Christopher J. Fraser

Rubber Dinghy Rapids

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I watched Four Lions again tonight. It’s the first time I’d seen it in around four years - the film itself dates back to 2010 - and while I still think it’s an excellent film, my relationship to it now feels a little more complex.

Four Lions is a comedy about four Muslim men who plan to blow themselves up during the London marathon while dressed as fun-runners. It was released five years after the 7/7 London Underground bombings. There was some controversy at the time of the film’s release, but it was mostly overshadowed by praise - Four Lions is riotously funny, and carefully toes the line between presenting the protagonists as humans and recognising that most of the men involved are pretty bone-headed.

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It doesn’t feel as funny anymore, though, and I think there are a few reasons for that. The first, and most obvious, just comes from the fact that some jokes are best when you hear them for the first time. Four Lions often plays out like a series of sketches, and the sad truth of a lot of sketch comedy is that it loses its colour after you witness it for the first time.

There’s something else, though, and I think it comes from living in the USA for the last six months.

There is an attitude in this country that I’ve found myself slipping into as of late. The best way to describe it is as a violent push back against the sort of views you find in cable news and the people who watch it. While those people are content to slap a reductive, pathologising description on people so they can become objects of curiosity as soon as possible, the opposite view to take is to humanise everything in sight. You find yourself wanting to get in the heads of the worst kinds of people.

It comes from a mistrust of the things you’re told, I think - here, more than anywhere, there are so many people I’ve encountered who keep the proud American tradition of being misinformed alive, but people like that often have the unintended effect of inspiring fellow Americans to do better. In doing so, the people they inspire often gain a better grasp of the world around them, but more often than not it can be at the expense of finding things funny. There’s often no room for nuance. You can understand, but you can’t really examine at arm’s length.

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(Yes, that’s a pre-Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch.)

And that’s where the trouble is, I think. You watch a film like Four Lions with this sort of attitude, and it suddenly seems a lot sadder. It’s harder to keep the attitude that makes someone want to martyr themselves at a decent critical distance, for fear that you might dehumanise them. You’re scared that, in your head, they’ll go from being Muslim individuals to “the Muslims”, whatever that means.

There are branches of comedy that rely on this sort of closeness to execute well, but I don’t think Four Lions is really it. It’s the sort of film that needs the right tension between a little dehumanisation and the understanding that the colossally stupid men in the film are just humans, muddling through their own path in life. It walks a tightrope between sympathy and scorn, and as long as you stay on it’s a hell of a ride. Watching this time around, I would fall off from time to time. It’s still a masterful film, and I still laughed, but I came out of it feeling a little hollower.

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The Beach Theme, by Angelo Badalamenti.

I’ve been getting into more of Badalamenti’s work after starting Twin Peaks - I knew his work from Mulholland Drive and Indigo Prophecy prior to this, but every part of his catalogue is brilliant.

Okay, but here’s the thing: I have to wonder if I don’t sometimes nourish the same ugly impulses that this guy nakedly displays when he adds his two-bit commentary to something I wrote. I was initially upset when I saw his asinine, idiotic remarks (which effectively boil down to “ugh, go and read a book; I read books, you see, so I’m better than you”), but that insecurity dissipated when I learned that he was religious.

And I’m not sure it should. It’s an awkward one, because there isn’t one religious argument that could ever convince me (and I’d believe in my own insanity long before I ascribed visions or so-called miracles to a god), and that brings with it a kind of impulse to at least mentally condescend, even if I don’t verbalise it. But that dissipation of distress presumably came from a sense of intellectual superiority, and while I certainly like being happy, I also want to be happy for the right reasons (like the superior feeling gleaned from learning that he’s reductive and inaccurate about feminism, or seems to really favour condescension as a conversational tactic).

I guess what I’m saying is that I’m at a point where even the worst kinds of people make me want to do better - not because any so-called advice they peddle is in any way illuminating, but because any verbal interaction with another human being, no matter how awful, can be an opportunity for growth if you really deconstruct it.

Don’t you love it when people reblog your personal essays with the sole intention of belittling you? Don’t you love when people make assumptions about your intelligence, and your reading, and your life experiences, just because you talk about one book you read when you were sixteen? Don’t you love imagining the look on someone’s face as they call the President (who I would be the first to malign) the “pedantico-in-chief”? Don’t you love the sight of a burning car freewheeling off the edge of the Dover cliffs?

My legs ache. It’s the sort of ache that begins to feel good as it wears off. It’s similar to when I used to run - I would get home, and feel like hell, but an hour later this glow would spread from every joint. I spent eight hours standing behind a counter in a supermarket’s meat department today, and aside from being paid money I also earned myself a pair of sore calf muscles.

The money is really the thing. I don’t want to spend any extended period of time working in a supermarket’s meat department, but I’m at a point where the lifestyle I want to sustain - one where I have a cellphone, and can buy myself the occasional video game, and go out to restaurants every now and then - is unsustainable without regular income. And all of this is in a country that effectively hamstrings you if you don’t have a car and a driver’s license, and I don’t have either, yet.

