This Power Might Not Last

During the Christmas shutdown, I was playing a lot of World of Warcraft. It’s something to do but, as I discussed with one of my brothers, it is simply fun-ish. Once I returned to Wycombe, I removed it from my hard-drive and decided to look around for a palette cleanser. There was a winter sale on the Steam service. I picked up a few games, which included Dontnod entertainment’s Life Is Strange. The first episode of Life is Strange was released in January 2015, the last in October of the same year. I will be writing about my experience of playing this game. The story is a coming of age tale with a time-travel twist and elements of murder mystery. I found it a beautiful, albeit flawed, gem. As always, I will warn the reader now that extensive spoilers are to follow.

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“One Small Part of Myself” – Ancillary Justice

A few days ago I finished Ann Leckie’s multi-award winning debut novel Ancillary Justice, released in 2013. I had heard and read about it in the past, and picked it up for my e-reader as it was on sale earlier in the month. I am really pleased that I did; it doesn’t need me to say it, but Justice is a splendid example of science fiction, the fiction of ‘ideas.’ Spoilers of major plot points follow, so please be aware if you want to read the novel unspoiled, stop now.

The story, set at some indeterminately distant future, follows the experiences of Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen, an Ancillary of the troop carrier Justice of Toren, who is on a mission to avenge the murder of one Lieutenant Awn. Of course, the story is straight-forward neither chronologically nor motivationally. One Esk Nineteen – by this point operating under the identity of ‘Breq of the Gerentate’ – is not just a subsidiary component of Justice of Toren. She became the totality – or as near as possible – of it after the ship Justice of Toren was destroyed. Even before that, One Esk Nineteen had quirks of behaviour that differentiated her segment from the other segments within Justice of Toren; she sang, she had her own favourites. Justice of Toren was Awn’s executioner, just not the segment of which One Esk Nineteen. It is the ruler of the space empire of which Justice of Toren is subservient to who ordered Awn’s execution: Anander Mianaai. Mianaai has multiple bodies who have started to struggle at cross purposes to themselves, segments of the ruler as One Esk Nineteen is a segment of Justice of Toren.

Science Fiction uses technology as a device to have readers ask about both the world we live in, and of our assumptions about it. Ancillary Justice continues this tradition by questioning our ideas of what is the self and what it means to be a person, asking questions of how we construct our identity. As Breq thinks “It seems very straightforward when I say “I”” yet is anything but. Breq is open about not understanding her subjectivity, the novel begins with her professing that “sometimes I don’t know why I do the things I do.”

We are told in the first chapter that she “is not what [she] once was” a statement that at face value is linked to her diminished capabilities but, underneath that, hints at the sprawling complexities of an identity: “it’s hard for me to know how much of myself I remember.” She was once part of a ship with many components, and is now one alone;

“I was all but dead, had been for twenty years, just a last, tiny fragment of myself that managed to exist a bit longer than the rest.”

Before that, the body of Breq was that of a human taken in an annexation – the conquest and subsumation of a planet in to the Radch. Whoever that person was is lost, unless they exist on in One Esk’s love of singing. Breq’s identity is questioned, not just by herself, but whether she is herself at all. On Nilt, with the doctor Strigan, Breq is advised to seek out a new life away from Radch, to which Breq’s response is, if she did as advised, should she let go of her vendetta, would Strigan require monthly updates on her exploits, so that she ‘approved’ of Breq’s identity. Does she at all have any say in what Breq makes of herself as a person?

“Is anyone’s identity a matter of fragments held together by a convenient or useful narrative?”[1]

This is something that Breq struggles with, the way in which societal convention plays a part in how we construct ourselves. For example, among the Nilters, there are differentiated genders that she cannot identify:

“I had to take gender into account – Strigan’s language required it. The society she lived in professed at the same time to believe gender was insignificant… yet no one I’d met had ever hesitated, or guessed wrong. And they had invariably been offended when I did.”

