Yearly Archives: 2015

December 21, 2015

Tales of Monkey Island (5 episodes, 2009)

developed by Telltale Games (San Rafael, CA)
design direction by Dave Grossman
season design by Mark Darin and Mike Stemmle
story by Mark Darin, Mike Stemmle, and Dave Grossman
written by Mike Stemmle (1, 4), Mark Darin (2, 5), Sean Vanaman (3)
directed by Mike Stemmle (1, 4), Mark Darin (2, 5), Joe Pinney (3), Jake Rodkin (3, 5)

I find the trailer for this game embarrassing, so I’ve embedded the German-language version instead. Everything becomes less cringe-inducing when it’s in a foreign language. Just ask opera.

Video games seem perpetually to be in a state of awkward adolescence. Despite having had forty years to find their bearings and learn to move with grace and authority, they still tend to come off like gawky pretenders. One of the main reasons for this failure to fully blossom is that technological change never stops, and you can’t build anything very impressive on ground that’s always shifting. There’s never been a chance for really sturdy artistic practices to develop, because every few years, the old materials are replaced with new ones with different demands.

If over several years you gradually learn to paint idiomatically in watercolor… but then someone invents oil paints, and there’s industry-wide pressure to “upgrade,” you will suddenly become a clumsy painter again, instinctively lapsing into watercolor techniques while working in a medium that has no use for them. Finding your way artistically with new materials requires forgetting everything you know and responding to those materials completely fresh. That’s not something that the video game industry feels it can afford to do. Instead of reinventing the wheel every year, game designers try their best to keep using the old wheels, even though they no longer fit tightly on the new axles. That’s why there are a lot of wobbly games out there.

Maybe it sounds like I’m talking about technological “wheels,” but I’m actually talking about artistic thinking and aesthetics. A whole set of aesthetic practices evolved inside the technological constraints of the original Atari arcade era — limited pixel resolution, limited palettes, limited sound synthesis, limited processing power, limited storage space. Now that we no longer have any of those limitations, none of the practices of that era is actually artistically idiomatic anymore, but they live on anyway. People still want that culture, updated to this technological environment — but that’s impossible, because the environment determines the culture. There is no truly organic way of “updating” art as things change. All we can do is make new art.

The original two Monkey Island games (1990, 1991) were satisfying because they were particularly elegant creations within their technological moment. Their subject matter was perfectly matched to the level of depth inherent to the tech. The adventure games of that era operated in bas-relief, like hieroglyphics; the things that “Guybrush Threepwood” would undertake felt like just the sort of adventures suited to a person with a one-pixel eye and only a few postures. That self-suitedness — that sense of unity — is what made those games land so firmly and stick in the memory.

The third game (1997) had the resources to afford a new cel-animation aesthetic, without visible pixels, and with full recorded audio. The experience accordingly had a completely different texture, but it still found a way of coexisting with the old bas-relief attitude toward content. Now there was a tinge of amused irony to the fact that this human-voiced, screen-filling Guybrush in a lavishly illustrated world was still entangled in simplistically goofy “pick up key” “use key” shenanigans. The underlying meaning of the game had changed, as it had to, but the designers had managed to stay attuned to their materials, so the new meaning felt equally legitimate.

The fourth game (2000) felt obligated to have 3D graphics, a technological advance but an aesthetic regression. Now the characters were primitive balloon animals bobbling through unconvincing spaces. Suddenly “camera placement” became a consideration, as did the task of trundling the character around (rather than pointing where to go and letting him do it himself), which changed the whole spiritual order of the player’s investment in the game-world. Yet the audio stayed the same — emanating from puppets that seemed like they maybe didn’t deserve such fully-realized voices. So did the underlying game design, which no longer felt apt in the least. The whole “Mad Magazine does Pirates of the Caribbean” thing had been a perfect match for the hieroglyphic lock-and-key world of 10 years earlier; now it felt like stale shtick being spun out by rote, with no feeling for the actual present texture of the medium.

That brings us to the present (2009) game. I bought it (after waiting four years for it to go on sale: 4/20/13, $5.24) because my 1990 experience was so gratifying that even after 25 years I still feel loyal to this series. But it made me embarrassed for my loyalty. What, after all, am I being loyal to? “Guybrush Threepwood?” That — and everything else about the scenario — was always intentionally flimsy nonsense; I’m not here because I care about him. (As though Guybrush Threepwood is a “him,” rather than a “that.”) And yet at this point it’s the only stuff that connects the dots.

This game, as you see in the video above, is made out of middling-for-2009 3D puppet graphics, a lot of junky TV cartoon tropes, and an overabundance of plot. Despite retaining “pick up key” and “use key” actions, it is in practice a completely different beast from a 90s adventure game. Telltale, the studio that made it, has been gradually honing their craft over the past decade, and with their 2012 Walking Dead game finally hit on something that felt idiomatic in its own new way: a scripted TV show, where the player’s rudimentary interactions just serve as empathy checkpoints, to enforce and intensify dramatic engagement — kind of the narrative equivalent of Guitar Hero.

Their prior games, including Tales of Monkey Island, tend to feel like awkward half-measures. This game can’t be “watched” like The Walking Dead because its world was never meant to shoulder that kind of empathetic burden. Just the opposite, in fact: Monkey Island was clearly concocted to be slippery, whimsical, under-realized, self-aware. The protagonist is named after his Deluxe Paint brush file! He’s just another pixel “guy,” same as in every other video game from the 80s, given a few amusing things to say. Now in 2009 I’m supposed to watch a whole TV show about him being embroiled in a tragic love triangle, and feel things about it? That’s simply impossible.

It is similarly impossible to play this as a lock-and-key adventure game without being aware of an ungodly bloat surrounding the puzzles. Some of the puzzle design is actually pretty good, in theory. But there’s no sense that this flouncy, gabby cartoon show has any intrinsic reason to contain such puzzles, which are based on such a rigid, bare-bones world model. (“There is a lantern here. There is bread here.”) Enjoying them as the main attraction would mean being brought to them more efficiently, but that’s not what’s going on here.

What’s going on here is a lot of old ideas (and old intellectual property) mashed together on a new computer, with insufficient sensitivity. Within a few years they’d get a better handle on their materials and stop going through some of the motions. This feels like a laborious and embarrassing going through of motions.

That all said, I enjoyed it.

Yeah, that’s how art can be, and I like being honest about it.

It’s how all experience can be. If I’m in the right frame of mind I can deeply enjoy looking at the floor of my room. I can deeply enjoy looking at a fly buzzing around the kitchen, even though I have nothing but distaste for the fact that a fly is buzzing around the kitchen.

I didn’t like this game, it embarrassed and disappointed me… and I had a pretty good time playing through it. It was made out of lots of sounds and colors and stuff, all of it basically cheerful and good-natured. If I let my eyes glaze over, the difference between that and something I really like becomes so marginal as to be irrelevant. And sometimes my eyes do glaze over.

November 12, 2015

The Twilight Zone: 5. Walking Distance

directed by Robert Stevens
written by Rod Serling
starring Gig Young
with Frank Overton
music by Bernard Herrmann

Friday, October 30, 1959, 10 PM EST on CBS.

Watch it on Netflix.

This keeps going through long draft after draft because I keep lapsing into “explaining” instead of “saying.” And explaining is a spiral, at least when there’s nobody in the room with you.

Bullet points are more like me than paragraphs. Let me alt-0149 my way through this. I’m just going to post my original notes (embellishing when it strikes me), and then I can be done with it and go on to the next episode, finally.

• Something’s always amusing to me about the way Serling says “superstition” in the intro.

• This is a very lovely episode that doesn’t stick the landing. I suppose it fits exactly in the mold I talked about with the first episode: we go to a true but uneasy place, and then come up with a scheme to tame it. This time the defensive scheme is asserted with more force than usual. It’s surely because the script was more loaded than usual for Rod. If ever an episode deserved the trademark ambiguous ending, it was this one. Instead, Serling makes a definite claim… and it’s the conservative authoritarian one.

• It’s a dream. Sloan’s rational mind, his social self, is 36, but his memories are unaged. In a dream, this divide plays out as a crisis. That’s my basic reading.

• From the beginning it’s clear that the eventual anti-memory moralizing will be wrong. Sloan transitions into mysterious time travel from an outwardly totally customary grown-up distanced nostalgia. He hasn’t come here quixotically to specifically “recapture” anything. The pleasure he takes in the ice cream, or in talking to little Ronnie Howard about marbles, is not based on regression. It’s just a grown-up’s pleasure, and depicted as such. The sermon at the end might as well be anti-vacation.

• When he leaves the shop, and the camera lingers behind, and then the counterman goes to knock for Mr. Wilson, we know something spookier than usual is going on — this is for the audience, not the protagonist, even though this is his journey through subjectivity. The show is of two minds about how universal this story is.

• It’s a dream, but I don’t think Serling consciously understands that, so his script exhibits the same tensions and confusions as the character. Which half to endorse? Which half is “me”? Rod didn’t have a handle on it either, so this is all through a glass darkly.

• To me, this “Homewood” is just Main Street USA, Nifty Nineties Mickey, pre-packaged conventional “nostalgia” that has nothing to do with my personal past. But to Sloan, these are (purportedly) real memories! Hard to keep that fairly in mind. Is such “nostalgia” a good metonym for nostalgia? I think just the opposite. Well-established fantasy pasts are for people who are not at peace with their real pasts. So it’s a matter of audience taste as to whether this is an episode about memories or about “memories.” I experience it as mostly the former, until the ending, which is about the latter.

• “Dr. Bradbury.” This shout-out seems not to have been enough to appease Ray, who reportedly objected to Serling’s many near-plagiarisms, this episode among them.

• “Are you from around here?” asks the girl in the park. “No,” he says! Even the audience knows that this is the wrong answer. A weird wrong answer, indicative of emotional strictures. Even the audience intuits that his besuited adult “self” is only here as a symptom of repression. The natural dream would be one where he’s just a kid again, no problem. But he’s gotten too fervent about maintaining his artificial adult self to let that happen, even while dreaming. Even in his twilight zone he’s still fighting the fight.

