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1Q84b

January 18th, 2014 | Posted by Philip J Reed in books - (1 Comments)

1Q84b

Toward the beginning of this month, I posted something about 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. I’d hesitate to call it a review. I’d also hesitate to call it a collection of thoughts. If anything, it’s a loose assortment of unconnected observations. Of course, at that time, I had only read the first volume.

I’ve now read the second, and I’m no closer to having my thoughts collected.

1Q84 is a deliberately confounding work. There’s nothing unique about that fact, but there is something unique in just how playfully it manages to find new ways to confound. To be frank, I’m impressed by just how consistently baffled it manages to make me when barely any passing time is unaccounted for. It doesn’t take a very skilled magician to pull off an illusion as long as he keeps you from looking in the right place. That’s basic sleight of hand, and on its own it doesn’t qualify as art. It qualifies as technique.

But keep the reader focused on every detail and still manage to pull off the same trick? That takes a master.

Murakami has every opportunity to cut away from the action when it’s time to obscure, to obfuscate. He has dual protagonists. When it’s time to confuse us about Tengo, he need simply cut to Aomame. And, of course, vice versa. And while there would be nothing wrong with that, he doesn’t do it. When our perspective shifts back we are either meticulously caught up on everything that’s passed since we last saw this character, or we repeat the last few lines of that character’s tale to fix the scene precisely as it was before we left.

That takes some guts, and the fact that it works says a lot about the trust it’s worth investing in our author.

All of this, in case you couldn’t guess, is just my way of explaining the fact that I still couldn’t tell you what 1Q84 is about. In many cases I could barely tell you what’s happening…and for a book that never leaves a detail untold, that’s incredible.

The only other book coming to mind that relates minor advancements of plot so meticulously is Ulysses, which follows two main characters as they work their way around Dublin over the course of a single day. Yet Ulysses doesn’t quite remain grounded…it flits away on overt narrative trickery, weaving dreams and fantasies and formats together into a deliberately disorienting whirl. Joyce’s arms flail as he performs his trick. He gets away with it because there’s so much you’re trying to focus on. Murakami barely moves a muscle. He lets you take your time and study anything as deeply as you like. The intense focus becomes a kind of disorientation that we’re not used to experiencing…and that’s a hell of a feat.

It’s also thematically appropriate for 1Q84, which takes for one of its themes the concept of subtle, imperceptible changes having large impacts that you only can only measure in retrospect. There’s no preparing yourself for what’s to come any more than the characters are able to prepare themselves. That’s not the way this world works.

Throughout the course of the second volume, the major event seems to be Aomame’s assassination of a man who presides spiritually over a mysterious cult. The first part of the volume builds up to the murder, the middle of the volume takes its sweet time describing that murder, and the wind-down of the novel considers thoroughly the implications of that murder.

One gets the sense by the end of volume two that it almost doesn’t matter what happens next…at least, no more than it mattered what happened last. Or what might happen a thousand years from now.

Events, however closely we study them, are pearls on a string. They are there. They are side by side. Any importance we assign to them comes from us. One day we will be gone. By default, they will all be equally important: not important at all. Aomame’s murder of a child-raping guru is described with exactly as much detail and exactly as little empathy as the breakfast she makes in the morning. One sounds more important than the other. We assign different levels of importance to each of them. But, one day, we will be gone. From enough distance to allow detachment, they are of equal importance.

1Q84 doesn’t have to work very hard to get us on Aomame’s side. We want her to kill him, and we want her to get away with it. After all, the accounts of what he’s done to a very young girl named Tsubasa — and the knowledge that there are other girls whom he abuses in the same way — are repulsive. Murakami doesn’t describe it with any more significance than he does any other kind of sex, though. In fact, in terms of narrative he assigns it less significance, as we only hear about it second-hand, through dialogue.

It’s unspeakably awful…and it remains unspoken, by the narrator at least.

Yet by the time we enter the volume’s final third, we’re not thinking of this spiritual Leader the same way. Neither is Aomame. To give it away wouldn’t spoil anything so much as it would needlessly complicate the observation. Suffice it to say that subtle changes make a world of a difference. In retrospect, anyway. After the wheels have already been set in motion. When the momentum that pulls you forward is no longer your own. When you have the knowledge you wish you had at the start, now that it’s too late to use it.

There are a lot of shifts of this kind, many of which involve the slippery concept of fiction itself. Tengo consciously conflating a visit to his dying father with a story he reads about a town of cats. The world around these characters seeming to integrate details from two fictional novels…one of which is still in the process of being written. The lyrics to “Paper Moon.” It’s not a question of how fiction manages to influence the real world, but of how deeply, how naturally, how irresistibly.

It’s tempting to read 1Q84 as a novel about itself. It’s more than tempting, actually; it’s seductive. But doing so — or doing so exclusively — robs the tale of its terrifyingly playful approach to internal resonance. The overlapping details, the historical layering, the cycling in and out of important characters, the substitution of raw emotion for uncomplicated sci-fi and then back again…a human you knew being replaced by a chrysalis that eventually opens to reveal the same human it replaced.

It’s brilliant. It’s scary. It’s unnerving. Moments of violence are weighted the same as moments of calm. Characters read Chekhov to each other at night or chain police women to beds in love hotels and strangle them. Those that seem innocent have the most dangerous motives…the creepiest ones just want to help. Cause and effect get scrambled. The good guys do awful things. They might not realize it. We might not realize it. Not until it’s too late to stop it, anyway.

Everybody’s got good intentions…it just depends upon your perspective. Subtle shifts and changes result in completely different worlds that could never be mistaken for one another.

Not that either one could possibly be more important. One day we will no longer be here.

Like the song says, it’s “just as phony as it can be.” It also says that it “wouldn’t be make believe if you believed in me.” Which sounds very nice.