I was really intrigued by the gender construction in Justice as I was reading the book, as it forced me to stop and think. Obviously, I live in a nominally two-gender society.[2] The Radch have only one gendered pronoun, ‘she’, and Breq continues throughout the book to refer to characters as ‘she’ and ‘her’ almost exclusively. Even Seivarden, a time-lost officer who Breq rescues, who is identified as biologically male, Breq thinks of as she and her. Leckie could have just used a neutral pronoun, or a made-up one, but by instead going with she, she pushes us in to a critical position. As Breq explains to Strigan, it is not that there is no gender, or sex, but that the priorities of Radch are different. In English, we possess two gendered pronouns and, as grammarians would have it, ‘he’ is the neutral pronoun. In Justice, ‘she’ is not just the default, but the exclusive pronoun. This inverts the linguistic culture in which the text is composed, forcing the reader to pay attention to the characters in the text, and communicating Breq’s discomfort. Being part of Patriarchal society, we are taught from an early age to look for gender signifiers, which Breq struggles with. In turn, we the reader peer in to the text trying to discover gender without the helpful shorthand of pronouns. It also places us in a position to approach the characters divorced from any hold-over linguistic assumptions: Breq, Seivarden, Mianaai, Awn, Saaiat are just there; old Sevin’s cognitive estrangement achieved with the simplest of flourishes.

Justice does not present self in a dichotomous fashion, with reason as you and your emotional life as some nefarious other desperate to drag the higher mind down – I mentioned in watching the film Lucy that I find this othering of emotional consideration a frustrating and lazy tendency that manifest in sf – but rather a vital part of the cognitive process. When we are introduced to Seivdarden, she is suffering withdrawal from a drug called Kef. This drug numbs the emotions of the users, in the belief that “emotions out of the way, supreme rationality would result.” Breq, (and the ship that she once was) dismisses this simply that “it doesn’t work that way.” Emotions are useful: Mianaai does not excise the emotional reasoning of the ships despite the risk of disloyalty because without it, they are simply unable to prioritise. It is because she, or One Esk, is able to have emotional attachments that she is able to oppose Mianaai. Seivarden, without emotions, was dying in a snow drift until Breq found her.

It might be easy to dismiss that as all that book does, explore the fragmentary psyche of a being questionably possessed of personhood, but Justice is far better, and far smarter, than that. Breq’s problems are reflected in the universe she travels in, and the conflict of the story, those contradictions that flourish in living. The culture that Justice of Toren originated within and served, the Radch, is structured around the idea of civilisation and being civilised. Breq illuminates a pun within Radchai is that to say one is not Radch is to say one is not civilised. Yet, much like the Roman culture which Leckie drew on for some inspiration, the Radch are barbarous, a culture built on ceaseless aggression and conquest, that dispenses atrocity in conquest, a police state; it is also a utopia that provides for its citizens, practices syncretic religion, and has (as evinced in the pronouns) massively more progressive values re gender than our own society. Yet “the noblest, most well-intentioned people in the world can’t make annexations a good thing.” This is absolutely clear to the reader, as it has already been described to us that the humans that are converted in to Ancillaries are neither dead nor insensate, but aware the whole time. The things in Radch that are considered good, that civilise the society, are inextricably intertwined with the brutal, bad things:

“The same drugs used for aptitude testing… could also be used for interrogation.”

Radch had an irreconcilable differences within it that manifest in the supreme leader, Anander Mianaai.

“Which me do you serve?” Mianaai asks Breq near the end of the novel, when the crippled, vengeful ship has come to kill Mianaai, as many of her as she can. Of course, what she is really asking Breq is what vision of the Radch she aligns to: the nominally progressive Radch that wants to change as circumstances change, or the Radch that seeks to retrench militarily and preserve, or reassert, the older values of the imperium. Breq rejects the idea that she serves either – “I didn’t kneel, or even bow” – or even the Radch; if she serves anything it is only the memory of the dead Lieutenant Awn. The point of allegiance to the Radch is, for Breq, a pointless one. The whole thing is morally compromised as, whatever end is met, it will be Anander Mianaai. This is familiar territory for science fiction[3] but it is Mianaai who observes that for all the fact that, while from a high-level view, small changes mean nothing, for many people those small changes could be the difference between life and death:

“If you’ve got power and money and connections, some differences won’t change anything… It’s the people without the money and the power, who desperately want to live, for those people small things aren’t small at all. What you call no difference is life and death to them.”

