June 18, 2023

9. Faulkner: The Unvanquished


CD9, 50¢, August 1959. Cover artist unknown. 192 pp.

Set against the backdrop of the chaos of the Civil War, this is the magnificent story of the proud Sartoris family, who lived with violence in order to survive. But it is particularly the account of how young Bayard Sartoris, well tutored in killing, found the wisdom to decide that there had been enough bloodshed, and the courage to face the enemy alone — and unarmed.

This is one of the most powerful works of America’s Nobel Prize-winning author, one which lends insight into his other books and illuminates Faulkner’s credo: “Man is tough. Nothing — war, grief, hopelessness, despair — can last as long as man himself can last; man himself will prevail over all his anguishes, provided he will make the effort to stand erect on his own two feet by believing in hope and in his own toughness and endurance.”

With a Foreword by Carvel Collins

Vanquished, finally. Only took me a year.

One sees it said that this book makes a perfect introduction to Faulkner, because (to quote from this edition’s foreword) “the central idea of the novel is obvious, its style relatively simple.”

Thus encouraged, I began. To my dismay I found that the central idea of the novel was not obvious and the style was rather difficult.

No matter how carefully I parsed the ostentatiously roiling sentences (these, the ones I read, the only ones) which carried in defiant repose the stubborn insignia of that uncertainty which marks every sorrowful recoil of comprehension, every insistence that these, the sentences we are reading, are the ones, the ones of which we’ve heard old men speak but never read for ourselves, except that their voices (the voices of the old men) were only voices, echoes of some forgotten calumny no more real than General Lee, once as solid as the land over which he ranged, furious in retreat, is real (to us, to me), now just a whisper, an insinuation.

Ahem. I was saying: No matter how carefully I parsed the ostentatiously roiling sentences, the book as a whole remained mysterious, a sequence of peculiarly overwritten events of no clear import. I could tell that something insistently Southern was playing out behind a scrim of prose, but I couldn’t pick up any guiding scent of tone or plot. Uh-oh, sounds like a classic case of Faulkner after all.

Yet when I went opinion-gathering, it seemed like every Goodreads Moe and YouTube Larry was blithely reporting that this was a GOOD BOOK ABOUT A BOY WHO GRWOS UP, ITS EXCITING, I LIKED IT. The discrepancy made me uneasy.

I crawled all the way to the middle of the last chapter, and then life happened to break my rhythm and the book was set aside with about twenty pages remaining. When I picked it up a few months later, it was oddly clear and simple. Apparently I hadn’t really read any of it yet, because I hadn’t known how, whereas now I was ready to read it properly. So I started over, and found that it had become a whole other book, about a boy who grwos up, in which the central idea was obvious and the style was relatively straightforward. And I enjoyed and admired it. Somewhat.

I think the problem boiled (and, I daresay, boils) down to this:

There are seven chapters, of which the first six were originally written as middlebrow magazine stories: five for The Saturday Evening Post and one for Scribner’s. These stories were always intended to be serial and cumulative, but they don’t give the impression of having been planned to form a novelistic whole. Faulkner was fictionalizing episodes from his grandfather’s childhood, and he seems to have been following a biographical sequence rather than a literary one. Only in the fifth and sixth stories does a “central idea” start faintly to suggest itself.

In the final chapter, newly written for book publication, he does a remarkable job of retroactively crystallizing the preceding stories into a novel, by casting them all as prologue to the coming-of-age that plays out in the last few pages. That’s how bildungsroman works, and once you get there, he does seem, in retrospect, to have written one. I can’t deny that I closed the book feeling that I’d read something good after all, something of genuine literary power. But it’s this element of retroactive intent that, to me, made the book less rewarding to read than to have read. Only through the lens of the last few pages does the book seem coherent and purposeful and straightforward; until you get there, you’re swimming in crosscurrents. I think that may mean it’s a trick.

In addition to adding the last chapter, Faulkner tried to backdate his ambition by touching up the preceding stories, mostly by inserting new passages of conspicuously higher literary tone. This creates a strange effect. Intellectual heavy weather incongruously clouds your view of The Saturday Evening Post on some pages but not others.

Example. Here’s the opening paragraph as it appeared in The Post:

Behind the smokehouse we had a kind of map. Vicksburg was a handful of chips from the woodpile and the river was a trench we had scraped in the packed ground with a hoe, that drank water almost faster than we could fetch it from the well. This afternoon it looked like we would never get it filled, because it hadn’t rained in three weeks. But at last it was damp-colored enough at least, and we were just about to begin, when all of a sudden Loosh was standing there watching us. And then I saw Philadelphy over at the woodpile, watching Loosh.

“What’s that?” Loosh said.

And here it is in The Unvanquished, having been thoroughly sprayed with silly string:

Behind the smokehouse that summer, Ringo and I had a living map. Although Vicksburg was just a handful of chips from the woodpile and the River a trench scraped into the packed earth with the point of a hoe, it (river, city, and terrain) lived, possessing even in miniature that ponderable though passive recalcitrance of topography which outweighs artillery, against which the most brilliant of victories and the most tragic of defeats are but the loud noises of a moment. To Ringo and me it lived, if only because of the fact that the sunimpacted ground drank water faster than we could fetch it from the well, the very setting of the stage for conflict a prolonged and wellnigh hopeless ordeal in which we ran, panting and interminable, with the leaking bucket between wellhouse and battlefield, the two of us needing first to join forces and spend ourselves against a common enemy, time, before we could engender between us and hold intact the pattern of recapitulant mimic furious victory like a cloth, a shield between ourselves and reality, between us and fact and doom. This afternoon it seemed as if we would never get it filled, wet enough, since there had not even been dew in three weeks. But at last it was damp enough, damp-colored enough at least, and we could begin. We were just about to begin. Then suddenly Loosh was standing there, watching us. He was Joby’s son and Ringo’s uncle; he stood there (we did not know where he had come from; we had not seen him appear, emerge) in the fierce dull early afternoon sunlight, bareheaded, his head slanted a little, tilted a little yet firm and not askew, like a cannonball (which it resembled) bedded hurriedly and carelessly in concrete, his eyes a little red at the inner corners as Negroes’ eyes get when they have been drinking, looking down at what Ringo and I called Vicksburg. Then I saw Philadelphy, his wife, over at the woodpile, stooped, with an armful of wood al­ready gathered into the crook of her elbow, watching Loosh’s back.

“What’s that?” Loosh said.

Clearly he’s trying to install an upgrade. No longer a mere Saturday evening story: now it’s a LITERARY NOVEL! Possessing even in miniature that ponderable though passive recalcitrance of prose which outweighs readers.

I’m of two minds about this sort of stuff. The thoughts themselves are generally worth something — I like the image of make-believe as “a cloth” that children deliberately hold up between themselves and frightening things (devised to foreshadow a literal hiding-behind-granny’s-skirts situation later in the chapter, but I appreciate it in its own right) — and Joyceanisms like “sunimpacted” have a clean rhythm that give the scene some feeling of dimension. But what are we to make of the other rhythm, the rhythm of excess? All the needless reiterations (“appear, emerge”) and parentheticals (“which it resembled”) and barrages (“recapitulant mimic furious”)?

What the extra verbiage conveyed to me, when it conveyed anything, was a sense of desperate paddling, the constant struggle to keep above the onrushing waters of truth and memory and experience and life and so on. “It’s all too much, it’s all so overwhelming and nameless, but I am trying, trying, trying to keep it in order, trying to at least name it, to know it, these, the things, comma, comma, gasp, comma, this, these.” And I can find that moving. In the end I did find the book moving in just that way.

But that frame, where being alive means being knocked back by a great wave of strange poetry, coexists very oddly with bits of Saturday Evening Post local color comedy a la Twain, about how Granny oh she was quite a character, let me tell you, get a load of this. Is life conventional and cozy, or esoteric and unknowable? Some combination, of course, and I like the idea that art embraces both at once. But I didn’t feel like Faulkner was truly managing that tension for me as an artist. He seemed to be simply operating in different modes as his moods and ambitions fluctuated.

Even having come this distance, I retain my initial impression of a peculiar vagueness in the dimensions of plot and tone. What would you say is the tone of the passage above? Thought has been lavished on a moment, this is clear, but what is the temper of that thought? Within what feeling does this work emerge? What is this guy into?

As I often say in these posts: art is a social encounter. There’s somebody there. This book was an encounter with someone who was talking a great deal yet never making eye contact. His speaking style was quite florid and intense, but his voice didn’t actually sound particularly emotional and he gave no indication of knowing that anyone was listening to him. It was, for me at least, not socially normal. Perhaps he was drunk. (And indeed perhaps he was, yes?)

Faulkner returns over and over to the device of having the characters fall asleep without realizing it, right in the middle of a paragraph. Time and reality become suddenly muddled and they have to sort it back out. This is indeed a defining experience of childhood and I understand its attraction to him, as a way of reinforcing the premise of his style: the twisty prose is all in that spirit of perceptual defamiliarization, of “who what and where am I, again?” That said, it did seem conspicuous to me that in every single chapter our narrator “must have fallen asleep because I was picturing trees and then Ringo was shaking me awake” etc. etc. The evocation of existential mystery ought not to be so conveniently repeatable.

Oh, the book? Eh, it’s sort of Gone With the Wind does A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and then when it finally finds its story footing in the last act, there are shades of The Godfather — about the grim family culture of vengeance, cavalleria rusticana, and the young man who may or may not manage to shake it off. The prose is sometimes brilliant and forceful, sometimes tangled and rhythmless and underedited. Sometimes both.

It had a distinctive aroma to it. Not a particularly fresh or appetizing one — some rot and barnyard notes — but a striking one all the same, and one I can still call up in memory. And despite my frustrations with the reading experience, I think that has to count as artistic success. What are we here for if not to expand our store of aromas?

And that’s all I have to say about that! I broke protocol and proceeded to the next book before finishing this post; it’s now been months since I read it and there other books piled up in the rear view, yet to be addressed. So this is plenty. Onward!

Onward, that is, after the dessert. IT’S COVER TIME!

Once again, the artwork apparently had to be re-photographed and recolored after the first few printings. (Points of issue: the right side of the burning house is cropped out of the first printing, visible on later printings; the divide between the flaps of the coat runs between the “L” and “A” of CLASSIC on the first printing, straight down through the “C” on later printings.)

This is the last of the shoddy anonymous illustrations that characterized the very first batch of Signet Classics. Next time we’ll have some properly skilled draftsmanship by an illustrator who actually signed his work.

For now… what exactly are we looking at here? There are only two female major characters in the book, Granny and Drusilla, so this must be one of them, and yet it is assuredly neither of them. Given the burning house in the background, I think it must be intended as Granny, but so poorly conceived and executed that she is unrecognizable in terms of appearance, age, costume, or demeanor. Even without reading the book, you’ll agree that the character “Granny” probably doesn’t look like this, right? And is that a fist clenched in unvanquished determination, or just a passing muffin? Are those eyes glowing fiercely with the will to survive, or are they just ants on an almond? Is that hair blowing in the wind or… okay you get it: it’s not a good drawing.

As for future redesigns, there are none: I find no evidence of any Signet Classic edition of The Unvanquished after the fifth printing of this edition in September 1962. That’s a longer survival than the single printing of Adolphe & The Red Notebook, but still a pretty poor showing. Why was it dismissed? What did it do wrong? I’m really not sure. You might guess that someone decided Faulkner was insufficiently “classic”, but this seems not to be the case: in 1964, after The Unvanquished had already been cancelled, a different Faulkner novel was added to the line, and in 1968 five more.

Perhaps there was some sensitivity to sales numbers (later relaxed on behalf of the long tail), and it just wasn’t performing as well as Animal Farm et al? Or perhaps it was set aside for reissue under another product line that never actually came to pass? (Adolphe did eventually reappear as a “Meridian Classic,” though not until years later.) For now these are my only guesses. Readers may submit additional, superior guesses below.

However, there is a PAST redesign! The Unvanquished had already been a Signet before it became a Signet Classic. Perhaps this will bring the marketing experiment of “Signet Classics” more into focus. Between 1952 and 1959, picture this on the paperback rack instead:

Is The Unvanquished an effete art-school stencil-colored line-drawing CLASSIC… or is it a red-blooded bare-shouldered gun-toting oil-painted pulp about VIOLENCE, REBELLION, HEROISM? Great question! We’ll leave it to the consumer to decide.

This time the woman is unambiguously not Granny; it’s Drusilla, in the final chapter, transformed into the seductive incarnation of The South itself, urging Bayard to embrace the way of the pistol. They didn’t look anything like this in my imagination (and probably didn’t in Faulkner’s either), but sure, I grant they could look this way in someone’s well-built fantasy. The painting is not a betrayal of the letter of the text. Aesthetically, though…

I have no problem with the supposed “cheapening” of the work — the pulp sensibility is as legitimate as any other if it can be made to fit the subject — but is this illustration actually inviting? Does it draw you in and make you want to read to find out what’s going on behind that fellow’s troubled stare? To my eye it’s muddy and static; it makes me dubious about the entertainment value of this book. Like so many covers of the 40s and 50s, it looks like something fundamentally dull and awkward has been quickly and carelessly dressed up by the department store studio photographer as something exciting, look over here, say cheese, great, next.

And yet real craft went into this forgotten thing. The more I look at it, the more it intrigues me as a painting, if not as a book. The uncanny cheesecake stasis has an eerie bite to it if you stare long enough. The artist is James Avati (1912-2005), a notable and prolific purveyor of exactly this. His valuation seems to be on the rise of late, as the old low transmutes into the new high. This particular painting doesn’t seem to have made any public appearances since 1952, but who knows, it may turn up at auction any minute.

Here’s a somewhat interesting album of images collected by the author of the book on Avati. I’m not sure whether Avati ever did any Signet Classics proper, but we’ll certainly get to consider more of his work as other pre-Classic Signets make their way into the series.

And finally, here’s the real cover of the real book:

A similar grouping of two figures, but baring decidedly less flesh, probably because of all those dangerously sharp serifs.

I think Edward Shenton’s illustrations in the first edition suit the novel nicely: stark-edged and boldly styled first, emotional second. Here’s how he pictured the exact moment painted by Avati. It too has nothing of the actual flavor of the prose, but it has an analogous spiritual architecture, as it were, and I could imagine it helping to ground the reading experience.

Shenton had also illustrated the original magazine publications, in a suitably lighter-lined style. And hey look, they could be yours to own! Act now!

April 23, 2023

Disney Canon #61: Strange World (2022)

[content warning: spoilers for Strange World (2022)]

ADAM Guys, we did it! We did it! We finally have a gay principal character in a Disney film, and it is… Ethan… and the epic story of his love with… Diazo? Was that his name?

BROOM That was his name, yeah.

BETH Congratulations!

BROOM How does it feel? Does it feel good? Does it feel like everything you’ve always wanted?

ADAM “I waited twenty-five years to get beyond these mountains, and it’s perfect.” Among the many things that irritated me about this movie was the way they deployed not just his being gay but the fact that they were a multi-racial family, in just the most trivial and pointless way. There was no engagement whatsoever with that, other than as just propagandist “Yeah! People can be different! Like that girl in the wheelchair who picked up the package of Pando! Everybody can like Pando!” The part that most annoyed me was when the super-macho grandfather, who’s been playing out this whole theme of masculine bravado and incomprehension of his kids, is like “You got a special someone?” and Ethan blushes, and the grandfather’s like “I knew it!,” and Ethan’s like, “Uh, his name’s Diazo…” and his grandfather’s like “Well, when you have a special fella, my advice is…” Nope! Nope! No engagement at all with the actual theme of the movie as it might have to do with human difference. It’s just decoration. Ugh.

BETH I saw it as a fantasy of what kids in their teens and twenties want the world to be like. “In our ideal world, grandpa would just accept that I have a crush on a boy!”

ADAM Or it’s just the general Disney thing that “This is gonna be good for you! We’re Disney and we’re putting our imprimatur on this thing, and that’s good for kids!” And I’m sure it is good for kids, but ugh.

BETH It just felt like there was nothing to this movie. It was like a sketch of a movie full of cliches. It didn’t have anything to say.

ADAM Yeah, it was like somebody watched Rick and Morty and was like “You know what people like about Rick and Morty? The bright colors! And the whimsical shapes!”

BROOM I feel like you guys aren’t being fair to it — you realize that ChatGPT wrote this movie, right?

ADAM Sorry, I had to get that off my chest because that was what was bothering me in the most personal way, but there’s a lot here for everyone, so go ahead.

BROOM It pained me. It hurt. I get so sad. I have these horrible anti-woke thoughts, and then I’m like “Ugh, so now I have to climb out of my own hole, that you pushed me into?” The anger is that it doesn’t resemble life in any way. It doesn’t make me feel like I’m among people. It doesn’t make me feel like I’m in the artistic company of people who are able to notice anything about people. So then the fact that it’s packed to the brim with this pre-emptively defensive demographic business… like “I don’t know anything about people, but what I do know is that people can be Asian or black or Indian, and they all have to be in the movie.” It just makes me so cynical that the impulse to be representative — to do their representation duty — is not actually a humanist impulse. It’s not a sincere impulse. And then I just start thinking all this stuff that I’m grossed out at myself for, for being put in this position… because I do want everyone to be represented! And I actually think that the utopian ideal of “yeah grandpa just rolls with it when he finds out that you have a boyfriend” is fine! I think it’s fine to want to depict that, so that the kids who imbibe this before they have any critical thoughts about society get to see it and think “oh, it could be that way,” because now they have this model of it being that way. But it has to be in the context of feeling that you’re among people!

ADAM Yeah, obviously I’m in favor of having gay characters in movies, but everybody was so… flat.

BETH There’s nothing to care about!

ADAM It was just an hour of “We’re climbing up this shape, and now we’re skating down that shape!” “Woo-hoo!” and then “Whoaaaaa!” and then…

BROOM I wish it had been that! I wish they hadn’t said any words! Because I can have a psychedelic experience of them skating up and down shapes. All of the surreality of it, all the very strange stuff — which I totally called in advance would be the inside of some living thing, because it was all designed to look like red blood cells and stuff — I could just watch that and zone into it and have a surrealist experience that would have some meaning to me. But as soon as they opened their mouths, and their stupid Cabbage Patch Kid eyes, and looked at each other with these blank stares and said quips, just bullshit quips out of the bag of quips… that’s why I said ChatGPT wrote it.

BETH It did feel like that.

BROOM In arguments about artificial intelligence recently, I have been defending it as not a threat to the human spirit and human artists, because we need more than just tropes. I’ve been saying maybe the fact that now computers can generate trope-churning stuff will put more of a premium on stuff that’s more than just trope-churning. And watching this made me feel sick to my stomach, to see that Disney Animation Studios, people who’ve been in the business a long time — Don Hall is not fifteen years old! He’s been there a long time. Though of course, this was directed by “Don Hall and Qui Nguyen”; I don’t know who that is, but it might all be his doing — anyway, it’s painful to me. And then when it’s this big allegory about how we’re gonna save the planet — “it’s our addiction to electricity that we need to slough off, and return to an agrarian lifestyle; it might be hard but we all gotta be in this together”… it makes me feel more hopeless about the planet, to see that the plan of working together to save ourselves is in the hands of people who can’t look another human being in the eye, and just repeat things they saw in anime that’s rotted their brains.

ADAM The eco-fatalism/pastoralism thing, which was also the theme of Moana, although that was more…

BROOM Moana was better than this. Raya and the Last Dragon was better than this!

BETH It was.

ADAM That theme… I don’t know, I wonder sometimes. I’m a pretty anxious person about my daily life, but I’m not that anxious about the world in general. Obviously there are problems, but I think that the main thing that is distinctively problematic about life today is that all of the problems live on a rectangle in your pocket and can be accessed at any time for maximum emotional self-flagellation. The Neil Postman stuff. But you watch things like this and you get the sense that other people live with this profound anxiety about the world, which is just not how I feel. Obviously this had a happy ending, but the fact that this has been the animating current of so many of these movies, and the response to it is such a weirdly conservative “the way we’re gonna go back is by unplugging everything”… like you, it makes me feel like there’s something very different in the way I think about the world from the way somebody who wrote this movie thinks about the world.

BETH I know what you mean. I see that with younger people, they talk about the fact that they’re anxious all the time.

ADAM I think it’s as much a dispositional thing as much as an age thing. Most of the people I know don’t… I mean, [somewhat younger person] is the most anxious person I know in this vein.

BROOM Ecologically anxious, you’re saying?

ADAM Ecologically and politically and just sort of fatalistic about progress. Which seems to me to be a form of emotional damage.

