Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog

March 26 2015 8:32 AM

Why Genius Annotations Are Not the Storytelling Tool of the Future

On Wednesday, Electric Literature unveiled a short story, by science-fiction fabulist Charles Yu, with its own futuristic twist: digital annotations, courtesy of the close-reading behemoth Genius.Hero Absorbs Major Damage” chronicles the epic quest of Hero and his magical band through 256 battles, at the end of which they will face “the final boss” and their destiny. Using Genius software to glaze commentary from the Hero’s elf guide, Fjoork, over the main narration, Yu adds layers to an already-complex set up, in which our world abuts and sometimes flows into a fantasy reality. “When the folks at Genius and I first discussed the possibility of annotating fiction, we were excited about the possibilities,” wrote Electric Literature editor Halimah Marcus in an introductory note. “A secondary character could finally have her say; an older, wiser narrator could look back on his misspent youth.” Fjoork’s commentary is clever and welcome—another thread in the story’s fugue of vantage points, and another deadpan delight in a tale studded with Easter eggs. But it doesn’t exactly point toward a brave new world of virtual storytelling.

Reading “Major Damage” can resemble (wink, wink) playing a video game, in that you range around absorbing secret totems and treats: a character muses that his body “looks like some kind of puppet, something to be … controlled and manipulated,” a swordsman confesses he’s “always wanted to get into Animal Empathy.” The elf-zingers are offered in the same puncturing spirit. “It felt like we’d been through just about everything there was to go through,” says the Hero loftily. “The elf really didn’t like the term ‘paycheck job,’ ” notes Fjoork. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think Krugnor [a sexy warrior-mystic, the Hero’s comrade and rival] had cast Infatuation on everyone,” grumps the Hero. “It was not the easiest thing for The Hero to deal with. No one likes feeling inadequate,” snarks Fjoork.

Yu first wrote “Major Damage” sans annotations, and it’s worth mentioning that the story feels complete without them. Fjoork’s glosses don’t provide a different kind of pleasure than the Hero’s first-person account; surreal, undermine-y jokes are already baked into the main narration. When Krugnor explains that, in order to become brothers-in-arms, he and the Hero will need to touch souls, the Hero tells hastily him “that I’m getting over a cold and don’t want him to catch it.” Not only does the epic deflate itself without Fjoork’s help, but the elf’s viewpoint necessarily holds less interest than the Hero’s. After all, Fjoork is not willfully suspending his disbelief or fending off external distractions. He lacks his captain’s double consciousness—the broader, high-stakes knowledge that makes statements like “I Am Here” and “Is it really going to end like that?” at once hilarious and profound.

So by all means, come to “Hero Absorbs Major Damage” for the innovative format, and because signs show that Genius is poised to take over the world. Stay for the lovely storytelling. There are goofy touches (a hapless, mediocre god named Frëd) that open like trapdoors into metaphysical quandaries, and a cast of likeable, vulnerable schmoes whose big, nerdy, romantic dreams feel implicative. (This poignancy extends even to the hardiest gamer conventions—how the babe must love the hero, and the hero the babe—as if Yu were underscoring our powerlessness against the true clichés in our own lives.) There are wonderful George Saunders callbacks, as when the Hero observes his soul tugging “itself out of my mortal coil” and ghosting toward the edges of the screen:

My POV is floating up toward the clouds. I watch my body down there, fighting without spirit. Frëd help us, I cry out, in a moment of desperation.
I can’t see him, but I feel Frëd’s presence next to me. “I thought you didn’t believe in me,” he says.
“That seems sort of petty.”

Stay for a redolent hodgepodge of Norse myths (frost giants!), gamer-ese (“Darts of Moderate Pain”!) and chicken parts (the characters only eat chicken, for some reason). If “Major Damage” represents an effort by Electric Literature to demonstrate the indispensability of annotated fiction going forward, I’m not sure they succeeded. But if they wanted to publish an excellent story, they definitely did.

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March 25 2015 9:41 PM

A Video Essay Breakdown of Jaws’ Iconic Beach Scene

There are a handful of movie moments that are so recognizable, so deeply embedded in cultural memory, that their images endure regardless of whether you’ve seen them. One such moment is the Jaws beach scene, a masterwork of narrative compression that announced the arrival of a young talent named Steven Spielberg.

So what makes the scene so good? In the first episode of new video essay series “The Discarded Image,” Julian Palmer suggests the answer is Spielberg’s knack for putting the audience in the place of the actor.

March 25 2015 5:52 PM

This Fan-Made Short Shows Star Wars From the Empire’s Point of View

This fan-made Star Wars animated short film, “TIE Fighter,” allows fans to experience a battle with the Rebel Alliance from the Empire’s point of view.

Drawn and animated by Paul Johnson, the video is an homage to a 1994 video game, also called TIE Fighter, and took four years’ worth of weekends to make, according to Kotaku. Turns out trading in orchestral scores for electric guitar-laden rock music completely changes the mood.

