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)

GayPurr-ee_title

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?

BETH Yes.

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

BETH No?

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.

[inaudible]

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

MARK Yes!

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.

ADAM Bye, MARK.

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.]

GayPurr-ee_end

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.

April 1, 2020

Game log 1-3/20

12/26/19:

Download for free on a whim, and a month later play through:

The Lion’s Song: Episode 1 – Silence (2016): Mi’pu’mi Games (Vienna, Austria) [.75 hrs]

Pretty sepia-retro graphics, a nice sense of quiet, and good intentions, but the interactivity isn’t meaningful, and the whole thing desperately wants to be cultured, in much the way a child wants to be an astronaut. “Mr. Schönberg, Mr. Berg, and Mr. Mahler have all agreed to participate in your concert — isn’t it wonderful?” Fin-de-siecle ooh la la!


12/27/19:

I was so impressed and rewarded by Life Is Strange that I immediately bought the spin-off while it was still on sale ($5.25), and played it right away.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm (2017): Deck Nine (Westminster, CO) [12 hrs]

Alas! Life is Strange was made by French people, whereas this was made by — uh-oh — Americans. All the irresistible craft of the original has been swapped out for an eminently resistible imitation. The original had some kind of subtle human touch that buoyed it above its own silliness. (It may just have been the lead voice actress; the right voice goes a long way.) Whatever it was, it’s lacking here.


Back to the “full-motion video” bundle purchased 1/14/16. More than half of this bundle is the complete “Tex Murphy” series: five campy sci-fi private-eye adventure games from the 90s and then a Kickstarter revival in 2014. As an adventure-playing teenager I skipped these because I got the impression they were tacky and sophomoric. Let’s see if I was I right! (I was.)

1989’s Mean Streets got about 10 minutes before I declared it too primitive and inscrutable to suffer through. 1991’s Martian Memorandum got 15 minutes. Those were only included in the bundle as pre-history anyway; the next one is the first one with full-motion video, and I gave it a bullet-point-worthy amount of time:

Under a Killing Moon (1994): Access Software (Salt Lake City, UT) [played for 4 hrs]

A time capsule from a peculiar historical moment when a computer game could star James Earl Jones AND some rent-a-models AND the game’s producer — i.e. just some programmer dude — as the lead. An industry in transition. I’ll concede that it has a good-natured Z-grade cheer, and that the story and game design, for all their respective inanities, do fulfill their baseline obligation to make some kind of sense, which can never be taken for granted in this business… but even with all appropriate handicapping, this is not a thing of depth or quality. My brain deserves better fare. After a while I considered just skimming through the rest of the game on Youtube; then I realized that I didn’t even care enough to do that. That’s when I knew I was done.

The subsequent entries in the series add a few layers of polish but don’t alter the fundamental design or tone. Even the 2014 game is apparently a completely faithful throwback to its hokey forebears. I think that means I’m gonna take a pass on the rest of these.


At this point I thought I should try chipping away at the stash of Star Wars games that I tabled a while ago. Thus:

Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy (2003): Raven Software (Middleton, WI) [played for 1 hr]

Nope, can’t do this either. The storytelling, level design, and use of music are immediately clumsy and off-putting, and the game seems to heavily emphasize constant flip-and-jump lightsaber fighting, which was my least favorite part of the preceding games and indeed one of my least favorite parts of the holy writ of Star Wars. I don’t need any of this. My brain deserves better fare.


Seems like “my brain deserves better fare” might drastically reduce my game-playing! Or rather, just cut it down to the games I actually like. Isn’t it good that I’ve finally reached this point? I guess it is, but there’s melancholy in it too.

I used to find absolutely every game stimulating at some level, because games are intrinsically interesting. But in recent years I’ve either grown more benumbed by age, or I’ve finally acclimated to the new reality in which there will always be more games available to me than I can possibly play. We live in the age of overwhelming cultural surplus, which encourages — indeed, necessitates! — a stronger will to peremptory dismissal. I’ve hardened my heart enough that now I can say “nah” to things before any real feelings form. It saddens me but it’s true.

I used to consider it a virtue to delay judgment and sample everything with an open mind; it seemed like the most life-affirming — world-affirming — way of being. But when you’re endlessly inundated with content — when you’re directly in the path of the firehose — you are forced to be always filtering your own intake, which means being constantly judgmental. Grotesque surplus is bad for the spirit. Ah well.


Okay then, I’ll just continue with the full-motion video. Next is the one I actually wanted:

Her Story (2015): Sam Barlow (Portsmouth, UK) [5 hrs]

The “interactive fiction” niche gaming subculture dresses up like TV and manages to briefly emerge into the light of mainstream attention. Two hours of police interview fragments, but unindexed: your only access is through the peephole of a keyword search. “Keyword search as obfuscation” is a brilliant and elegant inspiration! It’s the intersection of investigative thinking and Oulipean non-linear text-play; it makes a cross-reference maze out of the script. And you’re also always free to guess intuitively, searching for words that haven’t even been hinted at in the material you’ve seen. The ability to think like the writer and make meaningful wild leaps is rare in games and I found it gratifying. The writing and production and performance are: sufficient. Half of the game consists of speculating about clever possibilities that never actually come to pass, but that’s a form of pleasure too. Not knowing what’s behind the curtain is the main thing, and I’m always down for some of that. By all means, pull curtains shut and tell me to guess what’s behind them! It really and truly never gets old. Showmanship at its core. Peek-a-boo!

Once again, the game I actually wanted is much more rewarding than the random games that just hitched a ride. My my! What a peculiar coincidence! Who’d have guessed?

Now to play a couple more that I didn’t want.


MISSING: An Interactive Thriller — Episode One (2015): Zandel Media (Montreal, QC) [.5 hrs]

These poor misguided guys. They had just a glimmer of a tech concept with no actual content, and they went and ahead and produced it anyway. This is like the maze on the back of a cereal box made as expensively as possible. It’s like watching money drain into the void; half an hour of utter emptiness. Unsurprisingly, the company went under soon after this was released; there is no episode two.


Roundabout (2014): No Goblin (Seattle, WA) [played for .75 hrs]

This is basically Kuru Kuru Kururin done up with a thick coating of deadpan hipster-camp. I respect that it’s cheery and goofy, even if I’m left mostly cold by its Napoleon Dynamite idea of charm. But I just don’t get much pleasure out of avoid-a-thon gameplay. In the kind of dexterity games that I like, mastery looks uniquely graceful, and that’s why it’s enticing. Here all you can do is try to mitigate the awkwardness.

Thus ends the Full Motion Video bundle. No regrets about $5 for Her Story.


1/24/16: Pay-what-you-want — I want $2 — on IndieGameStand (long since defunct) for:

Hadean Lands (2014): Zarfhome Software (= Andrew Plotkin) (Boston, MA) [6 hours and counting]

It’s clear that this game is going to be a long haul, but apparently so is this year, so I plan to stick with it. Rather than wait to log it, I’m noting it now: I have EMBARKED ON THE LONG HAUL.

Plotkin is a geek VIP of long standing in the aforementioned “interactive fiction” fringe scene. His games have original ideas, high standards, and a real feeling for the gnomic Infocom style. In 2010 he opened up a kickstarter campaign to see if he could get some support for a new game, and immediately got showered with far more money than he had asked for, earned by years of goodwill from his high-quality free text adventures. So he used it to make this, an ambitious non-free text adventure. Word is that it’s a great success… at least at being what it wants to be, which is: a complex set of interlocking puzzles about make-believe alchemy governed by intricate make-believe rules.

I must admit I feel some dread, since I’m not at all excited about the prospect of doing a lot of make-believe alchemy. But as a lifelong fan of the genre, I feel like this is a game I will want to have played properly, without cheating, so I’m going to do it right. Having started in I can already see that it’s going to be clever and also be a headache — after leaving the introductory area, suddenly I’m inundated with about 100 different objects, locations, and bits of information, and left to sort it out for myself. I aspire to. I just might be very slow. Stay tuned.

[Added a few weeks later: Turned out to be a 23-hour haul. The game is a bizarre and fascinating experiment. Its high-concept outline (“alchemy spaceship Groundhog Day Enchanter with fast-travel and fast-solve”) is splendidly eccentric, and has been executed with great care and intelligence. But the concept is running this show; the resulting experience turns out to feel weirdly technical and often rather dry. Also subtly unfair at a few crucial junctures. Still, it suggests a really wonderful game, a better-rounded game that one can sometimes imagine oneself to be playing. Recommended only to those willing to run a significant distance to meet it halfway.]


Anyway, next up on my backlog is… wait, what’s this? I’m being handed a bulletin:

ALERT ALERT ALERT! ALL HUMANS MUST SHELTER IN PLACE ANXIOUSLY UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE!

One of the side effects of global pandemic, at least as of this third month of The Plague Year 2020, is a lot of video game discounts and giveaways. Not to mention a lot more interest in game-playing, generally. Here’s one that I tagged as interesting a few years ago, and then on 3/22/20 noticed that it was being gifted for free to the beleaguered planet. Sounds good!

Fidel Dungeon Rescue (2017): Daniel Benmergui (+ Jeremías Babini & Hernán Rozenwasser) (Buenos Aires, Argentina) [about 4 hours?]

It’s original and polished and compact and has charm and depth, and I had a very nice few hours working my way through it. The game is about choosing a path across a semi-randomized board, but the various constraints on your movement make it almost a puzzle. Almost! It’s that rare game that calls on true puzzle-solving thought without being made of actual puzzles. It required an unusual blend of my “exactly solving” and “just surviving” forms of effort, which are usually distinct. Recommended.


And of course I must mention, as purchased for $19.99 on 3/14/20:

Tabletop Simulator (2015): Berserk Games (Austin, TX) [35 hrs so far, more to come]

I’ve had my eye on this for years. Lockdown was clearly the time to go for it. At time of press I have inveigled two parents and two friends into getting copies, as well as one parents’ friend, and oddly also one parents’ friend’s friend, a guy I don’t actually know but to whom I provided a day’s worth of tech support anyway. (He bought a four pack to play with the grandkids.) So far it’s just been a little checkers, a little Connect Four, some Codenames: Duet, a lot of Scrabble, one game of Sushi Go, and a fair amount of Arkham Horror: The Card Game, which for some reason caught my attention.

My review of the software: it’s an essential service and god bless them for making it. It’s also awkward to handle, hard to get used to, often quite ugly, forces you to use additional software for video chat, and overall has a tendency to glitch. Plus, picking your way blindly through the ridiculous wild west of user-made mods ends up being a time-consuming drag. (Which of these 12 poorly-indexed attempts at “Uno” is the one I ought to use? They all seem sloppy; which is the LEAST sloppy? Guess I need to check them all out carefully before I can play.)

But honestly none of that matters. I can play EVERY BOARD GAME THAT EXISTS and I can play them with friends and family who are holed up in separate bunkers across the land. That’s what counts. I’m so glad people are playing stuff with me. Even if they mostly just want to play Scrabble. So far.

February 7, 2020

Disney Canon #58: Frozen II (2019)

disney58-title

ADAM I don’t quite know what to say. It had something of everything. The first third just felt like “what is going on??”

BETH Yeah.

BROOM That never stopped for me. That’s how I felt the whole time.

ADAM Well, in the second half it was like “okay, we’re on a quest. I got it.” It settled into a quest, but it had that Moana thing of “but the quest is healing nature.

BROOM Was it?

ADAM I mean, right?

BROOM I don’t know!

BETH It was about making friends with nature, I thought.

BROOM Did it represent nature as a whole or just one magical place? Those were the elemental spirits for the whole world?

ADAM They represented earth, water, air, and fire.

BROOM I got that.

ADAM Well, who can say if there’s any other non-Nordic realm in this world.

BETH I thought it looked beautiful. I really enjoyed looking at the diaphanous dresses, the way that everything flowed off of their bodies. I liked the costumes in general. Those are the things I was taking pleasure in because I felt like the story was just, like, “all right… okay…”

ADAM Well, I will say that even when it was strange and incomprehensible and distasteful, I never felt actively embarrassed like I did in Ralph Breaks the Internet.

BETH Yeah, it was classy.

BROOM Yeah, I never want to see Ralph Breaks the Internet again, and I would watch this with some curiosity if it came on again, because it was so strange. And full of beautiful things to look at.

ADAM Even the funny interludes were actually funny. Well, okay, at least I thought that Kristoff’s power ballad was funny.

BETH That was funny!

BROOM I found it so strange, because: who are they to make fun of this?

ADAM It definitely felt like the part where I’d stop paying attention if I were a kid.

BROOM I just couldn’t believe they, Disney, were making fun of a thing that’s only a couple of molecules away from Disney. When it started, when he stood against the tree with the backlighting and then they superimposed the close-up of his face, I spent that whole shot being like “is this parody or not?”

BETH I knew it was parody as soon as I heard the guitar.

BROOM I thought that was probably why that guitar was there, but… you know, either I’m taking this stuff seriously because it’s all stuff that Disney totally does, or I’m not because they’re making fun of it, and I couldn’t tell! And I thought that was remarkable.

ADAM I thought it was making fun of an 80s music video, not of Disney movies.

BROOM I got that eventually. But then at the end, Weezer sang that song, and they were reinterpreting it just like it had been any other song in the show. Because if it hadn’t had that guitar it would have sounded like any other song in the show! The idea that a song in a Disney musical would make fun of “cheesy songs” is so strange to me.

ADAM But again, if you compare it to the embarrassing “funny interlude” in Ralph Breaks the Internet, with the princesses, it was so much better than that! Nothing in here made my skin crawl. Which is some kind of accomplishment. By the second half, weren’t you like “all right, I at least see where we’re going here”? I agree that in the first twenty minutes, I was like “I don’t have any idea where this is going or what’s going on.”

BROOM The beginning of the movie piled on the songs so heavy. The songs were all…

BETH Same-y and boring!

BROOM I thought they were okay as songs…

BETH I didn’t think they were great.

BROOM … but they were all kind of out of narrative time. There was a song about “everything will always stay the same,” and I didn’t understand what the thing was that was supposed to stay the same. I mean, I knew they were setting me up for an emphasis on change later in the story… and then at the end they said that was what had happened, although…

ADAM In fact nothing changed! It seemed like everything was going to change, but then whoops! even Arendelle is fine. I guess the change is that Elsa moved.