The darker, unsung shadow of that line reveals that without belief, without buy-in, without the conscious decision to assign something significance, it’s nothing.

Whatever it is…or whatever it could have been…is nothing.

We don’t decide that anything is meaningless…we decide what’s meaningful. And then there’s…everything else.

1Q84 has me thinking a lot about everything else. Because all it takes is a subtle shift in perspective to reveal that it’s only a paper moon. And once you know that, there’s no way of shifting back.

…at least, not by the end of the second volume.

ALF, "A Little Bit of Soap"

I know I say this all the time, but that’s okay because I mean it all the time: this is one lousy episode. It does immediately grab my attention, however, as we open on ALF nailing a GOOD-BYE GRANDMA sign to the front door.

Does that make this episode and “Mother and Child Reunion” an unofficial two-parter? Normally I wouldn’t ask, but serialization never seemed to be something ALF was interested in. Hell, introducing characters that don’t immediately get knocked over the head with a shovel and buried forever never seemed to be something ALF was interested in. For Kate Sr. to still be hanging around…yeah, that’s definitely got my interest.

In fact, another episode with Kate Sr. takes a lot of responsibility off of the previous one. Sure, it should have been funnier, but its aimless, meandering non-plot is less important if we view “Mother and Child Reunion” as a new character’s introduction rather than a new character’s story.

Of course, in that case “Mother and Child Reunion” would have had to have said something about who Kate Sr. was as a character, and it didn’t. We didn’t even learn anything about Kate Classic. “Mother and Child Reunion” could have made for a fine setup in service of potential payoff in “A Little Bit of Soap,” but it didn’t set anything up, and there’s nothing even close to a payoff here.

Instead these are (once again) two episodes in a row about the same thing: a pair of paper-thin characters treading over the well-worn, passive-aggressive ground of every other mother / daughter pair we’ve seen on any given terrible sitcom already. There’s nothing about their relationship that has anything to do with them…they’re simply reading from a script we’ve seen performed a thousand times before.

This metaphor is more apt than you might think. Read on, friends…

ALF, "A Little Bit of Soap"

Anyway, Willie comes into the room and tells ALF to stop nailing shit to the door, an exchange which he has probably had with the alien every morning since ALF arrived.

Willie’s wearing a suit, and I’m not sure why. From the context it sounds like he’s driving Kate Sr. to the airport, and though I didn’t travel much pre-911 I don’t remember it being customary to wear your prom tux while dropping family members off at the entrance.

ALF makes the kids recite a poem he wrote, which is just “Goodbye grandma, goodbye goodbye goodbye…” over and over again, but it qualifies as the best writing this show has ever had. He also prepared a travel kit for her so she won’t need to stop anywhere and therefore won’t miss her flight.

He clearly wants her to leave, but I thought the previous episode ended with them patching things up. Sure, she slapped a muzzle on his stupid face, but compared to the crap ALF puts the family through on a daily basis that’s downright friendly. I mean, seriously…if you’re going to pick the story up from where it left off last week, why pretend it didn’t leave off there last week?

His whole reason for hating Kate Sr. was that she moved in and he had to hide in the shed, or under the bed listening to Willie stammer and hesitate his way through sex with Kate. But now Kate Sr. knows he exists, so he shouldn’t have to hide in the shed anymore. The entire conflict should be resolved simply because the context has shifted, but the writers don’t seem to realize this. Instead they treat the relationship between the two characters as though nothing has changed, even though absolutely everything has changed. It’s…weird.

As it turns out, Kate Sr. isn’t leaving after all, because Estelle fucked everything up again. That Estelle!

ALF is pissed, in spite of the fact that this no longer affects him in any way. And so we find ourselves pretending along with the writers that last week’s conflict is still in play, even though there’s no reason it should be. It’s like doing a sequel to Casablanca that picks up right after Victor and Ilsa depart, and we follow Rick around for another hour and a half while he, for no reason at all, runs through all of the same inner conflict from the first film, somehow unaware of the fact that he already reached a decision and if he’s going to go on being conflicted about something, it needs to be something different.

I know I really drill down into and harp on these tiny things in my ALF reviews, but bad writing gets me fired up in a way that so few things can. If a wall wobbles or someone stumbles over a line, I’ll point it out and make a joke…but I won’t rant about it.

When it comes to writing, though? That’s my dog you’re kicking, pal. And you’re going to get a piece of my mind.

ALF, "A Little Bit of Soap"

After the credits we start the episode proper, and there’s a long, silent view of ALF sitting on the floor, eating popcorn. Nothing is happening. He’s watching TV but we can’t see it, and there’s nothing important or funny to hear. It’s just a needless, extended shot of a puppet doing nothing.

Remember when I mentioned that I’m having to review syndication edits instead of the complete episodes? Well, scenes like this are quickly convincing me that I’m missing nothing. If they can cut three minutes out of an episode and still leave so much filler, then I find it hard to believe I’m being deprived of anything of substance.

Kate Sr. vacuums up ALF’s mess and changes the channel. ALF was watching a soap opera, but Kate Sr. wants to watch a different soap opera, so they bicker for a while about which soap opera is better.

Once again I’d like to remind you that you’re watching a show about an alien. Of course, an argument about which soap opera is better obviously stems naturally from that premise, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to remind you.

ALF, "A Little Bit of Soap"

I will say that ALF gets the shoe-string, amateurish look of late 80s soap operas down very well. Then again, I doubt this was deliberate, since ALF itself is shoe-string and amateurish. Nevertheless, the stopped clock was right, and it’s only fair to tip the hat when that happens.

The name of the soap opera that Kate Sr. likes is One World to Hope For. We don’t find out the name of the soap opera ALF likes, because that would have required the writers to come up with two things in one week, and we all know that was never going to happen.

