Monday, 31 May 2010

Cyberpunk, the Documentary

I stumbled across this YouTube clip recently. It is taken from an old documentary simply entitled Cyberpunk and includes many interview snippets with one of the fathers of the cyberpunk genre, William Gibson. In fact, I have already referenced one of those snippets in here earlier (one that is actually in this clip), but there are other parts in there of further interest; e.g. Gibson's discussion on a "post-human" condition.

At any rate, the clip is well worth watching, in my humble opinion, and instead of droning on and on about it, I will let you get to it. Enjoy this roughly 8 minutes clip and if you get the chance to catch the full documentary at some point, do.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Thinking that You Are, but Knowing that You're Not

Earlier this spring I happened to channel-hop into an episode of Inside the Actor's Studio featuring none other than the divine diva supreme: i.e. Bette Midler. Now, the interview was interesting and I stayed with the program till its end, but one thing in particular stood out a little more and has stayed with me ever since. In responding to a question on what it takes to be an actor and to make it as one, Midler said, "You have to think that you're the greatest thing since sliced bread, but you have to know that you're not."

While Midler's comment was intended to define the paradox of being, or rather making it as, an actor, I think it can be applied further. Certainly to all other art forms (be they literature, music, painting), but also to other activities involving some kind of creative input or use of the imagination. Here I would certainly include the sphere of Academia (and no, that is not the nut, although some of us may sometimes seem a little nutty), where you also have to believe that your own point of view, what you bring to the table, is unique and important, while maintaining a little realistic humbleness in the face of history.

So, what does this paradox really mean? In some sense, there is another old adage that seems to reverberate well with Midler's notion, and that is: "Fake it till you make it!"

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

The Musings of the Mad Swede: Year One

It is today exactly one year ago since I started Thus Spake the Mighty Wha-keem by posting "So... I'll try my hand at this then, shall I?"

That very first post was written as and still (I'm happy to say) reads like my mission statement; what I wanted to do with this blog and how I wanted to do it. It's all there in that first post. Granted that the timing of some of my posts has not corresponded with an exact weekly interval and that February this year was, indeed, a bit of a slip up, but as I write this in my 53rd week as a blogger (or Week One of Year Two, if you will), I also note that this will be my 51th post, which of course means I have kept fairly true to form. However, that is certainly not to say I cannot improve on that count.

As for content, I have to say I am quite happy with what I have covered thus far. I chose the subtitle Musings on Life, Literature, Film, Music and Comics by the Mad Swede, and I have mused on all these things in the past year; granted that I have not necessarily done so in equal measures. But then again, I never said that I would.

Furthermore, I also said in that first post that I did not (nor do I now) want to "spam you" and I do believe I have stayed true to that intention and kept that "promise".

All those 50 posts ago, I addressed you, "gentle (and, at the moment of typing this, somewhat imaginary) reader." Since then, that "somewhat imaginary" state has proven less than imaginary. Thus Spake the Mighty Wha-keem might not be the most well-read blog out there, but it does have readers. You may not always comment or go into lengthy debates about the issues at hand, but (at least some of you) seem to think that it's worthwhile to come back for more. I have even noted (and not without some pleasure and pride, I should add) that the blog Graphic Novels Challenge in their stated motto, "Comics: not a genre," has included a link to one of my own posts on comics. So, obviously there are readers out there who find my musings somewhat relevant, in some sense at least.

I ended that first post by saying, "And above all, I hope it'll be fun. Both for you to read and me to write." For my own part, I can only say that I have indeed enjoyed writing my musings here thus far. Whether or not you, gentle readers, have enjoyed reading them is not really my place to say anything about; I cannot speak for you on such matters (although, the fact that at least some of you return would seem to suggest that you have and do). It is indeed something that I have to leave for you to say.

And so Year One has ended, and a new textual year has begun. So... What's next?

Monday, 10 May 2010

Punctuation Has Power: Or Why Commas Can Save Lives

I have been teaching written proficiency in English this semester and I have tried to get through to my students the simple fact that language is power. Being able to use language gives one power; being unable to use it places one in a position at the mercy of those who are able. The equation is fairly simple.