BROOM I’m amazed it’s not me! But I can believe there are people who are even worse.

ADAM I actually didn’t think about where they were or what the strange world was. I was just like “okay, here we are.”

BETH I didn’t either.

ADAM I did think “maybe Callisto is gonna be a villain?” And she was for thirty seconds, and then they were like “eh, she’s fine.”

BROOM Was she one of the assistants in the prologue?

ADAM She was, she was the one who was like “actually, he’s got a point!”

BROOM I thought so.

ADAM But then when I realized at the end, like, “oh, it’s gonna be a wan ecological allegory,” that was just like uuuuuuugh. Ugh. I feel like we’ve been talking about the quip problem for a long time, but…

BROOM I know, it’s boring even to complain about it, but I have to. It packs me full of the complaint, and I have to spit some of it out.

ADAM A lot of them have had this problem. Was this actually worse about quips than, like, the second Wreck-It Ralph?

BETH I mean, I barely remember, but… I think the nature of the quips has changed. It’s an interesting way to track linguistic norms over the past twenty years, to see what quips Disney movies are using. I can’t even remember what any of them were.

ADAM They weren’t jokes, exactly. It was just discordantly modern turns of phrase. “You’re being really toxic right now.”

BETH The mom and son having a conversation and the mom is like “you might want to explore that.”

ADAM “Sorry, my dad’s being incredibly dad right now.”

BETH “You’re giving me a ‘Splat’ vibe.”

ADAM Which are not jokes, they’re just anachronisms for the pleasure of it.

BETH It’s “the way they talk now.”

ADAM I was thinking about Lilo and Stitch, and how that’s a movie that’s also representation in a groundbreaking way, and features characters that didn’t look like previous Disney characters, but did it in a warm and specifically-situated way that was actually grounded on the Earth.

BROOM Yes! It was representational of a real place and a real community in which the movie took place. It wasn’t representational in the sense that the bag of tokens was an even fuller bag of tokens.

ADAM I guess when you think about Encanto, which was also situated very lavishly and literally in a specific place… even with the hyper-breathlessness of the way it was like “ooh! we’re in Colombia!”, which was exhausting — it was still clearly better than this. This is like “we’re internet people of 2022 but we live in a kingdom called Avalonia??”

BROOM Which turns out to be a tortoise on an empty planet??

ADAM Yes, it’s turtles all the way down!

BROOM There was just one turtle. It was the only living being on that planet, in an empty universe.

ADAM I found that last image to be really chilling.

BROOM Yeah, frightening.

ADAM What was the short about the volcanoes? Lava Me?

BROOM Yeah, I think it was just called Lava?

ADAM That’s what the end made me think of. And it also made me think of that Calvin & Hobbes cartoon where they’re floating in space and then they zoom out and there’s galaxies and they zoom out and zoom out… and then you realize that you’re in the black perimeter line of a Ziggy cartoon saying “I WUV YOU!” It made me think of that.

[ed.: I cannot find this Calvin & Hobbes strip; please help]

BROOM The thought I kept having was: all this stuff, the trippy psychedelic stuff and the progressive wishlist stuff… it would work if in the foreground was people, having plausible interactions that made you feel normal human things. And then if in the subconscious background was this surreal dreamspace, or, hey, the fact that they’re very diverse, or hey, I guess he’s gay, it hardly even matters because we’re focused on the story… then all that stuff works. The horror is that at the center, in the foreground, is nothing, and all you can see is them worrying about the background. It’s like they have no present thought, they’re just trying to program their own subconscious background material… which is all desperate and stupid! Their best model for how we can save the planet is that they’ve played a lot of Settlers of Catan and “ugh, if only the older generation understood how to play Settlers of Catan, instead of playing some kind of old-school game where you, like, kill things! Why can’t they understand?” It’s so vapid!

ADAM To return to what I said at the beginning, even the background progressivism was itself deeply offensive. The idea of “oh, he’s gay but it hardly even matters” is a thing that only a straight person would write. I mean, maybe these writers are gay, but… to me it’s a deeply non-representative way to represent the thing that they’re representing. It’s so devoid of cultural context or actual meaning or the way actual people relate to each other as to make it just offensively, like I said, decorative.

BROOM I get so upset reading young people today, discoursing on Twitter or wherever, who are so proud to see everything in terms of demographics and are eager to really double down on it, instead of trying to take demographics as this kind of incidental thing that we need to bear societally with as much ease and grace as possible, rather than constantly naming and litigating it. And some of that mindset was in this.

ADAM Yeah, although, I mean… as a person who 95% of my social life is around gay men, I don’t think that demographic stuff is incidental at all. But the way this was rendered was like a chips commercial from the 90s where they have, like, a black friend who’s being used purely to signify “everyone’s a nice person,” and there’s no actual context from the real world. You notice they’ve moved beyond that kind of tokenism in commercials; they don’t do that anymore, the three white guys and a black guy on a couch eating chips. They try to situate commercials now in, like… you’ll see a black family on the couch eating chips. That’s more genuine to the way people group themselves and interact. It’s more authentic and thus feels more sensitive.

BROOM When you said demographics aren’t “incidental,” yes — I didn’t mean incidental to life, I meant, like: in the movie, it says “18 years later” and now here’s grown-up Searcher Clade — because some human sat down and said “I think the names of the people in this movie should be Jaeger Clade and Searcher Clade”…

ADAM …and Meridian Clade… and Ethan.

BROOM So: “Here’s Searcher Clade grown up, and here’s his wife. She’s black.” And I thought “oh, how did he meet her, what’s the community like, what does this mean? Are they saying that he’s become different from his dad? What are they saying? Are they saying anything?” And no, they aren’t saying anything because nothing could be said in this universe, because it doesn’t mean anything about where she’s from or who she is or how she sees the world, that she’s black. It doesn’t mean anything about him that he’s white! There’s no such thing here. And yet: this demographic information that’s been borrowed from our Earth and shoved in there to satisfy the people who might get angry about the movie — “don’t try to make it mean anything in the story, because it couldn’t possibly mean anything, how dare you” — and yet it’s the only thing the movie is doing!

ADAM Yes, now I agree with you. It clearly was very meaningful to them because it was so deliberate, but it was plucked out of all resonant context from Earth.

BROOM Why does anyone care about race other than everything it’s entangled with about what your life is like, about the culture around you? That’s why race is meaningful. If you suck all the meaning out of it but then also make it obviously the only thing you really care about… I’m just saying the healthy way is to tell a real story, and let it be in a context of these things. I shouldn’t have said “incidental,” I should have said “contextual.”

ADAM Nobody’s litigating against anyone here! I think we’re all agreeing.

BROOM BETH I know we always shout you down, and I’m getting myself all worked up. Say stuff about the movie, please.

BETH It just had no original ideas. There were all those Star Wars wipes, and the soundtrack kind of reminded me of Back to the Future. It did feel like ChatGPT! It didn’t feel like it came from a human being. Now I want to know who this guy is. Qui Nguyen, whoever that is, he did everything, right? He co-directed it, he wrote the script…

BROOM I’m gonna look him up.

ADAM I agree, it felt very pastiche-y. The farm scenes felt like the Zootopia farm scenes; as I said, the design of the strange world was sort of Rick and Morty-ish. Yeah, just… nothing.

BROOM “He is best known for his plays She Kills Monsters and Vietgone. He is also known for writing Raya and the Last Dragon and Strange World.

ADAM There was no Lin-Manuel Miranda in this, was there.

BROOM Interesting what you said about the music. It was weird that this movie about a trippy “strange world” and all of this cool-kid “we see the world in a fresh new way” stuff … that it had a very old-fashioned orchestral score that wanted to sound like it was, yeah, in a Star Wars or Back to the Future tradition. This is a case where I would have been very comfortable with a synthesizer Trent Reznor score! It was part of what felt wrong about the movie, that it was trying so hard to say that all of this business was classic. Because it wasn’t classic! If it had been a little slicker in the musical presentation, maybe I would have felt like “yeah we’ve all gone down this video-game tube, and yup, here’s some video-game stuff.” But it was really fighting hard to say no, that it was big and full of heart. And that just didn’t feel true.

ADAM I did like that I thought for the first two-thirds of the movie that the mom was dead, but actually she’s not dead, she’s just married to Sheldon.

BROOM And it was supposed to be that he was astounded that Sheldon was a big guy? Or that Sheldon had gotten big? Or he was just standing in for our surprise that Sheldon was a big guy?

ADAM I think the joke is that the name “Sheldon” is nerdy but Sheldon himself is large. That was the whole joke.

BROOM But it was implied that Jaeger knew Sheldon, so why was he astounded by that?

ADAM No, remember, he was like, “You’ve never even met Sheldon!”

BROOM Oh! I forgot that he said that.

ADAM I thought the mom looked weirdly like Sarah Jessica Parker.

BETH She did!

BROOM She was played by Sarah Jessica Parker. [n.b. the character appears for only a second and does not speak]

ADAM The voice-acting did not lean into the strengths of those actors at all. It was weirdly archetypal.

BETH The script is to blame for most of everything. But yeah, Jake Gyllenhaal sounded really nerdy.

BROOM After you told me it was Jake Gyllenhaal and Dennis Quaid, I actually started feeling embarrassed. Because they’re, like, famous. And in the parts when they had been compelled by Qui Nguyen to say, “I’m sorry I made you feel bad that you weren’t a farmer,” or whatever, I started to feel a little bit of, yeah, embarrassment, that they had put these lines in front of Jake Gyllenhaal. I’d be embarrassed to put that in front of Jake Gyllenhaal. They said “farmer” so many times in this movie! I think it’s also worth mentioning something I’m seeing on Wikipedia: Qui Nguyen is forty-seven years old. He is older than we.

BETH Well, maybe he’s just trying to… get with the kids.

ADAM I’m picturing a gay theater nerd. Do we think that’s right?

BROOM There’s pictures of him, and he looks more nerdy than theater. He just looks like a dorky guy.

BETH My theory, once we started talking about this more, is that he’s neurodivergent in some way.

BROOM I did think the word “Asperger’s” a couple times during the movie.

BETH Yeah.

BROOM But I also thought — and this is horrible so I may not put this in the transcript that only my mother reads so who even cares, and yet… — I thought: I have felt this about anime since I was a kid and first encountered it, that I can’t get into it because it doesn’t really have real people in it. Like, they have giant eyes but they don’t have souls, so why would you watch that? And people who are really into anime, it always feels a little weird to me. And I did have thoughts during this, and during Raya and the Last Dragon, like, “oh, American animation has gotten this Asian influx, where now they care more about certain kinds of schematic relationships than about a real human presence.” It feels like it maybe comes from Asian movie culture. I don’t know if I’m allowed to think that, but it’s an impression I have.

ADAM I have not watched, but I read a review and a plot summary of the most recent episode of The Last Of Us, are you familiar with that?

BETH Yeah —

BROOM I know what it is, and I’ve seen a lot of praise, but I haven’t been watching it.

ADAM I won’t give anything away. So it’s an adaptation of a video game, but in this episode, it follows one of the characters, who turns out to be gay, and it was described by someone I know on social media as being like “a mix of Brokeback Mountain and Up,” and I can see why they think that. It makes me think of this because — again, I didn’t watch it, I just read the plot summary, but from what I gleaned from that — it’s taking a character who wasn’t gay in the original source material, but making them gay in a way that is profoundly connected to the theme of the story, and deeply moving, and specifically situated. Like, it can be done. I think maybe the problem is just Disney. Disney is just, like, a dirigible that’s floating out into space and can’t be saved.

BROOM That may be right. It has to do with the management. The last few of these, we’ve found ourselves asking, “so wait, who is Jennifer Lee? Who are these people?” I really don’t want to have to think about the individuals and their personalities, but you’re right, there’s a sense that they’ve drifted into this weird cul-de-sac, or yeah, out into space, and I don’t know if they can be reached anymore. But yes, of course it can be done! If the creative team behind Lilo and Stitch had decided that the older sister, instead of having that surfer boyfriend, had a surfer girlfriend, I would have believed it, because I believed in everyone in that movie. I believed in their world, and you can do any kind of representation you want once you believe in it.

ADAM As an aside — imagine you were writing a story about George Santos, and you were like, “all right, we’re gonna make this guy Brazilian and gay.” I’ve been thinking about George Santos as a character in a ridiculous political fiction, and it’s almost too much. It’s not believable as a character! This isn’t necessarily connected to what we’re talking about.

BROOM Well, that would be the opposite problem. If there was a character with just too many quirks and too many character traits. These characters had no real traits!

BETH I hated the dance sequence in the kitchen, between the parents. That felt…

BROOM Asperger’s.

BETH Yeah! Like someone’s observing: “oh, people do this when they like each other. They dance, and hit their butts together.”

BROOM “And there’s dance music. And they’re making food food food. And there’s a dog, and it’s cute. And the dog has three legs: representation!” I mean, there’s countless kids online writing that kind of crap. And sure, I can get annoyed about how online is a wasteland of weird nerds, but it’s still just online. Whereas Disney actually hired this guy and supported it. A couple times during the movie I had this thought: what happened to the Sam Goldwyns of this business, who would sit behind a big desk and shout, like, “the people don’t wanna see that stuff! You gotta make ’em cry! You gotta make ’em cheer!” Where was Louis B. Mayer? Why wasn’t there anyone at the company saying “What people need is someone they can love, someone they can worry about!” What happened to that? That used to be the movie business! You can scoff at it but it’s part of what made the movies work. This movie is the biggest Disney flop in years. It’s losing money; it didn’t work. So we don’t have to worry that we’re old and out of touch to be saying “this isn’t how you do things,” because in fact this is not how you do things, because it doesn’t work. Why was there no-one there to step up and say so?

ADAM Right, anyone who knew anything about movies or why people watch movies. It’s not even explicable as a pander to international audiences; this wouldn’t be attractive anywhere in the world.

BETH I don’t think the studios are run by moguls with visions anymore.

ADAM I think Pixar was.

BETH Pixar was, but is it still?

ADAM I don’t know. It’s interesting, right? because — I didn’t see a lot of movies this year, but I read a lot of articles about movies, as is my wont — a great many movies released this year that were either self-serious about the movie business or, you know, “brave,” and then flopped, for reasons that studios seemed totally surprised by. Because they seemed completely disconnected from what a person would actually want to do with their entertainment budget. Like can you imagine voluntarily going to see Empire of Light? When we were in LA, it was the two weeks when every billboard was a “For Your Consideration” billboard, so I spent a lot of time thinking about all these movies.

[conversation digresses, by way of passing mentions of Tár, Avatar: The Way of Water, Top Gun: Maverick, and Knock at the Cabin, much further afield to “so what have you been reading lately” and beyond. Finally the question of reading a review is brought up:]

BROOM We can read the New York Times review, but as far as things that are drifting off into space, I think the New York Times also counts as an institution that has become unmoored from the authority that it once had. Who knows or cares what the New York Times thinks? But there’s no other “paper of record” so that’s the one we’ll read.

ADAM Wesley Morris I think is as good as anybody who writes anything. And A.O. Scott I still think is really great.

BETH I also trust A.O. Scott. Manohla Dargis a little less.

ADAM But they get weird third-stringers to review the Disney movies.

BROOM Yeah, I doubt it’ll be A.O. Scott. But we’ll see.

[the New York Times review by Beatrice Loayza is read, which summarizes the movie but expresses essentially no opinions about it]

BROOM Review TK! That’s it! There’s no review.

ADAM I don’t think that’s the New York Times’s fault necessarily. That’s just because they didn’t spend a lot of money on that review.

BROOM There’s money, and then there’s “what’s even in it for us if we engage with the question of whether this movie is any good? There’s no point in saying that it’s bad.” Everyone’s trying to save the movie business.

BETH I don’t know about that. I think they just don’t really care.

[Rotten Tomatoes is checked (Critics 72%, Audience 66%) and then the New York Magazine / Vulture review is read]

BROOM Okay, that wasn’t bad. Who was the writer there?

ADAM Allison Willmore.

BROOM I give credit to her. That was well put together.

[finally, as is customary, the List of Walt Disney Animation Studios films is consulted: Wish is scheduled for release on November 22, 2023.]

April 27, 2022

Disney Canon #60: Encanto (2021)

ADAM I would like to start by talking about the very complicated puzzle metaphysics of this. It really dumped it all in your lap at the beginning. And it was engrossing trying to figure it out but… I’m not sure that I have it totally figured out.

BROOM I had the same thought. Their new style is these elaborate metaphor-magic layered puzzles. This one made more sense to me than Frozen 2. I got closer to solving it.

ADAM What was the last one? It had, like, the five islands she had to sail to?

BROOM Raya and the Last Dragon.

ADAM That was what it was about, right?

BROOM There were five sectors of the land that distrusted each other.

ADAM Right.

BROOM My thought was: I’m doing all this adult work to try to figure out what’s a metaphor for what, and a kid doesn’t watch it that way. So I kept telling myself, “just sit back and take it in; watch the images; just let it sink in,” and then I’d think, “well, I’d just be totally confused, or I’d be making no sense of this…”

BETH But that’s not true!

BROOM …but I think that’s not true, yeah.

BETH Adults did make this, so some people do understand it…

BROOM Is it for kids?

BETH Yes, it is for kids, absolutely.

ADAM Yeah.

BROOM And it’s okay to imply that the grandfather was killed with a machete?

BETH The kids aren’t supposed to know how he was killed.

BROOM You see the guy on the horseback wield a big blade.

ADAM Was the grandfather killed? In a flashback, she destroyed all the horsemen with the candle. Was that after he was killed? That was her rage?

BROOM I wasn’t clear on whether that was really happening or metaphorical.

ADAM Was that a reference to some period in Colombian history?

BROOM I don’t know!

ADAM Probably yes, because everything was meticulously representative.

BROOM It was so vague that it seemed like it must be an underplayed allusion to some real atrocity. Rather than just “eh, some generic bad guys came.”

ADAM Right. Well, I spent the first twenty-five minutes like “okay, wait, how are they all related? and what are their powers?” I couldn’t tell if it was because the sound on my phone was so tinny that I couldn’t make out all the lyrics to her explanatory song. But it went by so fast, and I was like [scream of being overwhelmed].

BROOM That’s how I felt at the beginning too, totally overloaded.

BETH Isn’t there a joke about that in the song?

ADAM Yeah, they’re like “there are so many cousins, how do you keep them straight?” and then she’s like “you guys:” and then sings a really fast song about all of them. I mean, I think I got it now.

BROOM I got it by the end. There are three in the second generation, and I know who all their kids were.

ADAM Who was the third one? Besides the mother who has the healing powers with her arepas…

BROOM Right, that’s Mirabel’s mother.

ADAM … and Bruno…

BROOM And Bruno is her brother.

ADAM Oh, and the weather lady.

BROOM Right, Tía whatever, she’s the third sibling.

ADAM I thought Dolores who could hear really well was also a Tía, but she’s not, she’s a cousin.

BROOM She was the daughter of… that woman.

BETH Of the weather lady.


BETH Okay, I believe you.

BROOM As was the little boy.

ADAM For a while I thought that the hot guy was a cousin, but he’s just a dope.

BROOM On the telenovela, there was an incestuous relationship with an aunt, so.

BETH Right. That was interesting.

BROOM An interesting thing to throw in as an aside.

ADAM So I spent the first third of it like that, and then I spent a long time being like “ugh, her family’s awful.” Just feeling really bad. They really piled that on. Then it was like “oh, her super-power is listening.” That was a little deflating, when I realized that was where they were going with it.

BROOM Clearly that’s supposed to be Discussion Group Question Number One: What was Mirabel’s power?

BETH Is it empathy?

ADAM Yeah, basically. She was like the family therapist.

BROOM I thought the key line was when the kids say “maybe your power is being in denial,” and you think it’s a joke, and then actually her power is not being in denial. Because everyone else in the family is in denial. And the grandmother’s denial is what breaks the house. Or, but — what exactly is causing the cracks?

BETH I don’t know!

BROOM In the metaphor, the grandmother’s insistence that everything is perfect and magical is her way of coping with the trauma, and she imposes this on everyone. But if that’s the metaphor, it means that none of the magic ever really existed; it was all actually part of this coping delusion. Except the magic is real in this movie! The magic is a good thing about the family too.

ADAM Right, but… the grandmother’s rigid perfectionism was the real villain. I kind of miss villains. It would be refreshing to have a Disney movie again where the villain was, like, a bad person. As opposed to, like…

BETH A concept.

ADAM Yeah, climate change, or failure to understand…

BETH But don’t you think the animators have taken it upon themselves to fix the world with cartoons? It just seems like what they’re trying to do now.

ADAM I agree. It just would be refreshing from a narrative perspective to not do that.

BROOM But that’s a serious question: have we outgrown villains? Is there a correct way to do villains? They can’t do Ursula anymore because it villainizes… whatever. Divine.

BETH Fat people.

BROOM Homosexuals, right? It villainizes drag queens.

ADAM Yeah, Ursula and Scar back to back were kind of, you know…

BROOM And you’re sympathetic to that critique, right?

ADAM Yeah, although… they’re also charismatic and fun.

BROOM Right. Even though they’re the villain, you still get to enjoy what they are.

ADAM There’s got to be a way to have a villainous person who’s not a slander on a minority group. There’s got to be some happy medium here. This also continued the recent Disney tradition of being extremely meticulous in their cultural depiction of a country. Which was good, I found it satisfying. My Colombian friend at a party was like “they depicted our food!” He literally said that. He was very tickled by it. He was like “that’s what we eat!”

BROOM I was thinking: would I feel condescended to if I were the target culture? Luckily, I don’t think they’ll ever feel it’s appropriate to make a Jewish-colored movie, so I won’t have to.

ADAM You mean because An American Tail already took that?

BROOM I just meant because it’s too touchy. But you’re right, An American Tail absolutely did it. And, yeah, I felt mildly condescended to by that. I was imagining that if I were Colombian and I saw this movie saying [as though singing:] “Colombia is a theme park / it’s so perfect / it’s so wonderful” I might be like [wince and shrug].

BETH I don’t know; they make it so beautiful and colorful.

BROOM They sure do.

BETH I can see going both ways on that.

ADAM It mostly felt harmless. It’s just kind of a funny tic that they have, but it didn’t bother me. I liked the capybara in the vision scene. I liked the Spanish-language music. A lot of the local color was fun. It’s just eccentric.

BROOM “Tic” is right. It’s like they can’t stop themselves from doing this.

BETH It seems like they have a checklist of “what cultures do we need to represent because they’re under-represented?” There’s some kind of drive to show people the world. It’s a Disney thing. “It’s a Small World After All! Let’s really make it a whole world!”

ADAM I agree. The drive to be extremely authentic, and the drive to be world-healing, unifying, problem-solving… are related. It would be hard for Disney in the current day to make Ratatouille, which is just silly but fun.

BROOM Wasn’t Ratatouille actually on a very similar theme? Your family doesn’t think you make any sense, and you have to find the place where your talents come to light?

ADAM Yes, but it was a lot less… official, let’s say. It felt like a lighter touch. Or the original Toy Story or whatever.

BROOM Well this definitely did not have a light touch. It was nouveau Broadway to the max.

ADAM Just to be clear, I did enjoy this. I really liked the music; I liked the mix of big Broadway-ness with pop and Latin music touches. I liked the song about feeling pressure.

BETH I thought that was the best song.

ADAM I liked the “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” song.

BETH But I thought some of the songs were really lackluster and trying too hard.

ADAM Maybe I already forgot about those. Which ones?

BETH There’s one early on where she’s like “I feel lost…”

BROOM When she’s not in the family photo and she starts singing a self-pity song.

ADAM Oh yeah.

BETH Yeah, not a good song.

ADAM I thought “oh, her power is pausing time!” But it wasn’t.

BROOM Halfway through I thought “oh, her power is giving people the cue lines for their songs.” I almost thought that was literally going to be her power. Like “we sing when you’re around,” or something. But no, luckily it wasn’t that.

ADAM I liked it when Luisa was like “oh, I try so hard.” But when Isabela did the exact same thing, it was like “uh, guys, try a little harder than this.”

BROOM Isabela’s song was so much “Let It Go.” It had exactly the same content. But it wasn’t as catchy.

ADAM It was totally unearned, too. Why didn’t the shapeshifting guy get a song about how he can never just be himself?

BETH Because this was all about women. They really didn’t want to focus on men at all, I feel like. Yeah, Bruno’s in it, but… it was for girls. During that song with Isabela, I thought “boys are not going to care about this.”

BROOM As a boy, I’ll say: it didn’t even occur to me until now.

BETH I’m not saying men, I’m saying little boys. I mean, they probably will and I’m probably wrong.

ADAM But it is true that it was very much about foregrounding female relationships. Which again is a recent Disney theme. Like remember in the last one, everyone was a lesbian. And Frozen was clearly about that. And that also feels like a Disney over-correction to the princess narrative.

BETH Totally.

ADAM “We, Disney, are trying harder.” I didn’t mind it, but again, it just feels like part of the official seriousness of this mode.

BROOM Yeah, it’s excessively calculated and conscious, and everything is bright foreground. And there’s a zillion cuts; the camera is constantly like “this shot is about this BUT THIS SHOT IS ABOUT THIS but this shot is about this” and the songs telegraph everything. It’s continuously brightly lit, just ideas and beats. And we’ve been complaining about that for 20 years of these movies, that they’re heading in this direction. I thought that, within this style, this one is a more or less coherent offering that would probably be entertaining to a kid. And seemed to have a good message about families.

ADAM One of the songs is a hit, right? Which one?

BROOM The only one I’ve heard people talking about is “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.” For some reason.

BETH I really don’t know. But my phone was identifying all of them.

BROOM You couldn’t stop it from telling you what they were?

BETH It just does that. So it was like, “oh, my phone knows about this song.”

ADAM “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” reached number four on the Billboard chart?

BROOM That’s crazy.

BETH That’s so weird.

ADAM Super weird. And then “Surface Pressure” also broke into the top ten on the Billboard.

BETH That was a better song.

BROOM That was the song during which I thought “I’m trying so hard to understand what this all means; why don’t I just watch it like a kid.” But then if I were a kid, it’s all surreal scariness. It’s like Pink Elephants madness. Would I even understand why I was seeing any of these things? It’s explicitly metaphors! There are rocks falling on her back and the house is turning upside down. If I’m not trying to interpret the metaphor, I’m just watching insanity.

BETH Yeah but I do think kids can take stuff like that in. They’re subconsciously aware of the metaphor.

BROOM That’s what I was asking myself, do these images work on that level. And you think if I were six years old I’d just sort of get what everything was in this movie?

BETH Yeah, I do.

ADAM The idea of being too hard on yourself… her problem seemed more grown-up than Isabela’s problem of, like, “I don’t want to do flowers, I want to do cactuses!”

BETH Well, I think the problem of feeling like you’re not as special as everyone around you can set in at a young age.

ADAM Oh, I agree about Mirabel’s problem. I meant Luisa’s problem of “I’m such a pleaser. I’m strong but I’m really a doormat.”

BROOM Did she mention Abuela whatever-her-name-was in that song?

ADAM She didn’t have to.

BROOM Because it seemed like that mostly came out of nowhere. Did we ever witness the grandmother being the driving force of everyone’s neuroses? Not really.

BETH No, and I don’t think that comes through to kids. It didn’t even really come through to me. It took me until the end of the movie to get to it.

BROOM So when a kid sees Mirabel say “the house is cracking because of you!” and then everything collapses… would they be like, “no it isn’t!”?

BETH They would just be like “oh, okay, I guess she doesn’t like the house.” I don’t think kids will get that part. But I don’t know.

ADAM Who had the dumbest power? Probably the flower girl. But it wasn’t really a power, it was just a manifestation of her nature. Probably the listening power is the worst.

BROOM But that at least had superhero uses. The weather power was just kind of a sight gag.

ADAM Yeah, she didn’t use it to do anything. And the mother: her arepas just heal physical injury? Or they make you feel better? I wasn’t clear.

BETH Well, physical for sure.

ADAM Right, because she can heal bee-stings and cuts.

BETH And broken arms.

ADAM Yeah, I was surprised she didn’t get to do more with that. Like a tiger mauling. The little boy’s power was clearly the best.

BETH Obviously.

BROOM The basic metaphor here, that you have these magical powers but they’re sort of burdensome because they get in between you and your true self, that’s the premise of Frozen. They were just doing it again. [ed.: in Frozen the magic powers were the true self and trying to keep them in check was the burden]. This felt like sort of a sequel to Frozen in a way that Frozen 2 didn’t successfully.

ADAM Yeah, I still don’t totally remember what Frozen 2 was about.

BROOM No one knows! No one knows what Frozen 2 is about.

ADAM So in Googling this just now, it referred to this as “Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit score,” and obviously it sounded exactly like Lin-Manuel Miranda, but…

BETH He wrote the songs.

ADAM I thought it said in the credits that someone else was the composer of the score.

BROOM The score is by someone else, and I am now obligated to record a dorky podcast where we talk about the Oscar nominees for best score, so we will talk about that. I already forget the person’s name. Gabriela something. I don’t know. But the songs are by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

ADAM That makes sense. They sound just like him.

BROOM I think the songs were my least favorite thing in the movie. The beauty of this place, and the joyous family feeling, were really good and had their own identity, but then the songs would kick in and I’d feel like “here comes some standard Broadway patterns.” Like, [high-energy Broadway song delivery:] “I just wish that I could get outta here!” It doesn’t sound like the actual feeling of someone wishing they could get out of here, it’s just repeating a trope. And I was a little disappointed that Lin-Manuel didn’t try to invent something. It just seemed like meeting a bunch of assignments.

ADAM Oh I don’t know. The two songs that we talked about were good. And I thought that the Spanish love song about the Abuela and Abuelo…

BETH Yeah, I thought that was good.

BROOM Yeah, that was the best song. It was touching.

ADAM It was almost slow enough for me to follow the words, but not quite.

BROOM I can only understand like three words of Spanish.

BETH I had subtitles on and it was translating it for me, so I know what the whole thing was about.

ADAM It was about them being in love. And butterflies.

BROOM So the relationship of this family to, like, the peasantry… what was with the town and then the family? Were they aristocrats? Was that like the manor house and the townspeople all lived on their land? How did that work?

ADAM Yeah, I was creeped out by that. I thought they were, like, magic aristocrats, but then they have to suck up to the Guzmáns for Mariano’s hand?

BETH That didn’t make sense. I think they were ostracized in some way. People feared them because they had magic power, maybe?

ADAM But then everyone was like, “actually we’ll help you rebuild your house.”

BETH “Oh, we love you!”

BROOM Yeah, they served an important role at the end, to rebuild the house without magic so that the house could become magic again. It was another one of these riddles, of “what does this magic mean, what does it correspond to in the real world?” Maybe nothing.

ADAM What happens at the end with the doorknob? Does that just mean that she still doesn’t have any magic powers, but it’s okay, the house is cool with her now? And why did her door get covered in sand at her ceremony?

BROOM My theory is: she couldn’t open the door in the house, because her gift was emotional honesty, being real. And there was denial in the house, so she was on the outside of this house of trying-too-hard. And then when the house is real at the end, it’s all her house because that’s her realm.

BETH Yeah, you’re totally right, and I did not put that together. That’s correct.

BROOM Is it? It’s just a stretch to try to make sense of it.

BETH I think it is. And that’s why it was so upsetting for her grandmother.

ADAM It feels a little jury-rigged.

BETH I mean, yeah.

ADAM I did like the magic Winchester-Mystery-House quality of the house. That was cool.

BETH You can talk to the house and ask it to present stairs to you, and it will.

ADAM And that it talked with its floorboards…

BETH Yeah, it shrugged.

ADAM I liked how cute the animals were. The rats were actually pretty sleek-looking and cute. They had those big cute eyes. They didn’t look like cartoon rats, they looked like CGI rats. But cute.

BROOM I thought all the tactile elements were really good, and that’s a big part of what they’re selling, and I’m happy for it. Their flesh tones were maybe a little more doll-like than they had to be, but I got used to it.

ADAM Oh, I liked Mirabel’s face. I liked that she didn’t have giant eyes, like an Elsa.

BROOM I liked how she looked a lot. I enjoyed her being the center of the movie. But this thing about beginnings: all Disney movies now start with a myth about the past, told vaguely, that you will have to re-understand much later, and until then you’re kind of waiting in confusion. And then an enormous overload of sights and sounds and explanation, for ten minutes, where you don’t understand what’s going on. They consistently do this. They must think it’s the right thing to do. But it really feels like for the last six of these of these movies, I start out feeling like [clutching head and concentrating:] “what? what? what?”

ADAM And does it make you want to rewatch the movie because now that you know, you’ll get all the easter eggs?

BETH Yes! Because these kids watch Frozen 200 times. I think that is deliberate.

BROOM It’s overloaded for the DVD/Netflix generation. DVD, what am I saying. Blu-ray…

BETH No! For the kids who are streaming this.

ADAM I just watched it on my phone!

BETH The kids who watch it every day after school.

BROOM So there’s no reason to make a movie that makes sense the first time, anymore. They just need to make a movie that makes people intrigued enough to watch it again.

BETH Yeah. I guess if they overload it, it’s more rewarding once you know what all those things are. Some pleasure center is getting pushed, on repeat viewings.

BROOM Videogame aesthetics are so basic to this stuff now.

BETH Oh my god, it’s so videogamey. I thought that too.

BROOM And that’s part of videogames: “we’re not here to necessarily tell you a story. We’re doing something with the shape of a story, but what it’s really about is DING DING DING DING DING!” Collecting the little goodies. But, you know, Raya we complained was just a stupid videogame; the videogame stuff in this was actually all nice, and well-paced. When she had a pointless Indiana Jones adventure, it all looked fun, it went at the right speed. I didn’t really object.

ADAM Yeah, I thought this was much better than Raya, and it was much better than Frozen 2, and it was much better than Ralph Breaks the Internet.

BROOM Or the other Ralph. This is probably my favorite since Frozen. Moana is the other one that’s in contention, I guess.

BETH I liked Moana. Actually I would put Moana above this.

BROOM Yeah, Moana might be a little calmer. I did kind of want this to calm down. It did seem a little ironic that a movie about people who are more neurotic than they thought was edited so spastically.

ADAM Moana has only two characters, really, so you have time to get to know them. I mean, we got to know Mirabel, but then Luisa had one song, and Isabela had one song, and the Abuela had one song…

BROOM And Bruno had his scene…

ADAM Yeah, it was too many people to really settle into. Although I appreciate that it was in service of her gift of healing everyone.

BROOM I don’t even mean the number of scenes, just the directorial style. It’s so fast. I felt like they could just do a master shot and let a scene play out. Everything looks so beautiful, I’d be happy to look at it. It doesn’t have to be constantly cutting to a close-up and then cutting to the reverse angle and then cutting to a jokey reframing… I don’t know.

BETH You sound like an old man.

BROOM I do, but then I think, well…

ADAM We are!

BROOM … movies weren’t like this! For a long time!

ADAM I’ve probably said this before, but MARK finds it very hard to watch any movie from before the year 2000 with me, because…

BROOM Too boring?

ADAM Well, too much setup. And it is true. Like, I sat down to watch Who Framed Roger Rabbit? with him at one point, and there’s no Toontown craziness until an hour in. There’s the private eye stuff, and then Jessica Rabbit comes into his office, and… it’s drawn out. And then finally when he goes to Toontown, it’s overwhelming. But today the movie would start in Toontown.

BROOM Which I think is a mistake! Not as an old man, just as a person who thinks about how movies should be. It’s cool that they save Toontown for halfway through the movie! There’s still things that can surprise you halfway through the movie! Now Disney movies are like the trailer for themselves, at the beginning. They want to show you all the stuff. And maybe that has to do with streaming; maybe it has to do with the fact that they know someone might turn it off in the first five minutes if they’re not hooked. But you never get to have the sense of surprise later. The pacing is immediately BLAAAAM in your face, and then once you get to halfway, they slow down and go, like, “okay okay, so, we have to tell you a story now, and in this story I guess people say things to each other…” And that’s just a weird pacing. I always like the second halves better than the first halves.

ADAM [to MARK] You want to make a cameo appearance? We were just talking about you.

BROOM We were talking about the youth.

ADAM I was just observing that you find it difficult to watch pre-2000 movies because they—… He closed the door on me.


ADAM He’s in his work clothes, he wants to change.

BROOM He could have said something.

ADAM I did think Mariano was really hot. It’s nice that he gets two seconds to fall in love with Dolores.

BROOM Because as soon as they say it, the audience goes “all right, fine, I guess he’s gonna be with her.” And then the movie takes care of it exactly that fast. That’s how these movies are. They don’t want to show you what it’s like when something happens. They just want to show you: “and then it happens, okay, it happened.”

ADAM I liked that Luisa was obviously a lesbian, but I wish she had gotten to…

BETH Be a lesbian.

BROOM Maybe if you watch it seven times, you’d notice the one scene where in the background on the left she’s making eyes at the woman from the village.

ADAM That might be why she feels stressed out all the time, because of the expectations of her family. Who was that actress?

BROOM Who were any of the actors? I have no idea who was in this movie.

ADAM I assume they were all Latino, but were they all Colombian? Let’s see. [he looks it up:] I don’t know a lot of these people. Although Maluma was Mariano, that’s funny.

BETH I don’t know who that is.

ADAM He’s a hot pop star. He stars in Marry Me with Jennifer Lopez. He’s a megastar from Colombia, I think. John Leguizamo was Bruno.

BROOM When he started talking I finally thought it might be an actor I know, but I couldn’t place it. Now I see.

ADAM Wilmer Valderrama was Agustín. Who’s Agustín?

BETH The dad.

ADAM I don’t know a lot of these people. Stephanie Beatriz was Mirabel?

BROOM I’ve never heard of her. [reading Wikipedia:] From Brooklyn Nine-Nine and the movie of In the Heights.

ADAM We started to watch In the Heights but MARK was so embarrassed by its overwhelming Broadwayness that he made me stop.

BROOM Even his youth is not enough to compensate for how Broadway has gotten. I mean, BETH, what did you think of this movie? Did you think it was annoying? You haven’t said.

BETH I thought it was very lush and pretty to look at, and I wanted to be inside it. I wanted to be in that house. And I found the story to be… a little bit annoying, yeah. I was a little annoyed by it, all in all. Mainly because it’s so clear to me that Disney is trying so hard to make up for what I think it perceives as a lack in socialization of children. So I feel like, “okay, it’s great that you’re doing this…” And probably it is necessary. There’s no Mr. Rogers anymore, so Disney is trying to be Mr. Rogers. And it’s doing it in a really bombastic way that I don’t think is actually useful. Well, let me take that back a little bit: I do think it’s useful… but not in the way that someone like Mr. Rogers was useful. So I’m not sure, ultimately, what I think about it. I think it’s great that they’d doing that public service, but they should have more fun and try a little bit less hard.

ADAM I second that.

BROOM I think it’s a thing I’ve been saying for a long time, since the movies from 2000 or something, whenever it felt like the Little Mermaid era had given way to the next thing. At some point they realized that if they make a movie, it’s going to end up having that kind of a role in kids’ lives, and that brings a kind of responsibility with it. They’d always had that responsibility, but they suddenly became self-conscious about it and started trying to meet it in a calculated way, which is different from doing it instinctively like every storyteller does. So it’s this kind of “public service announcement” dynamic that colors everything.

BETH And I think they’re trying to cover for that by making it so quick-cut and colorful and stuffed full of candy.

BROOM The writing in this was definitely more thoughtful and more affecting, but it still had these little moments. When she said “you’ve never even had a bad hair day,” I was like, “you should never say ‘bad hair day’ in a movie again! That’s forty years old at this point, that’s so lame. Don’t say ‘bad hair day.'”

ADAM Do you read the Rex Parker crossword puzzle blog every day?

BROOM I rarely read it because it’s so cranky.

ADAM It’s so dyspeptic, yeah.

BROOM I enjoy the crossword pretty much no matter what, so then to read someone saying that actually it’s terrible because of something that made no difference to me… it puts me off. Do you read it regularly?

ADAM I’ve stopped because it’s such a downer. But one of the things that he complains about that I do think is funny is when they use slang that’s twenty years old. Or even ten years old.

BROOM But that’s had a counterproductive effect on the New York Times crossword, just like I’m saying about the Disney movies, because they have heard him, there’s no question, and now the New York Times crossword puzzle is full of “ooh I’m the first person to get BAE in, woo-hoo for me.”

ADAM BAE is in like once a week.

BROOM Yeah. FOMO. Whatever. People think they’re so cool because they get things off Twitter.

ADAM [to MARK:] Do you have any thoughts about the pacing of movies today as opposed to twenty years ago?

MARK Well, I feel like there’s some pushback in longer movies recently. I don’t know if it’s working.

BROOM MARK, as someone who dislikes when older movies waste time setting things up: do you feel like that’s just an objective problem with movies that was eventually fixed — they didn’t know how to tell stories the right way, and now they do — or do you feel like it’s just your personal taste?