March 25 2015 4:59 PM

What It Really Means That Zayn Malik Is Leaving One Direction

Zayn Malik is officially leaving One Direction, and teens everywhere (as well as secret fans, myself possibly included) are feeling the loss. The band will continue on as a four-piece, but believe it or not, 1D is losing a lot more than just a chiseled jawline with Malik’s departure.

March 25 2015 1:35 PM

Deadline Says There Are Not Enough Roles on TV for White People. Poor White People.

Late last year, I, like most reasonable people with even a passing interest in race, gender, television (or all of the above) read Alessandra Stanley’s New York Times piece about Shonda Rhimes with a combined mix of fascination, shock, horror, and disgust. In that infamously tone-deaf piece about the successful showrunner behind Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder, Stanley referred to Rhimes as an “angry black woman” and equated Viola Davis’ age and dark complexion as being “less classically beautiful” than that of the younger, lighter-skinned Kerry Washington.

March 25 2015 1:08 PM

Vin Diesel Says Furious 7 Will Win Best Picture. Our “For Your Consideration” Ad Proves It.

“Universal is going to have the biggest movie in history with this movie,” Diesel tells Variety in this week’s cover story, speaking about Furious 7. “It will probably win best picture at the Oscars, unless the Oscars don’t want to be relevant ever.

Diesel is right, of course. But why stop with Best Picture? We made this For Your Consideration ad to make clear just how many golden statues this awards juggernaut should go up for.

March 25 2015 12:22 PM

Mindy’s Baby Was the Worst Part of This Season of The Mindy Project

The Mindy Project has always been a roller coaster ride of reinvention—casually discarding plot lines along with characters in a desperate attempt to find its groove. At the end of Season 2, it tried to settle down—forgoing Mindy’s rotating cast of guest-star boyfriends for a steady relationship with co-worker Danny (Chris Messina), and culminating in a rooftop scene on the Empire State Building in an homage to Sleepless in Seattle (in an episode that also paid tribute to You’ve Got Mail). But, even after Tuesday night’s finale, the pregnancy plot has become the weakest part of the show.

It’s always difficult for a sitcom when the central will-they-or-won’t-they characters decide that they, in fact, will. Recently, New Girl tipped two of its core relationships into this zone, whereas Parks and Recreation managed to make Leslie and Ben’s marriage one of the most endearing parts of the show. In the case of Mindy, the main relationship gave the show the stability it was so greatly lacking. We finally had a central plot to follow and a consistent character in Mindy’s life—someone to play the straight man to her impossibly eccentric, politically incorrect, and yet wildly successful doctor.

March 25 2015 12:07 PM

Kendrick Lamar May Have Gone Rapping Through Your Neighborhood on a Moving Truck

Ever since Beyoncé pulled the first Beyoncé with Beyoncé a year and a half ago, just about every artist in music has been locked in an arms race to out-surprise everyone else. There have been the surprise albums, of course, but there have also been the surprise performances. Last year there was Kanye and U2 and Bruce Springsteen showing up without notice in Times Square. Right now there is Prince ambushing fans all over the country with his “Hit & Run” tour in the U.S. And now, last night, Kendrick Lamar drove through Hollywood performing a surprise concert on a flatbed truck.

March 25 2015 11:11 AM

The Entourage Movie Trailer Is Full of Guest Stars and Debauchery    

The boys of Entourage will soon return with their full-length movie, out June 5, and if this trailer is any indication, their shenanigans are back in full force. Vince, Ari, and the gang are ready to take Hollywood by storm, from the red carpet to the … UFC wrestling ring? Throw in yacht parties, a sex tape, and a panoply of guest stars including Jessica Alba, Mark Wahlberg, Liam Neeson, Ronda Rousey, George Takei, and Bob Saget. The film’s mantra—“Dream large, live larger”—is about as Entourage-y as movie taglines get.

March 25 2015 9:22 AM

How to Make Your Own Granola Without Measuring a Single Ingredient

I have previously offered Slate readers my recipe for granola, which went on to defeat Stephen Metcalf’s and Jesse Baker’s recipes in the Culture Gabfest’s infamous granola showdown. In hindsight, I fear that pitting granola recipes against one another like pageant contestants may have been a mistake. In truth, you don’t need a recipe for granola. All you really need is a template for granola, along with ideas for things that might make it taste good.

And the template is very, very flexible. What’s the right ratio of oats to nuts and seeds? There is no right ratio! Just stir the dry ingredients until the balance of ingredients looks right to you, then add enough fat and syrup to moisten them. It’s very difficult to go wrong when you’re making granola.

Which is why I encourage you to do so without a recipe. See the video below for my favorite ingredients and variations, and then try it yourself. Because there are no losers when you make your own granola (unless you burn it).