Pre- and Post-Apocalypse Narratives and their Exposition of Human Fear

After our in-class discussion about the morbid fascination with post-apocalyptic narratives in a lot of modern media I’ve noticed an increasing amount of post-apocalyptic games, movies and TV shows. I’ve noticed two distinct archetypes many films/TV shows use to design post-apocalyptic narratives – the “post apocalypse” narrative and the “apocalypse discoverer/beginning-of-apocalypse” narrative. The former begins in the middle of a preexisting timeline and the narrative arc is generally contextualized as an individual narrative in a larger event or as a sequel to whatever happened prior to the apocalypse, while the latter is usually either done in a current events-based style that attempts to convey a sense of scale or in a “small group of people uncovers something dark that will end the world” sort of deal. I think that the pre-apocalypse movies seem to post-modernly convey fears of scientific progress overreaching medical progress as well as the fear that science will not progress as fast as nature and there will be some sort of violent reclamation of the world from humanity. Examples of this are almost the entire genre of zombie movies as well as films like Blood Glacier, the movie that prompted this post. Blood Glacier additionally contains post-modern fears of human overprogress in the form of global warming symbolism, making me think that this style of narrative is an attempt to play on the human fear of the potential that planet earth might eventually reject us (or that a god or gods will reject us, but the end result is the same). In the other style of narrative, the “post-apocalypse” one, fear of rejection is more implicitly religious in my opinion. Two post-apocalptic anime shows/movies in this style are Ergo Proxy and the infamous Neon Genesis Evangelion, both narratives that are both explicitly and implicitly tied to Gnostic theology and the post-apocalyptic departure of God.

 

Death of the Aura in the Digital World

While thinking about celebrity and Walter Benjamin’s post-modern “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (which I read for my documentary film class this semester) and writing my final paper for this class, it occurred to me that his distaste of what he feels is a backwards, archaic attachment to “aura” in art may be quite at home in our digital world. Benjamin’s postmodern rejection of the adherence to historical context seems to be carried out quite frequently in our modern treatment of celebrity, with decontextualized representations of celebrities appearing in potentially post-modernly incongruent positions in relation to their actions or personality during life. The Tupac hologram and the aspects of it I wrote about in my final paper come to mind, but post-modern works such as Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) are also seminal in defining the nature of celebrity in our digitally revolutionary world. This Is The End (2013) also has the same style of decontextualization of real celebrity figures playing caricatures of themselves in a fictional world. Because most of the people in both these films are actors, directors, musicians, comedians and screenwriters, viewers might make an implicit association with their work when watching the film. When celebrity artists die they now know that their legacy and work will live on and representations or caricatures of them may be used in films, memes, and other forms of media that can completely turn the original context of their work on its head. This irreverent elimination of aura and context is especially present in memes, with Bob Ross’ show being a great example of a work of media that had the original intentions held by the auteur removed or altered after the creator’s death. It makes me wonder, though, if a new form of aura may develop in association with aspects of our newfound digital world. The culture of SoundCloud’s hip-hop community and its meme-saturated stereotypical connotations may provide their own context in a way that creates a new, somewhat more abstract form of aura than a the context a wall or room interior might provide a painting hung in that room.

Haunting and Heaven’s Gate

I recently watched a documentary on the Heaven’s Gate cult and resulting mass suicide incident and felt that it had a lot of relation to this course. I hadn’t realized how related to the digital age the cult was, with their main source of income coming from web design jobs which was an up-and-coming field at the time. Additionally there was a lot of found footage sourced from videos made by the cult itself including a “farewell video”, essentially a video suicide note, and instructional videos made by the cult’s leader Marshall Applewhite. To me this was heavily reminiscent of the “haunting” we discussed earlier in the semester and definitely is more on the “ghostly” side of things. In a way, the videos almost make me feel as though Applewhite’s “advancement” beyond humanity was consummated by the recording of the instructional videos; forever preserving his ideology, personality and message in a digital format. Because of how unnerving his eyes and general mannerisms are in the video it seems haunting even if you’re unaware of his death, but knowing that he’s now dead as well as knowing the circumstances of his suicide make the videos spine-chillingly unnerving to watch. I had first seen clips from the Heaven’s Gate Applewhite tapes when I watched the postmodern audiovisual short film/album combo Duality released by super-producer Flying Lotus under his villainous rap moniker, Captain Murphy. In the context of an artwork exploring the nature of cults and mentality of cult leaders the video almost seemed inconsequential compared to when I viewed it in the context of the reality that is the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide. The sense of self-awareness that the album gave the clip was removed completely when I watched it in its natural context and it seemed infinitely more unnerving, reminding me of how much context can change the “haunted” nature of a digital media artifact.

