Dave Cullen – Columbine

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You can look at the story of Columbine and think it’s just a bunch of whiny, privileged white males. That’s okay. People write off people’s troubles in similar ways. As we know, black people are less intelligent and cultured, so who cares what’s going on in Africa?

The world is full of stories. People murder and cause terrorist attacks all the time and it’s not something I feel comfortable reading. The purpose of the storyteller is to extract the meaning out of it. This book is not just the recounting of the events in Columbine and what came after/before. It’s a gigantic argument why the story even matters in the first place. Cullen does an amazing job. No scene is without purpose. No scene exists only to spout details. Each detail has insight into another topic. Like the best non-fiction, Columbine is more about other subjects than its title.

Cullen dispels two big, contrasting myths. There’s the ‘psycho villain’ myth, and the ‘revenge of the nerds’ myth. The truth is actually somewhere in between, or at least split between the killers. The truth was, Columbine Massacre was instigated by a single person.

The writings about psychopathy here are integral. Psychopathy was the cause of the massacre, and also what people miss. People believe in Just World and want to believe that moral people are also good social presence. If someone’s charismatic and hot, then he cannot be bad. However, the fat dude who sends you a message on Facebook is a creep. Such a world is ordered, easy to navigate and we know what to fear.

Psychopaths blow it apart. The true danger isn’t the socially inept person. He’s too timid and his doors are blocked. In order for him to cause social crime, he first needs to become a part of society. Psychopaths are the most desirable people. They’re aces in imitating social cues and personalities but they have no good intentions. They don’t even have empathy.

In truth, there’s nothing like ‘what a killer/rapist/thief’ look like. People who want to deliberately harm – and psychopaths do – need to conceal themselves. How else can a rapist do his crime, if he can’t convince his victim to trust them in an isolated setting? Eric Harris was successful. Women loved him. When he apologized, everyone was convinced. He knew exactly how to hint about the killing to see who’s on board. People couldn’t believe Eric would do it because of his social skills, but his high social skills are directly related to his lack of empathy which pushed him to massacre. It’s a bizarre thing. The most dangerous people are designed to look benign.

What’s ironic is during all the time leading to Columbine, it was Dylan who got the most flak. Dylan was only in it to kill himself. The journals are up online if you want to read it. Dylan was soaked in self-loathing. His character was truly tragic. While I’m not excusing what Dylan did, he’s perhaps just as a victim as the others. He barely even shoot during the massacre. His depressive state and feelings of powerlessness made him an easy target for a psychopath needing an accomplice. Harris provided him a way out. Psychopaths are hard to stop, but what if someone reached out to Dylan before?

This situation reveals something dark about our society. It’s caused by our overall preference for socially skilled people over everything. Yes, this would happen again. In the end, what we want are people who can act like Harris. We want charismatic people who can lead, who look good and can tell jokes. Dylan may have been almost innocent, but socially he’s useless. What’s there to do with a depressive suicidal? Speaking from an evolutionary standpoint, we will always support Harris over Dylan. Harris can navigate social situations gracefully, and for a social animal nothing is more important.

Aside from the killer’s psych, the book reveals the many shades of tragedies with multiple victims. Not everyone comes out the same. The stories of survivors, or the bereaved, are vastly different. Cullen tells the story they deserve with empathy. After such a tragedy, you need a spotlight on your unique position. No matter how many suffered with you, your misery is still real. Lumping it up with everyone else is insulting.

It’s also a story of media, and how the way we report events affect their influence. For those who are interested in media studies, this is essential. The parts about the eyewitnesses’ unreliability are fantastic. Such tragic stories have a stronger demand for precise details. These situations, by their nature, confuse us and we need every information we can have to understand them. The intensity of these situation also leads to confused memory. It’s almost funny how people thought there are multiple killers. One person saw Dylan & Eric with trenchcoats. Then they took off and a different person saw them.

An important arc is the story of Cassie, the supposed martyr. Initially it was reported she claimed to believe in God right before being shot. In reality this exchanged happened with a different student who survived. Yet people were quick to believe Cassie’s story and stuck to it even once the truth goes out. It goes to show you what kind of moral responsbility the media has. The reporting of this story affected lives. A survivor in trauma who needed her story told has been pushed aside while everyone lives in a lie.

