Arcane (Season 1)

Unrequested TV recommendation: Netflix’s Arcane is exceptional.

Basically all I know about League of Legends, the videogame in which Arcane is set, is that it’s a 5×5 battle arena game derived from a fan-made map for Warcraft III, extremely popular and lucrative, and widely considered toxic. Players are toxic, some content is toxic, the developer is toxic. Riot Games recently settled a sexual harassment & gender discrimination class action suit for $100 million.

Arcane transcends all of that. It’s not just the best screen adaptation of a videogame ever made. It’s so far beyond any other as to render that discussion entirely uninteresting. The show stands all on its own and the first season at least seems likely to settle in as one of the best series I have ever watched, period.

First off, the animation is gorgeous. The main aesthetic is a detailed painterly style that slides back and forth between a sunny, clean utopia and a dank, dirty underworld. Both feel fully realized and teem with life and visual interest. From time to time that’s punctuated by short segments in a totally different, abstract style, projecting a possible future, a fear, or a mental breakdown. Fight scenes are strobing and wild, but the action easily followed. Closeups yield real faces with detail and emotion. And in an era in which it often feels like films are competing to be the visually darkest and most inscrutable, Arcane is suffuse with color, from the bright blue skies topside to the slashes of neon graffiti and hair down below. It’s all art-book quality but in motion.

A tale of a society starkly and tensely divided between haves & have-nots, and the interplay of technology and personal feelings in that struggle, the surface plot is fine enough. The gradual reveal of the world and its people is also a naturally compelling mystery to hook you in. But the characters and their relationships make the show.

Arcane’s first season is a robust, deep story in which viewers could focus on a number of different aspects. I say the core is one thread about sisters and another brothers, tied together by a major theme of fathers and daughters. All of that lies within a tragedy of misunderstandings, bad timing, circumstances, and emotions. There’s at least one killer line in the fathers & daughters theme that is worth the watching all alone. In classic fashion it’s totally misunderstood by an eavesdropper, sending their arc careening downhill. You could hold a whole segment of a literature course breaking down the character foils, textual echoes, symbology, and formal structure.

Stunningly for its origins, the show is also notably, cringelessly diverse & inclusive. It just is, through and through, and doesn’t make a big deal about it. A striking variety of ethnicities, cultures, and accents appear, even just among the humans. One major character has a physical disability. Alongside the familial relationships and a believable, natural bromance central to the story, Arcane also portrays primary characters in a budding romance that feels organic and sweet while being quietly, matter-of-factly gay. Their relationship is treated more empathetically and wholly than queer relationships in many many games and shows, it’s not simply a token couple or statement.

Arcane is furthermore replete with female characters at every level of the story and its world, many of them leaders and/or fighters. The primary ones are all well developed and have their own backgrounds, agency, and progression. But I found very telling the presentation of minor character Ambessa Medarda. In real-world terms she’s a somewhat Roman-styled imperial warlord of African ethnicity, come to reconnect with her estranged daughter, make an arms deal… and unabashedly hook up with devoted men. Notably, she looks the part. Neither a waif nor a brick as she might be in many animes, videogames, etc., Ambessa Medarda is distinctively portrayed visually as what she is: An incredibly fit and physically strong lifelong warrior, who’s also very attractive and sexual. By and large the female characters are all drawn with proportions and features that are reasonably realistic, especially within the context of a ridiculous animated sci-fi show, but most importantly not in an exploitive or objectified fashion.

To be clear, the show is unfortunately not going to be appreciated by everyone. Ultimately it’s a steampunk fantasy/sci-fi videogame universe, by the end of which people are flying around on hoverboards, fighting with technomagical power fists, teleporting around the world on airships, and so on. If you think about it too hard, the technology level of the world is nonsensically inconsistent. Scenes are often visually fast and pulsing; every episode carries a trigger warning about flashing lights. The soundtrack, mostly recognizable modern pop, really works for a couple characters and scenes, but can be distracting and will not be to everyone’s liking.

However, anybody who can appreciate at all its kind of universe and artistic style will likely enjoy the series. If it were a graphic novel it would be a classic to revisit again and again over time, pouring over the art and relationships. Arcane is a masterpiece.

Movie Review: The King

Unrequested TV recommendation: Netflix’s The King is exceptional. A number of major characters and relationships are given decidedly non-traditional backgrounds and story arcs, and a number of anachronistic beliefs and sentiments. But it’s a very good, modernized, concise reenvisioning of Shakespeare’s Henriad.

