Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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Grown Backwards, David ByrneGrown Backwards is an incredible album.

I’m a huge fan of David Byrne’s work as both the frontman for Talking Heads and as a solo artist. He’s an acquired taste, but one I’d say is worth acquiring. And as much as I love his music in general, Grown Backwards, I think, is his strongest album front to back. (It’s predecessor Look Into the Eyeball puts up a damned good fight, though.)

Seriously. It’s great. Go buy it. Listen to it for a few years. THEN FINISH READING THIS POST OK

Okay. So, there is one song on the album that leaves me wondering about something. It’s embedded below, and you should listen even if you don’t give a crap about helping me with my question, because it’s an excellent song with a pretty adorable guitar line.

It’s called “She Only Sleeps.” And that might be the clue to my answer right there, but I’m honestly not sure. See, the entire line in the chorus is “She only sleeps with me.”

And that can be interpreted two ways.

So, here’s my question: When Byrne says “she only sleeps with me,” does he mean…

a) He is the only man with whom she has intercourse, or
b) They literally slumber together, and that’s it.

They’re mutually exclusive possibilities, and I go back and forth on how I hear the song. Byrne’s dreamy, detached delivery doesn’t tip the scales for me either way. He could be loosely bragging, or just spinning a little story about unrequited love. (It’s unrequited in the verses, at least. But you may hear something a little more behind the music.)

And even if he is bragging…couldn’t he brag about either possibility? Either he alone is enjoying sex with this force of carnality…or he’s the only one that gets to know her in a non-sexual way.

Either is brag-worthy, but it’d be two very different kinds of people doing the bragging.

In reality I’d guess Byrne would be more fascinated with the other side of her life: the one that you can only see when she’s resting from a long night of topless dancing, hard drinking, car crashing…the life she lives when she’s quiet. Helpless. Stopped in her revelry by the most basic need of all…the need for rest.

But that doesn’t mean that that’s what his character is more fascinated with.

So, what are we hearing in “She Only Sleeps”? What do you hear?

Is it the self-satisfied croon of braggadocio, rubbing it in that he has what you want? That while she might light fires in your chest, his are the only ones she tends to?

Or is it a quieter, shyer singer, one whose electric guitar plays softly so as not to wake her, as he discovers in her sleeping form a woman that those who lust after her never get to know?

Does she only sleep with him? Or does she only sleep with him? The phrase gets emphasized both ways verbally…but how are we meant to take it emotionally?

Either way, the singer has some definite issues of female ownership to work through. But I’d be curious to know in which direction he needs to steer.

Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins

I had a Game Boy as a kid, and I loved it. Hell, I still love the Game Boy. There were too many great games available to list here, but one that I certainly played endlessly was Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins. I had the first Super Mario Land as well, but it always felt a little…off to me.

The sprites were too small. The fireballs bounced. Invincibility stars played the can-can music. It was just…weird. Like falling into another dimension and playing their version of a Mario game.

But Mario Land 2 was great. It looked (and looks) gorgeous. The branching paths and secrets felt perfectly designed for the series as I knew it. It contained this song for fuck’s sake. I played it constantly.

And I don’t just mean I picked it up and beat a few stages. I mean I completed it. Over and over and over again. As an adult I’ve revisited it, and while it’s not the game I quite remember it being, all of that childhood charm came rushing back to me.

…but so did a question.

Here is that question:

What the absolute hell is Wario doing at the end?

Wario — who you probably know by now from other games and spinoffs — is the evil converse of Mario. He’s greedy and hoards coins, unlike Mario who…

…anyway, point is, he’s bad. So at the end of the game you run through the fortress he stole from Mario and beat him up. Easy enough.

But then…well, watch the fight if you like, but feel free to skip to 1:28.

And what the hell does he do after Mario defeats him?

He shrinks. I get that. Mario does the same thing (usually) when he takes damage.

Then he cries. I get that. He’s a selfish bastard who just lost his castle. (Well, Mario’s castle. Why, exactly, is Wario demonized for wanting the kind of impenetrable fortress Mario himself already had? Why is Mario the hero and Wario a villain to be vanquished if they both craved the same exact kind of power? Okay…another Pop Question at some point then…)

But then he…throws a projectile of some kind. It doesn’t hurt Mario. Wario makes a silly face and runs off.

…I don’t get that.

What actually happened?

What did he throw?

This is the very end of the game…Wario’s final gesture of defiance…the last word from our fallen adversary…and I have no idea what it is.