I don’t think the conclusion of this book was that tragedy was inevitble, that Eric and Dylan were pure evil and we’re all victims. What makes the book so dark is that it shows how badly we function when tragedy strikes. Aside from the aforementioned psychopathy, there’s a coverup, ganging up on parents without knowing why and a parent who becomes a ranting anti-abortion activists. If anything, it’s almost fatalist. What could we do? We’re only human. Why disclose that we could’ve prevented it, and put us in harm’s way?

Cullen’s prose is sometimes too fiction-esque. Writing a non-fiction book like a fiction one, with dialogue boxes makes it look silly. The author wasn’t there, and if he were he could only have this exactness if he recorded it. I prefer writing as summary, since that’s the only thing you can do. Cullen’s prose is also precise enough to let it slide. He’s fantastic in choosing the right details. Physical descriptions never enter. Instead, it’s all about the people and what they did. I know a lot of people who say they can’t read a book without understanding the physical reality of it. Here, Cullen wrote a powerful story by only describing the people in it.

Some will write this off and say it’s just two white privileged white kids. Perhaps, but perhaps underneath every school shooting or underneath every crime rests a story like this. The difference is, we had a lot of cameras on the scene. Columbine is important because of what it tells us about us – that, yes, this will happen again. As social animals, we’ll always take Eric Harris above others. We’ll tell stories that make us feel good – our son is a martyr, they were just evil villains, they were just bullied kids. Cullen does have answers, they’re just incredibly pessimistic.

4 out of 5

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Haruki Murakami – A Wild Sheep Chase

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Murakami created a unique niche in literature. He’s been called un-Japanese, but there’s something distinctive about him that separates him from his influence. He borrowed Western literature’s tough, rugged nature. Carver doesn’t just loom over his literature. You can feel him sitting behind Murakami as he writes. His novels also contain a fantastical nature that’s uncommon in Western fantasy – the bizarre, surreal events are far more similar to anime.

It’s a long road to such a distinctive, versatile style. Murakami kept his first novels from being translated worldwide because he found them the work of an inexperienced author who wasn’t ready. The result is the bizarre situations where A Wild Sheep Chase – the last of the trilogy – is the only one published worldwide. Based on Murakami’s words, it should’ve remained unavailable.

It’s far from a bad book, but it screams ‘inexperience’. There are first novels which show their authors’ age – think Fight Club and Less Than Zero in their minimalism – but they also have a firm grip on their style. Ellis’ novel was skeletal, but he had a small enough aim that fit. Moreover, he knew exactly what he was making. Murakami doesn’t. He mostly tries to get away from Carver’s influence while paying him tribute.

The two styles Murakami tries to play with here are opposites. Carver deals with the ordinary, with the so mundane that his stories and characters blur togehter. His writing reflects that with how straightforward it is, but the result is something not resembling storytelling but poetry. He creates an intimacy with his situation because of how direct he is. Anything strange is the opposite of his literature.

Murakami’s fantasy aims for the bizarre. In contrast to the worldbuilding-obsessed West, the world in the novel is one where anything can happen. The key to doing this right is to make sure the bizarre events appear in rhythm, and have different levels of weirdness. You’ll get things that seem ludicrous but somehow possible like a girl with an extremely attractive ears. Then you’d get something that’s out of place in a realist novel – like a shadow organization controlling everything. At last something completely fantastical happens, like a spirit sheep.

Just because these two styles are opposite doesn’t mean they can be merged. Murakami did it later, but here he can’t. He doesn’t really try. The novel jumps from one style to another. Whenever it settles into one, it tries to make the best of it. It never tries to find the connection between the two.

The result feels dishonest and self-centered. Adding something a new element to a familiar style isn’t enough. If the new element doesn’t affect how the style works, then what have you done? Moreover, Murakami doesn’t so much tell a story as he exercises his style. Showing off what the writing can do is nice, but that’s not a story and you need to be a great author (and a lot less pages) to make a stylistic exercise work.