• But after giving the wrong answer, he does then correct himself: “Well, what I mean is, I used to be, a long time ago.” This is a step toward reconciliation. It’s just after this that he notices his external “kid self” nearby. Again, if he were at ease, there would be no external kid self; he would just be himself in the dream. The kid self is an artifact of his alienation.

• His difficulty grasping that he shouldn’t bang on his parents’ door and shout “you mustn’t be frightened!” is unfortunate! But his difficulty grasping what’s going on is, I guess, exactly the nature of his internal split. He doesn’t understand the obvious, i.e., why his parents don’t know him, because he’s panicking. The gap between his intuition and his social knowledge is a kind of distrustful block that has accumulated. (His resistance also makes the pacing work out, albeit awkwardly. God knows why Serling put in two scenes about his parents not recognizing him.)

• Rod: “His resolve is to put in a claim to the past.” That’s just the problem. If he had no resolve or claim, this would all be his, because it already is. Does Rod know that? He almost knows it, I think. He knows enough to be skeptical of attempts to “put in a claim.” But he thinks it’s because the claims will always be denied. In fact it’s because they’re so superfluous that they create the problem in the first place.

• Much of this episode is actually an artistically satisfying depiction of my experience in semi-lucid dreams when the rational mind notices the irrational mind’s doings and starts making stupid simple-minded plans: “I ought to make the most of this, while I can!”

• Shouting at his own innocence: “I won’t hurt you! I won’t hurt you! I just want to tell you something!” until he injures both halves of himself. “Don’t let any of it go by without enjoying it!” A purportedly honorable message to deliver but actually futile, panicky, meaningless. These are good, apt images of the rational mind, the struggle for struggle’s sake.

• And then the moment when his panic needs to recognize itself as a kind of emotion after all, the moment through which psychological reconciliation will flow, beautifully portrayed as a dimming of the light and movement of the previously blissful external world. Suddenly he flows into what’s outside him, and perceives a strange, heavy procession. That’s a good, emotionally real catharsis; impressive stuff for prime-time TV.

• “I only wanted to tell you that this is the wonderful time for you. That’s all I wanted to tell you. God help me. That’s all I wanted to tell you.” His commitment to this purposeless “positive thought,” instead of to his own actual feelings, winding down like the merry-go-round, as the energy flows out of it and he recognizes himself.

• If we could stop the show here this is almost a masterpiece…

• But then NO!!!! Deus ex machina where none was needed. A somber lecture from “dad,” who, now that the spell is broken, both recognizes Martin and immediately gets back on the horse of pushing him away from his own past. Done up with all the standard pomp of TV moral education, very obviously our “good hard wise true thought” for the night. This is all artifice from a writer who doesn’t understand what he’s playing at. What he’s giving us here is actually a recipe for being the kind of person who has this dream in the first place.

• Now comes a lot of contrived reframing of his motivations over the whole episode. “I had to come back and get on the merry-go-round…” That’s a lie, and we should know, because we just watched it!

• “You’ve been looking behind you, Martin.” I firmly reject this. He’s been refusing to look behind him for years, at great cost to himself, and now, finally, just took a short walk to sample the ice cream while his car was getting serviced. And sure enough, next thing you know, it’s time for a sermon from “dad” and the wistful, stoic resolve not to do this so much.

• I hardly need to devote a bullet point to explaining why I, personally, at 36 and at where I am in my life, might be accused of projecting this. But I’m not; it’s right there on the screen. Just watch it twice in a row and you’ll feel how thoroughly the end sells out the beginning.

• Where do TV morals come from? Why are we all watching and getting something out of stories that end with lessons learned? Because we all like lectures? Apparently, in fact, we do.

As though a half-hour TV show could possibly be a way of being changed, perfectly in sync with the drama. Ha! “Lessons learned” are satisfying exactly because we’re not changed; we’re just cyclical beings. A lesson-story is appealing because it’s a performance of a pattern that we already experience daily, over and over — a thought-narrative that purports to have “growth” built into it, because we want to reward ourselves with that good feeling of “maturing.”

In this case: “Ah, memories, so faraway and painfully sweet. … But, you know, we think about memories too damn much, and what good does it do? From now on we’ll be grown up and look toward the future.” Repeat ad infinitum.

It’s commitment to this pattern that makes the memories grow so faraway; it’s what makes sweetness grow painful.

• Funny that his rearrival in The Present Day at the end is into a 50s jukebox wonderland that to us is just as thoroughly conventional a phony nostalgia as the place he just returned from. He’s as Back to the Future from Back to the Future as we are to Back to the Future II, if you follow.

• Speaking of which: the time-travel loop by which he injures his own past leg and now carries it with him in the present is, as “confirmers” go, a pretty cool device. Even though, as I said, I completely reject the moral implications.

• The final sum-up is bizarre, as Serling doubles back on himself yet again and attempts to articulate the full scope of his untenable position, and in the process gets further and further from describing anything we actually saw. It’s frankly hard for me to believe that anybody watching wouldn’t feel what I feel, as this episode winds down: that it is very obviously packing itself away dishonestly.

Martin Sloan, age thirty-six. Vice President in Charge of Media.
Successful in most things, but not in the one effort that all men try at some time in their lives:
trying to go home again.
And also, like all men, perhaps there’ll be an occasion — maybe a summer night some time —
when he’ll look up from what he’s doing and listen to the distant music of a calliope…
and hear the voices and the laughter of the people and the places of his past…
And perhaps across his mind there’ll flit a little errant wish:
That a man might not have to become old…
never outgrow the parks and the merry-go-rounds of his youth.
And he’ll smile then, too, because he’ll know that it is just an errant wish…
Some wisp of memory — not too important really.
Some laughing ghosts that cross a man’s mind…
That are a part… of The Twilight Zone.

Yeesh. Rod, I get who this is about, and it’s not me after all.

You didn’t have to smoke yourself to death at 50. You were allowed to go back to Binghamton if you wanted. You were certainly allowed to stop being Vice President in Charge of Media, if it stressed you out, and reportedly it did. (And god knows Gig Young didn’t have to go where he went.)

Let’s try to remember that ice cream sundaes are a valid alternative.

• Okay, I’ll admit it. I do have one glimmer of hope for ambiguity here. The phrase “not too important really” seems like it’s crying out to be doubted — why else is it in there? So is it possible to read this as skeptical? Is the seeming decisive tone intentionally hollow? I don’t know if we can get all the way there. Your thoughts are appreciated.

• This is our second original score by Bernard Herrmann and another one that he knocks out of the park (so to speak). Really beautiful music in his Vertigo mode, but even more than that, an incredibly sensitive reading of the material. That moment when the lights go down and the baroque chords start processing gives me dramatic chills.

I get the impression of Herrmann as having understood what was going on here better than Serling did. In fact I find that listening to the score by itself, I can experience the catharsis as the “correct” one. I imagine the episode all the way up until the father arrives at the merry-go-round… then I have other stuff happen. Stuff that suits the situation and isn’t a good hard wise true thought. You can imagine the kind of thing. Anyway the music supports it just fine.

• I’d tell you what I imagine happening, but it’s for each of us to script our own pattern.

November 9, 2015

Ultima: The Savage Empire (1990) and Ultima: Martian Dreams (1991)

developed by Origin Systems (Austin, TX)

Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire (1990)
executive producer: Richard Garriott
produced by Jeff Johannigman
directed by Stephen Beeman
story by Aaron Allston

Ultima Worlds of Adventure 2: Martian Dreams (1991)
creative director: Richard Garriott
produced by Warren Spector
directed by Jeff George
dialogue by Beth Miller, Raymond Benson, Steve Cantrell, ‘Manda Dee, and Paul Meyer

More games that I can’t handle.

Yes, it was only a few months ago that I was admitting that I couldn’t handle Ultima IV (1985). But hope springs eternal. And so does obsessive completism. These were on my list, so I had to try them. I had to hope!

Oh right, obsessive completism:

2/13/13: I buy Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams (2012) on sale for $4.99. Good enough to finish, but I only bought it because it resembled Donkey Kong Country Returns (2010) and the comparison didn’t flatter it.

2/25/13: It comes to my attention that during the past year, three more free games have appeared in the GOG catalog. I instantly add all three to my account, with no consideration whatever for what they are.

Two are the games I’m about to address. The third is a freeware first-person shooter called Warsow (2005–12), which won’t even get its own entry; I took my obligatory look at it last week and found that it’s an arena game where you battle head-to-head with players on the server. I have given myself an out on multiplayer-only games before and I’m doing it again. Those people scare me.

Things I was able to relish about these two “Worlds of Ultima” games:

• A world of bitsy candy-like graphics with black borders.

A magazine I bought in 1992 had a screenshot or two from Ultima VII (1992), the subsequent release in this series — something like this or this or this — and despite knowing full well that RPGs were not my cup of tea and that I would never buy the game, I extracted a lot of imaginative pleasure from those couple of printed images.

The idea of a vast world of little marzipan goodies, all fixed in place and made wonderfully incontrovertible by their black outlines, was somehow a dream I had already had; these images just gave it body. The extreme high-angle view, just off to one side from being directly overhead, felt psychologically accurate; it would be from just such a vantage that I would silently look over and in on the soothing mysteries of this world-vision. The roofless buildings, both indoor and outdoor. The surface textures supernaturally prominent yet still restful. I could go on.

The present two games — which are experimental pendants to the main Ultima series — are made with the engine from the preceding game, Ultima VI (1990), which has significantly more primitive, less delicious graphics, but still hints at some of the same satisfactions. The doodads here are too small and harsh to impart that restful textured quality, but the bitsiness brings its own appeal. If you’ve ever taken obscure pleasure in looking at a screen full of Mac or Windows icons, you can find that pleasure here. Here’s a screenshot from Savage Empire, picturing a village feast with a bunch of food in it, which looks a lot like a computer desktop that has been “auto-arranged.” Is it actually food, or is it just doodads? These games let you savor the ambiguity of living in a world of icons.

• A stab at variety.