ADAM (It’s a trap.)

BROOM No, it’s not! It’s a completely honest question, either answer is fine.

MARK I think it’s fifty-fifty. I’m gonna push back on “my taste,” and speak more for people consuming faster-paced media generally. For example, TikTok. You know, if it’s gonna take you fifteen minutes to get that serotonin hit, you might do something else. But I do feel like a lot of the setup in old movies was just bad. It could be done better. There’s a lot of time wasted on setup in bad older romcoms.

ADAM We do watch a lot of TikTok, and it does change you, I have to say.

MARK We’re trying to quit.

BROOM Oh yeah, YouTube and Instagram have messed with me. I don’t have TikTok but I get how it is. But it’s part of the TikTok culture to shruggingly say “this is killing our attention spans, ha ha,” and to talk openly about serotonin and recognize that it’s having this druglike effect. Which suggests to me that the people who are into it are still holding on to some sense that this isn’t how things should be, that we’re just kind of caught in the loop of it. So that’s what I was asking about movies.

ADAM Well, we are adults, so.

MARK But there’s something different about it. Like “oh, I’ve been watching too much TikTok; watching a movie sounds like a nice change of pace.”

BROOM So if a movie seems too slow… do we aspire to be able to stick with it? I guess there’s no one answer. It changes day to day even for me.

MARK Some people like to feel like they put work in. They’re proud that they put the work in and were able to muster some joy out of something that was critically acclaimed. Some people like the punishment.

ADAM This is “conservatives love speedboats, liberals love kayaks.”

BROOM Have you ever watched something and felt like “this is overloading me, this is too much, this is spastic, cool it”?

ADAM Wait an hour, until after our TikTok binge.

MARK I don’t know. Something that was just too plotty?

ADAM Too much intercutting, too much story information piled on too quickly…

BROOM If they introduce ten characters in five seconds. Which happens in these Disney movies! [as though singing:] “here’s this person and here’s this person and here’s this person and here’s this person!” Have you ever watched something and thought “what? shut up, I’m not following this, you should have said fewer things.”

MARK I guess that does exist. I don’t think it’s too common, but the impression you just did, that sounds like a lot. Yeah, you can stall out. It comes to the same conclusion as too long of a setup: you lose interest because it’s too much. But I guess I’d have to see.

[we read the New York Times review, heckle it a bit, and then things devolve as we read about… Strange World, scheduled for release on November 23, 2022!]

November 3, 2021

8. Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter

CD8, 50¢, August 1959. Cover artist unknown. 254 pp.

An ardent young woman, her cowardly lover and her aging, vengeful husband — these are the central characters in this stark drama of the conflict between passion and convention in the harsh, Puritan world of seventeenth-century Boston. Tremendously moving, rich in psychological insight, this tragic novel of shame and redemption reveals Hawthorne’s concern with the New England past and its influence on American attitudes. From his dramatic illumination of the struggles between mind and heart, dogma and self-reliance, he fashioned one of the masterpieces of fiction. “The one American literary work which comes as near to perfection as is granted a man to bring his achievements.” — Arnold Bennett

With a Foreword by Leo Marx

A book whose genuine greatness has been nearly eclipsed by its status as a classroom staple. In some ways this is as hard a work to “see” as the Mona Lisa.

There’s no mystery why it’s a fixture of the curriculum: it’s short, direct, thematically “American” on many levels, very famous, and it exhorts the reader to engage in interpretation. It casts itself as an icon, a prompt, which is just what English teachers love. Discussing the meanings of any and all aspects of The Scarlet Letter seems to be exactly what The Scarlet Letter wants. This is what it’s for, right?

Yes, in a certain sense. But I suspect this actually makes it less suitable for didactic use, because that certain sense is inevitably obscured in the classroom, where “interpretation” isn’t a spontaneous impulse of the spirit, it’s an institution and a duty. (And a perspicacity competition. Raise your hand if you understand what I meant by that.) Hawthorne’s explicit appeals to symbolical feeling can be all too easily mistaken for just another homework-happy grownup assigning essays by edict of the Supreme English Department — just the sort of thing the book is supposed to be about escaping from.

Glancing through The Scarlet Letter‘s thousands of Goodreads reviews, I find that there’s a pretty broad teenage consensus. Namely: the story’s all well and good, but the writing is EYE ROLL UGH STOP. The most “liked” reviews are mockery of Hawthorne’s supposed longwindedness: how much pointless description there is, how many needless words recounting how things looked and what people did even when it so obviously doesn’t matter and obviously nobody cares JUST GET ON WITH IT OMG THIS BOOK I LITERALLY CAN’T.

That came as a surprise to me! But I think I know what they’re responding to, beyond just underexposure to 19th century diction. The story is fundamentally a miniature, a tale, whose “natural” size is really very short, yet Hawthorne has treated it at full length. The question is the nature of that treatment. If you’re only reading it to pass a quiz, indeed, you might feel a bit ill-used, because most of the prose clearly won’t be on the quiz. Most of what makes the book worthwhile isn’t quizzable.

Hawthorne’s tone of address is subtly a wonder. It’s what makes the book a glowing masterpiece. He’s never entirely telling the story: he is meditating on it and within it, and his meditation takes the form of writing it. The unspoken premise is that he stumbled across this thing whole in his imagination, and now he’s marveling at it just as we are. (The in-book premise is that he stumbled across it in an attic, which amounts to the same thing.) Just having access to the tale is itself miraculous to him; he’s like someone magically transported into a painting, able to see the backs of the heads, reporting wryly on it all. The events float by with the portent and symmetry of a lucid dream.

Or the inverse metaphor: he turns each scene over and over in his hands. A great deal of what he wants to put across is that this is a tale, a small gleaming thing, to be pored over in its every detail exactly because it is small and perfect. Each aspect of the story is framed as an appeal to knowing recognition: yes, it would have to be just so, wouldn’t it. The book is simultaneously the stained-glass window and the tourist fascinated by it.

I think in his view, the stained-glass window is Olde New England: a mysterious historical past with a forbidding and opaque character, which he’s trying to penetrate but can never claim to truly know. But he’s haunted by this particular past because he has ancestral roots in it, which gives it a vital sense of dread for him. He fears to see himself reflected in it, and/or scorned by it. The dream of this story is initiated by asking himself “who am I? what am I?” So his relationship with local history is inseparable from his relationship with his own psychological attic and the images he finds there.

This is his relationship with “tales” generally. He frequently addresses the reader as though talking to a fellow writer, assuming that we share his capacity to take pleasure in being simultaneously outside and inside a fiction, to relish the sculptural quality of the work as it takes shape under the chisel, and/or as it emerges unbidden.

All Hawthorne’s writing is an extension of his notebooks in which he jotted down hundreds of fleeting inspirations about as-yet-unwritten stories, in which this or that symbolic thing might happen, e.g.

Meditations about the main gas-pipe of a great city,–if the supply were to be stopped, what would happen? How many different scenes it sheds light on? It might be made emblematical of something.

Some very famous jewel or other thing, much talked of all over the world. Some person to meet with it, and get possession of it in some unexpected manner, amid homely circumstances.

To poison a person or a party of persons with the sacramental wine.

An old looking-glass. Somebody finds out the secret of making all the images that have been reflected in it pass back again across its surface.

A woman to sympathize with all emotions, but to have none of her own.

Half the pleasure of each inspiration is pondering the fineness of the hypothetical story qua story. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for there to be such a story! Within The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne says “isn’t it wonderful to participate in the working-out of such a story?” And then: “And isn’t that part of the story, in a way? Aren’t these characters themselves participating?”

The question of whether the reader knows Reverend Dimmesdale’s secret is a prime example. Hawthorne never tells; nor does he engineer any real deception. His deadpan is so utter that it constitutes announcement by omission, to the sophisticated reader to whom Hawthorne addresses himself, but not to “the reader” as an abstraction. The notion of “does the reader know yet?” is something Hawthorne wants to share with us; it’s part of the wonder of stories, part of their worship. He draws out the deadpan indefinitely, because the idea of the hidden, the unspoken, is part of what he venerates. It’s the essence of stained glass.

The book is really about what he’s doing: encountering this book. It worked out marvelously for his purposes that it turns out to be, of all things, The Scarlet Letter, a timeless classic that everyone knows. What a coup!

Hester is burdened with a symbol that becomes open-ended, and then its open-endedness itself becomes the burden. Perhaps the scarlet letter means a transcendental thing that contradicts its societal meaning? Or perhaps the concept of “sin” somehow loops all the way around, and the moral scheme perceived by the Puritans is the grand scheme, even as it works in mysterious ways? Or perhaps perhaps perhaps perhaps any number of other things suitable for discussion in Mrs. Fleming’s fourth period English class? Hawthorne suggests a great many “perhaps”es — for the sake of “perhaps,” the pleasure of “perhaps.”

The thing he seems to actually believe is that fiction is an expression of philosophical reality precisely because it is a twilight realm in which “symbols” and “moral systems” are revealed as mere semiotic objets to be shuffled around and delectated under the rubric of “perhaps.” This freedom of the writer and the reader is the true reality, which Hawthorne allows his characters to perceive dimly as the ineffable truth hiding behind and beyond their fate-ridden fairy-tale paradigm, and endlessly complicating it. The irreducibility is what Hawthorne finds beautiful, the eternal incompleteness of taking two-dimensional moral slices of a three-dimensional universe. And this is his rebuttal to his Puritan ancestors: it’s not that you were wrong, it’s that being right isn’t possible; it’s not the nature of life, and you were in denial about that.

At the very end he muses: “It is a curious subject of observation and inquiry, whether hatred and love be not the same thing at bottom,” because both are forms of passionate dedication. Unspoken but implicit is the even broader reflection on good and evil, both of which are expressions of a moral order. Good and evil are both the business of the town. There’s no name for what goes on in the woods, i.e. in art, i.e. in life.

Hawthorne’s lengthy autobiographical introduction — another thing teenagers hate — tends to be treated as an inessential appendage; I’ve seen several prefaces that outright advise the reader to skip it. But I think that’s wrong. The work takes its meaning in relation to the real world, and in the introduction Hawthorne explicitly gives us a point of departure for that relation. I was grateful for the added dimension it gave to my reading.

He frames the whole thing as his fantastical way of grappling with his feelings about his stultifying “The Office” day job, surrounded by dullards to whom he can’t relate, despite sharing a hometown and a heritage. They’re the types of everyday ordinaries who perceive themselves to be, at best, characters in some drama — perhaps occasionally aware of the power and ambiguity of a mysterious symbol, but never once considering the fourth wall. They believe in the painting. Whereas Hawthorne can see the backs of the heads. Whatever lonely religion that is, it’s what he’s preaching.

I don’t need to talk about what goes on. It’s The Scarlet Letter, obviously.

Detective Kinsey Millhone takes on her toughest case yet, in a quaint New England village where everyone’s a suspect — even the handsome young preacher. She thinks she’s got the investigation in the bag, but when local law enforcement turns against her, and then an old lover with a secret suddenly turns up at her doorstep, Kinsey’s forced to admit that this time… she might be in over her head.

Here’s a passage. Dimmesdale goes to the scaffold of shame in the middle of the night when no one can see, and by astounding coincidence Hester and Pearl happen to pass by. He asks them to join him, and they all stand together on the platform, holding hands in the darkness.

“But wilt thou promise,” asked Pearl, “to take my hand, and mother’s hand, to-morrow noontide?”

“Not then, Pearl,” said the minister, “but another time!”

“And what other time?” persisted the child.

“At the great judgment day!” whispered the minister,—and, strangely enough, the sense that he was a professional teacher of the truth impelled him to answer the child so. “Then, and there, before the judgment-seat, thy mother, and thou, and I, must stand together! But the daylight of this world shall not see our meeting!”

Pearl laughed again.

But, before Mr. Dimmesdale had done speaking, a light gleamed far and wide over all the muffled sky. It was doubtless caused by one of those meteors, which the night-watcher may so often observe burning out to waste, in the vacant regions of the atmosphere. So powerful was its radiance, that it thoroughly illuminated the dense medium of cloud betwixt the sky and earth. The great vault brightened, like the dome of an immense lamp. It showed the familiar scene of the street, with the distinctness of mid-day, but also with the awfulness that is always imparted to familiar objects by an unaccustomed light. The wooden houses, with their jutting stories and quaint gable-peaks; the doorsteps and thresholds, with the early grass springing up about them; the garden-plots, black with freshly turned earth; the wheel-track, little worn, and, even in the marketplace, margined with green on either side;—all were visible, but with a singularity of aspect that seemed to give another moral interpretation to the things of this world than they had ever borne before. And there stood the minister, with his hand over his heart; and Hester Prynne, with the embroidered letter glimmering on her bosom; and little Pearl, herself a symbol, and the connecting link between those two. They stood in the noon of that strange and solemn splendor, as if it were the light that is to reveal all secrets, and the daybreak that shall unite all who belong to one another.

This is an obvious special effect, but that’s my point: Hawthorne makes no disguise of the fact that a special effect is now being applied, because of course it must, because the tale-image demands it, and he knows the reader can see that as well as he. “It was doubtless caused by one of those meteors” — ha ha, wink wink, “doubtless,” because of course we know that it was really caused by PARABLE ITSELF. The actual lighting effect is thrillingly worked out — “black with freshly turned earth” seals it wonderfully — but the real strength is the feeling of inevitability, of intrinsic image-necessity that can be bent by neither Hawthorne nor the characters nor the gods. “And there stood the minister” — of course! Implicit in “and there stood” is “of course.”

And this “of course” becomes the actual flash of “unaccustomed light” for the reader. Here is the symbol; gaze on it. Just picturing it gives it power; it is and must be reckoned with. That’s how symbols work.

Try to find something phony or vague to pick apart in this image! You can’t. It is iron. Nearly the whole book is iron.

Cover time. I think we can all agree this is the good part.

CP650, 75¢, 1974.
CQ910, 95¢, 1976.
CY1067, $1.25, 1977.
CW1188, $1.50, 1979.

70s rebranding of the 1959 cover. As with many of the other Signet launch titles thus far, this has some graphic charm but as an illustration is… not great. (Pop quiz, kids: what’s missing from this picture of Hester? Hint: it has to do with her clothes, which, while we’re on the subject, are not supposed to be purple.) As usual, the illustration had to be recreated after the first print run, seen at the top of this post. (First edition points: her index finger is extended; her hair does not show inside the “R” of “LETTER”).

The introduction by Leo Marx is very nicely done and would be a fine handrail for a standard high school reading of the book, though it assumes the reader knows the entire plot already and doesn’t mind it spoiled. It really ought to be an afterword.

CW1232, $1.50, 1979.
CE1431, $1.75, 1981.
CW1652, $1.50, 1982? (price drop!)

Five years later and finally someone notices that they forgot to remove “A SIGNET CLASSIC” from the bottom when they added it at the top. Meanwhile, someone from PBS apparently has lunch with someone from Signet and this banner ends up getting slapped on some copies. (Sounds like the TV version may actually have been pretty good. It’s not available online.)

CW1652, $1.50, 1983?
CE2350, $1.75, 1988?
CE2522, $1.95 (later $2.25), 1991?

The 80s revamp, starring Mrs. Elizabeth Freake. I generally like the 80s covers, but this one doesn’t quite satisfy. Yes, the painting offers a sense of authenticity and touches on several of the keywords, and I do enjoy the weight and mystery that the dark background puts across. But there’s no getting around the uncanny awkwardness of the early American style, which ends up being the dominant impression. Sure, Hawthorne writes about the Puritans with an eye to their uncanniness, but ultimately he’s the painter of this book, not they, and his point is certainly not that they were haunted-house people with inscrutable ghost eyes. To the contrary.

Furthermore: this wealthy blond woman with her wealthy blond baby, in cheery unlettered clothing, is clearly not Hester Prynne. The best she can be is a gesture in the direction of the aisle in which you’ll find Hester Prynne, if we have any in stock.

The title type seems to be a custom job, like the one on Kidnapped. The mildly gothic feeling is about right, but it seems like the treatment wasn’t designed around this image, which has crunched it unfortunately small and made the T-ligature look pretty weird.

CE2522, $2.95 (later $3.95), date unknown (prior to 1995!)

The 90s: now with new, less deformed Hester! There seems to be a misapprehension about what a “letter” is — some type of robe, maybe? — but at least this woman is plausible casting. Though, honestly, I don’t buy it: Hester is all feeling, whereas this woman has the vacant look of a professional model posed and painted by a technician with no real dramatic sense. The 19th century was rife with those guys.

What painter am I panning here? Good question! Signet doesn’t identify the image, but I found it: this is Fabiola by Jean-Jacques Henner (1829-1905).

(Or so says “Superstock,” anyway. I usually like to get a more authoritative source than that, but this particular painting is in private hands and very poorly documented online. Complicating matters is the fact that not only did this artist churn out year after year of variations on the same subject, one of them actually became a sort of folk icon and was copied by countless amateurs. It turns out the world is absolutely swimming in Fabiolas a la Henner. Choose wisely!)

Jean-Jacques Henner should feel free to take this as a compliment: I think his painting from 120 years ago is too modern and photo-realistic and slick for this book. Oh well.

On the subject of oh well: title typeface is Charlemagne; author typeface is Berkeley Old Style.

(The major motion picture being touted is of course the 1995 Demi Moore version.)

2608, $3.95, 1999.

New introduction by Brenda Wineapple.

3135, $3.95, 2009.

The 21st century pounces. No more people, no more history; no more time, no more place. Never again! From here on out it’s just design, baby! Perfectly smooth and clean and empty, to suit your perfectly smooth and clean and empty lifestyle. We know what the customer wants: a rectangle that they can sort into a rainbow with their other rectangles, on their rectangle-shelf.

As for the actual design: it’s the easy way out, but I’m sort of relieved they finally got around to it. I’m not sure why it’s butterflying together out of little fragments (or are those supposed to be a digital-age take on the cracked surface of an ancient leather-bound volume?) and I don’t think it’s quite right by Hawthorne for it to be an asymmetrical blackletter character. But all in all: yeah, a big red A. You got it.

(Note that at some point they squeezed an “s” into the logo cartouche and turned “Signet Classic” to “Signet Classics.” After 35 years. It probably ought to have been that way all along.)

New afterword by Regina Barreca. Typeface is Garamond.

3135, $4.95, 2021

Oh-ho! What’s this? The 2020s covers have begun to arrive!

It turns out these are momentous times for the Signet Classics. The catalog has been culled — both Kidnapped and The Return of the Native have gone out of print since I wrote about them — and the remaining titles are apparently being given makeovers to try to actually meet the market.

Both this one and the one for Animal Farm (see below for update) are by Kaitlin Kall. I can and will snark at these covers in a minute, but there’s no denying that they’re far more suave and graphically intelligent than the 2008-9 versions were. Those looked like someone cranked them out in 30 minutes apiece in Photoshop and their editor said “fine.” These look like they went through an actual design process, over a couple days, with thoughts and discussion and revision and an eye for balance, impact, etc. Way to go!

And, hey, look up in the corner! They’ve re-instituted the 70s logo after 40 long years in exile. I entirely endorse that choice, and I feel almost moved by it. It’s incredibly rare for a brand to simply bring back something old: not self-consciously milk it for nostalgia, or make a big defensive show of “updating” it, just put it back to work because it was perfectly good and still is. Taste is not actually a forward march, and it’s okay to acknowledge that! Wow! What a great feeling.

[Edit: Oh, I guess that logo had still been hanging out on the spine this whole time. I forgot about that. Okay, nevermind. Not a Christmas miracle after all.]

As for the cover: the A in the title becoming the A on Hester’s chest is such a natural conceit that I’m surprised I’ve never seen it done before, so kudos to Kaitlin. But then the rest, sigh, is a wishful lie. That The Scarlet Letter is actually primitivo brutale, an ominous crayon drawing by a child who saw a Babadook. We live in a bipolar time where our entertainments are alternately primal horrors or infinite digital escapes. Nobody cares about mere passion anymore; nobody even really believes in the possibility. Everything’s either the fucking red pill or the blue pill. The Scarlet Letter probably falls on the dark side of center, right? So hooray, that’s a green light: go ahead and make it be a demon-scratched totem from a pre-civilized culture!

(Probably the actual idea is supposed to be that 17th-century America was a rough-hewn society, and that the novel is about the uneasy relationship between human ideals and the untamed moral wilderness. But look at those faceless silhouettes! Look at the corroded text! I’m not imagining this.)

Meanwhile it turns out that Animal Farm is chick lit! Who knew? Adorbs.

