Some Messy Thoughts on Thoroughbreds

Thoroughbreds (2017) questions class, privilege and the foundations on which we build relationships with each other. This brief discussional contains spoilers throughout and should be read with that in mind.

The film opens with Amanda, eye to eye with a horse and then it cuts to black just after she picks up a short, sharp knife. The next scene is Amanda entering Lily’s residence where her reaction is observational, unfamiliar with the surroundings that are then keenly studied.

This is where we get the first topic that I want to explore, class. This environment is full of an invisible servant grouping, they appear as needed and then vanish. Later in the film Lily puts down an unfinished pack of crisps and goes to seal it up, Amanda tells her not to bother and Lily places it back on the counter and moves away, then a maid pops into existence to seal up the bag and, task complete, vanishes from the narrative. Later in the film, when Amanda is discussing the best time to murder her father she lists points when certain people will be around the house, in that planning the servants are never considered or mentioned.

That causal privileged expectation of wealth, where someone appears to pick up the remnants of our lives, sorts them out and then they just disappear, is a foreign concept for Amanda but her own unfamiliarity is minor compared that experienced in the later appearance of drug dealer and registered sex offender Tim. His entry to Lily/Mark’s residence is positively religious, he fawns over the luxury car, gazes in wonder at the gilded cherub surrounded clocks and the first shot we have of him outside of the house is in fisheye, exaggerating its size alongside his smallness in comparison.

It creates a clear hierarchy on action but only condemns it implicitly, the wealth isn’t seen as aspirational or admirable rather factual. This is the society in which Thoroughbreds operates, corrupt, nepotistic and cruel, success is achieved through selfishness. This is why Amanda is doomed to fail, she, despite her insistence that she is emotionless she expresses care for Lily, she seeks out her company and correspondence. For these reasons, even if they are only acted reasons, she seems more compassionate than Lily.

Amanda acts and functions as Lily’s protector, when Lily in a destructive act stays underwater long enough to drown Amanda sweeps in and pulls her up, when Lily and Mark are confronting each other the aftermath has Amanda asserting that because she was there, Lily was safe. This protection is contingent on truth, the times that Amanda pushes back is when she knows she is being lied to. Therefore, at Lily’s murder of Mark at the end of the film Lily needs to be able to do more than just blame an unconscious Amanda, she needs complicity. In confessing to Amanda that she has roofied her drink she brings Amanda into the lie, Amanda accepts that her friend has told her the truth and acts seemingly independently to consume the knowingly roofied drink. Protecting Lily, her friend, by giving her a willing person to pin the murder on.

It is a cynical position to take, assuming that the confession is calculated but it is one that is borne out again and again, Lily uses people, but at each point before now, when she has tried to use Amanda it has been through lies, which all fail, so her path forward can only be located in truth of a sort. The film ends with both Lily and Amanda exactly where they want to be, in positions of safety and security, but Amanda has clearly abandoned her friend to live the life she wants.

Lily functions exactly as the servants in Amanda’s world, she appears to clear up the mess of her step-father, then having served her function she just disappears. She is no longer relevant.

 

Postscript

A brief digression to observe the presentation of violence. In this film there is a constant allusion to violence but it is always implied rather than enacted visually, witnessed instead with its after effects, the blood on the floor, on peoples hands, in a bathtub. The messy act of committing is limited to the sound and the absence of sound. In one notable scene Lily asks for and gets the pictures of the horse that Amanda had mutilated and messily killed, in her amateurishly executed mercy killing, this part is shot from a fixed position, with only the back of the laptop shown, the sounds of Skype messages being received and the expressions on Amanda’s face the only evidence of the presence of the gory photos. The denouement, where Lily, resolved, goes upstairs to murder her step-father is heard while the camera lingers on the roofied figure of Amanda.

I remain uncertain of the significance of this.

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Please insert coins to continue

What is a fail state in video games? Is it when the screen fades to black and you have to press a button to continue or to reload at the last checkpoint? Is that point of death in Braid where the screen goes grey after jumping into spikes and you have to rewind time, is that too a fail state? It certainly is much more of a soft one than the others and quite literally sends you back to the moment before you jumped. I’ve recently been going through the excellent episodic series Life is Strange, a game too that is light on fail states and uses it’s time manipulation mechanic to undo them. But it also uses failure of that mechanic, the ability of the character Max, to emphasise key story beats where failure is an unfortunate, potential, consequence. Ultimately that is what fail states and their various incarnations are used as signifiers for, consequence, you didn’t kill the dragon, try again from back here, the way in which they are implemented and their punishing nature can very much change the entire dynamics of the game.

Do then all video games need fail states? Does the nature of choice inherent in a game, even a relativity linear one like the Uncharted series, require failure as a sort of test of engagement? There are certainly games, like the Mario series, that have a larger overarching sort of failure counter that seems to only hang around for legacy reasons as running out of lives in such a game is a non-trivial task. Failure ultimately is one of the near consistent aspects of video games, whether it’s baked into the design itself or whether the player quits before the end (assuming it has an end) there are rare counterexamples but the removal of a failure state requires also removing far more choice from the player than should be expected for an heavily interactive medium like games.

