Jocko Benoit's Writing and Pop Culture Spot

Perspectives on the arts and popular culture from Jocko (Jacques) Benoit. Scattered thoughts on poetry, books, film, television, and other cultural intersections.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

New Website

Well, the new website is finally up.  Like this horse, I'm now master of my own domain.  Hopefully, I'll soon be adding to my blog as well.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Your Roll Brings You To A Door That Seems To Lead To the Perimeter of the Game Itself: In Memory of Gary Gygax

I’ve been away from this blog for a long time, and it’s sad that it takes a death to bring me back. Gary Gygax, the inventor of Dungeons & Dragons, godfather of the role-playing game, and stepfather of the computer game, died Tuesday at the age of 69.

What he meant to the gaming industry is all too well understood by gamers themselves. His work revitalized the imaginations of game designers and of players who now didn’t always have a board, although there was an explosion of dice dimensions and colors. And nothing was black and white in D&D. As any dungeon master knows, there could be twenty sides to every argument, although the DM’s side was the only winning one. But Gygax didn’t reduce gaming to mere math – there was a sense of theatre for the players and the DM, and a sense of flexibility - the DM was like a good DJ just trying to keep the game flowing along in a way that seemed fair.

To observers, D&D seemed like a group of people having an argument over an airy nothing at best, or a group of obsessed or even possessed children feverishly carrying out Satan’s bidding. But time has proven that the airy nothing could become quite profitable when numbers married Tolkien and gave birth to trillions of rampant pixels populating legions of video games. (As for Satan, well, word is he’s still leering over millions of feverishly obsessed video gamers.)

But for me the implications go beyond money. My dual interests for much of my life have been creative ventures such as poetry, theatre, movies, TV and playful ventures such as sports and games. Maybe that’s why I have these fantasies about my two worlds coming together more and more in the future. After all, Gygax, as I’ve said, brought theatre into gaming. The first step was to imagine the world one was gaming in. The next step has been to navigate it on a small or now increasingly big screen and to interact with the very movie-like stories. And filmmakers are paying attention to video games, going after licenses and converting famous games into albeit less famous movies. And game designers are conceiving of increasingly more cinematic games - the blockbuster Halo series being just one example of many.

No, I’m not going to say that the future belongs to games. But I will argue that there is a strong gaming element to all that has come before in terms of cultural activities. Consider the poet who has often used metre (numbers) and form (genre) to lead the reader through one or more emotional states and to consider a new way of looking at the world embodied in the construct of the poem. Is this anything less than a kind of game played with the reader? Oh sure, people will tell you that they hate it when a writer manipulates them (like a game designer giving you only a handful of simplistic options), but the truth is that every work of art is manipulative. The only time we see through the game is when it is a game we don’t like. The other games we are perfectly willing to play.

That’s why I can look at a movie like Super Size Me and yawn – at least partly because I’m an avid McDonald’s guest, and also because I’ve heard the same tired and ill-considered arguments about eating right for far too long. But many intellectuals found the movie compelling and insightful even though they would (almost) never set foot in a McDonald’s restaurant and are already well aware of the ‘facts’ the movie is simply reinforcing. They like this game and so they play it with enthusiasm, suspending their pre-beliefs, just like children being told stories again and again even though they know how they end.

All I’m saying is that the boundary between serious art and frivolous gaming is less rigid than many would like to think. But the stories we tell in our art and in our games have many similarities and Gygax tapped into elemental fears of enclosed places and monsters and evil bosses to give us stories that we could walk into as more or less ourselves or as a character we don’t like to admit is a part of who we are. I prefer to play rogues, for example, despite my gleaming veneer of innocence. And one sweet girl I knew opted to play D&D for the first time whispered to me that she really wanted to play an assassin. Gygax was, in a way, the Freud of gaming, leading us deeper into our imaginations and our psyches, all without our being aware the dungeon we were navigating was inside ourselves.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Cheating On Poetry

It had to happen after all these years. I mean before poetry there had been short fiction. And even after I committed to poetry I would sometimes wander off to write an occasional story or maybe even lose a couple of weeks with a screenplay. Poetry wasn’t possessive. It would often show up unannounced and distract me from work. It would come to me in the shower or in those wispy waking moments.

I guess things started to slide a few years ago when I realized that no matter how hard or how often I tried, publishers would never accept my relationship with poetry. I was an interloper not good enough for their prized daughter. No matter that poetry still came to me and so often resurrected all those old feelings, I would put down the pen and the brief high from writing would pass more quickly than it used to. Were we just star-crossed?

Lately I’ve taken up with photography and I’ve been feeling those things that were once commonplace with poetry – the sense of time rushing by, the giddiness at doing something that seems irresponsible and even bad. The ideas for new pictures keep coming and there’s always a place like Flickr where I can post my latest work and get some feedback. Photography (especially digital) is so immediate, whereas with poetry I can’t really get a sense of a poem until I’ve introduced it to an audience at a reading.

Am I upset with poetry to be doing something like this? I don’t think so. I’m upset with a publishing industry that is too narrow-minded, too anxious that poetry be protected like some nature preserve or the silence at a memorial service. Like any other relationship, so much depends on the family.

Meanwhile, all I can think about these days is when I’ll have my next chance to take some pictures – to get at photography’s buttons and peel veils of light from the ever-so-shy day.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Benoit - the Web Contagion

Just a quick note to let you know that my two poetry teasers and my first ever poetry video are now posted on YouTube.

And my photographs now have a spot on Flickr.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Why I’ve Hitched A Ride On A Trailer

I was recently reading “The Words Are the Thing,” an article by Scott McDonald in Quill and Quire (October 2006) on the emerging entity known as the book trailer. A book trailer is a web-based short film designed to convey the essence of a book, and publishers are beginning to add these trailers to their websites as an additional means of promotion. McDonald’s objection to the book trailer is simple: movies and books are two entirely different mediums and film cannot capture the essence of the print. He goes on to argue that a good book trailer would rely on excerpts from the book rather than on images. Words, for him, have to come first.

He makes a good point. After surveying a handful of the book trailers available out there already, I have to say some of them are pretty distracting, while others are just plain cheesy. But this new trend is at least a little reminiscent of the emergence of the music video. Critics at the time noted that the videos often had very little to do with the songs and that the videos forced viewers to remember the songs in terms of their visual associations rather than the more personal associations from listeners’ everyday lives.

And while the music video as a form has, in my humble opinion, grown stale these days, there was a time when video was an art form all its own. So who knows what might become of the book trailer if it grows in popularity? Will it become an art onto itself? And will authors reject the extra publicity while they defend the purity of the literary form?

Me, I’ve decided to jump ahead a little bit and try to adapt the form for my own purposes. If a publisher can use a book trailer to promote their books, then why can’t a writer use a book trailer to promote their unpublished manuscripts? Given the difficulties of getting poetry published in this country, what could a little extra self-promotion hurt? I might offend purists’ sensibilities – that’s true. But maybe my highly un-stanzaic shorts (packaged on a slim DVD) might give an editor some idea about how a book of mine could be pitched to an ever-shrinking poetry audience and beyond that to an ever-growing non-poetry audience. It will also show said editor that I am willing to do what it takes to promote my work and won’t leave it all up to an understaffed and underpaid small Canadian publisher.

So I’ve posted my first very primitive book trailer - make that manuscript teaser - on my website and I plan to add more. (It’s only available in Quicktime so far, but I’ll be posting another version soon.) Maybe this move isn’t all that different from William Blake using his engravings in his books for his inspired multimedia of the divine. So my teasers will be like William Blake meets Martin Scorsese meets a McDonald’s ad.

I just hope my poems don’t start getting too Hollywood to recognize me on the street.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Cliffs Where I Have Been Abandoned

So here I am again, risking heartbreak. They say you can’t fall in love if you don’t take a chance and that you can’t stay in love unless you are ready to commit. Despite the claims of friends, relatives, employers and ex-girlfriends that I am incapable of committing to anything, I’ve already decided to take another chance. Maybe it’s the first wave of autumn air waking me from my languid summer slumber. I start to come alive a little bit in the Fall.

I think it has a lot more to do with the return of my favorite TV shows – it is a time when cliffs will be unhung only to be replaced by more perilously hung cliffs with each episode. Some people get through long winters that offer little hope for life and love just by watching their favorite serial drama. I’m not quite at that stage myself, but my fear of commitment is tested every year at this time when new shows come out and I have to decide whether or not I’m going to watch them. It’s not that I’m afraid of being disappointed that a new show will suck - it’s that I’m afraid a new show will be great and will then be cancelled and I will be crushed. It is like finding the love of your life for twenty-two wonderful dates only to have her sucked up into an alien ship never to return.

I remember God, the Devil and Bob, with James Garner voicing the Almighty. A great concept for an animated adult series that just didn’t wasn’t allowed the time to catch on. And there was Earth 2 and Nowhere Man, both of which were strong serial thrillers along the lines of Lost, but they came a decade or so too soon to be appreciated. And worse, they finished with terrific cliffhangers. Of course, I’ve mentioned Firefly before. At least the film added what could almost be called an intermediate ending to the series. Shows like Tru Calling and Boomtown had potential. Boomtown was, in fact, one of the few cop shows I’ve ever been able to watch. The idea of having a story unfold gradually through multiple personal perspectives of all the characters involved allowed for complex and suspenseful storytelling and humanized all the characters in the process. And having Alicia Silverstone together with Ryan O’Neal on Miss Match was inspired casting. The premise of a lawyer who operates a matchmaking service on the side combined legal drama with romantic dramedy. And then pfft! Hiatus after a half season and its devoted fans were left feeling like they couldn’t find love even through TV. The biggest heartbreak of all was Max Headroom which was allowed to run for an extra half season before being pulled. I believe to this day that some executive somewhere finally woke up and said, “Hey! Maybe supporting a TV show that attacks television doesn’t make us look hip and edgy, but just stupid,” and quickly pulled it.