Of course, Kaitlin had her reasons. Like I said, I have to grant these covers their professionalism. But the game is unabashedly about selling pigs in pokes; it really doesn’t matter what’s actually between the covers, or whether the buyer wants it: the poke is the product. And the customer basically knows it! We enter this contract willingly.

It’s like the old saying: “a book sucks but not gonna lie its cover lowkey slaps.”

August 19, 2021

Disney Canon #59: Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

[The home screening of this 107-minute movie was paused (at approximately the 60 minute mark) for a food delivery and bathroom break. It became apparent that there was a general desire to do some mid-movie venting, which was duly recorded:]

ADAM It’s just dumb bits of other movies.

BROOM It’s worse than that.

BETH It is… [sigh].

ADAM It’s like a little bit of Indiana Jones, and a little bit of Mad Max

BETH Yeah, and it’s a little bit The Fast and the Furious

ADAM And then just horcruxes.

BETH Ha, yes, horcruxes.

BROOM It’s just empty! I haven’t had a single feeling.

BETH I’ve only felt angry.

BROOM I mean a story feeling, I haven’t had a feeling about anything that’s going on. It’s just video game stuff, on and on and on.

ADAM Yes, it’s video game stuff, that’s right.

BROOM And it’s clear where we’re going with this, that the themes are trust and political detente, or whatever, and that those have been applied to the video-game-stuff machine that churns this shit out.

ADAM Remember when the theme of Wreck-It Ralph was, like… what was the theme of Wreck-It Ralph?

BETH The end was a zillion Ralphs…

BROOM Guys, the movie you’re thinking of is Ralph Breaks the Internet. Look, this is better than Ralph Breaks the Internet. I get how someone who just wants to play video games and watch anime could be like “now I’ll watch Raya and the Last Dragon.” It’s sort of coherent as that.

ADAM Well, I think that the bug thing is very cute.

BETH I agree. I do like that bug thing, but I hate everything else.

BROOM “The bug thing” is the armadillo thing?

BETH Yeah, that started out little. That was a good gag.

ADAM And I think that the baby and the monkeys are cute.


BROOM Look, I think that the video game stuff is better than the video game stuff we’ve seen in other movies. It’s sort of diverting in a way that some others aren’t. It just hurts my heart that this is a Disney movie. If it was just some stupid animated movie from some other studio, I’d think “well, this is what they’re making — fine.” But it hurts as a Disney movie.


ADAM Yeah, when she said “all we have to do is get the five gem pieces,” I was like [long groan of tedium].

BETH It’s making me sad that kids are watching this. It doesn’t have a “seedy worldview” exactly, but it’s sort of…

BROOM Yeah, we need another word than “seedy” to represent the threat to the human spirit posed by contemporary culture. It’s not seediness, it’s… synthetic-ness.

BETH Vapidness?

BROOM It’s knowing how to mold your Instagram persona more than you know how to be a person. That really is a threat to kids today. The movie has all of its surfaces in order, but it hasn’t had had a single actual joke that it actually made up. It’s just doing attitude stuff. When the Talon girl shows up in the treasure room, and Awkwafina says “I get the sense that you’re not besties” or something like that — they thought that was a joke! They thought that was a comic moment. But it’s just a reflexive tic.

BETH The whole vibe of it is “this is how culture is now, you use these shorthand ways of talking and joking.”

BROOM I was angry right away, when in the prologue sequence the girls are getting to know each other and playing “would you prefer this or that” and she says something like “oh that, all day.” I don’t remember what exactly, but they were trying hard to sound like… billenials? What do you call Generation Z kids?

BETH Kids today!

BROOM And I thought, “if this is how they’re doing character in this movie, that hurts.” But then she turned out to be a villain! And I thought “oh, I see, it’s showing that that was shallow, it’s not how people really connect.” So then I was holding out hope for a little while.

BETH No, the whole thing is that.

BROOM Well, it’s both. I think they agreed that was shallow, but they don’t actually know anything other than shallow, so they ran out of ideas after that.

BETH I feel like the backgrounds are more meaningful than the characters. I mean, this is so beautiful to look at, in terms of CGI backgrounds. It’s gorgeously rendered.

ADAM It was clear that there was a problem when the very first thing that the movie did was, like, “now a bunch of backstory!: [insistent babble].”

BROOM Oh yeah, that backstory was messed up. It’s that third-generation concept of myth, filtered down. Their level of understanding of myth is that they saw The Lion King.

BETH Other Disney movies, yeah.

BROOM It’s like post-apocalyptic culture where they’ve told the story of “Disney Movies” to each other for years, and this is the form it takes now. This a retelling of the myth of “Disney,” not some deep human myth, just “Disney as myth,” told through the language of people who play a lot of video games. And have seen some anime.

BETH Guys, I hate it.

[The venting session comes to a close and the screening is resumed. 40 minutes later, it is done:]

BROOM [offers the Kumandran gesture of greeting]

ADAM All of this was, I’m sure, carefully ethnographically accurate, so that’s probably offensive, that you just did that.

BROOM Carefully ethnographically accurate to what?

BETH The Mayans.

ADAM No, it was to, like, southeast Asia.

BETH Right.

BROOM Well, where was Kumandra supposed to be? It was, like, Thai-Burmese-Vietnamese-Indonesian…

ADAM It was all southeast Asia, and I read that during production they were very careful to consult all the myths of the people of the region, and all the voice actors were Asian-American…

BETH I did see that all the voice actors were… appropriate… but what about the dialogue and the script?

ADAM I will say that the second half, after we resumed… like, the return of life sequence, which is in all Disney movies: at least it was exuberant. I was persuaded. Not that it redeemed the movie, but it was very nice to see all the water coming back and all the people coming back to life, and a lengthy sequence of people hugging. All that was cathartic.

BETH Yes. I liked that they all got turned to stone, and then unfrozen by the rain, and hugged.

BROOM I’m willing to say that I found the second half easier to watch, more palatable overall than the first half.

ADAM Yeah, once they got all the business out of the way.

BROOM Right, then it was the story, and you got to actually watch the story instead of just the treasure hunt.

ADAM But the politics were terrible. This was the worst kind of George Bush liberalism, like, “if we just approach with open hearts, everyone will be with us” kind of nonsense.

BETH You just give them the right gift, and you’re in.

BROOM Well, it’s complicated. The movie made fun of the naivete of that, when they showed the hypothetical approaches. In the hypothetical she absurdly says “ooh! a present? now I’m your friend!” And then indeed in the scene when they actually do it, things fall apart and they end up shooting the dragon. So they’ve established that it’s naive to just do that. But then they still have to come around and have a message of trust in the end. So it ends up being something like, “if you trust someone all the way to the point where you actually die, then the trust will pay off.”

BETH Yeah.

ADAM That’s fair, but… I don’t know, man.

BROOM I don’t know if that’s a message. How are you supposed to apply that in life?

ADAM That’s some truth and reconciliation stuff.

BETH The message is also “how you imagine things will go is not how they go.” I kept thinking, “what is the right age of kids for this movie?” It’s pretty scary! That purple ether stuff that’s coming to get you. I don’t feel like my niece and nephew, who are 9 and 7, are old enough for this movie. Maybe they’re naive for their ages, but it just seemed too intense.

ADAM Yeah, that purple goo is pretty scary. It seemed like the movie was going out of its way to not have a villain. I get that Disney villains are problematic, but without a villain the story doesn’t really exist. The formless goo isn’t a villain, it’s just a thing. And Namaari and her mom, they’re not really villains.

BROOM They were certainly antagonists.

ADAM Yeah, but they didn’t have any personality, because they were too afraid to make them larger than life. It could have used, like, an Ursula.

BROOM But that’s the message: questioning distrust, rather than being invested in an “us-vs.-them” structure. That’s a positive message. And the issues facing the world today are these kinds of impersonal problems. If the purple goo represents climate change, some kind of problem that we just need to come together and work on, that seems like a genuinely worthwhile kind of message to put across. But you need to be able to narrativize it. You need to figure out what that really means. And like I said last time about Frozen 2, to have everything be in terms of the logic of screen magic, where this magic does this magic to that magic, but then the magic is dying, but we have the gem that makes the magic magic again… the metaphor runs out.

ADAM Yeah.

BROOM I respect that they tried to have no bad guy, and have it be about trusting the person who seems like a bad guy. That seems healthy. I just don’t know how to get all the way to a movie that makes sense, from there.

ADAM Yeah, I don’t mean to say that they needed a bad guy because you have to have a bad guy; I’m saying I think that the problem with the narrative was that there were no characters other than Raya, kind of.

BETH And Sisu.

ADAM There wasn’t really a villain in the first Frozen, but Elsa was —

BROOM Yes there was! There was that awful prince who tricked them.

ADAM Oh, that’s true, but he wasn’t really the main villain. The main villain was “Elsa, but she’s really good, she’s just misguided and extremely emotional.”

BETH That feels complex, and like a story.

ADAM Exactly.

BETH This was, yeah, really a drag.

ADAM So why did the dragons all come back the second time?

BETH Right! Why didn’t it work the first time, when it apparently worked for every other creature?

ADAM And why was Sisu’s stab wound healed?

BROOM The dragons all came together and used their dragon magic to bring her back, which is a separate case of reincarnation.

BETH But that ball existed. When that ball was just hanging out in the room, why weren’t the other dragons okay?

ADAM Yeah.

BROOM That’s right, for five hundred years it didn’t help them.

BETH That doesn’t make sense.

ADAM None of it made any sense. Yeah.

BROOM It is striking that this is a Disney movie where the magic is so strong that you get your dad back. I don’t think we’ve ever seen that before. A new generation got their hands on the Disney myth, and they told it this weird way.

ADAM Well, she didn’t get her mom back.

BROOM What “mom”? What are you talking about?

BETH Does she even have a mom?

ADAM Her mom is not mentioned.

BETH If you’re only working from within Disney architecture, that seems like a really new idea. And it seems like that’s how this all was formed: they were only registering other Disney movies. It felt like it had no sense of history in a real way.

BROOM Yes, it’s for kids who don’t have any sense of the real. But the really sad thing is it felt like it was by them.

BETH Yes, this is the thought I was having. There’s that Mission: Impossible stuff in it, and I’m like, “do you guys even know what that is? Have you seen Mission: Impossible, or are you just riffing on the riff — like, the Simpsons version of it? or something after that?” It just seemed so far removed from the thing they were actually referencing. But they knew that there was a thing to reference.

BROOM Which was the Mission: Impossible reference?

BETH When they were sneaking around; it was the baby and the monkeys. The soundtrack did a riff on the Mission: Impossible thing.

ADAM I wonder if the problem is just a big loaded corporate culture, and disempowered writers, and everything has to be done by committee.

BETH Yes. This is another thing I was thinking: this is like a workshop, like a grad school or an Iowa Writers’ Workshop kind of situation, where the narrative is watered down by everyone saying “well I don’t know about this,” “well, I don’t know about this.” Piece by piece it gets dismantled.

ADAM Yeah. “Well, would the Kumandran people really do that?”

BETH Right, everyone’s gonna have a problem with something, so the writers say “okay, so I’ll address that, and I’ll address this, and I’ll address this,” and all of a sudden it’s the most bland version it can be.

BROOM You’re right, and I should keep that in mind, when I’m dispirited by this humor that’s not really humor. Instead of imagining the writers as clueless ingrown people, I should imagine that they’re just in a situation where they’re not confident and they’re not comfortable.

BETH Or they’re just too young to stand up to executives. They might be confident, but they might just think “okay, I can’t win this, because the guy who has the money is telling me to do this other thing.”

ADAM Which has been a Hollywood problem forever. I mean, there have been periods where Disney has had very strong narrative personality, because somebody was in charge. It’s a shame John Lasseter was so huggy, because he wouldn’t have been bossed around like this, I don’t think.

BROOM Rest assured, none of the people who worked on this movie hug anyone, ever.

BETH No no, they do. Some of them do. Some of them are fat, and they hug people. That’s my guess.

BROOM You think some of the people who worked on this movie are fat?

BETH … Yeah.

ADAM Did you say “bad” or “fat”?


BROOM And those are so different, ADAM, how dare you. So is this the most lesbian movie they’ve ever made?


ADAM Yeah!

BETH Yes! Like, was every main character a lesbian? Maybe!

ADAM You know that I’m always here for the coded LGBT themes in these movies, but it wasn’t really that coded.

BETH It wasn’t coded, it was just blatant! They were all lesbians. All of them!

BROOM Especially the Sisu-Raya relationship, where she’s like “she’s my girl!” I don’t understand what Sisu was other than “your lesbian girlfriend.”

ADAM Sisu was her wacky best friend…

BROOM They didn’t have a wacky best friend rapport. But they did kind of have a lesbian couple rapport.

ADAM But Raya and Namaari…

BETH Those two were so into each other. I felt like there was a strong sexual subtext to that.

BROOM Oh yeah. They were fanfic-bait.

BETH Yeah. There was more going on.

ADAM “Come at me, Princess Undercut.” There were basically no males to speak of in the movie anyway, other than the oafish Spine.

BETH Yeah, they made Namaari as masculine as possible, to serve as that foil.

ADAM I liked the dragon and the baby and the monkeys, but they did feel kind of ripped off from Spirited Away.

BROOM I say “boo” to the baby and the monkeys.

BETH I did not like them.

BROOM Someone said “let’s do a baby and monkeys,” and then they managed to make them neither cute nor interestingly uncute, it was just “a baby and some monkeys” in the movie. I never wanted to see them.

ADAM Yeah, I liked them at the beginning when they were con artists, but not when they became her friends.

BROOM So back to the theming: I finally understood the scheme right after we turned it back on again. “I see, she’s collecting one representative from each of these regions, but they’re all underdog people. They’re not the big chieftain, they’re just ordinary folks, and those are the people you can develop a trust relationship with, even if you distrust them a little bit. But it’s more fun, it’s like a gang, hanging out, and that’s how trust is built.”

BETH It had this Ocean’s Eleven feel to it. You’re a ragtag gang.

BROOM Yes, exactly. Misfits. Though the Hun guy was the chieftain of his tribe. But then everything they did to develop their relationship on that boat, there were no actual characters there, so it was just schematic.

ADAM “You threw shrimp at me again!”

BROOM Yeah! You already did that! You threw shrimp in the previous scene, and it wasn’t funny then either. There wasn’t a single laugh in this movie.

BETH There were no laughs. I think they don’t know how to develop characters. Or this team didn’t.

ADAM Even the kid. “Yo! I make some spicy food! Have some of my spicy food!”

BROOM Right. And at one point she says “Captain Pop and Lock” and I thought “Oh, is dancing his thing? I didn’t pick up on that.” He was definitely doing weird moves, but I didn’t really get what it was supposed to be.

BETH I don’t know why this bothered me, but the idea that they would talk with references that we know now was really bothering me. I just wanted some kind of nod to it being “a long time ago.”

BROOM Yeah, when that Attila the Hun guy said “I can’t wait to see the joytastic sight of my village.” What??

BETH Yeah, I saw you react to that.

BROOM Did they not have any separation between characters, that different people would speak different ways?

ADAM I think Robin Williams’ performance in Aladdin kind of poisoned the well.

BROOM Because it was out of period?

ADAM I don’t really think that, but I remember how exhilarating I found it. Like, “Oh! Can he really do that? Can he really become Arnold Schwarzenegger? Or Arsenio Hall?” But Robin Williams was very funny, so it kind of worked. Whereas… ugh.

BROOM Well, other than “pop and lock,” which, yes, is a specific reference but still sort of general… but what else did they do? Like, they didn’t do Arsenio Hall in this movie, right?

BETH No, but all of the jokes were very “of now,” you know? They didn’t reference TikTok or anything, but it felt like it was made by people who are on TikTok.

BROOM Oh yeah. It was made for TikTok. And I think it’s a corporate calculation that makes it this way. I think they want to be speaking “the language of the kids.” To a fault.

BETH Right. When did that problem become a problem?

BROOM I was thinking: we just shrug at stupid stuff in The Sword in the Stone, because it’s not our childhoods and it’s not our adulthoods to protect. If we’d been born in 1910 and then we saw the stupid Sword in the Stone in middle age, would we have said “what are they doing??”

BETH If we’d been born in 1920, BROOM. Let’s be realistic.

BROOM Okay, if we’re born in 1920 and we’re 40 in 1960…

BETH Sword in the Stone is ’63, right?

BROOM Oh, okay, I’d forgotten what year it was.

BETH So I’m saying, yes, were there jokes that we would have been pissed off at?

BROOM Was The Sword in the Stone as panderingly out of touch with anything more important than just “the times”?

BETH “The kids of today.”

BROOM I want to think that it wasn’t, that it was still in touch with something a little more lasting. But I’m not 100% sure.

BETH No, I do think that comedy changed in the past 20 years. Disney focused more on relating to topicality.

BROOM It’s so formulaic. I have this feeling about that site “TV Tropes”: I remember originally being thrilled that it existed, because I had always had a fantasy in the back of my head — I remember we talked about this stuff in college sometimes, ADAM — like, “if there was a list of every time ever that, say, eyes in a spooky portrait moved, that would be so interesting.” That you could go back and track something like that. And when people on the internet started actually assembling the entire history of eyes in a portrait moving, that seemed exciting to me. But it has come to embody this mindset that the generation now has, which is that everything fundamentally is just an instance of a category, and that’s the best it can aspire to be. That all comedy is… like the old joke about people in the prison yelling “number 7!” “number 12!” because they don’t need to tell the jokes anymore, because they’ve all memorized them. It’s just that! They just say these lines to each other, and I get creeped out thinking “is an 18-year-old laughing when they see this?” It’s just attitudes, attitude 4 and attitude 10, and it’s all prepackaged. It’s depressing.

BETH It’s never an 18-year-old, it’s a 13-year-old.

BROOM Is it?

BETH Yeah, because what 18-year-old is watching Raya?

BROOM All of them!

BETH No! What are you talking about?

BROOM Who’s on TikTok? 13-year-olds?

ADAM 9-year-olds and 42-year-olds.

BROOM What are 18-year-olds doing?

BETH 18-year-olds are on TikTok for sure, but they’re too cool to watch Raya. Come on.

ADAM Yeah.

BROOM What do cool kids watch these days? I thought that culture has become infantilized and commodified to that degree.

BETH Cool kids don’t watch movies, they just watch things that last for 90 seconds.

BROOM All right. Well, it’s bad for 13-year-olds too. It’s bad for 6-year-olds.

BETH It’s bad for everybody. This movie sucks. If I were Roger Ebert I would give it thumbs down.

ADAM I don’t know, man! [aside to MARK] No, we watched it on the TV, and I’m talking to BROOM and BETH on my phone.

BROOM What did you think of it, MARK?

ADAM Yeah, MARK, what did you think?

MARK Um, I thought that the beginning was really special, but then it was just, like, a druggy hysteria.

ADAM No, no, no, you’re stuck in the past.

MARK I’m still scarred by it.

BETH He’s still scarred by Yellow Submarine.

ADAM No, no, it’s not that. I wish it was that!

MARK The Meanies!

ADAM Don’t you remember how exhilarating it was when Tiny Toons debuted? I loved ‘tude when I was like 9.

BETH Right, yes. When we were 12, or whatever, that sort of thing was fun. But this is different! It feels so stale.

ADAM This is just poorly executed and formulaic.

BROOM Yeah, if you go back 30 years to stuff when we were 12, that’s when it was a radical idea, in kid culture, that you could defy your own conventions. Kids learn conventions, and then something breaks them and they think “oh! You can do that? You can make that reference?” Whereas now we’ve come all the way around to where the conventions are that kind of chatter. The defiance now would be representing emotions that kids have never seen represented before. This didn’t once break out of its habits to show a 7-year-old something they haven’t seen. But, okay, I know: everything is someone’s first time seeing it. So maybe that’s it: kid culture doesn’t need to have original thoughts because kids have never seen anything before.

BETH I mean, think about how much Hanna-Barbera you watched that was bullshit.

BROOM But we knew it was bullshit.

BETH Yeah.

ADAM But I watched so much of it. I wonder what Madeline thinks, because she’s exposed to kids’ media all the time.

BETH I’d be interested to hear.

ADAM Madeline, if you’re reading this, let us know what you think in the comments.

BROOM BETH, you don’t happen to know what your niece and nephew thought of this, do you? Do you know if they saw it?

BETH I don’t think they watched it. They’d be too scared. People turn to stone. My nephew is very scared of stuff. He doesn’t like anyone dying in anything.

BROOM Yeah, it was super creepy. That’s the kind of stuff that scared me the most as a kid, thinking about the physical reality of horrific magical things, like those people melting…

BETH Just the dad getting frozen and being frozen indefinitely! That’s enough.