It looks like no other item in the game. Part of me wants to assume it’s his hat, as you see the hat disappear before he throws whatever he throws.

…but Wario’s hat doesn’t look like that. His looks like the kind of ballcap Mario always wears, and this item looks a lot more like Link’s Phrygian cap.

Then I wondered if it’s Wario’s shoe…but it’s completely the wrong size for that, and it still doesn’t explain why the hat disappears. Granted, the coloring of the sprite’s feet changes, so that could represent a shoe being removed, but then where is the other shoe?

Or is it something else entirely? I honestly have no idea what Wario does here.

It’s clearly something cheeky, but I must have finished the game 30 times as a kid and I’ve done it a few more as an adult, and I still have no idea what in the world Wario is doing here.

He throws something at Mario. The game plays a sort of collision sound that you wouldn’t expect from a soft item of clothing. It also doesn’t seem to phase Mario. Then Wario scampers off…his final rebellion a mystery.

So I ask you:

What the hell is Wario doing?

Digital Devil Saga

A few years ago I discovered the Shin Megami Tensei series of video games. This was mainly due to the incredible Shin Megami Tensei IV, which I keep meaning to write about in depth here. I’m sure I will, at some point, but before that I’ll just say that it’s great, it’s inexpensive, and you should buy it.

Anyway, since playing that game I’ve been working through the previous titles in the series. There’s a lot more than three that preceded it, thanks to sub-series and side-series and spinoff games, and I’ve recently started working through Digital Devil Saga.

That’s also great and inexpensive and you should buy it, by the way, but that’s not why I’m here.

In fact, the entire, larger series is worth your time, serving as an incredible blend of philosophy, mythology, and characterization, giving you a much deeper and more rewarding psychological experience than most other games — RPGs or otherwise — could possibly deliver.

But that’s not why I’m here either.

Something odd happened when I was playing Digital Devil Saga a few weeks back, and it’s stuck with me ever since. It’s not something odd that happened within the game (though, I assure you, plenty of odd things happen within the game) but rather something odd that happened in my mind.

The game takes place in what’s suggested to be a post-apocalyptic wasteland known as the Junkyard. (I’ll be deliberately simplifying plot details here, so please don’t comment to clarify things; I want to avoid spoilers for folks who haven’t played it.) The Junkyard is in a constant state of war, with residents pledging their allegiance to one endlessly embattled faction or another, and fighting on its behalf.

At the start of the game, however, something happens that starts to tip the balance: a strange presence arrives on the battlefield, and Junkyard residents are suddenly overcome with a very literal bloodthirstiness. The war has changed. Instead of traditional warfare, the combatants have become cannibalistic. Adversaries don’t just fall; they are devoured.

That’s where you come in…fighting and gobbling up enemies to get stronger and stronger until — it’s implied — your faction, The Embryon, can conquer the Junkyard.

As you might imagine, such a world lends itself pretty easily to a dark, dismal, distressing narrative. Digital Devil Saga absolutely provides on that front.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that as a player you become numb to the violence, as there always seems to be a narrative wrinkle on the horizon to remind you of what you’re doing, and to make you question your role in what’s unfolding. But it does, in a gameplay sense at least, become routine.

You adapt. You understand that this is just the way this world works. You’re going to kill and consume others, because if you don’t do that they will kill and consume you.

There’s plenty even in my broad summary to ponder and question and consider from a philosophical and ethical standpoint…and I’ve indeed been considering a lot of it. But that’s all just background information for my main question.

At one point in the game, you enter the territory of another faction: The Maribel.

When you do, you hear various voices, whispering about your arrival, and what’s in store for you. For instance:

Voice: …At last. Our food is here…

It’s nothing you aren’t prepared for, given the context and the events of the game you’ve played through already. Again, you’re not numb to the horror of people killing and eating others, but you understand it by now. You expect it.

Then they start talking about Argilla, the lone female on your team:

Voice: I’ll devour her breasts…
Voice: Her ass is delicious…
Voice: I’m going to savor her legs.

…and then I was offended.

Not by the game, which had done and continued to do a great job of playing with my emotions and expectations — one of the most rewarding aspects of any Shin Megami Tensei game — but by the characters.

That was my first awareness of incremental outrage. To fight and kill others is one level of wrong; to consume their corpses — as the game makes clear — is another. And now, on top of that, adding the intent to sexually abuse was even worse.

