Monthly Archives: July 2006

July 26, 2006

Broken Sword II: The Smoking Mirror (1997)

directed by Charles Cecil
written by Dave Cummins and Jonathan Howard
story and design by Charles Cecil, Dave Cummins, Jonathan Howard, and Steve Ince

developed for PC and PlayStation by Revolution Software
published for PC by Virgin Interactive Entertainment

~8 hrs

Another ridiculous piece of pulp from the waning days of the computer adventure game. As usual, I played it in search of pearls of game design, plot design, or puzzle design. But there were none to be had. I’m currently trying to piece together a pulpy Indiana Jones-type plot of my own, and my specific hope was that this game would spark some thought processes in that direction. But it didn’t.

I don’t need to complain at any length about the difference between junk and careless junk, because I have before. This was careless junk. The plot and game elements seemed to have been thrown into a salad spinner and left where they landed, then stitched together using the laziest possible game design. That is to say, a lot of “conversations” – click on the icon of an object or person you’ve encountered to ask about it. About 50% of the spoken dialogue in this game is myriad variations on the classic line “I wouldn’t know nothin’ about that!” – one per object per speaking character. When games went “talkie,” few game designers seemed to have considered that it takes a lot longer to listen than to read, and that listening to half-assed dialogue being spoken slowly is a huge drag compared to speed-clicking through half-assed printed text. The sub-adolescent sub-greeting-card sub-Bazooka-Joe “cracks” about every stupid object in the game – that underpants are a recurrent source of humor ought to give you a sense – are incredibly wearying, not to mention embarrassing, when performed by actual humans. A further source of weariness is the incredibly, infuriatingly slow walking animation that propels your character from one point of interest to another. Of the 8 hours that I’m estimating to have spent with this game, the majority of them were spent watching my choices play out in excruciatingly uneventful detail, one foot in front of the other, or else listening to every character in the game say, about every object in the game, “Gosh, a newspaper article about an upcoming total solar eclipse? I wouldn’t know nothin’ about solar eclipses!” This problem of “what do you actually do” is fundamental to all story-meets-game productions, but by 1997 there was enough accumulated wisdom on this subject that the designers should have known far better.

The actual downright incoherence of some sections of the game is evidence, to my eye, that this product was rushed to market, or else the budget was reduced after the design phase. Both the introduction and the ending are animated sequences that felt like just slightly less than a bare minimum, as though most of the storyboard had been pared away in desperation. At some points, a thing we haven’t yet heard about is suddenly assumed to be common knowledge: evidence of either a cut section or insufficient playtesting. Either way, shoddy stuff.

Plot: When the solar eclipse comes, an evil Mayan god will be released from a SMOKING MIRROR where he’s been imprisoned for centuries, and destroy all mankind, and that’s what the evil smuggler/general wants because he’s crazy or something. There are several sacred stones that can stop it from happening, and then the bad guys kidnap you because you have one, and then you get away, figure out what’s going on, find the other stones – one was buried by a pirate, the other is in the British Museum – and stop it. Hm. In summary it sounds almost like it works. But I assure you it doesn’t. The causal linkages suggested by my summary are not actually part of the gameplay.

The evil god, when he appears briefly in the final animated sequence, looks like Skeletor, which is to say not even remotely Mayan. That’s the last straw!

The previous game, Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars – or, as I bought it on its US release back in 1996, Circle of Blood (awesome!) – suffered from the same slow-walking, lame-talking problems, but the whole production felt much more cared-for, and the plot progression managed to be genuinely entertaining. The third game in the series (Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon (2003)) improved on the walk-cycle annoyance with a newfangled, fairly attractive 3D engine, and managed to keep the comedy at a good solid 12-to-14-year-old level – and, most importantly, it had a sense of atmosphere. Ridiculous as the word “taste” is in these surroundings, it really comes down to taste. Some of this crap is the good stuff and some isn’t. Is a skeletal Mayan god trapped in a magic mirror more stupid than a Templar conspiracy to harness cosmic energies? Absolutely it is.

What’s the lesson to learn here? That in writing my own bit of junk, I should be careful not to confuse the dumb with the merely stupid. Harder than it sounds! My sympathies do go out to Charles Cecil and company. But they failed. I guess the moral should be: Stupid is fine, but when in doubt, be smarter.

July 25, 2006

Harry Potter and the [Several Things] (2000-2005)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005)

by J.K. Rowling

Goblet of Fire, book four, was the best one. It had the feeling of being really comfortable with its own terms, like a sitcom that’s finally hit its stride.

There’s that comfort-pleasure we get from fictional characters being recognizably themselves; the warmly, status-quo-affirmingly formulaic joke that’s supposed to elicit an “Oh, Chandler!” Not the most edifying sort of pleasure; there’s something sleepy and doughy and stupid about reassurance-entertainment. It’s like the heat rising off a sleeping person’s body. But it is nonetheless a very desirable commodity, and it is not easily earned.

Though in our desperate need for comfort we sometimes try to snatch it out of thin air. This guy who visited my roommate in college actually said, with fond exasperation, “Oh, [Chandler]!” about a friend of ours that he had not yet met. I am tempted to use the word “American” in talking about what’s so sad about this pathetic over-readiness to be sleepily comfortable with a sitcom-life, but I don’t really believe in making pronouncements about national identity like that. Still, I bet they don’t do that sort of thing in China. For example.

