Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Chris Broussard's Non-Apology: Plenty of Mea, Not Enough Culpa

Most of America took note of Jason Collins’ revelation of his own homosexuality yesterday, done through a letter submitted to Sports Illustrated; indeed, given the prominence of organized athletics in the lives of many, and the recent strides taken towards greater equality for LGBT citizens, it seemed predestined to occupy the zeitgeist. I read about it at work, where I am isolated, partly by choice and partly by thick concrete, from access to social media, but I was relieved to read early indications online about support for Collins. My own reaction was positive; I am neither a basketball fan nor a gay man, but I believe it’s better for the world in general if everyone is allowed and encouraged to live life in the way that makes them happiest. If Jason Collins wants to a) play professional basketball and also b) bone down on dudes, dealing with hard picks on the field and hard pricks off, there’s no earthly reason that anyone should have cause to object.

Which is, I suppose, why Chris Broussard of ESPN came up with a heavenly one. "I'm a Christian. I don't agree with homosexuality. I think it's a sin, as I think all sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman is.... If you're openly living in unrepentant sin, whatever it may be ... that's walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ,” said Broussard.

What’s astonishing about this is the self-obsession. Broussard read (or had read to him; he calls himself a Christian and yet seemingly shows no understanding of the doctrines of love and forgiveness preached by Jeezo in said document, leading me to believe he may not actually be literate) Collins’ letter, with all its pathos and paid, its descriptions of how Collins life in the closet and denial of his true self had caused him hardship, how momentous he knew his coming out was and would be, and how much freer and happier he felt while taking those first steps, as he came out to family and friends, all of whom showed him overwhelming support, and what Broussard came away with was, “I don’t like or understand gay people.”

The majority has always contextualized minority experiences in terms of their own lives instead of actually listening to them. My favorite examples of this are Dances With Wolves and the spiritual sequel Dances With Wolves In Space, where what’s important is not the lived experience of the natives but their acceptance of the noble white guys who come to live among them. Broussard does the same thing here. Collins makes it quite clear that his being queer is part of who he is, yes, but that what’s of primary importance to him, what he takes the most pride in, is that he’s a professional basketball player, in every sense of the word. He even says, in the letter in question, “I celebrate being an African-American and the hardships of the past that still resonate today. But I don't let my race define me any more than I want my sexual orientation to. I don't want to be labeled, and I can't let someone else's label define me,” whereupon Broussard instantly attempted to label him. There is, yes, a reasonable expectation that Collins’ orientation is going to take center court for a little while, but what Collins said, in as clear and as eloquent terms as he possibly could, was that he was ‘also’ gay, not ‘only’ gay; the Broussard, and the Broussards of the world, Collins is now ‘only’ gay. Even if you take Broussard's comment as a comment primarily against premarital sex and not homosexuality there's still the matter of his narrow-minded view of homosexuals as slaves to their libidos, concerned only about sex (and if this is truly his concern, why is he taking issue only with Collins and not every other single player in the NBA? Answer: it's not truly his concern).

Broussard rightly faced a backlash for his remarks, and so issued the following non-apology today: “"Today on OTL, as part of a larger, wide-ranging discussion on today's news, I offered my personal opinion as it relates to Christianity, a point of view that I have expressed publicly before. I realize that some people disagree with my opinion and I accept and respect that. As has been the case in the past, my beliefs have not and will not impact my ability to report on the NBA. I believe Jason Collins displayed bravery with his announcement today and I have no objection to him or anyone else playing in the NBA." You have no objection? No shit.

Science fiction writer and clear thinker John Scalzi, recently wrote an article on his blog about public apologies which I think is pretty on-the-money, and Broussard’s mea sorta culpa fails most of the guidelines Scalzi sets forth. Its not even really an apology on its face; Broussard pretty much just says, “Yeah, I said I hate gays, you should know I hate gays because I’ve said that before. Don’t worry, though, he can still play ball if he wants and I see no problem with continuing to report on the NBA while not-secretly hating gays.” Scalzi: “An apology is directed toward other people, but is something you do for yourself. Which is to say, the reason to apologize is not because other people expect it from you (although they may), but because you expect it from yourself — it is part of your personal character to own up to the wrongs you have done to others.” Broussard clearly expects nothing from himself but the continued sense of smug moral self-satisfaction that he gets while sniping at those he considers lesser than him, and his apology reflects this.

