Sunday, July 29, 2012

Inside Men 3

Inside Men is a show about security.  That's true on a literal level, of course, as the titular saboteurs are all in some degree in the security industry, protecting the cash that flows through their counting-house, with Chris being a literal security gaurd.  But it also revolves around less physical ideas of security.

Chris and Marcus are both threatened by financial precarity, and this is what motivates them to turn to crime.  As much as Marcus may dream of lavish ends to put his stolen millions to, his primary motivation is to avoid the kind of finaical failure that his life has, it's been implied, been a steady stream of.  His goal is class mobility, the unfulfilled promise of capitalism.  Marcus has a goal that's even more enshrined in our culture, providing for his impending family.  The recession is never directly mentioned, but grey streets and empty businesses are a constant backdrop.

And it's not a coincidence that their target is a central institution of the global currency system, but one of those silent parts of the system that was responsible for the last crash.  As violent and partial as it is, the robbery they plan is a kind of resistance against capitalism and the money system that supports it.

Of course, this still evinces a basic belief in the power of money.  This is a version of Marx's commodity fetishism, at least as I understand it.  Obviously paper money only has value because a state structure exists to give it value, otherwise it's just paper with a kind of ugly drawing on it.  The same is true of gold or any other kind of commodity: it is only valuable insofar as it exists in an economic system that gives it value.  The protagonists of Inside Men don't really understand this.  Through their heist they remove the money in the counting house from the capitalist circulatory system, assuming that all of its value will transfer to them.  But the problem immediately arises: they can't even retrieve it, as they're being monitored by the police in the wake of the robbery.  Even if they could, they couldn't spend it (or at least not much of it) without alerting the authorities.  If they follow John's plan, they'll have to go about their normal lives for a long while without making significant changes so as not to draw attention.  In other words, the money loses its value, as they can't actually do anything with it.

This is itself a commentary on the economic system, whose arbitrariness -- massive cages of cash sitting in a warehouse while the streets are filled with empty storefronts -- Inside Men makes clear even to those without a grounding in economics.  This exact mental slippage, the conflation of money with what it represents, can be seen in the recent financial crash.  Not only were the people involved obsessed with massive sums of money that, after a point, couldn't have made any actual difference to their lives, but through financial devices like derivatives and bundling they repeated this process of abstraction several times order until eventually they were exchanging massive amounts of nothing.  The supposed security of money -- even the cold, hard cash that our trio of saboteurs steal -- is in itself an illusion.

What about the other forms of security they seek?  Racial priveledge, for those who have it, is an obvious kind of security, but it's also one that seems consistently under threat in Inside Men.  The incident which perhaps sets everything in motion is John discovering that Dita, a young East European immigrant, has palmed a 20-pound note and firing her.  The trio's criminal operation forces them to hire the oily Kalpesh and his crew of Indian immigrant thugs.  While someone like John seems to symbolize that criminality can come in any guise, it still exists primarily as a threat from afar, carried in on foreign bodies.  Our protagonists are descending not just into the world of crime, but a distinctly racialized world.

While there is a bit of subversion here, Inside Men still relies on typical ideas of the immigrant criminal.  In this episode John hires Riaz, one of Kalpesh's men, in order to let him scope the place out.  It's a scenario that goes out of its way to play into fears about immigrant workers.  The Indians are never much more than thugs, and while it's okay to have some flat characters in a four-episode miniseries, the choices about who to develop and who not to are important.  While John proves himself more than capable of violent depravity, it is explicitly a descent into a racialized depravity -- see Garland Grey's recent post about Breaking Bad for why this is problematic.

How, then, to deal with Chris?  He's made every bit as sympathetic as the other two protagonists -- arguably more so, as he's the only one who really has a conscience.  Maybe as a British native, even a black one, Chris is not the outside threat that Kalpesh and Riaz are.  Or maybe his eventual decision in this episode to betray his co-conspirators to the police signifies that he is, in the end, still an outsider -- or, more precisely, one who is neither able to be entirely inside or outside.  I can't offer one interpretation here that explains everything -- Chris is the fly in the ointment, producing an endless array of complications.

What about the security of masculinity, of settling into a definite gender role that matches up with your biological sex and which gives you a power that's been established over millennia?  That's what John seeks in this episode.  What he relishes is the sheer masculinity of crime -- and not just any masculinity, but a physical and primordial "real man" type.  His attempts to start an affair with one of his co-workers pretty clearly stems from this rush, as does his playground-esque physical confrontation with Chris.