When he imitates Carver, he does nothing but makes me glad I’m reading something like Carver. I have pretty much all of Carver’s bibliography on my shelf and some followers who took his style to new directions (like the aforementioned Easton Ellis). Why would I want to read a copy? Worse, it’s often a caricature. The nameless protagonist is apathetic towards everything. It’s not just the writing, but he describes all his interactions with apathy and treats them like they don’t mean anything.

Easton Ellis tried to do this, but he explored a specific lifestyle. The apathy was contrasted with the hardcore partying. When Ellis wrote this, he wrote with full conviction – the writing so apathetic he crammed many events into one sentence but the events themselves were both ridiculous and not very different from each other. Apathy in this novel doesn’t mean anything. The protagonist feels alone, but why? What does it say about loneliness? What his journey have to do with loneliness?

As for the fantastical part, it’s cowardly. As an attempt to revamp the hardboiled pulp detective thing, it’s unconvincing. The mystery isn’t exactly related to crime, but the protagonist doesn’t actually try to solve it. Rather, answers drop on him from the sky. Twice his girlfriend provides a quest arrow. Her ability ends up a little meaningless. It may have something to do with how our protagonist needs her, needs anyone because his loneliness is suffocating but you don’t see it. Loneliness is there, but its effect isn’t showing.

Although the protagonist moves from place to place, every situation is the same. Paragraphs full of apathetic writings about eating and drinking and occasionally having sex are the result. Unlike the master minimalists, Murakami is bad at choosing what details to include. When Ellis piled them on, it was because the abundance was meaningful. Carver simply stripped everything that didn’t matter. What our protagonists eats exactly, what is in the room exactly isn’t important. There’s no reason for an RPG-like description of a room once the protagonist enters. Describe the couch when it comes important.

What carries the novel is the seeds of Murakami’s potential. He may not know what to do exactly with these two styles, but their combination is intriguing. The story is bizarre enough, and while the writing is inexperienced it’s not horrible. The unnecessary details occasionally appear but not too much. If the events don’t gel together very well, they’re at least memorable on their own – a completely ordinary girl with extremely attractive ears? A professor obsessed with sheep? These type of ideas are things Murakami would later work with in his short stories with better results.

One lone highlight is when our protagonist stares at an office building. His describes what goes on, what each person does but he can never understand what the purpose of the office actually is. It’s either a statement about how uniform, dull and caging office work is or an expression of the protagonist’s loneliness and inability to connect. If Carver wrote this scene, he’d mine it for a brilliant short story.

Compared to other works by Murakami, it’s much worse. It shows its age and Murakami’s youth, but also his potential. If I read this without knowing about his later works, I could easily imagine him making something fantastic like Hard-Boiled Wonderland. There’s a unique mind at work who chooses his influence rather than throw everything. He just didn’t find an idea to express here.

2.5 wild sheep out of 5

The Three Types of Suicide Prevention

Since I’m an asher, I obviously object to suicide prevention. I find it to be a violation of bodily autonomy. It is taking someone else’s death and cancelling it, as if it were your own. Pushing yourself to the edge, overriding survival instincts is very hard. Once a person manages to do that, stopping them by force is condemning them to a miserable existence they don’t want.

But suicide prevention, like many things, comes in different forms. These are the three main types I’ve seen. They are all fairly immoral, but some are more than others.

1. Suicide Prevention by Force

This is the cruelest of all types. It shares similarities with rape and murder. ‘By force’ means in a prettier language, ‘rescuing someone from suicide’. Suicide prevention by force is holding back a person from jumping, taking away the gun when they aim it, stopping a suffocation process. When the person is already in the process of dying, intervening is cruel. Surviving an attempt is a traumatic experience. The person will have to live on with the memories of it. Surviving some methods will lead to permanent damage (Especially in suffocation methods). Not only that, but preparing the method and doing it is a lot of hard work. By stopping it, you throw all that work in the trash.

Most importantly, this type of prevention doesn’t address the underlying causes of suicide. It’s not about helping the person with what drives them to die. It’s merely about keeping them alive. If you ever used force in order to stop a suicide, you’re a horrible person.

2. Direct Suicide Prevention

This type of suicide prevention is fairly immoral, but not as harmful as Type I. Whereas Type I should be considered a crime, Type II is merely being an inconsiderate moron.