To return to the Roman inspiration for a moment, Breq and Mianaai both have their Rubicon moments that establishes discreet identities, the choices they make birthing their new and separate selves, connected to their prior identities but also forced to acknowledge they are somehow different. As we experience the story in Breq’s perspective, that sense of self is always tinctured with a feeling of loss, of diminishment. The synthesis (if you’ll forgive the butchered Hegelianism) is more a fall from the perfect knowledge of Justice of Toren to the limited perspective of just One Esk Nineteen. And yet as Breq she can achieve things, think things that the ship never could. Similarly, when Breq forces the Mianaais to recognise their fracturing in to more than one self, something is lost in the change, but something is gained, even if only in the possible. Justice is replete with the idea that identity is not a fixed thing, subject both to ourselves and others, and often unpredictable, whether it is One Esk shooting the Mianaai that ordered her to kill her beloved Lieutenant Awn, or the change in perspective that Seivarden undergoes that sees her embracing change in the face of reaction. Though, as she thinks she is dying, Breq thinks of herself only as “a machine meant for killing” we see that her internal contradictions make her much more, and create the possibility for us to consider others in the same light.

[1] The idea that identity is something that is subject to scrutiny resonated with a favourite exchange in China Mieville’s Embassytown, here BrenDun tries to explain to Avice: “If I’d thrown his away and kept mine, you’d think I was clinging to my dead identity or resenting his death. If I threw them both away, you’d see me in denial. If I kept his but not mine you’d say I was refusing to let him go. There’s nothing I can do you won’t do that to.”

[2] It should be noted here that the reality of life is very different from the way it is described – basically, two genders doesn’t even begin to describe what actually goes on, but it is used to do so.

[3] Any conversation about utopian cultures and intelligent spaceships gravitates around the late Ian M. Banks’s Culture novels, and if I still had access to those, a compare and contrast with, say, Use of Weapons, would be cracking.

Hemingway’s Ghost

Caught up with another film on Netflix that I had missed at the Cinema: Dom Hemingway. Please keep in mind major plot spoilers will follow. Dom Hemingway is a 2013 film written and directed by Richard Shepard. Jude Law takes the title role of Dom, a cockney villain having finished a 12-year stint for an undisclosed crime. Co-stars include Richard E Grant as Dickie Black, Dom’s sartorially preoccupied best friend; and Emilia Clarke as Evelyn Hemingway, Dom’s daughter who has not had contact with Dom since he went in to prison.

Dom has maintained his silence throughout his time in prison and is now looking to collect. On his discharge from prison he meets with old accomplice and friend Dickie who informs Dom that he has been invited to visit with their previous employer Mr Fontaine (Demian Bechir), a man “raised in a Russian convent who kills people for a living.” This involves a trip to France; a motif employed across British cinema to represent removal from the mores of society: in Foreign Parts the normal rules are suspended. Mr Fontaine is a dangerous criminal kingpin who plays by the same old school rules as Dom – even when Dom insults him, he recognises he owes Dom a debt so doesn’t have him killed in a ditch. Dom receives his reward but following a bacchanalian night and ill-advised drive loses it all after a predictable crash. Mr Fontaine dies and his paramour Paolina (Madalina Ghenea) makes off with Dom’s money. Dom must return to London, to reality.

Dom is a dinosaur at least in part because of his ‘code of ethics’ and his adherence to this puts him at continual risk. Dom is a scoundrel in the mould of the Lock Stock rogues, a philosophising cockney wide-boy who self-identifies as a ‘peasant’, a violent men with a penchant for poet and inadequate self-reflection. Later, Dom is trying to get work as a safe cracker from Lester (Jumayn Hunter), the son of a rival and someone who bears a grudge for Dom’s past misdeeds. It is all a lampoon, a rigged bet with Dom’s penis on the chopping block. Lester takes the time to explain to Dom that believing in a code in prison left him cheated and now outside it will cause him further loss. Only the timely arrival of the security services allows Dom and Dickie to escape intact.

The threat of emasculation is, unsurprisingly, a major one, but not just for the obvious reasons. The film opens with Dom a soliloquy about his penis and its many attributes while being fellated:

Dom’s code is identity to his masculinity; it is both his power and his peril, an uncontrollable ID that lands him in trouble with Mr Fontaine; he ‘wanks open a safe’ only to be caught gloating by Lester who has tricked with misdirection. Dom doesn’t just have a penis, he is his penis.