The contemporary world, Inside Men suggests, has little room for this ruggedness and its accompanying danger -- there isn't much of the fronteirsman less in the meek get-along middle manager that John starts out as.  Through crime, however, he returns to a more simple world, one without the tolerant ambiguity of human resources, and one that allows for this uncomplicated masculine persona.

(I'm not sure how accurate a social prognosis this is.  Masculinity is still glorified in our culture, especially its most violent and predatory manifestations.  Arguably antihero-driven shows like Inside Men feed into this obsession and the constant cultural demand for a more masculine society, usually expressed in laments about feminization by sidewalk-droppings such as Adam Carolla.  While these shows go to great extent to show the negative sides of their protagonists, their rejection of order in favour of action always seems to be supported by a troubling section of fans who will loudly support the masculine violence of John/Walter White/Don Draper/Vic Mackey/Tony Soprano/and so on and so forth.)

There have been a lot of comparisons between Inside Men and Breaking Bad (well, not a lot, as not a lot of people have seen the former.  But among those who have, there are comparisons).  And there's a definite connection, with the scene in this episode where Chris watches his mother choke to death instead of helping her seeming like a deliberate recreation of a similar scene from Breaking Bad's second-season finale.  A larger part of this is just a continuation of the antihero figure that's become so prevalent in "quality" dramas.

But there's an important difference between Walter and John.  Walter White certainly isn't doing everything for his family, as much as he will say that to anyone who will listen.  But he's doing it for a purpose, an ideology -- the code of masculine ideology that he's always subscribed to, albeit usually less ferverently.  Crime is a means to an end, just not the end he claims.  But for John, crime quickly becomes the end itself -- it's the act of subverting the rules that he lives for.  (This possibly helps justify the series' ending.)  He doesn't need the money, nor does he have any grand plans to spend it.  He just wants to become a criminal.

And this is, perhaps, what Inside Men finally suggests about security.  The very objects which seem to make us secure, seemingly stable and eternal things ranging from the financial system to gender, in fact create their own kind of danger.  Viewed from this angle, the eventual failure of the heist becomes clear.  The elements of stability that John relies on, from the carefully designed plan to the racial and class priveledge that he assumes will eliminate him as a suspect, can in themselves throw things into chaos.  It's a counter-intuitive message, but one that seems increasingly applicable to the times we live in.

Next week: "If you love someone, don't you set them free?"  "No."

Sunday, July 22, 2012

UFC on Fuel TV 4: Munoz vs. Weidman

In addition to the usual low-wattage roster of a Fuel TV card, UFC on Fuel 4 suffers from occuring in the wake of the Anderson Silva/Chael Sonnen megafight, with most fans suffering from fight hangovers.  I watch these things pretty religiously, and I almost totally forgot about it.  In theory the point of these events is to build up new stars and give long-serving undercarders some TV time.  Outside of the main event none of these fighters are in sniffing distance of the top 10.  The question then emerges: is this event, wedged in the middle of a week bookended by more interesting ones, worth watching at all?  What are the merits to it as three hours (!) of television?

Some would simply suggest that it exists because the UFC wants to fully exploit its current popularity, expanding as fast as it can with no concern as to fan fatigue.  But this isn't really the case.  The UFC almost certainly runs these smaller shows at a loss: they're broadcast in the outlands of cable, usually fail to get a decent live crowd, and other than fighter salaries have all the same costs as a bigger-ticket event.  So it can't be greed.  The simplest explanation would be that the UFC has hundreds of fighters under their employ and a limited number of (healthy) stars, so sometimes you have to run a card without the stars just to generate enough fights for everyone.  That's closer to the truth, but it still suggests that the UFC is being run by its fighters instead of the other way around.  So it has to be that, somehow, these events contribute to the larger commercial and athletic (and those two are always in tandem, as with any other professional sport) project of the Ultimate Fighting Championships.

The nearest analogy would, I suppose, be one of those low-key episodes of a serial drama that exists to build characters and set up future events.  So it could be argued that while neither Mark Munoz nor Chris Weidman, much less the unranked talents that appeared on the undercard, are people you care about, in the future they may be fighting someone you care about, and possibly even become one of those people themselves.  Giving them the headlining spot is meant to introduce them to the promotion's "main stage", with the theory being that if the fans see these fighters in the main event, they'll start thinking of them as main eventers instead of undercarders.  (This applies mostly to Weidman, unknown before his recent upset of Demian Maia, as Munoz already headlined a not-as-small UK card last year).

The above partially-incoherent paragraph goes to showcase how important image and status is in the fight game.  Building a name that people remember (which usually involves building a persona) is frequently more difficult than making it into the top 10 or even winning a championship.  Take Chris Weidman, who has an impressive victory in the main event.  He's stopped a dangerous opponent, and the stoppage is even a memorable one, albeit mainly due to the referee's delay in stepping in when Munoz was clearly out of it.

But where does this leave him?  What separates him from Jake Ellenberg, or Johny Hendricks, or Michael McDonald, or any of the other surging crew-cut white guys?  Of course, this is a bit of an unfair question.  Not everyone has an uniquely marketable persona -- indeed, it would be impossible for each of the 200 or some odd fighters to all be interesting characters.  In fact, it's usually only after you win a championship that the marketing gurus start to work, as when they transformed Frankie Edgar into a mostly-unknown crew-cut white guy to a lightweight Rocky, helped along by Edgar's gutsy performances.  Even then, Edgar never really became a major draw, and who knows what'll happen with new lightweight champion Benson Henderson.

The UFC can't come up with characters wholesale, and similarly its athletes shouldn't be pressured to become media characters instead of focusing on their fighting (although those that do, like Chael Sonnen and Ronda Rousey, are usually rewarded for it).  So in that respect it lacks in the character department when both something like pro wrestling and team sports, where a team can maintain the image it's gradually developed for decades instead of constantly having to invent new ones for the latest rising star.  This is not so much a failure of effort as a failure of format, and it may explain why fight sports have never trumped the big four in America or sports like soccer or rugby internationally, but to me it's part of their appeal -- they present each competitor as an individual instead of appealing to tribalistic emotions.

But what the UFC lacks in characters it makes up for in spectacle.  This is the part that's made it most popular among young males, and which also draws all the criticism.  Supporters have long argued[1] that it's equally or less dangerous than established sports like boxing or football.  But of course, the difference is that in mixed martial arts the violence is overt, personal, and bodily -- there is no way to avoid it.  This kind of violence has undeniable biopolitical significance.  The representative of violent spectacle on this card would have to be the battle between James Te Huna and Joey Beltran.

(Most MMA screenshots are going to involve the referee standing awkwardly around on the fringes of some sort of action.  Although it's not as awkward as when the referee should be doing something, like the previous one.)

The Te Huna/Beltran fight isn't really a competitive exchange of skill -- despite some flurries from Beltran, it's mainly a beatdown.  And it's one that never reaches its conclusion, a testament to Joey Beltran's chin.  (The ability to take a punch is, as per usual, read as a sign of grit and authenticity.)  The two mens' striking is not very technical.  But the fight is aesthetically pleasing in its own way: its brutality, its sloppiness makes the stakes of combat seem so much more real than a fast-paced submission battle.  It looks like two guys fighting outside a bar, and that transmutes the situation into something we can understand and empathize with.  It seems as though either guy might go down at any time, restoring destructive value to the punches that usually just accumulate as statistics.  I don't want to be hyperbolic here, but a fight like this makes us believe that the UFC is real again -- hence why the announcers talked it up so much.

The rest of the matches were fairly obscure affairs, but they did their job of showcasing up-and-coming stars as well as a couple resurgent veterans like Rafael dos Anjos and Aaron Simpson.  The UFC is generally known for its competitive matches, and that continues here, although sometimes things fall through and you end up with an one-sided fight like Aaron Simpson vs. Kenny Robisnon.  But in general what you have is the next step in each of these fighters' individual careers, whether it be a step up in competition or a shift to a new weight class or an adversity to be either fought through or succumbed to.  Each fight has two narratives, one for the winner and one for the loser, but it's the winner's narrative that is generally highlighted, with the loser condemned to obscurity.  Such are the perils of competition.

In the end, the ultimate significance of this event is as of yet unknown.  If its prospects -- Chris Weidman, Francois Carmont, James Te Huna, etc. -- go on to major success and stardom, then it will have been an essential part of the UFC mega-narartive, a tapestry woven from hundreds if not thousands of individual stories.  If not, it will just be a strange detour that only the hardcores will have noticed.