Collins’ coming out was going to be hard, yes, but it was going to be hard because of men like Broussard, because those with privilege have lived their lives hearing without listening and spent their energy contextualizing the world in terms of their own petty fears and prejudices. The argument against homophobia, against racism, and against intolerance has always been to clearly see and hear the oppressed, to hear and be moved by their stories and their humanity, to humble yourself to the vastness of human experience and to step from the safety of your own beliefs, walking amongst the unfamiliar and embracing strangeness. I’m not calling on Broussard to resign, or be fired; I’m calling on him to open his eyes. Collins, through his letter, revealed himself to be a man of character, a brave man, worthy of respect. Broussard’s attempt to diminish Collins has only diminished himself, but that doesn’t have to be all of who he is; just as Collins is not ‘only’ gay, so to is Broussard not ‘only’ a bigot.

Give a real apology, Chris. Look outside yourself and join us out here in the world. It’s a brighter place.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Sherlock, mad bombers, and the way forward

This afternoon explosions wounded and killed a number of people at the Boston Marathon, prompting me to continue to write about Sherlock. This will make sense, I promise (as much as these glimpses into my brain ever do).

My other post on Sherlock was largely about Irene Adler, but I did touch on what I believe to be a flaw in the first two seasons of Sherlock, which is its outsized emphasis on Jim Moriarty, Sherlock’s incarnation of Professor Moriarty. My beef with the character in that post was, to briefly sum up, that he was basically everywhere. If you know the canon, his presence hangs over the first episode, because of the admittedly wonderful misdirect midway through the episode. Watson receives calls and texts from someone named ‘M’ who tells him not to get involved with Holmes. Eventually he is picked up on the street by a car with a woman who reveals little information. He’s taken to an empty warehouse, where he meets someone who fits the archetype of Moriarty perfectly; he is posh, upper-class, clearly intelligent, dresses well, and even has a cane.

When you’re watching an adaptation and you know the source material, there’s often something in the back of your head that’s comparing what you’re seeing to the source, and also something that’s picking out every new element you see and running it through a database of references back to the original. ‘M’ is very obviously set up to tweak that sense, but as I said, it turns out to be a brilliant misdirect, because ‘M’ is Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s brother, warning Watson off for far less sinister reasons than he might have if he actually had been Moriarty. This gives us a thrill, but it also plants this thought: “If he’s not Moriarty, who is?” It sets us up for the reveal at the end of the episode, where the murderer reveals he was approached by Moriarty and was compensated by him for every murder he committed. The first season was filmed out of sequence, with the initial 60-minute pilot that formed the basis of the first episode completely re-worked and filmed last; the finale, where Moriarty is revealed and squares off against Holmes, was filmed first.

If you know that, it makes complete sense that references to him would be seeded into the first two episodes, because Andrew Scott’s Jim Moriarty is an astonishing creation. My comparison in the other post to Batman and the Joker was purposeful, because Scott’s Moriarty has a similar psychopathic quality to him; at times playful and other times violently aggressive, and all the while capable of great violence. He is like no other Moriarty I’ve ever seen.

The finale of season two, “The Reichenbach Fall,” features Moriarty at his height, perpetrating a series of public crimes that get him arrested and put on trial. His plan, however, is to publicly embarrass and discredit Holmes, which is accomplishes quite adeptly, establishing Holmes as a fraud by befriending a reporter (who Holmes insults early in the episode) and establishing himself as an actor hired by Holmes to play the part of “Moriarty.” By the end of the episode, Holmes has met Moriarty on a rooftop and is faced with an ultimatum. Leap from the top of the building, or assassins will kill everyone close to Holmes. By this point Holmes is on the run from the police and discredited in the press (Watson’s blog and subsequent media coverage have, over the course of the season, made him a sensation) and seemingly has nothing left to lose. He briefly rallies when he realizes that as long as Moriarty is alive there’s a way to prove he isn’t a fraud; Moriarty’s response is to shoot himself in the head. Holmes is left, seemingly, with no way out; he calls Watson and confesses that he is a fraud (a confession that we know is a lie, by the way; this is not a Christopher Nolan film where we’re shown flashbacks that reveal Holmes has been faking it the entire time) and leaps from the rooftop, seemingly killed by the impact.