The costuming and world appropriately mix majesty (the Dauphin’s subtle, elegant armor; the fields of France) with mud and grit (Henry’s grime covered battle visage; the slums of Eastcheap). The English royal robes and the scenes in which they appear speak of royalty and wealth while also not letting you forget that this is the dark, dirty, shabby, sickly, violent middle ages.

The action is also very well done and balanced. Siege catapults light the night sky in beautiful arcs of fire. Ranks of armored knights advance shining in the sun. But it’s also down to earth. Heroes twirl their swords with presumably anachronistic flair and some seriously videogame-inspired posing. The actual fighting though immediately descends into men scrabbling in the dirt and mud, simply clubbing each other with mailed fists and looking for any kind of purchase or advantage in contests of brute power rather than elegance.

The Dauphin.

The language and dialog is also fantastic. It feels thoroughly Shakespearean while actually being short and modern. A couple exchanges, phrases, and speeches I could have sworn were drawn from actual Shakespeare, but they’re not.

Most importantly, the characters and themes are great. Kings’ madnesses as foils for each other. Inertia, misunderstanding, and deceit propelling forward conflict the top leaders don’t actually want. The role of family, and particularly of fathers and sons, in driving this costly period of history. Characters checked and morphed by their advisors and events. There’s a lot to mine afterward.

I can understand people being offput or even aghast at many of the changes in plot and characters from the typical take on them, as well as the several out-of-period mindsets. But I think The King is both very entertaining to watch and has a lot going on underneath.

The King.

Book Review: Shakespeare in Company

shakespeare-in-companyMuch of literary history leaves me with an overwhelming sense of “Who cares?” The minutiae of specific dates, lists of first publications and endless variants, it’s generally very tedious. Throughout the non-fiction Shakespeare in Company, however, Bart Van Es employs that scholarship to develop a compelling study of the bard and his working life. The basic idea is that Shakespeare was brilliant, but what enabled him to realize his potential and become a revolutionary literary figure were his working conditions and the company of people he kept around him. This thesis is well supported and fascinating, and the book is a great look at a genius and the context that supported and shaped him in his artistry.

Starting Out

Van Es divides Shakespeare’s career into four phases: An early phase before 1594, a company phase before 1599, a playhouse phase before 1608, and a late phase before his retirement in 1614. Each is addressed by a section of this book.

Shakespeare appears in the literary record in 1592 an already apparently well known and well regarded poet and playwright. His education and career up to that point are murky, but Van Es makes a solid case that they weren’t particularly unique among the poets and playwrights of the time. Shakespeare was actually solidly part of a whole class of writers engendered by recent changes and improvements in the English education system, particularly the grammar schools. His early known writings also echo those of many other authors in style and content.

Importantly, at this point the trajectory of Shakespeare’s career follows those of many others. Examples include his search for literary patronage and carefully stewarded publication of his poems, neither of which he would pursue after this phase. As a playwright he also wrote under common conditions and constraints, very similar to modern day Hollywood scriptwriters: Authors retained no control of their works, received no ongoing recompense from them once purchased, weren’t particularly involved in their production, and had little or no a priori idea of the casting. Scripts were also often the product of many people, both working collaboratively and in successive edits and rewrites. Among all this Shakespeare stood out in quality but not in kind, he fit very well into a mold and trajectory common to poet-playwrights of the time.

Company Man

In 1594 though Shakespeare bought in as a founding co-owner of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the acting company with which he would come to be inextricably associated. From that point, Van Es argues believably, he became literally unique in his position and that in turn enabled his output to be unique. Essentially no other playwright of the period was a sustained part owner in such a company. That afforded Shakespeare many things, notably authorial control over his works, continuing income from their production, and less time pressure. As one example, that control and security seemingly enabled a less misogynistic tone in his plays of this period compared to those of his peers and the works Shakespeare himself had produced earlier while writing enmeshed in that culture.

The First Folio, one of the first legitimate collections of Shakespeare's works.

The First Folio, one of the first legitimate collections of Shakespeare’s works.

More dramatically, the company meant Shakespeare was working with and writing for the same group of players, his co-owners, over time. To an unprecedented degree he had specific ideas about players to fill certain roles, and the ability to execute that in production. That group was also tight knit and developed a long history and complex personal relationships. All of that showed up in Shakespeare’s plays of this period. Previously he and all other playwrights had produced essentially flat characters. Even the lead would have good speeches but not much depth, with binary transitions between emotions and motivations, few interpersonal connections to other characters, and random inconsistencies throughout a play. Those traits all came about due to the necessarily plug and play nature of the plays, required by a creation process involving many different authors and no real linkage between writing and production. Secure within the Lord Chamberlain’s Men though, Shakespeare had the control, resources, and examples to focus on interpersonal relationships among a relatively small group, and his great plays from this period demonstrate that amply.