Of course, these statements reflect the literal eating of her corpse, but the sexually charged language is clearly deliberate, and meant to produce in the player a very specific association.

It was bad. It made me feel uncomfortable. It made me realize that the game was marking different degrees of wrongdoing, and making me feel them. It also made me feel pretty glad that I was going to kill these guys.

Which is about when I realized something else: these weren’t guys.

At least, they probably weren’t. The makeup of The Embryon and the other factions led me to overlook the fact that The Maribel was almost entirely female. The makeup of their faction was the inverse of mine.

And once I realized these were women saying those terrible things…it bothered me less.

Why?

It’s still sexual assault. It’s still, unquestionably, wrong. But why did the realization that women were planning these awful things bother me less than the idea that men were planning them?

Either way Argilla, my teammate, would be the target of sexual violence. Why did the fact that women were doing the targeting come as a relative relief?

It’s odd to me that I would feel incremental outrage that way. Isn’t sexual assault revolting, no matter who’s doing it?

Yes. I can answer that easily. But I’m also answering consciously. In the game, the first and only time I was in a situation in which I measured these horrors against each other, I subconsciously saw the female-led assault as less terrible.

I wouldn’t have thought about this at all if not for my own internal fakeout. Had I remembered that The Maribel were almost exclusively female (they have one token male, as The Embryon seems to have one token female), I would have felt disgust at the idea of sexual assault and never reconsidered it. But since I first thought men would be the assailants, and then realized it would be women, I was able to feel two distinct levels of discomfort. Why would that be?

It isn’t just me. We see this in the way the media treats teachers who sleep with students, and, of course, in the way audiences react to those stories. A male teacher sleeping with a female student is guilty of statutory rape and abusing his position of authority. Rightly so, and the reporting reflects that. A female teacher sleeping with a male student is instead subject to comments about her appearance, and, unfortunately, comments about how “lucky” the boy was.

In either case, it’s sexual assault. Yet these cases are not perceived or judged (in a social sense) equally.

And why is that?

Are we conditioned, in some sense, to feel repulsed by male attackers? That is to say, specifically male attackers?

We see it also in the debates about the bathroom laws now. While certain (idiotic) individuals believe that allowing transgendered individuals to use the restroom of their preference will trigger a flood of pedophilic activity to take place against their daughters, they seem blind to the fact these hypothetical pedophiles would already be sharing bathrooms with their sons.

Why the outrage in one direction, and not in another? Why does one possibility seem so heinous, while the other was just quietly permissible? In other words, why was one of these things okay in the sense that we never worried about it before, but this other thing so bad that we need to protest and put a stop to it immediately?

Once something goes “too far” and you feel your moral compass click, doesn’t that imply a line of acceptability? Anything prior to that failed to trigger that same outrage in you. Why?

Are we, as a society, subject to view abuse on a kind of spectrum? With “real” abuse happening in a situation that looks like this, and any abuse that doesn’t feeling less and less like real abuse the further away you get?

I find it interesting, and confusing. Would Argilla have felt relieved to any degree that her rapists would be female? Of course not. Are women who have those intentions less “wrong” than men who have them? Again, of course not.

And yet I had one kind of abuse — male on female — in mind, and felt outrage for it. When I realized it was another kind of abuse — female on female — I felt less.

Why is that? And what does it imply about us as a people?

goodfellas

I loved Goodfellas when I was younger. Well, okay, I still do. It’s a brilliant film, and occupies a pretty high spot on my list of all time favorites, but it was especially meaningful to me when I discovered it in middle school or so. It was the first film that I didn’t just enjoy, but that I appreciated.

It is, unquestionably, an artistic masterpiece. It has to be, because when I first saw it I had no concept of the language of film, and very little idea that the medium could be meaningful. I liked things or didn’t like things…there was little I could articulate beyond that, and little I could understand.

Goodfellas was the film that punctured that bubble for me. It was something I enjoyed, but it also impressed me in ways I’m still figuring out decades later.

Scorsese’s visual mastery, for instance, was arresting. I sat rapt, over and over, watching the same scenes unfold in ways that felt fresh and new every time. And for a good long while, this was the film I’d point to whenever I wanted an example of a director who used existing pop music as perfectly integrated components of his own work. The body discovery sequence set to the piano outro from “Layla” deserves to be in some cross-media hall of fame.