He isn’t, of course. The last shot of the season, after Watson has mourned at Holmes’ grave, is that of Holmes, standing hidden, watching, and clearly alive. So there’s that. His reputation has been destroyed and most of his relationships damaged. Moriarty hasn’t quite won, but neither has he lost. He set out to ruin Holmes and he largely succeeded, and here’s where I start to have problems with Sherlock and with the overarching Moriarty story the series decided to tell with its first two seasons.

The ultimate message here seems to be, “if someone decides to ruin your life, they will, and there’s basically nothing you can do about it.” Which is an entirely understandable subtext from anything created after 9/11, or Aurora, or Newtown, or Boston. Looked at in a certain light these tragedies all have in common the idea that things were normal, and then, suddenly, they weren’t, forever. It’s easy to draw a line from Adam Lanza or James Holmes to Moriarty, to reduce them down to their one monstrous act and extrapolate from that a giddy imp who sows chaos wherever he wants, ruining lives haphazardly, destroying whatever he touches. Its absolutely tempting, but it leaves the viewer with nothing but fear; it offers no way forward, nothing but nihilism and the nothing that if someone decided to ruin your life, they will, and there’s basically nothing you can do about it.

There is always a way forward. Wounds heal, the pain of loss eases. Property can be rebuilt, possessions can be replaced. The capacity of humanity to weather adversity is limitless.

I am exaggerating my case slightly, because of the day; Sherlock not as bleak as it could be (it's not as bleak as, for example, anything Neil LaBute ever wrote, given that seeing or reading LaBute is like staring into the mouth of God as he screams, "FUCK YOU," for 90 minutes). I am also not begging my escapism for a moral lifeline; I am not coming down the mountain with Sherlock etched on one stone tablet and The Wire on the other, living my life according to fiction, holding a mirror up to the mirror held up to nature, eating and choking on my own tail. I know the way forward (short version: embrace peace in your hearts, you fuckholes), and I think it's only responsible for art and artists to do the same.

So as much as I love Sherlock as a series, I'm uncomfortable with the way it ends, for the moment. We have at least six more episodes on the way, and Andrew Scott has mostly confirmed that his character is dead; this means nothing in television, of course, because as soon as someone has a good story, back Moriarty will come, springing down the lane with a mad grin and a bomb in his coat pocket. But for now I'm very much looking forward to seeing Alanon Bumbershoot portray Holmes as he shines his intellect into the dark corners of the world. Perhaps when season three commences, he will show us the way back.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Sherlock and the war within

I always feel a bit villainous about nitpicking things that I love. It's always done with the best of intentions ("if only they'd done this it would be so much better (for me personally)")  but it still feels a bit churlish. If something is mostly okay, and has a few brilliant, perfect moments, isn't that enough? For some, probably, but if you haven't noticed by now that I compulsively over think things, let me state clearly that I can't help but dwell on those 'if only's' until they burst forth from their gestation in my brain into blog-post form. So, before I dig too hard into the picking of nits, let me establish up-front that I love the BBC version of Sherlock, with everything that word entails, from the initial infatuation to the deep-respect and the forgiveness of faults.

The show has much to recommend it, from the impeccable performance of the preposterously-named Benedict Cumberbatch as the title character to the even more impressive work done by Martin Freeman as his Watson, from the brilliant innovations in incorporating the modern world in all its text-messaging, computer-saturated glory to the sweeping, epic scores. All of the brilliance of the things the show gets right far eclipse its flaws, but it is the flaws I dwell on. And all of that brilliance and all of the flaws appear in starkest detail in my favorite episode of the show's six episode run, "A Scandal in Belgravia."

The episode's name is a nod to the original Doyle story, "A Scandal in Bohemia," and if you're familiar with the original stories, you might guess that this would be the Irene Adler episode. And you would be right! Adler, for the uninitiated, is regarded as one of the pivotal figures in the Holmes canon; despite only appearing in the one story her appearance in any adaptation is an inevitability. The story features a few good examples of Holmesian intellect, the most notable being the ruse he uses to enter Adler's lodgings and the means by which he ascertains the location of the incriminating photograph Holmes has been hired to pursue. However, the story is notable not for this but for the fact that Adler outwits him. Holmes, after learning the location of the photograph, plans to leave and return with his client (the king of Bohemia, no less, who fears that the photograph will be used to blackmail him after his upcoming nuptials to a woman who is not Adler) and secure it then. However, Adler sees through the ruse, disguises herself and follows him home, then flees the country with the photograph, leaving a letter explaining herself and promising never to use the photograph for purposes of blackmail, as the king so feared. Hereafter, according to Watson, Adler was, to Holmes, always the woman, and to readers, she was the woman who beat him at his own game.

No subsequent adaptation has really done her justice; I haven't seen A Game of Shadows, the second outing by Robert Downey, Jr. as Holmes, but by all accounts it does her no favors. And, unfortunately, Sherlock is no different. The basic set-up and motivation is similar, although the one potentially being blackmailed is English rather than Bohemian royalty (and a lady rather than a gentleman). However, Adler is not a former opera singer, as in the original story, but a professional dominatrix, known professionally as, "The Woman." Many of the show's nods to Holmesian canon are moderately subtle, but this one is a screaming red klaxon. What's more, it's unnecessary, because Holmes refers to her as 'the woman' later in the episode and so we get the nod anyway, now undermined by the repetition. It is not the only thing undermined in the episode.

The trap that a number of Adler adaptations seem to fall into is making Adler into a love interest to Holmes, with various degrees of one-sidedness depending on to what degree that particular Holmes is socially inept and emotionless. It makes her dependent on Holmes, in a way, whereas in the original story Adler had no particular interest in Holmes other than as someone who could potentially do her harm; she flees the country with her husband, who she marries mid-way through the story. Holmes has little respect for women in the original stories much of the time, although to be fair he has little respect for most everyone, and there are problematic elements in the way Adler is portrayed even there (her initial description from the king of Bohemia, for example, contains the line, "You do not know her, but she has a soul of steel. She has the face of the most beautiful of women, and the mind of the most resolute of men."). Yet the Adler of the original is independent in a way that no Adler since has been able to really claim.

I understand the impulse to translate that independence into some sort of non-traditional occupation, which is how we get Adler-as-sex-worker. I don't even really have a problem with that in principle, although it does go against the spirit of the original. The only crime Bohemia-Adler had committed was the threat of blackmail against a powerful former lover who had wronged her; she felt, quite correctly, that she would not be safe against someone of such stature without the insurance of the photograph and the threat of ruin its revelation might bring. Belgravia-Adler is a blackmailer many times over, having access to secrets that go far beyond marital infidelities and into the realm of national security. Worse yet, she reveals near the climax of the episode that she really had no understanding of how to use the information she had until she was told by someone else. So much for independence.

It is in that 'someone else' that we come to one of the structural flaws that plagues the entirety of the first two seasons of Sherlock, and that is the obsession with Jim Moriarty. If Adler is one inevitability of a Holmes adaptation Moriarty is the other. I quite understand the notion of killing the author, and so I'm not going to go into a tiresome multi-paragraph dissection of the fact that Doyle's intention with Moriarty was not to provide some overarching raison d'etre for his most popular character but to kill him off so that Doyle could focus on what he felt was more important work writing historical fiction (entirely believable if you remember the multi-chapter diversion into early American history that interrupted "The Sign of Four."). What matters is not intention but what's actually on the page, and the idea of someone of fearsome intellect devoted as wholly to crime as Holmes himself is devoted to detectoring is compelling. So I get why Moriarty is always introduced. The problem with this, and unfortunately I can't find the blog post that convinced me of this, is that Moriarty is boring. Yes, even when he's conceived, as he is in Sherlock, as the Joker to Sherlock's Batman, he is deadly boring.

The lure of the Sherlock Holmes stories is not seeing Holmes face off against brilliant master criminals. The thrill is in seeing him navigate the messy, chaotic ordinariness of crime, untangling the web of motivations of ordinary people driven to do horrible things. The thesis of the blog post that is lost somewhere on the internet was that every time Moriarty comes out, normal motivations are thrown to the wind and we become locked in a cat-and-mouse game where two smart people try to outsmart each other while everyone else runs around and looks baffled. The criminals are as important in a good mystery story as the protagonist; we can be driven to hate them or to sympathize with them, to yearn for them to be brought to justice or to be exonerated, or to escape as Adler did. With Moriarty all we can hope for is that he be caught and either thrown over the falls or be put back in the Baker Street Asylum, where he sits until he feels like escaping and tormenting his arch-enemy again. There is never any ambiguity about it; he is the yin to Holmes' yang, and so we yearn for his internment.

Sherlock doesn't seem to be aware of this problem, because Moriarty is involved in every single episode of the series run. In the pilot he's the man behind the main villain, paying him off for every murder he commits. In the second episode, he gave the villain the information they needed, and kills them off to ensure his existence isn't revealed. He then reveals his existence in the third episode, "The Final Problem," where he confronts Holmes and Watson at the end of the episode, revealing himself to be both brilliant and out of his gourd. The episode ends in a cliffhanger, with Holmes and Watson on the verge of being murdered by hidden snipers. The fifth episode, an execrable adaptation of, "The Hound of the Baskervilles," features Moriarty at the end being released from prison (with no indication of how he got there), and the sixth is a rough adaptation of, "The Final Problem," and the problem seems to be that all the story beats from the fatal confrontation between Moriarty and Holmes were used up in the episode that bears that name, leading so some of them being rehashed; it works, but mostly in spite of itself.

Which leaves us backtracking to the fourth episode, where Moriarty is the one who knew what to do with the information Adler was trying to get out of Holmes. She had been given a code from one of her clients and needed Holmes to decipher it (because she is a poor witless woman). The code is an airline seat allocation number to a flight that British Intelligence knows is going to be targeted by terrorists; they know this because they've broken the terrorist's codes. However, they don't want to indicate that they know this, so they fill the plane with cadavers, planning to have it take off and be blown up with no casualties, ensuring they can continue to receive intelligence from the terrorists without them being the wiser. Adler's womanly brain cannot possibly conceive of any use for this information beyond feeding it to Moriarty who, it is presumed, tells the terrorists (because he is bad), leaving the British and American intelligence agencies involved with nothing for all their efforts.

The beat is marginally the same; Adler beats Holmes at his own game. And yet, because it's yet another move in the long game of chess between Holmes and Moriarty (a game that we know ends with both men knocking over their own kings), her role is sad and diminished, moreso when Holmes finally cracks the code on her cell phone to gain access to all the blackmail information she's been hiding away. So Holmes doesn't really lose, and Adler doesn't really win; in fact, she begs him not to unlock the phone, since doing so would deprive her of the protection she needs. The information she was keeping is the only thing keeping her enemies from killing her. A woman, serving one man, begging another for her life. Hardly the picture of independence.

And yet I can't deny the perfection of the scene where he finally, after trying time after time to figure out what code she could possibly be using for her cell phone, figures it out; never has punching in four characters been so dramatic. Nor can I deny the final scene, the denouement; the fade to black, the silence, the moan, oh, the moan, which we have been trained to react to all this time, an indication of her become an indication of him. Forgetting, and forgiving, that a narrative about a brilliant, insubordinate woman has now narrowed to a damsel-in-distress scenario.

"When I say run...run!"

I love this episode, more than nearly any other episode of television I can name, more than most movies I've seen (and at 90 minutes an episode of Sherlock is only a budget increase away from being a movie as it stands). Everything I wrote above is true and yet none of it matters. I cannot watch the end without crying; I cannot listen to Irene Adler's theme without doing the same. I would change so much, if I had the power, but I wonder how much I would also destroy if I made those changes. The episode is problematic, yes, but it works, and so the burgeoning feminist in me butts up against the artist, the one who says, "let it be, because it sings."

The episode, and the show, is flawed, but in interesting ways. It's on NetFlix, if you haven't seen it. Its virtues outweigh its mistakes, in the end, even if those mistakes are worth noting so that they aren't repeated.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Empathy Don't Come For Free

Around mid-January, when I was in the grip of a literal month long illness (a cold that evolved, Pokémon-style, into a horrible cough and sinus infection), I, for whatever reason, bought the discography of U.K. garage/hip-hop artist The Streets, né Mike Skinner, and then proceeded to listen to the whole thing in the worst way possible, which was in a giant playlist that for whatever reason was arranged by album track number. In other words, the first tracks of each album would play, then the second, then the third, etc.

As a technique for immersing yourself in one dude's voice it has a lot to recommend it, but the thing about each of The Street's albums is (I learned later, doing things the proper way, i.e. listening to each album separately at work) that each one has its own character. We may now be living in the era of the single, where the other nine tracks on the album aren't nearly as important as the one that's going to get the radio play, but Skinner didn't play like that. Original Pirate Material is minimalistic, The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living and Everything is Borrowed are like the Dark and Light sides of the Force, one brutal, knife-edged lightning and rage and the other subtle and positive while leaving almost no impression in the mind, and Computer and Blues harnesses everything Skinner had learned through the previous four albums and creates a deft picture of the modern world while managing an elegiac tone befitting his retirement from The Streets project. Each album is of a piece, and almost demands a certain mindset (I still have trouble listening to Hardest outside of the goofy, aggro-yet-sweet relationship post-mortem "When You Wasn't Famous,"). And none of these albums suffers more from not being listened to continuously, beginning to end, than the second album, A Grand Don't Come For Free.

My first exposure to concept albums was Dream Theater's Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory, a title that certainly doesn't sound like it belongs on this blog. Metropolis is an epic of love, lust, betrayal, addiction, murder, past lives, reincarnation and spirituality, with majestic rock instrumentation to match its subject matter. It's an album I can listen to on loop over and over (outside of "Through Her Eyes," a song which can be forgiven its existence only if looked at as a chance for the band to take a break during concerts, and "The Dance of Eternity," a technically impressive instrumental number that I mainly enjoy for about thirty seconds of hilarious, out-of-nowhere old-timey piano).

Grand, as a concept album, is as small-scale as Metropolis is large for much of its length. It follows a young man through his days as a youth in England (possibly Brixton, where Skinner moved from Birmingham, although I don't believe the location is ever specified). I don't know to what degree the album is auto-biographical. At one point Skinner, as the main character, makes reference to having to pick up his epilepsy medication, and Skinner himself suffers from epilepsy; in addition, I believe someone refers to him as Mike at one point. Skinner renders the day-to-day of the character so well it feels real, so whether the album was keenly observed or felt is immaterial except to someone like me, a story archeologist always searching for origins and hidden connections and sucking the marrow (and fun) out of the bones.

Grand starts with the protagonist losing the titular grand, a thousand quid (about $1,500 US), which he had saved with the intention of putting in the bank. He finds this out at the end of a long, deeply shitty day, where nothing goes right, each verse beginning with an iteration of what he has yet to do and what's already gone wrong ("So I failed at the DVD, couldn't withdraw any money/but I still had to call mum, get the savings, and then hurry,"). Also his TV breaks, which actually becomes important later.

From there he meets a girl named Simone, hits it off with her, tries to win some money betting on football (and is prevented from losing his shirt by happenstance) and goes to a nightclub, where he takes ecstasy and thinks he sees Simone kissing his friend Dan, with whom she works. He's, "fucked and he don't care," so he makes nothing of it, and soon he moves in with Simone.

After an argument where she kicks him out, he goes on holiday, tries to impress a girl and then immediately regrets it the next day when he realizes he wants to be with Simone. If you read the previous paragraph you probably have an idea that this ends badly, and indeed it does; he finds out from his friend Scott that Simone has been cheating on him with Dan (Scott knew about this but didn't say anything because he didn't want to betray either friendship). Simone breaks up with Mike, and we come to the last track on the album, "Empty Cans."

The first time through it, listening to it in the midst of all the other track tens from the complete discography, I skipped ahead after a few minutes, and that's because it's really two similar songs in one. In the first, Mike is sitting alone in his apartment, feeling sorry for himself. Scott reaches out to try and make things right and Mike tells him to, "fuck right off chap," then finds a TV repairman in the phone book to finally try and get his TV fixed. The guy comes, takes the TV away, and then comes back later, saying he's found something in the back of the TV. Mike immediately assumes that the repairman is trying to him up for more money and gets in an argument that turns physical and ends with the repairman wrestling Mike to the ground, bashing his head into his fridge, and then running out of the apartment shouting. The chorus for this part of the song is, "No one gives a crap about Mike that's why I'm acting nasty/You know what you can do with your life introduce it up your jacksie," and once he went into that for the second time I thought, "what a miserable piece of shit," and skipped to the next track.

Context is, of course, everything, and when you listen to the tracks from the album like I did you have no idea that they're all of a piece, that they're sketching a life and a character and leading him to this moment; not the moment where he's sitting drinking beer on his settee with a bashed-up head, but the moment where Scott texts him. If I had waited just a few more seconds, I would have heard the song reset itself back to the beginning, where Mike is once again bemoaning his fate, surrounded by empty cans, feeling sorry for himself and like no one has his back. However, the second time around, he doesn't tell Scott to fuck off, but accepts his apology and says he can fix the TV as payment, to which Scott agrees. Scott comes over, starts rooting around in the back of the TV, and then discovers something that fell in the back of it, which turns out to be, amazingly enough, the thousand quid from the beginning that Mike thought was lost (or that, in darker moments, his friends had stolen).

This is a nice bit of symmetry, but it actually isn't what, in my mind, the album was building to, although it is an amazing moment. The important bit is after, and here I'll quote the song extensively:

"... i realized that it is true;
No-ones really there fighting for you in the last garrison.
No-one except yourself that is, no-one except you.
You are the one who's got your back 'til the last deeds done.
Scott can't have my back til the absolute end,
Coz hes got to look out for what over his horizon.
He's gotta to make sure he's not lonely, not broke.
It's enough to worry about keeping his own head above."
Initially this looks cynical and borderline narcissistic, especially if you only take the first part into account, but I don't see it that way. Mike has, to this point, been self-pitying and self-centered, viewing many of his problems as caused, if not by his "mates," then at least by their inaction; if only they would 'have his back' he wouldn't be in the position he's in, wouldn't have lost the grand, wouldn't have lost Simone, none of it. What this realization is is that no one has it out for them as much as they have their own lives and problems. "It's enough to worry about keeping his own head above."

Most people agree that empathy is a positive force, that having an understanding of others and what they're going through can help everyone tremendously as we all make our way through this world; that it's easier to stand together than alone, that loving your neighbor as yourself is something to strive for. But you don't often hear songs showing how you get there from zero; more often you get things like, "Imagine," which, however much you agree with the sentiment, is not likely to be a song that changes anyone's mind. Either you agree or you don't; Lennon isn't walking you down a path so much as he's throwing down a gauntlet, since, "imagine there's no heaven," is already distasteful enough to some people that they're simply not going to hear what comes next, much less understand it.

Skinner takes, with the back half of, "Empty Cans," and the album as a whole, that first step towards a larger understanding of the world. The protagonist goes from demanding that the world help him, and shouting that if you're not with him you're against him, to realizing that he has to help himself, and from there it's not hard to imagine that he could one day come to the realization that he has the ability to help others. Even better, he isn't preaching, or telling; he's showing, in the manner of all great storytellers, showing the dark, fenced-in world of a Mike that rejects friendship and then showing the flip side and letting us feel which one is better through the music (I like to imagine that the Mike from the first part of, "Empty Cans," is the Mike that went on to write The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living, while the Mike from Earth-2 wrote Everything is Borrowed. I'm not sure if Computer and Blues required some sort of Crisis on Infinite Streets). In a way, even though I was exposed to the album and the last track in particular in the worst way, I'm glad I did it the way I did, because the moment of impact was that much stronger for me when I finally realized what Skinner was doing. It may not be as epic or bombastic as Metropolis, but in its own way it's no less philosophical, or as brilliant, and in its own way it may be the more insightful of the two. Not that anyone's counting.

This is dedicated, in my own small, strange way, to Roger Ebert, who passed away today at the age of 70. Ebert was many things, but to me, he was someone who showed that examining the things that we love can be valuable. He was not critic as destroyer, but critic as enthusiastic participant, trying (and succeeding) to explain just what about the movies he was seeing had affected him, and trying to share those things he loved with the world. Thank you, Roger.