ADAM What about the baby stoically accepting its fate and hugging her leg, and then becoming petrified?

BROOM Yeah, I would have fixated on that as a kid, and thought, “how does it work? and how does it feel? and what is inside those purple blobs that does it?” And why do the purple blobs do it? They aren’t eating the people.

BETH Yeah, it’s very Coronavirus-y.

ADAM It’s made of human discord, BROOM.

BROOM It is!

ADAM That’s what they said.

BROOM Yeah, they said they’re like anti-dragons.

BETH But how are kids supposed to pick up on that? Like… every Disney movie has to have some positive message, right? Do you think they start with it? Do you think they start with “okay, what’s the message this is going to have?”

BROOM I think in this case they did. Well, I think the core elements here were “dragons,” “southeast Asia,” “women,” “Bechdel test.” And then on the other side, “trust: not good-guy vs. bad-guy, but everyone, and their fears of each other, vs. impersonal threat.” They had that, and then they just chewed on it for however many years, to build this non-story out of it. But it was a pretty good video game, as video games go. All the rooms looked cool.

BETH The rooms were very cool.

BROOM When they rolled around on that armadillo pillbug, it looked cool.

BETH Yes, yes. I don’t think they have speaking down very well. I feel like old animation does better with mouths.

ADAM I felt bad for the armadillo pillbug, because it never got to eat or make its own choices, really. It occasionally got to secretly eat but that’s no way to live.

BROOM That’s been a character for a long time in movies, like Herbie the Love Bug: your beloved car, and it sort of smiles. With this one it was weird that at first it seemed like it might be a person, but then it grew up to just be a car.

ADAM Should we read the review?


[we read the New York Times review]

MARK So wait, it sounds like people didn’t like it? Or they did like it?

ADAM No, we didn’t.

BETH We did not like it.

MARK You were like, “you’re gonna like it.” I was like, “no, I’m not gonna like it.”

BROOM I mean, you might have liked it.

BETH No, you made the right choice.

[we proceed to read about Disney’s Encanto, currently scheduled for release November 24, 2021]

May 27, 2021


’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

The first stanza of Jabberwocky stands apart from the rest of the poem. It’s distinctly more opaque — it contains eleven invented words where the other stanzas have no more than four or five — and it has a separate history from the rest: Lewis Carroll originally wrote it as a standalone bit of whimsy, years before the Alice books, and “published” it in a homemade magazine that he produced for the amusement of his family. In this form it was already accompanied by absurdist glosses of the made-up words, which he elaborated and updated in Through the Looking-Glass years later.

It seems like whenever anyone raises the question of what these words actually mean, no matter how academic and serious-minded the context, Carroll’s tongue-in-cheek glosses — which are very clearly intended to be ridiculous — are generally offered deadpan (in the manner of nerds who take pleasure in repeating “funny” things they’ve memorized because they think it constitutes participation in the comedy). I’ve never seen a source that attempts to correctly parse the stanza. But I have long believed this to be possible, and after many years I find myself in the mood to put this here for posterity.

My thesis, of which I have become fairly convinced, is that the stanza is meant to be recognizable as conventional scene-painting of efflorescent springtime, mentioning successively fauna, flora, and birdsong. The conceit is that this is archaic Middle English, so a modernized respelling should be possible. Consider, say:

‘Twas Maytide, and the lissome roe
Did graze and gambol in the mead
All rosy were the hellebore
And the song thrush gave call.

This at least is what I find jotted in my iPhone notes from a few months ago. I’ve toyed at making a translation-in-kind like this for a long time, and this was my most recent pass at it; it’ll do for posterity purposes.

“Maytide” is the worst of it: “brillig” actually probably means “sunny” (re: “bright” and “brilliant”), but there’s no suitably antique two-syllable word. (“Blazy” could work but only very poorly.)

The relation of “gimble” to “gambol” is the linchpin; it is particularly and specifically convincing to me. From this, the rest falls into place. “Wabe” must be a field and “tove” must be some sort of creature capable of gamboling; if we take “slithy” to be, indeed, related to “lithe” (and perhaps “slender”) then deer seems likeliest. “Gyre” as paired counterpart to “gimble” must be either synonym (i.e. “prance and gambol”) or contrast, as I have it here.

“Outgrabe” is clearly the past participle of a verb indicating vocalization; in this context it must be birdcall. “Song thrush” above is just a rough approximation (though “thrush” does satisfactorily preserve most of the phonemes of “raths”). It is unclear to me whether “mome” is part of a two-word name (as in “the song thrush”) or is a separable adjective (i.e. “the red robin.”)

By process of elimination within the overall cliché, the remaining clause, “all mimsy were the borogoves,” must refer to the plant kingdom, and this fits nicely, since the adverbial use of “all” in this construction is generally associated with expressions of sweet abundance or flowering. “Hellebore” is fun because it preserves “bor,” but I doubt it’s specifically what’s intended. “Groves” might also be relevant.

The possibility that “mimsy” and “mome” are deliberately linked in make-believe etymology, and perhaps refer to pink and red respectively, does appeal to me.

I do wonder why “toves” and “raths” are given as plural; it seems to me that the characteristically archaic construction for this sort of scene-setting would speak of, say, “the stag” and “the hare” etc., in the singular. It may just be that Carroll decided the singular was too confusing when the words are all made-up, and that the resulting ambiguity was unhelpful to the effect. (Then again maybe it didn’t occur to him at all. Or maybe I’m wrong about all of it.)

I did some very light searching to see if I could perhaps find a specific model for any of these phrases, or even for the stanza as a whole. I didn’t find any smoking guns, but I was rather struck by the following. Though I have no idea whether this text was known to Carroll — nor do I have the patience to do the real research necessary to investigate such matters — it at least feels apropos. Try reading this and then immediately reading Carroll’s stanza. The sense of parodic reference is strong and, I think, clarifying.

This comes from a fairly well known work that might well have held interest for Carroll, The Morall Fabillis of Esope the Phrygian by Robert Henryson (fl. c. 1460-1500). The language is Middle Scots.

In middis of June, that joly sweit seasoun,
Quhen that fair Phebus with his bemis bricht
Had dryit up the dew fra daill and doun,
And all the land maid with his bemis licht,
In ane mornyng betuix mid day and nicht
I rais and put all sleuth and sleip asyde,
And to ane wod I went allone but gyde.

Sweit wes the smell off flouris quhyte and reid,
The noyes off birdis richt delitious,
The bewis braid blomit abone my heid,
The ground growand with gers gratious;
Off all plesance that place wes plenteous,
With sweit odouris and birdis harmony;
The morning myld, my mirth wes mair for thy.

The rosis reid arrayit rone and ryce,
The prymeros and the purpour viola;
To heir it wes ane poynt off paradice,
Sic mirth the mavis and the merle couth ma;
The blossummis blythe brak up on bank and bra;
The smell off herbis and the fowlis cry,
Contending quha suld have the victory.

The fairly shallow reasons why these particular stanzas happened to catch my eye: the mention of “bemis bricht” reminds me of “brillig,” and “gyde” superficially resembles “gyre.” The phrase that first snagged my attention was “Sic mirth the mavis and the merle couth ma,” which has a very similar cadence to “all mimsy were the borogoves and the mome raths outgrabe.” (Though if correctly parsed, the syntax is actually entirely different; the Henryson is equivalent to “Such mirth the thrush and the blackbird could make.”)

So, yes, there’s really very little in common here. All the same, I’m pasting it into this scrapbook of my thought process.

In its original homegrown publication, Carroll’s mock exegesis ends by calling the stanza “an obscure, but yet deeply-affecting, relic of ancient Poetry.” This phrase, “relic of ancient poetry,” would seem to refer to a well-known and influential collection, “Reliques of Ancient Poetry” by Thomas Percy, which is a compendium of exactly the sort of stuff Carroll is parodying, and probably is in fact the book Alice finds in the looking-glass house, in which she reads “Jabberwocky.”

I browsed through the online edition looking for a model for the “’twas brillig” stanza, but didn’t find anything obvious. (There’s some Henryson in the collection, but not the passage above.)

However I did find some stuff that seems likely to have influenced the monster-hunting narrative that forms the bulk of Jabberwocky:

Than was he glad without fayle,
And rested a whyle for his avayle;
And dranke of that water his fyll;
And then he lepte out, with good wyll,
And with Morglay his brande
He assayled the dragon, I understande:
On the dragon he smote so faste,
Where that he hit the scales braste:
The dragon then faynted sore,
And cast a galon and more
Out of his mouthe of venim strong,
And on syr Bevis he it flong:
It was venymous y-wis.

This “rested a whyle” rings the bell of “stood awhile in thought” from Carroll, and falls at exactly the same place dramatically, in the calm before the storm of dragon-battle. These lines come from ballad of Bevis of Hampton, which seems as likely as anything to have been a model for Jabberwocky. Yet in all of google books I find nobody even mentioning them both in the same text. Indeed, I only find one person who even identifies the link to “Percy’s Reliques” — and it’s someone writing on the Reliques who mentions Carroll in passing, rather than the other way around.

Most authorities just seem to say that Jabberwocky is a parody of Beowulf, I assume because they’ve heard of Beowulf. Come on, people! Haven’t academics and obsessives been picking over this territory obsessively for 150 years? What have they been up to, if not this?

And my goodness, look at this! For $300 Lewis Carroll’s own personal copy of the Reliques can be yours???!!!???!!! Gosh, I wonder if there are any telling pencil marks in there!!

Seriously, where is everybody???

One more thing. Ever since I was a kid I’ve wanted to know: why give a poem about a creature called “the Jabberwock” the title “JabberwockY,” with a Y appended? This must be in imitation of some specific linguistic model, but I am unable to identify it. “Jabberwockiad” I would at least recognize. Unfortunately the Jabberwocky academic establishment has once again thoroughly failed me.

February 24, 2021

“Alt-Disney” #2: Yellow Submarine (1968)

BROOM So I’m getting the impression that in the ADAM and MARK household, this was a contentious selection.

ADAM Why don’t we let MARK have the opening word?

MARK It wasn’t really a movie. I was imagining more of a story-driven movie, not a compilation of music videos loosely brought together by a theme unrelated to the songs.

BROOM That was your comment when we paused at the 40 minute mark. Do you stand by it, now that we’ve seen to the end?

MARK I mean, I don’t think the end makes the middle make sense, but the beginning and the end are a complete story, yes.

BROOM My feeling about this movie when I was a kid — and I think still — is that the music video stuff is the coolest part, and I get bored when they’re just telling the story, which seems like it’s an afternoon cartoon story.


ADAM Which part do you think is the afternoon cartoon story? Like, the parts when they’re talking to each other?

BETH The Blue Meanies!

BROOM The war with the Blue Meanies. Why do we have to watch a whole war with the Blue Meanies? I get bored of that.

ADAM Really? Oh. See, I think that the Blue Meanies themselves are… maybe the scariest thing that I’ve ever seen in my whole life.

BROOM [breaks out in laughter]

ADAM I’m serious! Like, they don’t just fill with you dread?

BROOM They’re creepy, but they make them deliberately absurd, so “the scariest thing you’ve ever seen in your whole life” is… strong! Tell me more.

BETH I can see that, though. I didn’t see this when I was a kid. But I can imagine —

ADAM This is, like, the scariest and most realistic depiction of Nazis I’ve ever seen. The inexorable men who come and drop apples on you? That’s so scary! Jesus Christ! Or the shoes that open up and they have, like, stormtroopers in them? The blue dogs howling… aaaah! I don’t know, it’s just really upsetting.

MARK You find apples upsetting?

ADAM They walk up and you can’t escape them, and they just cover you in apples!

BROOM Paralyzing, petrifying apples. I remember as a kid finding the glove creepy. The amount of face the glove has and doesn’t have.

BETH The glove is creepy.

ADAM The glove is really scary. I mean, I don’t know if I thought of them as Nazis when I was a kid. When one is like “Where can we go?” and the other is like “Argentina!” I thought that was just a funny non sequitur. But when you think about it now, from the perspective of Britain in 1968, that’s what they are. And they’re really scary!

MARK Do Nazis really lend anything else to the movie that explicitly?

ADAM I mean, how far apart was 1945 to 1968? It was the same difference as we are to 1997. It would be very much on your mind, I think!

BROOM I mean, certainly as a kid I thought almost everything was non sequitur, I didn’t understand any of the references. And yeah, now I understand “Argentina” and “tomorrow the world” and all of that, as references, but still… I don’t know. This is one of the movies that’s hardest for me to see through adult eyes. Because of the way it’s made: it wants you to watch it like you’re in a psychedelic regression. But I still take the Blue Meanies to be “Blue Meaniesbecause they represent all greedy hostile bad-guy military forces ever. The Nazi references are just asides, because they were the most recent iteration of that.

ADAM I’m not saying that they’re literally Nazis. But they’re as scary as Nazis are, you know.

BROOM You don’t think that we should read this as a specific allegory where Pepperland is Europe, or England, and the Blue Meanies are Nazis, do you?

ADAM No, I’m not saying that.

MARK All we needed was song! That’s how we won World War II: song!

ADAM I’m not saying that, but it feels horrible and high-stakes, in the way that The Diary of Anne Frank does. It’s not, like, Ursula the sea-witch. It’s not possible for me to see this apart from the way it struck me as a child.

BROOM How did it strike you as a child?

ADAM It was intensely frightening! I was amazed that they let me watch this!

BETH How many times did you see it as a kid?

ADAM Like, thirty?

BROOM Did you enjoy something about it that kept you coming back to it?

ADAM Obviously I enjoyed it! I mean, it just makes the stakes higher, I don’t necessarily think I had nightmares about the movie.

MARK How does “thirty” rank compared to other childhood movies?

ADAM It’s a lot.

BROOM So this was one of your basic movies. I don’t think I knew that about you.

ADAM There’s parts of it I don’t remember at all.

BROOM The “Hey Bulldog” number at the end was not in the version we grew up with. I find it somewhat annoying, because I’m already done with the movie at that point, and I don’t need another song.

BETH It’s a great song.

BROOM Yeah, it is a good song.

ADAM You’re talking about the song between “All You Need Is Love” and the concluding song?

BROOM Yeah, the one with the player piano and the four-headed dog.

ADAM Yeah, that I didn’t remember. That explains it. But MARK said the same thing: why didn’t this end with “All You Need Is Love”?

BROOM Or at least why doesn’t it end when they let the smoke out of the bubble. I’m willing for that to be the ending. But that final song, “It’s All Too Much” — as a kid I was always like “I don’t care about this song,” and I still feel that way now. That’s not a good song. And it’s embarrassing when they cut to the real Beatles and he says “I can’t get this catchy song out of my head!”

ADAM I didn’t remember the “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds” sequence, even though I remembered that there was one.

BETH That’s my favorite part, I think. I loved that. I thought was just delightful to watch.

BROOM With the painted frames? I think it’s Fred Astaire clips that they painted over.

BETH Yeah.

ADAM It’s funny, because through the whole middle I felt like “uhhhhhh… get back to the Meanies.”

BETH Oh, I felt the opposite of that. Like, “do we have to go back to the Blue Meanies?”

BROOM Me too. These are just two opposing schools of this movie. For me, the movie is about the succession of seas that are just psychedelic craziness. And then once they get back to Pepperland, it’s like “ugh, we have to have a story now that no one cares about. Pepperland’s not a real place.” I don’t care about Old Fred. But yeah, I love, like, the “Nowhere Man” number. For some reason I really enjoy that.

BETH Yeah, I like “Nowhere Man” too.

BROOM When they go in reverse — in the middle the song turns around, and they end up abandoning the guy in the center. That feels perfect to me.

ADAM You’re not moved at all by the Mayor’s siege of Rohan moment, where he’s playing the violin as the submarine takes off?

BROOM I am moved by that, at the very beginning. I do think the beginning is a compelling use of the Meanies, but once they get back… I don’t know, what do The Beatles have to do with saving this country? What’s “Pepperland” to me? I don’t really know what I’m supposed to care about this story. As a kid I just wanted visuals. Like, the part where they count to 64 with different numbers going by? That’s awesome! It’s so cool that that’s in a movie.

BETH It’s very Sesame Street.

BROOM Yeah, this is like the Sesame-Street-est movie there is. I was raised on the Sesame Street cartoons, so this movie felt like “This is what should be on a screen in front of me, continuously!”

ADAM I was googling the movie when I was in the bathroom, and I found someone in the New York Times in 2019 writing about how his toddler likes this movie, and comparing it to a Sesame Street that’s more honest about its mind-altering influences.

BROOM I mean, I keep using the word “psychedelic,” but I actually don’t approve of that, because it has nothing to do with drugs for a four-year-old to enjoy this. It’s not “psychedelic,” it’s just part of the actual natural state of the human brain, to be interested in patterns and graphic visuals like this. The “Eleanor Rigby” with the photocopies? That’s so cool.

BETH I thought that was really nice as well. And it’s the origin of the Boomerang feature on Instagram.

ADAM I was always a sucker for the effect where there would suddenly be a bit of photography wedged into animation. Like when the Muppets would open the door and there would be a space invaders movie. Every time, I thought that was the coolest thing. It slayed me every time, as a child.

BROOM In fact don’t you think Muppet Babies was taking that from the hall of doors in this movie? Where they open a door and see King Kong and then slam it? And they see a Magritte with a train coming at them?

BETH Yeah, I have to imagine this inspired so many things.

BROOM I think of that hall, with random crap running from door to door when nobody’s looking, as one of the basic images. That’s a touchstone reference for understanding other things. Or later when that monster is making things, and it makes a gas pump, a pyramid, and a necktie. Somehow that’s fundamental, for me. That concept of craziness.

ADAM I was saying to MARK that it was like Rick and Morty.

BROOM The parallel-universe craziness?

ADAM Yeah, particularly that world where Ringo is lost on the gazelle.

BROOM Yeah, the Sea of Monsters. And if this series is about alternatives to Disney, this is so alternative to Disney. Unlike almost anything else on our list, it doesn’t even feel like it bears any relation to Disney. It’s not even anti-Disney, it’s just in a completely different cultural vein. At least as I see it.

BETH It feels very art school.

ADAM Actually, you know what the thing with photorealistic images in animation also feels like to me? Monty Python. And maybe that feels British to me. Because I didn’t know much about what was British, when I was a kid.

BROOM Oh sure, this movie definitely had a big influence on my sense of what was “British,” as a kid. When they’re in Liverpool and it’s all surreal and photocopies of people crying.

ADAM This actually was the first time in my life that I realized that was supposed to be Liverpool, and that it was sort of a depressing black-and-white place.

BROOM Also, I didn’t know much about the Beatles, as a kid, and the way they characterize them here is so strange! If they made a “band goes on an adventure” movie now, they would never make the characters be like this. Where Ringo’s introduced saying “nothing ever happens to me; maybe I’ll kill myself.” That’s so weird! And they spend the whole movie punning.

ADAM A lot of it is mumbling, and you can’t really follow what they’re saying.

BETH I feel like they were characterized by their own in-jokes. Only they knew what they were talking about. And the personalities: you know, Paul is vain… everyone is making fun of each other in a way that no one else can pick up on.

ADAM I agree, it definitely felt like their in-jokes. Though who knows how involved they really were with this movie.

BETH I wondered that.

BROOM Not very at all. Those voices are apparently the voices of, like, some people the animators met at the bar, who they thought sounded a little like the Beatles. Literally.

BETH Seriously?


BETH That’s funny. That’s a weird thing to know. I didn’t know that. Well then, I wonder what they thought of it. Do you know?

BROOM I think they just felt like “Oh and apparently now there’s a cartoon of us. Typical.” I mean, they were game enough to appear in the movie, but I don’t think they were really on board.

ADAM Ringo Starr is 80.

BETH Yeah, in the time machine part, it only counted up to 2009…

ADAM Yeah, I laughed at that.

BROOM I assume that’s when Paul was 64?

ADAM Paul is 78, so…

BETH So… no.

ADAM Not quite, but.

BROOM I remember when he turned 64, there were some news stories about how he was indeed 64 like in the song. Yeah, I was prepared for that song to make me feel ill, but it didn’t at all! It’s just a cute song. And they count to 64.

BETH Prepared for it to make you feel ill because you’re old?

BROOM You know, “oh my god the Beatles are even older than 64, there’s nothing cute and funny about this, everyone really does age and die.”

BETH Oh, I see.

BROOM But no! I didn’t think any of those things.

BETH They did look super-young, when we saw them at the end.

BROOM I mean, they’re like 26, right? They just weren’t that old, when the Beatles were the Beatles.