It is perhaps no surprise that the character shares a surname with the writer Ernest Hemingway, pioneer of a minimalist style of writing that has come to be associated with his ultra-masculine values. Dom isn’t a perfect cypher for the writer Hemingway’s style of masculinity (Dom doesn’t hunt, though he will eat what has been hunted) but much like Hemingway the author, there is a sense that someone like Dom, after twelve years away, is not a good fit for the world. The film’s soundtrack emphasizes this distemporality with the use of old songs. I fear many were a touch too old; twelve years ago was the time of Limp Bizkit, Eminem and Coldplay. This was perhaps done to emphasize the Britishness of this production, and British talent tends to be very, very middle-class. Still, Dom comes across as a man out of time, even in his own time.

The film isn’t quite trying to eulogize Dom, however. In a lot of ways, I felt Dom Hemingway had come to bury the maverick rogue of Britfilm, not to praise him. Dom’s wild appetites cause him to crash, his criminal past cost him his wife and family, his rages several times risk his life, as does his vanity. I came away with very much the sense that Dom Hemingway is the bookend to films like Lock, Stock… and Layer Cake that (re)introduced us to the (very lucrative) idea of lovable rogues on bumbling capers. Dom is the man at the end of that life, worn down and used up. The most powerful moments in the film come when he realises this: when he is running from Lester, when he is at his ex-wife Kathy’s grave. It is surprisingly unsentimental about those earlier films; Dom is shockingly, casually racist, an implicit critique of the all too often, all too white cast of those earlier films (which Dom Hemingway does not reproduce).

It holds a very British sensibility, particularly a British masculinity. Compared to Don Jon, the masculine identity of Dom Hemingway is immobile. There’s no sense in Dom Hemingway that Dom might have an epiphany and change; the only epiphany he can have is of who he is and how to come to terms with that. There is no modern masculine identity, only a backwards look at how things were and aren’t now. The scene where Dom, fresh from prison, lights up in a pub, illustrates this: smoking in pubs is a manly thing, but also a thing of the past. Dom, a relic, still lights up in defiance. There is an element within the film of longing for this, even as it acknowledges that it is a thing that is gone.

The film’s relationship to masculinity is a complicated one. Dom is aggressive and confrontational but nearly every time his braggadocio ends up with him in trouble. When he is humble things go better for him: this is replicated in his relationships with his daughter, with his employer, even with a woman whose life he saves. Furthermore, by the metric of provider and protector, Dom has failed as a man not in spite of his macho attitude, but because of it. He was not even able to contribute to the cost of Kathy’s burial, and she had divorced him before she died. He did not see Evelyn grow up, and she will not call him ‘Dad.’

However, I think a narrative strain of the film is not one in which Dom must change, but rather acknowledge the changed world. After his crash, rather than rush to get his money, Dom engages in a single act of heroism in saving the life of Melody (Kerry Condon), a girl brought in by Mr Fontaine to entertain Dom. She tells Dom that in saving her life, luck will come to him. Later on, he spots Melody in London and confronts her with the fact that his luck has been shit, but then confesses what he really wants is not money but to speak with his daughter. When Dom accepts his place in a chaotic universe, things start to go his way. It is important to keep in mind that Dom does not change but persists until the universe comes round to him. Evelyn softens to him and Dom gets to be properly acquainted with his grandson. Serendipity causes him to cross Paolina’s path once more. With intimidation and clever hands, he rides fate’s coat-tails as they turn to him.

Unfortunately, I think Jude Law was miscast for this role, which would have been a tough act for anyone. The lovable cockney rogue is a well tilled furrow, quoting cod philosophy as he gets his knuckles bloody, and repetition has made it commonplace. There are times where Law’s dialect sounds forced. When he is best are those moments where we see that the wide-boy mantle is slipping from Dom’s shoulders, where he is alone and in doubt. In silence I found Law’s Dom compelling, a portrait of physical dejection, but he never quite pulls off the physical menace. A scene where he is shouting at La Fontaine fell flat; it might have been intentional but it came across as not so much a man out of his depth but rather a man who had never done anything like this before. If I can engage in a spot of fantasy nepotism I actually found myself imagining a brother of mine in the role. There’s a certain snarl of intonation that Law lacked. It is in the final scene, across from Paolina, with his whispered threats in her ear, that Law truly attained menace.

