Politics

Democrats’ rhetoric on immigration reveals lack of policy alternatives

Reports of children being separated from their parents, placed in cages and drugged have convinced the majority of Americans that the Trump administration’s approach to immigration isn’t exactly something they support. FiveThirtyEight reported that an average of 64 percent of Americans oppose “separating families crossing the border” and “holding children and parents in different facilities while they await trial.” Separated by party, the numbers show a familiar story where Democrats overwhelming oppose the Trump administration’s policies (87 percent) and Republicans are split on support and opposition (45 percent favor the policies, 35 percent oppose). Glancing at right-leaning commentators reveals that many Republicans generally support the concept of enforcing a border but are dismayed by the Trump administrations inhumane approach to the issue. Even with those concerns, the message from Republicans is clear: enforcing the border is important but how this administration is doing it is morally wrong.

As the party of #TheResistance, Democrats are eager to criticize the Trump administration’s immigration policies, but the issue begs the question: what is the Democratic platform on immigration? Democrat leaders have criticized immigration policies both inside and outside the party, which suggests the reason Democrats don’t have a clear policy position is because their base isn’t necessarily convinced borders should exist, let alone be enforced.

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With their unending quest to frame themselves as the all-encompassing “resistance” to Trump, Democrats hope they’ll attract support from anyone who disagrees with any of the administration’s unpopular policies. The latest Trump-fueled outrage of families being separated by ICE agents is one of the many failures by this administration Democrats hope to point to during elections. One of the problems with defining a political party as the opposition to an administration is it becomes difficult to forge what the party actually believes in. At their best, Democrats’ tie their strategy to an actual policy, such as Democrats defense for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) which was rolled back by the Trump administration despite maintaining overwhelming support from the public, but other objections that are not tied to policy have created adversarial rhetoric that leads to unsustainable policies for the party of the resistance.

For example, Trump’s executive order limiting travel from seven countries with Muslim-majorities was rightly criticized as poor policy from both sides of the aisle. Many pointed out the obvious inconsistencies of mysteriously leaving out Saudi Arabia or Pakistan from the list of countries (both of which have direct links to Islamic extremism and also a tendency to make generous donations to the US) or the impracticality of indiscriminately banning an entire country of people. Even with these criticisms available to them, Democrats focused on portraying the order as “un-American” and “Islamophobic.” Democrats are skillfully focusing on these criticisms that attack the moral character of the administration to effectively portray the entire administration as racist or un-American. This criticism is again being leveled against the administration following the latest inhumane scandal, but now Democrats have cornered themselves by routinely calling any enforcement of the border as “un-American.” When an entire category of policy is labeled antithetical to America, it’s difficult to suggest alternatives within that category.

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This rhetoric is part of an ongoing trend of Democrats unable to agree if immigration is something that should be limited. Following Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to rollback asylum status for people who cited domestic abuse as reason to flee their country, NPR wrote an article criticizing the decision, as if domestic abuse was an issue that the United States alone was burdened with solving. The language surrounding immigration issues has been morphed to suggest “illegal immigration” isn’t a crime such as when California Senator and speculated 2020 Presidential Candidate Kamala Harris tweeted “An undocumented immigrant is not a criminal.” Even the most popular politician in America, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, can’t escape criticism on the issue. Sanders caught flak from Vox during his presidential candidacy when he suggested open borders would only serve right-wing billionaires interested in depressing wages.

As Dan Pfeiffer of Pod Save America observed, “Democrats are afraid of this issue.” The reason being that the policy with the most support may not be politically viable. Collating all the criticism directed both outside and inside the party, it would seem the most popular position would be no immigration policy at all. The thinking behind this view would be logically consistent with progressives’ interest in inclusiveness and appealing to lofty ideals that expand human rights. Unfortunately for the idealists of the party, enforcing borders is a popular policy position. Democrats love to appeal to lofty ideas, even when there are practical arguments against them, but whereas some tentpole policies such as universal health care or minimum wage increases survive criticism by citing public support, a radically progressive approach to immigration may renew a long-time criticism of Democrats’ impetus to embrace unpopular and unsustainable positions that makes the party lose elections.

For now, Democrats are content with directing the attention to Trump’s unpopular policy rather than formulating their own. Nearly all Americans are unified under the belief of “not this” but Democrats haven’t had a coherent immigration policy for nearly a decade. If they want to make a more compelling appeal for why their ideas would work better they’ll have to start defining them in terms that separate them from their political adversary.

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Musings

Depression and the movie of my life

It’s 1 p.m. on a Tuesday. I’m at my job where I work as a reporter. I’ve just finished filing a breaking news story. My editor commends me for building relationships with sources and getting a scoop on information before anyone else. I share my story on social media and it immediately rakes in good numbers, becoming the most-read story on our website. This is the fifth story of mine in the past five days that has been the most-read on our website. I’m doing well at this job. My boss said I have the most potential out of our team. He said he envisions me taking on a leadership role in the near future. This is the first real job where I felt I made a living wage doing what I love: writing, learning and talking to interesting people. Objectively, these are the best days of my life so far, but that’s not what I’m thinking about.

I’m thinking about all the ways I am a failure. I’m thinking about how this job, which I came into four years after finishing school, is paid about $10,000 less than the average college graduate’s first job. I’m thinking about how my student loans are so high I have to ask my parents for financial assistance. I’m thinking about how it’s been five years since I graduated college and I’m still reliant on my parents. I’m thinking about the dreams I’ve already given up on like writing a screenplay or producing an original short film. I’m thinking about how my father lived under an oppressive government where people were scared to say what they thought and how he convinced his girlfriend to leave everything she’s ever known to marry him on a bus to Rome so they can be sent to the United States together. I’m thinking about how the Augustyn lineage began hundreds of years ago, surviving natural disasters, world wars and the loss of independence of my ancestral homeland, Poland, only to end with me because I can’t convince someone to put up with me for longer than five months. I’m thinking about how the last girl I dated said I was so negative all the time she came to resent me. I’m thinking about when I had an argument with a family member in High School and they whispered to me “You’re an asshole, everyone knows you’re an asshole, that’s why you’re a loser.” I’m thinking I am a loser. I’m thinking about how it’s now 5 p.m., I haven’t done anything at my job for four hours and I’m certainly going to get fired.