The mistake many people make is that suicidal people don’t want to die. They think that deep down inside suicidal people want to live and want help finding a reason to go on. Some people are like this. Death, for them, isn’t a desired choice but just the better of two evils. If they can, they will avoid it.

Many suicidal people don’t think this way. Death is something they’re excited about, it’s a liberating thought. Telling people that they shouldn’t die is pointless. There is a whole arsenal of argument why suicide is valid. In the end, unless you can prove non-existence isn’t better than existence, you cannot stop a suicide.

Moreover, telling people they shouldn’t die changes the conversation. It’s no longer about the suicidal person, but about the people left behind. Everyone knows suicide hurts everyone around, but that’s not the suicidal’s problems. If life is as good as you say it is, you will get over this grief.

Suicide is already stigmatized, and Type II reinforces it. It doesn’t matter how much you say ‘we need to talk about suicide’. The mere fact you reject suicide as a valid option makes you hostile. It means you disregard the person’s bodily autonomy and basic rights, that you don’t respect their choices. Groups like ASH and Sanctioned Suicide exists to get away from these people. You cannot talk people out of dying because people who are against suicide are one reason people commit suicide.

This isn’t helpful. We don’t need who you think you are. It’s pointless to talk someone out of dying when they don’t consider dying a bad thing, when life is more harmful to them.

3. Indirect Suicide Prevention

This is the type of suicide prevention that is moral. In fact, it actually benefits everyone.

Indirect suicide prevention is attempting to build a society that won’t drive people to kill themselves. Building a society that makes people want to stay won’t guarantee people won’t exit, but it be better for everyone.

Attempts to build such a society are varied. Some focus on reaching out to mentally ill people, helping them with their depression, anxiety, trauma and other things. Some focus on creating a more communal lifestyle. Some help with the economical problems. Either way, building a welcoming society is the only moral way to try to prevent suicide. Even if a person still exits, such a society will be able to provide support to those left behind.

It’s important to note that perhaps assisted suicide is necessary in such a society. A society that accepts suicide as a valid option actually welcomes suicidal people, instead of alienating them. It doesn’t push them over the edge and gives them full agency. It’s possible that by accepting suicide, you can actually lower them.

Of course, all these types exist on a scale and what people do is somewhere on them. A person who talks to a jumper on the Golden Gate bridge is between Type I and Type II – an asshole, but not a criminal. Look at this and think what you’re doing, and how you talk to suicidal people. It’s possible that all this time you were encouraging them to die by telling them not to die.

You cannot, and should not, prevent suicide. Suicide prevention is selfish. True selflessness is helping a person go through with it despite how much it hurts you. If you find this odd, wait until someone bullies you or gaslights you. Unless you’ve been to Sanctioned Suicide or A.S.H., you haven’t spoken with suicidal people honestly.

Theodore Dreiser – An American Tragedy

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“intermingled and furnished it in some nondescript manner which need hardly be described.”

I dare you to find a funnier joke in all of history of the world. Only Robert Jordan’s death can compete with this. Theodore Dreiser overwrites like no other, and he is telling us twice that something is nondescript and there shouldn’t be described. I don’t know whether it’s a moment of self-awareness, or whether it’s definitive proof there was no editor.

You better laugh, because An American Tragedy is a heavy novel. It’s heavy in every sense of the word. The book is long. The writing is dense, overwritten, everything is repeated and reptition is everywhere. The subject matter is the same, the nature of crime and ambition and other big topics about life. The psychology is just as deep, with Dreiser refusing to cast anyone as pure evil.

Dreiser does the impossible here. Authors write great books by sticking to principles of good writing. They each have their own unique spin, but you can draw general rules that these books have in common.

Dreiser breaks every conventional rule. The end of the novel is obvious from the title. The writing is the worst you can find. I can never say enough how Dreiser overwrites. Plenty of things get described and every thought in the characters’ heads is spelled out for us. Dreiser never shows but always tells. The novel is just one psychoanalysis of his characters, but he doesn’t even give us the privilege of letting us do the hard work. He shows both the evidence and the conclusions.