To this day, RPGs are still almost always about Dungeons & Dragons. There’s no inherent structural or thematic reason why this should be the case — just cultural inertia. These two games are attempts at expanding into other kinds of classic pulp material. The Savage Empire is “Lost World” safari fantasy — a jungle valley of warring tribes, dinosaurs, and lizard people — and Martian Dreams is goofy steampunk, about a 19th-century rocket to Mars, featuring a full roster of random historical figures. (Sigmund Freud, Buffalo Bill, and Rasputin, together at last, on Mars.) Neither of those premises cries out to me, but I’ll gladly take either of them over more of the same old mytho-medievalism.

• An expansive sense of the long haul.

Wherever you’re headed, in this kind of game, it’s still a ways off. You have a lot of chores to do before you can get there. So don’t be in it for the reward. Be in it for the journey. Or not even the journey: the condition.

In checking out Youtube “Let’s Play”s of RPGs, when I inevitably skip forward to the video called e.g. “part 31 of 32,” which is the videogame equivalent of flipping to the end of a mystery to see who done it, invariably the impression I get is that the long-awaited climax is hardly more interesting or consequential than any arbitrary point in the middle. And there’s often a grudging or perfunctory quality to the victory scene at the very end.

A lot of video games over the years have ended with a lame “You did it” message and little else; RPGs, which take many tens of hours to complete, are the worst offenders. It seems almost like a symptom of embarrassment, or fish-out-of-water awkwardness: “Please don’t ask us to claim this was all worthwhile. Please don’t ask us to claim this was anything. It was just the framework for a certain flow state. Can’t we please just get back into the game instead of having to think about it?”

I like the idea of games as flow state above all. I’m attracted to the idea of “quest” being micro-event (when some guy in a hut says please kill the snakes in the basement, so you do, and he gives you gold) and macro-event (when the premise of the game is that you have to reunite the empire, which you probably will in part 32 of 32, fifty hours from now) — but not plain old event, the scale on which I tend to do all my agonizing and overthinking. On that everyday “well, what ought we to do next” scale, these games leave a strange quiet mental space for the player to set up camp. Do your thing; be our guest. In a sense, this is what’s meant by “Role Playing”: the game is not as much about what you’re doing as it is about how you’re being.

And despite never taking to these games, I really like that particular aspect. In theory.

• “Strange quiet mental space” generally.

This is the principal thing that I feel games have lost touch with in the past 20 years or so. That opinion isn’t just nostalgia for my own past, because I feel it even when I dip into games that played no part in my childhood, like these. It’s like the game’s authors and their intentions are audible only as a distant tinkling of cowbells, many miles from where I sit, encountering the game on its own inanimate terms. It’s me alone with it, in my own zone. In more recent games I have a sense of authorial neediness, or micromanagement, in my face almost constantly; the games speak with human voices that make me feel crowded. Whereas this older kind of game is as generously welcoming as only privacy can be.

• Also I won’t deny I get a kick out of any opportunity to hear the old Adlib MIDI sounds, but that is just nostalgia.

Okay, that’s what I liked.

Now a horizontal.

Actually, how about I do the videos now.

There are no trailers for games this old, which is why I didn’t put these at the top. The following clips are just for illustrative convenience, and to satisfy reader curiosity. Don’t watch them beginning to end unless you really want to. I certainly haven’t.

Here’s the first 15 minutes of The Savage Empire. The intro lasts about 4 minutes, and then the game starts with a lot of dialogue. Start at around 10 minutes in if you just want to get a sense of the gameplay.

And here’s the first 15 minutes of Martian Dreams. The intro to this one is pretty long and wacky. Again, skip forward 10 minutes for a sample of the gameplay.

Okay, now for the things I was unable to relish about these games.

This part briefer. I take less and less satisfaction these days in elaborating on my discontents. Plus the only form of writing that’s actually natural for me is the bullet points themselves; the rest is a nervous grind, here dispensed with.

• The sense that there is no place to invest myself; no particular “thing to care about.” Any given detail is just a utilitarian cog in the machine, and the machine’s only function is to turn its own cogs.

• The rational-analytical-statistical compulsion. This is what has always blocked me out of RPGs and I still haven’t found a way to embrace it. I want to marvel at experiences, not at systems. Experiences are not systems.

• An emphasis on reading but not on words; i.e. too much bad writing. I readily tolerate tone-deaf dork prose when it only appears in short bursts. But if the focus of a game is going to be on a written story with many screens of text at a time, I can’t put aside the sense of alienation I get from insensitive writing. It feels to me like being trapped with insensitive people. Which I guess is the phobia that continues to define me.

I played these games for a couple hours apiece, sincerely hoping that a sense of trust would set in, so that I’d be able to enjoy long sojourns in these vast quiet spaces. But it never did. I never stopped feeling like I was playing a game meant for another sort of person.

Some day, I swear, I will play an RPG for real.

November 4, 2015

The Twilight Zone: 4. The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine

directed by Mitchell Leisen
written by Rod Serling
starring Ida Lupino
with Martin Balsam and Jerome Cowan
music by Franz Waxman

Friday, October 23, 1959, 10 PM EST on CBS.

Watch it on Netflix.

The first of two consecutive memory-phobic episodes. This one starts out condemning nostalgia but in the end switches to granting it an eerie transcendence; the next episode will sell us the exact reverse. The reason they’re able to coexist inside the same writer (and audience) is because nervous ambivalence is the only real thing being expressed. The specific narratives just reshuffle the same mixed deck into different orders.

But let me try to do the math the right way forward this time. What do we, the audience, experience?

Well, we know that we’re in The Twilight Zone, so from the very beginning we get that Barbara’s obsessive personality is ominous. We know the playbook: when people obsess too much, reality eventually buckles at the seams. So something psychotic is going to happen to the fabric of her world — it’s not hard to guess what — and we dread it… but we also look forward to it; it’s going to be the thrilling payoff.

Nobody wants to have a psychotic break, because it’s so intensely alienating (“Where Is Everybody?”), but nonetheless we feel a nervous eagerness to experience one vicariously, safe from any social consequence. Whenever a movie launches into a crazy dream sequence, that’s when our senses really light up. So we’re all rooting for Barbara to go nuts enough that we get to see something fantastical (-but-unfortunate).

Our public morality is represented onscreen by Martin Balsam as her supposedly constructive rationalist friend (and admirer?) Danny. “You do this every day. Honey, that’s sick; that is really sick,” he tells her, just to be helpful. When she happily announces, “it was a carefree world, Danny, and I’m gonna make it that way again!” he grabs her by the arm in a fit of horror: “You can’t! It’s nostalgic, it’s nice, but it’s not true — it’s phony!”

Jeez, what is he so worked up about? After all it’s not his sanity that’s on the line. Or is it? The producer, too, feels somehow threatened, such that he’s compelled to shout at her angrily, despite having the upper hand in every way. And Sally the maid seems downright terrified long before anything supernatural happens.

I think it’s because they all sense that their realities are vulnerable to buckling, too, just by their proximity to her. Rationality is constructed socially, and Barbara is fiercely determined to change everything she touches to suit her ideal. The people around her realize that they need to defend against her will because it is genuinely potent! And so do we, the audience. Our fear of being considered delusional is what’s being triggered here, and what’s scary is not projecting ourselves on to her, but on to a friend who has to hold up against her mental contagion. “Oh god, if we ever dared give in to her agenda of nostalgia, we’d be doomed! Doomed to a life of ostracism from sane society!”

But! In the end, after she’s done a magical vanishing act, Danny is suddenly relieved of all such phobia, and maybe so are we. Now that we’re no longer under the threat of her social influence, our suppressed sympathy is free to come out for a sentimental airing. Ah, don’t we all want what she wanted, deep down? “To wishes, Barbie.”

Oh, sure, now you’ll admit it. Who will help me eat the bread?

Her final gesture is, appropriately, a serenely contemptuous goodbye kiss, to all us naysayers, all the uptight scaredy-cats who weren’t willing to go along for the ride and fess up to our inner feelings: that time is an illusion, and romance isn’t.

Even Rod, who at the beginning of the episode said rather smarmily that she had been “struck down by hit-and-run years,” now jumps on the bandwagon:

To the wishes that come true.
To the strange mystic strength of the human animal, who can take a wishful dream and give it a dimension of its own.

It can happen… in The Twilight Zone.

But as always, each viewer gets to choose for himself how to take it. Is this toast to the sanity-bending power of the human will sincere, or is it haunted house irony, a toast to goblins and demons? The show works either way — you can be afraid of either half. Or a little bit afraid of both.

Psychological ambivalence here also takes the specific form of ambivalence about movies and their appeal. In its own goofy way, the episode enacts the standard Hollywood soul-search arc: “What are we doing wasting our time with these stupid phony stories? … Hey y’know, in their crazy way, movies aren’t phony at all, they get at what’s best about people.” We all know that tune.

The episode is also about our tortured feelings specifically about actors. Barbara’s “sick” inclination to give voice to her fantasies is, after all, the life force that gives all actors their talent, their skill, their value. They have something to offer because of their willingness to be the source of their own emotional truth. The public loves and condemns its stars with such fervor because they’re professional personifications of the parts of ourselves that we strive so hard, and so painfully, to suppress.

I feel bad for the “aging diva” archetype exactly because she’s treated like an archetype. Even the sacramental adoration of drag queens et al. is a way of denying such people their essential normality. They’re just people; their desires and fears are perfectly ordinary.

The scarf appearing on the floor at the end of the episode is a classic “tangible confirmation,” even though its being there is really no more magical than her appearance on the screen (in fact it’s far less magical, since of course her scarf is in her house). But we need it as confirmation, because we’ve built up a suspicious bias against anything associated with movies. Only when Danny sees the scarf and realizes that she hasn’t just gone into “a film” (egad! how ghoulish!) but has in fact gone bodily into another reality where everything is great, only then does he realize that this might actually be a kind of happy ending.