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This is what I’ve come to understand is my depression. I don’t remember when it started but I can’t remember not having it. It comes in waves that ebb and flow. Sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for a few days. Last year it lasted months. I think when I was in High School it lasted years but I don’t remember much about those days. I know when it’s around because I can feel its fog cloud my perception. The fog is for my protection from the vicious criticism I inflict on myself. I’m typically cognizant of my surroundings, maybe a bit too much. When the wave hits I detach from myself and everything else. I become a passive observer to the movie of my life, where I’m the main character, but I’m not participating in the flashing pictures before my eyes. I float from one room to the next, my eyes gaze at one sight then another, but nothing registers. I instinctively open a web browser and a flurry of tweets scroll by, an insatiable number of red notifications are marked read and pages of articles or books pass through me without my notice. I can hold a conversation but I can’t tell you what I just said. I’ll drive my car to a restaurant and hate-eat way too much food. The stuffed feeling in my stomach will anchor me to reality because I can actually feel something. I’ll find myself in the driver seat of my car and question if I can drive because I feel so disassociated with reality I’m not confident I can navigate the roads. I’ll make it back to my apartment and realize it’s dark outside. What did I do all day? What day is it? When did I wake up? How long have I been watching this movie about my life? What am I doing with my life? What’s the point?

That last question turns a mundane day to a moment of crisis. What is the point? Maybe there is no point. Maybe my life is pointless. It’s less than pointless. By being here I am inflicting harm onto others. I have so much debt weighing down on me. I criticize people so much I hurt their feelings. I try to explain myself and I make it worse. I can see their faces contorting in disgust as their subjected to a conversation with me. I have so few friends. Sometimes I think the friends I think I have don’t know how to get rid of me and our relationship is running on inertia – like if I told them “it’s ok, we can stop now,” they’d breathe a sigh of relief and leave me. I can’t imagine this not being true. I have no real value to anyone. I have no real purpose. Maybe my purpose is to show everyone that I don’t have a purpose. I’m depressed. I’ve been depressed. I think I’ve been depressed for months but I don’t remember when I started being depressed. I realize if nothing has changed in the past few months, why would it change tomorrow? Do I have anything to do tomorrow? I don’t have anything to do tomorrow. Would anyone need me tomorrow? What about a month from now? What about a year from now? I don’t think so. What about later today? No one needs me later today. I don’t need to be here later today. If I’m not here, then I won’t be depressed. That sounds nice. Why later? What am I waiting for? Why not right now? Why should I be alive right now?

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A common mistake people make about depression is that it’s based in some rational thought. The depressed person has convinced themselves of a reality but if they’re shown the error of their judgement then they’ll understand things are not so bad. Depression has no logic. Only one absolute rule: you will be depressed whether it’s earned or not. It seems that the only people who truly understand what it’s like to be depressed are people who have been depressed. It can be frustrating to throw out questions about the purpose of life to anyone who will listen and only feel disappointed with their answers. The frustration is felt for both parties. “You’re being too negative” is a common endpoint for these conversations. But no one can answer these questions for you.

It doesn’t help that seeking answers will net a collection of mixed answers sending mixed signals. As a white male, I’m simultaneously advised to be more expressive with my feelings and to stop complaining because statistically I’m doing better off than most people. I don’t think this phenomena is unique to my identity. I’ve lost track of the number of women I know who pursue careers only to be judged by their lacking personal life, while married women with plans for children are mocked just as frequently. In this age of information, our varying worldviews collide with every lifestyle vulnerable to criticism. For many people it seems there’s a thousand ways to do things wrong and nothing you can do right. It’s no wonder that the millennial generation has accepted nihilistic humor with open arms, a type of comedy that celebrates the futility of trying to find a purpose in life. These jokes glorify psychological issues in the same way that a Hollywood movie gets audiences to root for the underdog, except there’s no antagonist to overcome, only a self-destructive worldview to embrace. Many rising comics frequently use mental health problems as the set up to a funny joke. I can’t say I’m above this trend. Existential dread is kind of the ace of spades for guilt tripping. It’s like: don’t worry about trying to get people to hate me, I already hate myself.

Since depression has become a punch line, it’s not always so clear who is truly suffering or to what extent. My generation faces two unique phenomena that feed into this crisis of unhappiness: an unusual amount of systematic failures and internet connectivity that ensures everyone knows when bad things happen. Have other generations faced global recessions, constant mass shootings, ballooning personal debt and dwindling career prospects in the face of new technology? Sure. But they didn’t have an IV drip of every catastrophic event delivered to them via a device they keep with them at all times. It’s no surprise that many have adopted nihilistic humor as a coping mechanism to weather the barrage of bad news. When depression is co-opted as a type of humor, how can you tell if someone feels truly depressed or if they’re contributing to our cultural discussion about the future of our generation? A friend posting “I wish I was dead” to social media might be an obvious red flag, but if a similar message is conveyed by Nihilist Arby’s or Melissa Broder, it’s not clear what type of response is appropriate. The rise of this type of humor normalizes depression and makes it difficult to broach the topic when actual worries arise.

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I think another fault is people view depression as something you overcome. It plagues you for the dark moments of your life but you get better eventually, right? In reality, depression is closer to a cancer diagnosis. There’s treatment, it can go into remission, but there’s no guarantee it won’t come back. Sometimes it comes back when it doesn’t make sense. The deaths of Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington prove that. Two phenomenally talented artists with thousands of fans and an extensive loving family. These titans of success and support structures accomplished more than most people in history but the tolls of depression came to collect all the same.

It’s hard not to say the depression landscape seems hopeless. A person can fuel their own self-destructive fires of depression, the world provides heavy criticism but few answers and our internet culture makes it difficult to identify when someone is truly struggling. What can a person possibly do to combat these forces?