In re: the fifth book. The first time I read it, I think I was dismayed by what seemed at the time like a nerdy, undeserved emphasis on characters less essential, less earned. Just like my impatient annoyance as a third grader finding that “Eowyn” and “Theodred” and so forth, introduced long after exposition time had come and gone, were actually going to figure in the plot. As if! Furthermore, my degrading memory had wiped away several secondary characters, especially those introduced in book three and then played down in book four, like “Sybil Trelawney” and “Remus Lupin.” It’s dismaying to return in search of the warm sitcom glow and realize that you’re watching an episode from that off-key season where they have a monkey.

On this read, however, “Cornelius Fudge” and even “Bellatrix Lestrange” still meant something to me, and as a result the book seemed less arbitrary and, you know, Trekkie. Nonetheless, by book five, a calculating soapiness has crept into the plotting. I’m not complaining about the kids flirting and dating each other – that stuff’s fun, particularly when it’s indulged at length in the sixth book – I’m talking about the main storyline, which becomes increasingly crabbed and finicky as the series plays out. Considering that she started with the broadest possible mythical strokes – young chosen one vs. legendary evil – she’s certainly worked herself into a lot of loopholes and thumb-twiddling. The recurring and confused issue of House-Elves typifies the way she’s maybe let her imagination run in too many different directions at once.

This state of affairs is reinforced, if not actually worsened, by book six, in which she systematically demystifies the bad guy and literally breaks the threat into a series of technicalities. It’s too late to be disappointed at this turn in the series, which has been happening gradually all along. Like I said about book three, it feels like she’s constantly working out clever solutions to having been backed into a corner. There are worse forms of entertainment. For my part, I find this sort of plotting inspiring to read – if I ever have to solve these problems, it tells me that there are always solutions and everybody will love them even when they’re complicated. Plus, the very ubiquity of the franchise makes it exciting to find out what happens next, since it involves us in a worldwide phenomenon – another “American” line of reasoning, there.

This last book owed the most obvious debt of any of them to The Lord of the Rings, if you ask me. I could swear it included a couple of shots described directly from the recent movie versions thereof. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; fantasy is all in good fun and good fun is community property. But it’s more satisfying to tour this funhouse when you can’t still hear the echoes of the group in front of you, if you know what I mean.

Hey, you know what was pretty good when I was in fourth grade? Those Lloyd Alexander books.

July 22, 2006

My Dinner With Andre (1981)

directed by Louis Malle
written by Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn

One problem with the Netflix approach to movie-watching is that everything is part of a grand checklist, which can be deadening. In thinking back over my response to this movie it seems like the greater part of it was “I’m finally seeing My Dinner With Andre!” and that’s no good. I remember trying to write up a review of Die Hard a few years ago and realizing that my sense of checklistic satisfaction at finally having seen Die Hard completely overwhelmed anything I might have thought about the actual stupid movie.

That’s not to say that My Dinner With Andre doesn’t have anything more to offer than Die Hard; far from it. But my received knowledge about what goes on in My Dinner With Andre was pretty accurate; the movie was, for me, just the fleshing-out of the potential, secondhand My Dinner With Andre that I had already had outlined for me by pop cultural reference and, I think, by my dad telling me about the movie. So it didn’t have a lot of punch to it. But I’m certainly glad I saw it. Not only because now I’ve seen it, but because of the principle that makes the movie work in the first place: being present while a conversation plays out is intellectually engaging in a way that is not lessened by the conversation’s being on film – or, in my case, by one’s already knowing roughly what the conversation is about.

One thing that did surprise me was how simple the scripting was. There was no particular attempt to simulate the complicated back-and-forth of a real conversation; the two characters each offer their thoughts in a fairly stylized, formalized alternation. Maybe that’s how some people conduct conversations, or maybe the hocket I’m used to is more of a contemporary phenomenon than I imagine. I know it’s pretentious to say “hocket” but I’m proud of having thought of it, and if it’s new to you, then you just learned a cool word. But… right, that seems unlikely. People used to interrupt each other just as much as we do now, didn’t they? It’s so hard to be confident about a thing like that when one’s impression of the past is almost exclusively formed from works of fiction, which have always been, and for the most part continue to be, markedly unrealistic in their depiction of actual human speech.

And this was fiction too, so I ought not have be surprised. But I was a little surprised, since it was a formal experiment about the experience of intellectual engagement and exchange that arises from conversation; you might think that would be dependent on the rhythms of “real” conversation. But it still worked, just in a slightly broader, more theater-based way. Ultimately, this captured two major things about conversations: the way they can suggest a wider interrelatedness of everything under discussion by assimilating digressions and reactions, and the way that they are fundamentally driven by the confrontation between two different points of view. But the formal side of the experiment – the “it’s just this conversation” factor – didn’t seem to have been worried over very much. It was left up to the viewer to think about that aspect of it; the movie was neither coyly pointed or grittily “real” about it. In fact there’s a strange quasi-magical gesture at the end where the restaurant has mysteriously emptied around them without their noticing. It was hard for me to figure out how that sort of thing fitted into the “here’s a conversation we had” package. Again, more of a theatrical than filmic approach to the question of a dinner conversation. So that stuff surprised me.