Good thing that Dreiser can back it up. The reason all the overwriting is forgiven is because Dreiser has too much to say. By trying to show the story rather than tell it, he would have lost of the information he wanted to convey.

Is it the easy way out? I don’t know. Showing this story means writing a lot less. By telling everything, Dreiser has to grapple with his ideas head-on. An American Tragedy may be a busy novel, but it has clear themes you can follow. It also has an abundance of them.

It feels so epic, yet the story itself is simple. You could probably tell it in 5 pages. The thing is, what makes literature remarkable is less what happens. The meaning behind it counts far more. That’s why we can tell stories of rise and fall until the heat death of the universe and we don’t get sick of them because they each have different themes.

I doubt many of them can hold a candle to Dreisser’s work. He was blessed with the unique ability of reading minds. That’s the only way to explain the characters. They feel real because they’re each understandable. There’s a murderer, but there’s no villain. By the end, the reverend who constantly begs for mercy isn’t just the character but Dreisser itself.

Weren’t oracles always portrayed as being greatly affected by their visions? This novel shows how understanding the human mind can affect a person. Dreisser doesn’t just overwrite. He wrestles with the tragedy of the human condition. I know this is a huge word and it makes me sound pretentious (and a white straight male). How else to describe this novel, though?

We puny humans are always in conflict. All of us think we’re right. The man who can cure cancer, the soldier who kills a terrorist, Ian Watkins abusing kids, the person who prevents suicides and the suicidal person all sure that their worldview is current. They also all come in conflict. Now, when you only thing your side is right it’s easy. Just keep attacking the other side no matter what. What do you do when you can understand everyone? What do you do when you see both the selfishness of heroics and altruism of it? What do you do when you understand a cruel murderer but can’t ignore the pleas of the victims?

These questions always pop in the novel. American Tragedy is confusing not because of silly things, like ‘it could mean anything’ or because you can’t understand what’s going on. It’s confusing like real life is confusing. There are no shades of grey. It’s one whole kaleidoscope. Dreiser has some answers. Clyde is definitely guilty, but beyond that Dreiser leaves us with questions and keeps us wondering.

While it’s a tragic novel, it’s not a depressing one. A novel that tries hard to understand everyone isn’t a product of a nihilist. It’s a product of someone who loves humanity. Love is a problem like it is a blessing. Like Clyde, Dreiser is trapped between people because of his love for them. Unlike Clyde, Dreiser is trapped between more than just two women and he’s unsure who to choose. Seeing how much compassion he writes this novel with, it only inspires me to be as compassionate to others like Dreiser is to his characters.

Be careful when starting this. The novel takes time to read. The langauge is complex. The paragraphs are long and the plot is very slow. It also took me about 90 pages before I got used to the writing style. It might be inaccessible, but it’s well worth the effort. The novel wouldn’t work if it wasn’t so clogged with Dreiser’s own thoughts on his characters. That’s how he reveals to us all the grey areas in the novel.

As inaccessible and hard to read as it is, I’d recommend to everyone. If literature is about enriching our understanding of ourselves, then this is definitive literature. It loses a few points for dragging, but as difficult as it is I know I will return to it someday.

5 murders out of 5

Markus Zusak – The Book Thief

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Do we need another Holocaust story?

The Holocaust was horrible. I doubt anyone will argue otherwise. Even those who claim it was nothing special are redundant. No massacre was as systematic and well-organized as this. The Holocaust comes with built-in emotional appeals, so you can’t blame me for being skeptic about The Book Thief. The fact that it’s for Young Adults, became popular and is narrated by Death makes everything worse. It looks like something that aims for the heart strings. It will manipulate you with tragedy and then give you some easy answer.

Only it’s not what happens. This is more like Fault in Our Stars. It’s a novel that feels like the result of harrowing research. Zusak writes like he’s trying to cope with believing that the Age of Social Catastrophe really happened. It’s not about a Holocaust. It’s about trying to come to terms with how reality shifted since WWII.

It was a nightmare. The Nazis, Pol Pot, the Russian Communism, the War – it sounds like an extinction event. It must’ve shook everyone. How does civilization continue from such a devastating event?