An outsider observing a friend’s fall to depression might feel helpless but in these instances, as cliché as it might sound, the best antidote to the world’s darkness is genuine positivity. Not to be confused with empty platitudes or childish rejection of negative emotion. Refusing to acknowledge sadness is just another form of repression and you’d have to be a fool to think an impersonal slogan like “look on the bright side” has ever helped anyone. It’s a simple fact that people don’t express their appreciation for one another as much as they feel it. For whatever reason, many people feel awkward taking compliments which discourages genuine expressions of appreciation. In pursuit of avoiding awkwardness, our friendships are devoid of the acknowledgment for why we maintain these relationships in the first place. The presence of positive reinforcement makes a difference, but that’s not all that’s needed.

It’s true that no great person became great on their own, but on some level the individual has to choose their own destiny. You may not be able to will yourself out of depression, but you have to find your own reasons for wanting to stick around in this world simply because no one else is going to do it for you. In my experience, many people who are the most depressed are the ones holding themselves to an impossible standard. They’ll look at the lives of their heroes and feel ashamed they haven’t accomplished as much as quickly. There is no universal blueprint for success and there is no guide to happiness. The only meaningful comparison is who you were yesterday to who you are today. Define your goals and reflect on the progress you have made instead of the dreams you haven’t accomplished yet. By that metric, you may surprise yourself.

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When I began writing this piece, I had that job on a Tuesday and everything was going well. Of course, a few weeks later, I was fired. Not because I did anything wrong, but because that’s sometimes what happens in corporate America. This was eerily similar to where I was a year ago. Freshly out of a job with plenty of doubts about my future. My latest dismissal could have been more evidence to the self-fulfilling prophecy: Of course I was fired, I am valueless trash and they’ve finally caught onto my act. But that’s not what happened. Instead I received an outpouring of support from colleagues, sources and readers who were bewildered by my dismissal and shared commendations of my work while offering ways to support my continued success. These suggestions could have been struck down by a more bitter and resentful person, but I made the choice to believe that their kind words were genuine. This was very different from where I was a year ago, where I still had a support structure helping me, but nowhere near its current size and passion. This support structure wasn’t handed to me, I created it by being the person I am. I chose to define myself by my ability to succeed, not my occasional setback.

I may never escape depression, but it does not define me. I am already a defined person. I am the person who found a job I love and put my passion over compensation. I have a family that will support me if I need help. I am the person that didn’t let anything stop me from pursuing my dreams but found others I care about more. I am the son of phenomenally brave and ambitious parents. I am the beginning of the Augustyn lineage in North America. I am the person who doesn’t settle for convenience over happiness. I am me and I accept that who I am includes some bad with the good, but I don’t let temporary moments of doubt redefine who I am. Neither should you.

Images edited by Kaleigh Kessler

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Movies

Annihilation delivers big ideas and nightmare fuel

Sometimes science fiction is like reading conspiracy theories. A big idea catches your interest and before you know it you’ve consumed a Wikipedia page’s worth of information. Some of it sticks, some of it doesn’t but you’re holding out to see if the big picture comes together. Many times, it falls apart long before you get to the end. You realize the people behind this theory are out of their minds and it’s not worth thinking about. Other times everything you’ve examined seems rational enough, but you’re missing the smoking gun – the piece that brings it all together. Every now and then you come across a theory that’s devoid of insanity or ulterior motives, something that makes you really think about it for a few moments or maybe weeks. Do we exist inside a simulation (The Matrix)? What would happen to earth if we were all infertile (Children of Men)? How does memory affect our decisions and who we love (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)? Films capable of posing these thoughtful questions are few and far between in an industry filled with pretentiousness and half-baked ideas. When you finally come across a film with depth to its ideas it’s unmistakable. You can’t get it out of your head. Annihilation is the latest movie I can’t get out of my head. It’s a gripping film that balances tension-filled moments with lofty big ideas. Accomplishing either of these goals would make it worth of recommendation. The combination of the two solidifies it as one of the best films in the genre.

Before stepping foot in the theater, the origin of Annihilation triggered some of my personal red flags. This is the second film from Alex Garland, the screenwriter/director who proved his sci-fi chops with Ex Machina (one of my favorites from 2015) previously wrote other worthwhile entries in the genre such as 28 Days Later or Sunshine, but unlike those films, Annihilation wasn’t conceived by Garland. Annihilation is based on the first book of a trilogy written by Jeff VanderMeer. Garland began adapting the book before the sequels were released and when they eventually came out he chose not to read them. Additionally, a common criticism of VanderMeer’s material was its lack of direction with some Amazon reviews using words like “undercooked” or “gibberish” to describe its bigger ideas. Everyone has their breaking point for when highfalutin ideas prove unsatisfying and I can recognize that my personal threshold is significantly lower than others. In other words, Annihilation looked to be going the way of some science fiction that uses dazzling spectacle and mystery boxes to hide shallow substance.

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Paramount Pictures and Skydance

Contrary to my concerns, Annihilation is one of the more grounded stories in science fiction. The story is anchored around Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist in mourning due to the unexplained disappearance of her husband Kane after he accepted a secret mission for the military. Lena is surprised to find her husband return home unannounced, but something inside him has changed. He’s distant, barely recognizes Lena, and soon begins coughing blood and falls into multiple organ failure. Kane’s declining condition drives Lena to discover what happened to her husband. It’s quickly revealed that Kane was sent to investigate an area known as “the shimmer,” a growing anomaly that appeared on earth three years earlier. Lena volunteers to enter the shimmer, along with four other specialists, to uncover the shimmer’s purpose and what happened to Kane.

Annihilation doesn’t waste the audience’s time with misdirection or loose ends. The film is presented as Lena’s retelling of events in the shimmer after she has returned from the expedition. This framing enables the story to skip to the good parts and allows for infrequent exposition when additional information is needed without slowing down the pace. Lena’s retelling allows the film to distinguish between mysteries that require the audience’s attention from typical story beats that reach their own conclusion. For example, the beginning of the film has Lena quickly explain the fate of her fellow crew members. With each character’s conclusion established, the audience doesn’t have to spend time speculating on the ends of each character. Each character is given a definitive conclusion that doesn’t require any amount of speculation. Instead the audience can focus on how each person’s fate provides context and understanding to the bigger question: what is the shimmer?