Another thing that surprised me about the movie, slightly, was how fast-and-cheap-looking it was. A lot of badly-matched lighting and such.

As for the content: the movie could work just as well, or better, with fewer of Andre’s stories and a little more interchange of ideas; one’s sense of involvement rises considerably once they are trying to express something to one another, whereas most of what Andre says, at least in the first section, is mere storytelling. If you are like me (or like Wallace Shawn, or like almost anything other than Andre Gregory as here depicted) and not initially inclined to find the details of these stories specifically compelling, this section clearly goes on several stories longer than it needs to get “the gist” across.

As I’m writing this I’m thinking about one of my problems with theater. It seems like the attitude motivating a lot of what happens on the stage is “people are interesting because they’re people, they go deep and even the insignificant things they say resonate if you are listening closely,” but then the people to whom we are meant to bring this attention are fake people who only go as deep as they’ve been programmed to go. It’s a question of finitude vs. infinitude, one that, you’ll pardon me, I relate to the problem of contemporary video-games. I can’t play these new games, these truly vast games where the selling point is something like, ahem, “you could explore the game-world for hours and hours and not even encounter the main quest” – and I can’t play them because this is a gogglingly enormous finitude, not a real infinitude, and being aware of that, I will be subconsciously aware that a partial exploration of what its creators have to offer is incomplete. The idea of a vast offering is meant to appeal to the desire for an inexhaustible entertainment, but players are unshakeably aware, deep down, that they are still within the realm of exhaustibility. Reading some Borgesian book with no end would be an incredibly different experience from reading a book that advertizes itself as “so long that you’ll probably never finish it!” Of course we’d still want to try to finish it.

Finitude is a crucial feature of our notion of an artwork because it allows one to identify one’s experience as having been of that artwork and not of something else, or of only a part of that artwork. If artworks could not be closely correlated with the experiences they elicit, those experiences could not be clearly said to be of those artworks and so would be difficult to distinguish from experiences of real-life stimuli. If art is valuable because it is created, because it is filtered through human consciousness – that is to say, if a painting of a sunset is not necessarily just a poor subsitute for a sunset – a great part of what makes it appreciable as such is that it is bounded. Photography, which borrows its substance as directly as possible from the real, non-art world, is knowable as art because it is bounded.

I seem to be wandering toward what ought to be the long-delayed follow-up to this old posting. I guess I’m just going to go there now under the unrelated heading of My Dinner With Andre. Most video games – any formalized interactive make-believe, but video games are the best example – are ostensibly mimetic*. That is, they portray people doing things, and our interaction consists of variously influencing those people or things. But that mimetic veneer is so thin that I would say it’s irrelevant to our experience. I mean, a plumber who punches bricks, kicks turtles, and eats mushrooms and flowers? Obviously that’s all garbage. The fact that “abstract” games like Tetris feel more or less like interchangable kin with “mimetic” games like Super Mario Whatever makes clear (to me) that a player is interacting directly with the mechanics and disregarding the incoherent stab at mimesis. No man is Pac-Man. I would argue that even in story-oriented games – adventures and role-playing games and whatever – the player is always directly aware of the underlying engine. How many objects can you carry at once, and how many moves before the monster wakes up? These things feel like variables, not life. If there is a mimetic element, it is conjoined with these mechanics and offers a place for another part of the mind to vacation while the game is played, but it is distinct.

This is all to say that playing a video game is unlike being in the situation depicted.** An infinite video game, therefore, is as fanciful and undesirable as an infinite painting. After a while you feel disoriented by this monstrous painting and just want out. (Unlike life, one hopes.) An enormous painting, however, can impress by its hugeness. When I read À la recherche du temps perdu, I told people that I had come to terms with its enormity by just thinking of it as infinite and taking it in small doses as it pleased me. But obviously I was still aware of its finitude; otherwise I might well simply have stopped. Dealing with infinity is like dealing with a habit, not with an object. Soap operas are infinite, and it is the ritual event of watching, rather than the cumulative content, that drives their viewership. The cumulative content of a soap opera over any large span of time is generally contradictory and inassimilable.

I am thinking of all sorts of counter-examples and complications as I try to straighten this out. An amusement park is exhaustible (“let’s go on every ride!”), yet the actual experience had there is so personal and intermingled with reality that the offering feels unbounded. A game like Pac-Man is known to be infinite, but is practically (and intentionally) bounded by the player’s capacity. Still, a player who is skilled enough to play infinitely will only play toward the unknown but assuredly finite endpoint of a high score or a world record or whatever; actual infinite play has no appeal whatsoever. Life is bounded by death but savoring real-life experience doesn’t feel informed by that finitude except under morbid or pointedly philosophical conditions; real-life, despite its infamous finitude, is the “infinite” experience to which I am contrasting artistic experience. But perhaps that illusion of infinite life (and the resulting sense that art is distinguished from life by its finitude) is specific to this era, or this culture, or my segment of the population defined in some other terms.