Richard E Grant was very good as Dickie, used just enough to contrast with Dom. Dom invites himself into Dickie’s home in one scene, it is undeniable that Dickie, like Dom, is an end-point of one of the lads: the man of taste and culture. Much like Dom’s dreams of wealth and freedom, Dickie’s aspirations have really come to nothing. Grant is perfect in this role: arch, droll, a little bit cowardly, Dom’s staunch ally.

The film does replicate the usual Brit-flick issues of female representation. Women are possessions, ciphers, trophies, sibyls. His wife remarried but is always his ‘possession’; Melody appears to provide cryptic guidance and affirmation before disappearing; Paolina is an opportunistic thief. We get very little of fully realised characterisation for any of the women. Evelyn powerfully pricks Dom’s faltering swagger outside a club she has been performing at, but ultimately retrenches into tentative reconciliation. Granting more female agency would require a significant rethink and rewrite of the entire script.

As with many films, this one ends with the promise of hope and while I am not disappointed, I think it could there could have been a strong arc as the epilogue to the Brit-flick culture: Dom returns from the fairy-land of crime capers to a reality that does not acknowledge and indeed throws in to question his achievements, that the immediate gratification is not worth the consequences. For my viewing, Dom’s sorrow was more compelling than Dom’s triumph.

Another kind of dragon to slay

Don Jon is a 2013 movie written, directed by and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Spoilers follow. JG-L plays “Don” Jon, a late-twenties, early-thirties lothario currently on a streak of sexual conquests It also stars Scarlet Johansson as Barbara, the ‘dime’ and object of Jon’s affections, and Julianne Moore as Esther, an intelligent older woman at Jon’s night-classes.

Jon lives alone and works as a barman. He informs us that he only cares about a few things: his family, his car, his boys, keeping his flat clean (a major plot point) and porn. Jon likes porn more than he likes real sex. Jon consumes a lot of porn, and the effect of this on him and his relationships is the focus of the film.

The title is a clever little play on words that I appreciated. Jon is referred to as ‘the Don’ for his prodigious sexual prowess; it is also most obviously a reference to ‘Don Juan’, the famous (fictional) libertine and sexual adventurer. However, the themes the movie explores also invite the homophonic reading of donjon or, as it came to be in English, dungeon.

Jon begins the film by thinking that perhaps he is unable to enjoy real sex because he has been ‘doing it wrong’. He decides that lacking an emotional connection to his bed-partners I what is causing his dissatisfaction with sex. He tries to create one by engaging in a committed relationship with Barbara.

Barbara is not right for Jon (and quite unsympathetic to us the audience) as she demands a variety of things from him including giving up porn, attending night classes and (importantly) he should not clean his own house. This doesn’t work out; Jon is unable to form a genuine bond with Barbara and so he continues to return (secretly) to pornography. Jon does try to live up to Barbara’s (and society’s) expectations.

It is at night class that he meets Esther, an older woman who appears to be emotionally volatile. As the film progresses, we are shown that Esther possesses a great maturity than the other major actors in the film inasmuch as she recognises her own need to break down. When Jon & Barbara’s relationship eventually fails, it is with Esther Jon manages to establish an emotional and sexual connection.

(Perhaps at this point we should think of what Jon is in less of a dungeon and more as a labyrinth he is trying to navigate.)

There are quite a few things this film approaches thoughtfully and sensitively. Jon isn’t shown as a bad guy for consuming porn, but rather he is clueless. An early exchange between Jon and Esther has him incredulous to the idea that the sex he sees in pornographic movies is staged; Jon sincerely believes that the sex acts are more real than the real thing. What he likes, and what he is unable to find in physical intimacy, is that he can disappear while watching porn.

Esther attempts to introduce him to more healthy pornography (both the film and I will reject the porn/erotica dichotomy, at least linguistically). It is not the spectating of sex acts, or even necessarily the pleasure of voyeurism, that is at fault here but rather the specific praxis of pornography consumption that Jon engages with that is to be criticised; that of heavily stylized mainstream erotica. This is shown in the film when Esther challenges Jon to attempt to masturbate without using any pornography and he finds himself unable to.

Pornography is part of a more expansive cultural system that imprisons Jon. In his family we see that Jon is very much in the shadow of his father; his father’s response to Barbara is apposite, as is his response in the conclusion of the film that it is a man’s greatest happiness to start a family. While visiting the family Jon dresses and holds himself in a manner identical to his father. Much of Jon’s life is lived through the prism of masculine identity inherited from his father.