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Paramount Pictures and Skydance

It is worth noting that if you are not one who enjoys crafting theories for high concept films, Annihilation has strong fundamentals anyone can enjoy. Lena is a strong character on her own, supported by Portman’s realistic portrayal of a highly intelligent, physically competent woman, who makes mistakes like any other ordinary person. The other crew members have their own personalities and backgrounds that explain why they’re on a suicide mission and what they contribute to the expedition. In today’s era, a main cast headlined by five women could be seen as a novelty, but the film treats its cast’s identity indifferently. There’s no reference to how women are more or less equipped to handle the dangers of the shimmer and the personalities are as varied as can be, ranging from aggressively insecure to quietly confident.

If you don’t make a connection with the characters, the film’s expertly crafted moments are enough to keep your attention. Annihilation may be classified as science fiction but many encounters with the strangeness of the shimmer establish fear so effectively it’d be easy to label it a horror film. The terrors of the expedition occupy the entire spectrum of dread, from violent tension and body gore to extensional dread and nihilism. While many science fiction films may see mystery and discovery as a fun adventure, Annihilation depicts the debilitating fear of the unknown more effectively than any other film in recent memory.

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Paramount Pictures and Skydance

The mysteries may hold a traditional audience’s attention but the true achievement of Annihilation is its third act that goes all-in on the inexplicable but still crafts a coherent conclusion. Which isn’t to say that the ending is straight-forward. The final encounter has a bevy of mind-blowing nightmare fuel, but the film treats its audience with respect by cluing them into what characters know and being upfront with what they don’t know. Lena’s final encounter is presented uninterrupted through traditional film techniques (no 10 minute light show sequence accompanied with operatic vocals as seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey), and we even get her interpretation of the encounter. But the answer to the question of the shimmer is found through studying the film’s themes rather than directly addressed by the narrative. These themes include the nature of cell reproduction, biology’s disposition for reproduction and self-destruction and the reoccurring visual of the infinity symbol. I won’t say I have a confident grasp of the nature of the shimmer, but I felt the film gave me enough clues to piece together a satisfying interpretation.

Of course, if Annihilation is anything like Garland’s previous work, there may be an endless number of interpretations. I’ve personally had multiple heated arguments over what Ex Machina is “really about,” and I anticipate similar conversation about Annihilation. Unlike many other vague high-concept tales, the discussion surrounding Annihilation is motivated by the film’s complexity and the density of ideas worth reflecting on. The tragedy of each character’s fate, the scientific possibility of the shimmer’s hellscape creations or the purpose of the shimmer’s existence. Whether the conversations around Annihilation are limited to guttural reactions or expand to dozens of conspiracy-ridden Wikipedia article entries, it’s a movie going experience that you won’t be able to get out of your head, and one of the finest in the genre.

5/5

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Video Games

REVIEW: Pyre delivers and disappoints

Supergiant Games have had a pretty good run so far. Their first two titles, Bastion and Transistor, were met with critical acclaim and instantly created a community around the studio’s work. In some ways Supergiant had become the poster child for the best of the game industry. A small crew with limited resources created two of the most stylistic and unique games in recent memory. Those two games capitalized on the team’s strengths and although they had differences in the details, the broad strokes were largely the same. Very few people had anything but praise for those two games at the time. Instead, another worrying question emerged: Is Supergiant capable of diverting from their established formula?

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Pyre is the third game from Supergiant and the concern for distinguishing itself from the other two titles seems apparent. The core mechanics of Pyre are a huge departure from not only Supergiant Games, but all of the industry’s current trends. These departures make Pyre an intensely unique experience, but Supergiant’s reliance on its signature touchstones make it difficult to shake the feeling that the game could’ve achieved much more.

Like all of Supergiant’s games, Pyre’s gameplay is tightly intertwined with its story. You play as an outcast of the Commonwealth, a society that has outlawed reading. As a reader, you’ve been banished to a redemptive land called the Downside where various outlaws compete in religious rites to win their way back into high society. These rites take the form of a mystic sport similar to Basketball where the objective is to score a ball into the opponent’s goal. Each side has three teammates but only one person can move at a time. There are various attributes that effect each player’s role in the game. For example, a larger character may have a wider presence to block opponents from advancing, but they’ll also be significantly slower. Alternatively, a quick character may be able to sprint across the field with ease but the amount of points they can score will be less than other characters. There are a few different dynamics in play and it’s best to see gameplay yourself to get a better grip of how a typical match plays out.

The mechanical depth isn’t merely tweaking the values of traits like quickness (how fast you move), presence (how wide of an area you occupy), or glory (how many points you score). New characters tend to be unique races to the world of the Commonwealth. These party members have playstyles that expand on the gameplay’s depth and backstories that fill in the lore of the world. For example, Pamitha is party member from a race of bird people who have allegiance to a nation historically against the Commonwealth. Her great wings allow her to fly over the map with increased mobility. Another character is a talking tree with revolutionary tendencies. His movement is quite slowly but can teleport short distances and leave saplings for defense around the map. These different races also appear as your opponents in the game. Different teams have varying strengths and weaknesses meaning that there’s rarely a strategy that works for all of them. It also helps that Pyre encourages experimentation with your roster by having characters gain “inspiration” when they sit out a match, which allows them to gain twice as much experience when you use them again.

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As the story progresses, Pyre introduces more elements to keep the gameplay fresh and these elements will be familiar to anyone who’s played another game made by Supergiant. Each teammate can be equipped with a unique item that alters their stats in some meaningful way. These items can be found in the world, purchased at a store or unlocked through a character-specific challenge. Later in the game the player has the option to make each match more challenging by fighting under specific religious constellations that give buffs to the opposing team or debuffs to your own. These additional elements are fine on their own but they contribute to the feeling that Pyre is more of the same since all of these mechanics were present in Bastion and Transistor. A good sports game doesn’t necessarily need a new twist every 30 minutes to keep the player’s interest. The cascade of well-worn gimmicks act as a distraction. In the later matches I focused more on discovering what team/item composition broke the game instead of improving my skill with the core mechanics.

At some point it becomes apparent that the gameplay was not intended to be the focus, as made evident by the overbearing amount of dialogue and storytelling. On its own, the writing and world building of Pyre is fantastic. The player directly interacts with most characters instead of reading about them in description texts, a welcome departure from Supergiant’s previous approach. The various personalities come to life with these one-on-one interactions but there is simply way too many of them. For every ten minutes of gameplay there’s an accompanying 30 minutes of talking to party members or advancing the story by pressing X over and over until your input is needed again. Sometimes you’re given options on how to respond to character inquiries or make decisions for the group, but many of these “choices” seem half-baked since none of these choices have a narrative or mechanical consequence. The strangest example of this is when the game prompts the player as if they’re being tasked with deciding the future of the groups’ journey, but there’s only one option. These moments give the impression that Supergiant planned for worthwhile choices, and perhaps branching paths, but chose not to pursue it.

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Narrative choices would have gone a long way to remedy how boring the game becomes when it starts unloading its story on the player. It’s bad enough that Pyre has a very slow start, but it never gets into a groove of leapfrogging between action and story. Eventually I found myself so overwhelmed with party members wanting to talk to me that I skipped through a lot of the tangential dialogue. In the past, Supergiant has woven a lot of its story in its gameplay. Transistor masterfully tied gameplay experimentation with revealing more of the world by tying each individual abilities to a backstory of a specific character. In Transistor the more you used an ability, the more story you got. That’s not the relationship in Pyre. Clicking through character text unlocks even more text via the religious book the party keeps with them at all times. I tried my best to read a few pages of this codex but gave up around page 15 (there’s over 50 in total). Supergiant’s past games have had their own worlds with deep backstories, but it was always optional for the player to explore if they wanted to. In Pyre, everything is front and center.

The biggest crime of the oppressive story is it diminishes your time with playing the game. Pyre is easily the most mechanically dense game from Supergiant, but just as its true potential is revealed the game ends. There is a local versus mode offered in the game, but without any competition or consequence it’s not enough. Had the game included traditional modes available in sports games — such as tournaments, challenges, or online multiplayer — the thirst to play more of the game may have been quenched, but there’s none of that. On the other hand, the narrative is never truly explored either. Pyre’s world has conflicting nations, racial tensions, political plots, unique backstories and complicated relationships but they all have to be condensed into one minute dialogues. It feels like Supergiant finally struck gold and found a concept worthy of spending more time on, but they cut it short. I suppose Supergiant could feel flattered that the biggest critique of their game is that it seemed like it could have been even better, but it also means it’s hard to walk away from the game without feeling disappointed.

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The individual elements of Pyre are fantastic. The clean visual style creates unique vistas for the landscapes of the Downside. Every party member and stage has their own soundtrack that adds a sense of character to the entire world. Political intrigue and individual motives draw the player into the intriguing storyline and the memorable cast give reasons to care about the outcome. Mechanically, this is Supergiant’s best work. Pyre is an easily recommendable game to anyone with an appreciation for video games, but the question that shrouded Pyre’s release is not answered after its completion. Can Supergiant move on from their well-established formula?

4/5

12/26/2017 – a few grammatical errors corrected

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Music

REVIEW: Tyler the Creator finds his wings with Scum Fuck Flower Boy

When I was at my college newspaper I decided to expand my horizons and wrote my one and only music review on Tyler the Creator’s Wolf. In retrospect you can see a lot of my ignorance about the music world and rap industry, but that’s what started me on the journey of becoming a fan of Tyler the Creator. In many ways, Tyler has been one of the most frustrating artists to follow. He’s always shown he has a lot of potential, but tended to lean on his reliable ability to stir critics and create controversy. Every new release I asked the same question: Is this going to be the moment he finds the sound he wants? For his latest release, Scum Fuck Flower Boy, I can finally say the answer is yes.

I want to say that Tyler’s success with Scum Fuck Flower Boy is one of the greatest stories in the music industry today, but to understand the weight of this destination you have to know the context of the journey.

Tyler’s style started from a place of misanthropy and juvenile pranks. He was the guy who rapped about raping girls and dumping their bodies. He’s the guy who ate that cockroach in that video where he shittalked Hayley Williams and said he wanted to stab Bruno Mars. For most of the mass public, that’s who Tyler is to them. He’s a shock artist that wants to ride the wave of controversy to stardom. A lot of his music reinforces that like Yonkers, Tron Cat, Rusty and BUFFALO.

The people who got invested in Tyler the Creator quickly learned the he was more than an edgy teenager. No matter which album you started with, you saw a side of Tyler that most casual listeners did not. You saw that he’s kind of depressed, has “father problems,” and feels lost. Speaking from personal experience, I know that the feelings of hatred for others and hatred for yourself often go hand in hand. Tyler’s music embodied that dynamic more than any other artist in the past decade. But Tyler also liked to have fun. The early days of Odd Future were defined by Tyler’s playfulness. It was a group of talented artists making music, hanging out and making silly videos. Tyler led the charge on this image with his ridiculous music videos, on-track teasing of fellow artists and rapping about riding bikes with friends.

Tyler’s personality perfectly represented being a young adult. You have a lot of strong emotions about the world, about yourself, about your circumstance, but you also want to boogie to some Marvin. His appeal to millennial existential dread mixed with desire to laugh about your problems might be why the majority of Tyler fans are suburban white kids – including myself.

This made listening to Tyler very therapeutic and that made up for a lot of the deficiencies in his music. He had a lot of potential to become more legitimate that never quite made it to the finished album. Songs like Treehome95 and Find Your Wings showed that Tyler was more than a rap artist. The sheer artistry of his music videos showed that this guy was clearly in a class of his own but most people didn’t see that. Despite whatever talent he showed on his albums, his public image created a consensus that he was an artist that dealt in controversy, not expression.

In some ways Tyler’s potential reflected the frustration I had with my own young-adult life. I felt like I had so much to offer and so many different things I could do, but often get characterized as one specific thing that people can’t look past. Tyler tried to undermine his pigeon-holing by saying he had multiple personalities. In many songs the different sides of himself are represented as totally different people (Wolf Haley, Sam, Dr. TC, etc.). The suggestion being that he’s not one-note, that’s just the only side of him they’re familiar with.

To add to these frustrations, Tyler has said before that he wished he could do more than rap but felt his voice limited what he can do musically. After Cherry Bomb came out — arguably his most experimental album — some fans criticized the album for lacking the misanthropic depression that had become Tyler’s signature style. Tyler was pretty frustrated by these comments and actually responded to a few of them on internet forums:

“it was cool when i was raping girls and telling you how sad i was on records, but when shit changes and im feeling great and i fuck with myself you cant deal with it?”

So there’s been high points and low points in Tyler’s career but it has still been defined by frustrations. Tyler’s frustrated he hasn’t been able to make the music he wants to make. Some fans are frustrated that he’s changing his tone. Other fans are frustrated that he’s clearly trying to do something but never gets where he wants to be. There are all these elements and personalities mixing around inside of Tyler and it’s been hard to figure out which would prevail. Is he a shock artist? Is he a soul-inspired musician? Is he a Death-Grips inspired rapper? Who is Tyler the Creator?

This album is the answer. He’s all of those things. He’s a Scum Fuck, but he’s also a Flower Boy. He made an album that represents everything about himself and it’s incredible.

I think the greatest compliment you can give this album is that it has a lot of variety but it all sounds like it’s from the same project. This is the sound the Tyler has been trying to make for a long time. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a lot of the sounds used on SFFB are very similar to elements of previous songs. I’m not good at recognizing/describing noises so here’s some points of comparison:

Garden Shed (02:46) and Rusty (00:02) – The synth in the background

911 / Mr Lonely (00:26) and Find Your Wings (00:15) – The bubbling bass line / progression.

Bordem (1:11) and FUCKING YOUNG / PERFECT (5:25) – This style of harmony vocals.

Even if you can’t follow me on that line of thought, it’s fair to say that SFFB has a very consistent sound. It evokes the imagery of a “garden” with the use of spritey sound effects in See You Again, or the prominence of strings across the entire album. Even with that established sound the album finds a way to deviate when Tyler wants to do something new. Songs like See You Again, Bordem, 911 / Mr. Lonely and November are part of the album’s serene garden theme but other songs like Who Dat Boy, Pothole, I Ain’t Got Time and Droppin’ Seeds are deviations reminiscent of Tyler’s mainstream work that seamlessly flow with the overall tone. On paper many of these songs sound completely different but there are consistent motifs and concepts across the whole album that make the transitions sound like a new branch on the same tree.

With the sound established, everything else on the album is of the quality you’d expect from Tyler. He’s always been good at bridging concepts or capitalizing on dual meanings to transition to another idea and that’s on full-display throughout the album:

How many raps can I write ’til I get me a chain?
How many chains can I wear ’til I’m considered a slave?
How many slaves can it be ’til Nat Turner arrives?
How many riots can it be ’til them Black Lives Matter?
When niggas click, clack, splatter, pew, pew that nigga
Life a game of basketball, you better shoot that nigga
‘Cause if that cop got tricky, he better pull
‘Cause when I get pulled over, I usually play it cool
‘Cause I know what I’m driving is usually paid in full

I also like this one where he goes from sexual thirst to Beyonce’s Lemonade to Tesla in four lines:

My thirst levels are infinity and beyond
Sippin’ on that lemonade, I need a Beyoncé
Can’t see straight, these shades are Céline Dion
Sucks you can’t gas me up, shout out to Elon

Tyler’s rapping ability isn’t new, but there has been a significant shift in the content of his rhymes.

Tyler’s songs have always been about things that happen in his life. He hates X, Y and Z. His father left him. He had a bad break-up. He uses these as the backdrop for his aggressive tone and offensive tendencies, but we never really know how Tyler feels about any of it. Scum Fuck Flower Boy is all about Tyler and what he’s feeling. Take a song like IFHY and compare it to See You Again. They’re both love songs, but IFHY seems to be Tyler expressing his anger over catching feelings whereas See You Again is relishing in them.

It’s also worth considering these songs with the context that Tyler being “bored with rap.” IFHY sounds like a song placating popular rap tropes at the time of its release, right down to the buzzing-synth hook. See You Again sounds like the type of song that Tyler has been wanting to make. He sings more than he raps, uses harmony vocals throughout, and there are more horns and strings than bass. There’s nothing wrong with traditional rap trends but I personally feel like Tyler has wanted to move away from the mainstream sound without knowing where to go instead. But he’s finally found it.

Scum Fuck Flower Boy sounds like a concept album. It’s one of those records that you start at track one and let it run till it’s over. I have tracks that I like more than others, but there isn’t anything that I feel the need to skip over completely. Even as a die-hard Tyler apologist, I couldn’t say that about Bastard, Cherry Bomb or even Wolf.

Finally, although I think Tyler deserves significantly more praise than he gets for a variety of reasons (writes his own stuff, produces his own stuff, doesn’t rely on samples), I think it’s worth acknowledging that the path to Scum Fuck Flower Boy was paved by other artists. Of course, Tyler has had these thoughts in his mind for some amount of time. But I can’t help but acknowledge that the success of albums like Coloring Book or Blonde allowed Tyler to feel like he could embrace this more low-key sound over the aggressive edgy tone he had before. But that doesn’t take away from his accomplishment.