Well, enough. To bring it back to where it started – for one reason or another, despite all possible examples to the contrary, I feel convinced, at this point in time, that: life offers infinity; art doesn’t. When art purports to have enriched itself by incorporating the infinite, it seems to me confused. The only way art can truly incorporate the infinite is by leading us back to life itself rather than by encapsulating it. A huge video game is never going to lead back to real life – it’s a video game! – so in this sense it is bounded. Any suggestion that infinity lives within those bounds is either false and disregardable, in which case we have a game that begs to be exhausted but makes unthinkable demands on our time (check!), or else we have an infinity that is trivial and to be avoided as a habit, as with soap operas. In theater, there are several roads by which the art might lead us back to life in a profitable way, and thereby to inexhaustible potential significance, but these must be out-roads. A character in a play who says seven lines is only seven lines deep. A person in life who says those seven lines has infinite potential significance. For a play to benefit from that infinitude, it must resign itself to merely pointing toward that significance rather than containing it. The limited clay of a play can be molded into either a decorative shape, a very shallow bowl, or an arrow pointing toward the bottomless bowl of life. The shallow bowl, which purports to put a premium on depth, tends to seem pretentious and wasteful compared to the arrow.

Oh good lord, do I really think that? Obviously not. I’ve tangled myself terribly here. Plus this really doesn’t apply to My Dinner With Andre, where the “out-roads” back to real life were entirely conscientious and obviously the point. Except for when his stories went on too long. Okay. I think that was what I wanted to say. I should have saved all this video game crap for another time after all. Someone please help me end this mess.

Oh look, it’s over! Thanks for your help with that.

* I’m using it!
** A good rebuttal to this would be that, actually, a wide variety of games are very much like being in the situation depicted – flight simulators, first-person war games, and so forth. Good point. Nonetheless the point holds that the experience of playing these games is entirely distinct from living; flight simulator-ers might hope not to “crash” the “plane,” but the fact of interaction has not confused them into actual fear, the way a dream would. They are still participating in artifice. Furthermore, the screen may resemble a cockpit and the sorts of choices a player must make might be analogous to those made by a pilot, but the player still knows that this is so only because it has been programmed this way. For example, a flight simulator might be described as “totally realistic except for the trees, which you can fly right through” – surely the player does not think of these mysterious trees as being of some other “type” from the rest of the simulation. If things are comparable to life, it is because of the talent of the artist, and everyone is always aware of this. There’s no trompe l’oeil in video games, just as there’s no trompe l’oeil in life.

July 10, 2006


This is a no-frills sonatina movement. The first couple phrases got in my head on the subway and I wrote them and the rest down with as little reflection as possible, always trying to go for the most obvious solution. Right now it seems like the only way for me to keep things from getting too absurd or too condensed is to write very fast and freely resort to cliches. With that in mind, I am proud to have rounded off a complete movement that does what it’s supposed to do, utterly insubstantial though it may be.

The style here is, as usual, “things I think I heard in Stravinsky, but less tasteful.” Actually, this seems to me to be a secondhand imitation of Stravinsky, by way of some of the lesser American composers in the 40’s. If I consciously had anyone in mind, it was, believe it or not, Gail Kubik, whom you may know, if you know me personally, as the guy who wrote this score. I also have copies of a sonatina and a sonata he wrote, as well as a collection of short occasional pieces. I’d post the scores here but it’d be copyright violation, despite their being quite difficult to find nowadays and certainly impossible to purchase new. Maybe someday I’ll feel reckless and just post them. Anyway, they all sound kinda like each other, and my little sonatina movement sounds a little like them all. To me, at least.

Here’s the audio of my piece.

There’s a score but it’ll take me a while to clean it up, get all the accidentals to be pretty, and put in markings and whatnot. I don’t feel like doing that now, but I’ll do it eventually and put it here.

July 9, 2006

The Paradine Case (1947)

directed by Alfred Hitchcock
screenplay by David O. Selznick
based on the novel by Robert Hichens (1933)
adapted by Alma Reville

125 min.

Traumatically boring. You always hear stories about bigshot producers (like David O. Selznick) throwing their weight around and bullying directors into changing storylines, casting different actors, etc. Always the idea in these stories is that some kind of thickheaded, cigar-chomping “I know what I likes” sensibility ends up getting dumped all over the helpless art. This movie was written by Selznick, so you could think of it as a sort of perfect realization of that producerial sensibility. It was certainly thickheaded. The funny thing is that Selznick’s idiotic screenplay has none of that good stuff that the cigar-chomping producers are supposed to like – sex, violence, spectacle, happy endings, etc. It was as though the challenge of simply making those things happen was too much for him. A great deal of the dialogue consists of people stating what we’ve just seen, like in a radio play, or discussing the plot situation as it stands. You could feel Selznick’s frustration as he tried to wrap his mind around what the hell people might do or say to each other, like the scene on Seinfeld when they sit down to write their sitcom screenplay and immediately agonize… until they have a breakthrough and decide to have the first character say “Hello” and the second character respond with “Hi.” Which is funny because not only is that worthless dialogue, it’s also bad dialogue. This movie was all like that; people saying needless things to each other and saying them awkwardly.

The photography was more stylish and intelligent than this material deserved, which is saying nothing, and which unfortunately redeemed the film not at all. I don’t know how it could have been redeemed, and it doesn’t seem like Hitchcock cared to try; looks like he just made the movie and got his paycheck. The idiocy of the script was so apparent to us that I have to assume he was well aware of what he had on his hands, but who knows.