Yeah, I know, the obvious thing to talk about with this episode is of course image vs. reality, celluloid dreams and the flickering light of the projector and all that. Since that’s the centerpiece. But it seems pretty self-explanatory to me. Film fantasy is a mere image; when she chooses her private fantasy over the social reality, she becomes mere image to everyone else… and yet, as the scarf reminds us, the distinction between image and reality is perhaps itself an illusion… etc.

As for my game of clocking the moment of turnaround, in this case I’m going to say it comes when Barbara bids Danny goodbye — the calm authority of her new demeanor is, in a sense, the twist. That puts us at just around 22 of 25 minutes, or 88/12.

In talking about stories like this one, I always want to refer to “The Coronation of Mr. Thomas Shap,” a very short tale by Lord Dunsany, but it’s not as well known as I want it to be. To me it feels like the general archetype of which other such stories are subvariants (or inversions). So there’s the link; everyone go read it so that I can invoke it next time it applies. It applies most of the time on The Twilight Zone.

(You know, I may already have linked to this story some years ago and so maybe you’ve already read it. I’ve posted a lot of stuff here; I don’t remember it all.)

The dialogue in the old movie she’s watching at the very beginning elegantly hints at an emotional parallel between the sublimation of the inner self into cinematic nostalgia — the theme of the episode — with the Hays Code sublimation of sex into lines like: “I shall have a memory of you for my eyes, thoughts of you for my mind, and the touch of you for all of me.” All while serving the immediate function of evoking the bygone sounds of 1933 schlock. This bit of pastiche is, I think, a high point for Rod Serling’s dialogue writing thus far.

While I’m on the subject of the movie she’s watching: the episode is built around the painful absoluteness, the bitter undeniability, of the fact that a 40-something is, alas, objectively another kind of being entirely from a 20-something … and yet of course it cheerfully gives us the same 41-year-old Ida Lupino playing “young Barbara,” too, looking basically the same at both ages. I didn’t really detect any winking about this meta- irony, but given that the episode ends with Barbara vindicated, there’s certainly room to imagine it there.

“The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” is a clunky title, but at least it’s better than Serling’s working title, “Shmunset Shmoulevard.”

Extra credit: compare and contrast this ending with the ending of The Shining.

This one has our second original score, by golden-age great Franz Waxman, who like Ida Lupino and director Mitchell Leisen was an authentic recruit from the Hollywood era under discussion — and perhaps more to the point, had composed the score for the actual Sunset Boulevard. Lest there be any doubt remaining about Rod’s intentions!

I love the bitonal effects Waxman uses to spook up the climax, when Barbara makes her ghostly appearance. There’s moderately uneasy music earlier when she’s announcing her plans to wish herself into the past, but he really saves up the true Twilight Zone dizziness for the big moment, and it’s very effective. Just the opposite of Bernard Herrmann’s usual approach, which is to subtly lay the groundwork at the beginning so that whatever arrives later feels inevitable. Both ways can work.

November 2, 2015

The Twilight Zone: 3. Mr. Denton on Doomsday

directed by Allen Reisner
written by Rod Serling
starring Dan Duryea
with Martin Landau, Jeanne Cooper, and Malcolm Atterbury

Friday, October 16, 1959, 10 PM EST on CBS.

Watch it on Netflix.

That last one annoyed me so I’ve pushed straight on to this one, which is much better.

This is another sentimental fable, but this time the sentiment is something like idealism, rather than kitschy resignation, so it’s much more palatable to me even if it’s just as contrived and backward.

Fate is on hand, in person, but unlike Mr. Death, he’s not really a full-fledged denizen of the story’s world — he’s sort of visiting from outside the story to prod it along, standing by silently, mostly unseen, occasionally nodding slightly. His relationship to the characters isn’t particularly one of an authority figure or an external power with its own agenda — he’s more like an embodiment of the unconscious.

From Denton’s point of view, Henry J. Fate is a personification of the involuntary part of Denton’s own self. He is the mysterious determiner of aspects of Denton that are beyond his power to will. Denton used to have perfect aim, now he finds that he doesn’t and can’t do anything about it, but Henry J. Fate can restore it to him, if he chooses. When Denton goes to test his aim, he’s not choosing to have bad aim, it’s just happening to him. The same way that the magical good aim just happens to him.

This is why in real life we sometimes have the intuition of a hovering other, some mysterious being who guides things for or against us, standing by silently, mostly unseen, occasionally nodding slightly. This other is really just the part of ourselves that doesn’t fall within the feeling of “I.” Calling it the “subconscious” is a little misleading because it suggests that it’s submerged below the conscious. I think a better image is to think of the sense of self as a flashlight casting about in a dark room — the illuminated part is always going to be just a tiny fragment of what’s there. And the machinery in the room is going to keep running whether or not it’s in the light.

If you had to put a face to the imaginary fellow who seems to be slinking around that room just outside the flashlight’s beam, this particular Henry J. Fate seems like he could be part of a pretty solid, healthy psychology. He’s mildly paternal, mildly trickster, mildly eerie, and ultimately an agent for confidence and positive self-esteem. That’s exactly how’d I’d like to think of my subconscious!

Henry J. Fate is modeled as a classic placebo salesman, and I was almost certain that this was going to turn out to be a “magic feather” parable, where apparently external magic is gradually revealed to have been internal magic. That never came to pass, but it’s still the subtext. Henry J. Fate is only there to draw out what’s latent in the characters, not to impose anything.

(The internet has called my attention to the fact that Malcolm Atterbury is best known for his role as “the rural man who exclaims ‘That plane’s dustin’ crops where there ain’t no crops!'” Well so he is, now that you mention it!)

Denton begins as a standard self-exiled hero, though in this case exiled only into degradation. (Nothing is more degrading than singing unaccompanied.) We eventually learn that he has allowed himself to fall this far only because his incredible skills kept making him a magnet for angry people, whom he was then compelled to kill (we’ll return to this) until he was overcome with self-disgust.

The resident maternal hooker pleads with him on behalf of his own dignity but he’s completely lost touch with it. The only thing that restores him to a sense that he is a being worthy of a haircut is the involuntary reemergence of his suppressed self, in the form of Fate’s magic gun. Once he’s reminded of the feeling of agency, suddenly his ego returns to life, and the first thing it does is strike out at the bully, which for the moment we are expected to applaud.

But as soon as we’re back from commercial, his combative worldview has already thrust him back into a world of meaningless duels. You’re either a drunk who doesn’t count as a person, or you’re a full-fledged person, in which case you have to constantly defend yourself against other people and their issues. “Didn’t take any time at all. Just time enough for one shave.”

Usually a hero returns from exile in order to get righteous revenge now that he’s steeled himself with wisdom. But this is a smarter story than that; the world of people is uncomfortable for him because he’s part of it, because they’re all like him and he’s like them. His compulsion to take all comers, and shoot to kill, is exactly what he hates in other people. The eventual twist is, quite literally, that they’ve all got their fear and their magic potions.

So kindly Fate arranges for him to shoot one of these alter egos, into a mirror as it were, with impossibly perfect aim. What does he do? Of course he gives himself a hostility-ectomy. The only thing he ever really wanted to kill was all this damn killing. When he realizes that the perfect symmetry of this therapy-by-gunplay has cleansed him of guns for ever, he’s elated. And even young Troy McClure, who has been through less, seems pretty quickly to realize that this is something that he wanted, deep down.

It’s really a lovely fantasy image: if we all had supernaturally perfect aim, we’d only ever shoot the guns out of each other’s hands; we’d shoot our way straight to peace. All the chaos in the world comes from the shakes.

Realized this way, on TV, with a sprinkling of fairy dust, this comes off as a sweet, optimistic fantasy. But it’s worth noting that it is exactly this aspiration to an infinitesimally perfect double-negative, the micro-targeted elimination of error, that fuels all real-world hostility, which never pans out that way. It is in fact the hostile fantasy, to think of error as something which, with enough precision, can be cleanly blown away. It doesn’t actually lead anywhere good, to believe this. That’s what I’ve learned from my time in the wilderness. So I’m not sure what we can learn from this particular show of “idealism.”

The use of the word “Doomsday” in the title seems worth noting, since it doesn’t particularly suit the scenario. I wonder if it’s a hint for us to consider the whole thing as a metaphor for nuclear brinksmanship: a lot of magic guns purported to protect the world from everyone else’s magic guns, in a reality where everybody’s got the shakes real bad and Henry J. Fate isn’t guiding anyone’s hand. If you point your missile directly at someone else’s missile, clearly you’re not going to get world peace. So is the whole thing sardonic?

I don’t think so. I think it’s a sincere attempt at a pleasant dream about being cleansed of hostility, by and for people who still instinctively believe in the power of their hostility to do good. Since it’s portrayed in terms of obviously-impossible magic, I don’t think it does anyone any harm. The NRA isn’t going to endorse this. But I don’t think pacifists should either.

The acting in this one is strong all around, I thought, but in particular Martin Landau (age 31 — I guessed even younger) does a terrific bully. He has that fanatical defensive quality that real bullies have; all the cruelty is part of some delusional bid for validation he’s got pumping in his head all the time. He makes the first half of this thing completely compelling.

The twist plays out in the 22nd minute, or at about the 87% mark.

No original score. Library music by Lucien Moraweck, some Herrmann music left over from another unproduced pilot, and a cue by Dimitri Tiomkin apparently composed for use on Rawhide. All the harmonica and zither solos are uncredited, but the tune is apparently a Russian folk song, so I wonder if that also comes by way of Tiomkin.

I find this stuff fascinating! I wish I could just listen to a radio station that only played TV library music of the 50s and 60s.

November 1, 2015

The Twilight Zone: 2. One For the Angels

directed by Robert Parrish
written by Rod Serling
starring Ed Wynn
with Murray Hamilton

Friday, October 9, 1959, 10 PM EST on CBS.

Watch it on Netflix.

This episode is overtly an “old-fashioned storytelling” episode, based on traditional tales: it’s a soupy blend of the “trickster vs. death” and “pure-of-heart vs. the devil” prototypes. It’s also a weak attempt at what I would call “the wry style,” as per James Thurber or John Collier, where deliberate clichés are propped up like paper dolls while the author smirks satirically. (You could also call it “the conspiratorial style.”)

Frankly it’s not a very rewarding episode. Both the wry and the folksy aspects feel affected and unconvincing, especially if you’ve ever encountered other stories in the same vein, which you certainly have. But as I said in an earlier post, the more unoriginal and mediocre something is, the more purely it conveys whatever deep prerational meanings are embedded in its tropes.

Unfortunately the meanings here are pretty retrograde.

Basically: we’re the sweet little guy, the innocent, and Death is the rigid authority that we resist. It’s played as comic that Mr. Death appears as a petty bureaucrat, but it’s also supposed to make intuitive sense. The emotional self dreads coming up against brute rationalism in any form; facing mortality and facing an inflexible customer service representative are both forms of the same exasperating subjugation.

My personal philosophical position — you can expect to hear a lot about this! — is that all rationalism is social. That’s up to and including the “objective fact” of the inevitability of death: the authentic self, the Ed Wynn in all of us, says it will just have to find out about that for itself, thank you very much! But in practice, everyone has some limit to their sense of independent doubt, beyond which they accept the consensus.

When Death is depicted as a mere suit-wearing pencil pusher, it’s comedic because we doubt the authority of men in suits so much more freely than we doubt the authority of Death — even though from the point of view of the childlike Mr. Bookman within, they’re both equally just external impositions of a foreign will. Seeing the similarity through the difference, and vice versa, creates the humor. “Hey, maybe we don’t have to feel so mortal after all. What are we so afraid of? Murray Hamilton?” Comedy is about the joyful escape of the irrational from arbitrary rational straitjackets.

But the initial implication that this is going to be a satire at the expense of authoritarianism is a lie. The thrust of the episode ultimately isn’t comedic, it’s the opposite: the rationalist bureaucracy triumphs, which the audience accepts with wistful resignation as “ah well, not so bad after all.” We love humorless bureaucrats! We love Big Brother!

The plot is that Mr. Bookman tries to sneak through a loophole in the system, appealing for an indefinite stay of execution on the grounds of his unfulfilled dream of glory: a real dream, but an insincere appeal. He only mentions it as a gambit to wile his way out of his fate. However it subsequently unfolds that not only has he failed to game the system, but that in fact the system has secretly arranged it so that he gets to achieve his dreams. It’s seen through his insincerity, taught him an important lesson about selfishness (namely: if you’re selfish we’ll kill a little girl), and then, seeing him duly chastened, staged an opportunity for him to get the homely little glory he envisioned in his homely little heart. Now he’s really and truly fulfilled, and ready to die — a win-win!

The moral is: even your deepest sentimental fantasies fit comfortably into the system’s spreadsheet, because it’s a damn good system. Even humoring your attempt to rebel, to play the part of the trickster hero, is just another standard operation from the employee manual for Mr. Death, who luckily isn’t such a bad guy after all. Every spanking he gives you is for your own good, and every trick you think you play on him is just a charade for your benefit, which just goes to show how much he loves you.

… That is what happens here, right? Mr. Death smiles knowingly to himself as Bookman launches into his pitch, because this is his plan, right? And then, despite making a show of being hypnotically in thrall to the stupid pitch, and of being horrified at having missed his appointment, in the end his sudden calm reveals that it’s all been a performance for Bookman’s benefit. Yes? Right?

Yeah, probably, maybe, but it’s definitely a muddier point than it needs to be. It certainly doesn’t look like Mr. Death is acting. Frankly it feels like genuine confusion on Serling’s part. I think he contained both a “the little guy wins” and a “the little guy loses” impulse, and he just put them both in there, one after the other. This is a deep psychological ambivalence, and one I’m sympathetic to, but it’s the show’s job to take us on a guided tour of that kind of ambivalence; this just feels like a symptom of it.

I particularly don’t understand what goes on at the moment of crisis, at the climax of the pitch. Bookman proposes himself as a manservant to Mr. Death, to which Mr. Death says, ambiguously, only that he’s “a persuasive man.” Then Bookman seems to be right on the point of saying that he’s selling HIS SOUL … when he is saved by the bell. Or is he? Has a sale gone through?

His dream was to make a really big “pitch,” not a sale, and afterward they both comment on the quality of the “pitch,” the function of which seems after all to have been solely as a distraction. So has Mr. Death bought anything, or not? If not, what did it matter whether Bookman put his soul on the line? He’s already been told in so many words that he can’t offer up his life to take the little girl’s place, so whatever his sacrifice is, it’s something else.

Is it supposed to be like the binding of Isaac, where he only gets what he wants because he shows himself ready to give up anything, even to the point of horror?

How is his “soul,” or his “freedom,” or whatever he’s about to say, different from his life, in this context?

I don’t know. I’m befuddled by it. I think it might just be mud.

(Is it possible that the whole thing is a kind of parody of The Seventh Seal?)

Basically the episode is about wondering how considerately we’ll be treated by Death/fate/the bank/mom & dad/the government/any authority, and the answer is: “exactly as considerately as you deserve.” He knows if you’ve been good or not so be good for goodness sake. If you’re good enough, you’ll get to go “up there.”

The melancholy at the end is the melancholy of a child who subconsciously agrees that he deserves his punishment.

To me the most telling aspect of this script is that it doesn’t blink at all when it introduces the idea that the Bureau of Death actually has sentimental accommodations built in: that “hardship,” “priority,” or “unfinished business of a major nature” are officially recognized as grounds for granting a delay. This detail isn’t treated as surprising; the audience is expected to find this a totally natural conceit within the death-as-taxman trope. Which means that the outcome is a fait accompli. If we already intuit the brutal authority to be “y’know, not totally inflexible,” that means we are completely in thrall to it.

Rod’s sign-off is bullshit:

Lewis J. Bookman. Age: sixty-ish. Occupation: Pitchman.
Formerly a fixture of the summer. Formerly a rather minor component to a hot July.
But throughout his life, a man beloved by the children, and therefore, a most important man.
Couldn’t happen, you say?
Probably not in most places.
But it did happen… in The Twilight Zone.

“Beloved by the children and therefore a most important man” is completely insincere. That’s not what the story has really been about and YOU KNOW IT, Rod.

That he anticipates (and projects) our dubiousness says it all. Last time he said that the story could well be ours. This time he says: “Probably not in most places.”

I feel this as a cowardly sort of script, which starts playing defense from the moment Rod announces that it’s going to be about Death. My claim is that each episode dares something that discomfits us, and then eventually retreats from it; within that framework, this one is almost all retreat.

I had thought I’d say that the shadow/light ratio wasn’t applicable to this one because there’s no twist — everything that happens is telegraphed far in advance. But I guess there is a big reveal, and it happens in the second minute, when we are informed that the ominous black-suited stranger is Mr. Death and he looks directly at us. The rest is conservative authoritarian conventionality. So I’ll say this one has a twilight ratio of 7/93.

I’m here for the shadow; I think we all are. So this doesn’t give us a lot to work with.

No original score; the music all comes from the CBS library. But the majority of it is still by Bernard Herrmann, from suites of “Western” and “Outer Space” cues that he wrote in 1957. The shock chord for Mr. Death comes from an unaired pilot he scored earlier in the year. The dinky “street scene” music at the beginning is by one Willis Schaefer, not Herrmann. I know all this because a complete cue breakdown of every single episode is available online.

The ones with stock scores aren’t usually quite as musically satisfying, for obvious reasons, but the music editors generally do an impressive job of cobbling together something that feels cohesive.

If this episode has any emotional impact at all, I think it’s entirely attributable to the piece of music used at the very end, Herrmann’s “Starlight.”

I tend to really enjoy listening to library music; just as it carefully leaves room for any possible dramatic action, it leaves room for my thoughts.

October 31, 2015

The Twilight Zone: 1. Where Is Everybody?

directed by Robert Stevens
written by Rod Serling
starring Earl Holliman and James Gregory
music by Bernard Herrmann

Friday, October 2, 1959, 10 PM EST on CBS.

In theory it would be fun to have videos to play at the top of these entries, but the full episodes aren’t on Youtube and there’s nothing really trailer-like that’s worthy of embedding, so I’m not going to force it. You should just go to Netflix and watch the whole episode. It’s only 25 minutes long; you can afford it.

If you have a Netflix account, maybe this link will take you straight there! But maybe it won’t. I’ve never tried linking inside Netflix before. Let me know if it works, I guess.

Spoilers forever, spoilers always, spoilers without warning. I mean, it’s The Twilight Zone. ALWAYS WATCH THE EPISODE FIRST. It’s short. And it’s incredibly convenient.

That you can enjoy any episode of any TV show ever made, at a moment’s notice, in pristine quality, at any moment, anywhere, is one of the greatest triumphs of the horrible techno-cultural dystopia we live in. Might as well take advantage.

This first episode is in many ways the purest of all Twilight Zone episodes, the most philosophically direct. It doesn’t try to embody our cosmic angst in the form of gremlins, or the Red Scare, or Hitler. It’s overtly about having a consciousness and being alone in it.

Up until the twist, that is. Then suddenly it might be about the space race or whatever. That’s your placebo if you need one.

Some words about twist endings: after you’ve seen one of these episodes, it’s natural to come away thinking of it as having been all about the twist. But of course the bulk of the episode isn’t actually experienced that way, because it hasn’t happened yet. Generally an episode is mostly “about” a particular configuration of vague unease, which the twist ending offers relief by exorcising. Yes, suddenly seeing those pig-faced people in “Eye of the Beholder” is pretty shocking, but it’s also the moment of clarity; don’t let it obscure the fact that 80% of the running time of that episode is not about pig-faced people — it’s about a mysterious atmosphere of foreboding. A twist retroactively gives this kind of static creepiness a pat dramatic function (“I see now, it was just building up to X”), which is a convenient opportunity for us to deny what we really experienced.

So yes, you could summarize “Where Is Everybody?” by saying it’s about the hallucination of an astronaut undergoing an isolation test, but that would be a rationalist evasion of the actual irrational experience. It’s only natural to define things by their endings if you’re so uncomfortable with uncertainty that you’ll leap at any opportunity to forget that you experienced it.

