My LEGO Rant

Whenever my wife and I are fortunate enough to walk through the air conditioned aisles of a Target (most recently on road trips between Santa Barbara and Sacramento in an attempt to lull our five-month-old to sleep) there comes a moment when Jess, without even looking at me and in her off-handed way, asks that I spare her the ritual of "my LEGO rant". Since I've subjected my family and many of my friends to this particular topic to no avail, I've now decided to unleash it upon the Internet, that rollicking sea of discursive opinion.

(The embryo of this rant already appeared in a previous post entitled "The Merest Set of Blocks" where I hold LEGOs up as an example of "life creating" play. The current post takes its departure from this idea, problematizing current trends in LEGOs and drawing out some criticisms and observations.)

Here it goes: LEGOs are a type of toy that allows the literal construction of Tolkienesque co-created worlds. Yet as I roam Target (Jess is probably meanwhile looking at patterned workout pants), I become concerned by what I see as a development in LEGOs that would seem to fundamentally limit the toy's creative power. I'm talking about the overwhelming presence of specifically marked, franchise characters and worlds. In other words, why all the Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Marvel comics?

I see these sets as a problem when I compare them with more basic, unmarked sets from the 90s: City, Space, Medieval, Pirates, etc. These older genres seem to offer the perfect balance of marked specificity and unmarked generality. They have enough connection to a widely-known and accepted, constructed world to give basic parameters for play, basic rules and norms. But at the same time the genres are loose enough to allow for the widest possible variation and manipulation.

Take for example the following, common City character: Body design (black with pockets and silver badge), face (smile with black shades), helmet (white with clear visor), and vehicle (white motorcycle with radio antennas and "police" on the side). All these things mark this figure as a police officer on a motorcycle. Certain generic rules come into play as soon as this concept is accepted: the "good guy" role, power relations to "bad guys" and "innocent City dwellers", the narrative of the "high speed pursuit", etc. But these rules can easily be bent, challenged, or otherwise problematized. Is he the hero? The sidekick? A husband? A father? A son? Happy with his job? Overworked and mentally unstable? Does he have a dark and obscure past? Does he have a criminal brother who pits family against justice? Is he a cop by day and freelance web designer by night? There's nothing to stop you from pretending that the cop is really a criminal in disguise. Or he's in a Halloween costume. Or he's a displaced cyborg from the future. Or a displaced knight from the past. It can be almost whatever you want! You could even insert him into another context; with a little imagination and the addition and subtraction of a few choice pieces he could be a Scout Trooper on a Speeder Bike. (I may or may not have done exactly that as a child...)

The box cover of LEGO Speed Trackers 6625. Photo courtesy of Brickset: the millennial's one-stop nostalgia pit! 

The box cover of LEGO Speed Trackers 6625. Photo courtesy of Brickset: the millennial's one-stop nostalgia pit! 

Specificity meets possibility. LEGOs and genre at their best!

Not so, I argue, with the franchise sets. Everything here is heavily marked. The "Indiana Jones" figurine isn't just any "good guy". He's Harrison Ford. He's a specific persona built upon a solid and controlled tradition of movies and books and video games. He has his own soundtrack. He has specific catch phrases, personality traits, and accouterments. He comes preloaded with certain relationships towards women, snakes, Nazis, his father, America, collegiate teaching, epistemology, mysticism, the use of force, etc. 

Similarly, whoever "Malekith the Accursed" is (I say as I walk through the LEGO aisle in Target perusing the available sets), he obviously has unique characteristics, a specific story and a point of view that puts him into relationship with other characters within his world. If one is unfamiliar with these things, there is a risk of using him "incorrectly". (A lesson I learned with certain "Ninjago" figurines while playing with my nephews.)

I'm not arguing that specificity is in and of itself negative. J.R.R. Tolkien, Stan Lee, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and others have all created rich worlds that have had a lasting effect on our culture in important ways. I'm also not saying that the mixture of genres (eg. "Indiana Jones" having tea with "Darth Vader" in a "castle" with "Iron Man" playing saxophone in the background) is impossible or undesirable or bad. The LEGO Movie in particular uses genre mixture in a particularly powerful, Bakhtinian, carnivalesque way, that reveals the need for reassessment of meta-narratives both in fantasy and reality. I am saying that the specificity of this overly-marked characterization limits the possibility inherent in LEGOs as toys. Their worlds are pre-constructed and much less open to manipulation. And this manipulation is what truly makes LEGOs great.

Co-creation vs. participation. Light generic marking vs. meta-narratives. Open vs. limited.