Lifting the Veil of False Invincibility – Pain and Death in Super Mario World

My Video:

[youtube www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHSPNVoLZVw&w=560&h=315%5D

     While creating this project my goal was to cause the viewer to ask themselves the question: “what really happens to Mario when you lose?” I feel that video game characters are seldom assigned the same level of humanity or approached with nearly as much empathy as characters in movies and novels (although a Psychology Today study argues that video games create empathy based on some pretty questionable sounding research (Psychology Today)). making me want to bring the viewer/player/consumer to potentially think from Mario’s perspective  To do this, I initially was exploring the potential of creating a hacked Mario ROM that would be an exact port of Super Mario World on the SNES except that when the player “died” they would be sent to a sort of “afterlife” level populated by wandering NPC versions of every Mario the player had previously killed in action. These post-mortem Marios would haunt the game in the same ghostly way that a video recording of a person who is now dead might – creating a “ghost-like” type of haunting which was one of the two options for this project. After some research I was confronted with the conclusion that hacking my own ROM would require more coding skill and experience than I personally have, so I instead decided to instead create a fake play-through of this game using After Effects-based animation and commentary in the style of a Let’s Play. I wanted to utilize the commentary generally present in a Let’s Play/review/game walkthrough video to create a sense of normalcy and represent the expectations that would likely be carried by many stereotypical gamers going into playing such a ROM (especially given that it’s probably fair to say that those who make reviews and LP’s are generally more likely to approach games in a way stereotypical of frequent gamers).

     The expectations carried by many gamers when entering into gameplay of an 8-bit side-scrolling platformer, especially the famed and ubiquitous Mario series, is that they will inevitably die at some point. Because of this the Player Character, usually also serving as the game’s protagonist, becomes a victim of the player in the same way that the NPC enemies do. Because Mario is a victim in Super Mario World, Carly Kocurek’s notion of alternative blood applies to his “death” mechanic in the game quite well (Kocurek 2015). Mario’s deaths are substituted in two ways: the first is with the inclusion of multiple “lives” that the player has before harming Mario results in the Game Over screen. The other way Mario’s death is substituted with alternative mechanics is the animation – where does he go when he bounces off the screen looking like someone pricked his butt with a cattle prod? This was a question I wanted to provide one potential answer to with my video – perhaps Mario is buried by his digital friends and family at a lavish memorial service and Luigi wears nothing but black for the rest of his life. I’m not sure that I think the cultural violence Kocurek outlines as being a combined product and goal of alternative blood is necessarily as present in Mario as it is in some of the games she describes, but the dehumanization and resulting deemphasis of empathy created by Mario’s “alternative” death was something I wanted to explore in my Haunted Media Project. With the player repeatedly bringing Mario to a series of untimely and often immensely painful-looking ends it only seemed fair to question whether Mario – however digital he may be – appreciates being killed over and over or not.

     Mario’s alternative death is further dehumanized by the serialized and repetitive nature of player character death in side-scrolling platform style games such as Super Mario World. As Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux write in “Playing, Competing, Spectating, Cheating, Trading, Making and Breaking Video Games”: “Each moment of domestic play, in Sartre’s (2004, 262) words, is ‘lived separately as identical instances of the same act.’ The work of game designers, however, often obscures the explicitly repetitive aspects of computational media.” (Boluk and Lemieux, 2017) The obscuring of repetition and serialization of death in Super Mario World has something of a synergistic effect on the desensitization present in the alternative death of Mario. Because the only reminder of Mario’s past “lives” in Super Mario World is the counter on the top left side of the screen (and even that is erased when the player depletes their lives and triggers a game over), the player is separated from the parallel Mario’s that have existed in the past, both during the individual player’s accumulated Super Mario playing time and more generally during the time spent by everyone who’s ever played Mario in the history of the series. Even for Super Mario World alone the number of deaths Mario has endured since his 1990 birth is unfathomable. I know that I am personally responsible for at least a couple hundred – if not a couple thousand – of Mario’s untimely ends. Despite the timeless nature of the Mario series and enduring popularity of even the older games in the series such as Super Mario World, Mario has already died millions if not billions of times over. Does each individual Mario matter? Are they the same character or slightly different each time? These are questions I wanted to bring viewers of my video to ask. I am reminded by a concept present in the recent anime, Ajin.