BROOM And she moved because… there’s the magic people and the earthly people, and she had to go be queen of the magic people?

ADAM Yeah.

BETH It’s where she belonged.

BROOM Because she was actually the fifth element?

ADAM Yeah.

BROOM So the elements are air, fire, water, earth, and Elsa from Frozen?

ADAM I mean, maybe she’s ice? Maybe?

BROOM But the water horse turned to an ice horse.

ADAM Yeah. But she can also quench the fire lizard? I don’t know.

BROOM The fire lizard is only aflame when it’s upset. Otherwise it’s just a lizard.

ADAM It doesn’t even like to be on fire!

BROOM And the water horse was an angry “I want to drown you” water horse until… ?

ADAM Until she tamed it.

BETH I thought that scene was very cool!

ADAM It was very attractive!

BETH And powerful.

ADAM And scary.

BROOM Yup. And I thought it had a very good score. I thought the music was really well done. It was better than usual for movies like this.

ADAM The giants were the earth — why were there like ten of them?

BROOM And the air was not an animal, it was just “Gale” and she was the wind. Because they thought it was funny to give some air a name.

ADAM Yes. Well, it was air that rustled some leaves.

BETH You thought the songs were good?

BROOM I mean, I thought they were okay. There were some moments, like in the main one…

BETH What’s the main one?

BROOM “Into the Unknown.” Don’t you think that was the main one?

BETH Yeah, that was the climactic song.

BROOM Which they sang about six minutes into the movie! “This is the ‘Let It Go’ from this movie, and they sang it already?” I still felt like we weren’t…

BETH We hadn’t earned it.

BROOM We weren’t in narrative time, yet! It had all been like “this is a theme” and “this is a dynamic” but I was waiting for someone to just walk across a room in real time because a story was happening right now.

ADAM Wasn’t Elsa afraid to use her powers in front of other people, as a child? Why was she just creating snow people? At first I thought “are these Elsa’s children?” She doesn’t use her powers when she’s a child, right?

BETH Oh, good point.

BROOM She didn’t show her parents?

ADAM She did, they were watching her!

BROOM I mean in the first movie.

BETH I don’t remember.

ADAM I don’t remember either.

BROOM I only saw it the once.

ADAM But I thought that was the whole point, that she was afraid… or was it that she did use her powers, but she accidentally froze Anna or something?

BETH I think that’s what it was.

BROOM That first movie seemed to tap into some real felt experiences about self-doubt.

ADAM Yeah that felt like a real organic metaphor for something, and this one was just…

BETH “We have to make another one, so what can we do? Their parents died, so they need to figure out why, or something.”

BROOM There should be a name for the process when…

ADAM When they come up with a central argument and then they have to craft a story around it? “Ohana means family, and family means no one gets left behind.” That was actually one of the more successful ones, oddly.

BROOM I thought that one was fine. But what was the central argument here? I don’t think this was one of those.

ADAM But they clearly thought it should have that.

BROOM Even in Ralph Wrecks the Internet, we could see that the artificial concept was “if you love your friend, give them the freedom to pursue their dreams.” “If you love it, let it go.” Got it. What was the message of this? What was it about? What was going on?

ADAM I don’t think that was well executed. Sometimes they seem really artificial when they have a themed spine to them. But I agree with you, this didn’t have that, and as a result it was very confusing to follow.

BROOM The big revelation was that the voice that she’s been hearing… is her own?

ADAM Then there was “I’ve got to do it by myself.” “You’ll go too far!” What?

BETH But then it’s about Anna finding the magic inside her.

BROOM Was there magic?

BETH You know, metaphorical magic.

ADAM Logic.

BROOM Didn’t she already do that in the first movie? In fact doesn’t she say something here like “I climbed an ice mountain for you!” She already knows she’s a hero.

ADAM Yeah, I don’t know. Olaf was less embarrassing in this movie.

BETH I agree.

BROOM I don’t remember how embarrassing he was in the first movie, but I did think “boy, this is a lot of Olaf.” When he sang that song that was like “this is normal!” while scary things are happening, we hadn’t actually seen any scary things until he started singing the song, so… I don’t know, I felt like I was being forcefed a lot of Olaf time. But I also thought it was all beautiful, and had a lot of graphic force. It ended up feeling like a dream. I’m sleepy, so maybe that’s why, but I felt like I was having a dream. Like, “okay, I get that at a general level we’ve gone from a secure situation to an insecure one, and somehow this forest has to do with the insecurity, and that’s all I can understand.” And that’s how dreams are. Disney movies are usually so clear to me, so it was strange to be that disoriented.

ADAM I agree, I was very disoriented at the beginning. I don’t think I’m going to remember anything about this.

BROOM You were talking earlier about how you read stories to your boyfriend to put him to sleep… I was thinking that this seemed like something designed to put you to sleep, because every link in the story is a confusing one. That’s what makes my attention detach. Several times I felt myself thinking “uh-oh I guess I need to check back in, because they just told me things that don’t follow sensibly.”

ADAM But then there was the really literal and cloddish Kristoff B-plot about trying to propose.

BROOM That was like the B-plot from an episode of Friends, as you should know. That’s really the oldest B-plot in the book. “What was that you were going to say before we got interrupted? / Uh… nothing…” That’s like a number four.

BETH “Wait, we’re going to die??” “Not today!

BROOM Well, I thought some of that dialogue was okay.

ADAM But it came from a weird different movie. And all the sister stuff felt like it was added after the fact to make it, like…

BETH Poignant.

ADAM Because that was a big selling point of the original Frozen, so that had to get touched up. Did like ten people write this? Maybe that was the problem.

BROOM No, I think Jennifer Lee wrote it. Script by Jennifer Lee and a couple other people, story by Jennifer Lee, directed by Jennifer Lee. Jennifer Lee is now the creative director of Disney Animation. After John Lasseter was pushed out for hugging too many people, she is now in charge of everything. I was just reading about her: she graduated from an MFA program in 2006 or something, and then got hired to be a helper on writing Frozen or one of those, and now she’s the head of the studio. And she also wrote the Wrinkle In Time adaptation that I believe was considered to be incoherent and tonally bizarre.

BETH I saw it. It wasn’t great.

BROOM I felt like Frozen came from a real place, whereas this was… I don’t watch enough anime to understand this kind of plot. So many layers of magic! The spirit, and then the spirit of the spirit, and then I’m the spirit…

ADAM I was sure the parents were gonna get brought back to life.

BETH Me too! I fully expected that, when the boat was discovered, with the map, and…

BROOM What was that whole thing about? “They told us our parents died on the South Sea but this is the North Sea so they must have been searching for me…”

ADAM Yeah, nothing happened with the map. Well, I guess the map is what tells you where the place is…

BETH Yeah, “go north,” but they already knew that.

ADAM What’s the place called?

BROOM It must be something from real mythology. “Ahana-what now?”

BETH I can’t remember.

ADAM It creeped me out when I realized that the magic people were natives of some kind, and not just other people. As soon as I saw “oh they have a slightly different skin tone,” I was like [sound of being uncomfortable].

BETH And then there was the song.

BROOM Well, what were they supposed to do? They were a different tribe.

BETH It just seems very Disney to handle it this way.

ADAM It seems very Brother Bear.

BROOM I assumed it must be modeled on some Scandinavian tribe…

ADAM They’re the Sámi people, right?

BETH Yeah, that’s what it said in the credits.

BROOM All right.

ADAM But ugh, that’s creepy. It made it suddenly like “what is this about? Is this about reparations?”

BROOM Well, what is it about? They built a false dam to drain their land of vitality?

ADAM I should have known that dam was suspicious! Dams are not in favor right now.

BROOM “It was a wonderful land where the spirits joined with the people… so we built them a dam.” I thought it was strange, but I didn’t think to be suspicious that it was a Trojan-horse dam. It didn’t make enough sense!

ADAM I also could have sworn that it was going to be some sort of misunderstanding between the peoples — not that their grandfather was a genocidaire.

BETH Yeah. So what does that mean?

ADAM It means that all of Arendelle was built on a lie.

BETH Right. So it is about reparations.

ADAM Or something! Who knows?

BROOM Seriously, did you guys not find this the most bewildering one, of all fifty-whatever?

ADAM It felt like I was having trouble gripping it in my mind as it was going through.

BROOM Yeah, exactly, that’s what I mean about the sleepy-time story.

BETH I was really just admiring the animation.

ADAM Which was beautiful, which was lovely.

BETH Even the skin texture, the way they moved. Everything was just beautiful. And not creepy — especially after seeing all those previews with bad CGI.

BROOM Some of them looked better than others. One of them you praised similarly — which one was it?

BETH Oh yeah, the Pixar one. That looked gorgeous. Anyway, I just stopped paying attention to the story. Well, I didn’t stop paying attention, but I stopped trying to figure it out.

ADAM Moana was very similar to this, tonally, but was a much more coherent execution of this thing. Did Lin-Manuel Miranda write that, or did he just write the songs?

BROOM He just wrote the songs.

ADAM Maybe it’s just harder to do a sequel?

BROOM I felt like there was something uniquely weird about this, beyond just bad execution. The choice to make the first three songs — I don’t really know how to describe it if you didn’t feel it this way, but…

ADAM Well I never really think about the songs.

BROOM I don’t mean to analyze the songs, but just, like… First we get a scene from their childhood — the very beginning is them as little children…

ADAM “I’m gonna tell you a bedtime story, which is actually this big reveal about my whole life.”

BROOM “The story of how everyone I knew died.”

ADAM “And this is how our family came to be, maybe, but if you don’t squirm I’ll tell you the story!” “Oh we have so many questions!” “Maybe another time! Go to bed, girls!” Like, what??

BROOM Right, tonally there’s not a real moment there, it’s kind of just some storytelling, uh…

BETH Setup.

BROOM Setup, right. And then we jump to the present day, and there’s some kind of event going on but we don’t know what it is…

BETH And she hears the voice…

BROOM She hears this voice from the story from when she was a child, when her mother was singing her this lullaby — which we later find out that the mother was the magical force in the story; why didn’t the father know that? Why didn’t the mother reveal it?

BETH Yeah, they never told each other?

ADAM Why did they have to go on a quest to find out Elsa’s story when the mother knew the whole time?

BETH Yeah, mom could be like, “well, you know, I saved you.”

ADAM Was the mother magical, or was the mother’s act of selflessness the thing that created the magic?

BROOM Didn’t he in the flashback at the very beginning of the movie see what I guess was the mother swirling in the air? She was the playmate of all the spirits?

BETH But that doesn’t mean she was magical.

BROOM But she was very in touch with them? I don’t know. Anyway — we jump into the present day: okay, time to get situated. But instead of getting situated, we see the “problem” of her hearing the voice, though we don’t know what kind of problem that really is. And then she whooshes some magic in the air, and then the camera zooms across and now we find Anna, the other one, and she’s walking along with Olaf, and they say three lines to each other that don’t place us, and then they’re like “Now let’s sing the song about how everything will always be the same.” And the song I guess is supposed to be showing us what their lives are like now, but the scenes in the song aren’t a succession, and by the end of the song they’re all having some kind of banquet, and it’s nighttime. Remember?

BETH I don’t remember that!

BROOM I felt like “just tell me what day it is and what’s happening!” And then they’re playing charades. This is the first scene where something is actually happening right now in real time: they’re playing charades, and it’s comic. And then they fall asleep.

ADAM And she’s wearing the scarf.

BROOM And then Elsa goes out on the porch and sings a big power ballad.

ADAM And her sister says “what’s wrong” and she says “I don’t know and I can’t tell you.”

BROOM I just felt like all of that was so unlike most Disney movies, which would start with —

ADAM [singing] “I wanna get out of this little town!”

BROOM “Here’s what life is like for me right now. It’s humdrum, and I need something else.” Or if not that, then at least “There’s this problem, and I can explain to you what the problem is. The huns are coming.”

ADAM “All our crops are dying.”

BROOM Right. And this was like “we sang a song about how everything is normal! And now the day is done and we’re playing some charades!” I just felt like I couldn’t watch it any way other than just music and color and light. And that was an interesting experience. It felt more basically musical, but I was confused like that pretty much the whole time.

ADAM It feels like maybe it’s a sequel problem, because you can’t have “here’s who we are and here’s how it is,” because we already know who you are and how it is. You could have “we have a new problem,” but that would be sort of clunky, right?

BROOM I think the standard way you do a sequel is “Okay, since the happy ending of the last one, here’s some things that have happened: we got married and now we have a baby, so it’s a whole different life for us!”

ADAM Yeah, some events. And no time had passed since the end of the last one.

BROOM Or like “oh, I’m the queen now and that’s a lot of responsibility, I have all these thoughts and feelings about it”…

BETH Wait, so in end of the last one, the parents had already died?

ADAM I think the parents died at the beginning of the last one.

BROOM I don’t think the parents were around in the last one.

ADAM Remember, they died in a shipwreck.

BETH Well I know that now, but only because of this movie!

BROOM So we assume they said that in the previous one?

ADAM They did. You see them get on to the ship.

BETH Oh god, I don’t remember that.

ADAM There was also no villain in this, which made it confusing.

BETH Well the villain was nature. Until it wasn’t.

BROOM The grandfather was the villain. It was the original sin.

ADAM Sort of, but he wasn’t there. We don’t see him or interact with him.

BROOM You’re right, it is kind of about reparations. The story was that the worst thing that has ever happened is that your ancestors’ prejudice made them do an evil act. And you can make reparations by being willing to flood your own city. And then your magical sister will save you.

BETH Yeah but she didn’t know that. She thought her sister was dead and she had to sacrifice…

BROOM Her sister essentially was dead, because she… went in the pit.

ADAM She was revived in some way that was totally unexplained.

BETH Well, because the right thing had been done. For nature.

BROOM Yeah, that’s how things always happen.

ADAM When she first froze I thought “how is Anna gonna get all the way up there and unfreeze her?” But of course she didn’t have to do that, because that would have been tedious, to find a way across the Dark Sea without powers. Glad we didn’t have to sit through that!

BROOM Is it in Perrault or Grimm or somewhere, that when the curse is lifted the entire countryside comes back to life? When did that start?

ADAM When did that trope start? Like in Beauty and the Beast, “the spell is broken”?