The Globe

Shakespeare’s material situation again evolved and improved in 1599, with again a consequent change in his work. At that point he and others of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men founded The Globe Theater. This was another unprecedented move, the players owning the playhouse, and gave Shakespeare even more security and control. Notably, that commitment to the Globe theater also committed Shakespeare to a particular audience segment and worldview, which shaped how he incorporated and responded to changing tastes and rival companies, emerging for the first time after a period of relatively limited competition.

The Globe also changed the nature of the company. The group of more or less equal partners became smaller and closer. This shows up qualitatively and even quantitatively in Shakespeare’s writing. Whereas major parts previously had a fairly even distribution of lines, the plays from this period lavish much more speaking time on specific lead roles. In particular, Shakespeare came to work closely with and write his great dramatic pieces from this era specifically for Richard Burbage, the leading dramatic actor of that era. The latter’s unique talents on the stage enabled Shakespeare to develop an interior world and gradually changing characters unsupportable by other actors of the time. In particular, without that unique partnership of great actor and great writer working closely over years, Van Es essentially argues that a work such as Hamlet, especially designed for Burbage and his opus as well as Shakespeare’s, would have been unimaginable to conceive, let alone impossible to achieve.

Richard Burbage, the great early-modern dramatic actor.

Richard Burbage, the great early-modern dramatic actor.

Tempest

Finally, Shakespeare’s working circumstances again changed as The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, now the King’s Men, grew and moved on. Van Es argues well that the shift in writing style and thematic matter in Shakespeare’s later plays was not primarily driven by the company’s patronage by the King, nor the physical architecture of their new, indoor winter venue of the Blackfriars theater, as many theories hold. Similarly, Van Es argues that it was not because Shakespeare had begun retirement and become more reclusive. Indeed, Van Es shows that in some ways the opposite was true: Shakespeare was more financially invested in theatrical efforts than ever before, and he was actually much more collaborative and social in a literary sense than he had been since the start of his career.

However, what had changed was that the group was no longer small and close. The company had increasing numbers of hired non-owner players, and the partnership less equal. Van Es homes this change in 1608, with the company beginning operation of the Blackfriars and making a dramatic shift in the partnership structure of the group. Similarly, by then many members of the group had themselves ceased playing, likely including Shakespeare himself.

With Shakespeare less involved in the daily production of plays, and the players’ group less intimate, that social space was filled by other poets. Their renewed presence in Shakespeare’s life in turn engaged him in the literary scene in a way he had not been for fifteen years. The staunch individuality in style, content, and form that he had maintained since the forming of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men shifted back again toward the more literary and classical approach of his poet peers. This in turn lead to a minimization of interpersonal relationships, and increased focus on spectacle and introspective examinations on art itself.

Theater

In addition to that main thread, Van Es’ text provides a lot of insight into theater of the time, both its operations and its deeper meanings and connotations. For example, the book has a great sidenote discussion about the presentation of Robert Armin as the fool in King Lear. The fool is referenced several times well before actually appearing on stage, and Van Es notes the extra dramatic tension the audience would have experienced, knowing that he was lurking just backstage, particularly as the audience would know full well it would be the great, well established fool Armin. That kind of tension just isn’t the same in a film.

Writing

As a minor nitpick, Shakespeare in Company is a bit annoying to read at times as it can’t really settle on whether or not footnotes are just for references or also include meaningful tangential information. The early chapters in particular with much historical referencing suffer from this. However, it is worth soldiering through as it becomes more readable, particularly if you start largely ignoring the footnotes, and insights and arguments of the main thesis are well worthwhile.

This is perhaps obvious, but the book is also almost certainly not worth reading without some knowledge of at least Shakespeare’s major plays. In particular, the text focuses on Titus Andronicus, The Taming of the Shrew, the second tetralogy, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear. There’s too much analysis and discussion reliant on referencing the characters and plot arcs of those to make it readily decipherable without basic familiarity. With that background though you can gain a fair bit of insight into not just Shakespeare, but those plays themselves.

The Globe Theater.

The Globe Theater.

Conclusion

All in all, Van Es’ thesis is very believable and argued in depth. I found it a fascinating study of how a team of remarkable individuals shape and enable each other, in this case producing one of the truly singularly accomplished people of all time and some of the greatest works of art. Shakespeare in Company is well worth reading for anyone remotely interested in these plays and more generally in the intermingling of genius and context. A good taste of the book can be found in the Times Literary Supplement’s review, which summarizes at length how some of the various actors and writers shaped Shakespeare’s works, particularly discussing the shift in company membership from the clown William Kempe to the fool Robert Armin.