ADAM When that scene came on, MARK asked “are they supposed to be attractive?”

BETH [laughs] Well, I thought that too! Not “are they supposed to be,” but just “oh, they’re not as cute as I remember thinking they were.”

MARK My question was: were they publicly understood to be attractive? And it seems like the answer is… unclear?

BETH Paul was thought to be very attractive. And John appealed to arty girls. And I think George and Ringo weren’t talked about much.

ADAM It’s weird though: you don’t actually really associate the Beatles with sex at all, right?

BETH But apparently they were all very… active.

ADAM I’m sure they were!

MARK Shocking.

ADAM But their public image was, like… The Rolling Stones didn’t do a weird kids’ movie, you know.

BETH Right.

ADAM Mick Jagger’s public persona was all about, like…

BETH His sex appeal, right.

ADAM And the Beatles’ were not, as far as I was aware. Yes of course they were getting laid constantly.

BROOM Yes, it’s true that despite being sex symbols they were not specifically sexual in their public personas. But they went through a lot in… I mean, how many years were they the Beatles? Like, seven years? And from the beginning to the end, their look changed a lot. So this is toward the end, all things considered.

BETH Yeah, they only have three more years left in them after this. Which is strange to think about.

BROOM This is when they were already getting shaggy and hippie. I think if you went four years before this, they would have been a lot cuter, by any standard, including Mark’s.

ADAM I always think it’s so weird to listen to early Beatles songs. They sound like Chubby Checker. It just sounds like a totally different planet. You know, good for them, but… it’s weird.

BROOM It’s crazy how short a span of time the whole Beatles adventure is. Like, three years ago now, music was exactly the same as it is now. What has changed? Nothing changed.

ADAM Since 2012?

BROOM Since 2018, I’m saying. But even since 2012, sure: how much has musical style really changed?

ADAM There’s that thing where everything has a hip-hop solo track in it, right? I’m way out of my depth, I can’t talk about musical trends.

MARK I was gonna say.

ADAM I mean, Maroon 5’s been around for a while.

MARK More than seven years!

ADAM That’s what I’m saying!

MARK I remember that from elementary school.

ADAM It’s a lot of fun to play “how young are you” with MARK. Everything is like “oh that was my elementary school graduation song.”

BROOM How long-lived was “let’s imagine that the members of this band live a fantasy life in a fantasy world and that they’re characters in a comic-book reality”? This is not the only instance of it, but I feel like it only lasted from the 60s to the 80s. Does that still ever happen anymore?

BETH Can you give another example of it?

ADAM Wait: are the Monkees a real band, or no? I can never remember.

BETH That’s an interesting question. Yes, they were a real band, but they were invented in LA, to be a TV show.

ADAM They were retconned from the TV show, right?

BETH Yeah. But eventually they wrote their own songs. In the beginning they didn’t.

BROOM I used to watch that show! ADAM, did you watch that?

ADAM I used to watch all kinds of things uncritically and with no context.

BROOM I know! Did you specifically watch The Monkees?

ADAM Yes, totally. They were on Nick At Nite!

BROOM So the Beatles made a couple of movies — Help! is a crazy silly movie that they made — but I feel like…

ADAM I just read on Wikipedia that there was a sequel planned to this movie called Strawberry Fields Forever that had 10 minutes of pioneering computer-animated footage that has never been seen.

BROOM Wow. I had never heard that. Well, now I want to see that! That sounds cool. Anyway, BETH, I guess I was thinking of… well, I know there were video games in the 80s, like bands would make video games of themselves fighting aliens. I think there’s a Journey game.

BETH Okay, sure.

BROOM I just feel like it was sort of a thing that happened for a while there. Wouldn’t bands appear on “Scooby Doo”?

BETH Oh sure, that was a thing. I guess cartoons were just different then. Everything felt more intertwined in the monoculture than it does now.

ADAM Which was the Disney movie that had the Beatles-like band in it? Was that The Black Cauldron?

BROOM In The Jungle Book there are mop-topped vultures.

ADAM Yes, thank you.

BROOM Which is contemporaneous with this, I guess.

ADAM That’s what I was thinking of. But obviously that wasn’t licensed. As we were watching this, MARK said that he would rather see it with Harry Styles.

MARK No, I suggested that his team could probably produce something better than this.

ADAM All right fine: that Harry Styles’ production team should have done this.

BROOM Well that’s what I’m asking, and I certainly don’t know: is that the kind of thing that in any way would be interesting to his producers or his fans, today? Like, “Harry goes on an adventure! Under the sea!”

ADAM We spent the early part of the pandemic watching music videos every Saturday, and the video for Harry Styles’ “Adore You” involves Harry Styles befriending a fish.

BROOM So yeah, in a video it would happen.

ADAM He befriends a fish that becomes progressively larger and larger, and then he has to return it to the sea, and it’s very emotional. And he’s singing “just let me adore you, whoa.” Are you familiar with the song?

BROOM I’m not, but that sounds like a cool video. And I guess that’s what this movie is a precursor to: music videos. And I feel like these are really good videos for most of these songs.

BETH I agree.

ADAM I wish I liked the visual parts in the middle better, but I just wanted to get back to the Blue Meanies.

BROOM My first music was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, because my parents had two copies of it, so they had an expendable one that I could use on my Fisher Price record player. And I would listen to that album and look at the red cover with all the text on it, and the pictures of the guys in costume. Some of these songs, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Lucy in the Sky” at least, were on that album. And this movie felt like it corresponded pretty closely and well to the kinds of stuff that would go through my head, listening to music as a very young child. This is what songs look like in your head. So it was always satisfying that way. And I guess MTV picked up at least some of that from here.

ADAM Are we gonna read the New York Times review? Probably not.

BROOM We could, but the connection pauses and delays are confusing me here.

BETH Yeah, every time I say something it seems like I’m interrupting someone else.

BROOM Oh well. Sorry guys.

BETH There’s not that much to say anyhow.

ADAM I agree. I don’t have concerted thoughts about… like, there’s no story to talk about.

MARK I was just about to say: hm, I wonder why you have nothing to talk about?

ADAM We have the characterizations to talk about.

MARK I thought you probably resonated with Jeremy, because he was, like, an outcast that was, like, obnoxious.

ADAM Yeah, MARK asked me that during the movie. He was like “did you identify with Jeremy as a kid?” And I was like “because I was a gay know-it-all?”

BROOM Well, what is with that character? It’s so strange. I mean, I don’t think that is the kind of person that the song “Nowhere Man” is written about. Is it?

BETH I don’t think so either.

MARK Exactly.

BROOM It’s such a weird inclusion, and I didn’t ever have a feeling for it. Other than “yup, this is the part where they meet Jeremy Hillary Boob, PhD — I don’t know why.” I still don’t know why.

BETH I think that some —

ADAM I think he’s like—

BETH Sorry. Go ahead.

[12 seconds of silence]

BROOM What’s going on?

ADAM Uh, we’re here.

BROOM This sucks, I’m sorry.

BETH Let’s forget it.

BROOM Like let’s just end the conversation, is that what you’re saying?

BETH Yeah. This is —

BROOM All right. Next time we do this, we will set it up technically better for the conversation part.

ADAM Okay. I’ve said my piece.

BROOM All right. Fair enough.


BROOM Thanks for watching the movie, guys.

December 25, 2020

Mystery House (1980)

The log of every single computer game I touch has been permanently retired.

But lately I’ve been playing some antique adventure games with a friend. They’re museum pieces, and I’m feeling inspired to give them a little attention here in a slightly different voice and format.

For years, our eyes were shut.

If we wanted to envision the gothic space inside the computer, all we had to go on was a mysterious whisper: YOU ARE STANDING AT THE END OF A ROAD.

Did we ever really trust that hissing, insinuating voice? Of course not. We knew we were blind and at the mercy of a trickster god. East was north and south was west; really we could be anywhere.

Then suddenly in 1980, a miracle. Our eyes open. As they adjust to the dim light, a picture comes into focus.

“Can you see anything?” “Yes, wonderful things.”

In the land of the blind, Ken and Roberta Williams are king.

At midnight, against pure blackboard darkness, a primitive line scratches out a world, as naive and as free as Harold and the Purple Crayon. The line mostly stays to its assigned task, but its power to create and destroy is absolute and untamed. Chaos is palpably close at hand. It always has been, but now we see its face.

An etching plate, a negative.

Roberta Williams, would-be doyenne of adventure games, didn’t traffic in originality. Her creative process consisted entirely of remembering things she had encountered elsewhere. Maybe she didn’t know there was an alternative.

As its title promises, Mystery House is a witless concatenation of thirdhand clichés. Murders, and hidden jewels, and a graveyard, and the word “Victorian.” It has been plausibly speculated that Roberta got it all from an episode of Hart to Hart she had recently seen.

But the game, like so many games, gets away from its creators and speaks its own language, gnomic and foreboding. GO DOOR.

It turns out the beckoning depths of Colossal Cave can sometimes be a house. And a house can sometimes be a cave. Traversing it from foyer to attic is a quest. There’s a murmur of real meaning there, one that will echo in countless games to come: all those speleological “rooms” in Adventure were actually the rooms in our real lives. Not to mention the rooms within the self. All interiors are metaphors for one another.

And isn’t that what spooky mansion tropes are about in the first place? Here, reduced to henscratch, the clichés actually manage to speak. Are there secret passages hidden behind the furniture? Is someone else sneaking around in this house too? What’s that inscrutable shape in the corner? And, most importantly: what on earth are you supposed to do?

In the dark, who can say for certain?

Every prompt in an adventure game is a locked door. The more asinine and unfair the game, the more ironclad the lock. And on the other side? In the sanctum of chaos? It’s a secret to everybody.

In its esoteric crudity, Mystery House remains ominous, even today. It resembles what it portrays. There’s power in that.

A computer is a mystery house, and if you dare venture into its spaces, you will find that they are strewn with the corpses of its victims. But there are also jewels hidden in the walls, somewhere.

June 19, 2020

“Alt Disney” #1: Gay Purr-ee (1962)


ADAM Well that was shoddy and dull. Although by the end I was kind of charmed.

BETH I didn’t care about the story at all, but I thought the illustration was really interesting and fun. A lot of passion went into making those backgrounds. I was taking notes, and I wrote: “They should have just made the thing they wanted to make.” It felt like they had grafted the story on to something else.

BROOM What do you think was the thing they wanted to make?

BETH Something for grown-ups, instead of for kids.

ADAM The backgrounds reminded me strongly of “It’s a Small World,” which is from a similar time period. It didn’t feel to me to be “adult” vs. “childlike.” But I certainly agree with you that the backgrounds were the only thing that prevented this from being a very long Tom and Jerry cartoon.

BETH Well, I think the story was adult by accident, because they didn’t know how to make a story for kids. There was a madam!

ADAM And sex trafficking!

BETH I was just sort of going “What?? How is this a movie for children?” It’s such a weird thing. Apparently it was a flop, according to the Wikipedia article.

BROOM It was well received, but a flop.

BETH Exactly, it was well received for some reason. I guess Judy Garland got accolades. It was Chuck Jones and his wife who wrote it.

BROOM Did you see that this movie got Chuck Jones fired from Warner Bros.?

ADAM What?

BROOM Because he broke his Warner Bros. contract to do it secretly at UPA. And then Warner Bros. happened to pick up distribution, so they got to see who had worked on it, and saw that it was one of their employees, so they fired him.

BETH What an insane way to get fired. For this, of all things. Poor Chuck Jones.

BROOM I don’t know, I’ve always had mixed feelings about Chuck Jones.

ADAM Wouldn’t they have figured that out at some point anyway?

BROOM Probably, yeah. I kind of got charmed by the movie once I saw that it was just going to be a series of songs about characters you didn’t care about, but done with graphic force. I started to get into that.

BETH That “Bubbles” song was really great; that was my favorite. A song about getting drunk in a child’s movie! Again, what were they thinking?

BROOM You’re forgetting about “Skumps” from Sleeping Beauty.

BETH I forget everything from every Disney movie.

ADAM I don’t remember “Skumps” either. I mean, Jiminy Cricket gets drunk. As a kid I had no idea what the sensation of getting drunk was, but it was something that I knew was a thing that happened in cartoons. I was like “oh, they’re drunk,” but I didn’t have any understanding of what that meant in the real world. You know, like quicksand.

BROOM You know what else you guys are forgetting? “Pink Elephants on Parade”!

BETH Okay, but that’s trippy. That’s not exactly the same thing.

BROOM It’s pretty similar to this. When they were inside the big bubbles, I thought, “I think that’s actually in ‘Pink Elephants.'” Also the fact that they appeared as altered character designs during that sequence; they became a green and a red cat that didn’t really look like themselves.

BETH I loved all that stuff.

BROOM That’s also taken from “Pink Elephants.”

BETH When it was trying to be straight, it was like Hanna-Barbera. The actual character animation, when they were just telling the story, felt really shitty to me.

ADAM Yeah.

ADAM But when they went into those weird song-y dream-y places, they got creative, and I thought it worked. I liked that stuff.

BROOM Yeah, I found that stuff more charming than I would have thought. I certainly didn’t think the songs were good, or motivated. But there was something winning about the amount of design that went into those sequences.

ADAM I feel like there were a lot of things from the 60s and 70s that had that look, that over-saturated color, woodblock look. Which frankly I found kind of disturbing as an actual child, but just in an unexamined, [sound of primal discomfort] way. But now I think it’s sort of engaging.

BROOM I guess I’m the only one of us who saw this as an actual child. My memory is that I didn’t understand anything that was happening, and it just seemed wrong. It didn’t do the things that I had come to expect a cartoon movie to do. My parents had taped it off TV and put a label on it, like, “hooray, now we have ‘Gay Purr-ee’ for you to watch!” But I never chose to watch it again. The only thing that even slightly rang a bell, now, from watching it 35 years ago, was the “Money Cat” song on the roof with the silhouette cats. I definitely had that image still in my head. But of course I didn’t understand that as a kid. I didn’t understand it now either, really.

ADAM It was just a “sell your soul to the devil” number.

BROOM But was it about how money is the root of all evil? Or about how evil people use the world of power and money to do their evil?

ADAM I think the latter.

BETH I also think the latter.

BROOM Anyway, this is a thing my parents took the time to tape for us because it’s a movie from when my mother was 10 and she remembered it from her childhood. And it’s still the kind of thing where, because it was a big deal when she was 10, she isn’t really aware of how completely it’s forgotten now. I think her intuition is still that people have heard of Gay Purr-ee.

ADAM So the animation of the characters was shoddy, as you said, in the Hanna-Barbera way. I kept being distracted by how cheap they were being in having so few moving pieces.

BETH “Limited animation.” That’s what the Wikipedia article calls it.

ADAM It was definitely that. I remember as a kid how soul-crushing it was, in a certain way, when the Smurfs would run in front of the same four forest scenes over and over again. It was really disturbing on an existential level. And some of this movie was like that. Like this city that had no one in it!

BETH Yeah. Of all cities, Paris! Has no one in it.

ADAM Do you remember the introduction to Fun and Fancy Free where it’s Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy in an empty cabin? It’s supposed to be warm and convivial, but really it’s just, like, “get out of that house!” That was the same feeling I had from a lot of this.

BROOM Creepy emptiness.

ADAM Yeah. And there were various other animation tropes in here that as a kid I didn’t recognize as money-saving devices but were clearly that. Like when you have a fight, and then the fight gets enveloped in a cloud of dust, so all you can see are heads and limbs sticking out.

BROOM Or the scene where they run through a door and out of sight, and then the black cat comes tailing them and stands in the doorway, and they do an entire scene of dialogue where you just see the black cat listening and blinking its eyes.

ADAM Or the fact that Jaune Tom and Meowrice had their fight on the box in silhouette, and all you can see is their shadows fighting.

BETH Yeah but I kind of loved that. I thought that was cool. It’s money-saving but it’s also clever.

BROOM So a little animation history here: this studio is called UPA and they were founded by ex-Disney employees in the 40s, after that big strike around the time of Dumbo. UPA was supposed to be this edgier, artsier, anti-Disney studio. And they were really into graphical hard edges and lines, and yeah, “limited animation” as a style, as a supposedly artistic solution to a budgeting issue. It wasn’t corner-cutting, it was a thing they arrived at and were praised for, in the 50s. This angular modernistic cartoon style, with few frames, and no shading. Everything kind of stark. And then everyone else started to imitate it in a crappier way. But I guess they themselves kind of got crappy about it too, because parts of this did look like Hanna-Barbera. But yeah, they were very influential. And I’m seeing here that they actually made one other feature-length movie, which I had not realized.

BETH Yeah, this was their second one.

BROOM The first one was “1001 Arabian Nights”… starring Mister Magoo. Mister Magoo was their most popular character.

ADAM Their Mickey Mouse.

BETH Well, maybe we should watch it!

BROOM Maybe. Anyway, you said the regular storytelling was bad but the songs had some life in them, and I agree. Their animation technique was not good for normal Disney-style scenes with characters interacting and being cute with each other. Also, they didn’t have any ideas for those scenes. It all fell flat. So the whole beginning of the movie, which seemed to be about the story, I found really rough. But then as it got to be just more of an album of songs it became more palatable. I was really charmed by the part where they just showed you a bunch of paintings.

BETH I loved that part. That was my favorite part of the movie.

BROOM With truly no animation for five minutes.

BETH You know, it was oddly effective, educationally. If I were a kid, I think I would have taken that in. I think it would have made a big impression on me. I thought that was mostly well done. I mean, their takes on these artists were… mixed.

ADAM But pretty good!

BETH Yeah, good enough!

BROOM The Monet, which was the first one, was probably the weakest one, but some of them were good.

BETH The Modigliani was funny.

ADAM The plot also got stranger as it went. At the beginning it was just Green Acres, but then it got really dark. Not in an actually interesting way. But in a less boring way.

BROOM They went to Alaska!

ADAM Yeah, because Meowrice sold them into slavery.

BETH What a weird thing this movie is. It’s not art! But while I was watching it I was thinking, “Oh it’s actually, like, art. It’s not for children, it’s for them. They made this thing for themselves.”

BROOM “Them” the animators. I think that’s right.

BETH Yeah. Like they wanted to show themselves that they could be really free with this, and so they were. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie so visually inconsistent with itself! Even in the fight scene at the end, the illustration style was not consistent. Sometimes it looked really flat like Colorforms; sometimes it had depth and was a little more fleshed out. I was jarred by it. Around the time when the door was flipping over, the drawing style changed. It wasn’t consistent from cut to cut. I thought, “cool that they got away with this, but… what were they doing?” The whole movie was like that.

BROOM That strikes me as pretty interesting, if we’re thinking of this as the first in a viewing series of movies that are anti-Disney/non-Disney/alternative-to-Disney, because everything you said is clearly both the strengths and the weaknesses of rejecting the Disney model: rejecting this massive institution with its huge budgets, and writing by committee, and homogenized market-friendly ideology. Whatever the criticisms of Disney are, here’s what you get when you go against that: it’s internally inconsistent, it’s not necessarily suitable for any particular audience that anyone has actually thought through, it has more artistic force in some parts of it, and you’re always very aware of all the ways they’re trying to cut costs. As soon as you step away from Disney, all that stuff is immediately really obvious and you have to contend with it.

ADAM I also enjoyed how inappropriate all the voices were. I was sort of picturing Judy Garland with a cocktail in her hand the entire time.

BETH And Robert Goulet, of all people!

BROOM This is very young Robert Goulet. This is apparently his first movie.

ADAM And then Red Buttons as a French cat. All the wise guys had New York accents. And they couldn’t decide if they were speaking French, or mispronouncing French, or if they understood what French words meant.

BETH They never really settled on how to deal with that.

BROOM Through all of that I was just picturing Mrs. Jones amusing herself at the typewriter: “His name will be ‘Percy Beaucoup’! Ha ha ha!” Because it’s all just based on whatever French she knew off the top of her head, and that’s it.

ADAM Who was “Percy Beaucoup”?

BROOM That was the rest of Meowrice’s name. His full name was “Meowrice Percy Beaucoup.”

BETH I wrote in my notes:”Judy Garland’s singing voice always sounds full of pain, but her cat voice works!” I thought she sounded pretty good when she was talking. She made herself sound younger than she was, and more innocent. I didn’t think of her as having a cocktail in her hand, when she was talking. But when she sings I always think, “oh my god, this woman is just a fountain of pain.” It’s all I can hear.

BROOM When she was singing that fountain of pain song, about how the river is her lover, she had some kind of string draped around her neck that totally looked a scarf that Judy Garland would wear.

BETH I bet they did that deliberately.