ALF complains about One World to Hope For because it’s awful, and nothing happens. He even suggests that it needs a “plot transplant.” That sure sounds familiar…I wonder if he reviews an episode on his blog once a week even though he hates it. Imagine what a loser he’d be!

Seriously, I would love for this to be a meta joke on ALF‘s part, but for that to be the case they would have had to have made the previous 13 episodes terrible on purpose, and I’m not going to give them anywhere near that much credit.

ALF says he could write a better script than that show’s lousy writers, and I get even more tempted to read this as meta commentary. It’s not, but wouldn’t it be glorious if it was? Wouldn’t it be, potentially, good? I love that ALF‘s writing staff could pen these lines without ever realizing that they applied to the very show they were working on.

Of course, yes, it’s possible that they did realize this, but in that case shouldn’t they have, y’know, started writing better shit?

Kate Jr. comes in and tells ALF and Kate Sr. to stop arguing about soap operas, and then she asks if she can move Kate Sr.’s luggage, and Jesus Lord how is this show still so padded with three minutes already missing? What could possibly have been cut? Was it three minutes of Max Wright sitting on the can?

ALF, "A Little Bit of Soap"

Speak of the shitting devil! It’s the next day, I guess? I don’t know. I wrote the same paragraph about 15 times trying to figure out the span of time that passes in this episode, but I couldn’t do it, so fuck it. I have no clue when anything is meant to be happening. Done.

Anyway, Willie is on the couch, buffing his shoes like the pimp that he is. Kate Jr. comes in and puts her feet up and an ice pack on her head, because Kate Sr. is staying even longer now and it’s stressing her out. I thought this was resolved last week as well, but I guess ALF has outsmarted me by paying no heed to the things it conclusively told us had happened.

Kate Sr. is sticking around (again…this is totally separate from that time earlier in the same episode when she was sticking around) because Estelle sprained her ankle. That Estelle!

I find it tremendously interesting that ALF is so completely lacking in narrative momentum that it needs to rely on a never-seen character that might as well not exist for every one of its plot points. This show is thoroughly populated with characters so uninteresting that they can’t even pull their own story forward.

Anyway, they bitch about Kate Sr. and ALF writes everything they say in a notebook.

You know what you just saw in your head when you read that sentence? The entire rest of the episode. Yep. In that split second you did just as much creative work as the entire writing staff of ALF combined. Congratulations!

ALF, "A Little Bit of Soap"

The very next scene is ALF herding everyone into the living room to watch One World to Hope For. Doesn’t Willie have a job? Why is he around watching soap operas with everyone else? Does nobody work anymore? Don’t the kids go to school?

Anyway, the reason for the alien’s excitement becomes clear when they see ALF Shumway listed on-screen as the credited writer.

This is why I was trying to figure out the time-frame. I know soap operas have relatively short turnaround times, but I’d imagine it would still take months for them to start filming the work of a new writer, especially if the scripts he’s submitting are unsolicited. Yet from certain details in the episode I think we’re supposed to believe that this happened the next day or something. I don’t know. I can’t tell. I don’t care. I don’t care I don’t care I don’t care.

Maybe they’d accept his work the next day. I won’t argue about that. It’s fucking impossible, but I won’t argue about it. Maybe they’d love it so much they’d want to shoot it as soon as possible.

Fine. But wouldn’t they have other scripts that they need to shoot and air first? Soap operas have long plot arcs by design. It isn’t like a sitcom where everything can reset the next week and stories are often written to be told out of order. Soap operas need to keep their balls in the air, so why is this one happy to drop all of its plot-threads wholecloth for the sake of producing this irrelevant script by a writer they’ve never heard of and who has no previous credits to his name?

ALF, "A Little Bit of Soap"

The show starts and there are two characters on the couch recreating the conversation that Willie and Kate Jr. had in the previous scene. This is a decently funny idea…it’s not particularly original, sure, but filtering the day-to-day reality of the Tanners through ALF’s (ostensibly) well-meaning pen could lead to some great comedy. I’m reminded of that episode of The Office* when Michael is away and they find the screenplay that he wrote. It re-defines the world (and characters) around them through the magic of warped perspective, and something similar could happen here, with ALF saying nasty things about Willie or the kids via proxy.

But…no. There’s no twist. It’s literally a straight recitation of the conversation we just saw. There’s no attempt whatsoever to turn this into a joke on any other level. What squandered potential.

The family realizes quickly that ALF just wrote down everything they said, which comes as a shock to them despite the fact that while they were having this conversation ALF was writing down everything they said.

Kate Sr. is upset when she finds out that her character is named Dorothy, which, based on her reaction, I assume is her name. I don’t know, though. The show still hasn’t told us what her name is, so whatever connection we’re supposed to make here as viewers, it doesn’t get made.

So, yeah, the Kate Sr. character walks in on the Willie and Kate Jr. characters and joins the conversation. The Kate Jr. character tells the Kate Sr. character that she doesn’t want her to live with them forever, and the real Kate Sr., watching this, is hurt by this revelation and gets up to leave.

I don’t understand this. If all ALF did was write down exactly what happened — which the episode keeps telling us is the case — then doesn’t that mean Kate Sr. was already present for this conversation? None of these words should be new to her. If her own daughter asking her to leave didn’t hurt, why is it now suddenly unbearable to hear two fictional characters having the same exchange?

I suppose it’s possible that Kate Sr. is actually upset because ALF put such a hurtful conversation on TV, but in that case shouldn’t she be angry at him instead of her daughter? This is one of the simplest possible plots I can imagine, and yet the writers are still confusing me.

ALF, "A Little Bit of Soap"

In the next scene ALF is putting together another script, but Kate Jr. tells him he needs to stop writing for soap operas, but ALF explains that for some reason the staff of that show is now relying completely on scripts appearing in their mailboxes from this mysterious writer they’ve never met who doesn’t have any understanding of the show’s characters or what they’re meant to be doing.

