gratification” (126).

The Bluest Eye examines race, gender, and class with tragic elements in such a masterful way as to stimulate empathy and arouse social questions. Why do we permit such injustice? Why do we hurt ourselves and/or the ones we’re supposed to love? The prose is an examination of trauma and living in its aftermath. I will be reading more of Toni Morrison, as her literary quality is top shelf material.

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Film Review: My Friend Dahmer

With a baby on the way my wife and I decided to get out for what may be our last ‘out on the town’ date before our girl arrives. There was no consideration of any other film, we were going to see My Friend Dahmer. We had to drive an hour+ out of town, as this film hasn’t the reach of a typical Hollywood blockbuster. We arrived in Athens, Ohio to find the streets flooded with college students, but had little trouble navigating through the hoards of bobcats.

Anxious to get our seating preference we were the first in the theater. Back row: center… as always… if it can be managed.

The film delivers much of the same that Backderf’s graphic novel of the same title had to offer. It reveals the complications of closeted homosexuality in a ‘we don’t talk about that kinda thing’ environment, a distant/hostile home life, and the escapism of chronic alcohol abuse. Dahmer isn’t a character that stirs much in the way of empathy, nor does the movie glorify his violent crimes, instead I feel that the movie seeks to show a cultural failure to help a troubled youth. The ‘friends’ Dahmer made along the way only catered to his company as a means of exploiting his antics for their own entertainment. They put him in situations, pressuring him to act out, and reveled in the results. It’s not the most flattering way Backderf could’ve presented himself, but the honesty draws me in more than the prospect of fabricated friendship.

Backderf’s involvement in Dahmer’s life was amplified for the sake of making a more cohesive film, while the graphic novel was more fragmented in a way that filled the gaps with assumptions. Backderf’s comic suggested they only got together outside of school on one occasion, and that’s not enough for a full length feature film. That’s the main difference between the two mediums. Aside from this issue, Dahmer’s mother is presented with a particular mania of sorts that wasn’t expressed in the graphic novel. The comic book shows Mrs. Dahmer in a depressive state that borders on catatonic, while the movie explores her mental instability through argumentative highs. I also wish that the prom scene had included Dahmer’s awkward parting handshake with his date at the end of the night. But these gripes are for the purists who want a book and film to be exactly the same, and I’m not that kind of fan. For what it is My Friend Dahmer is an honest prelude to tragedy that is tragic in an of itself. Dahmer Poster.JPG

 

No Good Deed: Book Review

No Good Deed examines and satirizes the complications of long-term friendships. We’re brought in on the premise that our main character offers some money to a homeless person, and is thanked by name. After an awkward moment Alan realizes he’s staring at his childhood friend, Craig. He takes his old friend to a pub, and then to his home in an attempt to help him up.

Alan’s a semi famous food critic. Craig played guitar for a band that got big in the early 90’s, and then fizzled out. It feels of an age-old story where the emphasis resides upon the reversal of fortune. Themes of carnival surface as one character is brought up, while the other descends to ruin. These classical notions mixed with contemporary commentary make for an excellent piece of cultural satire. Niven delivers, again.

It is the unspoken feelings long harbored between the two main characters that motivate them to actions both comical and wretched. Distance of years would not change how they felt about each other. It is expressed that, “all the money and fame imaginable could never re-engineer how we come to define ourselves as teenagers” (165). I found myself laughing out loud at the insults, and feeling a genuine emotional investment when dealing with the prospect of loss.

At one point Craig is being interviewed about his story. He is honest about his spiteful feelings toward Alan, and describes him with a harshness that seems far away from the warm feelings we typically associate with friendships. Niven offers an insight that feels all too relatable,

“It did make her slightly sad, however, the realization- common to many jobbing journalists who must routinely deliver copy crafted to suit many different publications – that lurking beneath the piece she was going to write about the life-affirming powers of friendship, there was another piece, a different piece, a better piece. One about the strange currents and deep, dark pools that hide beneath the surface of many lifelong friendships, especially ones that have involved dramatic reversal of fortune” (198).