This was off the on-demand movie service. It is interesting to note, we observed, that the plot of Jagged Edge, the last on-demand movie we watched, is essentially identical. I’d say that Joe Eszterhas had intentionally borrowed it except why on earth would he have done that? The point is: we picked the same stupid movie twice!

This movie includes a scene where Charles Laughton, as a leering, flabby old judge, fixes on the bared shoulder of his friend’s wife and begins making a creepy, drunken pass at her, sitting next to her and taking her hand. I was forcibly reminded of this. Isn’t Charles Laughton perfect casting? But his dialogue wasn’t as good.

July 5, 2006

King Kong (1933)

directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack
screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose
after an idea by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace

One paragraph about King Kong (1933). Cooper apparently said that the idea of a giant ape threatening New York City came to him in a dream and it was that dreamlike craziness that struck me this time. I mean, an enormous monkey? I wanted to pretend that I was a first-time viewer who didn’t know what this “Kong” was going to be – the build-up to his first appearance gives away only that he will be something terrible and powerful – but I have to assume that Kong’s monkey-dom was a non-secret even in 1933, given that he appears on all the posters. Still, in the moment where suddenly we see what she sees – a surreal, jerky, monstrous gorilla with a hypnotic stare – the movie takes a huge leap forward in force of personality. Up until that point, all genre indications point to a typical kidnapped-by-the-natives-and-fed-to-the-volcano plot. But the giant monkey staring into the camera tells us that the movie is not about that or anything else; it simply must be taken on its own terms. That’s still exciting today, even though every scene in the movie is now familiar. Dinosaurs fighting, a Broadway theater, the top of the Empire State Building… it defies any conventions of plot or formula; each sequence arises out of its own sheer need to exist and is the more involving for it. I think of Nabokov writing (I forget where) about the complete vitality of fairy tales, the way that each element of the storytelling retains its full savor. On the other hand, these particular elements – dinosaurs, Broadway and so forth – are recognizably all part of the 30s imagination, and the fact that some musty “Weird Tales” mindset may be the only thing that holds them together becomes another delectable aspect of the experience.

Second paragraph is just extras. The whole thing is just so junky, but done with such panache. It makes me happy to think that nobody really seems to want to say a word against King Kong – sort of like it makes me happy when I hear non-junky people praising junk food; those pleasures that draw us to non-nutritional things are real and it feels good to acknowledge and endorse them as a part of the human experience. I think that’s the main thing that drives the cult of dignifying and mythologizing Hollywood* – the idea that this stuff might be worthy of dignity is immensely reassuring. The recent DVD looked wonderful. Fay Wray is a lot more appealing onscreen than she would seem to be from still photographs. I’ve heard people go on about how great and important Max Steiner’s score is, but for my money it was plodding and unimaginative. The recent remake, in retrospect, had more thought behind it and, obviously, fancier thrills, but was lacking that sense of actual craziness. I personally came away from the actual craziness more delighted, because it’s so much harder to be critical of actual craziness, but I could understand someone who felt, given the roller-coaster aspirations, that bigger and more sentimental was actually better. But not me; on its own scale, and its own way, this was the more unambiguously satisfying experience.

* e.g. see: TCM, AMC, or any Oscar broadcast.

July 3, 2006

Wholphin: Issue I

Winter 2005-2006

I already said a few general words about this little DVD magazine. Just wanted to briefly (read: at great length) address the actual contents.

This is not the order in which the DVD menu compels one to watch them, and thus is not the order I watched them. It’s the order they’re listed on the website, which, incidentally, has now made three of the pieces available in their entirety.

Al Gore Documentary directed by Spike Jonze. 13 min.

Like this one. Click here to watch it. Certainly this is an interesting and historically noteworthy chunk of footage. I guess Spike Jonze’s contribution has been to edit it in such a way that we don’t feel he’s pushing any sort of message or ideology on us. It successfully allows us to feel that weird sense of intimacy one gets from being warmly welcomed inside some stranger’s house. Gore comes across, to me, as someone who really doesn’t know how to present himself and only in the abstract understands this to be a problem. Which is a little touching and a little sad. Maybe that’s what his campaign could have used, I don’t know, but I’m not of the mind that this little video would have turned the election. On the other hand, that’s the strange thing about our media-driven elections; a well-placed tuna-fish sandwich can throw the balance. As the old saying goes. But it’s still hard for me to imagine this idiot impressionable voter that pundits are always talking in terms of – like, if you thought it was a problem that Al Gore was stiff, this video shouldn’t change your mind, because he is stiff, on this video as much as anywhere else. But apparently, campaigns can sell discomfort more generally and irrationally than that. If he’s stiff, maybe that means he doesn’t love his family or watch movies or bodysurf. Oh, it doesn’t? Well then!

People get uncomfortable with candidates because they imagine them to be fully knowable; they extrapolate a grotesquely insufficient human being, working only from the single data point of the public persona and extending it to cover everything. When we see one of those crabs get exposed by the waves, then shimmy back into the sand and out of sight, we think, “Well, I can’t see him anymore, but I know what he’s up to. Same thing he was doing when I could see him.” But politicians aren’t crabs; they’re people, and under the sand they probably own VCRs and whisks and whatnot. If it’s true that the citizenry would have found this to be refreshing news, then this, yes, could have been an important video. But maybe this is all a fake, right? Acclaimed director Spike Jonze is just messing with us. What’s Gore really like? Either you believe in the existence of reality or you don’t, but a video isn’t going to help you trust. That’s what I’m saying.