Then Kate Sr. reveals to her daughter that Estelle never sprained her ankle…Estelle’s just a nutbag so Kate Sr. moved out and has nowhere else to go. That Estelle!

Someone from One World to Hope For calls ALF on the phone and reminds him that they’re shooting his new script tomorrow, and he needs to have it there pronto. This is totally how TV works, btw.

Seriously, this is ridiculous. They received, filmed and aired ALF’s first script in one day, I guess, because now they need another script for tomorrow, which is insane to me. What was the crew of One World to Hope For doing? Sitting around in the dark hoping somebody watching at home would write a script for them? And after one single script they refuse to do anything but wait for that same writer to provide them another? This is absurd.

I guess One World to Hope For is the one show in history whose writing staff does even less work than ALF‘s.

ALF, "A Little Bit of Soap"

ALF sits in the shed sticking clothes pins to his face. He screams and Willie comes running in to make sure he’s okay. Willie arrives very quickly so I assume he was hiding outside the door for salacious purposes that are mercifully not revealed.

ALF is fine…he’s just having trouble finishing the script, and he needs to hurry because they’re going to be shooting in a few hours. Isn’t “shooting in a few hours” too late? Won’t the actors need to learn their lines? Won’t the scenes have to be blocked and the sets have to be dressed? However small that show’s staff is, these are people who need to know what they’re doing in advance. Soap operas aren’t improvised by the production crew…that would be chaos.

WHY CAN’T THIS PLOT MAKE ANY SENSE WHATSOEVER

Willie expresses his displeasure to ALF. The Kates are fighting, and he insists that the space alien that lives in the laundry room write a script for a soap opera so that the family can watch it and feel that their problems have been resolved, which is the most roundabout, ridiculous solution to such a mundane problem that I’ve ever heard.

People fight with their parents. It happens. Very rarely do we need to count on daytime television written by extraterrestrials to repair the damage, but here we are, and for some reason that’s the only solution anyone’s thinking of.

Can’t Willie just make them sit down and talk it out? Watching ALF is like driving drunk. You keep passing these landmarks that you recognize, but you have no recollection of how you made it from one to another.

ALF, "A Little Bit of Soap"

Whatever. Nobody cares. ALF’s next episode airs and it’s full of forgiveness and fence-mending. But then, all of a sudden, the Kate Sr. character says all this nasty stuff to the Kate Jr. character, who replies with some nasty stuff of her own, and everyone gets mad at ALF for writing such a shitty episode of television that didn’t fix everything.

This is probably the only time I’ll ever be on ALF’s side. Why was this their solution to the problem? Instead of banking on the healing power of soap operas they could have dealt with this crap like adults. Delegating this to ALF Shumway, amateur soap operateer, represents a madness several layers thick.

Anyway, ALF says that he didn’t write that stuff…they changed his script. Fortunately, he has multiple copies lying around just in case there was a significant alteration made to his work and he needed to stage a live reading of the pivotal scene in the Tanner living room instead. Classic alien foresight.

ALF, "A Little Bit of Soap"

He hands out the scripts, and there’s a joke at Willie’s expense based on the fact that ALF didn’t give him any lines. This could well be another jab at Max Wright, who was actually upset that Paul Fusco hoarded all of the funny lines for himself and didn’t give the other actors much to work with. Either way…it’s kinda funny.

But only kinda. And it doesn’t last long. The Kates read ALF’s script to each other and we find out that Kate Sr.’s name is indeed Dorothy. Fuck that, though. I’m calling her Kate Sr.

Anyway, ALF’s script has all of the mystical healing abilities as they knew it could have, and they end up hugging and promising to never fight again, which would probably mean something if “Mother and Child Reunion” hadn’t ended the same way.

Willie celebrates with history’s most pathetic attempt at a thumbs-up.

ALF, "A Little Bit of Soap"

ALF’s script really shouldn’t have moved them this way. It’s just some boilerplate nonsense about loving each other even though they drive each other crazy, and there’s a moment where Kate Sr.’s character confesses to being very sad since her husband died, which is treated as a shocking revelation. Because widows are normally extremely happy people I guess.

We also learn from the script that Kate Sr. didn’t really move out…Estelle kicked her out.

That Estelle!

Personally I think Estelle needs a spinoff. She’s the only character in the ALF universe who’s done anything, and we’ve never met her.

Needless to say, she’s my new favorite.

MELMAC FACTS: On Melmac they used accupressure to relieve writer’s block. On Earth we just tell the same story we told last week and hope nobody notices.
—–
* But not the episode where they actually see the finished film. Because that one was horse shit.

Upworthless

January 14th, 2014 | Posted by Philip J Reed in internet - (3 Comments)

Upworthy

I hate Upworthy. I wish I could say that I only hate what Upworthy does, but that’s impossible, because there’s nothing to Upworthy apart from what it does. And what it does is manipulate. And that’s damaging.

First of all, I will say that it’s nice that there’s an outlet devoted to spotlighting positive things. (Hold tight to this sentence, because I’m going to more or less dismiss it later on.) But I do wish that that outlet wasn’t this outlet.

Upworthy is all over the place. People share links from it constantly, and I almost never have to look to see what site the links are from; the headlines give it away.

Look at the examples above. I didn’t pick and choose…those are three side by side articles spotlighted on the front page of Upworthy as I write this post. Are those distinguishable in any way from the presentation of spam advertisements you’ll see on any given website?

You know the ones I mean. “Insurance agents do not want you to know about this trick to lower your rates.” “Doctors are terrified that you will learn this secret to healthy weightloss.” Even, “Here’s how you can impress her…the way it matters most.”

They’re evocative statements just this side of comprehensible, and they say precisely nothing while promising a whole lot of everything. It’s what online marketers call “clickbait.” It’s what you probably know as “bullshit.”