It was — and continues to be — a movie that affects me in ways I don’t fully have language to express, and while there’s a lot that remains beyond my cinematic understanding, I’ve always had a logistical question regarding the climax to the famous “shinebox” sequence.

In the film, a made man named Billy Batts is celebrating his homecoming in a bar owned (or at least controlled) by Henry Hill (Ray Liotta). Batts makes an ill-advised attempt to greet Tommy (Joe Pesci), and ribs him about his childhood job shining shoes. Tommy clearly bristles at the reminder…tensions flare and are temporarily defused, but Batts asserts his dominance and insults Tommy one final time. Tommy leaves, but not without instructing Henry and Jimmy (Robert DeNiro) to “keep him here.” Later that night Tommy returns to find a much emptier bar, and our three heroes brutally murder Batts and dispose of the body.

That’s the scene. What confused me when I was younger was the role of Jimmy “The Gent” in this…specifically, how culpable he was for Batts’ murder.

When Tommy returns, Batts is speaking to Jimmy. Jimmy sees Tommy approach, and Batts does not. I couldn’t figure out at the time what Jimmy actually did next: did he grab Batts so that Tommy could beat the shit out of him? Or did he try to pull Batts away to avoid the political nightmare and fatal vengeance that indeed followed these events in the film? Yes, before long Jimmy is kicking the man to death on the bar-room floor, but that’s after the assault is already underway. Did he at first attempt to prevent it?

Now it’s clear to me that he holds Batts for Tommy to hit. I’ll blame the worn-out VHS on which I watched the film so many times for the confusion, but my original question was at least in keeping with logistical issues within the film.

Jimmy, after all, is older and more experienced than Tommy and Henry. He knows full well the danger all three of them will be in if Batts — importantly a made man — is attacked or killed by them. And though Tommy does imply he’ll return later, there’s no denying the sense of surprise (especially for Henry, the nearest thing to an audience surrogate) when he actually follows through on his threat.

Jimmy might be on Tommy’s side, but there’d be many reasons for him to prevent the assault, whether he had the foresight to think it through or simply reacted on instinct. Either way, I could understand — and must have, in some sense, wanted to see — his intervention.

But he doesn’t intervene. He holds Batts. He throws him to the floor. He helps Tommy do what Tommy came back to do.

Which itself leaves me with a new question: when did Jimmy decide to let this happen?

As outlined above, there are many reasons to stop this…and only one to let it happen: respect. Tommy, Henry, and Jimmy work together. They’ve been through a lot. They’re close. When one of their number is disrespected, it falls to others to make things right, whatever the cost.

But is it really that simple? I wonder.

Jimmy pushes back on Batts a little bit after the initial verbal confrontation with Tommy, and Batts is indeed “kept there” until Tommy returns.

But how do you read this behavior?

Did Jimmy actually know what Tommy planned on doing (again, Henry clearly did not) and made sure to facilitate it? Or was he just coincidentally talking to Batts when Tommy walked in, and decided then to help his friend enact revenge?

I honestly can’t decide. I can see it being intentional (Batts is very intoxicated when Tommy returns, which may suggest that Jimmy was plying him with alcohol to keep him weak and unaware), but at the same time that seems like a lot of work to get to an outcome that’s just as bad for Tommy as it is for Batts.

Throughout the course of the night, while waiting for Tommy to return, would Jimmy never reconsider the danger he’s placing all of them in? Letting Batts leave — or encouraging him to leave — would have let a small instance of disrespect go unpunished, but it also would have saved all of them from fatal retaliation…

…which makes me wonder if Jimmy was indeed just drinking with the man and didn’t think at all about Tommy making good on his threat until he actually shows up to do so.

I go back and forth on this one. I don’t know which is the case…if Jimmy kept Batts there expecting Tommy’s return, or if he made a split-second decision to help Tommy knowing it was too late for any other option.

It’s a major question for me, as I think either answer suggests a pretty different Jimmy. The former possibility suggests a crueler, more dangerous Jimmy, and the latter suggests a cooler, more faithful Jimmy. Cooler and more faithful goes well with my overall reading of his character, but they’re both fair possibilities.

So which was it? I have a feeling this isn’t even a question for many people; they’ve probably always read it one way or the other.

What I’d like to know is, which way did you read it?

Peep Show, "Jeremy's Mummy"

In the Peep Show episode “Jeremy’s Mummy” (series 5, episode 4), was Mark raped?

The answer is yes.

This is an easy one.

And yet…is it?