Next week: "This crime hasn't happened yet."

[1]This argument is probably correct, but since it's such a young sport we haven't really seen the long-term implications of being a professional mixed martial arts fighter.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Haibane Renmei 3: Temple -- The Communicator -- Pancakes

There aren't very many shows that can be described as "supernatural slice-of-life", but Haibane Renmei thus far is among them.  Its first three episodes are dedicated to laying out the life of the angel-like Haibane in the quaint locale of Old Home.  These episodes (and possibly the rest of the series, for all I know) are consumed with the quotidian and the almost banal.  It's world-building, but of a different sort than we usually see.  We still know basically nothing about what the Haibane are, or the world around them, or the mysterious and fairly ominous figures that run their nice little city.  But we know how they pay for things, how they raise their children, and what each of their hobbies are.

It's useful to contrast this with something like Game of Thrones.  In that series we get broad exposition about far-flung corners of the world and significant moments in history -- we have a much better picture of the world at large.  But zoom in and things start getting fuzzy.  After two seasons of Game of Thrones I still have no idea how the average person in that world lives, or at least not as much of an idea as I do of the ordinary lives of the Haibane after three episodes [1].  Haibane Renmei's focus points to a more sociological idea of fantasy, which imagines societies in the ways favoured by leftist historians that denounce the "great man" figure and focus on broader social trends and common experience.

Of course, the main difference is that whereas leftist historians are extremely critical of these aspects of society, Old Home and the village around it are thus far pretty idyllic settings.  There's work to do, but it's all pretty pleasant work, like baking and teaching.  (It's also work that's traditionally gendered feminine, although I'm not sure about the larger significance of this.)  Everybody is friendly and the worst conflict is a little mischief or childish misbehaviour, as at the end of the episode when we find out that Hikari has been using the halo mold in her baking.  The art style supports this mood, being full of thin lines and soft colours, creating a pleasant, nonthreatening, and sometimes soporific effect.

As newly hatched, Haibane Renmei's protagonist Rakka needs the world explained to her, which makes her a convenient proxy for the audience.  It's an age-old device, but it works well here.  But even for an audience surrogate Rakka seems strangely passive, constantly out of it and a little inept.  At first this makes her seem like just another hapless moe heroine, I would argue that this actually stems from the divide between her physical body and mind and her lack of experience.  We're used to thinking of the mind as developing naturally with experience, to the extent that we often fail to distinguish between the growth of the two, but Rakka presents the question of whether we can imagine a set of developed mental faculties without any set of memory or experience, newly pushed into the world.  This isn't a purely academic question either, as it raises a lot of the issues surrounding the fluid memory we know in the real world.  Rakka's strange combination of passivity, childlike curiosity, and frustration could just as easily belong to an amnesiac or an Alzheimer's sufferer.

All of the series's episode titles are triptychs, but they don't represent a rigid seperation between acts as they would in, say, a traditoinal Saturday-morning cartoon.  Instead they suggest a gentle flow from one story to another.  "Temple -- The Communicator -- Pancakes" (the title, not the episode itself) brings together three different things: the vaguely religious connotations of the series, the mysterious and faintly ominous Communicators which suggest a deeper mythology, and the genial adventures in child-raising that Rakka undertakes in this episode.  These conjure up disparate moods and disparate objectives, but in the actual episode they all appear to be of one cloth, belonging to the series's natural rhythm.  It's a magic trick that Haibane Renmei isn't afraid to brag about.

Let's start with the first part.  Japan has a complicated relationship with Christianity, greeting it with the same mixture of distrust, fascination, and incomprehension as it does most of Western culture.  Anime offers a good window into this.  There are fairly few portrayals of actual Christian religious practice -- the recent Kids on the Slope is all that comes to mind.  Instead, Christian mythology is taken and taken apart into material for fantasy.  Whereas American Christian fantasy mostly takes the whole mythos part and parcel, usually adding in its own interpretations (even something as irreverent as Dogma basically maintains the whole schema), anime has no compunctions about abandoning most of it and grasping the parts it likes into a completely new framework.  This can be seen in the jumble of Christian symbols within Evangelion[2] or Kamikaze Kaitou Jeanne.  To be fair, the mostly secular Japanese culture largely treats Shinto and other Eastern religions the same way.  Some have accused shows like Evangelion of not really understanding the symbols they use, but this suggests a certain reverence for the symbols' original meanings that is disrupted by their repurposing within a genre narrative.