An exception to this, and one of the things that gives Jon joy, is that he cleans his own flat. He has a particular system which he tries to explain to Barbara. Barbara refuses this non-normative behaviour, labels it ‘weird’, and refuses to accept that Jon takes pleasure in tidying. It is not part of the conception of manliness that she (and culture) takes part in.

Another of the prisms of constraint Jon’s relationship with the Church. Jon, a Catholic, receives communion and goes to confession each week and informs the priest of how many times he has had sex and how many times he has masturbated during the week and then receives his customary ten hail-maries. When Jon forms a relationship with Barbara and lies to her about giving up porn, he also lies to his priest. At confession he he is given 5 hail-maries. (He is pleased at this, and carried out his hail-maries as part of his exercise regime. Barbara informs him this is ‘weird’ and he should stop.) In a later confession he informs the priest he lied earlier about having given up pornography but now has and the priest gives him ten hail-maries. Jon, visibly distressed, asks the priest how they arrive at the numbers to which he is told to ‘trust in the Church.’

The film is not so simplistic as to posit that Jon is the only character ‘living in the dungeon’ so to speak. It needs must spend less time on it, but the construction of conventional family and romantic love envisaged by Jon’s mother and Barbara respectively are equally restrictive. Even Esther is walking through the corridors of her grief.

The film parallels Jon’s response to pornography and Barbara’s to romantic films by reproducing facial shots, lighting and focus on the dilated pupils. After they have separated, Jon attempts to meet with Barbara to apologise for his dishonesty. Instead of closure, they squabble. It’s a good scene, with Jon attempting to articulate that he was addicted to porn due in part to loneliness, and Barbara unable to acknowledge that what she wanted from Jon was not reasonable; her constant reiteration of ‘I only asked you for one thing’ which Jon finally calls out as untrue.

As Jon’s sister observed when he told his family he and Barbara were finished, Barbara did not really see Jon, but only a life which she sees as desirable. For Jon this is part of the navigation of his labyrinth but Barbara cannot see that, stuck as she is in her.

It also bears mentioning that Jon attempts to replicate the dominant cultural narratives of masculinity among his friends; he (and we) are equally jailkeeper and jailed. Even though he is unhappy with Barbara, he lies to his friends about how fulfilling a sex life they have. He frames this as part of a narrative of give and take but, of course, neither of them are giving. It is perhaps that Jon has a problem with honesty, with himself and with others.

The film is not perfect, and comes across a little bit like JG-L had recently read Derrida on Rousseau/Derrida on Masturbation. It also relies a little too much on the idea of women being able to bring men wisdom which they cannot reach on their own; one of Jon’s friends attempts to speak with him about Barbara after their break-up, but fails to do so (though he does get Jon to continue with the night classes). It is only with Esther and his sister that Jon finds anyone willing to perceive his unhappiness. It also replicates the good/bad romantic/casual sex dichotomy at the end of the film, which we have already seen is damaging to Barbara.

Barbara is well acted but skirts a little close to unpleasant stereotypes about controlling women. The film is about Jon, and all the other participants are perceived through this prism (the parallel of Jon/Barbara to their respective reactions notwithstanding) and Barbara is very much part of Jon’s dungeon. There is an attempt to present her as a person in her own right, but little is done to make her a character we empathise with. We know that she wants to be successful, Jon to be successful and to have things a certain way, but we never receive any insight in to why. (It might be interesting to do a critical contrast with Shame; both are about men in thrall to sexual desire but manifested in different ways. Shame is also much, much less upbeat). Compare this with Esther who initially we encounter weeping in a doorway and, by the film’s end, we know why: her husband and son were killed in a road accident 14 months ago.

It does include positive elements of male bonding as Jon moves away from alpha male patterns to a more inclusive behaviour, rejecting homosocial mores. Even if it doesn’t completely reject the dichotomies of the romantic and pornographic films it attempts to engage with, it does at least try to question them. While one could criticise the film for taking the part of the ‘alpha male’ it is by following that track, and showing it is not all wine and roses for Jon, that the strength of criticism of the social structures that imprison us all can be founded. It also features this gem of a segment, on which I shall finish: