Thursday, June 13, 2013

On Free Speech, Hate Speech, and Women

I am a Free Speech Absolutist. I believe that no law should ever restrict speech, art, or any other kind of expression based on its content. I believe this because our minds and the multi-faceted ideas that come from them are what makes us human. To understand ourselves and others those ideas need be expressed and discussed, free of restriction or retribution.

I strongly oppose hate speech legislation. I do not support hate speech, but I will defend any person's right to
espouse ideas that I find hateful. To restrict hate speech assumes that someone, somewhere can be a supreme authority on what makes speech "hateful", when in reality each of us has a different definition of the term. It is far too easy for politically unpopular speech to be miscategorized simply so that it can be banned.

I believe that if somebody supports a hateful ideology, it is the responsibility of all thinking people to engage them in the hopes of reaching a mutual understanding. Most ideas categorized as hate speech do not stand up to rational logic. When exposed to the light of open discussion, bad ideas will eventually wither and die. If those ideas become illegal to express, their supporters are emboldened, keep to themselves, and fester, only to emerge later with more intensity.

Lately there have been many stories on the Internet that have upset me involving women. I will not bother to recount them because they all essentially follow the same template.

1) Somewhere, a woman speaks up about how a comment or piece of media is sexist, misogynistic, or problematic in some way.

2) Anti-feminists rise up from all corners of the internet to smack down the original poster, flooding her pages with the most vile, sexist, threatening mouth diarrhea they can come up with.

3) Rational thinking people are very disturbed by this and immediately the story becomes a huge circus.

4) The misogyny of the opposition's comments now flows out in an unbridled torrent of all-caps textwalls and rational discussion becomes impossible.

Frankly it makes me so angry, every time I see it happen, that it's beginning to wear me down. If you really do believe that feminists (people who support equality between the sexes) are too touchy, then just ignore them. Responding with floods of "Tits or GTFO!" or "Get back in the kitchen" doesn't really help your case, does it? Unfailingly I get more upset by the reaction of screaming Men's Rights troglodytes than I am by the original cause of the complaint. They act as though one woman complaining about something is equivalent to the government wanting to make that thing illegal.

But here's the problem: In some parts of the world, primarily in Europe, it is accepted that hate speech should be censored. People actually DO want to make anti-feminist viewpoints illegal. This is a terrible idea. It pumps up the anti-feminists by giving them actual proof that people in the world are trying to ban their ideas. Let the hate speech flow. We're ready for it. Because their ideas are hurtful and wrong, and after enough dialogue I have faith that in the end they'll be the ones left looking stupid. And they will wither.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Movie Review: Primer (2004)

Movies about time travel never get old because nobody can really agree on what the consequences of the practice can be. If you travel back in time and mess with your own past, will you wink out of existence, or will the whole process sort itself out? Everybody's got their own theory, but the fun is in seeing what the director of any given film thinks would happen. Every time, it's a new experience for the audience, or at least it should be. "Primer" (dir. Shane Carruth, 2004) is, if nothing else, a new experience.

In fact, very little in "Primer" is like any other film I've ever seen. Shane Carruth wrote, produced and starred in the film, which stars a group of hardcore engineering geeks who work practically 24/7: in addition to their corporate day jobs they assemble and sell computer boards at night and engage in their own scientific experiments in a garage during what little free time they have remaining. The dialogue can at time be maddening because all four of them talk over each other constantly, like most real geeks do. Also very little of it makes any sense to laypersons and none of it is explained. Like the dialogue in "Altered States", the point is that these people are very smart and very excited. You're not supposed to follow it.

Two of them accidentally cause a reaction that is impossible according to known science, and stealthily cut their friends out of the loop: whatever they've got it's clearly something big. It turns out that they've invented a time machine that is a royal pain in the ass to use but clearly works. Their first instinct is, of course, to get rich with it by gaining advance knowledge of the stock market. This pays off handsomely, but while high on their accomplishments they begin to think of other possible uses for the machine, and a ten-foot neon sign reading "HUBRIS" should pop into your mind.

At this point the entire narrative goes to hell, which is entirely intentional. Whatever it is that they decide to do with the machine doesn't work out right. Suddenly there are at least two or three duplicates of our heroes running around at any given time trying to accomplish several agendas. It's not clear what happened "first" because it's all happening at once. All that's clear is that they've crossed a line and there's no going back.

I won't lie, "Primer" hurt my head. It's a good thing the film is only 77 minutes long because I was praying for it to end right about when it did. It's exhausting to keep up with, and while I could list the various plot elements I couldn't begin to explain how they tie together. This is obviously the intended effect: the protagonists barely have any idea what's going on, so how the heck are we supposed to know? The chaos of time travel is made very, very clear. The downside to this is that there are several dramatic moments that should have more emotional impact than they do, except that it's so hard to sort out where in what timeline we are and what anybody's doing that the cumulative effect is simply confusion.

And yet I'm extremely grateful to have seen "Primer". Despite the obvious non-budget, the ingenuity of the filmmaking almost qualifies as its own special effect. In my favorite shot our scientists are running an experiment on a weeble toy stuck in a vacuum sealed box with a camera  (because it would be unsafe to look inside directly). The box begins shaking violently and our heroes circle it in fear, watching to see the results of their trial. Meanwhile only we the viewers can see the video feed from the camera inside, which gets more and more alarming. The mounting dread of this shot is worth seeing the entire movie for. That and the ingenuity of their "time machine", seemingly constructed of plastic film and duct tape.

With any movie, the audience needs to know what they're signing up for before going in. "Primer" is a mindscrew from top to bottom, and to enjoy it you've got to work for it. But if you're willing to play along the result is rewarding: Perhaps the most incredible attempt to take a hard sci-fi approach to time travel in a film I've ever seen. If "Primer" were a book it would probably be less frustrating, but I don't know if it could have been bettered. It's as terrifying as it is incoherent, just the way it ought to be.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Novelty Platformer Round-up

No genre has been host to more self-conscious attempts at art or novelty humor in recent years than the platformer. The core gameplay of jumping from place to place collecting shiny bits is pretty timeless and can be made new again by giving it a shiny new coat of paint and a conceptual hook. Here are three that I've gotten into this year...

I Wanna Be The Guy: The Movie: The Game

In 2007, "I Wanna Be The Guy" was released with the stated aim of being the most ludicrously unfair platform game ever created, and it succeeds mightily. Thank God it's free because asking people to pay for the privilege of being psychologically battered would be cruel indeed. Your character is capable of running, double jumping and shooting (which is nearly useless), and every single thing on screen that isn't you will likely try to kill you. Every few steps some part of the landscape (spikes, apples in trees, stars, the ground itself) will try to kill you, and the only way to avoid it is through trial and error. You are meant to die over and over and over again, and as you only have one life and take one hit before exploding into bloody pixels you will be hearing the game over music very often indeed.

Aside from masochism, humor is the only thing leading you onward: the game's graphics and sound are almost entirely looted from various NES games and remixed in pretty entertaining ways that I dare not spoil. Frankly, however, I recommend watching somebody's speedrun of the game on YouTube over actually playing it... life is too short for this shit. Available for Windows.

Potatoman Seeks The Troof

Potatoman is being marketed as a potatosophical platformer, and if you like the sound of that you will probably enjoy the game. Potatoman is an Atari 2600-esque blob of pixels who seems half man / half potato, and is on a quest for Troof. Over the course of the game our hero visits various locales seeking Troof, and almost everything he meets has their own idea of what it is. Like I Wanna Be The Guy, Potatoman toys with the player's expectations of how things in the world ought to behave, but in more creative ways. The running theme is having to think outside the box: For example some things that are scary will only hurt you if you try to evade them... walk straight through them and they will obligingly move aside. You will die a lot, but thankfully you get many, many lives and there's always a way through.

Meanwhile the philosophical themes reinforce the unconventional gameplay and vice versa. Like Potatoman you are seeking insight into the nature of how things really are, and must confront the things that confuse or frighten you. I finished the game in under an hour, but spent that entire time being entertained. For $3 I feel that I got my money's worth, and the ending is simple, but very sweet. Oh, and Potatoman does some adorable things if you leave him standing around. Available for Windows, Mac and Linux

DLC Quest

DLC Quest is one of the funniest games I've played in a very long time, and while the gameplay is incredibly simple the conceptual hook is pure gold: As you begin your adventure there is no sound or animation, and you are only capable of walking to the right. Immediately you run into the handy DLC vendor (Named "Nickel", and you know he's got a brother named "Dime" somewhere) who promptly begins selling you integral functionality of the game you have just purchased. The DLC is purchased with gold coins you pick up while platforming, so don't worry, you don't have to spend any more real money after buying the game.

In addition to purchasing basic abilities like jumping, you will sometimes run into areas of the game that are empty because the developers didn't get them done in time for release. Don't worry, just spend a few coins to "extend your enjoyment!".  At one point you are asked to press X 10,000 times to forge a sword... or you can purchase the speed forging pack to not die of boredom. And of course you can pay to add zombies to the game. No game is complete without unnecessary zombies.

The gameplay is basic jumping and collecting, and isn't very difficult, which fits the theme of the game only existing to collect your money. Meanwhile the writing is great throughout. I laughed constantly and the art style is adorable. There are two episodes of DLC Quest and both are well worth your time.  Available for Windows, Mac, and Xbox 360