And so we have the angels in Haibane Renmei, who have wings and halos and live in a church but have no apparent link to the role of the angels in Christian mythology.  Is the town they find themselves in Heaven?  That would explain the generally warm atmosphere and lack of conflict, but if so it also suggests that Heaven is a very restrictive place and one that can promise contentment but not happiness.  The haibane still go to work, raise children, and have minor spats with each other -- it's just a bit more pleasant than the world we live in.  Given our experience of our fellow humans this seems to be the only version of a broad afterlife I can imagine.  So maybe the Christian mythology in Haibane Renmei is more closely tied back to its origin than it first appears.

This brings us to Rakka's interaction with the titular Communicator, one of the stranged mask men that seem to govern the haibane.  His title is somewhat ironic -- he is the Communicator because no one else is allowed to speak in his presence, only replying with a movement of the wings to signal "yes" or "no".  At the same time he hides his face, preventing anyone from reading his expression and discerning identity or information he doesn't want to divulge.  In the realm of silence, he does appear to be a mighty communicator, but it is only because of the norms that subdue all creation.  A neat metaphor for the state, the church, and really any other institution.

Of course, thus far the Communicators are presented as fairly benevolent rulers -- they accept Rakka as one of their own without much in the way of trial.  But Rakka was already a haibane.  Through this process of confirmation, the Communicator subtly transmutes an article of fact into an article of government approval, creating an appearance of generosity and acceptance while really simply tugging her identity into its realm of control.  (One could make an analogy between this and gay rights if one was really determined.)  This fits in with the general politics of the town.  They leave charmed lives, at the expense of their own autonomy and freedom -- none of them can leave, and their lives are rigidly expressed in official books.  This trade-off isn't as dystopian as one might think -- after all, we make a less dramatic but similar deal everytime we pay taxes.  But there's still something eerie to the Communicators and their obscurity, and I hope that Haibane Renmei isn't naive enough to make this setting utopian all the way through.

Finally we come to the pancakes, which make up a surprising amount of this episode.  The plotline consists of Rakka trying to convince the Young Feathers to eat rice, despite her own personal distaste for it, and then bribing everyone with pancakes to do it.  The main take-away from this is that Rakka is still in many ways a child, unaccustomed to the world around her.  But I'm not sure it raises above the cute-girl-does-cute-things genre that's become so common recently.  The main issue is the apparent lack of conflict or stakes.  Even in an utopian society there's friction between people and personal weakness.  The absence of any such thing in Gile is as eerie as anything else.

Next week: "You do not want this guy on top of you hitting you in the head."

[1] If this blog ever becomes popular enough to spawn a drinking game, trashing Game of Thrones as an aside will definitely warrant a shot.

[2]Same thing for a gratuitous Evangelion reference.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Space Brothers 9: Individual Resolve

Because so many anime series are adapted from established franchises in other media (usually manga) with their own pacing and narrative divisions, you can often end up with awkward episodes which don't really work as story units in themselves.  (The same is often true of American shows adapted from non-TV media -- Game of Thrones, anyone?)  From all appearances, "Individual Resolve" would appear to be one of those episodes, with two main storylines seemingly glued together.  The only problem is that Space Brothers is an original story with no original manga to explain this strange structure.

This episode consists of two fairly discrete parts, both quiet and rather quotidian.  The first deals with the fallout, or lack thereof, from last episode's "cliffhanger", when Mutta discovered Hibito's will and came to the abrupt realization of his brother's mortality.  In the second, he reunites with his peers from the second exam and has another quasi-romantic encounter with Serika.  This structure has its benefits -- it's hard to imagine either story being interesting when expanded to 20 minutes, and we really should advance the plot after spending 3 episodes on Mutta waiting for test results.  The relaxed pace of Space Brothers can teeter on the edge of boredom, and perhaps splitting these stories up would send it careening off to one side.