Scum Fuck Flower Boy stands on its own musically, but more importantly it’s a huge landmark in Tyler the Creator’s career. He finally did it. He found his sound and created an album that’s both genuinely him and honestly one of the better albums this year. On a personal level, I feel a connection to Tyler’s work. If he can achieve what he’s always wanted, maybe all of us can too.

5/5

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Movies

REVIEW: Dunkirk, a film without a purpose

I remember hearing a friend argue that Christopher Nolan was a one-note director. They didn’t say that there was anything wrong with the note he had played wonderfully for years, but Nolan seemed incapable of stepping out of his comfort zone. In my mind, a Nolan film is based on two core components: a darker more realistic film universe and an interest in asking the audience puzzling questions. This has stayed consistent across his career. Memento, one of his earlier films, asked if memories created meaning and poked at if satisfaction through revenge is legitimate. His most recent film, Interstellar, probed at the concept of destiny and asked if human emotions play a part in our species’ intergalactic survival. Across every film, Nolan always grounded the fictional universe in possibility. Inception’s dream infiltration is depicted as an established practice, Interstellar is rooted in quantum physical theories, and even the Batman trilogy explains the eccentric villains’ superpowers with scientific or psychological truths. Nolan’s ability to make fantasies seem possible mixed well with his interest in asking bigger questions. His films have created some of the best movie magic in the past decade. He could stick to his one-note because he was the only one playing it.

The problem with Dunkirk is it abandons what Nolan is good at. There’s no spectacle in grounding a historical event in reality and there are no bigger questions asked to the audience. This vacancy isn’t replaced with other ideas or skills, they’re left void. Unsurprisingly, Dunkirk feels like an empty film. It has no real purpose or justification for its existence. It’s easy to keep occupied with the action set pieces and convince yourself that good production equates to a good film, but the only question you’re left with after the film is: Why did he want to make this?

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Historical films can be great because they give context and connection to events from the past. Some things cannot be conveyed in textbooks or lectures. You can read all the source material there is about the Colosseum, but seeing gladiators fight inside of it is a completely different experience. The best historical films act as a type of virtual tourism. You’re visiting a time in history that no longer exists. You get a glimpse of what it was like to be there and intermingle with the people who were part of the event. The best historical films take the dead relics of the past and bring them alive.

By this metric Dunkirk is an absolute failure. The empty husk of Dunkirk is embodied by the lifeless characters in the film. There are three different narratives followed: one on the ground, one at sea and one in the air, each are anchored by a specific character but none of them provide any meaningful connection to the audience. There are no personal stories shared, no character flaws, no character strengths, no consequence to any action and I don’t even remember hearing any of the characters’ names. Creating a distinction in soldiers who all wear the same thing and have military regulated haircuts can be difficult, but other World War 2 films achieved this through charismatic actors or notable traits and decisions. Dunkirk doesn’t use either of these strategies. The characters have nothing to distinguish them and they don’t do anything worth remembering. Nolan has hinted that his goal for the film was to focus on the events themselves but as it turns out, it’s hard to care about people you know nothing about.

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Not every movie has to be a character study, but Dunkirk offers nothing else to intrigue the audience. The personal stories are obviously not the focus, but the grand narrative is also ignored. A movie like The Big Short or All The President’s Men can let the character development take a backseat because the plot is more interested in telling the grand narrative. What caused the 2008 housing crisis? What led to Nixon’s resignation? Or in Dunkirk’s case: What was it like to be part of the Dunkirk evacuation? But the film isn’t interested in the greater context. There’s no explanation for why the evacuation was important. Who orchestrated it? How did it get to that point? Why was it successful? I won’t argue that Nolan was obligated to answer these specific questions, but without characters to latch onto — what is the point of the story?

It appears the point for Nolan was to practice crafting action set pieces and organizing large scale shoots. The best parts of Dunkirk are when the characters are faced with extreme peril. The sound design is exceptional and the editing effectively demonstrates the true horror of war. Enemy bombers swoop into scenes with loud engines getting louder until they nearly deafen the audience. Various scenes of scrambling soldiers clawing their way to safety show the chaos of survival. This is the biggest (and only) strength of the film and it’s evident from the first minute of the film, but it gets tiresome.

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The entire movie feels like a prolonged montage of action sequences without a rest. Early on in the film two characters decide to masquerade as medics to gain passage on a ship that’s leaving. This scene starts with a fast-paced score in the background as they race to get aboard the ship but they’re slowed down by crowds of soldiers and bomber attacks. It’s a tense sequence, but I got the sense that it never actually ended. There are peaks and valleys in the drama but the entire film is dedicated to keeping you on edge. There’s never a moment to pause and even when one of the three narratives have a quieter moment, these scenes are dizzyingly interwoven with other characters fighting for their life. Unfortunately for the film’s pacing, tension works like any other emotion, if you feel it for too long it loses its meaning. Which is why despite being a two hour action sequence, Dunkirk is one of the more boring films I’ve seen lately.

Perhaps the greatest sin of Dunkirk is its complete failure to convey the historical importance of the Dunkirk evacuation. Before the film was released I tweeted about a clueless audience member who saw the Dunkirk trailer and was convinced the movie was about the Normandy invasion. I suppose I shouldn’t judge that person too harshly, since not everyone knows about every battle and event in World War 2. But as the credits for Dunkirk rolled, I overheard another couple of adults in their late 20s discussing their confusion: “When did Dunkirk happen? Was it before Normandy? After Normandy? During Normandy?” They had no idea.

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In actuality, the Dunkirk evacuation occurred in 1940 after the Battle for France (and four years before the Normandy invasion). The allies had decisively lost that battle. With Belgium, Luxemburg, the Netherlands and now France eliminated from the war, with the Soviet Union signing a non-aggression pact, Britain stood alone against Germany, Italy and soon to be Japan. To add to the problems — 400,000 soldiers of the British army were still in mainland Europe. With the English Channel stuffed with minefields and covered by German U-boat patrols and Luftwaffe bomber raids, the evacuation seemed impossible. But the British pulled it off. An accomplishment the Prime Minister Winston Churchill called a “miracle of deliverance.” You don’t get any of that historical weight or significance by watching Dunkirk. You get a two hour movie of guys standing on a beach.