Obviously any rant is fraught with loopholes and problems. Perhaps I betray my ignorance of the Marvel multiverse, or my dissatisfaction with Peter Jackson's adaptation of LOTR. Perhaps I see limitations where others see potentialities. Perhaps I betray my jealousy of today's purple bricks, the pre-made "Darth Vader" helmets (I had to use the visored knight helmet for that character), the cannons that actually shoot. ("Today's youth don't know how good they have it!" says the old man.) But, also, perhaps I've touched upon something that speaks directly to the fundamentally different ways of viewing the world.

What do you think?

Upon Watching "The Nose"

I took my wife to the opera last weekend. #tophatandspats The Met Live broadcast series was playing Shostakovich's The Nose, and I simply couldn't pass up this unique but admittedly bizarre experience. We prepared ourselves by reading through Gogol's short story and I attempted to lay out the musical expectations of modernist Russia and young, pre-censorship Shostakovich. (Gogol Spoiler Alert: a petty bureaucrat wakes up sans nose, finds it out in society pretending to be of a higher social class, the nose refuses to return to its rightful place, the bureaucrat is distraught at the social injustice of it all, but wakes up a few days later with it returned.)

Family friendly fun! Who doesn't love a fantastical tale of bodily dismemberment and anthropomorphicization? 

Family friendly fun! Who doesn't love a fantastical tale of bodily dismemberment and anthropomorphicization? 

Nevertheless, we were sorely unprepared for what was in store. There are doubtless many studies and essays that have been written on the piece that might illuminate the work more cogently, but as a Soviet music enthusiast, and a musicologist who's given opera a fair bit of thought, here are a few of the things that stood out:

  1. The piece is challenging from a musical standpoint. It's helpful to remember that this is the era of the poet Mayakovsky who delivered his poems through a bullhorn, screaming. The declamation is utterly violent, perhaps unmusical (especially the sycophantic or schizophrenic laughter ["ha ha ha" "ха ха ха"]), and the instrumental interludes pushed me to the threshold of pain, in their percussive, repetitious crescendos. This is difficult to handle and it's even more difficult to notice variations within the sonic world that would give subtlety to the various characters or moods.
  2. This type of music is not intrinsically bad; it has its place and communicates its message at a visceral level that few musical languages can. (Thank you modernism.) I wonder what this medium does to the subject. Opera as a multilayered amalgam of music, literature, and visual effects is generically polyglossic—a Bakhtinian word denoting the simultaneous presence of multiple discourses. I find Shostakovich's music to be dissonant with Gogol's original story, a tale that I interpret as hinging upon "decorum"; in presenting that decorum, Gogol essentially exposes its ridiculousness and shallowness, but it has to be there in the first place before it can be critiqued. Shostakovich's musical world creates a sense of musical chaos, a world in which decorum is merely a concept ("You should know your proper place") that is completely at odds with the musical mode of expression, ie. atonal screaming. 
  3. Without Gogol's restrained layer of subtle decorum (through which we see the delightful exposure of social folly), the opera feels monolithic and lacking in narrative drive. There is hardly any need for the main character, Kovalyov, to recover his nose. He already inhabits a world of bizarre relations, fragmented personalities, chaos barely held in check by some unseen social mechanism. Nothing essential changes when he recovers his body part. No decorous society (however empty and ridiculous) is resumed.
  4. This seems to be highlighted by the production choices of director, William Ketridge. He sets the scene in modernist, 1920s Russia (rather than in pre-Soviet, Imperial Russia, as Shostakovich envisioned), makes continual use of Monty Python-esque projections and visuals, and has several cast members inexplicably wearing masks worthy of Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon. If there is an order in this society, back to which an alienated outcast would desire return, it is completely covered up by the madness of visual cacophony. There is no impetus to return, no wholeness anywhere. (It was equally bizarre to have an actor lamenting the loss of his nose while no attempt was made to conceal it via makeup or prop at all.) In an of itself, the visual mastery was entertaining, but I found it to be extremely dissonant with Gogol's tale.
  5. Some musical moments were worth remembering and exploring further: The church scene was haunting and reminded me of the Coronation Scene from Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov. The mournful oboe music accompanying the futile attempts to reattach the nose (much like Peter Pan's fruitless attempts with his wayward shadow). And the balalaika-accompanied song of the valet, Ivan, which takes its text from Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.
Picasso's  Demoiselles d'Avignon  (1907), some of whom seem to be having their own Kovalyov sort of day.

Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), some of whom seem to be having their own Kovalyov sort of day.

I liked it, but would want to study the score a bit more before seeing it again, as that might make clearer the aural relationships within this stage society and open space for musical/social critique. Once again, my wife is a trooper. (Her husband has now made her sit through this AND Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. I'd better take her to some Mozart quick!)

What do you think?