BROOM The trope of the magic zooming out to the whole land and making everything better. It seems like such a recent Disney thing but it must have deeper roots somewhere. Anyway, whatever its original root is, I’m sure there’s some kind of meaning there. But it has become so attenuated by just being animated so many times… we just know what it looks like and we’re used to that. I felt like everything was this trope of whooshy magic, action at a distance, so much that it didn’t mean anything anymore. Like the fire in the trees went out when she calmed the fire spirit, and then Olaf disappears when Elsa is frozen, and then the ending seemed to be that, like… Elsa unfreezes because Anna breaks the dam, and then because she’s unfrozen she can stop the thing that… caused her to become unfrozen? It stops having meaning! Also, all of those people were trapped for 34 years, but they were the ones whose grievance it was, but they didn’t even know about it because they were trapped.

ADAM Was time passing for them in there, or no?

BROOM I think no because we saw the commander guy looking exactly the same in the flashbacks.

ADAM That totally escaped me. I couldn’t figure out at all what was going on with those people.

BETH Me neither. They hated each other but they reached some kind of truce where they didn’t kill each other?

ADAM We never saw them together. They must have known time was passing because they said, like, “Thirty-four years, Mabel!” Her name wasn’t Mabel.

BROOM Maybe I’m wrong and he was actually young-looking at the beginning.

ADAM He had a conspicuously gray beard at the end.

BETH Okay, then they were aging. Like that gray-haired woman.

ADAM So if they were fighting with the only inhabitants of the forest, how did they eat?

BROOM Yeah, wait — so they were reproducing? The people who were younger than 34 had been born under the dome?

ADAM Like Ryder and Honeymaren?

BETH Oh yeah, the hot boy. And ADAM, you wanted to see some action with Kristoff.

BROOM It sure did seem like they were setting something up!

ADAM But he never actually came back.

BROOM “Oh sorry that your proposal to your girlfriend didn’t work, anyway, so, uh… maybe I’ll be seeing you later?” Why did they even tell us those characters’ names? We laughed when she said “my name is Honeymaren,” because we, I think, correctly deduced that it would not matter what her name was. And it didn’t.

ADAM It’s also, like: “what?”

[general giggling]

ADAM Like… why was that her name?

BETH It’s so someone can be her for Halloween.

ADAM But, like, why wasn’t her name “Gale?” Do you want to say something about the people sitting next to us who laughed at all the bad jokes?

BROOM On which side?

BETH To the right.

BROOM Next to me. Yeah. They seemed like idiots.

BETH They laughed at everything you were supposed to laugh at. They did seem like idiots. I didn’t like them from the beginning.

BROOM I knew I hated them when at the end of the Spongebob Movie preview, Spongebob says to Patrick “I love your sense of irony” and he’s like “I love my sense of ironing too” and he’s ironing on an ironing board…

ADAM That actually made me laugh.

BROOM The girl in that couple was like “DUMB. That’s the dumbest joke.” She said that aloud.

BETH ADAM and I were just relieved that that girl showed up, because we thought that the guy was there creepily watching Frozen alone.

BROOM You would find that creepy?

BETH Something about him was giving me a weird feeling.

ADAM That would never happen in a movie with non-assigned seats, where the only other person in the theater comes in and sits right next to you.

BROOM It did seem a little like “these people are talking and being dumb, and they could be anywhere else in this theater, and it has to be right next to us.” But they shut up eventually.

BETH They did. I mean, we were talking loudly before the movie too.

BROOM Before. But once it started we shut up. We’re adults.

ADAM What a weird movie.

BROOM It was so weird.

BETH It was really weird.

ADAM I guarantee that the review will not say anything about it being weird, it’ll just be like “another excellent venture from Disney Studios.”

BROOM I don’t know if that’s the case. People have gotten cynical, and maybe for good reason, about some of this stuff.

ADAM Would kids like this?

BETH I can’t imagine it!

ADAM As we were leaving, the girl next to us said “I would never show that to a kid less than 10 years old.”

BROOM How could a kid follow it?

BETH I think they made it so it doesn’t matter.

BROOM I watched it that way and I did have that thought. We’ve returned to the original way of watching movies: color, light, tone.

BETH Yeah, sensation. Dazzling sparkles everywhere.

BROOM I thought that during the “this will all make sense when I’m older” song. If I wasn’t paying attention to the words, this doesn’t even look scary. It’s something other than what they say it is.

BETH It just looked like little gags.

BROOM It just looked like stuff flying around.

ADAM Yeah, that seemed like maybe somebody had said “this is too scary, you need to lighten it up.” Also, think about how water has memory?? And therefore Elsa can conjure up images of the past by freezing the water??

BETH I was fine with that, but… it’s just another weird thing about the movie.

ADAM It’s just another thing that you have go “okay, I guess this is another thing that I have to remember.” As you said, BROOM, about all the attenuated magic in the movie: it’s just another thing to keep track of.

BROOM Yeah, they had to explain that one —

BETH They had to say it like four times to make us realize that that’s how everything worked.

ADAM “I’m going to conjure the scene of my parents’ death by pulling the water out of the floorboards?” Like, [sound of being mildly creeped out]!

BETH Yeah, that was unnecessary.

BROOM And then it went so fast! It turned out not to be important to the movie.

ADAM I learned recently that Idina Menzel’s ex-husband is Taye Diggs.

BROOM I didn’t know that.

BETH Interesting.

BROOM In reading the article about Jennifer Lee I learned that she recently revealed herself to be in a relationship with actor Alfred Molina.

BETH Wow.

ADAM That must be why he was in this.

BROOM Or vice versa.

BETH Odd!

BROOM Yes.

BETH Well, I don’t have anything else to say.

ADAM Would you recommend this to people?

BETH No.

BROOM No.

ADAM Well, I don’t know.

BETH Not to adults.

ADAM Would you recommend this to Madeline, who is the only person who will read this?

BROOM Not to Madeline herself, with her brain. I would say, I guess, that it seems likely that her kids will find it visually diverting. And ultimately non-threatening.

ADAM Well as I said, [nephew 2] could not follow the cross-cutting timeline of Little Women, in a way that was lucky. I mean, he could follow it, but it was very confusing how that death scene was staged.

BETH I mean, my dad couldn’t follow it either.

[more discussion of this]

ADAM Do you want to hear the review?

BROOM Yeah, please.

[he reads the New York Times review]

BETH She hinted at some of the things we were talking about.

BROOM It wasn’t an offensive review. It was reasonably right about things. It just seems odd that she treats it like such a normal outing, when it felt so much more spazzy. While we’re on the record, I like when we talk about how these things make us feel, so I want to say that it made me feel either sad or old or something. I was like “I guess this is just how movies are now. They require squinting at, and they have this busy synthetic quality, even when their heart seems to be more or less in the right place.” But not all movies are like that.

BETH That’s right. See more movies, BROOM. You were just talking about…

BROOM That’s my alter ego, “Seymour Movies.”

BETH Uh-huh. Well, it didn’t make me feel like that.

BROOM I’m glad to hear it, because we’re the same age.

BETH I really did just succumb to how beautiful it was. It was perfectly fine to watch it. It dragged a little bit, but that’s because I wasn’t trying to figure out what it was saying, I was like “oh, why do we have to have a song now.”

ADAM I spent much of it being like “what are we going to talk about?” And the answer was “I have no idea.”

BETH The songs annoyed me.

ADAM I can’t remember any of them. They have all left my head.

BETH I just think that the fact of the songs — they didn’t add to anything. It just seemed like “how do we make this feel like Broadway?”

ADAM [singing] “Here I am!” That’s from the original, right? I can’t remember anything about the songs from this one.

BROOM “Into the Unknown.”

ADAM Well, how did that go? I honestly couldn’t tell you.

BROOM [singing] A-ah, a-ah. I actually thought there was one good compositional idea: to have the mystery voice from beyond — Norwegian singer Aurora — go “a-ah, a-ah,” and we get used to that. And then Elsa sings her power ballad about how she’s lured by that and she’s gonna resist it and now she’s gonna give in to it, and the song has her sing [singing] “into the unknown, into the unknow-own, into the unknow-oh-oh-oh” and then those four notes are answered by “a-ah, a-ah,” which we heard from the beginning.

BETH I liked that too, and I even though it at the time: “this is nice.”

BROOM It’s satisfying that she reaches up and up and then — whoa! — it turns over into the thing you already heard. That was very well done. And then they did it a hundred times in the end credits. And I thought, “let me not forget that I enjoyed it for real that first time.” But there were other points in that song where there were chord changes that felt like first draft chord changes that should have been fixed up.

BETH Okay.

ADAM All right.

BROOM That was it!

ADAM And what’s next?

BROOM Who knows? Let’s see.

[reads the Wikipedia entry about Raya and the Last Dragon, scheduled to be released November 25, 2020]

disney58-end

January 1, 2020

97. Do The Right Thing (1989)

2001: 2019:

written and directed by Spike Lee

Criterion #97.


A vibrant, strong, eccentric piece of filmmaking; a shining example of what “independent film” can offer. For me it was also painful. Because it is ultimately wrong on a subject on which it is, to my mind, dangerous to be wrong.

I have been avoiding writing this entry for months because I dread having to put any of this on record. But I’m going to. Here’s how I see it.


Spike Lee is a born aesthete who feels obligated to pretend to be political. He has a compulsion to present himself as a maker of “statements” despite having no natural inclinations in that direction. His nature is emotional rather than critical, and his thinking tends to be muddled; he knows this is a liability, but rather than play to his strengths, he doubles down. And then as a defense against being found out, he adopts a posture of prickly righteousness, and a smokescreen of calculated provincialism. Ya dig? Sho nuff.

Let me please be very clear here: there is nothing wrong with being essentially a feeling person rather than a thinking person. That’s a good way to be. The thing that distresses me is the pretending otherwise, to the point where in service of the pretense you start disregarding your actual intuitions. That psychological maneuver is the source of all the world’s ills, and it upsets me to experience it in a work of art.


Do the Right Thing is instinctively compassionate to everyone on screen. The compassion is fundamental to the artistic vision; it’s apparent in the screenplay, the image, the color and sound. We get a portrait of a neighborhood — affectionate, whimsical, theatrical, wistful, Our Town — with specific attention to the fact that the life of the neighborhood, its day-to-day function, is dependent on delicate negotiations and compromises across social and racial divides.

The movie is about the fact that those underlying social fault lines are liable to split wide open and spew magma any time the human temperature rises. It says: society is fragile and our simmering resentments and prejudices are an eternal threat to it. Whether those resentments are fueled by big offenses or little ones, actual injustices or imagined ones — or some blend of the two, which, as the movie implies, is always the case — the anger itself is a destructive force, not a constructive one, and so for the sake of our families and neighbors, for the sake of the daily life that this movie celebrates in its every shot, that anger needs to be held in check by love and compassion. Or rather, anger itself deserves compassion, because it is human; it is us; it is the people in our neighborhood. Compassion for anger is the necessary antidote to anger.

That’s a really good message.

At the climax of the movie, Spike’s onscreen character, stirred to fury by a senseless death — and a lifetime of powerlessness — shouts “hate!” and incites a riot. The next day he’s cooled off again and his thoughts have returned to peaceable everyday concerns — getting paid, getting by. At this point, the message should be: his fury of the night before deserves compassion… but, obviously, not endorsement. It was, after all, purely destructive; it was a manifestation of the force of chaos that lives in everyone.

Everything about the movie has prepared us to parse the events this way. Everything about the movie has told us that “justice” is an elusive and subjective consideration compared to the absolute primacy of LOVE and HATE. An act of hate is unfortunate; an act of love is valuable.

And yet that’s not where Spike goes. He has his character be insistently, defiantly uncontrite, and then closes the film on paired quotes about violence, from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. The King quote says essentially that violence is immoral and self-defeating. The Malcolm X quote:

I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.

There is no other way to read the movie than that Spike Lee thinks this quote, about “bad people” and “doing what is necessary” and “self-defense,” relates directly to Mookie destroying the pizza place. But it doesn’t; it can’t. That act was an explosion of rage — sympathetic rage, rage that deserves compassion, but rage. That is the opposite of what Malcolm X is talking about, if we take him at his word. He is talking about combating an oppressor. The movie has gone to some lengths to be clear that Sal, the owner of the pizza place, is not in any essential way “a bad person,” and that the pizza place is merely a locus for resentments, rather than a threat against which “self-defense” is “necessary.” Furthermore this is all a bait and switch; Spike has suddenly substituted “violence,” a word not used before, for HATE, the real recurring concern of the movie. Malcolm X isn’t saying anything about “hate.”

Mookie does not believe in change; he is not striving for change; he does not achieve change. He gets nothing good and he hurts nothing bad. He is not employing violence as a means to any end. He simply living out the anger that he feels.


I think what’s going on is: Spike wants to dignify and give voice to hate, to the deep fury that drives the riot; he wants the audience to know they can’t just scold it out of existence. It exists, it’s real, it merits attention and it deserves compassion. That’s all well and good. But at the critical moment he loses the courage of his convictions. He anticipates the audience withholding that compassion, and that makes him feel defensive, so he decides to start arguing back in his put-on “political” voice: “well, violence can be a form of protest action, and given the way things are in this country” blah blah blah. It’s non sequitur in service of an evil conclusion: “Actually acts of hate are valuable.” That’s a profound betrayal of everything this movie has been about.

This stuff matters. The heat is rising on all of us, and it makes an enormous difference to the world whether or not we know what to do with the feelings it stirs up. There is really no more vital issue. We all get angry, and we’re only going to get angrier in the years to come. Clinging to that anger because we don’t know how to forgive it, clothing it in a pretense of purpose, calling it “the right thing” because we don’t dare admit to having been hot-headed, is deadly.

This is the real answer. The movie offers it to everyone else but doesn’t know how to take it to heart.


When Radio Raheem talks about the opposing forces of LOVE and HATE he has it both ways. First he locks fingers and says that they’re “static,” and then he has them duke it out and says that LOVE wins the fight after all. Which is it, Spike?

The final image of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X shaking hands suggests some kind of yin-and-yang equilibrium. But that’s horrible! Just because something is a duality doesn’t mean it needs to be kept “in balance”! Between LIFE and DEATH, we can and should confidently throw in our lot with LIFE; DEATH will take care of itself. In LIGHT we can see what we’re doing, in DARKNESS we can’t. People don’t pray to the beautiful dyad of GOD and THE DEVIL; they pray to GOD. Christ didn’t teach LOVE and HATE, dude. What are you thinking?

Radio Raheem: “If I love you, I love you. But if I hate you…”
Mookie: “There it is: love and hate!”

“There it is: love and hate!” sums up Spike Lee: He knows there’s a topic here and he knows he’s putting it onscreen somehow, but he doesn’t know what he’s actually saying. And he’ll start any fight he needs to start to keep it that way. From a Roger Ebert piece:

Lee says he has been asked many times over the years if Mookie did the right thing. Then he observes: “Not one person of color has ever asked me that question.”

This is an utterly infuriating non-answer, because it’s demonstrably a lie — google “did Mookie do the right thing” for endless debates on the question by black writers, or just ask any high school teacher who has ever taught this movie. I actually found competing apologists for this quote: some that said “what he’s saying is that obviously burning down a pizza place is not ‘the right thing,’ but that goes without saying, and white people only fixate on it because they’ll do anything to avoid acknowledging the systemic injustice that the movie is really about” … and some that said “what he’s saying is that yes, obviously burning down the pizza place is ‘the right thing,’ it’s an appropriate act of resistance against an unjust society that only white people would want to defend.”

Whichever interpretation is correct, it’s totally obvious and you’d have to be pretty damn unwoke not to see it. But they can’t both be right! Or rather, they can only both be right if most of these words are just words, and the only thing that really matters is the emotion, the sense of frustration. I’m all for that kind of truth. I just want it to be honest about itself. Because the honesty is always the hardest part, and it’s the part that counts for the most.


I have dreaded writing this because we live in a time where anger — especially about racial tensions — has been granted enormous authority when it should have just been granted compassion. It’s not Spike Lee’s fault, of course, but it’s a form of the very thing I’m bemoaning. What seemed like an edgy provocation in 1989 is now such a commonplace that I live with a thousand useless worries in my head. Right now, for example: “Uh oh, might someone be angry at me for referring to Radio Raheem’s ‘senseless death’ rather than to his ‘murder by white cops’? Yes, of course someone might; very easy to imagine such a person. So should I change it? They’re the angry one, after all; maybe that means they’re right!”

I wish I didn’t live in that world. It’s not a world that knows how to improve itself.

I wish we weren’t all so enamored of things, like this movie, that purport to blow a whistle and “fight the power.” What power? The pizza place? Power is everywhere and nowhere. I want to hear who you’re actually helping, and how.

And for it to be this movie, of all movies! This glowing thing! Look at all those colors! Feel the air! The wonderful atmosphere! The obvious love for all the characters! It really hurts my heart that all this filmic joy ends with a fist, and does it seemingly only because it’s a convenient way to avoid saying “sorry.” For that he’ll promote HATE to equal status with LOVE. Whatever it takes.

What could be more depressing?

I started going through the bonus features last year, but there are a lot of them, and I’m now accepting that I just don’t have the stomach for it. I’m writing this up because I want to move on. I miss getting to watch these movies. Let’s do some new ones.


Here’s some of the music by Spike’s father Bill Lee. They seem to have had a falling-out after Spike’s first few movies — possibly to do with money, or drug use — or the fact that Spike disapproved of his father’s interracial relationship, which is a pretty juicy notion. But it may simply be that Bill Lee is difficult. His stubbornly not-quite-cinematic scores resemble, but don’t actually align with, Spike’s own stubborn not-quite-ness. Though in this particular movie, because of the crazy-quilt construction, it almost works: the music is just another voice on the block.

This is the music for the quotes at the end. Is it really grappling with their meaning? Or just playing you some music? “There it is: love and hate!” There it is.


December 30, 2019

Game log 10-12/19

11/4/15 Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes for $14.99. “Co-operate in following convoluted directions” speaks to something deep in my soul. My sister and I breezed through about half of the game; then the Morse Code blinker defeated us several times, and we got discouraged. Maybe someday we’ll return. I’m just listing it here for completeness.


11/8/15 Indiegala freebie:

Realms of the Haunting (1997): Gremlin Interactive (Sheffield, UK) [14 hrs]

The 90s-game-generating machine was left on overnight by mistake, and this is what came out. Full-motion video, first-person shooter, graphic adventure, horror fantasy, haunted house, lava caverns, secret society, time pedestal, demon labyrinth castle shotgun psychic sword hell knight brain ghost sarcophagus dimension church prophecy dragon crystal UH OH SOMEBODY SHUT IT OFF! A fascinating lump of creativity, made with palpable enthusiasm in every respect, bursting with nifty ideas, and offering undeniable spooky-dream atmosphere. Also: unutterably stupid, frustrating to control, has a couple of truly infuriating sections. A ridiculous camp delight AND totally unrecommendable. Glad to have taken the ride. Never again!


12/14/15 GOG gives away Worms Forts: Under Siege. In checking my heart I find no interest whatsoever in trying this for even a minute. Noted, heart.


12/21/15 GOG gives away:

Bio Menace (1993): Apogee Software (Garland, TX) [played for 2 hrs]

I try not to overstate the role of “nostalgia” in my enjoyment of things but this one fits the bill. The bright-lit EGA “Commander Keen” aesthetics — depthless, chipper, toylike — offer me a sense of comfort by fond association. I didn’t play this one at the time and probably would have found its gore distasteful. The first of three episodes was all I needed, just as it would have been in 1993.



12/30/15 “Humble Bundle: Eye Candy 4” for $6 gets me six games. Why on earth did I buy this? How did I justify it to myself? I honestly can’t recall. The “eye candy” theme means that all the games have striking art styles; I guess I just got intrigued by the screenshots and made an impulse buy? Exactly what I swore not to do ever again? It’s a mystery.

Dyscourse (2015): Owlchemy Labs (Austin, TX) [played for 1.25 hrs]

“CHOICE” IS A FALSE GOD. I keep saying it, but do they listen? This is standard choose-your-own-adventure, i.e. pick a path arbitrarily and it leads to an arbitrary outcome, all in a flavorless scenario about which you have no reason to care. There’s no writing to speak of, just a tree of tropes. They think you’ll want to do it again and again to explore the other branches simply because you know other branches exist. Not I. Anyone who thinks “Dyscourse” is a good title is not someone I want telling me a story. “Eye candy” rating 2/5. (Where 1 is Smarties and 5 is peanut butter cups.)

Lumino City (2014): State of Play (London, UK) [4 hrs]

Stiff, self-involved adventure game with essentially no functional plot, just a twee aesthetic. Its only intention is “build a cutesy world out of cardboard and get credit for it.” Well, they done it! Do you see “Filter > Blur Gallery > Tilt-Shift”? Do you hear “turntable-crackle-03.wav”? If so, congratulations: you’re having all the feels. Eye candy rating 3/5.

Plug & Play (2015): Michael Frei and Mario Von Rickenbach (Zürich, Switzerland) [.25 hrs]

Not a game: an animated short in the artsy-deadpan tradition, translated directly into interactive form. Click, drag, plug, etc. to progress through the surreal vignettes. The very simple interactivity is handled intelligently; this should serve as a case study for how to think about the point-and-click paradigm, which happens to mesh very well with the stop-and-go aesthetic. Competent art! Eye candy rating 4/5.

2064: Read Only Memories (2015): MidBoss (San Francisco, CA) [played for 1 hr]

Very finely retrostyled cyberpunk throwback, but clearly much more thought has been put into being #GENDERWOKE than into being #GAME. For the most part you’re just here to read a linear mile of geek-written text, strained and oblivious, which unspools onscreen at an indefensibly slow pace. Sure, fine, X get to choose mx own pronouns — but when do X get to have FUN? Mx patience ran out within an hour. Eye candy rating 4/5.

Apotheon (2015): Alientrap (Toronto, ON) [played for 2 hrs]

A beautiful idea: a game that looks like it takes place on the side of an amphora. The graphic concept has been realized with care and taste. But in play everything is just a little too far apart; there are just a few too many factors to juggle; the world is just a tad too empty. Slight things, but they make a big difference to the amount of pleasure. I came to a door that crashed the game every time I tried to enter, and decided I wasn’t actually having enough fun to bother troubleshooting, so that was that. Eye candy rating 4/5 at the outset, then 3/5 after you’ve gotten used to it. I guess those diminishing returns are exactly what “eye candy” implies.

The Next Penelope (2015): Aurelien Regard (Paris, France) [played for 2 hrs]

Top-down racing, with some shooting and bosses and other stuff thrown in. Moderately “retro” new wave neon color scheme, and a CRT ghost effect if you want it — but no pixels, which shows admirable restraint. The intent is to be clean and zippy, and mostly it is. Very impressive for being a one-man show. But racing games always frustrate me; they end up being about my physical relationship with the controller, and that’s not something I want to care about. Eye candy rating 3/5.



1/4/16 “Humble Square Enix Bundle 3” for $1 gets me 6 games. I buy it solely to assuage my curiosity about Life Is Strange; the rest is bonus.

First game is The Last Remnant, which my brain instinctively rejects as inappropriate for intake; a blinking red X appears over it in my Terminator’s-eye view. A brain is a mysterious thing, but I’ve learned that it’s best to do as it says. (I’ve learned the hard way.) So no Last Remnant for me.

Life Is Strange (2015): Dontnod Entertainment (Paris, France) [3 hrs]

This is only the first of a five-episode series, and six months after I paid a dollar, it was made permanently free as an enticement to buy the rest. Oh well. It was quite good and I feel duly enticed; if the complete series drops below $8 I will buy it.

A landmark in the continuing development of what I might call “TV games”: adds a few layers of finesse to the model established by The Walking Dead. The writing is basic but never outright asinine, which for a video game amounts to a triumph. The atmosphere of dewy poignancy is laid on awfully thick, but I don’t mind because it’s all been done with such skill. The choice to give the protagonist a “sit silently and feel sentimental” action in most locations is inspired. Not only is it apropos as high school emo, it’s also exactly the mindset to which the storytelling mechanism is making its appeal: if you meditate on and in this environment, a sense of rich but ineffable narrative meaning will emerge. Just like it does for teenagers.

Special bulletin! 12/19/19: $3.99 sale for the rest of Life Is Strange. I said I would, so I did. [15 more hours]

Undeniably captivating. By far the most cinematically fluent TV game I’ve yet experienced. “Best Lighting” for sure! The nuts and bolts stagecraft is so commandingly professional that you can’t help but go along for the ride, regardless of all its many glaring flaws and shortcomings. Yes, the game’s ambition outruns its actual sophistication; pretty much every big effect in the script feels underearned and a bit immature. But only a bit — and I mean that to be praising with faint damnation, because considering how wildly emotional this game wants to be, just coming within shouting distance of its goals is an astounding achievement. I was truly riveted, and, against my better judgment, moved. By hook or by crook, it wouldn’t let me be otherwise. A masterpiece of presentation.

Back to the Square Enix Bundle.

Tomb Raider (1996) (“Tomb Raider I”): Core Design (Derby, UK) [played for 3 hrs]

Deservedly a classic. I played through a friend’s copy in 1997 (thanks, Mary!) and it left a strong impression that hasn’t faded. Tomb Raider brought a new firmness and snappiness to 3D gameplay, and a new sense of rumbling menace to the fantasy of subterranea that has been the central offering of computer games going all the way back to Adventure. As with Dark Forces earlier this year, I am struck by just how well its particular geometric brutalism has aged. The subject matter, the gameplay, and the aesthetics are all complementary: it gives the sense that everything is exactly as detailed as it ought to be and no more, which is something that can’t always be said for its fancier descendants.

I’m giving myself another paragraph here for some musings about Lara Croft: I think she’s a fascinating counterexample to the notion of “objectification” as connoting something intrinsically oppressive and demeaning. She is manifestly a sex doll created by sophomoric male programmers, but she is also you, the player. There’s no way to play the game for any length of time without coming to identify with her. How can she be “objectified” if she is the subject? The answer is: she’s both and neither, because the “object / subject” model is a crock. In games, first-person and third-person are often freely interchangeable, and “the male gaze” can easily be twisted into a Möbius strip. (Also, I think Lara’s pornographic quality actually helps the game insofar as it makes her look less ridiculous than she otherwise would; the intrinsic grotesqueness of her polygonal form is conveniently masked by the blind spot of conventional sexual exaggerations.)

My memory from 20 years ago turned out to be so unfaded that playing again felt unnecessary, so I stopped after the first few levels. Plus I recalled disliking the increasingly yicky environs and skinless monsters toward the end of the game. Who needs it?

Next up in this bundle are Tomb Raider II and Tomb Raider III, neither of which have I ever played. I expect that someday I will indeed give them each a spin, but my 3 hour tour of Tomb Raider I completely sated my Tomb Raiding appetite for the moment, so I’m leaving these for later.

Murdered: Soul Suspect (2014): Square Enix (El Segundo, CA) & Airtight Games (Redmond, WA) [9 hrs]

Alternate titles include “Ghost Detective: Who Has A Hat”, “Also A Vest: Ghost Man”, and “Bad Boy Ghost Cop: He Is A Tattoo Guy.” A well-meaning, expensive-looking game, full of valuable assets, all of it completely squandered because there’s no gameplay to flatter the content. For example, they neglected to include any parts where you feel smart, or experience the thrill of discovery. The only mechanic is: click on every item from a checklist. Oops! That’s supposed to be the back end, not the front end! The whole thing smells like project mismanagement: plenty of artists and programmers, but is anyone steering this thing? A cautionary object lesson for game designers. (Direct comparison with its excellent contemporary The Vanishing of Ethan Carter could be illuminating.)


1/14/16 “Humble Weekly Bundle: Full Motion Video” gets me 11 wacky live-action-based games, several of them classics of a sort — a campy sort — and one of them a recent game that was on my wishlist, for only $5. Fine.

The 7th Guest (1993): Trilobyte Games (Medford, OR) [8 hrs]

An artifact. When my father finally brought home a computer with a CD drive (circa 1996-7?), I eagerly borrowed this from either the public library or Blockbuster video, to appease several years of curiosity. Magazine screenshots had seemed to promise unprecedented immersion and delicious haunted house ambiance. It delivered a bit of that, but mostly I found the actual product a lazy mess — an incoherent script and puzzles shamelessly cribbed straight out of Sam Loyd and H.E. Dudeney, the original trees from whence fall the oldest possible chestnuts. Furthermore several of these puzzles simply aren’t fair. (Tryst by my crypt for details.) 20 years later, this was a somewhat interesting memory to have turned over with my spade, and I didn’t mind devoting a few hours to swapping chess bishops and the like, but the game still feels like a sham, built more to be sold than played.

The 11th Hour (1995): Trilobyte Games (Medford, OR) [7 hrs]

Wretchedly unimaginative sequel. I had known it existed but not much more; I am stunned to discover that it takes place in the exact same rooms, in which you have to solve a nearly identical set of puzzles. The gall! The only dimension in which it demonstrates any sort of ambition is the sheer quantity of moronic, tasteless video: there’s a lot more this time. But to what end? An Elvira pinball table has the good sense never to make you stop playing pinball so that it can tell you some stupid-ass story about what Elvira did yesterday afternoon. That would be idiotic design, right? Whatever entertainment value Elvira’s presence brings to a pinball game (probably the Standard Elvira Quotient, defined as “none”), it is at least brought to the whole, in the present, in a way that tries to enhance, rather than interrupt, the playing of pinball. Whereas The 11th Hour tries to get you to watch an hour’s worth of sub-Elvira trash while waiting to do puzzles. Come on.

Google says I’m the first to use “sub-Elvira.” A sad comment on the state of games journalism.

October 13, 2019

7. Hardy: The Return of the Native

007-RETURNOFTHENATIVE

CD7, 50¢, August 1959. Cover artist unknown. 413 pp.

The rural tranquility of the heather-covered English countryside is the setting for this moving novel of conflicting aspirations and tragic destiny. Clym Yeobright returns from Paris to the village of his birth, idealistically inspired to improve the life of the men and women of Egdon Heath. But his plans are upset when he falls in love with a passionately beautiful, darkly discontented girl, Eustacia Vye, who longs to escape from her provincial surroundings. Their stormy marriage explodes in a violent tragedy which eventually frees Yeobright to pursue his dream of service. A book of classic dimension and heroic design, The Return of the Native is the forerunner of the twentieth-century psychological novel — poetic, compassionate, vivid in its associations, universal in its meanings.

With an Afterword by Horace Gregory


I found The Return of the Native artistically confusing. Is this good writing or bad? Is Hardy’s outlook broad or narrow? What am I dealing with, here?

You tell me. Let’s go straight to the excerpt. This is the introductory portrait of Eustacia Vye, who isn’t quite “our heroine” but certainly has top billing. (Viewable here in the original ink.)

She was in person full-limbed and somewhat heavy; without ruddiness, as without pallor; and soft to the touch as a cloud. To see her hair was to fancy that a whole winter did not contain darkness enough to form its shadow — it closed over her forehead like nightfall extinguishing the western glow.

Her nerves extended into those tresses, and her temper could always be softened by stroking them down. When her hair was brushed she would instantly sink into stillness and look like the Sphinx. If, in passing under one of the Egdon banks, any of its thick skeins were caught, as they sometimes were, by a prickly tuft of the large Ulex Europœus — which will act as a sort of hairbrush — she would go back a few steps, and pass against it a second time.

She had pagan eyes, full of nocturnal mysteries, and their light, as it came and went, and came again, was partially hampered by their oppressive lids and lashes; and of these the under lid was much fuller than it usually is with English women. This enabled her to indulge in reverie without seeming to do so — she might have been believed capable of sleeping without closing them up. Assuming that the souls of men and women were visible essences, you could fancy the colour of Eustacia’s soul to be flamelike. The sparks from it that rose into her dark pupils gave the same impression.

The mouth seemed formed less to speak than to quiver, less to quiver than to kiss. Some might have added, less to kiss than to curl. Viewed sideways, the closing-line of her lips formed, with almost geometric precision, the curve so well known in the arts of design as the cima-recta, or ogee. The sight of such a flexible bend as that on grim Egdon was quite an apparition. It was felt at once that the mouth did not come over from Sleswig with a band of Saxon pirates whose lips met like the two halves of a muffin. One had fancied that such lip-curves were mostly lurking underground in the South as fragments of forgotten marbles. So fine were the lines of her lips that, though full, each corner of her mouth was as clearly cut as the point of a spear. This keenness of corner was only blunted when she was given over to sudden fits of gloom, one of the phases of the night-side of sentiment which she knew too well for her years.

Her presence brought memories of such things as Bourbon roses, rubies, and tropical midnight; her moods recalled lotus-eaters and the march in Athalie; her motions, the ebb and flow of the sea; her voice, the viola. In a dim light, and with a slight rearrangement of her hair, her general figure might have stood for that of either of the higher female deities. The new moon behind her head, an old helmet upon it, a diadem of accidental dewdrops round her brow, would have been adjuncts sufficient to strike the note of Artemis, Athena, or Hera respectively, with as close an approximation to the antique as that which passes muster on many respected canvases.

This is either intolerable or pretty good. I read the whole book and I still can’t say for sure which it is. Perhaps it’s both.

First the intolerable. The prose is relentlessly self-indulgent; Hardy writes like a retired professor amusing himself. He’s constantly adding twists to the syntax that feign to increase precision but actually have the opposite effect. “To see her hair was to fancy that a whole winter did not contain darkness enough to form its shadow.” Really? Simply to see her hair WAS to fancy this convoluted fancy? There was no alternative? And you’re telling me the fancy isn’t about the hair per se but about the hair’s shadow?

In Hardy’s mind it’s always charmingly high-toned to add more clauses. “Assuming that the souls of men and women were visible essences, you could fancy the colour of Eustacia’s soul to be flamelike. The sparks from it that rose into her dark pupils gave the same impression.” Oh my god. What he means is “Eustacia’s soul was the color of flame, and its sparks rose into her dark pupils,” but he can’t help sloshing his sherry all over the sofa on the way there. The extra words are manner rather than thought, and their music is designed to keep the reader lulled in a cocoon of self-satisfaction while he pages through the story at his gentlemen’s club.

Hardy also has a tic of constantly adding words like “seemed” and “appeared” so that he can try to get credit for “show don’t tell” without actually doing the work: he’s very fond of telling that things were shown. It happens on every page. “Her countenance seemed to signify that she concealed some suspicion.” Determining what such a countenance would actually look like is left as an exercise for the reader. His comfort zone is “one might have fancied that…” It gives the impression of subtlety without containing any.

And let me not forget to roll my eyes at: the random displays of erudition! Which aren’t just restricted to needless manspreading like “the cima-recta, or ogee”; they can get quite grotesque in their smarmy defiance of the book’s milieu. A naive little rural kid isn’t sure whether to stay or go because either might anger Eustacia; Hardy comments: “Here was a Scyllæo-Charybdean position for a poor boy.” Oh bra-vo, Mr. Hardy. What purpose does this learned allusion serve other than to specifically resist the character’s frame of reference? It’s like he’s ashing his cigar on the kid’s head.

Finally, the last and most significant intolerable thing about the passage above: it’s a character sketch that clearly aspires to be specific and careful and nuanced, and yet it’s unabashedly made out of fashionable cliches. It reads like a Pinterest board; comparing a character to “Bourbon roses, rubies, tropical midnight, the ebb and flow of the sea, a viola” is basically just collecting “style inspirations” for 1878. (Here’s the march from Athalie for all you wonderfully stormy and pouty ladies to resemble! With flashing eye!)


Now to the “pretty good.” Despite the reliance on cliche, the intention to be specific and careful and nuanced is real, and has its own value. Hardy’s energetic dedication to the business of description is rewarding in itself. I can’t deny taking pleasure in the shameless excess of detail-work dedicated to the sculptural cut of her lip, or in the sneering, catty description of Germanic mouths “like the two halves of a muffin” (English, presumably). Am I taking pleasure in substance, or style, or what? Is this sort of thing cheap or inspired? I honestly don’t know.

I don’t for a second buy that Eustacia would actually double back to deliberately brush her hair against the Ulex Europœus — it’s sheer Victorian cheesecake — and yet it still contributes to an overall complexity of portraiture, of which the ends seem to me more mature than the means. Despite all the corny objectification in the details, the passage as whole is effective at sketching a kind of petulant sensualism that is not itself wholly a cliche. This image of her restless hunger for all the world to be petting and grooming her (even the prickly gorse on the heath, imagine that!), is tacky and implausible, but I can still respect his taking the time to invent it and feed it into his loom.

When I first read these paragraphs I took them to be a standard-issue “she was entrancingly beautiful” passage. But it turns out that Hardy does not traffic in “she was entrancingly beautiful,” at least not at the level of plot. None of his characters have charmed lives or charmed souls. “She had pagan eyes, full of nocturnal mysteries” sounds like a swoon, but in the long run he seems pretty clear on the distinction between a woman actually being full of nocturnal mysteries and just being drawn that way. What Eustacia is actually full of is irritable discontent and a compulsion to self-mythologize, which end up being unfortunate for her and everyone around her. The Pinterest board is indulged as a kind of game, but its implications are not ultimately endorsed.

And taken as a game, the passage becomes rather charming: description as sheer sport. I’m not going to say his tongue is in his cheek, but there is perhaps a very faint note of deadpan being sounded, which, once I perceive it, suddenly seems to redeem and excuse all the excess. Why not join him in the gentlemen’s club after all?


Then again… is that faint note of deadpan actually there? Have I fallen for an illusion? Or perhaps an excuse invented after the fact? What’s this guy’s real attitude?

Truly, who can say?

I experienced Hardy as evasive. He shows himself technically capable of building rich and complicated feelings, situations, characters… and yet… is that really what he likes, deep down? Is it who he is?

The storytelling frequently lapses into triteness and contrivance, or bogs down in stasis. Then when he finally gets the motor running again, he always seems to say “Oh, rest assured, I meant to do that! That was important.” And I would fall for it, because his authoritative tone could be quite convincing. But thinking back on it all, I can’t shake the feeling that I was witnessing a genuine struggle for clarity and direction. The prose winds its way through the fields, between the characters, around rooms, always making a show of being discerning, of making a skillful attempt to come to terms with things. When will the work of coming to terms be done? It is never done. And perhaps nothing is really being come to terms with; it’s just his chosen demeanor, and a good smokescreen.

I suppose it’s worth keeping in mind that The Return of the Native was originally a serial in 12 installments. The serial form invites unevenness; it almost demands it. Taking stock of this book feels like taking stock of a whole season of a television show. Not all episodes are equal. Not all choices end up sticking. Shows have to find themselves as they go.


In Jane Smiley’s introduction to the 1999 Signet edition she describes Hardy’s works as “an unpredictable mix of the timeless and timely, conservative and radical.” Indeed! It’s strangely disorienting for a novel to be “unpredictable mix” of anything: good and bad, retrograde and progressive, clear and muddled. Hardy does not have a single and reliable temperament, and his head is full of a mishmosh of contradictory attitudes. Some days at his writing desk he leans one way, some days another. Some pages are satisfyingly strong on exactly the terms by which others are irritatingly weak.

That really throws me off! A fundamental pleasure of reading a novel is supposed to be that it is unitary — it is one thing, about which I can say “it,” in the singular. “I read it.” “It was pretty good.” It’s irksome to be denied that.

Smiley also writes:

“It is easy to find fault with Hardy, and readers and critics always have. A salient feature of his career, in fact, is the universal disagreement about what makes this great novelist great. Some critics fault his style; some, his vision; some, his detachment; some, his depiction of women; and some, the way he attacks or upholds certain features of Victorian life.”

Yes, exactly. As I’ve been saying, almost any dimension of the writing could just as easily be faulted as praised.

It seems to me that Hardy straddles two outlooks at once, an old and a new, and manages to frustrate the aesthetic and philosophical expectations of both. Either the book is a conventionally overheated melodrama, “alas alack” and all that, but told in a strangely sedate, dispassionate mode… or else it’s an artistically serious attempt to “realistically” capture a certain rustic milieu and certain psychological drives, but one that falls back constantly on hackneyed dramatic exaggerations. Either way, it refuses to feel natural and whole.


This has all been to say: it’s very difficult for me to say how the book was. But I can say what it was: it was a 19th-century novel!

And that’s probably the best answer to Jane Smiley’s question about what makes Hardy great: he’s great because he took the time to write 19th-century novels, in full, with all the characters and situations and themes and whatnot. A significant and honorable labor, not to be taken for granted.

The book has, as Signet’s blurb says, “classic dimension and heroic design.” Note that this is praise for form rather than content. But praise for form can be real praise. Is not the 19th-century novel as genre, as sheer form — with all the characters and situations and themes and whatnot — a great artistic achievement in itself? All cathedrals are built on pretty much the same plan, after all. Here are some nice ones. Are some of the cathedrals on that list less than masterpieces, architecturally? Do some of them have flaws and inconsistencies? In some sense, sure — but what sort of horrible spoilsport must you be to fixate on that sense? Did you get your damn narthex? Your transept? Then just say “thank you very much.”

Thank you very much, Mr. Hardy!

The things that make The Return of the Native great, in whatever sense “great” applies, are its artistic premises rather than its specifics. I come away from with my strongest impression being just how eagerly and wholeheartedly its author participates in “the project of the novel”: the vision of life as consisting of CHARACTERS in a SETTING dealing with PROBLEMS — of human affairs as a tapestry thickly woven from many individual threads, which it is our sacramental obligation to OBSERVE and DESCRIBE. The novelistic outlook is very truly his outlook, or at least it’s one in which he has distinctly devout faith.

That kind of devoutness is a gift to the reader. It feels good, much the way that it feels good simply to sit in a clean and well-decorated restaurant, regardless of the food. It is, indeed, rare enough, and rewarding enough, that I can understand why some people love this book.

But I am not one of them.


Having read the excerpt you’ll probably agree that 25-year-old Catherine Zeta-Jones was excellent casting, unlikely to be improved upon. (The movie overall looks just like it should if you turn the sound off; as soon as you turn it on you’ll see that the acting and directing are terrible.)

Speaking of which, I want to note that the original serial was illustrated! As usual, the illustrations have never been reprinted. It continues to seem wrong to me that these things, which are born as twins with the novel, can fall so far into obscurity. In this case they’re quite good, too.