Soldier’s Pay directed by David O. Russell. 11 min.

I haven’t seen Russell’s Three Kings (1999), but part of the point seems to be that the true story in the present documentary resembles the story in Three Kings. This was just talking heads but it still managed to rub me the wrong way. The story, about American soldiers stealing millions of dollars in cash from an evacuated Iraqi home, is what it is, and the soldiers are who they are, and that’s interesting as far as it goes. But underlying the existence of the film at all is the implication that through this proudly unflinching look at the moral grayscale of war, big corruption is getting skewered. And maybe this really is a slam-dunk case of hypocrisy, but that wasn’t totally clear from these brief interviews. More to the point, as a viewer, I felt like I was being asked to enjoy the slam dunk and also admire the fact that this documentary was too respectful, and too real, to slam or dunk anything. Am I just a cranky jerk? I think that given the context, on a hip DVD next to a Turkish sitcom played for kitsch value – see below – I was more sensitive to attitude than to content. It was interesting enough content for 11 minutes. It should be noted that this was an excerpt from a longer short film (35 min.) which I see is properly called Soldiers Pay (2004). That is, without the apostrophe, so as to allow the pun. Exactly like Finnegans Wake. (1939).

Grimm’s Tales 2: Death of the Hen directed by Brian Dewan. 16 min.

I thought this was cute. Maybe deadpan is easy and I should go harder on it – I think Beth did – but I liked the idea and I liked the execution. It was a classroom-style filmstrip, presented as a filmstrip, with the narrator making a “boop” every time the frame was supposed to advance. The story was this, from the Brothers Grimm collection. The cock and the hen set out about their business but the world throws a confused string of complications in their path until eventually everyone is dead. Aarne-Thompson type 2021! The guy’s illustrations were clumsy but in a committed and thus effective way. I think he’s on to something with this filmstrip idea. The deadening formality of filmstrip presentation, well known to fifth-graders, which completely smothers and mutes the potential awe of any grandly important subject – solar eclipses, or the evolution of mankind, or whatever – meshes perfectly with that sense of strangely muted, formalized horror one finds in fairy tales. Why did all these animals have to go through this maddening series of fairy-tale-ish trials just in order to die? What is that vague threat in the air? Just like fifth grade. I like thinking about the worry in fairy tales and the worry in elementary schools, and I liked this piece for making that connection in its quiet way.

I just found this page about a 2003 exhibition at a nearby gallery – a gallery where, it so happens, I once saw a show of my second-cousin-once-removed’s work – of this guy’s filmstrips, presented in a little classroom they set up. To me this is charming and I wish I had been there. I like exhibitions that manage to have an element of make-believe or the surreal but without actually making any pretense to being important in some way that everything that goes on in a gallery clearly is not. Unassuming peculiarity. At least from this piece, this guy seemed genuinely unassuming. It says he’s a musician, and I’d be interested to hear his music.

Are You The Favorite Person Of Anybody? directed by Miguel Arteta; written by Miranda July. 4 min.

Like I said – and said before that too – I think Miranda July means it, so I don’t mind. So far I still like her thing. I like that this little movie has the setup and rhythm of a comedy commercial, except it’s not selling anything; it’s not even selling any particular punchline or non-punchline. It’s just a little bit of dialogue. It doesn’t have a lot of thought behind it, but what thought it does have it keeps hidden, which allows us to feel that the process of feeling our way to the place where she began, in writing it, has been worthwhile.

What I like about Miranda July’s thing is that she embraces flakiness, but always seeming to have approached it from the direction of non-flakiness. The question of whether to allow oneself to embrace flakiness is always going to be a troubling one, and it’s heartwarming to see someone saying “flakiness is so great!” and yet not have to worry that they only think so because they’re irredeemably flaky. She seems to be espousing a tone of thought that is not usually endorsed by people capable of succeeding, as she has, in the real world. That’s why the question is: is she sincere? Because even in this internet age, it’s surprising to think that a sincere expression of flaky warmth can reach from a stranger all the way to me. Much more likely that it’s coming from a spammer in Nigeria. So one has to be wary. But since that very point – about the myriad possibilities for, yet unlikeliness of, connection – was the recurring theme of her movie, and sort of of this short, and certainly of that website, I believe she is sincere. And I’m all for that. Plus it’s only 4 minutes long.

The Writer directed by Carson Mell. 3 min.

You can watch this at the website too. There’s not a lot to this and I get a slightly distasteful vibe off it, but it is kind of funny. The best thing in it is the lion drawing, which he apparently found in a yearbook, so don’t give him credit for that. His actual drawing style and subject matter seems like a practiced imitation of both Dan Clowes and Charles Burns. I couldn’t find the Dan Clowes picture of the guy with the creepy things coming out of his eye sockets just like in this movie, but, anyway, it exists.

The Big Empty directed by J. Lisa Chang and Newton Thomas Siegel. 21 min.

This sucked. It was a performance of everything that’s wrong with the McSweeney’s brand. A lot of money and love went into making the production design look like the equivalent of the McSweeney’s layout – that is, ostentatiously restrained. As for the content, after letting slip the phrase “toxically asinine,” I will let imdb user alpi wan kenobi from Turkey do the talking for me.