It balances out, though, I know that. The work becomes easier - not because it changes, but because you do - your legs toughen up, and you learn the shortcuts, and your rapport with the people around you improves. And I’m at a point where it’s too early to reap the rewards - I won’t be paid for a little while longer, so for now there’s a sort of void to the work. That’s not to say I’m not grateful for the job - I am - but you’d have to be insane to do something like this for free.

I’ll keep moving forward. I’ll try and be an adult. I will, at least temporarily, abandon the ingrained elitism that tries to tell me that because I have a degree, I deserve a job where I can sit down. While I serve sirloin tips to wealthy suburbanites, I’ll try and move my life forward in a thousand small ways.

The Witcher The Witcher 2

Overall, I probably spent about around 75 hours of the last few weeks playing both The Witcher and The Witcher 2: Assassins Of Kings, a couple of role-playing games. They pride themselves on being a fresh, darker alternative to other fantasy RPGs - the Dungeons and Dragons spinoffs, Bioware’s Dragon Age series, and so on - and are based on a series of short stories and novels by Andrzej Sapkowski.

There are some wonderful things about these games. The choices you make are never explicitly moral - often, there’s a determined trajectory of events (progression to an all-out civil war, the death of at least one repugnant character), and all the player can do is influence the details. I liked this part of the gameplay - all too often, games like this put you in the shoes of a hero, and while that’s immensely gratifying it’s also narratively redundant when it’s done so often.

Geralt is, at his core, a non-interventionist who finds himself roped into grand political conspiracies largely by accident, and playing as this sort of character makes a change from playing yet another character who might as well be nicknamed the Chosen One.

Having said all that, the way these games deal with women is awkward at best, and downright awful at worst.

I feel like this issue requires some nuance, and the involvement of another dark fantasy series - specifically, George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, which bears some cosmetic resemblance to the world of The Witcher, even if its narrative details are very different. In both series, there’s an attitude towards women that is kind of repugnant. The TV adaptation of Martin’s series has come to rely on the threat of sexual assault as window dressing, almost - even in the books, there are plenty of characters (referred to as “rapers”, because the word “rapist” too closely focuses on the confirmed act, I guess) who solely exist to pose a threat to women.

There is an argument here, and it’s that Sapkowski and Martin’s worlds are intended as a dramatic spinning-off from recorded history, where - surprise, surprise - women have never really been afforded much respect. There’s certainly fuel for that argument - King’s Landing in A Song of Ice and Fire and the Northern kingdoms in The Witcher are a good stand-in for feudal empire, and both Essos in ASOIAF and places like Zerrikania in The Witcher are decent parallels to a vaguely threatening African or Middle Eastern proxy. Problems arise when you read these parallels too closely, but there’s enough to suggest that the societal issues presented in these worlds are intended to reflect our own history, rather than just invent new conflicts.

Further complicating matters is the fact that series like this tend to have compelling female characters in amongst the swathes of irrelevant, often scantily-clad ones. Martin has Daenerys Targaryen, and Arya Stark, and Cersei Lannister; The Witcher has the sorceresses Philippa Eilhart and Triss Merigold, and the fearsome queen/dragon Saskia. Each one of these is affected by the misogynistic culture they live in, but never quite charismatically suppressed - they have the freedom to develop into characters despite the world around them.

I question the strength of the reasoning that sexism in dark fantasy is a reflection of the history it parallels. First and foremost, there seems to be a little authorial glee in misogyny - there’s a sequence early on in The Witcher 2 that presents a trio of rapists as comic characters, and it’s revolting to play through.

There’s also the fact that Geralt has the unique video game opportunity to insert his penis into a number of the female characters, including a vast array of sex workers, who are often rendered with uncannily similar faces and identical animations. While some of these women will have a character roughly outlined, a good proportion are little more than crudely-textured breasts and a few awkward-sounding moans. Likewise, in the TV adaptation of Game of Thrones, naked women are often thrown into a scene to titillate the viewer, to the point where nudity in HBO shows has become the subject of parody.

When there’s this much capitulation to the world being presented - when the everyday men on the street are rendered with complex identities and the women have a tendency to spout vaguely flirtatious nonsense and nothing else - it lends credence to the idea that the sexism is there because it’s easy for the author to write, rather than existing as a serious comment on our own history. There are points where this assertion becomes tenuous - especially when female characters become the subject of non-sexual admiration, or have agency that doesn’t depend on the efforts of a related male character - but it’s strong enough to merit consideration.

At times, it’s as if dark fantasy writers like Martin and Sapkowski are taking their idea of darkness from stand-up comedy open mic nights, where the idea of taking no prisoners often ends up translating to punching down as often and as hard as possible. There’s a casualness and an incredible frequency to the way that awful people are granted a voice in this sort of media that suggests the authors are doing so more to inject some idea of societal colour. The presence of misogyny becomes just another brushstroke, rather than a thought-out facet.

There is going to be a third Witcher game. A little while back, the design document was leaked, along with this prompt:

We talk to Keira Metz and she gives us a task: remove the curse from the tower in the swamps. (Boob physics eye candy, appropriately prepared dialogue).

When I see stuff like this, I feel exasperated rather than outraged, but above all it confirms my suspicions - in worlds like this, titillation is as much a part of narrative intention as it is about the fantasy society itself.