The artist is Arthur Hopkins and he clearly had a thing for lighting effects. Can you blame him? I’ve extracted and sharpened the images; here are four attractive non-spoilery ones (click to enlarge):

RotN-02 RotN-03

RotN-06 RotN-05

I think these help immensely to place the action in a world of consistent and inviting tone and shadow; I wish I had been looking at them while reading.

Overall, I think encountering the novel in “Belgravia: A London Magazine” in 1878 is the ideal way to read it. Alongside The World Well Lost by E. Lynn Linton, By Proxy by James Payn, and The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins (which FYI has a floating head in it).

You’ll notice that none of them were too proud to carry the serial illustrations into the book editions. Maybe get over yourself, Thomas Hardy.


I realize I’ve said next to nothing about the actual substance of the book, its events and characters and setting. Well, that’s an honest reflection of my reading experience. The contents felt secondary to the overall question of authorial manner, which I was never satisfactorily able to resolve. I read all the words of the story, but apart from a stray scene here and there, I couldn’t figure out how to dream it. And that’s that.


Also I’m sorry to report that every time I picked up the book, I thought of this. Which can’t have helped matters.


Enough talk. Here’s what we really came for: all the covers.

007-A
CP439, 60¢, 1969.

Same layout as the original above. Yet again, the first printing has subtly different art from all subsequent printings (point of issue: the triangle of grass goes all the way down to the bottom border on the first printing only).

As for the art: the rendering of Eustacia’s dark and sensual beauty is, shall we say, underwhelming. Meanwhile, seeing as he’s been tinted red, the guy in the background is most likely Diggory Venn the reddleman. His juxtaposition with Eustacia in this composition could not be more meaningless and arbitrary.

(By the way, J.K. Rowling surely lifted the name “Diggory” from this character. Throughout my reading I had the impression that J.K. had been down this road at some point; her fondness for twisty interpersonal entanglements + rustic local color feels very Hardian.)

Typeface is Clarendon.

007-B
CT625, 75¢, 1973?
CQ722, 95¢, 1974.
CY869, $1.25, 1976?
CW1091, $1.50, 1978.
CE1252, $1.75, 1979?
CE1492, $2.25??, 1982?
??1664, $?.??, ????.

70s branding. They centered the title, which is probably a good choice, though now it’s too close to the author’s name.

007-C
CJ1796, $1.95, ????.

The centered logo.

007-D
CE1974, $2.25, 1985?
??2307, $?.??, ????
CE2471, $2.95 (later $3.50), 1990?

80s redesign; I read from one of these. Painting by Constable. Given that this book could bear having nearly any landscape painting on its cover, a bit odd that they chose this wonky-looking shmeary one. Almost every other painting by Constable is more attractive than this. Not to mention that the subject matter, and the attitude, is wrong: there are no scenic ruins in the landscape of the novel, and the romance of decay isn’t really the ethos.

Typeface is Latin 725 Bold, I think, or a very close relative. (It’s a rip-off of Méridien to begin with.)

007-E
2738, $5.95, 1999.

With a New Introduction by Jane Smiley

This painting was seen at auction in 1993 and apparently entered an image library from there, though it seems to have been pulled since. The artist is the little-known Jules-Alexis Muenier. The theatrics in his work seem a bit phony and sentimental, but his use of color is rather good. Say I. The scene here depicted doesn’t specifically correspond to anything in the book, but it still feels like a spiritual match. I’ll let them have it.

Typeface is Engravers Roman BT.

007-F
3112, $6.95, 2008.

With a New Afterword by Jeffrey Meyers

Painting is by Pál Szinyei Merse, which means that these two lovebirds are actually picnicking somewhere in Hungary, in a hayfield — but whatever.

Typeface is still Engravers Roman BT.


The original cover(s). Usually I say “original and correct,” reflecting my feeling that packaging is part of the identity of a book and really ought to be retained in perpetuity. But when a book predates the practice of printing the title on the front cover, I’m less inclined to consider its design aesthetically relevant. Like most books in 1878, this one’s design is just trying to put across “book.” Not to say the lettering isn’t nicely done.


While we’re on the subject, here are some other paintings that have appeared on the cover of this book over the years:

James Aumonier (1832–1911): The Silver Lining of the Cloud (1890) (Penguin, various times — sometimes they use the left side, sometimes the right side)
Frederick Brown (1851–1941): Hard Times (1886) (Oxford, early 90s. They later thought better of it and moved this painting over to their Jude the Obscure)
John Middleton (1826–1856): A Landscape With a Horseman (ca. 1850) (Bantam, 80s and 90s)
Artist unknown: Storm on the Heath (Penguin. The result of a Bridgeman search for “Heath,” surely.)
George Inness (1825–1894): Medfield, Massachusetts (Barnes & Noble)
John Constable (1776–1837): Old Sarum (1829) (Reclam, 1989)

Some of these paintings are attractive but none seems quite honest about the book. I think those original Hopkins illustrations get something right about “the heath” that is misrepresented by all the editions of this book that put beautiful unpeopled landscapes on the cover. Despite all the words Hardy expends in describing Egdon Heath — the entire first chapter, and many other passages besides — it is absolutely and truly a backdrop, not a secret ur-subject.

“Really ultimately the book is about the heath itself” seems to me a very 20th-century, cheap way of reading, and a fairly ubiquitous one these days. Maybe it’s a post-Freudian anxiety: we’re so suspicious of “the subconscious,” of any thought that isn’t clearly foregrounded, that we can no longer have our attention directed to a background without believing that we’re being asked to promote it.

It’s as true for me as anyone! I have an embarrassingly hard time making sense of a passage that explicitly says “I’m going to go on at some length now about the background” and really means it. I needed to see that Hopkins illustration of Eustacia standing on the heath, actually, for it to click: background is background.

A picture of some raw mushrooms and onions and sausages would make a fine cover illustration for a pizza; a picture of a pizza crust with nothing on it would not.

With that excellent and valuable analogy, I can at long last bid this entry adieu.

October 1, 2019

Game log 7-9/19

Have been thinking of retiring this log but eh, I’ll at least go to the end of the year. Why not. Still would prefer to be doing multi-paragraph entries about books and movies. If only I could consistently get my brain to stay the course! Working on it. In the meantime here are some mostly bad games I played mostly very briefly.


Last one from the “Monochromatic” Bundle.

Oquonie (2014): David Lu Linvega (= David Mondou-Labbe) (Tokyo, Japan) [2.5 hrs]

A snazzy little doodad from a couple of digital nomads. Maze-puzzle as objet d’art in classic hipster/art-school style: bold, meticulous, superficial.


March 10, 2015: I buy the three DROD games I’ve never played, on sale for $7.82 at GOG. One of them, the last and longest one, remains unplayed today, but I’m still feeling my DROD marathon of last year and think some more delay is in order, so for now I’m skipping over it; this is just to wave at it out the train window. (And I still don’t feel ready to return to that Star Wars bundle, either.)


March 17, 2015: “Humble PC & Android Bundle 12” for $3.88 gets me nine games, seven of which are new. I had played none of them until now.

Tetrobot and Co. (2013): Swing Swing Submarine (Montpellier, France) [14 hrs]

I bought the bundle just for this. A worthy sequel to Blocks That Matter, which at the time of the sale I had posted about just the previous week. Better-than-average puzzles on a smooth difficulty curve. Still quirkily tactile, albeit a bit less so. Charming, flavorful music by the same guy. Low-key and genial; suitable for all.


Titan Attacks! (2006): Puppy Games (London?, UK) [2 hrs]

It’s good old Space Invaders, with glowing faux-pixel graphics and some added structure and variety to satisfy modern expectations. Not to say it wasn’t briefly diverting, but I get the impression that this developer likes fiddling with lighting effects more than he likes designing games.


The Inner World (2013): Studio Fizbin (Ludwigsburg, Germany) [5 hrs]

Oddball cartoon graphic adventure; well-intentioned and cute to look at, but irritating to play. The wacky whimsy is all too German, and the translation is dubious (LOOK AT MOSS > “That has moss written all over it.”) Everything moves too slowly, and the nonsensical puzzles are mostly under-indicated. Kind of dumb, frankly.


Next in this bundle is Ironclad Tactics, a game so overwhelmingly not my style that I am skipping it. For now? For good? I don’t know what to tell you. See below for more on this subject.


Eufloria HD (2009/2012): Omni Systems (Folkestone, UK) [played for 1 hr]

An exceedingly boring game about conquering featureless circles by waiting for grass to grow; pitched as “relaxing,” but bland pastels and ambient synth beats aren’t my relaxation style.


Solar Flux (2013): Firebrand Games (Glasgow, UK / Merritt Island, FL) [played for .5 hr]

Irritating momentum-nudging game of collecting space dots; I think it wants to be a somber cousin to Angry Birds.


Toast Time (2013): Force of Habit (Bristol, UK) [played for 1 hr]

Cutesy “retro” arcade shooter (with a particularly deadly case of FAKE PIXELS) where you’re a toaster that bounces wildly around the screen. Has some appeal but it’s clearly a phone game not really meant for computers.



June 10, 2015: Almost three months pass with no games added to my list! Good for me! Then GOG gives away Battle Realms for free so, yes, I click on it. Free is free.

It’s a real-time strategy game about warring clans in ancient Japan. I don’t have any interest in playing that, and never did.

When I started methodically going down my list like this, it was because I really thought that by dutifully playing each and every game, I could retroactively justify my senseless acts of compulsive acquisition, and maybe broaden my palate in the process. But I’m older and wiser/dumber now, so here are some facts: 1) Acts of compulsive acquisition aren’t actually senseless, and need no justification. They’re compulsions — what’s not to understand? And dwelling on past compulsive behavior, hoping to retroactively redeem it, only makes it loom larger in my life. If you regret something, just move on, dude! 2) My palate isn’t set in stone, but come on, it’s not a magic moonbeam either. I have certain tastes! No need to deny them indiscriminately.

So okay, that’s Battle Realms.



June 15, 2015: I pay $1.00 for “Humble Indie Bundle: All-Stars” because I’ve been meaning to play World of Goo for years and I’m happy to pay $1 for it. It happens to get me two other games, one of which is new to my collection.

World of Goo (2008): 2D Boy (= Kyle Gabler and Ron Carmel) (San Francisco, CA) [7 hrs]

The best “physics game” from a moment in time when physics games were suddenly the hot thing. Build towers and bridges out of ever-sagging rubbery triangles: this is a task well worthy of having a game built around it, and you’ll know it as soon as you try your hand; it’s immediately satisfying to play with. Most physics games fail to strike the right balance between freedom and constraint, but World of Goo pulls it off. The tasks are well-defined, but because the system is so blobby and imprecise, executing any given solution always requires flexibility. And the Dr. Seuss trappings are an inspired match.


Dustforce DX (2012/14): Hitbox Team (Portland, OR) [played for 1 hr]

Looks like a platformer, which I would usually play through, but is actually just an elaborate speedrun course, which doesn’t interest me. Also the anime-like emotional tone implicit in the character designs and the music really turns me off.



Oops, off the list for a second: a game was given away for free by Indiegala on August 1 (of 2019) that looked like it might be my kind of thing, so I played it. Forgive me.

Adventures of Shuggy (2011): Smudged Cat Games (= David Johnston & collaborators) (Littleport, UK) [6 hrs?]

A game out of time: a deep stack of very mildly puzzling one-screen things to do, which is a cheerful format from 30 years ago. “Puzzle-platformers” these days usually aspire to being actually hard. This does not, though the enemy-avoidance does test one’s patience. But in a friendly way. Charming, well-executed, and inconsequential (though I suppose the “avoid your past self” rooms have some slight interest). Downright old-fashioned! Great for kids, I’d think.


And then another dinky giveaway from Indiegala distracts me on August 17.

Puzzle Chambers (2017): Entertainment Forge (= Darko Peninger) (Pančevo, Serbia) [about 3.5 hours]

Unremarkable number-placing logic puzzles but with a charmingly gratuitous narrative presentation: the puzzles are on the floor of a Saw parody scenario and little characters walk and talk their way through. I stayed with it for the freewheeling homegrown dialogue, which is sprightly and dorky and unselfconscious, as though an eager preteen wrote it.



Back to the list.

6/21/15: “Humble Jumbo Bundle 4.” $4.19 to beat the average gets me six games. A week later they add three more for a total of nine. I only bought it because I was curious about The Stanley Parable.


Outland (2011): Housemarque (Helsinki, Finland) [played for 9 hrs]

Platformer with a parity-switching mechanic, as lifted from Ikaruga. Color-swapping obstacle courses are a good idea and there are some satisfying individual rooms, but the game as a whole is bland and repetitive. It’s a fake Metroid-like; actually just a linear guided tour. Art direction is superficially competent but the atmosphere doesn’t really cohere. Also it’s all too dark to see, and the character gets too small. Yet another one where I played up to the final boss and felt no need to finish it off. Frankly I should have stopped much earlier.


Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes is an “empire-building” game in generic D&D fantasyland. I pass, without hesitation.


Mercenary Kings (2014): Tribute Games (Montreal, QC) [played for 1.5 hrs]

Lively cartoon action, excellent pixel animation in the style of Metal Slug, but ultimately this is a systems game rather than a progression game — collect collect collect! upgrade upgrade upgrade! — so it feels essentially static. The trailer tries to wow you with the overwhelming combinatoric possibilities for weapon configuration, which for me is a red flag.


Endless Space is another “empire-building” game, sci-fi this time. Keep in mind I can’t even get into Civilization. Pass.


The Stanley Parable (2013): Galactic Cafe (= Davey Wreden & William Pugh) (Austin, TX & Sowerby Bridge, UK) [3 hrs]

A clever comic performance, well worth the whole $4.19. Essentially the inversion of the Life of Brian “think for yourselves” joke: here the classic Authoritative British Narrator Voice wants to tell you a stirring interactive tale about thinking for yourself, but gets petulant when you don’t do exactly what he says. Wasn’t I just saying that choice in games wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be? Gratifying to see it punctured with such panache. Well staged and well delivered. I laughed aloud twice! Imagine that!


The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing II is a Diablo-style “Action RPG” that’s not particularly well liked. Considering that Torchlight is a beloved one of these and I didn’t even like that, I don’t think this is for me. Pass.