This year my candidates for wooing are Smith and JerichoSmith mainly because it’s a crime show that isn’t isn’t isn’t about cops and instead focuses on a group of heist meisters. Let’s have some sympathy for the devil once a week in primetime. And Jericho is an obvious choice for me, with my love of disaster movies and my nostalgia for the good old days when a Republican nuclear war would end it all quickly rather than now when a Republican series of wars will end it all slowly. You could argue it’s simply the inverse of Lost – a small group of people with dark secrets are stranded when the rest of the world endures a nuclear catastrophe.

The pilot episodes have been promising and there’s been a lot of teasing going on. The best of it so far is that I don’t have to choose between them and can play the TV field for another season. For those first weeks of Fall my social life can afford to go on hiatus. I’ll leave major decisions hanging for a little while with a sign on my life saying, “To be continued…” And, who knows? If I can learn something about attachment and commitment to TV shows maybe I can move on to real relationships.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Honk If This Car Is Ascending Too Slowly During the Rapture

When I first woke up on September 11, 2001, I turned on the news and the fire and smoke pluming from the towers had my lapsed Catholic mind, still half-asleep, just for a moment latching onto imagery from Revelations. And, judging by the response of the religious right to the event, I obviously wasn’t alone. Now terrorism and jihad have become prime movers of the Apocalypse in Western minds. And it’s that willingness to believe in pure evil and the possible end of all things has led to war, and to war again.

But the conservative mindset isn’t the only one filled with dancing visions of Armageddon. In the August issue of Harper’s, the cover story entitled “A World Without Oil: Scenes From A Liberal Apocalypse” looks at the mostly liberal-led Peak Oil movement and the concern that eventually oil is going to run out and we may well have to literally head for the hills and learn to live off the land again. (Christ will probably be riding down on a chariot, it appears, because there will be no oil and gas left for the divine Hummer.) Many people (as peace and conflict studies expert Metta Spencer points out in her blog) are giving up the leftist cause and simply abandoning civilization in fear of what is coming. All they see is long lines of unmoving cars and a crescendo of helpless beeping. And add to this the list of people who have just seen An Inconvenient Truth and are heading for higher ground.

Things couldn’t possibly be any worse, right? Well, I used to have frequent dreams of nuclear war and trying to survive in the aftermath. Thank you, Mr. Cold War. For decades, the tensions between the bipolar powers were further strained by movies like Fail-Safe and countless spy thrillers and Godzilla movies playing on our fears of nuclear disaster. On top of this, Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, had launched an environmentalist movement that insisted we were destroying the world right from under our own feet - not to mention numerous studies that plotted the booming population of the planet to equator-busting limits by the time the new century arrived. (See Soylent Green or even Logan’s Run if you want some indication of where those fears could lead people.)

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 I thought that at least some of the tension would dissipate, but all of a sudden violent crime surged everywhere – at least on the news. Even while the numbers for violent crime were falling, the fear of it was rising. Could it be that people so strongly needed something to fear, some death wish to hold close like a burning teddy bear, they had to manufacture something out there in the night waiting for them? (Oh, and fear of crime is only going to get worse for an increasingly physically vulnerable North American population. There will be fewer young people to commit actual crimes, but more senior citizens paranoid about young people committing crimes.)

When you read far enough back in history, the Apocalypse and its champions have come and gone far too many times to count. Fated dates have whistled by with nary a cleansing flame. Paths of bloody glory have gone unswathed. Maybe that’s why when I was working on my book of poems about the many possible ways the world would end the tone of those poems grew more satirical with each new piece. The book
I had begun in fear was turning into something that was increasingly funny. I had started to realize that the Apocalypse was just a genre – a genre of thought I could play with and deconstruct.

I realized that people often projected their own insecurities onto the world and the Apocalypse takes the shape of what we as individuals fear or, in some cases, desire. The open-minded and tolerant left, for example, really only fears death. That’s why the left have been so outspoken about eating right, exercising, getting all the toxins out of their systems. And so go their attitudes for the environment. “We mustn’t let the planet die,” they assert with a conviction equal to their own need to eat right and take care of their bodies. The right, judgmental as they often are, imagine a Judgment Day when accounts will be balanced, moral deficits made right and winners and losers chosen at last. It will be the capitalist God & Son come for the last stage of a long-planned hostile takeover.

Me, I mostly like shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel where the Apocalypse can happen in any given episode and represents personal moral choices that people make every day. In Buffy the choices are about establishing independence and still keeping your friends close. In Angel it’s about working well with others as an adult and not letting the corporate mentality overwhelm your sense of right and wrong. If you screw up as a person, you let your personal demons win. You are the grounds of Armageddon. You are where the battle is won and lost with every decision you make. This I can understand.

Of course the real end is coming, but it’s unlikely any human will be alive to see it. The planet will most likely die long after humans have passed on. Humans will most likely fade as a species when more tenacious species emerge. Or maybe it will be some very non-Terminator-like robots. Who knows? All I can do right now is be close to those I care about, write down a few things I’ve learned, and relax in spite of all the world-smashing worries people choose to indulge. For now, I live by Buffy’s words: “If the Apocalypse comes, beep me.”