Some background — though, to be frank, not much is necessary: Jeremy, Mark’s roommate, has his mother visit. In tow is her current boyfriend, and his daughter Natalie. Mark does briefly wonder if he feels anything for Natalie, but pretty quickly decides he does not.

After a night of drinking, Mark wakes up to find Natalie having sex with him. He tells her to stop. He tells her he doesn’t want to. But she continues.

This is rape. If there’s anybody out there who sincerely disagrees, I’d love to hear that argument.

And yet…if it is rape…why don’t I mind it?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not supporting the act itself, but it doesn’t put me off enjoying the episode as a whole. In fact, “Jeremy’s Mummy” may even be one of my favorites.

But a main character is raped. I can’t even question that. This man is sexually assaulted while we watch. Why am I not bothered by this enough that it casts a shadow over the rest of the episode? Why do I still laugh at the jokes? Is it just down to the writing and the performances? (Top notch, as they nearly always are in Peep Show.) Is it the fact that it’s treated intelligently rather than either flippantly or horrifically?

Later in the episode, Mark dismisses the idea that he’s been raped, though he certainly has. He does this in a desperate attempt to save face with Natalie’s father, who’s offered him a great business opportunity, so his motivation for diminishing the act is clear, but even if we did accept that…even if we did take it at face value that, okay, she had intercourse with him against his will but now he’s okay with it, does that change anything that happened?

No. It doesn’t. Rape is not retroactively undone, and the mindset that it can be is massively destructive. I’m reminded of one of the sourest things I’ve ever read: Seth Rogen defending the rape scene in Observe and Report.

When we’re having sex and she’s unconscious like you can literally feel the audience thinking, like, how the fuck are they going to make this okay? Like, what can possibly be said or done that I’m not going to walk out of the movie theatre in the next 30 seconds? And then she says, like, the one thing that makes it all okay.

But no. There is no after the fact consent. To even suggest that there might be such a thing is to allow rape on the grounds that the person being raped might come around and enjoy it…which is inordinately disgusting.

More recently, Game of Thrones had a rape scene which was probably destined to be controversial, but not nearly as controversial as the defense that director Alex Graves offered, assuring fans that the rape “becomes consensual by the end.”

In Observe and Report, the rape ruined the film for me. It wasn’t a great film to begin with, but a moment like that, such a brutally tone-deaf trivialization of one of the worst things one human being can do to another, made it clear to me that nobody involved with this film had any idea of what they were doing.

Rogen’s character forcibly fucks an unconscious woman, who wakes up during the act, and tells him to keep going. You’d need a far more self-consciously twisted film to pull that off, but I don’t think Rogen believed there was anything to pull off. It’s perfectly fine, apparently, because during the rape she drunkenly shrugs it off. And that’s bullshit.

On the dramatic side of things, we have Game of Thrones. Here, rape isn’t used as a visual punchline. (The fact that I can even type out that phrase makes me feel a little sick.) But it’s minimized in the same way. This act of sexual violence is (at least relatively) excusable because, eh, she’s cool with it later.

These are things that stick in my gullet. An act of rape isn’t something that has no place in entertainment…they can be handled well, and Life of Brian even managed to succeed in making the idea of “after the fact consent” funny. But an artist behind the entertainment should not be telling actual human beings not to get bent out of shape about it…it’s just rape, and, hey, she should be thanking him even, because it was good rape.

So why, I ask again, doesn’t Mark’s rape hit me the same way? I honestly can’t figure it out. Peep Show certainly has a long pedigree of mining terrible uncomfortable (and sometimes brutal) things for comedy, but I have to say that if the gender roles were reversed — say, Dobby waking up to find Mark in the process of fucking her — I’d be mortified. Just the thought of that seems to be in terribly bad taste, and I cannot imagine any amount of good jokes redeeming that.

Is it simply a matter of gender roles? I don’t think so…but I suppose it could be. If it is, I feel pretty lousy about it…as though rape is only tragic if it flows in one direction.

Then again, Rimmer is raped by a woman in Red Dwarf, and that certain strikes a sour note for me…so it can’t be as simple as gender. Is good writing really enough on its own to redeem a rape scene in comedy? Or is there something else at play here that I’m failing to acknowledge?

I’m genuinely curious.

Was Mark raped?

Yes.

Then why does the episode still work?

Or does the episode still work?

It’s available in three parts on Youtube (starting here). I want to hear opinions.

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