So what does this have to do with punctuation, you ask? Well, clearly punctuation is an important part of written language. Far from merely providing pauses in lengthy sentences, punctuation can alter the meaning of a sentence dramatically. We need only consider the image below:
The difference between "Let's eat grandpa!" and "Let's eat, grandpa!" might seem superficial to an uninitiated eye, but the difference in meaning is rather severe. On the one hand, hand we have a call for cannibalism (literally having grandpa for dinner, as it were); on the other, we have a call to grandpa that it is time to eat. Whether food is on the table or grandpa is supposed to help out getting something edible is another story though, but at least grandpa does not have to offer up the meat off his bones.

Another example (that I actually used in class) was comparing the following two sentences: "The children who came early got candy;" and "The children, who came early, got candy." The only difference is the inclusion of two commas in the second one. So, how do those two tiny little punctuation markers make any significant difference then? Well, ask the following question: How many children "got candy"?

In the first version (without commas), the relative clause (i.e. "who came early") is restrictive, which means that the information it contains is necessary to define the noun it describes. This means that we are talking about "the children who came early" and in answer to our question it is that particular group which "got candy". Or, put differently, "some children got candy, the ones who came early."

In the second version (with the commas), the relative clause is non-restrictive. This means that the information is additional or parenthetic, if you will. If we remove the clause from the sentence, nothing significant changes (cf. "The children, who came early, got candy" and "The children got candy"). Sure, some additional information is lost (the fact that all the children came early), but unlike with the restrictive clause, this information is not necessary to define the noun. Thus, in answer to our question, in the second version, "all the children got candy." The non-restrictive clause furthermore gives us a second, unrelated, bit of information; that is, that "all the children came early."

As you can see, punctuation can clearly alter the meaning of a sentence significantly. Still, you might wonder how such a thing can constitute any real power. However, consider the following anecdote:
An English teacher wrote these words on the whiteboard: 'woman without her man is nothing'. The teacher then asked the students to punctuate the words correctly.

The men wrote: "Woman, without her man, is nothing."

The women wrote: "Woman! Without her, man is nothing." (source unknown)

If there are still any doubts about the inherent power of punctuation, I am guessing that poor grandpa is still on the menu.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Series and Serial: Some Useful Terminology

In my February post "Epic Proportions or Losing Sight of the Scales", I said that I would return to the terms "series" and "serial", and I think it is high time for that discussion now.

I first encountered these distinguishing terms (as such) during my second semester of film studies, almost a decade ago, and I immediately fell in love with their usefulness. It was in a course on television and the discussion was about a shift in the nature of regular sitcoms and crime shows. Traditionally, these types of shows had been series proper, as it were. What I mean by that, or perhaps more adequately what I was taught that term could be used to distinguish, is a collection of stories involving the same character/s and (mostly) the same basic setting, as well. I use the word "collection" here to avoid the word "sequence"; because "sequence" implies a strict chronological order and a (pardon the repetition) sequence of events. A series requires neither.

Don't get me wrong, a series can include some of these elements and some may well have been present already in earlier sitcoms and crime shows (boundaries between different things like these are rarely, if ever, watertight), but the definition itself does not require it. In fact, one of the charms of most series (be they on television, in the cinema or in the worlds of literature and comics) is that you can start anywhere in the collection and then move on to whichever part you happen to fancy next. This is all because the notion of a series – at least in its purest form – also involves an inherent need to maintain a status quo. The illusion of change is promoted over any sense of actual change and characters are not really developing; they are what they are.

The reason for this is, at least partly, that we should easily be able to recognise these characters and never be confused about where they are in their lives or what has happened to them. Each episode or part of the series tells a separate story using the same recognisable characters, and while the stories should in some sense be character-based (or, at the very least, the characters should be made for the specific types of plots the series are telling), they should not be telling an ongoing character story. Because in the strictest sense, a series is not about character development at all. If you want to understand it better, consider TV shows like M*A*S*H or Kojak, or a film series like James Bond. These examples are not really building a sequence of event, nor (generally speaking) do they change much in the character set up.