At the same time, slowness is what makes the show distinct.  Its plot and dominant ideas seem lifted out of a vaguely educational shounen anime -- a long round of testing, striving to be the best, terse declarations, masculine bonding, masculine self-doubt, and uplifting music the whole way through.  But it also realizes the adult consequences of these tropes.  By making us feel the wait for the test results, the show realizes the time between excitements that most series gloss over (although it does manage to inject some excitement in Mutta's vacation.)  Similarly, the will is significant not just because it highlights Hibito's mortality, but also the practical considerations of mortality, the offensively mundane business of deciding who gets his stuff after he dies.

This leads once again to a clash between Mutta's idealism and the world around him.  Mutta is a bit of an overgrown child, still hopped up on his young self's idolization of astronauts (the frequent flashbacks to his childhood, where he seems fairly similar to his current self and Hibito doesn't, cement that more than anything), and this is what leads to the overreactions that make him such a great comedic character.  When no one else is disturbed by Hibito's will, Mutta is almost outraged at their lack of affect.

In a way Space Brothers is an adult coming-of-age story, although not as obvious a one as, say, Welcome to the NHK.  It contains two parallel narratives, one of which is a fairly idealistic story of achieving your dream through hard work, and the other being the slow realization of all the uncomfortable aspects of that dream.  Hibito's will prompts Mutta to study and realize the danger involved in being an astronaut, complicating his long-time dream.  It's a realization not just of his brother's mortality but his own.  This is all expressed nicely in the faintly beautiful[1] pre-credits sequence in which Mutta dreams that he and Hibito are in place of a trio of astronauts that died in a recent crash.

Really, this is something that Mutta should have realized earlier, probably before he made it so far into the application process for a dangerous job.  But it's only through the refracted lens of his brother that he can really deal with his own mortality.  This isn't really resolved in this episode, and to some extent it can't be resolved, in life or in fiction.  If we're being honest with ourselves, mortality is such a complete break with everything we know that it's hard to even conceive, let alone accept.  As to whether or not this will stay an issue throughout the series, we'll have to wait (although perhaps those who aren't as behind as me already know.)

Following this we have a neat little intermission, as Mutta goes out to see the International Space Station pass by.  It's an activity that, we learn, he's done since he's a child, suggesting that despite his newfound awareness of the dangers of his job there's still a continuity with his mythological view of space exploration.  (This view is something that the space program actively cultivates, right down to the names of the space shuttles.)  The ISS in particular is a direct symbol of the way in which space exploration likes to narrate itself, as an international co-operation for scientific progress.  Of course, the actual station is a bit of a disappointment from a science-fictional perspective, looking more like a satellite with room for some people inside.  Babylon-5 it ain't.

Later on we learn that all of the other astronaut applicants were watching the station as it passed over Japan.  Space exploration, then, is a shared cultural signifier that can unite people from disparate places -- everyone from Mutta to Mutta's distant love interest Serika to Hibito to even the astronaut in the space station itself are connected through this one streak of light through the sky.  At the same time it's also a subcultural signifier -- the process of watching it unites the applicants and sets them apart from the rest of the population, who neither know nor care about the space station passing.  This nicely fits space exploration's dual status in our culture, as both a broad popular mythology and something that only a few really care about nowadays.

This power to unite and divide is echoed by the party Mutta attends for their group of applicants.  They're all gathered in pursuit of a common goal, but only five of them have been selected to move to the next round.  The irony that Space Brothers hits upon, intentionally or not, is that while space exploration places so much importance and emphasis on co-operation and unity between nations and individuals, it's also a profoundly individualistic process -- not only are the applicants competing against each other, but the narratives of space make heroes out of individuals (almost always the astronauts) instead of the mass of people responsible for the mission.

Of course, this story is not out to really surprise you, so all three of the characters we actually knew during the second stage have passed on to the third.  Along with them are two nondescript characters who seem to be slightly villainous, commenting about Mutta getting through do to his brother's fame, which is a dastardly insult only enhanced by it being somewhat true.  (Things that seem well-earned from the perspective of the underdog hero who wins things the unorthodox way can seem patently unfair from the perspective of the hard-working, plain competitor.)

Mutta then stumbles across yet another cause for self-doubt, as he learns about the specific and well thought-out reasons for Serika and Makabe's interest in becoming an astronaut, which make his vague childhood dream seem rather silly in comparison.  This seems to be the pattern of the series: Mutta overcomes one source of self-doubt, and promptly stumbles across another.  There are tests and challenges, but Mutta's main quest is an internal one.