Zusak creates a character whose own story could somehow encompass this mess. His protagonist isn’t a Jew or a slave in the Gulag. This would make his book too specific. She’s also not a person from the highest echelon of society, for whom death was a complete shocker. Liesel is somewhere in the middle. She knows what death is and she knows what happiness is. She doesn’t know what so much death is.

Zusak wants to prod into what grief is. He’s trying to come to terms with it and while the story doesn’t rely on ass-pulled happy endings, it’s less dark than Green’s famous novel about cancer. People die and bad stuff happens, but Zusak’s attempts at staying optimism aren’t convincing. They sound like denial of tragedy rather than confronting it.

Hans’ character is the worst bit. He’s like Atticus, remaining moral and good-willing no matter how terrible things are. We don’t get a reason why he’s like this. He’s an angelic figure at reads more like Zusak convincing himself that there were good Germans,

You don’t need Jew-loving Germans to make us sympathize with them. A bolder move would be to show us the German who either bought into Nazism, or just cared only about his own skin. This would be harder to do, but more insightful. Zusak already chose to tell the story about Germans and not Jews, for a change. Despite all their power, the Nazis were the losers and their story wasn’t heard. The novel reminds us that there was more in that time period besides dying Jews and the assholes who ran the camps.

Hans is better than Atticus, though. Around the middle Zusak lets him fall like he should. In fact, Zusak puts a lot of characters through breakdowns and allows each to have his own way of coping. He doesn’t manage to create a convincing enough psychology. His characters are too quirky. They stick to their quirks rather than reveal new things about their personality. Still, he gives each of them their own way of coping. It’s hard to write a convincing psychology, but an honest attempt gives extra points.

He also avoids the trope of showing a happy life that’s followed by a tragedy. That’s easy to do. Zusak’s Himmel Street isn’t a happy world of quirky people who are happy despite being poor. It’s a world of ups and downs, childish fights, hunger and friendship. It’s often disconnected from the big story of WWII but isn’t that the point? While war goes on, people are trying to live as usual.

It’s also interesting to see a 21st century view of war applied to WWII. There are no heroes and villains in this war. It’s just people doing their job. People are afraid of bombs, but don’t care much who they’re fighting against. War is ugly, regardless of which side you on. Thankfully, Zusak doesn’t take the leap to conclude there’s a grand conspiracy at works. He avoids ranting about fat white men smoking cigars, planning to bomb children for their own amusement.

His take on Hitler though, is a mess. He obscures his view in a children’s book. It’s either a cop-out or a clever way of saying how childish it is to paint Hitler as some senseless bad guy. There are some philosophizing about words, but they don’t lead to anywhere. Books are pretty important, words have power but is war the result of the failure of words? Or can war be caused by and solved by words? Zusak knows that portraying the Nazis as hating books is a straw man. Mein Kampf is their Bible. Where does he draw the line? He raises questions but never explores them enough to help me come to answer of my own. It’s just there.

While the idea of Death narrating the story is pretty cool, it’s also not used to its advantage. Death’s tone is interesting. Current Western society (and a lot of cultures in general) despise death and view it as the most terrible thing. Check the panic around the idea that everyone has the right to die. Death’s tone is not cruel but almost detached. It’s a sad inevitability that we must accept.

There’s not much insight beyond this. Death is a psychopomp, but not much else. It’s not even a new spin. The problem is that death is presented as this general thing. There are various causes of death and we treat each of them differently. It would be better if Zusak used this to make Death more complex. Suicide, war, old age – we react differently to those deaths. Digimon Tamers gave us an original spin by personoficating suicide specifically. Zusak had a chance to portray all kinds of deaths, but instead it’s monolithic.

The stylized prose also doesn’t always work. Zusak knows what he wants. He’s trying to be poetic by creating a rhythm and separaitng paragraphs. His descriptions are sensual and not precise. Cliches still attack him. The weather is always mentioned, which is such a redundant technique that it doesn’t matter how much purpose it has. The poetic style also often leads to more telling than showing. While there are interesting reactions to disaster, in general the characters don’t have enough to do. We’re being told about them, and they end up more quirky than humane.