     In the series the humanoid species of Ajin cannot die and will regrow any limb or heal any injury – even regrow the ajin’s head should it be removed; however, when an
Ajin has their head cut off they regrow it, including the brain, from the body instead of the body growing from the severed head. This means that they have an entirely new brain, but does this make them the same person or are they a new person/Ajin entirely? The protagonist believes in the existence of the soul and feels that he will permanently actually “die” should he regrow his head and lives in extreme fear of decapitation. Far from a digression, I think the above description of death and the fear of losing ones soul is very relevant to Mario’s apparent immortality despite having numerous torturous game-ending mishaps. It reminds me a bit of Jonathan Sterne’s idea of a resonant tomb (Sterne 2003). Whereas the human body/throat is analogous to a resonator of life (not sure he would word it as such) in Sterne’s idea of recorded audio as a resonant tomb, Mario’s initial character could be seen as analogous to the initial life with his subsequent manifestations merely being replications of the original. Does Mario have a soul? If he did, does he still have one? Both are additional questions I wanted to bring up with my Haunted Media Project.

     The feeling of invincibility brought to players by the repetitive life-based mechanic present in many video games allows players a respite from the feeling of vulnerability created by  a perceived permanent death (I say perceived because, although some claim to know the answer, nobody knows objectively that the death of our corporeal body is in fact the death of us permanently. Brendan Keogh writes about the effect of instituting ‘perma-death’ restrictions on games such as Minecraft, describing how he used self-imposed perma-death through refusal to use the in-game sleeping mechanic (which serves as a save function) and promise to delete the game should he die. Minecraft is a survival game so the nature of the game creates more opportunity for vulnerability, but a similar mechanic in Mario would still definitely make a player’s relationship with Mario much different.

     My fake mod’s inclusion of a visual reminder of Mario’s death alongside heavy-handed implications that Mario is experiencing pain lift the veil of false invincibility that the player (the wonderfully named Sheik the Freak in this case) has over their perception going into the game. My inclusion of the commentary was both to add to the sense that my artifact could be a real video one might find online as well as to represent this veil of invincibility and how many gamers would probably be very disturbed to find that they were actually causing someone tangible pain through their recreation. Hopefully serving as somewhat comic relief, the final clip of someone setting fire to their computer also serves to represent the feeling of deep disturbance I would probably have should someone inform me that I have actually been brutally torturing and murdering a growth-stunted Italian-American vigilante plumber all these years. My hope is that, to quote a proverb, “it’s not that deep”. But while thinking about the idea of a pain-feeling vulnerable Mario quite a bit during the creation of my video I realized that I would probably have the “burn it with fire” reaction to such a game, whether because of its clear position somewhere far beyond the uncanny valley or because perhaps, deep down inside all of us, we’ve all wondered if Mario feels pain.

References:

Carly A. Kocurek (2015) Who hearkens to the monster’s scream? Death,

violence and the veil of the monstrous in video games, Visual Studies, 30:1, 79-89

Boluk, Stephanie, and Patrick LeMieux. Metagaming: playing, competing, spectating, cheating, trading, making, and breaking videogames. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 2017. Print.

Sterne, Jonathan, The Audible Past – Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction, Duke University Press 2003

Ghost In the Bear Guy – Ghostly Audio in Grizzly Man (sightings post)

This week I watched the documentary film Grizzly Man and I found some of the ideas intriguing and applicable to this class. The film is about a man named Timothy Treadwell who lived alone in the Alaskan wilderness and tried to make friends with grizzly bears. In order to help protect grizzly bears and spread awareness about them he films himself and makes documentary-style clips of him going through outdoor survival practices as well as explaining facts about the bears he spends time with. After about 15 years of living with and filming these bears as well as some other woodland friends (the movie feels a bit like Snow White with schizophrenia at some points) he ends up getting eaten by one of the bears he previously called a friend. Because he was making the film of his interactions with the bears he left the camera rolling during the entire time Treadwell and his girlfriend (who was accompanying him on the trip at the time) were struggling for their lives and eventually were eaten by the grizzly bear. In one clip of the movie Werner Herzog, the director of the film, listens to the audio from the bear attack (the video wasn’t recorded as the lens cap was left on the camera) and his reaction is what one would expect when seeing someone listening to the audio of another person dying a violent death.

[youtube www.youtube.com/watch?v=wUf0QFFi2Mk&w=560&h=315%5D

I find the existence of this recording to be a unique type of ghost-centric haunting and I can’t honestly imagine why anyone would want to keep the footage. I think the reasons are grief-centric, making me think back to our post-modern grief-based product design and wonder – if a business offered to sell people audio or recordings of their loved ones’ final moments would people buy them? Would they listen to them? As with a lot of these goods and services I can’t imagine investing myself because it’s very disturbing to me but I actually think people might like the idea.