This could quickly become irritating, but the series manages to pull it off and make things consistently interesting.  Its best weapon is its humour, which is sometimes so dominant that it would seem accurate to classify the show as a comedy.  It can also produce wonder and inspiration from pretty sparse materials -- somehow the same piece of music that's been used in every episode still manages to stir up emotion within me.  The secret isn't in the script -- it's in all of the elements that surround it.  Space Brothers is an example of what all of the guys who don't get lavished attention on as auteurs in television -- the musicians, the episode directors, the producers -- can bring to the table in making something better than it should be.

Next week: "Pancakes!  Pancakes!  Pancakes!"

[1]Whenever space appears in the show, it looks exquisite and exactly like the glorious fronteir that Mutta no doubt imagines it to be.  We'll see if things stay this way when the characters go there for real.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

UFC on FX 4: Maynard vs. Guida

In some ways sports are the purest expression of the scientific ideology.  As much as we like to attach sentimental narratives to sports, the actual coverage of them relies heavily on numbers and mathematics.  This is not in opposition to the heavy narratives we attached to sports (which I described in my last UFC post) but rather in support of it: the idea of an unbiased, scientific testing-ground provides the stakes and legitimacy for the narratives we weave.

Mixed martial arts, then, is a bit of an abberation.  Desepite the constant attempts to inject statistics into the sport, it remains thoroughly subjective.  All of the methods for winning a match involve a decision on someone's part, whether it's a referee deciding to stop the fight, a fighter choosing to submit, or the judges deciding to score it for one side or another.  At some points this is merely an academic distinction, such as when a fighter is obviously knocked out cold, but it still doesn't have the obvious facticity of something like boxing's ten-count.  This particular event seems to highlight that subjectivity more than the usual, with the top-billed three fights all going to close and rather contentious decisions.

The first of these fights was between Brian Ebersole and TJ Waldburger.  Waldburger is one of those oddities, a veteran undercarder, who wracks up an impressive number of UFC wins in minor untelevised (or, as is now the case, televised on nothing channels) fights, then goes up to the main card to blank stares and is usually defeated.  It's not a bad career, but I'll confess to thinking of him as cannon fodder -- which is why I was so surprised when he came out of the gates and started kicking ass.

Ebersole is almost the opposite -- a fighter who's taken on competition that's only a bit better, but is a lot more high-profile.  This is mostly because of his fan-friendly oddness, from his fondness for cartwheel kicks to shaving his chest hair into a giant arrow.

He has a narrative -- the quirky older veteran making one last run at the big show, and he's not afraid to tell it via fan sites and social media, which is essential for a sport with a young fanbase.  That's why this was "the Brian Ebersole match" instead of "the TJ Waldburger match" even though, as the match itself showed, both guys are pretty equally skilled.

The match highlights one of the constant dilemmas of MMA judging -- top control vs. defense from the bottom.  There's a vocal set of fans that contend that judging unfairly favours the fighter who ends up on top when things go to the ground, mainly due to judges' lack of knowledge of the ground game (most MMA judges have their roots in boxing).  This has lead to the dominance of wrestling and the "lay and pray" strategy.  These people have more than a bit of a point.  Waldburger's actions in the second round are the kind of offensive gaurd-work, constantly going for submissions and sweeps, that more or less negates Ebersole's attempts at ground and pound.  On the other hand, none of the submissions really come close to succeeding -- should we disregard them as we would a missed strike?  Rate them as a successful attack, or at least successful grappling, because they stopped Ebersole from striking on the ground?  Or give the points to Ebersole for dictating where the fight took place?  After all, if Waldburger gets points for putting his opponent in an ineffective hold, surely Ebersole should get the same.

In the end, two out of the three judges saw it for Ebersole, which only gives more fuel to the bottom-game advocates.  It'll get marked down as a win just like the more definitive ones are, and absent any furor over the judging (which is usually reserved for more high-profile fights like the recent Diaz/Condit or Edgar/Henderson matches) it'll generally be regarded as a legitimate result.  As it should -- if you're going to have judges, you should take their judgements seriously.  But there's a moment of subjective choice and opinion here that's immediately papered over by the objective trappings of sport.

In the co-main event, veteran lightweight also-rans Sam Stout and Spencer Fisher completed their trilogy.  It's a bit of an odd trilogy, one without much in the way of story or stakes behind it, although at least it gives some identity to two of the lightweight division's very thick middle.  The decision, like the one before it, priveledged top control: in this case, the takedowns Stout landed seemed to overcome what I saw as stronger striking from Fisher.