BROOM She apparently is the one who suggested that the songwriters be Arlen and Harburg from The Wizard of Oz.

BETH Yes. I read the Wikipedia article too! And that’s cool, and all, but… I don’t know that they were that inspired.

BROOM Yeah. A couple of the songs were okay.

BETH Look, I love the phrase “When life is bubbable / The whole world is lovable.”

BROOM “Bubbable”?

BETH When life… is bubbable… the whole world… is lovable. It’s such nonsense. That “Bubbles” song seemed like it was meant for Dean Martin. I wish I could hear him sing it.

BROOM I don’t think it has ever been covered, ever, by anyone.

BETH Why would it be. And Dino is dead.

ADAM I felt bad that Madame Rubens-Chatte’s devious revenge is just telling them where they went. That’s all she got to do. She didn’t even get to be animated in that scene.

BROOM That’s what I was referring to when I said you just see the black cat listening at the door. It seemed like they must have had something there that they had to cut out of the budget. Because it was such an important juncture in the movie, but it was handled as “okay so we’re back from Alaska where did they go okay great.” They’d never been through that door, they’d never met Madam Rubens-Chatte, they didn’t even really have any way of knowing that Mewsette had necessarily ever been there, I don’t think. And then they just run in and in about 10 seconds it all gets worked out offscreen.

ADAM I enjoyed that the way he’s able to catch the train is by imagining that Meowrice is a mouse. And I did enjoy, even though it was homophobic, that the revenge on Meowrice is to primp his hair and send him off to be married to a fat American.

BETH I don’t think it was specifically homophobic. It was just sort of a troll move.

ADAM It wasn’t very homophobic.

BROOM It was no more homophobic than the movie was fat-phobic, which is: a little bit.

BETH I’m glad we watched it.

ADAM Do you think this is the most anyone has spoken about the movie Gay Purr-ee in 25 years?


BROOM No no no. Not at all. Of course not.


BROOM Look, it has some artistic quality to it! I know there are UPA fans; this is probably a holy artifact to them. And like I said, my mom talks about it as though it’s right up there with Lady and the Tramp in terms of its prominence.

BETH Why didn’t you invite her on to the call? She could share her reminiscences.

BROOM She’s invited to do so in the comments. ADAM, you told us you’d rewatched The Aristocats recently.

ADAM Well, I dipped in and out of The Aristocats recently.

BROOM Well, that’s more than either of us. So can you say: do you think that movie is Disney trying to sweep in and scoop up the territory that had been staked out by this movie? Or do you think Disney is so far above this sort of thing that they didn’t care?

ADAM The Aristocats was nine years later. I don’t know. Remember when there were two volcano movies that came out the same spring? That happens sometimes. Paris is sort of an obvious choice, and they’d already done London with 101 Dalmatians, so… I don’t know.

BETH The Aristocats is mentioned as “see also” in the Gay Purr-ee Wikipedia article.

BROOM I remember when we all watched The Aristocats, we said, “well they had to do a cat movie eventually; it’s funny it took them this long.” And you gotta hand it to Gay Purr-ee: despite having a bad title, it is a good concept to do an all-cat movie, in the wake of Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians. So. Any general thoughts about non-Disney animated movies?

BETH I always feel dirty. There’s just something dirty about it. But also edgy and kind of exciting. With dirtiness comes edginess. And verve. It felt freer than any Disney movie of this time. Even though 101 Dalmatians was pretty edgy for a Disney movie.

ADAM As a kid I had three categories in my head: there was Disney, which was good and classy, and there was Warner Bros., which was funny and engaging, and then there was Hanna-Barbera, which felt gross. And disturbing. Yogi Bear?? I was never interested in Yogi Bear. Was the Pink Panther Hanna-Barbera?

BROOM I think that was DePatie-Freleng.

ADAM What about Snagglepuss? All of that.


ADAM Wait, you… you like Hanna-Barbera cartoons?


ADAM Wait wait, I’m sorry.

BETH What? Wait wait wait wait wait…

ADAM For a minority view: MARK, can you elaborate on that?

BROOM Yeah, please.

MARK Well, we had this network called Boomerang that was owned by Cartoon Network, and they broadcast mostly Hanna-Barbera cartoons, such as “Wacky Races,” “Yogi Bear,” and…

ADAM And what did you like about those things?

MARK What did I like about them? I don’t know, they were different.

BETH Wait a minute, different from what? What else were you watching? What other cartoons were you seeing as a kid?

MARK Now that I think about it, I think I watched those when I was older. I wasn’t watching Looney Tunes at that same age.

BROOM When you said “we had a network called Boomerang,” were you pulling a generational divide thing there, as though liking Hanna-Barbera cartoons is something your younger generation would get, and our older generation wouldn’t? Because “Wacky Races” is older than all of us, right? Aren’t those from like 1973?

MARK I think a good lens to think about it through is Nick At Nite. Because I was always confused about some of ADAM’s references, because they seemed unnecessarily dated, and then we figured out it was because Nick At Nite was broadcasting things that, you know, my parents didn’t grow up with.

ADAM Right, I make, like, Patty Duke references.

BROOM But just to be clear, MARK, ADAM is at the very fringe of what people our age make reference to. He’s the only person you know who makes reference to Patty Duke, right?

BETH I watched The Patty Duke Show! I know that show.

ADAM BROOM, I’m the only person of my age that MARK knows.

BROOM Well, let me just assure you that if you knew other people of his age, none of them would make Patty Duke references. That’s specific to ADAM’s personality.

ADAM [attempting to sing] “Patty loves to…” … wait…

BROOM Yeah yeah, a hot dog makes her lose control.

BETH [humming the tune]

ADAM [singing] “What a wild duet.”

BROOM I think of that as my parents’ reference, so I know about it to the degree that I’ve tried to get on the same page as my parents. And I feel like ADAM was very good at that.

ADAM Yeah, but Mark’s parents are halfway between us and our parents, so they’re too young to have grown up with that stuff, but too old to have grown up with Nick At Nite.

BROOM I know, I’m just saying where Patty Duke falls in your inner pantheon.

BETH But for me, and I assume ADAM too, it’s not from trying to relate to our parents; it’s what we watched on Nickelodeon as children, because it was on.

ADAM That’s right.

BETH So I know Mr. Ed, and Dennis the Menace, and Lassie.

BROOM I didn’t have cable, but I know some stuff from UHF stations that would just play cheap reruns. I didn’t watch Mr. Ed but it was on. Dennis the Menace I watched a few episodes of. Patty Duke I never saw.

ADAM Like I just made a Green Acres reference in this conversation.

BROOM Yeah, I don’t have that as an immediate personal reference, but I certainly know what it means what you say it.


BROOM Oh no, we scared him away before he could tell us what’s good about Hanna-Barbera.

ADAM I will say, the cartoon that always struck me as the most actually frightening was Danger Mouse.

BETH Oh my god, yes.

ADAM There was something so alien about it that it was upsetting.

BROOM You mean “frightening” in the sense of coming from the wrong side of the tracks, coming from the wrong place. Not that it was itself a scary show, right?

ADAM I have no idea what happened in it, so I couldn’t tell you. It just seemed wrong.

BETH It was very British.

BROOM That had the Thames Television logo at the end, right?

BETH Yes it did.

BROOM Yeah, that was just a mark of total foreignness. What even is this.

BETH Exactly.

ADAM It was like trying to read Andy Capp in the newspaper.

BROOM Yeah, that’s exactly how Gay Purr-ee struck me, as a kid. “You’re not talking my language, so I’m not sure why this even exists.”

BETH That’s the weirdest thing about it, to me. Like, poor kids who had to watch this in 1962! The idea that your mom remembers this as a classic movie… what?? How was she supposed to understand anything that happened?

BROOM She said — and again, I’m sure she’ll show up in the comments below — I think she said she had some kind of dolls of Robespierre and Jaune Tom.

[disbelieving laughter]

BETH I can’t even imagine that!

BROOM Well just imagine in fifty years — if everything still exists in fifty years — if people are like “why did you have these Minions toys? I don’t understand. What were you thinking? What did you like about this?” And then the kids from today are going to have to say “I don’t know why, but I was a kid, and they told me to get excited about Minions, so I did, and I bought them, and I had them.”

BETH I just feel so bad for any kid who had to sit through this movie and go “What? What is happening? Kissing in buggies?”

BROOM But it’s also that feeling of hostility, that ADAM just described as scary.

BETH Yeah, there was this permeating hostility, throughout the entire movie. Even at the beginning, when the woman was talking about Paris and her ring was glowing, and they’re like, “ohhh… Paris… well…”

BROOM Yeah, when that first song started and you see the close-up of Mewsette with her jaw dropping just a little bit and otherwise no expression on her face. It’s creepy! Disney characterization is so warm, it’s so much about human details: the little kid is sniffling because he’s sad! and he wipes his nose because he’s sniffling! and it scrunches up his face and makes his sleeve flop! They capture it as carefully as they can. Whereas here it’s like marionettes, and their mouths just sort of… open… a little bit… It makes you feel uneasy.

BETH Also, “plebeian.” Can we just talk about how the word “plebeian” was repeated three or four times?

BROOM Oh, another thing I remember from when I saw this as a kid: I didn’t know what a “feline” was. And the plot seemed to be all about what a “feline” is.

BETH And you thought you were going to learn!

BROOM Well they never tell you!

BETH They don’t, I know! Yeah, I mean, there are lots of problems here. I feel like if there were a focus group, these things would come out.

BROOM That’s exactly it. This is what happens when you take away the Disney focus group.

ADAM I’m guessing Bosley Crowther loved it.

[we see for ourselves, first scrolling down past his reviews of No Exit, Escape From East Berlin, and Swordsman of Siena]

BETH I don’t agree, but okay, Bosley.

BROOM He was less wrong than he might have been, I thought. He called out the right weaknesses and strengths. He probably has them in slightly different proportions than we would.

BETH I’m glad we did that. I would watch more non-Disney movies.

BROOM Yeah, ADAM, I want to thank you for leading us here.

ADAM My pleasure. It was not what I… actually, it is kind of what I thought it was gonna be.

BROOM When you saw it described, you thought, “I can’t believe this exists,” right? Isn’t that why we watched it?

ADAM Yeah. I was expecting it to be this camp object, like, “can you believe it??” But it was a little bit dull. But it was still pretty campy and I’m glad I saw it.

BROOM I guess we’ll have to discuss what might be a next thing.

[we discuss. watch this spot.]


May 31, 2020

Game log 4-5/20

This month’s reading from The Greate Historie of Computer Game Purchafses in the Yeare 2016 (page 569 in your hymnal):

1/26/16, The Witness is gifted to me and I play it immediately. Wrote it up at the time.

2/11/16, freebie on GOG:

Consortium (2014): Interdimensional Games (Vancouver, BC) [8 hours]

Extraordinarily weird experience! Free-roam murder mystery on a Star Trek super-jet in an alternate reality future, into which you the actual player are ostensibly being Source Code/Quantum Leap-ed BY THIS GAME. I say lots of things feel like dreams, but this really feels like a dream: Mazey exaggeration of an indoors-while-outdoors environment. Loose story logic and slippery identity/self-awareness issues juxtaposed with “pay close attention” whodunit. Social chitchat uncanny valley. Past-future-present mishmosh. Incongruous bursts of horror and/or orchestral grandeur within a placid context. I could go on! It’s going to stick with me even though it’s clunky and buggy. It had that special, vague pressure that I feel in my dreams: not actual fear but some even more basic emotion that contributes to it and is rarely experienced by itself in waking life. Primal uncertainty, like what I imagine a dog feels in a new place.

2/15/16, “Humble Ubisoft Bundle”: $1 gets me the three games on the lowest tier. Can’t remember why I did this! I think it was pure compulsion. $1.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger (2013): Techland (Ostrów Wielkopolski, Poland) [12 hours]

A rail shooter without rails, which is a neat idea in theory; a little silly in practice. For the first half hour I took it to be an FPS-adventure like Half-Life, but so infuriating and repetitive that I was on the point of quitting. Then I realized that contrary to all the 3D freedom it offered, it actually wanted to be treated like a classic shooting gallery game (for example, this one that I played at a friend’s house in 1989). After that it basically won me over in spite of myself. “Headshots” in games make me wince, but apparently not so much that I won’t do them a thousand times in a row. The scenery was very pretty, and the whack-a-mole gameplay felt nicely old-fashioned; the combination of rich environment and simple arcade business became a pleasure, despite the carnage. “Why does Kevin Roberts have friends and a storyline?”

Grow Home (2015): Ubisoft Reflections (Newcastle, England) [3 hours]

Quirky but monotonous game about making a floppy little polygonal robot climb a growing polygonal beanstalk all the way to the polygonal heavens by alternating his suction cup-py hands, human fly style. One shimmering endless chord-o’-wonder is all you get for music, and gameplay to match. It’s supposed to be “relaxing” and “cute” and “magical.” I’ll grant that it gives a feeling, but I found the feeling to be mostly lonely and empty, and it was distinctly un-relaxing to worry that the finicky little robot might lose his grip at any time and fall from the stratosphere to his death, undoing many minutes of progress. (Which happened repeatedly.) I like the dreamy spirit of sunlit simplicity and spatial exploration, but why did it have to be this space? Also it made my thumbs hurt from clinging on for dear life the whole time.

Rayman Origins (2011): Ubisoft Montpellier (Castelnau-le-Lez, France) [16 hours]

Cartoon platformer with fabulously smooth animation and responsiveness. A real pleasure to watch it zoink and boink on the screen. I think Donkey Kong Country Returns still stands as my favorite in this genre, but this is a very strong showing indeed. Impeccable technically, and clearly made with loving care. Some very good musical tracks, too. I’ve always thought the “Rayman” character looked moronic — and I stand by that — so I would never have sought this out. Really glad to have come into it by bundle! I found it quite cheering to play. If occasionally a bit agitatingly hard.

Meanwhile, 5/10/20, i.e. right now:

Delores: A Thimbleweed Park Mini-Adventure (2020): Terrible Toybox [3 hours]

Bare-minimum tech prototype, using assets from Thimbleweed Park, given away for free because free is the only acceptable price for such a thing. I played it out of goodwill and curiosity. Not sure I’m thrilled about the new engine here prototyped — right-clicking for context menus feels like hanging out with Bill Gates, distinctly unwhimsical! — or the fact that this not-really-a-game ate up three hours when it really only deserved one. But whatever: I appreciate anything people are making and offering up while sheltering in place, especially people who did such honorable service to my childhood.

Back to the log.

3/29/16: Tomb Raider (2013) giveaway for $1.04. Already played and logged it.
4/21/16: Stephen’s Sausage Roll for FULL PRICE !!!!! $29.99. Already played and logged it.

6/8/16: GOG gives away System Shock 2 for free, to entice people into stress-testing the new GOG client. So I click.

System Shock 2 (1999): Irrational Games (Boston, MA) and Looking Glass Studios (Cambridge, MA) [played for 1 hour]

This is a tremendously influential classic, and I certainly like imagining myself having played it — literacy points! — but having already crawled my way through all of Bioshock, to which this is the direct precursor, I just don’t think I have it in me. My standard complaint: all of the unnecessary systems are exhausting. (As per the title.) RPG mechanics are spiritually contrary to the obvious aesthetic strengths of 3D computer games, which are sensory, spatial, ambient. I don’t want to be asked to think about the algorithms behind that experience; that just breaks the precious illusion!

I’m making up a terminology right now — “transparent” vs. “opaque” games:

“Transparent” games — games where the player interacts rationally with a ruleset that very crudely models reality in terms of some game-specific abstract tokens (e.g. any board game). “Opaque” games — games where the player interacts instinctively with a graphical representation of reality, governed by an extremely complex underlying “ruleset” — i.e. program — which is never explicitly disclosed (e.g. any action video game). I’m okay with both kinds of game! But they don’t mix well.

6/9/16: I buy The Vanishing of Ethan Carter during the Summer Sale at GOG for $4.99. Already played and logged it. However, a gimmick of the sale is that any purchase also unlocks a substantial freebie:

Spelunky (2008/2012): Mossmouth (= Derek Yu), et al. (San Francisco, CA) [played for 3 hours so far]

Another tremendously influential classic. I put in a little time with the original free version years ago but this commercial upgrade is the one that counts. It’s a forever-game, one that I might play a little from time to time but that I have no intention of ever getting good enough to “finish,” so I’m just logging it now.

Fascinating to dabble with this sort of thing, but I’m not sure I can endorse it. The proponents of self-randomizing games talk passionately about the joys of having nothing to memorize or truly conquer, only an inexhaustible system within which to become increasingly fluent — “literate,” I saw one person calling it, which is an apt term. My qualm is that a single video game isn’t an appropriate object for “literacy,” and “literacy” isn’t an appropriate standard for a video game to demand.

“Literacy” in the real world is attained in relation to entire cultural bodies, not to individual works. That seems to me a distinction worth maintaining. A sense of proportion matters. There’s a danger in setting yourself up as a Torah to be studied for a lifetime rather than gracefully accepting that you’re a mere novel to be read once — the danger being that you entrap people into wasting their lives “studying” a non-existent discipline. (Or alternately that you don’t, and they don’t read your book at all.) From my period of fascination with Finnegans Wake a few years back, I recall what H.G. Wells wrote to James Joyce: “Who the hell is this Joyce who demands so many waking hours of the few thousand I have still to live for a proper appreciation of his quirks and fancies and flashes of rendering?”

Yes, becoming literate (in the literal sense) is a joy, but that’s because it gives you access to something beyond just the primer you learned from: namely, the spiritual content of the whole vast expanse of human literature. Whereas games that demand “literacy” are essentially offering you access to nothing beyond themselves, 1) because they’re mere works, not cultures, and 2) because that process of attaining mastery is their whole spiritual content.

I can respect that Spelunky and its ilk offer a experience of actually getting better at something, which in contrast to the utter lie of RPGs (“you leveled up! you’re stronger now!”) feels downright invigorating. But that experience can be offered far more efficiently than in the 100+ hours this game demands.

6/16/16: “Humble Staff Picks Bundle: Hamble” for $1 gets me three games, one of which I genuinely and specifically wanted, so this is allowed.

1001 Spikes (2011/2014): 8bit Fanatics (= Samu Wosada) (Chiba?, Japan) & Nicalis (Santa Ana, CA) [played for 8 hours]

Speak of the devil! Here’s a game with the exact same skin as Spelunky — “STANDARD HAT AND WHIP GUY and the PLUNDER OF IMPLAUSIBLE TEMPLES” — and a game that, like Spelunky, demands that you do things that you won’t be able to do without practicing 100 times. But unlike Spelunky, the things here are tiny, discrete, fixed challenges, and each attempt lasts only a few seconds, so you can watch yourself go from incompetence to competence to victory in 15 minutes. And then, after you’ve done that enough times, you can comfortably reach the revelation that you’ve had your fill of that experience, and move on to other things. This is a very fine take on “retro,” and also the most satisfying example I’ve seen of the “hilariously merciless / try, try again” school of level design (sometimes stupidly called “masocore”). I enjoyed it quite a bit and I also enjoyed stopping.

Absolute Drift (2015): Funselektor Labs (= Dune Casu) (Vancouver, BC) [played for .5 hours]

Not having seen The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, I hadn’t fully internalized the fact that drifting — i.e. skidding sideways — is a full-fledged thing, with its own whole sport and community and fandom and specially-built cars and a whole genre of video game, etcetera and more etcetera. I find this absolutely befuddling, just as I would find it befuddling to learn that “walking in high heels that wobble so much that you almost fall over, but then not actually falling over” was a sport. Absolute Drift‘s contract with the player seems to be that the player already loves “drifting” so damn much that they really just want a game to command them to do it constantly, in an extremely spare environment, for hours, so that they can answer “yes sir! whatever you say sir!” and then start drifting. Far be it from me to step on anyone else’s fun, but man oh man this is not mine. Also I’m bad at it.

Snakebird (2015): Noumenon Games (Karlshamn, Sweden) [12 hours]

This is the one I genuinely and specifically wanted, and guess what: I know myself well! This is great. 53 puzzles, good cheer, serious difficulty. The package is beautifully presented, excellently edited, and utterly without padding. Exemplary! As with all the best puzzle games, the premise is compact — “the classic snake game, but with gravity” — and then everything flows from there. Like I said about Baba Is You: the game becomes a self-guided tour of the most interesting properties of the system. I was very proud of myself for taking only about six hours to zip through the 46 regular puzzles; then somewhat less proud of myself for needing another six hours to battle the seven extra-hard puzzles at the end.

The iOS version gives you the first few for free. Go for it.