It would’ve worked if Zusak was more determined what kind of book this was. If the whole thing was supposed to be pseudo-poetic all the way, then the occasional ‘manipulative’ moment could be excused. If your whole story is one large poem, everything will probably be exaggarated and an angelic figure like Hans would be easier to swallow. Too often the poetic stylings cover up the characters instead of revealing them.

It’s an interesting enough book that doesn’t justify the hype, but doesn’t deserve to be lumped as another brain-dead best seller. It resorts to failed tricks as much as it has original ideas. It reads more like an interesting experiment by a writer who has a great book in him, rather than a hack who can only pull the heart strings. Hopefully, the sales will make Zusak take his craft more seriously.

3 stolen books out of 5

Psycho-Pass

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Criminals who babble philosophically will always be present in fiction. It’s an acknowledgement that mere sadism isn’t enough. Even if a person is a sadist, there is more going on than plain cruelty there. If we can answer what makes a man start fires, maybe we won’t need fire extinguishers. Too often these stories are too fascinated with the idea of the underdog taking revenge at society. He may lose, but awareness that he’s wrong doesn’t make it any less of an escapist fantasy.

The person’s actions should follow his worldview. If they contradict that, then this contradiction must be addressed. People are messy so of course they will contradict themselves. If they do so in the story, it’s because the author made it so. If he made it so, he needs to connect it. Don’t put contradictions where they don’t belong. People don’t always contradict themselves.

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There’s a scene where Makishima gets into a fight and we see he’s a professional. It’s like before he went to star in Psycho-Pass, he stopped at Naruto and learned the ways of the ninja. I was supposed to be impressed, though. Not only is Makishima pretty and can predict people’s actions, he’s a champion at MMA.

It’s hilarious. It reminded me how Lisbeth solve an equation in the middle of the climatic fight. It’s so easy to give your character skills. You just look up the cheat codes, write the lines that say “add 50 points to Melee Skill” and you’re done.

Just because your character is skilled at a lot of things doesn’t mean the author is skilled. Character skills are often substitutes for personality. Makishima is your stereotypical Pseudo-Philosophical Villain. Forget about how the series quotes a lot of books. None of Makishima’s speeches are related to his actions.

All of his actions involve death and destruction. He gives people who want to hurt others the means to do so. When Makishima does something of his own, it’s also to cause hurt. The dominating theme is hurting others. He gives them the freedom to hurt others, but that’s as far as it goes.

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For freedom to be a theme, it needs to be expressed in different ways. The only freedom people gain is to hurt others. The violence is more varied. The characters include a bullied man, a girl sucked in her art and a person who loves the thrill of the hunt.

Makishima is not very differernt from the Jigsaw Killer. Despite talking about appreciating life, his traps were so dangerous (some can’t be complete without somebody dying) that it’s obvious he doesn’t value these people’s lives. Makishima babbles about freedom and the prison of the Sybil System, but he’s fine with killing an innocent person. There’s no worse way of ripping freedom from someone than killing them.

It’s all shock value without substance. The result is entertaining at first, but goes downhill fast. The anime goes south when it expected me to stare at a helpless, half-naked woman begging for mercy and take the villain seriously. It’s not dark, because true darkness is understandable. A villain whose motives we can comprehand and find reasonable is scarier.

If Makishima tells people to live free or die, how much of a choice is it?

What a shame. The series never chose whether it was a thoughtful story or a wild, exciting one. Either of these would’ve been fine. Being pretentious is the valley between the two.

The other side of the horseshoe fares better. The Sybil System is questioned, but it never becomes a strawman. The System is totalitarian, but it’s not an evil regime bent on oppressing everyone so the protagonist will have something to fight. Every system of government comes to power because it benefits someone.

The System doesn’t just benefit the Rich & Powerful. It benefits the simple people. The society has order, but it’s good order that leaves a lot of room for joy and wonder. Creativity may be restricted, but creativity isn’t everything. The artist may want to draw violence and the rocker wants to tell everyone to fuck off. Some would prefer to have a steady job and enough money to go for drinks with their friends.

The System also presents an alternative moral system to current society. We live in a society that praises people for getting money, having a lot of sex and being physically fit. Somehow all these promises of sex and money don’t prevent the high rates of suicide. So Sybil is not very friendly towards outcasts and has less room for creativity, but what if it’s a price worth paying for mental health?