It’s just fantastic. Probably the best overall work from Niven. My personal favorite since The Second Coming.

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The Handmaid’s Tale: Book Review

What makes dystopian fiction frightening is the prospect of truth. When I think of the genre I ponder over themes of science fiction, with tendencies that lend themselves to some kind of futuristic setting. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood offers us something that feels modern, and for that the story feels as though it could happen today. It’s not the notion of oppression through the vessel of a futuristic specter, but a hyper masculine insecurity that treads the nostalgic waters of a more outspoken, forceful, and violent patriarchy.

Our main character is a handmaid named Offred. She isn’t legally allowed to read, and any rhetoric or conduct beyond appropriate protocol could result in execution. Her primary social value is rooted in her potential to become pregnant. It is not a comfortable existence.

Offred is summoned for private and illicit meetings with her Commander. With brevity she entertains the thought of free will, but concludes that, “to refuse to see him could be worse. There’s no doubt about who holds the real power” (136). Offred understands the conditions of her scenario, and stimulates the notion of her own interest, “To want is to have a weakness. It’s this weakness… that entices me… I want to know what he wants” (136).

It seems fitting that this book would take a place in our social consciousness, but I’ll leave political/social parallels up to you. Atwood is nothing short of fantastic.

 

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I’m Thinking of Ending Things: Book Review

There’s a great deal I want to discuss with regards to the book, the majority of which requires me to spoil the ending. So much is tied up in the twist, and to only talk about the psychological buildup comes off as a sales pitch.

I’m into tragedy. A title like, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” carries implications that I don’t feel need to be spelled out. The entire first page carries an ambiguity hinting of these thoughts being suicidal in nature, but is cleared up by our unnamed narrator describing how she intends to break things off with her boyfriend, Jake. I felt let down. It wasn’t outright dark enough compared to my initial expectations.

Things get weird, and the buildup is fun. You’re let in on glimpses of some tragic violence between chapters. Something bad is going to happen, but the where, when, and who is kept off of the table for the purposes of suspense. Reid knows how to develop a plot, and he knows story structure.

The book is crafted just fine. But the ending… The last twenty pages of the book and all I could think was, “It’s ‘Fight Club’ all over again.” The narrator is a figment of fantasy, a woman Jake met once. Jake has parents who appear on the page, but they’re long dead. The entire episode is of an imagination longing to compensate for want. Jake’s academic ambitions have been left in the past, he inherits the home in which he grew up, he is alone, and goes through a fantastic detachment that leaves him (and the time frame of the story) at the height of Jake’s potential. This window of time that places Jake in his late twenties to early thirties is subjected to the reality that thirty years have passed since the events of the story world. Has he and the narrator not aged in his fantasy? This obsession with youth and age shows that Jake is not as detached as the general narrative would have you believe. It’s much more depressing than your average thriller, but is painted as such because an alternative angle would turn off a good portion of the audience.

It’s not about having an original story, but telling it in an original way… I’ve heard similar expressions regarding storytelling, so I can forgive the ‘Fight Club’ ending. Where I take issue is the youthful angle of the fantasy, without which the entire narrative (as it is) cannot stand. The character is obsessed with the past, and to a degree I really dig it.

What if we knew Jake was in his sixties the whole time? What if we knew he was living in a fantasy world to make up for whatever he lacked? What if the title didn’t play with our preconceived notions about language, and was honest from the starting point? The book would’ve been entirely different, maybe less commercial, no over the top twist, but it would’ve been honest. A partner does not stability create. Jake is not honest with himself, his problems are not rooted in loneliness, but in serious mental complication by which his isolation is a side effect. Jake was always going to self-destruct, and a romantic partner would’ve made no difference, but it’s nice to pretend.