This movie is about Alice’s vagina and other characters around her. She has pain in her vagina and during examination very cold tundra place is found in it. During movie a lot of characters( doctor, Eskimo’s, scientists) is entering in her vagina but find nothing. In fact, there is only problem about her,pain. nobody concern about that except a man.

Selma Blair played very successfully in this short movie. She could show the loneliness of Alice. I think everybody that seen this movie can find something about life, especially love.

Therefore George Clooney and Peter Soderbergh are the executive producers of this movie. Finally, this movie should be watched, I promise you would have a nice time.

Except for Peter Soderbergh, he’s got the facts right. In fact he’s pretty well packed it all into that one paragraph. Except he doesn’t make clear that it’s all infused with that American Beauty-style middle-class benign secular transcendence thing. Mystico-materialism, it should be called. Those guys, Alan Ball and Sam Mendes (and Thomas Newman), pretty much invented it outright, as far as I can tell, and now it seems like it’s the fuel driving half of our culture. At least American Beauty was about it, and endorsed it purposefully. I don’t think J. Lisa and Newton Thomas had any conscious awareness of what they were diddling with. But that didn’t stop them from making a smug-ass movie. If it had been selling a minivan I would have understood, but this was supposed to be about human emotion for god’s sake! At the beginning one might think, given that the whole thing is about Selma Blair in well-ironed clothes holding a deadpan and being pronounced completely empty, that it’s all some kind of smirky joke. But by the end it’s all too clear that they haven’t a clue what they’re smirking about. It’s mind-boggling, but the movie is ultimately a celebration of the redemptive power of sex with another clean attractive person, for the utterly spiritually vacuous. With all the shimmering music and CGI that that entails. It was sort of like one of those hateful lavalife ads we see on the subway – where sex is always depicted as twinkling sparklies and offers the only possible salvation for those hipsters fabulous enough to emanate it. Here’s that one where the girl has the magical butt. Oops, looks I didn’t let alpi wan kenobi do the talking for me after all! Okay, let’s move on before I get any more worked up.

Here, in between two of the items, I have a new idea for how to articulate the irksome subtext of McSweeney’s: “Look, we never stop being interested in things. Look, we are open to every possibility, no matter how awesome, for a richly thoughtful life. Sufficiently hip attention makes everything worthy of attention; ours is the hipness of substance. The difference between uncool people and us is that their patterns of thought are bound by convention and thus tend toward disinterest; our playful approach to the world is an approach to the real world and our minds are alive. This is fun – it is in fact the only real fun; the fun of being alive.” This is irksome because it is smug, and also because it creates its own blind spot: the real world as a deadpan mix-tape might well be slightly more attentive than the American status quo, but in the end it’s just as stifling an m.o. as anything else.

That said, I like the fact that they’ve assembled, for me, deadpan mix-tapes like this DVD, which I found diverting and interesting. It’s good that they sell the actual stuff they do. But they are also selling a brand, which as marketing people the world over will tell you, is the real product, and like any well-formed brand, it makes me cringe. Maybe it makes me cringe in particular because I admire the values – attentiveness, versatility, whimsy – that it has aestheticized, abstracted, and sold as an identity.

My long, heartfelt lament for personal identity in this country, which seems more and more uncharacteristically political to me each time I think about it, will have to wait for another time. But brace yourself.

The House in the Middle presented by the National Clean Up, Paint Up, Fix Up Bureau in 1954. 6 min.
You can’t watch this at Wholphin’s site, but you can watch it here. Something that would typically be called “an artifact of the atomic age,” except who says we’re out of the atomic age? I’m still worried. That said, this is certainly an artifact of that peculiar historical time where cultural innocence and loss-of-innocence tried to find a way to coexist. Horrible weapons could kill millions but it’s still important – maybe it’s even more important – to keep your house looking tidy and smart. Those 1954eans weren’t idiots; they missed the absurdity of this sort of thing because it was simply the continuation of two cultural strains that had only begun to battle it out. Clean homes and nuclear war both probably seemed equally likely to be the right thing to be talking about, so here they are in a reassuring, but ostensibly tough-minded, combination. I wouldn’t be surprised if, say, our era’s endless appetite for sarcasm and irony comes off, to some future era, as hopelessly, provincially 90s/00s-ish, and stuff like “The Daily Show,” which seems so sharp now, will seem like a grotesque juxtaposition of philosophical incompatibilities. Anyway, this was interesting enough and, like anything with an atomic bomb in it, a little upsetting.

The Delicious directed by Scott Prendergast. 16 min.
This was very silly. I used to make very silly videos with my sister when we were kids; this was more or less like that. I laughed at it and parts of it are still making me smile when I think back on them, so I think that counts as a complete success. Giggly ideas like this tend to die in the execution and this one was probably a little less all-out zany than it could have been if less planning and care had gone into it, but that’s always a trade-off, of course, and I think the trade-off here wasn’t bad. It revolves around a guy wearing silly clothes and making silly noises and silly movements. When I was eight or nine, the first Monty Python skit I ever saw was this and it made me Roll On the Floor with Laughter, literally. It certainly wouldn’t anymore, and neither does this. But it might have then.