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It’s a society where you see advertisements for ways to improve your mental health. Everyone is talking about their Hue and Psycho-Pass. If you think this is going too far, then take a look at our own society. We do the same only for physical health. Physical health is a giant industry of protein shakes, gyms and promises of social status.

No system exists without its outcasts, and Sybil has its own. Only how it casts out people isn’t so different than ours. We rage against models who aren’t stick-thin, as if being fat is a moral offense. Later, we’ll hang out with sexual harassers just because they’re charismatic. Sybil is harsh to the mentally ill, but forgets about the actions.

For a    series where mental health is a big issue, it’s surprising how lacking it is in character development. A flashback tries to develop one character. All it tells us is that she used to play guitar. Why did she take a different road than her friend? Why are their worldviews so different?

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Akane gets some development, but she’s an archetype they play with rather than a psychological portrait. Ginoza is slightly better, but everyone else spits exposition without modifying it. There’s a wild card, a bisexual analyst, a cliched noir dude who remains tough and an old geezer. Their personalities clash more than your average detective story, but there aren’t even hints towards a psychology they didn’t have time to develop.

Psycho-Pass has interesting ideas and a pretty fun story, but it has Makishima. It’s a pin in the tire that let all the air out. The ideas are too undeveloped and there aren’t enough of them to make up for this. It’s not a case of a series that’s too short, but a series that focuses on the less interesting parts.

3 dominators out of 5

Focus (2015)

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Focus is a pretty meta film. Like the characters, it walks a very thin line. It’s never clear what it wants. It’s always on the verge of either fucking up big time or a major success. The end result is similar to the character’s end. They haven’t hit the bottom, but it looks pretty bad compared to the peaks.

The beginning is promising. Nicky (Will Smith) seems desperate to try to prove to us how cool he is, but the filmmakers know the life of crime isn’t that glamorous. Jess (Margot Elise) shows the humanity of her character so much that her good looks move to the back.

The traits of the characters drive the story. It may be about con artists and big money schemes, but the twists and turns aren’t as prominent as the characters’ reactions and relationships. Nicky is a jaded, borderline nihilistic person who cons only because he got nothing else to. Jess is a woman so excited by the thrill of theft that she could easily lose herself. There are a few key scenes which focus on schemes and whether or not they’ll fail. The intensity comes not from just wondering what the outcome will be, but how it will affect the characters.

The film doesn’t always go in that direction though. The most powerful scene is ruined by a monologue desperately trying to convince how cool Nicky is. It’s just a string of events less probable than Elvis Presley landing with his alien friends. They also fail at the climax. Instead of putting the characters face to face with being, for a change, out of control it hands it back to them at the last minute. It may be a clever twist, but it’s a cop out that prevents us from getting close to the characters.

There’s also a terrible, Tarantino-inspired soundtrack full of songs that tell you how cool these characters are because they’re, y’know, big time criminals in a film. The characters are in a constant state of paranoia and fear. They’re not glamorous criminals who smoke a cigar and suddenly their enemies die. Focus shows us the humanity of these people. The soundtrack wants to drown it out.

The soundtrack, coupled with the conclusions to a few great scenes try to negate this. It may seem clever to put such songs in what’s a pretty paranoid film, but this ‘contrast’ has been run to the ground. We get it. The soundtrack doesn’t match the emotions the character feel. When does this cliche keeps appearing because filmmakers are just awful at music? There isn’t an obvious antidote to this. It’s not like half the soundtrack is Front Line Assembly and Nine Inch Nails track. That would’ve made a bipolar soundtrack that expresses exactly how the characters feel. With nothing to contrast the coolness, the soundtrack is there just to drown out the humanity.

The attempts at making this another glamorization of criminals only prevents it from being a great film. The climax is less of a cop out than they hinted, and Smith’s and Elise’s great performances are enough to push the crappy soundtrack in the back. It’s not a brilliant film, but these are 104 entertaining minutes that show you that you don’t have to dumb down in order to make a fun, satisfying film.

3 stolen watches out of 5