The question of fairness is one that inevitably gets raised when it comes to decisions, but it's trickier than one would think.  Even if you disagree with the standard judging philosophy, which values takedowns and top controls over damage (within reason), it's a well-known one, and every fighter at this level knows that a takedown can often win them a round they would otherwise lose.  If the scoring system and its biases are public knowledge, then the sport becomes fair again -- nobody argues that football is unfair because it gives more points for a touchdown than a field goal.  Of course, this violates the premise of mixed martial arts, that it's the closest simulation to an actual fight possible, given safety concerns.  When people object to the priorities of judges, it's because they make it more abstract, and further away from the core concept.  Combat sports, unlike most other sports[1], has a claim to authenticity at its centre, as the ability to physically fight someone is (or at least seems) more inherently valuable, stemming from real-world occurrences, than the ability to kick a ball into a net.  The professionalization of mixed martial arts threatens that authenticity, even as it helps MMA as a sport qua sport.

There's also a bit of unintentional foreshadowing for the next fight, as a match billed for its excitement value, rather than its relevance, fails to be very exciting.  This isn't a scripted sport like pro wrestling by any means, but there are still roles certain fighters and certain matches are expected to play, and Fisher and Stout were given the role of "go out there and brawl".  Their failure to live up to this unspoken expectation was a minor and not-muched-noticed one, but it would set the stage for a more significant one later.

That is, of course, the now-infamous[2] Maynard/Guida main event.  The fight was billed as the best of both worlds -- two top lightweights fighting in a match that seemed sure to be exciting.  However, Clay Guida, long established as a fan favourite for his oversized personality and frenetic pace, played a very rangy and reactive gameplan, which involved moving around more than striking.  Until the last couple of rounds Maynard seemed content to play into that strategy.  As the fight wore on, Guida seemed to forget the "counterstriking" part of the plan and focus solely on dodging.

From a strategic standpoint, Guida's gameplan wasn't a complete disaster.  He lost by only the narrowest of margins (two 48-47 decisions to one) and many fan writers gave him the match.  But from an aesthetic standpoint, it was awful.  (Matthew Polly has a good summation of this, a rare thoughtful piece in the MMA media).  The fight evinced such revulsion that the fans, who began cheeering Guida, were chanting for Maynard by the end, a first for the usually dull wrestler.  In a way, this is a kind of accidental genius.  Pro wrestling, with the benefit of scripting, often tries and fails to change the audience's opinion of an athlete this completely, and the "double turn" is rarely successfully pulled off.  This is the benefit of sports: the audience can decide who the heroes and villains are, even if their decisions are capricious.

And the audience reaction is hardly irrelevant.  With the scores as close as they are, it's easy to imagine that the crowd's hatred of Guida's passivity might have been a finger on the scale.  Beyond that, the UFC is run without any kind of formal rankings or brackets, so popularity influences how a fighter advances or slides as much as their wins or losses do.  Maynard certainly seemed to grasp this, actively egging the crowd on and doing his best to make Guida look foolish.

The role of entertainment in MMA is a complex one.  Certainly in other sports people complain about boring teams, but you'll rarely see a boring win dismissed as illegitimate in the same way it often is in MMA fandom.  And, because of the informal nature of rankings and contendership, this is often true in the actual organization as well -- no matter how many times Jon Fitch won a match by wrestling a guy into a stupor for fifteen minutes, he wasn't going to get another title shot.  In part this is due to MMA's claim to authenticity, with the buzzwords often being "a real fighter" against "point fighting".  It may also be due to MMA's historical connection to pro wrestling, with many current UFC fans being past WWE fans who are looking for more authentic violence but still want a garauntee of entertainment.  Such judgements may seem less fair and less scientific than the clarity of other sports, and I've certainly argued in defense of "boring" fighters in the past.  But, for a sport as rooted in subjectivity as MMA, it seems oddly appropriate.

Next week: "You should practice your handwriting, so you don't embarass yourself after you die."

[1] The exception would, I suppose, be things like track and field and swimming, which are tests of natural abilities.

[2]"Infamous" feels a little historical for something that happened last week, but in the rapid age of media reaction, things become historical symbols of themselves very quickly.