It was a fun and easy read, but I’ve got mixed feelings about the ending.

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Where I’ve Been: An Update

So I’ve been off the radar for a while. With regards to my writing I’ve been a nonentity, aside from making the occasional noise on Twitter. Life has been eventful, and I’ve all but vanished from where I was this past winter. I’ve been reading and writing, and I intend to return with a new novel, and to provide more consistent content on the digital front. But first I’ll use this post to share some of the personal details surrounding my absence.

I was offered a promotion that required I relocate. I lived out of a hotel for a month before I got into my new apartment, and have adjusted pretty well considering my ‘hit the ground running’ approach to the new position. The transition of my move took place over the course of a few months, one carload at a time. I did have family step up and help move the stuff that required a larger vehicle, though. My reality consisted of sleepless nights on a blowup mattress for a couple of months before Lydia (and our bed) was brought to our new home.

In addition to moving away from my hometown, I got married on the 10th of June. Lydia has been my partner in crime for the majority of my adult life, and we tied the knot with our families and friends. The ceremony was fantastic, the honeymoon a nice escape, and from there life has pressed on.

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Sometime between mid and late March Lydia and I discovered that we’re going to be parents. We’re beyond excited for the addition, and my ego suggests we’ll be moderate to good parents. It’s a girl!

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All of these life changes seemed to compound at once, and I’m still a little dizzy from the adjustments made (and still taking place) in our lives. Between a promotion/move, our wedding, and the news of a child I’ve been busy elsewhere. I’m always reading, writing, and planning my return to the fields of literary ambition, but as of this moment I’m preparing things in advance so that I may offer something akin to consistency. My apologies for being absent, but there’s not much of a fan base to notice. With two novels out and a third on the way it all still feels like groundwork for the long haul. Thanks for bearing with me. Wish us luck!

 

The Girl in the Spider’s Web: Book Review

I came with the same reservations you’ve got: how could this live up to the original trilogy? Stieg Larsson is not the author. In fact the initial rough draft for a fourth installment was put aside for the efforts of Swedish writer and journalist, David Lagercranz. His writing is smooth, and works towards establishing an authentic experience. Lagercranz brings his own story to the table, and what starts as a slow burn is revealed as the foundation for a thriller that compliments the returning cast and new character alike.

That’s how I knew it wasn’t a failure from the start; I was convinced of genuine portraits that brought me back into the story world of the Millennium Series. Blomkvist, Berger, and Salander were presented as they had been, but the side story of police officers Bublanski and Modig offered fantastic commentary, and the attention given to their characters helped to solidify the space. New characters contribute to chaos, and fun is had by all. I enjoyed the book. If there’s a flaw it’s the occasional wording that may be the result of a rushed translation, but that may be too critical of me.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web uses a narrative style that jumps every couple of pages, as a means to show a consistent juxtaposition of events through the scope of different perspectives. Though there is a consistent narrator the emphasis on jumping to different characters with such frequency suggests the possibility that it was written with a film in mind. It transitions fast enough to never burn out on a moment, and seems to move with the fluidity of thoughtful storytelling. It left open the option of a sequel, on which I have mixed feelings.

All in all I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to fans of the original trilogy. It’s fun, authentic to the established editions before it, and satisfies the desire for a quality continuation.

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Givling: The Startup on a Mission to Eradicate Student Debt

I signed up for Givling during their earliest days, and didn’t put much more thought into it. Their aim was simple: provide something akin to a freemium trivia game, and use the profits to pay off student loan debt. Their plan was a systematic approach to numerical order, paying off the loans on a first come, first serve basis. It seemed to stall out, or at the very least I stopped paying attention for a little while.