Most of us are that uncomfortable.

I think I’m going to keep score as we go along: this one unfurls its big reveal during the 20th of 25 minutes, giving us a shadow/light ratio of about 78/22.

The authority figure at the end says that this has been about “loneliness,” but it hasn’t. As far as loneliness goes, the episode could easily have been done with an ordinary empty town, which is not what this is. This is a town that keeps supernaturally insinuating people without actualizing them. The fear being prodded in the audience is not of being alone, but of being wrong about whether there are people around. The script is basically just a parade of “Hey, this kinda makes you feel like there are people around, doesn’t it? But you’re WRONG!” And that stings, a special spooky kind of sting.

Coffee percolating on a stove — a person must be nearby. WRONG!
Phone ringing — a person must be calling. WRONG!
Film running — a person must be at the projector. WRONG!
Body sitting in a car — a person must occupy that body. WRONG!

Why are these things uncanny? For the same reason that ghosts are uncanny, or for that matter that anything uncanny is uncanny: because the difference between being in the presence of another person and being alone is psychologically absolute. We’re either in social mode or we aren’t; there is no middle ground. That we might be unaware when there’s someone nearby is a source of fear, for obvious evolutionary reasons. This fear is aroused, and then sustained, by situations in which signals are mixed, in which our mind tells us that we are both alone and unalone. “Uh-oh… which is it? It’s very important that we get this right!” This, I believe, is the essence of everything we call uncanny: fear of the error of lapsing into seeing things as nonsocial when our life depends on seeing them as social.

If e.g. the wallpaper seems to be looking at you, the reason you’re more unnerved than if a person were looking at you is because you can’t find your way to a social resolution; you can never confront it socially and thus defend yourself against it, nor can you bond and make friends with it. A face in the wallpaper summons your social self but doesn’t give it enough to grab on to, thus leaving you in a state of incomplete transition. This is the “uncanny valley,” the land of not-quite-somebody, not-quite-nobody, home to ghosts and monsters and things that go bump in the night and mannequins and clowns and CGI.

This is why the town in “Where Is Everybody?” isn’t just abandoned but supernaturally abandoned (what you might call “haunted”). The hot stove is a social cue; but without the primary social stimulus of a person, we can’t consummate our internal socialization, and remain suspended in the state of girding ourself for an imminent encounter, our ears pricked.

But what’s great about this episode is that it goes deeper than that. It’s not actually about a ghost town; it’s about a ghost consciousness, a ghost existence. The town is only haunted because it’s all in the mind, because those are one and the same thing.

The twist ending tells us that it’s all in the mind because the mind has been locked in a box for three weeks — but my contention is that in these shows the real meaning is always substantially delivered before the big reveal. The isolation tank is just a safe way of displacing the essential business.

Note that there are various feints, some quite explicit, toward the standard cold war assumption that “the bomb” is probably responsible for any and all ominousness looming over Main Street USA. When I first watched this episode a few years ago, I’ll admit, I immediately associated it with the bit from Indiana Jones 4 where he stumbles into a nuclear test village full of dummies, and assumed something similar was about to befall our flight-suited amnesiac. (Or: downed behind enemy lines; tortured; killed…)

We sustain such speculations even as the protagonist talks several times about wanting to wake up, asks the mannequin if she can help him find psychiatric help, waxes about how it must all be a hallucination. All while we the viewers still have no particular conviction that this is necessarily a dream.

My point is: the episode implicitly suggests that even if this is waking life, some kind of military or apocalyptic misadventure, it is also the product of the protagonist’s mind. This is my overarching Twilight Zone thesis, as I said last time, and I couldn’t help seeing it in pretty much every scene. Here are just a few of the things I jotted down because, yes, I invested them with the profoundest meaning.

• “I must be a very imaginative guy. Nobody in the world can have a dream as complete as mine — right down to the last detail.”
• “Who’s up there? Who’s running the pictures?” The mind is the theater and the projector.
• Mirror: trying to get out, he bangs into himself.
• He plays tic-tac-toe against himself and WINS! Not a draw! Can you imagine? Maybe I’m joking, but there’s something to this.

The most remarkable moment in the episode is when — with somewhat unlikely literary agility — he quotes Dickens to his own reflection:

“‘You may be an undigested bit of beef.’… You see, that’s what you are. You’re what I had for dinner last night. You must be.”

He’s saying that to and about himself. The impression that he himself exists, that he is a person who can appear in mirrors, is, he declares, a dubious hallucination that he’s inclined to wave away.

It genuinely thrills me, how profound a thing that is, at the heart of this middlebrow TV episode. And I’m not imagining this depth, or imposing it! It’s right there on screen!

In watching it we don’t analyze and interpret it, per se, but we do experience it, as a kind of game. And why else does this game appeal?

Right, so then suddenly we’re in the good old military-industrial complex, where the stern general is reprimanding the snotty reporters for being condescending to this poor brave man. Psychological cleanup is underway: the paternal authority figure grimly forgives us our frailties, though they pain him. This is a world order of shame, and redemption through ordeal, in which the audience is expected to feel at home.

Yes, I know you went insane, son, tsk tsk, but at least it was in the pursuit of something very hard! Now you’re just going to grit your teeth, get back on that rocket, and bravely try again to fight, fight the madness! Do it for the USA! USA! Whew. Okay, I’m ready to buy my Sanka now.

(Why has he been banging the clock until it breaks? What does this supposed to mean? Time is his enemy, and he is thrashing out against it with his last bit of sanity? I don’t know. Anyone?)

Smugly, to the moon: “Next time it’ll be for real.” A pretty weird boast, given what we’ve just been through. It reads that way even to the casual viewer: next time what will be for real? And how will you know the difference?

Serling starts us out with:

The place is here.
The time is now.
And the journey into the shadows that we’re about to watch could be our journey.

If this were really about an astronaut in an isolation tank, that wouldn’t be true in the least.

Whereas by the time we get to the envoi, the show has had to backpedal. Now he lets you choose how personal to take it:

Up there, up there in the vastness of space, in the void that is sky —
up there is an enemy known as isolation.
It sits there in the stars waiting —
waiting with the patience of eons.
Forever waiting… in the Twilight Zone.

Basically, if you need to believe that the “enemy known as isolation” is just a kind of sci-fi menace from outer space, you’re welcome to. But if you’re willing to stick with the guiding metaphor of the “twilight zone,” you can hear that he’s talking about something much closer to home.

That calculated ambiguity is the wink that makes this kind of entertainment work. Wherever you draw your personal line of comfort, the wink always seems to be coming from just a few teasing inches on the other side — but no more. If you don’t want to think that this show is about the ultimate isolated subjectivity of all experience, you have no reason to.

Plus did you notice that it took place in Hill Valley?

Also: Bernard Herrmann was a true genius. I’ve only recently started to appreciate how this kind of very spare TV work shows him at his most inspired. If you watch again, consider the three note motif that ties the episode together — what it means, and what it refrains from meaning. I daresay there’s something profound about this music; profound in the best way, the way pop culture can be profound, without any pretension.

You know I could go on about it but let’s save it for another day. Bernard Herrmann will be back many times — plus the theme music is his, at least for season 1. The “neener-neener” guitars are still a long way off.

October 29, 2015

The Twilight Zone preamble

Looks like I’m going to be posting thoughts about episodes of The Twilight Zone.

Why have I decided to post thoughts about episodes of the Twilight Zone?

In every other project on this site, my agenda is almost entirely supply-side: I want to see myself articulating thoughts, and then daring to let them be public, rather than not. It’s all very much a “rather than not” kind of endeavor.

But the present case is different! It arises from a desire to get something across to others.

I have this grand ambition to communicate a “big idea” I’ve got in my head: a philosophical perspective that encompasses both the content of culture and the nature of culture, and the fact that these things psychologically invert and give rise to one another, in an endless Möbius loop that is the foundation of the human experience.

The problem is, I don’t think very much is actually communicated in abstractions like those.

So my current whim is that a fuller, truer sense of where I’m coming from might gradually manifest itself to the reader through the accumulation of whatever comments happen to be elicited by, yes, episodes of the Twilight Zone.

The reason why I think that’s so — and why I’ve chosen The Twilight Zone, of all things — will, hopefully, be part of what becomes apparent.

I believe that if I’m sincere enough in what I express, readers will come over time to have an intuitive sense of my premises without any need for me ever to explicitly hash out any kind of (god help us) “theoretical framework.” So I’m going to try not to get too far from the show itself. Everything can be said about everything — I repeat, everything can be said about everything — so there’s no need to go on long rhetorical detours. Letting an idea accumulate organically, like falling snow, is a much more natural way of communicating than trying to shovel it over in one unliftably heavy load.

Plus who doesn’t like The Twilight Zone? My competing whim was to propose a Twilight Zone discussion club, which this could perhaps evolve (or revolve) into. Or it could burn out almost immediately! Who knows?

(The show is available on Netflix. That’s how I’m doing this and that’s how you can too. Probably.)

So what exactly is this “twilight zone”?

As of the series premiere, Friday October 2, 1959, 10 PM EST on CBS, here’s Rod’s answer (please ignore the stupid tag from “DuDf”):

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man.
It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity.
It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition,
and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.
This is the dimension of imagination.
It is an area which we call… The Twilight Zone.

This flows so splendidly, in the authoritative manner of the era, that my ear was initially inclined to hear it as just meaningless pulp boilerplate. But that’s a mistake: firstly, because boilerplate is never meaningless; it just carries meaning that transcends the words, which generally means a particularly deep and powerful kind of meaning. Secondly, because despite the commercial cadence, this speech does not express a cliché. It has been written with care and I think it deserves to be taken seriously.

The culmination of the speech, and the unifying theme of the show, is the term “imagination.” Pop culture tends to think of “imagination” as referring simply to things that are “made up,” fictional rather than actual. So Rod’s claim that imagination is a “dimension” might at first blush seem to be a familiar conceit: let’s make believe there’s a magical land where the impossible is possible — like Narnia, or Oz, or Wonderland, or Neverland, or The Neighborhood of Make-Believe. This is a standard frame for works of fantasy because it’s somehow intuitive: imagination does seem like some kind of a place.