It’s not the content that matters. Contrary to Upworthy’s ostensible mission, the site doesn’t care about giving you anything worth reading or seeing…it only cares about getting you to click. The fact that it spotlights positivity in a traditionally negative world is just set dressing…the equivalent of a car dealership hanging up a banner that says “Eco-Friendly.” It’s a way to get people to think that something is different here — and positively so — when, really, there’s no difference at all.

Again, take a look at three other features on the main page. (Full disclosure: I did swap out one story for another…not because the actual image in its place didn’t demonstrate my point — it did — but it used an individual’s pain and suffering to do so, and I did not feel comfortable perpetuating that.)

Upworthy

There’s no difference between this and worthless spam marketing. Any product or service worth purchasing won’t have to hide behind vague incentives to click through; if it was something worth having, they’d tell you what it was up front. Upworthy doesn’t tell you what it is up front. It’s always “This ______ will blow your mind.” “You won’t believe what ________ said.” “This is a video you need to see.”

None of it means anything. Perhaps that fact would blow my mind. Perhaps I wouldn’t believe what _______ said. Perhaps that would indeed be a video I’d enjoy. But I’m not going to click it. Why? Because you’re not asking me to click it…you’re trying to trick me into clicking it. And that’s precisely what people do when they’re hiding something.

Look at the actual examples. In the middle article of the second row, what would be wrong with revealing the topic? Let’s assume it’s something relatively mild, like divorce. If they made that clear, people interested in reading some commentary about this poem on divorce would click it. Granted, fewer people would click it, but that’s because the folks who don’t will know ahead of time that it’s not an article that interests them.

Respectable media gives its audience credit, and letting them decide what they’d like to view or read for themselves is a very obvious form of credit. Upworthy does not give you — yes, you — any credit. It believes you need to be misled and tantalized into finding things you’ll enjoy. And that is, as you know it, bullshit.

I understand the mentality here. Sesame Street was conceived with a similar mindset: advertisements are flashy and funny and engaging, and they work particularly well on children…so why not use the language of advertising to sell them the alphabet?

It worked there. It still works there. I have no problem with that there. So why do I have a problem with someone using the language of advertising to sell “good news” to people?

For a few reasons. For starters, it is a respectable goal to direct children to the things that will enrich them and prepare them for life. The alphabet, basic math, vocabulary words, lessons on sharing…these are the things Sesame Street “sells,” and it sells these things because they’re not the sorts of things children would seek out — or be given — on their own.

Upworthy doesn’t have that same excuse. It isn’t “selling” anything of value…it’s farming your clicks. As evidence of that, ask yourself how much original content Upworthy produces. The answer is zero. It produces no original content. Whereas something like Sesame Street embraces the positive aspects and artistry of advertising, Upworthy embraces the laziest, the most manipulative, and the worst. It’s begging you to click, but if you do, all you’ll find is the work somebody else did elsewhere. In short, they’re stealing clicks from the people who actually did these positive things that Upworthy claims to be celebrating.

They’re profiting off of the work of others. And while they do typically cite their sources, that doesn’t do much good, because Upworthy is reproducing the content wholesale. There’s a link to the original source, but why would you click it? It’s all right here. Far from offering incentive to visit the site in question, they’re collecting all of the incentive and depositing it here, on their own site. Upworthy’s saved you the hassle of actually having to visit the person, place or thing that’s supposedly so inspiring. How nice of them.

It’s no different from a hypothetical site that would crawl the internet for other people’s art and host it locally without permission. Yet when something like that occurs, we get a better sense of the unfairness. We know it’s wrong to download somebody else’s art and upload it ourselves without permission. There’s no question…and if we came upon a website that did nothing but that, we probably wouldn’t bother coming back. It would be obvious junk.

Upworthy, however, seems content to hide behind the “news” side of things. And, to be honest, news organizations do often share sources, and sometimes entire pieces. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this…the AP exists for a reason, after all. But if The New York Times were to copy and paste an editorial wholesale from The Economist without permission, there’d be a rightful shitstorm brewed up.

Upworthy does this all the time, except that they’re swiping content from smaller outlets, and oftentimes independent bloggers and vloggers. There’s no shitstorm, because the audiences are smaller and the stories scroll off the page fast enough that there’s not much time to take action. By the time they get around to responding to your request for removal — if they do — the damage is done. You did, wrote or said something that deserved a larger audience, and Upworthy stole that audience from you. Maybe they’ll take the link down, but by that point the moment has passed, and it’s scrolled down far enough that people stopped seeing it anyway.

That’s…not a particularly “positive” atmosphere, is it?

There’s also the fact that Upworthy’s snatch-n-grab approach results in things getting spotlighted before there’s been anywhere near enough time to determine if it was up-worthy. Take, for instance, this homeless veteran makeover malarkey. Upworthy loved it and pimped it everywhere. Which was great, because poor Jim Wolf’s life fell apart immediately following this session, when he went back to drinking, was arrested, and remained homeless and alone, and nobody had to worry about that because they were still being inspired by this manipulative video full of lies.

If Upworthy wants to use its status as a “news curator” in any respectable way, it needs to issue retractions the way anyone else would. If a website reported the death of some public figure that was later revealed to not be dead, they’d retract it. Of course they would; there’d be no discussion about it. How could there be a discussion about it? Even if that website hadn’t written the original piece, it would be clear that they need to retract what was said. After all, they reported on one thing and then found out the truth was something different.

Upworthy wants to be the positive alternative to general news curation, but it doesn’t issue retractions when the positive content it swipes from elsewhere turns out to be bunk.

Why not? Easy. They don’t care. They only want you to click.

Upworthy’s a poison. It manipulates readers, tricks visitors, and robs from the smaller outlets that are actually doing the work, all in favor of turning a greater profit from the increased traffic. It doesn’t do any good, and it contains literally nothing that can’t be found elsewhere.