A serial, on the other hand, is the complete opposite. Its entire purpose is to build a chronological sequence of events (although not necessarily narrated in chronological order, I hasten to add), to create a continuing sequence in which a sense of cause and effect is almost inherent. Needless to say (perhaps), this approach welcomes character development. It is by no means an altogether necessary component (one could have a serial in which ongoing plot development is the key), such development would work well and thrive in this type of framework.

Returning to the discussion of my film class, the argument was that while regular sitcoms and crime shows (like M*A*S*H and Kojak) in their very nature had been series, by the 90s these types of shows started to include more and more elements of serialisation. Friends would be a clear example of a sitcom which did this (it was one that was brought up in our class discussion at the time). Interestingly enough, that particular example also showcases very well why television makers wanted these elements included: it was done to add a sense of ongoing drama.

As a result, (more or less) every episode of Friends (to stick with our example) is viewable on its own terms. Every episode tells its own little funny story (or set of storylines, as it usually is) and is a narrative capsule unto itself – in true series fashion. Yet most episodes also include references and sometimes even sub-plots that build up a bigger story (or perhaps even bigger stories) throughout the show's many seasons. While staying true to the encapsulated narrative formula on one level (always given the viewer a full story, as it were), this show and others like it also gave those viewers who followed them something extra – the added dimension of dramatic continuation and development.

The approach was clearly a success, and when handled well, it is very enjoyable. However, today the pendulum has, in many cases, swung very far indeed towards total serialisation. Don't get me wrong, serialisation is not a thing of evil... but let's just say that I am not quite so sure about ongoing serialisation or (for want of a better word) "everlasting" serialisation.

So what do I mean by this new distinction? Well, consider these examples: Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings as a single novel which was then subsequently serialised by his publisher as three books (later giving rise to an ever-expanding wave of serialised writing within the fantasy genre); BBC's (classic) Doctor Who was made as serialised story arcs (in fact, this show could be described as a series of serials, where each serial is more or less functioning as an episode of a series, whereas each episode within an arc is 100% serial in nature – down to cliffhanger endings, etc); Mike W. Barr and Brian Bolland wrote and drew the 12 issues limited maxi series (yes, I know that the term series might seem confusing in this particular context) Camelot 3000, just as the team of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons gave us their 12 issues limited maxi series Watchmen around the same time. All of these four cases are clearly serials (all of them represent serialised publication or airing), but they are also limited.

A series can be ongoing, perhaps even "everlasting" (and yes, I am fully aware of the inherent hyperbole here), but it allows readers or viewers to leave with a full story (or several for that matter) finished. The serial, however, strictly speaking gives us one story. Yet again, don't get me wrong. I am neither stupid nor naive enough to think that serials cannot include some sub-plots or contain smaller stories within the story (some of which may well be finished before the main story is), but these stories are never the main event. There is a difference between a set of stories (all enjoyable separately) which adds up to a grand epic history when viewed or read together and an ongoing story which includes smaller stories and sub-plots along the way. The difference (at least in my view) lies in the fact that main story in the latter always is the overall story, the ongoing narrative event; whereas in the former, the main story is (always and ever) the story at hand, or the little story, if you will. And that difference is huge.

Because of this difference, a serial more or less needs to be limited. Although the act of serialisation itself necessitates some sense of ongoing storytelling, it cannot be "everlasting". Without a limitation, the story never ends. And while it could be argued that, in life, no story ever truly ends, there is a strong difference between an open-ended narrative and one that is never brought to its conclusion. The latter (to me) suggests to me either laziness on the part of the storyteller or a great fear of losing the audience. So, in the case of "everlasting" serialisation, we are either to accept being treated with laziness (perhaps even indifference) or to be taken hostages (figuratively speaking) by the storyteller/s – without any knowledge of when we will reach the end... or in some cases even if.