Screencheat has no single-player mode so that’s that. Pass.


Freedom Planet (2014): GalaxyTrail (= mostly Stephen DiDuro) (Waterloo, NY) [played for 2 hrs]

Overt Sonic the Hedgehog throwback. Well-built, but insufficiently tasty for me to want to go the distance — I never having been that much of a Sonic fan to begin with. Also the interstitial storytelling is truly unbearable, spastic furry-minded infantilism, and there is an incredible amount of it. Consider me off-put.


Coin Crypt (2013–14): Greg Lobanov (Philadelphia, PA) [played for 1 hr]

Battle using tokens in order to win more tokens, being careful never to run out of tokens. A worthy idea, but the presentation isn’t rewarding enough for me to want to put in the time learning the deck, the stats, etc. The more tabletop-like the game mechanics, the more look and feel matter to me.



September 3, 2015. A free giveaway from Indiegala:

The 39 Steps (2013): The Story Mechanics (Glasgow, Scotland, UK) [3.5 hrs]

Not a game but a so-called “visual novel,” i.e. a straight-ahead narrative presentation with nominal interactivity (e.g. “click the door to enter”) but no functional choices. The John Buchan book is a good choice of source material for such a thing, and all the illustration and audio has been done with a modicum of taste and care. The adaptation is certainly faithful and respectful. The effect is very similar to filmstrip presentations of olde: very mildly effective, and pleasantly soporific. Plenty of flaws too. I would love to see more and better work in this direction.


September 24, 2015. Free on Steam for a day, as a promotion for the remake thereof:

Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee (1997): Oddworld Inhabitants (San Luis Obispo, CA) [played for 6 hrs]

A big hit from years ago; glad to have finally played it. Attractive, tactile, atmospheric graphics with a stop-motion feel; wiggly-woggly story and character design have real spirit; gameplay distinctly superior to the rather similar Heart of Darkness. But: it is demanding, and one of its demands is a SEVEN SECOND WAIT every time you die, which happens constantly. After 6 hours of play I did not feel myself to be 6 hours into a game; more like 4 hours into a game and 2 hours of SEVEN SECOND WAIT. I really wanted to see it through but, alas, that degree of time-wastage is unendurable even for me. I wish someone had patched it to change just that one thing. Instead they remade it entirely, in ways that mostly seem to detract. A shame.


November 2, 2015. A free giveaway from Indiegala:

Litil Divil (1993): Gremlin Graphics (Sheffield, UK) [played for .25 hr]

You know the type: “half-baked, underdesigned game, but containing cartoon graphics that can be made to look good in screenshots on the box,” from the golden age of same. (A British Amiga game, in fact: the belly of the beast.) This one seems to have its charms, but still, why subject myself?


November 3, 2015 — the next day! Yet another free giveaway from Indiegala:

Lucius (2012): Shiver Games (Helsinki, Finland) [played for .25 hr]

Play as approximately ‘The Omen’ and kill your family one by one. Not sure that’s a good or tasteful concept, but I was willing to give it a chance because I’m a pushover for Mansion Horror. But this immediately reveals itself as ill-built. Feels like it has stray nails sticking out of it and I don’t want to cut myself.



Present day again! My sister tells me she saw a game she thinks I might like, and then a couple weeks later some nerds I know are all abuzz about the same game… so I say fine, it’s a sign and spend a full $14.99 to play it. Was that really advisable? Is that really something I should be doing? What can I say.

Untitled Goose Game (2019): House House (Melbourne, Australia) [3+ hrs]

Art! Not big art, but little art — which is simply to say that it makes you feel and think about things that aren’t other videogames. In a better world, that would be the baseline, but it’s not, it’s special, so let’s celebrate it. I adore the idea of responsive piano accompaniment and I’m very impressed with the execution… I just wish it hadn’t been famous classical pieces, whose vivisection I couldn’t help but find distracting. Oh well. The goose is a beaut. The situational dynamics, the emotions in play and the overall social vision, are so very much healthier and clear-headed than in most other games. The fresh air here feels like happiness offered on the level, not a sentimental escape offered to the needy. I think that’s why the game has become a sensation; it’s so immediate and obvious to anyone who touches it. I’m all for it.

August 14, 2019

Disney Canon #57: Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)

disney57-title

BETH And now we’re going to read the review.

BROOM Eventually. But we do that at the end, if you remember how this works.

BETH I thought it we did it first.

BROOM No, we talk about our thoughts first.

BETH Sorry, man, I forget the protocol!

ADAM It’s been a long time.

BROOM Three years!

BETH No, wait. Two.

ADAM It’s been… two years.

BROOM Oh yeah. Well, more than two years. Two and a few.

ADAM Well. That felt like turning out the lights on Disney Studios. It was not as bad as Chicken Little

BETH Oh, not at all!

ADAM … but it might have been the second worst.

BETH Maybe the most depressing.

ADAM It might have been the most offensive, other than Chicken Little which was hateful.

BROOM Oh, I’m not coming away with that feeling. I mean it’s not my favorite, but that’s not how I felt, so you’re going to have to talk that through.

ADAM I guess it’s just like “We have no more ideas, so let’s just gorge on the IP in the laziest, dumbest way possible.”

BROOM If you cut out the princess scene, would you still say that that’s what this movie was?

ADAM It still felt incredibly lazy.

BETH I feel like no other Disney movie has been as tied to its culture as this. And of course that’s the point—

BROOM You mean Disney’s culture, or the present-day culture?

BETH The present-day culture. It’s immediately dating itself. Even now it feels a little dated, because Tumblr doesn’t exist anymore, and Tumblr is mentioned. They had to have known that they were doing that, and they didn’t care. That’s the nature of this story. But then it doesn’t play! It doesn’t have a shelf life. Or maybe it does, I don’t know, it just feels weird because it’s so tied to… two years ago.

ADAM And also to a certain feeling about the internet. The internet has had a rough couple of years, as a cultural touchstone.

BETH Yeah.

ADAM Like, today there’s an article in the New York Times about Youtube’s algorithm…

BETH … promoting right-wing extremists.

ADAM … yeah, its rules that send you to right-wing hate groups. I mean… [sigh] I don’t know, man.

BETH It’s just that all the specifics were very specific.

ADAM And nothing worked! Oh my god, it made me so upset. BROOM, you go.

BROOM I don’t really know what to say. My thoughts while I was watching it were that it didn’t feel like the internet feels, to me. And what’s the point of making a cartoon other than to get the stand-up comedy “ha ha yeah” response of recognition? The way they embodied these things and turned them into cartoon scenes doesn’t resonate with my experience of them. On the other hand, I thought, “well, recasting some of these things that I have such a demoralizing relationship to, into cheery cartoon things, would be very welcome —”

BETH The internet’s just a mall, BROOM, it’s just a mall.

BROOM Right, so if the internet were just a partaaay! It’s a rave! It’s a mall! There’s funny people in it! Youtube is just a lady!… That would be a really good feeling! I would like that! So I didn’t want to reject it, and say “I know what the internet really is, it’s that thing that makes me feel terrible.” I felt a hope that at some point it would click in and I would feel like, “Yeah! Maybe the world is okay.” But it didn’t. And that was my complaint about the original Wreck-It Ralph: “This isn’t what videogames feel like.”

BETH I barely even remember the original Wreck-It Ralph.

BROOM At the beginning of this I was reminded of it. “Oh yeah, they live in a power strip? That’s not right. Nobody lives in a power strip. I don’t have any fantasies about the little people who live in my power strip.”

ADAM Is Inside Out the one about the feelings?

BETH Yeah, I was gonna bring that up too.

ADAM So Inside Out was a clever and imaginative and ultimately affecting movie because it was a meaningful depiction of how emotions work, and had something interesting to say about how emotions work, and why sad emotions are still valuable. And this was sort of like that — except this actually had nothing to do with how the internet worked, and was not in any way related to what it feels like to navigate the internet, and it didn’t have anything to tell you about the internet…

BETH I mean, that’s a challenge! How are they going to—

ADAM It was like “Oh, remember Inside Out? Let’s do that, but with the internet!” But then they had no ideas.

BROOM I thought it was more like they watched Toy Story and said “Oh this is so cool because it refers to, like, a Slinky, and people can say ‘Hey I know about Slinky!’, and then they come up with stuff for a Slinky to do. And the claw machine! It’s so funny because people know about the claw machine!” But they ignored the part where Toy Story was a story about a theme that they had extracted from the world of toys. Ralph Breaks the Internet ultimately was a story about giving your friends freedom even if that means feeling insecure.

BETH Allegedly, yes.

BROOM Which has nothing to do with the internet or videogames, or eBay, or whatever. It doesn’t have anything to do with the subject matter, so they just grafted a lot of references on to something that has nothing to do with them.

BETH But I think you’re talking about it in a way opposite to how they conceived it. They grafted the insecurity story on to the internet stuff.

ADAM Right, because it was made by hideous Pixar people who don’t understand how Disney movies work, and think that it’s a joke, and thought that it was funny to call Alan Menken out of retirement to make a joke song. Uggh! So upsetting!

BETH Clearly that was the most affecting part, for you.

BROOM I didn’t see, ADAM — were you in pain?

BETH Yeah, he was distraught.

ADAM Anything where they were, like…

BROOM Anything with the word “Disney” in it.

ADAM Yeah.

BETH They also tried to put a sort of feminist hero slant on the princesses at the end. “Oh, we, the women, are going to rescue him.” But that was offensive. “We’re gonna put him in a dress.

BROOM It was cheap.

ADAM Wouldn’t it be funny if Snow White had a shirt that said “Girl Power”? Ullllgh.

BROOM When they first opened that box, I thought “the whole ‘Disney princess’ phenomenon is kind of external to the actual princesses, so there’s room for comic commentary here.” And then I was waiting for it… “But, oh, seems like they don’t have any real thoughts about this. They just know that they can get points for doing it.”

BETH They’re just rehashing the talking points of other people.

ADAM It’s obvious that people at Disney thought that the scene in Hercules, where they have gear from other movies, was funny. But that’s five seconds of Hercules! They’re like, “what if that was a whole subplot!”

BROOM I was really open to interesting things they could have done with that. The Disney princesses could say “This whole ‘princess’ shtick where we live in this room together is weird, right?” Because that’s the weird thing, that they’re branded with this status and lumped together. But they didn’t want to do anything critical of the business. Just like they couldn’t be critical of eBay, Amazon…

BETH YouTube!

BROOM YouTube, although they apparently did not want to be in the movie. They were willing to have their name be said; they just weren’t willing to have their algorithm be personified.

ADAM Also, Google is in the movie but nothing happens with Google, he’s just on Google when he gets attacked by… the virus of his emotional insecurities.

BETH Because everyone really uses Ask Jeeves.

BROOM They really took on Ask Jeeves! They made Ask Jeeves look like a pretty good search engine, all things considered! “Knowmore,” it was called here.

ADAM Yeah, and Pinterest was in it… as a pin.

BROOM It should have been the Google maps pushpin. I would have much preferred that.

BETH I think Google might not have approved.

ADAM At the beginning I was like, “Oh yeah, remember your fond feelings about the friendship between Wreck-It Ralph and Vanellope?” Beloved Wreck-It Ralph and Vanellope! Sarah Silverman was annoying the first time; I never wanted to see her again. And then the whole thing is supposed to trade on your affection for these characters.

BROOM Yeah, basically another whole movie about Vanellope. That was another one of my criticisms of Wreck-It Ralph: Fix-It Felix and Wreck-It Ralph have an interesting dynamic; why not make a movie about that instead?

BETH Because they need to make a movie about a powerful woman. Let’s talk about the gay subtext!

BROOM Yeah, why didn’t she get married to Slash, or — what was her name?

BETH Shank.

BROOM I made a joke in the middle of the movie, “It’s gonna end with Vanellope marrying Shank.” And then: everything but!

BETH I just was telling BROOM earlier that I saw Hobbs & Shaw over the weekend. Do you know what that is, ADAM?

ADAM No.

BETH Do you know anything about the Fast and the Furious movies at all?

ADAM Eh.

BETH Okay. They’re famous for basically being homoerotic.

ADAM All right. Say more!

BETH You know, it’s Vin Diesel and Paul Walker, and they’re crushing on each other via cars and racing. So Hobbs & Shaw is an offshoot of that with, uh…

BROOM Jason Statham and The Rock, you told me.

BETH Yes, which is basically the same thing. It’s like they love each other but they hate each other but they love each other, and, like, there’s a woman but it’s really just about them. And I felt like that’s kind of what was happening here! Vanellope just wanted to be with Gal Gadot.

ADAM Who wouldn’t want to be with Gal Gadot.

BETH Who wouldn’t! Right!

BROOM Nobody in the story mentioned that she was hot. Sort of a weird omission.

BETH Yeah, I was waiting for it. “Because she’s so cool, and she has good hair!” I was like, “AND SHE’S HOT.”

ADAM And, like, why can’t you leave a game on the internet just like you can leave an arcade game? Why did they have to be separated forever? It’s because the arcade closes and the internet never closes?

BROOM You’re asking why they couldn’t just hang out overnight like they used to?

ADAM Yeah. Shank and her crew have down time to play basketball! This whole forced moral about friendship, which was grafted on to this stupid picaresque plot, which was not itself very interesting… At least in the original Wreck-It Ralph, some of the games were colorful and intriguing.

BETH That’s a good point.

ADAM Whereas, like, it’s so intriguing to visit eBay, which is… a checkout line. And then all the other websites were just some boxes. And then the whole plot where we’re collecting hearts? For stupid videos? That was so depressing.

BETH Your friend [who said the movie was “really sad”] was right.

ADAM It’s depressing that two hundred million hearts only gets forty-three dollars. Everything is depressing. And that there was no critique in that!

BETH Yeah, that’s the thing.

BROOM Right, that’s what hurts for me. Every scene that started, I was like, “Yeah, tell me! Tell me what the cartoon version of eBay is, because I don’t know how I feel about eBay, and the cartoon might be clarifying!” And then they turned out not have a thought in their heads, and that hurt because…

BETH Because you needed it. You feel like you need it.

BROOM I need it! Who will make a beautiful allegory of what the internet is? Who will humanize it for me?

BETH Not these guys.