But in those sorts of cases, there’s always some whimsical device that explains how one gets from here in reality to there in fantasy — a hot-air balloon or the Hogwarts Express or whatever. Whereas in life, of course, access to one’s imagination and its contents is immediate, direct, and purely interior; it involves no physical travel at all. Everyone knows this perfectly well… and yet in its broader implications, this fact makes people deeply uncomfortable!

To recognize that we all have the capacity to feel that we have gone somewhere else, somewhere strange, when we haven’t moved our bodies… this touches on questions of sanity, and for most people those are toxically shameful questions. It’s actually a source of great anxiety that the free-for-all zany-zones of Wonderland and Neverland are so intimately close at hand: right at the center of our heads, in fact. So in depictions of “the dimension of imagination,” the geography tends to be carefully managed and reassuringly cordoned off — set off at some infinite distance or across an impossible divide, connected only by gimmicks like Narnia’s wardrobe or Alice’s rabbit-hole, which serve as valves by which we can imagine the flow from one world to the other to be securely regulated.

This metaphor of the imagination, as a fabulous island with a single ferry to and from, fundamentally distorts the true nature of the mind. “Imagination” is not just some mental machinery that generates charming absurdities to populate fictions, like flying monkeys and talking rabbits. It is in fact the faculty of conceiving any and all images, which is to say it is the foundation of consciousness. The phenomenon by which we experience our actual circumstances as coherent is exactly the same as that by which we experience hallucinations, hypotheticals, dreams, flying monkeys, etc. etc.

The sense organs do not themselves generate awareness — their input has to be run through the imagination to be turned into images, experiences. But it’s a black box; there’s no assurance that the experience that comes out has anything to do with what goes in. The imagination is where we see Neverland and Wonderland and the refrigerator and the wall and the toilet and our own face in the mirror and the ghost faces that keep us awake at night. All are equal. There’s no ferry because there’s nowhere to go. You’re already there.

Fear of insanity makes this fact very uncomfortable, which is why authors of fantasy have taken such pains to reassure us that no no no, before experiencing the full thrilling power of the imagination, you must first have passed far out of normal waking life — by going up in a cyclone to another world, and/or getting klonked on the head and knocked unconscious. The important thing is, one way or the other, you are assuredly not in Kansas anymore.

If you were in Kansas, fully conscious, seeing that stuff, we’d lock you away.

This then is the game generally played by cultural products that deal explicitly in “imagination”: they give the audience permission to savor their own irrationality by creating some phony excuse for it, some metaphorical technicality that saves the audience from violating the taboo against admitting that consciousness is indistinguishable from hallucination.

With all this in mind, The Twilight Zone, and Rod’s “twilight zone” speech above, seems to me strikingly bold about breaking the taboo. These tales of are not going to come from The Marvelous Land of Oz, they’re going to come from universal psychological space. But they’re still going to be tales of fantasy, of things impossible. The stories on The Twilight Zone will come from a “twilight zone,” “the middle ground betweeen light and shadow, between science and superstition,” from the place where we can deny neither our rational nor our irrational nature because we are aware of them both.

The actual reason imagination feels like it must somehow be a “place” is because the imagination is the seat of all spatial awareness; part of the experience of any image is the impression of its existing in space and time. But the irrational core of that impression is unmeasured, unbounded; specific distances or durations are rational tags we apply later. In a state of full openness to the ineffable truth of our imagination, we will indeed perceive all our awarenesses as “vast as space and as timeless as infinity” — not unlike the surrealist skies and deserts and caves and cliffs, all in general imitation of Dalí, seen in the visual. Dalí, like The Twilight Zone, might seem at first glance to merely have been a dealer in weirdness for its own sake, but he too was (at least initially) genuinely interested in the workings of the human mind. He did not arrive at that imagery arbitrarily.

Tales From The Crypt might be scary because they’re full of ghouls and curses and whatnot, but they are reassuring insofar as they are From The Crypt, just as tales from Oz are from Oz. But tales from The Twilight Zone are scary because they aren’t going to posit some Oz or some Crypt that lets us off the hook. These stories are attributed just to the imagination, and we’ve all got one of those. They’re eerie because “the call is coming from inside the house,” and most of us live in some degree of denial of just who’s in this house. If there is horror in The Twilight Zone, it is our horror of admitting that we are irrational, in real life, right now. And if there’s pleasure in it, it’s for the same reason.

Of course, it’s still a TV show for a mass audience, so after touching that live wire, it’ll always do its part to back away, to calm everyone down. “Hey, look at this: an excuse that lets us all off the hook turned up after all!” We always get to drink the magic placebo and flush out the poison.

As Rod Serling said in his pitch to sponsors: “We think it’s the kind of a show that will put people on the edge of their seats — but only for that one half an hour; we fully expect they’ll go to the stores on the following day and buy your products!”

That’s part of what fascinates me here. It’s one thing for high art to say scoldingly “we must take a hard look at what scares us about life.” It’s quite another for Sanka-selling prime-time TV to say “Have fun everybody!” and then have the fun consist of being given the willies about the existential condition. It means that there is a sincere and intuitive appetite for those willies. To me that’s a sign of a deeper drive, an important one.

Yes, everything I’ve just talked about could equally apply to Edgar Allan Poe or any number of other 19th-century authors who depicted life as eerily hallucinatory. But that’s because there was a 19th-century fashion that carved out a certain kind of cultural space for such ideas. They were less taboo, for a time. What’s uniquely striking to me about The Twilight Zone is that it returns to that same kind of outlook but in a time of a much stronger taboo against it, and without having to resort to retro Romanticism. It creates an authentically 20th-century space in which to put a toe in those waters.

Maybe it sounds like I’m making big overreaching claims that don’t jibe with the actual flavor or value or fun of The Twilight Zone. But that’s exactly what I’m trying to address, that very flavor and fun, nothing else. I love this stuff and I’m confident that I love it just like everyone else does, not in some alternate intellectualized way. It’s just a question of words seeming phony when one is talking about the subconscious, a place without words.

This will all be clearer soon when I’m talking about actual stories, which make direct appeals to the subconscious and so provide more obvious handles.

Sorry that my good advice-to-self about not getting too abstract and general wasn’t really applied to this first entry. But come on, this was the preamble, where I had to talk about THE ZONE! The zone itself! What choice did I have but to get vague and grandiose? It’ll be more on point from here out I swear. I swear!

October 24, 2015

Duke Nukem 3D (1996)

developed by 3D Realms (Dallas, TX)
concept by Todd Replogle and Allen H. Blum III
produced by George Broussard and Greg Malone
map design by Allen H. Blum III and Richard Gray

Games from the pre-Youtube era were much less likely to have trailers, but someone seems to have dug up this authentic quasi-trailer from 1996. I’m guessing this was made to be edited into in-store video loops. (If you feel like this is a little too fuzzy and vintage to give a clear impression of the game, here’s the trailer GOG cut together in 2009.)


6/12/12 — bought L.A. Noire (2011) on $4.99 sale and subsequently played to completion. Review: satisfying, because of the appealing concept and lavish production, despite obvious shortcomings in the gameplay and the plotting.

8/18/12 — bought Alan Wake (2010) on $7.49 sale and subsequently played to completion. Review: unsatisfying, because of obvious shortcomings in the gameplay and the plotting, despite the appealing concept and lavish production.

10/31/12 — bought Bioshock (2007) on $4.99 sale. Haven’t yet played, and still can’t play it for the moment because it requires a 3D graphics card, and of the two computers in my household that fit the bill, one is broken and the other is currently on a tour of the US. Stay tuned.

11/19/12 — bought access to the Double Fine “Amnesia Fortnight 2012” documentary, which did ultimately include 8 game prototypes, several of which I looked at and some of which I didn’t. But I’m not going to write about them here; they’re very much just prototypes, and from an audience perspective are more like interactive supplements to the documentary than vice versa.

11/23/12 — bought Portal 2 (2011) on $4.99 sale. Again, holding off until I have access to a 3D-capable computer.

11/26/12 — bought Ben There, Dan That! (2008) / Time Gentlemen, Please! (2009) on $0.99 sale and quickly played them to completion. This is a pair of dinky, proudly amateurish comedy adventure games that had a reputation for being actually funny. Sure, they were mildly funny, in their nervous British geek way. $0.99.

Also 11/26/12 — bought Puzzle Dimension (2010) on $0.99 sale. About a year later played it to completion with pleasure. I love puzzle games but I’m not a sucker for bad ones; they need to be pretty good to keep my enthusiasm up. This one had a very well-graded difficulty slope and offered an acceptable trance space in which to cogitate. The puzzle designs hit that paradoxical sweet spot of seeming to be cosmic and impersonal yet also witty and communicative. More on this theme someday.

12/13/12 — GOG gives away Duke Nukem 3D: Atomic Edition for free to all comers. I click “okay.” So here we are.

It turns out that it doesn’t much matter what games are about or what they contain. The medium is the message; the form is the real meaning.

Duke Nukem 3D is a “badass” game for repressed 14-year-olds, with a glut of “ha ha naughty” content like ha ha naked babes and a ha ha porn shop and ha ha toilets where if you press the use key, Duke Nukem will ha ha pee. And yet it hardly matters, because this is one of those games of architecture-as-drama, of traversing imagineered three-dimensional space, and that’s simply too powerful an experience to resist in the name of some flimsy principle like “taste.” Mere taste is no match for the primal power of discovering a secret panel that opens onto a staircase that descends to a flickery underground tunnel that caves in as you run through it toward a narrow opening onto a vast chamber glowing red from below…

First-person shooters are made of such primal stuff, skinned with one or another silly rationale. I said that Half-Life was strong because it “was what it was” — i.e. the skin accorded well with the deeper essence. Duke Nukem 3D, which predates Half-Life by a couple of years and anticipates it in many ways big and small, is just the opposite: the skin has just about nothing to do with what’s going on spiritually. To my surprise, that ends up meaning that I’m able to enjoy it almost as much. To me this was almost exactly the same game experience as it would have been if it were called “Dora the Explorer 3D” and all the bad guys were Koosh balls (with angry eyebrows). Yes, I suppose it’s not totally clear why Dora the Explorer would be destroying the nuclear reactor of a space station… but frankly it wasn’t all that clear why Duke Nukem was either. I guess to stop an alien invasion?