Oh, but it does take the time to spotlight the positive news stories in such a negative world. Right? Isn’t it nice to have a news outlet or curation service that bothers to report on positive things?

Sure. It is. And we’ve had it all along. I’m not sure I’ve ever sat through a news broadcast that didn’t feature uplifting personal interest stories or reports on some seasonal puppy parade or something. The myth of disproportionately negative reporting is exactly that; it’s a myth. We tend to remember and focus on the negative stuff because that’s what sticks with us by nature. If a woman is murdered in a local park, we’ll remember the story about that, even if the same amount of ink, or more, was given over to the winner of a chili cookoff.

Yes, professional news outlets do report on positive things. What’s more, they actually check their sources, and are held accountable for what they get wrong.

On top of all of that…this is the internet. You can find anything you want. If you want uplifting stories they’re never more than a single Google search away. You can find them. There are good people everywhere, and you can seek them out in a way previous generations could not.

You don’t need Upworthy to do it for you. And you definitely don’t need them to profit off of treating you like an idiot while they do.

Upworthy is greed. It might be greed with a smile, but in the end it’s still greed. Start circulating the positive stories from the sources that actually produce them, instead of contributing to the profit margins of a company that swipes them. That would truly be upworthy.

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EDIT: I MEAN JUST LOOK AT THIS SHIT COME ON
Upworthy

A Little Help For My Friends

January 12th, 2014 | Posted by Philip J Reed in personal - (3 Comments)

The Interactive Canvas

Whew! I wanted to have a few new things ready to post this weekend, but that didn’t happen. For good reasons, though. It was a pretty awesome weekend.

However there were two things I wanted to draw attention toward. In one case, it’s a friend trying to raise money for what looks to be a pretty cool passion project of his. In another case it’s not quite as happy a story. Of course, if you decide to help either, or both, or none, that’s entirely your choice. I’m not going to tell anyone to donate to anything, but if you find it in your heart to do so, I can promise you that these are two very deserving people who would appreciate it more than you realize.

One Friend: Friend of the website and webmaster of Digitally Downloaded, Matt Sainsbury has set up a Kickstarter. He’s unhappy with the current state of games criticism, and hopes to rectify this in some small way with a nice, insightful, authoritative text that treats the medium with the artistic respect that it deserves. I haven’t seen any of the material that will be included in this book, but I’d be genuinely surprised if it was not worth reading; check out the link to get a sense of just how much great stuff is going to end up in here.

Another Friend: Noiseless Chatter regulars will no doubt recognize the name Sarah Portland. She’s more than a welcome presence here…she’s an excellent human being and a very talented artist. However, some sad news: her cat passed away this past Thursday. That’s unfortunate enough on its own, but Sarah is also faced with a large bill that she’s having trouble paying off. She had to pay over $2,000 for surgery last month, and now she needs another $400 to pay for the necropsy and cremation.

If you would like to donate, please do so directly to the vet: Tigard Animal Hospital, (503) 684-3133. Mention that it is for a kitty cat named Spock.

I know things are hard out there. I know funds are limited across the board. But these are two people who have done a lot to shape the atmosphere of this site, especially lately, and I’m happy to help in any small way that I can.

Anyway, more to come, as always. And I just finished writing the review of ALF‘s clip show. I don’t want to get your hopes up, but it’s the best thing you’ll ever read so you might as well kill yourself right after.

ALF, "Mother and Child Reunion"

So, some bad news has been brought to my attention. It turns out that the episodes of ALF that are on Hulu — the ones I’ve been watching — are the syndication cuts. At first this disappointed me, but then it made sense: they’re using the same edits that were mastered for the DVD releases, which themselves used syndication cuts because the budget did not allow them to dig back and remaster the originals.

What does this mean? Well, in syndication episodes typically run shorter, in order to make room for more commercials. In the pre-DVD age, this was extremely annoying. I remember catching syndicated episodes of The Simpsons that cut out my favorite scenes and jokes. In addition, the folks responsible for editing a show for syndication may or may not pay any attention to the story, and are simply cutting things to get it as short as it needs to be. In the case of shows like The Simpsons this can be problematic, because while you probably could cut the classic episodes down a bit and still leave the larger experience of watching them intact, hacking away a few seconds here and a few seconds there more or less at random makes for a pretty disappointing at-home experience, since so much of what gave the episode its “flavor” can be lost.

With ALF I can’t say that I’m worried that the minute or two that was cut from each of these episodes would have elevated the show to tolerability, but I’m still pretty disappointed that I don’t get to watch and review the original edits, which may only exist at this point in the form of audience VHS recordings from their original airings.

Interestingly enough, the first episode I reviewed after learning about this is “Mother and Child Reunion,” which opens with evidence of something missing.

The very first moments of the episode see ALF holding one of those toy claws…remember those? You hold the handle and can squeeze a trigger to make the claw close. I don’t know what it was supposed to be for…you could theoretically reach things with it, but it wasn’t particularly strong and you’d probably just end up breaking something. Regardless, we never see what ALF intended to do with it.

There are ingredients everywhere and we find out from a line of dialogue that they were making pasta. It seemed a little strange that this all happened before the episode started…as in seconds before…and sure enough under the end credits we see a clip of this scene that’s longer than we see here. Syndication spares us, for better or for worse, from the Alien ‘N’ Tanner Pasta-Making Family Fun Night.

Anyway there’s somebody at the door, and it turns out to be Kate’s mother, who, impressively, is only about five or six years older than Kate. They shut the door on her and run around the living room like idiots trying to conceal ALF, while Kate Sr. waits outside patiently like the guy from the Alien Task Force in episode one.

I predict this episode will be brilliant.