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Objectivism and subjectivism, an object lesson

There is no right way to make tea
(there is)
There is no correct temperature for the water
(there is)
There is no specific time for leaving it to brew
(there is)
There is no definitive type of cup form which to enjoy it in
(there is)
There is no proper order to adding the sugar and dash of milk
(there bloody well is)

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New Statement of Intent

Reading a book has always been somewhat of an issue, not the consumption itself but the act of starting. Long books can seem daunting, especially those once started and then put down, to pick up again is arduous and once finished, starting another is hardly in the front of my mind. So I’ve been reading The New Yorker and the London Review of Books in an effort to stymie the intellectual pit that is the break between books.

It seems, on the face of it, to have been a successful endeavour, the things I know seem to be growing and I no longer feel that guilty feeling that I should read more or that sinking stagnation in that dank recess that is my mind. This blog too has been long rotting in my absence and I think it is time to resume that grand experiment and use it to make my writing better (read, not sucky).

To start, a monthly writing something here. To continue, that thing should be good. Finally, that thing should be interesting.

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“The Choice Is the Universe –or Nothing”

‘We may have differences of opinion as to the value of reaching the Pole. If we apply the utilitarian test, it is all small moment, but so is a poem. And what is polar exploration but an epic endeavour in which all sordidness is left behind, and in which a man, knowing the risks and challenges of failure, ventures his life and his all in a combat against the forces of ignorance? For I deem it beneath dignity of man, having once set out to reach that mathematical point which marks the northern termination of the axis of earth, which stands as a sign of his failure to dominate those millions of square miles of unknown country, to give it up because the night is dark and the road is long. He will not give it up. The polar explorer typifies the outdoor spirit of the race which has lead conquering man across all seas and through all lands, of that thirst for knowing all there is to be known, which has led him to the depths of the ocean, to the tops of the mountains, to dig in musty caves, to analyse the rays of light from distant worlds, to delve into the geologic records of past times. It will carry him to the North Pole, too, and that before many years have past. Any one who supposes anything else of man doesnt know man. His acquaintance with human nature— with the nature of the adventurous races of our zones and times— is limited.’

Walter Wellman, National Geographic, December 1899. Found in The National Geographic Society: 100 Years of Adventure and Discovery

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THE WORLD AND ALL THAT IS IN IT

To attract readers, Grosvenor would have to change the public’s attitude towards geography, which he knew was regarded “one of the dullest of all subjects, something to inflict upon schoolboys and avoid in later life.” The Society’s key to success, a popular approach to geography, was missing.

He began by studying other geographic journals then being published by geographic societies throughout the world. He next turned to those books in which geography played an important part, books that have endured like Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s Two Years Before the Mast, Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World, and Herodotus’s travels, written 2000 years before. What was there in Herodotus’s History, Grosvenor wrote, “that gave the book such life that it had survived 20 centuries and was still going strong?” What did those geographic books to which readers had returned again and again have in common?

The answer, Grosvenor became convinced, was that “each with an accurate, eyewitness, first hand account. Each contained simple, straightforward writing – writing that sought to make pictures in the readers mind.”

The National Geographic Society: 100 Years of Adventure and Discovery pg. 42

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The Drunken Story Teller

The notion of adapting a work, conceptually, is something that has always intrigued me. So much of our culture consists of reworking of previous material which the internet in particular has thrown into overdrive. This new prominence of alteration, attempts at improvement and straight up copies brings the question of making an adaptation that is interesting. The remake of Star Wars: A New Hope years ago with ASCII or the other remake constituting stitched together of people recreating scenes in 15 second chunks are both interesting from a production standpoint but utterly unengaging as something to watch. So how do you make an adaptation that exists as it’s own enjoyable thing to watch?

There are, in my thinking, two principles that make adaptations work. The first is originality, a faithful adaptation is a bad adaptation, it either exists simply to bring the work into a different medium or to recapture the glory of the past work while putting a token stamp of creativity with different names in the credits. The second principle is surprise, even if your adaptation is faithful as possible having that one element of surprise, casting a previously male character as a female one can alter your interpretation of the whole work which, even if it seems small, can improve the whole product as a result.

For two examples we only have to look at two recent adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. Sherlock is a bad adaptation, it has actors turning out good performances but the scripts are reminiscent of a drunk recalling a story, getting all the plot beats right but forgetting that A. They’ve told you this story before and B. You’re too sober to enjoy their crap. Whereas Elementary while suffering a little from over long series’s enjoys the privilege of being written by a drunk who while telling a story you’ve both heard before A. Knows this and plays with it B. Introduces elements alter the original story in unexpected ways.

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