Fast forward a couple of years, and a few modifications to their initial plan made it more alluring to both individuals and corporate sponsors. They’ve developed a point system that allows for the occasional winner to move their student debt into the funding queue, regardless of their place in line. The intent is to encourage more interaction, generating more revenue for the purposes of paying off student debt. The daily free play (of which you get two) is worth a point, having other people sign up using your verification code is worth five points, and interacting with ads (following your free plays) is valued at ten points. The point system serves as the number of entries you get in their lottery style drawing. They’ve also set a cap limit of $50,000 per individual, as to distribute funds in a manner that accommodates the greater community.

A little personal information: I’m a recent college graduate, with a fair share of debt. I don’t regret a moment of my education. For my time in college I got to study abroad, discover my love of the theatre, Shakespeare, and recording studios. I read amazing authors I’d of never sought out on my own. I participated in some wonderful experiences that amount to an education I hold in high regard, but the weight of the debt is something that brings me great concern. I don’t expect Givling to be an easy way out, but their work is good, and the game takes only a moment of my time.

Speaking with a hesitant roommate on the subject, he countered with the idea that the model sounds like any number of freemium game apps, and that the vast majority of them are shams. I argued that the only premium addition for paying are more chances to play the trivia game, for which there is a daily prize. These paid plays do not contribute to your own point system, so it’s not packaged in such a way to suggest the psychological manipulation that is the freemium model. I then reiterated the purpose (to pay off student loan debt), and elaborated on their live funding queue (sitting at $122,212 as of this post), which offers the transparency necessary for the development of trust. Yet I trust Givling for more than this act of transparency.

I trust their intent, because of the consistency of their conduct. On the old model only two loans had been paid off in full. I got back on the bus with the revamp last December. Ad revenue is added daily (with more advertisers getting on board with each passing month), and the individual players who choose to pay have their contributions added in real time… but the most important aspect is in their mission: student debt. With actual money coming in on a consistent basis Givling has been able to move forward with their intent, and a third person has been spared the burden of debt. A real person by the name of Alyssa Foster had her remaining debt of $17,500 eliminated. The queue was lowered by that amount, and the next random drawing will be upon us in short time.

This bit here is shameless, but I don’t care. If you haven’t yet signed up for Givling use my code: JB639482

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Hag-Seed: A Rambling Review

Strange to think that in my time as an English major I never read The Tempest, or Margaret Atwood. I have The Lord Denney’s Players to thank for the recent exposure. The theatre company is of the Ohio State Department of English, and their emphasis is on the Renaissance. With this production they’ve chosen to put on The Tempest. In order to familiarize myself with the text and story I read Shakespeare’s work, an article by Stephen Greenblatt, and Margaret Atwood’s retelling in a contemporary prison, Hag-Seed. All of which were wonderful texts (as I’ll get to Hag-Seed in a moment), but that breathing entity of theatre was something fantastic to behold.

I started reading Hag-Seed a day or two following my completion of The Tempest. Atwood bridged the gap, from text to stage. Her novel begins with a Prospero figure, and his work as a Shakespearian theatre producer. Every piece is there; political betrayal, exile, revenge, and forgiveness as prompted by the figure of Ariel, an inmate known only as 8Handz.

But the best qualities of a retelling are in what makes it new. Long has the topic of prisons been applied to conversations on The Tempest, but Atwood has sculpted a narrative of her own, with the actual play as the underlying plot point. Freakin’ meta, man… but it gets at some parallels that prove Atwood is a master of her craft.

Most of the novel seems grounded in reality, but there are moments that are just fantastic. Felix (the figure for Prospero) getting away with his crazed hostage taking revenge plot is too good to be real, but such is the stuff of great fiction, and such is Shakespeare’s text. If you’re really looking for an over the top reworking of Shakespeare check out South Park, season five, episode four: Scott Tenorman Must Die. That mess recreates Titus Andronicus, and it’s dark. Sorry, that got off subject.

I’m new to the Margaret Atwood fan club, but I’m looking forward to reading more of her work. Aside from The Handmaid’s Tale, what else of hers should be at the top of my list?

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