Dunkirk is the story of Christopher Nolan stepping outside his comfort zone to disappointing results. There are moments of Nolan’s big-idea questions sprinkled throughout various scenes, but he never commits to them. It’s as if he wanted to prove that he could do something different and dove into the deep end without using his established talents to help keep him afloat. The man may have a remarkable crew, access to quality talent, and can craft a meaningful set piece but without a bedrock of purpose to support itself Dunkirk flounders and inadvertently proves the criticism against its director.

2/5

02/25/18 – cut out some sentences that weren’t necessary

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Politics

Indoctrination through enlightenment

There is a deep allure to knowing things that others don’t. Being informed is a virtue of modern society but being more informed than most people is even more desirable. Americans are filled with skepticism of the status quo and any fact that reveals everything is not as it seems is immensely satisfying to possess. American politics has become less about whose policies are best and more about whose conceptions of society are true. This shift has allowed left and right extremism to dominate the national discussion since they both refute society itself. The average American may have some thoughts on how poverty could be prevented in their neighborhood based on their own personal experience, but if a political opponent establishes that someone is ignorant of where poverty originates from, then their ideas for how to solve it are insignificant. This style of debate services extremism in two ways. First, it effectively invalidates anyone who isn’t initiated into a particular ideology. Second, it acts as a recruitment tool by directing the invalidated to learn the answers to questions that only extremists can answer. Well-intentioned people have a desire to know the truth, but when the bread crumbs to enlightenment are laid by political bad actors, the traveler will find themselves stumbling into indoctrination.

It’s true that knowing things is satisfying, but not knowing things is disproportionately unsatisfying. No politician has ever stood on a stage and said “I don’t know,” because it doesn’t inspire confidence in their ability. It seems citizens prefer a candidate who wrongly believes they’re correct more than one who tepidly admits their ignorance. Part of the attraction of extremist ideologies is they diagnose a cause for all of society’s ailments, often the same one. What is the cause of inequality and suffering in America? Depending on which side of the spectrum you ask, it is either the result of an oppressive patriarchal structure or the machinations of a deep state globalist conspiracy. Framing society’s problems as the result of one overarching concept satisfies devout followers of ideologies but leaves many questions for any on-lookers who are not familiar with these views.

Questioning either of these framings is an effort in futility. To the extremists who dominate national political conversations, announcing that you don’t believe in the patriarchy or a globalist conspiracy is to announce your ignorance of how society works at all. Doing so inevitably puts the attacker on the defensive. Whenever a person inquires or argues against an extremist societal framing, they’re doomed to sit through a lecture detailing the specifics of the ideology or forced to dispute a variety of declarations made by it. This is a common tactic in debate teams known as “spreading” (or the “Gish Gallop”) where one side presents many weak points, forcing the opposing side to dedicate their energy to correcting each one. The corrections dominate the discussion and there’s no time left to suggest an alternative view. Failure to provide a satisfactory and concise explanation of society’s problems is used as proof that the ideology’s catchall diagnosis is more true than any nuanced approach.

That feeling of dissatisfaction is pushed onto the observer of a debate. Even if an observer doesn’t agree with an extremist at first, their mystifying ideology demands further research. What is the patriarchy? What is the deep state? These are questions that lead to more questions that politically-motivated websites like Salon or Breitbart are happy to answer. If these questions capitalize on an ailment the individual has personally suffered, then the mainstream’s failure to answer them confirms this ideology they’ve discovered as the only true perspective of the world. They’ve convinced themselves they have found how society truly works. Even if they stumbled onto the ideology for one specific reason, its truth has a way of re-contextualizing all other problems. If an individual accepts that privilege or corruption is the underlying cause for one problem, it is not unreasonable for them to conclude that it is the cause of many other problems too. Their logic is supported by scores of other followers who have all made the same conclusion.

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Perhaps most insidiously, these ideologies provide an explanation for why anyone would disagree with them. Even in the face of numerous experts disproving theories reliant on patriarchy or globalism, the ideology claims these experts are only publishing these arguments in service of the societal evil the ideology is against. If a woman disputes patriarchy, they’re suffering from “internalized misogyny.” If a conservative condemns the alt-right, they’re a “cuckservative” who hasn’t been “red-pilled” yet. Both of these explanations carry a thinly veiled condescension that says “I used to be misguided like you, but then I found the truth.”

These brain-washed extremists live a life of satisfaction believing they have found out the truth of how society really works and use it to counter opponents of their beliefs. All American political debates fail at this impasse. Supporters cheer on figureheads of their own views, regardless of whatever is said. This dualism seeps into all politically-themed events and the winners and losers are decided by the size of the biggest mob.

How did it get this way?

Americans would not feel compelled to question how society is structured if the structure was working in their favor. Yale Professor of History Timothy Snyder wrote in his book On Tyranny, that “Aristotle warned that inequality brought instability.” Our moment in history is dense with inequalities. Americans of all demographics feel a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo and desperately seek an explanation for their strife. Unsurprisingly, extremists tend to be characterized by an obvious lack in their own life. Whether that be unemployment (or underemployment), the inability to surpass their parents financially (the first generation not to do so), or a lack of personal satisfaction, these political ideologues are drawn to their views by a dissatisfaction with how society has treated them. These spheres of extremism grow by explaining how these problems in their life are the result of an antagonistic action against them.

Despite these troubling trends there’s still hope for promoting sanity and reasonable discourse. The majority of Americans are silent in the political debate. Most are not convinced by these ideologies and are not satisfied with the answers extremists provide. They see the bread crumbs for the poisonous falsehoods that they are, knowing where those paths lead. Although these unimpressed citizens do not dominate the conversation, they do dominate the representation. Across all demographics, most Americans have stayed on the sidelines during this wave of extremism. Despite the difficulties all Americans have faced, it would seem that the most alluring truth is not that society is flawed for one specific reason but that these groups who pretend to know the truth are most certainly wrong.

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