Malek Khorshid directed by Ali Akbar Sadeghi. 16 min.
This was definitely the finest piece on here – Iranian animation from 1975. I believe this one might be translated as The Sun King but I don’t know for sure because it was completely unsubtitled here. There was very little speaking or writing, but there was some and I can’t say that I know what they were saying, or, exactly, what was going on. A mysterious, poetic, save-the-princess legend quest of some sort, with quasi-traditional Persian imagery. The film had a very lovely 70s-lyrical quality and reminded me of old Sesame Street pieces as well as of Yellow Submarine.

The website and liner notes originally listed Sadeghi as “bio unknown” and gave no year of production, so I googled to see what I could find out. To my surprise, there were plenty of sites with info. So much info that I couldn’t imagine why they had settled on “bio unknown.” So I wrote an email to the editor with some links and said (unpleasantly) that maybe their “bio unknown” was supposed to be somehow coy, but if so that seemed disrespectful. He responded (very promptly!), thanking me for the links, but also said, “coy? disrespectful?” I felt a little chastened for my bad attitude toward McSweeney’s and resolved to be more generous in assessing their motivations, and in general to calm down and be nice. Simultaneously I felt like, “don’t play innocent with me, guy! You know exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about!” Which might be a sign of mild delusion. But come on! If you type it into google you get lots of hits.

Anyway, their site now has some biographical info about Ali Akbar Sadeghi. I hope he appreciates!

Tatli Hayat (“The Sweet Life”) Turkish sitcom. 25 min.
This is an episode of a recent, reasonably slick Turkish sitcom on the premise of “The Jeffersons” – Ihsan and Sevinc are using their new money to live “The Sweet Life” in a fancy building, but… whatever. This is the one where Sevinc gets jealous on the night they’re supposed to be celebrating their anniversary because Ihsan has hired a new sexy secretary. A nice clear translation is available in subtitles. Then they’ve got five “alternate” subtitle tracks written by American comedy writers. I watched the whole thing with the original text, which was, in a mild way, interesting. Mostly it was interesting how exactly it followed the American mold. There was nothing particularly “Turkish” about it; just a slightly lower budget and a reliance on material that we’ve finally written off as “tired” in the US – “hide in the closet!” routines etc. Is that modern Turkey in general, just TV, just sitcoms, or just this sitcom? I don’t know. There were no funny jokes in it but it wasn’t pitiful, either. It was just a Turkish sitcom. Then I watched a few minutes each of the five alternate tracks. Each writer seemed to take the task slightly differently, but none of them really jumped out as being clever enough to justify another 25 minutes of my time. A lot of the same old stuff I did when I dubbed Friends into German for a project in high school. So maybe I’ll watch them, maybe I won’t. Actually, I did watch one to completion, because it cut off early and played against the image the whole time, doing a sort of stand-up routine instead, independent of the characters. That seemed to be the best one. All in all this seems like an idea that probably seemed brilliant in the pitch but in reality just felt tedious and a little mean-spirited.

Stairway at St. Paul and The Great Escape, directed by Jeroen Offerman. 8 min. + 10 min.
The first of these is the artist singing “Stairway to Heaven” backwards, backwards. I used to do this with Sound Recorder in Windows – recording things forwards, reversing them, imitating the reversed sound, recording that, and reversing it. A video performance of a song is cleverer and this is entertaining pretty much the whole way through. Good idea. Apparently now he does live performances of this stunt and is making a sort of career of it. The second is a video piece of a hovercraft approaching from the distance, landing, letting someone on, starting up again, and returning to the horizon. It takes a long time to happen and so works sort of like a still image that happens to be moving. It reminded me of the Bill Viola video installation I saw a few years ago, except less interesting. Had I not seen that exhibition, I might have gotten more out of this. I think things like this, which are more like painting than film, are among the few things that actually benefit from being seen “disembodied” in a gallery and not on DVD or in a theater.

Also on this disc is an untitled thingy with Patton Oswalt making faces at the camera in a long take… and then the camera eventually follows the guy next to him into a storage facility where we hear music… he opens one of the units to reveal David Byrne with a guitar. I think that was it. It was cold-deadpan, joyless nonsense, with celebrities; in other words: “cooler-than-thou.” I was not surprised to learn that it was the uncredited output of Mr. Dave Eggers himself. How did I find that out? I saw it on the prior version of the Wholphin website. But look! – it seems to have vanished in the interim. I imagine that was an intentional choice. But maybe I should remember the case of google and Ali Akbar Sadeghi and just calm down.

I think Dave Eggers is probably a cool guy in real life – that’s what a friend of his told me! – but obviously I am not happy about something here. That may be all my fault. If I get around to writing that identity-politics entry, I’ll put it there. Anyway, sorry Dave, and sorry Wholphin. It’s just me. Keep it up. I will buy the next one. But I promise not to write about everything on it.

Note: Upon reading this through, I see that I’ve used the word “deadpan” about ten times, which is unacceptable. Still, it’s an important concept for this material and I can’t think of too many good substitutes. Maybe the time has come for our culture to make like an Eskimo in snow and invent a full lexicon of deadpan. The word “irony” is doing duty for a thousand things that deserve their own names. Let’s give it a break and start neologizing, people! Leave suggestions here.