Duke Nukem is ha ha “offensive,” but I just couldn’t find it in me to care one way or the other. There’s a vast difference between being offensive, in the sense of making people feel hurt and alienated, and being “offensive,” in the sense of displaying conventional signifiers of transgression (e.g. a stripper who will flash her tasseled breasts when Duke Nukem throws money at her). Is anyone actually offended by such things, by the things themselves? I think it’s rather that some people feel obscurely menaced by the fact that we live in a world where people such as the authors exist, who are inclined to a posture of willful transgression; i.e. the fact that the stripper is deliberately “offensive” is the only thing that’s actually potentially distressing about it. And I’m not sure “offended” is the right word for that feeling.

In any case I mostly found myself naturally disregarding all that. By contrast, the obsessive emulation of the specific morbidity of Alien once again befuddles me. A lot of fleshy growths and half-mutated humans murmuring “kill me.” I found the sour taste of that kind of stuff harder to block out, since it seemed more sincere, less calculated, than the scatological and pornographic stuff. I feel different degrees of comfort with different hangups; I trust people who are anxious about sex more than I trust people who are anxious about mercy-killing.

I should note that generally I found this game quite scary. Suddenly hearing a “brraaaagh” sound and turning to see that a floating red-eyed demon-alien-head-thing has materialized right behind me has given me quite a few bursts of adrenal shock. The more rudimentary the materials, the higher the stakes when one becomes immersed in them. Taking these doubtful planes and wobbly vertices to be my world means opening myself to almost infinite risk. It’s like when Bob Hoskins goes to Toontown: the less grounded your reality, the more likely that you are about to lose it all at any moment. Physical fantasy is a kind of mortal peril. This is why I was much more acutely on edge playing a romp like Duke Nukem 3D than playing a horror game like Amnesia, which for all its haunted housery nonetheless takes place in a sturdy spatial reality.

The important thing to be said about this game is: these are good levels. They are unpredictable, balanced, varied, full of goodies and gimmicks, tension, atmosphere, and dramatic reveals. All of which runs deep down into the psyche, into that dreaming part of the mind where all spatial experience goes. The credit “map design” here corresponds to the role of “writer”; in this genre, architecture is the text.

It is an unending source of aesthetic astonishment to me that such intensely meaningful stuff can be dished out so cheaply and unprepossessingly. Bachelard’s Poetics of Space discusses these kinds of imagined spatial experiences with a suitable sense of their profound resonance, but what he doesn’t get across is how immune they are to questions of class, and of quantity. Bachelard’s examples are all from works of relative taste and distinction; he makes it seem like these deep dream-images are somehow allied to the high and the fine and the rare. Not so! All his psycho-philosophical musing holds equally true for tacky 3D games with dime-a-dozen levels cranked out by dudes like these. (That’s a photo of the Duke Nukem 3D team the night before its release.)

On the one hand, I am stirred: we all can dream richly, and pass those dreams one to another; yes, even those dudes in the photo are part of the spiritual life of the human race. I am connected; I am not alone.

On the other hand, I feel a kind of vertigo of overabundance: if even something as overtly benighted as Duke Nukem 3D can put me in touch with my Jungian roots, is anything really better than anything else? If all experience is equally valuable, how am I ever to know where to go and what to do with my time on earth? And if even those dudes in that photo are the sources of such deep stuff, what can I possibly contribute that will matter?

Sure, I have good answers to that vertigo (to wit: “these questions are just an attempt to give rational form the irrational vertigo, which will pass on its own, so they don’t need answering”) but I’m still highly susceptible to it.

October 22, 2015

82. Hamlet (1948)

directed by Laurence Olivier
written by William Shakespeare
text edited by Alan Dent

2000: 082 box 1


Criterion #82.

Trailers can be kind of funny sometimes.

This “Hamlet” is a good and rewarding play. Though it’s not always clear why things are happening.

It was during a high school English discussion on the subject of “Why is Hamlet acting this way?” that I realized that I took issue with the premises of English Class. It seemed to me that asking why fictional characters did what they did, and answering with speculation about their inner lives, was not really the study of literature at all — it was the make-believe study of make-believe psychology. And this was an odd thing to find happening at school, because the subject of human emotions was one in which we were not openly being educated, and about which I frankly doubted most of my teachers, my English teacher among them, to be very comfortable or perceptive.

In any case it was certainly absurd that the person chosen as the subject for an inquiry into the interior life would be Hamlet Prince of Denmark, who was no more than a series of speeches, a piece of a puppet show, a fiction, a being in the same existential category as Tweety Bird.

There is no ultimate assurance that Hamlet’s words and actions are psychologically coherent. They cohere only insofar as they are all in “Hamlet.” Arguing about him as a person seemed to me the same kind of geeky retrofitting as when people concoct technical justifications for stuff that happened yesterday, in willful disregard of the fact that the one and only correct answer is staring them in the face: it happened because the authors thought that it would make for a good show. There is no “why;” the only real question is whether the show worked for you. If it worked, the “why” has already been resolved; if it didn’t work, a “why” won’t help.

(In the years since high school, my attitude about these issues has complicated a fair bit, but I still feel the anti-psychological point of view as an important one.)

From this point of view, I dare say that “Hamlet” has been buoyed to the status of “the world’s most famous play” (per the lisping trailer above) by virtue of the fact that it does not completely work. It is built in a way that feels deeply intelligent but still confusing, thus seeming to invite endless vital argument:

After 400 years it’s time to really figure this stuff out, right? What really is Hamlet’s deal? Why is he being like this? For that matter, what’s Gertrude’s deal? What’s the ghost’s deal? Why is nobody around Hamlet capable of understanding him at least as well as the audience does? What does it all mean?

These are not questions about people, but about the workings of a play. The fact that this play has been produced tens of thousands of times and always with an eye to discovering and revealing “new insights” is a sure sign that the play itself does not fully function in any particular way and that there are no right answers to the confusion that it elicits.

William Shakespeare has definitely put some really marvelous stuff on the page — barring a few boring bits. But it’s marvelous principally as a kind of ritual, a garment that we are free to put on. “To be, or not to be, that is the question!” WOOOOOO YOU GO!

The difference between live theater and movies is that in live theater, the physical fact of a ritual being enacted is itself the reward. It’s right and good for such rituals to be full of mystery; we go to be a part of them, and we are mysteries to ourselves. But in a movie there is no such participation, and no ritual. As an audience member I cannot readily access any sense of occasion in the goings-on. The movie was made at various points in the past and now exists outside of time and outside of human tradition. There’s just a communique, which comes in a discrete block with no gaps: I, the movie, proclaim myself thus. So this Hamlet on film is does not embody any necessary ancient formal protocol, full of human mysteries. It’s just a movie, this movie. Its gaps read to me as gaps.

Why is he saying that? What’s that supposed to mean? Why are we still paying attention to this guy? Who really cares about Ophelia? Why is she even in this?

I think Olivier understood that this burden was upon him, and tried very hard to keep alive the sense of theatrical occasion by conveying a sense of ceremony, of supernatural order, through the visual. It’s shot in etched German-expressionist black-and-white, with heavy emphasis on several recurring architectural forms, spiral staircases and Romanesque arches (see below), meant to give a sense of the tragedy looming toward, and suspended within, abstraction. Fine. But at the center of the picture there’s still these pesky people and their dialogue.

The performances are boldly delineated, but never truly formalistic — these do still seem to be human beings, dealing in human affairs. And so when they don’t quite act like human beings, I naturally wondered: huh? That “huh” came honestly from the only place I know how to sit as an audience member.

Insofar as this is a good movie of a good play, it’s not an institution, it’s a distinct dramatic creation unto itself. Whenever the production seemed to make appeals to the audience’s admiration for the grand institution of “Hamlet,” I felt the point was being missed. In movies, any value and significance has to become apparent through the drama, and not vice versa. I like that about movies; I like that those are the terms. They’re just surprisingly unforgiving terms for the hallowed works of William Shakespeare.

That said, I was only in a position to think these things at all because the movie is in fact quite well done. It’s attractive, well acted, intelligent. It is not bland; it has verve, and pockets of real depth. I much preferred it to Henry V, which felt to me like a completely superfluous movie, despite all the technicolor razzmatazz. This is a good Hamlet. And maybe the upshot of all my musing above is that there is no such thing as a perfect Hamlet.

But it’s very much just A Hamlet. Whereas Back to the Future II is THE Back to the Future II. Yes, that may be an insurmountable obstacle, but all the same, there it is, weighing this thing down as a movie — and what is it if not a movie?

And hey, maybe it’s not an insurmountable obstacle. Why prejudge? Perhaps some director will come along some day and render this play into THE Hamlet as surely and irrevocably as Disney rendered Snow White into Snow White. Presuming that such a thing is impossible does nobody any favors, including Shakespeare. Shakespeare is doing just fine without our pre-emptive deference. Or oops, rather, he’s dead. He’s doing terribly. He’s dead no matter what we do. So go to town, boys. (Except you, Baz Luhrmann, you should sit this one out.)

This is our second Best Picture Academy Award winner from Criterion, out of only six in the whole Collection. That’s fine with me; nobody actually loves the Best Picture winners. Hamlet slots comfortably into that category.

Music is again by William Walton; the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Muir Mathieson. The main title doesn’t end properly — Laurence starts talking before it’s over — so our selection is the funeral march with which the movie ends. (Spoiler!) It’s basically the same material as the main title, and is all in the clear except for some walking sounds and five cannon blasts, which I think we can all handle.

Once again Walton turns out something of high taste and quality but a bit too staid.