ALF, "Mother and Child Reunion"

It’s actually not a bad setup. The appearance of Kate Sr. gives the show a chance to flesh out Kate’s character, as well as introduce another outside force to the group dynamic. Additionally, the fact that she’s staying with the family means that ALF’s primary complaint — his isolation — gets dialed up even further, as he’ll be restricted from even having full run of the house. Of course, now that I type that out I realize that that’s the exact conflict we had in “Strangers in the Night” and it sure as heck didn’t do anyone any good there.

Anyway, Kate Sr. exposits that she’s in town because she’s traveling with a friend to Hawaii, and they decided to stop in Los Angeles to see their daughters who, conveniently, both live in the same city. None of that explains why they wouldn’t have called first, but at least we now know, 13 episodes into the show, where the fucking thing is meant to be taking place.

Kate Sr. says she brought gifts, and ALF sticks his head through the window that connects to the kitchen and says, “GIFTS?!” Then Willie shouts, “NOOO!” and ALF ducks down and Willie has to pretend that he shouted, “NOOO!” for a reason other than the real reason he shouted, “NOOO!” and that’s the kind of episode this is going to be, I guess.

ALF, "Mother and Child Reunion"

Brian gets a scarf and Lynn gets a sweater, because Kate Sr. thinks it’s too cold in the house for them. Kate Jr. says the kids are fine and to fuck off if she doesn’t like it, but Brian hobbles between them and simulates sadness so the dueling Kates agree to a ceasefire.

The interesting thing is that throughout this scene and the previous one, Willie has been wearing a jacket indoors. I can’t quite give this show enough credit to assume it’s a background joke meant to silently suggest that Kate does keep the house too cold…but there you go. Willie is wearing a jacket.

Kate Sr. and Kate Original Recipe snipe passively back and forth for a while because this is a sitcom and that’s the only thing you can have visiting mothers do with their daughters.

Women, amirite??

ALF, "Mother and Child Reunion"

I’ve defended — and even praised — Paul Fusco’s puppeteering in the past, but there’s a joke here that fails to land due to his lousy performance. Kate Sr. leaves the room and ALF pops up through the kitchen window again. He asks if the fact that this woman is staying in the house will affect him in any way, and some very loose editing means we linger on him far too long after he asks the question, allowing everyone to guess the joke and undermining entirely what would have been a decent smash-cut.

That’s not Fusco’s fault though. What is Fusco’s fault is that when we do cut to ALF in the shed, shouting “Help!” into Willie’s ham radio, ALF’s just standing there with his mouth open. Fusco doesn’t sell the panic at all, and doesn’t even seem to be making any attempt to do so. It’s strange to me, as Fusco is typically very interested in “animating” ALF in ways that are nearly always the highlight of any given episode. Here he’s content to open the mouth and leave it at that.

It’s strange, and it’s disappointing. Fusco is far better than this, and he’s every bit as capable of selling ALF’s panic as much as Jim Henson* always sold Kermit’s. But instead of a puppet waving his arms around and shouting to the heavens, we have one standing behind a desk with his jaw hanging open. There’s no effort here whatsoever, which is odd because the puppetry is usually the only place I can find any effort.

Kate and Lynn come into the shed with dinner for ALF and tell him he needs to stay in there until Tuesday, when Kate Sr. leaves. Actually, they call it a garage…and I’m not sure if I confused myself at some point or if the characters really do alternate between calling this set a shed and a garage. If it’s the same thing, then does that mean this is what ALF crashed into in “Baby, You Can Drive My Car”? If so, why didn’t Willie give a crap about the ham radio against the wall that took him a solid decade to build and is the most important thing in his life except when it sometimes isn’t?

Anyway ALF doesn’t want to stay in the shed, Kate says tough titty, and Lynn is a terrible actress. Moving on.

ALF, "Mother and Child Reunion"

The very next scene is…Tuesday morning. Wow…so we really blew right past that whole conflict, didn’t we? Kate puts a meal on the table, ALF walks into the room with a protest sign, and the fake audience of nobody that actually exists goes wild.

They herd ALF back into the kitchen because Kate Sr. is taking a shit and she’s almost done, in fact might already be wiping at that very moment, and he needs to get the eff outta there, stat.

I like that any time ALF needs to have a character out of the room they put them on the toilet. Not having to worry about coming up with any other reasons for them to be occupied really frees up the writing staff for snack time.

Kate Sr. comes out of the bathroom drying her hands, which is a bit strange as I usually do that before I walk around the house dripping bathroom water everywhere, but the much more disturbing thing is that she comes out wearing an apron. Who the hell wears an apron into the bathroom? And then she’s going to wear it into the kitchen? That’s disgusting, lady.

ALF, "Mother and Child Reunion"

The phone rings and it’s Kate Sr.’s friend Estelle. They have an argument and Kate Sr. decides she’s not going to Hawaii after all and will just live with the Tanners forever and ever amen.

I’d like to take a moment here to point out that my constant referring to this character as Kate Sr. is more than just a hilarious joke that you really like…it’s because the episode never tells us who she is. Granted, she gets referred to as “mom” and “grandma,” both of which are accurate, but we don’t ever learn her name. Why not? We learn that her never-seen friend is named Estelle, and we have no reason to give a shit about that. So why don’t we learn Kate Sr.’s name?

It’s bizarre. This would also be a chance to find out what Kate’s maiden name is. Not that that’s crucial information or anything, but it’s a chance to do some character work, and make these people feel like people instead of stiff wind-up toys that recite pre-recorded sound-bites when you squeeze their bellies.

The problem isn’t that the writing staff isn’t telling me Kate’s maiden name…the problem is that the writing staff doesn’t know or care about anything like this, and therefore have no clue who their characters are. This particular example is a symptom rather than the problem, but even if you think I’m reading too deeply into this (since 1981!) the fact is that the show just introduced a new character without even caring what her name is, and that’s a pretty clear sign that something’s wrong.

ALF, "Mother and Child Reunion"

Willie and Kate talk in bed for a while about what to do with Kate Sr., and while they do ALF climbs up from underneath the bed to pitch his own two cents in.