BROOM Not these guys. On the other hand, I hope that this sinks into some part of my brain nonetheless. I’ll take anything I can get. The internet is so dark!

BETH Why even take this on? It’s too big! They were doomed! I feel like it was way too ambitious to even try.

BROOM So let’s get to what we were talking about before it started: Why is this a sequel? Why indeed is this a sequel to Wreck-It Ralph of all things? Why did they make a sequel to Wreck-It Ralph? It doesn’t make sense that a videogame character would go on the internet any more than anyone else would go on the internet.

ADAM They’ve been making sequels this whole time, but they’ve been straight-to-video sequels that we haven’t had to trouble ourselves with.

BROOM What do you think those princess voices have been up to for all these years?

ADAM This is not a good sign. And then Frozen 2 is coming? That’s not a good sign either!

BETH That’s where Hollywood is, now. It’s all about sequels.

BROOM I’m gonna guess that she gets the power of fire in Frozen 2. Just a guess.

ADAM They didn’t come up with a better name than Frozen 2.

BROOM There is no better name for marketing than Frozen 2.

BETH That’s right.

BROOM This should have been called Ralph Wrecks the Internet. I thought that from the first time I heard of it. I don’t understand.

BETH Because “breaks the internet” is a thing… or was a thing!

BROOM It was Kim Kardashian’s thing.

BETH Again, they couldn’t keep up with themselves. Also eBay! Not really a thing anymore!

BROOM Is that true?

BETH Yeah, eBay is dead. No one uses eBay. It’s all Etsy, or… I don’t even know.

BROOM I thought the scripting was weak, even given the story. That he was like, “Ee-oh-boy!” “Wait, say that again!” We’re gonna do this for twenty seconds?

BETH It really was twenty seconds. “Say it again!” “Eeee-boy.”

BROOM Why does he even have to hear it as “Eboy?” He could have just said: “There’s a steering wheel on the internet, so we’ve gotta get on the internet!” That would have been fine.

ADAM I don’t think there was a single quip or joke or anything that was memorable.

BROOM I laughed when the gang guy that BETH liked, he crashes in the car chase…

BETH … and he says to himself, “You still have value.” That was the only thing I thought was funny.

BROOM I laughed at one other thing, I can’t remember where, but I do remember immediately after laughing, thinking I should be embarrassed because ADAM did not think that was funny!

ADAM The idea of inserting crossover characters from Sugar Rush into an internet game called Slaughter Race is actually a good idea. Someone should do that, on the internet.

BROOM It was supposed to be Grand Theft Auto, and they said “you know what would be funny, would be to sing a princess song about how ‘I want to live in Grand Theft Auto‘”…

BETH But they didn’t pull it off.

BROOM They couldn’t go all the way there because they can’t say “prostitute.” They can’t say anything actually tawdry.

BETH Because it’s actually for children.

BROOM So they say “we’ve got scary clowns and dumpster fires.” Okay, whatever, but if this is a high/low joke about Disney being high and this game being low, that’s not really low enough.

ADAM I hope Alan Menken made a lot of money. And Idina Menzel, and Anika Noni Rose and all those voices, I hope they made a lot of money. Also: I got bored by the car racing in the first one, and then in the second one: “We’re going to the internet where there’s… more car racing.”

BROOM Yes! And obviously the real massively multiplayer online game on the internet is World of Warcraft, and that’s a rich vein. And different! But they didn’t touch it.

ADAM And then at the end, that the villain was a mindless amalgamation…

BETH Yeah, the King Kong of…

ADAM … of Ralphs.

BETH Yeah. It was gross.

BROOM I thought there was something kind of workable in that concept, that his emotional insecurities have been externalized and are now a monster. I feel like I’ve seen that before, and when they got to it I thought “well, they’re kind of squeezing the Pixar formula out of this despite itself.”

ADAM There’s a Rick & Morty about that, where they go to couples therapy.

BROOM Oh yes, yes, and that was much better.

ADAM There was much too much of silly Ralph videos, which I guess is what my nephews thought was funny when they saw this last year. When they were younger! But I don’t know — a goat with a Ralph head?

BETH Yeah, that wasn’t actually funny. It was like, oh my god, they’re just using actual memes? From now? There’s no way this is going to play! No one is going to rent this video in five years, because it’ll all feel really stale. It felt very shortsighted, to me.

BROOM I didn’t feel disgust while we were watching it. I just want to put that on the record. These Disney animated films at their best either reveal or reinforce or reflect human experiences at a deep fairy-tale level. And, yes, if you could do that about modern shit like the internet, what a gift to the world that would be! So just to make a gesture toward it, I watched the whole thing going, “oh, okay, yeah, the internet, could be one of these movies, think of that…”

BETH But at the end of the day it was just being as bad as the internet!

BROOM Yeah, it was taking the Twitter way out of everything.

ADAM Our project is exempt from the obligation to see the many live-action remakes of classic Disney films that have been coming out since Moana, right?

BROOM Oh yes.

ADAM Which none of us has any desire to see. But just the fact of that is so sad. There’s just nothing left in the barrel, if that’s what they’re doing.

BETH They’re just milking everything.

BROOM So to go to back to your first comment about that, which I think is maybe less deserved here than the other criticisms: it isn’t just an attempt to milk the IP, because — again, if so, why Wreck-It Ralph?

ADAM Yeah, it was like a half-hearted depressing doodle within a larger mishap. I agree that if you were really setting out to cynically cannibalize the IP, you wouldn’t have done it as a throwaway subplot in Wreck-It Ralph 2.

BROOM But that’s a specifically painful thing about it: that the cynicism just sort of arises naturally.

ADAM It’s like nobody even thought that that would be seen as anything other than a loving tribute.

BROOM Or just “hey maybe we’ll get some points for cynical self-reference.”

ADAM But I bet the people who put that in thought it was affectionate. It was just so bankrupt of interest. As soon as the browser pointed to “World of Disney” I was like “Ohhh god.” Ugh. Ugh. Anyway. It wasn’t as bad as Chicken Little, which was actively hateful.

BETH It was not, it really really wasn’t, by leaps and bounds.

ADAM Was it better than Home on the Range? No.

BETH Hmm…

BROOM Home on the Range was kind of funny, as I recall it.

BETH Yeah, you’re right. Because after watching it I do feel scuzzy.

BROOM Okay, again, I gotta say, I don’t feel scuzzy. I thought this had more things for me to think about than the original Wreck-It Ralph did.

BETH I just don’t think its intentions were pure in any way. I think it was trying to be “clever.” The reason I feel scuzzy is because I feel like that insecurity shit was pasted on; that was not the core of it. The core of it was “let’s make ‘the internet’ in a cartoon!” And then they were trying to ‘make it mean something.’

ADAM Because nobody had any ideas, and then somebody rewrote it.

BROOM At the end of course the credit is “Director of Story.”

BETH Also that song at the end, where they’re singing about how it feels to be a zero? No!

BROOM Maybe that’s the real commentary about the internet! “I’ll show you what it feels like to feel like you aren’t good enough for anything!”

ADAM There must have been some kind of thing that went on behind the scenes, a power struggle about what this was going to be about, and somebody lost. And that version of the song was left over from the version of the movie that didn’t make it on to the screen. But they were like “Well, we already paid Imagine Dragons!”

BETH “They wrote this for us, so we gotta use it somewhere.” Maybe. Let’s read the review!

[we now read the New York Times review]

ADAM What?

BETH No.

BROOM They thought the insecurity thing was about how we all behave online, which, hey, a better script doctor would indeed have sewn it in that way.

[we look a bit on Rotten Tomatoes to try to find a review that endorses our criticisms but don’t immediately find one]

BETH That’s so interesting. Are we so inside it that we can’t see outside ourselves, and then with even just a year’s distance, we can? Or is it what you said, BROOM, where everyone is so desperate for some commentary on this topic that they’ll take anything?

[ADAM reads an excerpt from the RogerEbert.com review that calls the princess sequence “an incredibly witty scene that wrestles with Disney’s legacy when the filmmakers could have just included another tribute to the company that pays their bills.”]

BROOM That’s exactly what it is: a tribute to the company that pays their bills. Frozen “wrestles with the legacy” much more deeply, by actually having some of its own opinions. I guess my takeaway was that they failed, but I don’t think that they were…

BETH You think their intentions were pure?

BROOM I just think it was written by young people without enough ideas, rather than people who are trying to…

BETH Rather than people who are actually cynical.

ADAM Yeah, I don’t think it was evil, I just think it was brainless.

BROOM When they started, I thought they were going to go a perfectly reasonable direction, which is to point out that it’s all well and good for them to be in an arcade, but arcades are dead beyond dead, and that place is going out of business. The whole crisis is he’s gonna unplug one machine? Guess what guys! The whole place is going under.

BETH You all better find new games.

BROOM Yeah, I thought they were all gonna go on the internet as refugees.

BETH Good idea. Maybe you should write that movie!

BROOM It hurts to be told that you’re going to be told a story, and then be told just a bunch of knee-jerk jokes.

BETH It’s interesting to me that the two reviews we read mention the Disney princesses scene as a positive, funny, witty thing, when to us that’s what seemed especially cheap.

BROOM It felt like review-bait, for reviewers to have something where they can say “I don’t want to spoil it, but something happens about halfway through the movie that really brings down the house!” Put a thing in the middle that needs mention in the third paragraph of every review.

ADAM If you think seeing Sleeping Beauty in a T-shirt that says “Can I get a snooze button?” is funny, this is the movie for you!

BROOM [paraphrasing the NYTimes review] “Who doesn’t want to see the Little Mermaid put on a T-shirt?” I don’t know: everybody? I did have a feeling during that scene of “Oh all these voice actresses are still alive, that’s nice. Jodi Benson, still doing the Little Mermaid, how nice for her.”

ADAM Well who played Snow White?

BROOM I’m sure it was Disney’s current official Snow White. Because no doubt they’ve made “Snow White 4” and “Snow White 5” for DVD.

BETH You seemed to have the most positive response.

BROOM I wasn’t angered. But I am sad. It does feel like we’ve gone through these eras — the golden age, and then the sadder times, and then it comes back in the 90s with musicals and political correctness, and then it loses its way again and we have the Chicken Little era, and then yeah, Tangled is okay, and Frozen is good, and Moana is good, and Big Hero 6, so there’s a sense of rejuvenation there… and this felt like turning yet another corner. “That thing that we do at Disney? We’re definitely gonna produce that product! But we’re a little addled, right now, so… how about this? [starts tossing random objects that are within arm’s reach] How about this? I got another present for you, I got you this!” They just ran around their house and grabbed things. And Frozen 2 sounds the same. “Oh I totally brought you something!” and then rummaging around in your pocketbook.

ADAM John Lasseter is out of a job now.

BROOM Huggy Bear. [ed.: he means “Lots-‘o-Huggin Bear”]

ADAM When did that happen? Since this movie came out.

BROOM Certainly since this movie was made, anyway.

ADAM Yeah because he’s billed as top brass in this movie. Maybe it was just a weird time at Disney.

BETH Or for the country, or the culture, or all of it! I do think that this president has had an effect on art.

BROOM Psyches, yeah. I don’t think that America has responded well, artistically, to a time a of moral crisis.

BETH It takes time.

ADAM It’s too early.

BROOM You really need to digest it first.

BETH Yeah. And then you respond.

BROOM I feel like we’ve got so many Aaron Sorkins who are willing to jump up on the third day and say “I know how to respond to this!” Like David Mamet buzzes in immediately, BZZZ! “I’ve written a play!” And they don’t really know anything about it. And I’m still waiting to see a story…

BETH Yeah, you’ll get it in ten years.

BROOM …a story that reminds me that I’m a person even when such things happen.

ADAM Perhaps you enjoyed the hit Broadway play “Hillary and Clinton.”

[discussion ensues about what this show was, and who was in it, and then about whether any of us have functioning memories]

ADAM Toni Morrison was asked at one point if she had any advice for young writers, and she said “Wait til you’re forty.”

BETH This is our year!

ADAM Yeah. Our country needs us!

BROOM Hey, joke but no joke. If you have digested the current moment and experienced it at a poetic narrative level, bring it!

BETH Please. We’re all ears.

BROOM I’m really eager for that. And I don’t know why I would have expected that from Ralph Breaks the Internet, but… You know, the internet is its own crisis. Even if the president were whatever her name was, Hillary Clinton, we would still be living in a time of moral crisis.

ADAM I think the moral crisis aspect of modern life can be mitigated just by removing yourself from the historically unprecedented access we have to all things, which is to say the internet.

BROOM Yeah, and they didn’t address that. Well, she did say one line: “It’s very big.”

BETH It’s true that what they saw was entirely commerce-based, and not even about, like, Wikipedia.

ADAM There was an email train going by; that was about the only communication that was happening.

BROOM And the absolute stratification between totally pristine, clean, CGI fantasy, and then the “bad part of town” which was literally just a cliché bad part of town.

BETH I did kind of like Spamley, or whatever his name was.

BROOM Yeah, and who was that voice?

ADAM It was a name we didn’t recognize. [ed.: actually it was Bill Hader]

BETH I liked his old New York style: “Nyaaaaaah… wanna see a dirty pictcha?”

BROOM I liked “why don’t you come over to my website — oh sorry it’s a mess.” That was one of the moments where there was a spark of “that is a little like the internet.”

ADAM I find myself doing the “Nyaaaaaah, wise guy, eh?” voice as a joke a lot lately, and Mark has no idea what I’m talking about or why I’m doing it. And frankly I have no idea what I’m talking about or why I’m doing it.

BROOM Kids today just don’t appreciate Edward G. Robinson anymore! It seems like since 2011 or 2012, you just don’t hear kids talking about Edward G. Robinson.

BETH But then why is anyone inclined to do it?

BROOM Nyaaaaah, ’cause it’s a great voice, is why!

ADAM I’ve of course never seen an Edward G. Robinson movie.

BETH Yes you have!

BROOM You’ve seen The Ten Commandments.

ADAM No I haven’t. All I’ve ever seen is Tiny Toons.

BETH Oh, sure. You only know parodies. Haven’t you seen Double Indemnity?

ADAM No.

BROOM What’s “is this the end of little Rico? [sic]” What movie is that?

BETH I don’t know. See, we’re all pretty ignorant.

[ed.: it’s Little Caesar (1931), guys]

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