I know I’m always making jokes and exaggerating the sexual deviance of ALF, but in this case I’m just going to report to you what happens here. Are you ready? There is no embellishment whatsoever. This is the episode‘s idea of a joke…not mine.

ALF reveals that it’s cold in the shed, so he’s been sleeping under their bed for the past few nights. Willie asks him if he was under there Sunday night, because that’s the one night out of the year that he allowed himself to fuck his wife. (Okay, that was the ONLY EMBELLISHMENT.) ALF says that yes, he was, but don’t worry…he didn’t hear anything.

That’s…gross. I actually feel sick just writing about it. It’s the sort of joke you could do with Roger, for instance, because within the context of American Dad! it actually fits. It doesn’t make it any less disgusting, but it is at least in line with the rest of the show’s comic sensibilities.

Here it’s completely out of line. This was a family sitcom, and we just had a joke about somebody hiding under a bed listening to two people fuck. What the hell was ALF teaching kids? This would be like stumbling across an old episode of Sesame Street where Cookie Monster hides in the closet and watches Gordon plow Maria. Jesus Christ.

It gets worse, too. After the conversation, ALF climbs back under the bed. Willie and Kate jump up and down on the mattress in order to crush him to death — if I have anything to say about it — and ALF thinks they’re having sex again, so he encouragingly shouts, “Go for it Willie!”

The audience of nobody loudly applauds Paul Fusco’s rapier wit.

ALF, "Mother and Child Reunion"

ALF sits alone in the dark kitchen, mumbling to himself somehow without moving his mouth, making this officially Fusco’s laziest episode ever. When he can’t even be bothered to operate the fucking mouth you know he’s given up.

There is some nice blocking here, though, as you can see Kate Sr. through the window, walking around the living room yawning before she comes to the kitchen. It makes things feel a little more “alive” than they would have if the scene started with her opening the door, and it’s nice that they’re using the window between the two rooms for something other than having ALF pop up and spout bullshit through it.

She sees ALF and is immediately worried and terrified, which is great, because that’s the opposite reaction the Tanners had to ALF in the pilot, and it’s nice to see that the writers realize that the basic reaction humans might have to meeting an alien wouldn’t be to invite it to move in.

Of course she’s not entirely exempt from stupidity, as she concludes that ALF must be something Willie made, because Willie is always making crazy things. For starters, how could Willie make a creature? Is he a mad scientist? ALF isn’t a robot…he’s flesh and blood. She even touches him to make sure. Does she really think a dipshit like Willie is able to synthesize life? That doesn’t make any sense at all.

Secondly, since when is Willie always making crazy things? We saw his mousetrap a few episodes ago, and that was indeed crazy, but more because it was a pile of shit and less because it convinced anyone that he was capable of creating living breathing aliens with his own two hands. I wish Willie was always making crazy things…that sounds like it would lead to some much better plots than we’ve been getting. Why can’t I watch an episode where Willie makes a battlebot that goes apeshit?

ALF, "Mother and Child Reunion"

The next morning ALF is throwing some cookware around in the kitchen for no reason. Kate Sr. comes in and realizes that the monster she saw last night wasn’t a dream, and then Willie and Kate Jr. enter from the laundry room because that’s the only other direction from which they can enter the scene, and not because there was any reason for them to be hiding in there.

Nobody is worried for long about the fact that someone now knows ALF lives in the house, and when he and Kate Sr. start to bicker it’s clear that she’s mainly concerned that ALF eats people food and gets to sit at the table…not that he’s a hitherto unknown species from a distant world.

It’s absurd. Imagine going over to your friend’s place for breakfast, and a unicorn comes into the kitchen and sits at the table. Is your main concern going to be that unicorns shouldn’t be eating in the house? Why is everybody on this show quietly psychotic?

ALF, "Mother and Child Reunion"

ALF issues an ultimatum: either Kate Sr. goes, or he goes. This doesn’t seem like a wise gambit for ALF, because if he goes, he’s fucked. If she goes, she’s pissed off with no reason not to turn him in, and he’s fucked. But the episode’s almost over and the writers don’t want Kate Sr. around next week any more than we do, so I guess he had no choice but to say this.

There’s a long, meandering stream of bullshit that ends with Kate Sr. and Kate Jr. mending fences and agreeing to be less intolerably bitchy to each other, which sounds nice but probably means nothing since there’s no chance of us ever seeing this woman again. Kate Sr. demonstrates her newfound decency by allowing Kate Jr. to make pancakes however the fuck she wants.

Damn, that’s good TV.

ALF, "Mother and Child Reunion"

There’s a little scene before the credits with Kate Sr. giving Brian a hat that’s too big for him. ALF makes a joke and does his obnoxious, “HA! Ha-haha!” laugh, slapping the arm of the couch as he does so. Then Kate Sr. reveals that she’s knit a muzzle for ALF as well, and she sticks it on his worthless face and does the laughing couch-slap thing herself, which I guess means they bonded, and I wish they both were dead.

This was an absolutely terrible episode, and yet I can’t hate it completely, because it put this in my head and it stayed there the entire time I spent writing this review. That’s the best I’ve ever felt after an episode of ALF, and for that, I doff my cap.

MELMAC FACTS: Melmac’s civilization was apparently “millions of years ahead” of Earth’s. And yet they still haven’t discovered comedy.

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* Reader / commenter / supervillain Sarah Portland has actually talked to me a bit about some of Henson’s specific techniques that she’s noticed Fusco employing, and while I was fascinated by it I’m not nearly as intelligent as she is, so I’ll leave it to her to explain in the comments below. Suffice it to say, Fusco’s good. So good she had to check to see if he ever worked with Henson’s crew in the past. He didn’t, but the fact that she had to check is one hell of a fine compliment.

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