Monthly Archives: October 2015

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.


October 19, 2015

81. Luci del varietà (1950)

directed by Alberto Lattuada and Federico Fellini
story by Federico Fellini
screenplay by Federico Fellini, Alberto Lattuada, and Tullio Pinelli

2000: 081 box 1 (OOP as of 11/07)

Criterion #81: Variety Lights. Accurate translation, of course, but awkward in English. Maybe they should have just kept it in Italian. They let La dolce vita stand; I think we could all handle Luci del varietà.

I mean, what does “variety lights” mean, exactly? My guess is: not just any one thing. The phrase only occurs in a song, which you’re about to see performed. According to the subtitles:

Variety lights, shining like stars
Because I love you so
The magic of love is in the heart
Variety lights, may you have love and happiness
This is happiness…

So you tell me what it means. Are the performers touting themselves as being “lights” of the variety stage? I think so. Or maybe they’re referring to actual stage lights and singing about the magic of the theater. Or just lights in the soul. Whatever — the sentiment is certainly clear enough.

Anyway, I’ve been referring to this movie as Luci del varietà and you should too.

Seems like everyone agrees I should be putting trailers in these entries, and I’m game. But this movie doesn’t have an extant trailer as far as I can tell; not on the disc, not on Youtube. (Mind you, the entire movie is on Youtube! But no trailer.)

Still, I want to try to get this ball rolling, so in lieu of an official trailer, here’s a 2-minute makeshift sampler assembled from bits of the opening scene by some Youtube user. Good enough to serve for present purposes.

Right from this first scene, I was touched by how knowingly and humanely this movie depicts theater as something profoundly pathetic, in the richest sense of the word. In the theater, the homely and mediocre is somehow magical, and what purports to be magical is irredeemably homely and mediocre.

I’ve done a lot of, shall we say, pathetic things in my time, and I very well recognized that stage, that orchestra pit, that audience — and the camera’s eye was with me. I had the wonderful sense that the cinematic attention was doing exactly the “looking around” that I would be doing if I were there. When a film is working perfectly, it feels like the camera is responding to my every subconscious impulse, and at least for the first few minutes of Luci del varietà, it did. It’s a beautiful sequence. The chopped-up version above doesn’t do it full justice.

When Waiting for Guffman came out I was utterly delighted to be seeing the familiar world of amateur theater lovingly parodied on the big screen. This is obviously a different sort of movie about a different sort of show, but it covers some of the same territory of pathos and was similarly gratifying to me. I feel like it’s one of the best “show business” movies I’ve seen: it is resolutely neither glamorous nor cynical. Show business might be a little happy, a little sad, but it isn’t good or bad. It’s just this way.

It makes sense that the world of the theater is the nexus where the two characteristic streams of Italian art cinema meet — neo-realism and carnival fantasy. In the theater the earthbound and the fantastic are embodied one in the other. And also, this world of showbiz is the real-life world of the filmmakers; it’s the world in which their reality and their fantasies coexist. I’m sure everyone working on this movie had lived it to some degree.

It had a strangely melancholic effect on me.

I was surprised at how affected I was by the implicit poignancy of a plot which, at heart, is all about fact that the very beautiful woman has a different status and fate from everyone around her. Something about the quasi-realist style made her movie-star looks feel imbued with almost unfair power and significance, as they would be in real life. Most movies just fill the screen with the prettiest people they can find, and the audience gets to comfortably rest their eyes on a blemishlessness that subconsciously relieves them of their own beauty anxieties. But here it was just the opposite; it was somehow painful that she had one of those perfect faces. Everyone in the movie is portrayed as ordinary-looking except for this one rather dippy person who is undeniably magnetic to look at — intoxicating to our protagonist Checco — and as a result seems to float untouchably through their lives toward a higher destiny. Yes, that destiny may turn out to be made of tinsel, but there’s still a sting in it for the rest of this world of clowns — to which we, the audience, belong.

By the way: I’m not talking about Giulietta Masina, whom the Criterion packaging claims as “starring.” I’m talking about Carla Del Poggio — the rapturous audience member in the clip — who is the actual female lead. Giulietta Masina is in the smaller role of the protagonist’s longtime girlfriend and dramatically-correct partner, from whom he strays as he becomes increasingly tantalized by Del Poggio’s charmed status. I get that Masina is beloved from her later Fellini roles, but trying to sell the movie by claiming that she’s the star is disingenuous. The star of the movie is in fact Peppino De Filippo. (Seen singing above.)

Similarly, the claim on the Criterion site that this is “Federico Fellini’s stunning debut film (directed in collaboration with neorealist filmmaker Alberto Lattuada)” is unfair. I gather from the Italian Wikipedia page that in fact this is very much a Lattuada movie, with Fellini’s primary contribution being as writer.

For what it’s worth, these two complaints are linked: Masina was Fellini’s wife, Del Poggio was Lattuada’s.

Tell ’em, Google translate:

“I do not understand – said Lattuada – because later Fellini has ridden the idea that Variety Lights was one more thing that’s mine, stealing somehow the authorship of the film; with all the masterpieces that made ​​does not need to Variety Lights to prop up his reputation.” Even two of the performers, and Silvio Dante Maggio Bagolini, confirmed this view, albeit with different accents.

Fellini intervened in connection with conflicting statements: “My first film was Variety Lights; directed and the subject were mine,” he said, while on another occasion he said that “the truth did all Lattuada, I only observe.”

They intervened on the subject finally the details of the White Lattuada which explained that the scenes from Fellini were only three: the melancholy of the company away from the lawyer’s house at dawn, meeting with black trumpet player in the night Roman and the awakening of the poor to the hotel. In defining the making of the film “seven tough weeks and unforgettable,” the Lattuada remembered that “the presence of Fellini on the set was quite humble, never went into the editing room and left the set a few days before the end of the shoot.”

(“White Lattuada” is the director’s sister Bianca, who served as production manager.)

Alberto Lattuada seems to be little known outside of Italy but that’s no reason for Criterion to downplay him. They of all people should know better. (They did eventually include another Lattuada film in the collection.)

This is at heart a very traditional kind of story built on very traditional material, but with just the right touch of modern humanistic nuance, I thought. Or at least very nearly just the right touch — there is still perhaps a bit of slack here and there, and some corn. But it has that splendid opening scene, a similarly warmly-observed party sequence in the middle, and a wonderfully unredemptive glimpse of “big time” showbiz near the end. Those three bits by themselves make it admirable to me. And there’s other good stuff in there. But most of all there’s the sweet melancholy of theater, the most absurd of the arts.

Theater is too absurd ever to fully succeed, too absurd ever to fully fail. The movie knew that, and reminded me that I knew it too.

Music by Felice Lattuada, the director’s father, in a competent operetta style, a bit old-fashioned. Conducted by Franco Ferrara. Here’s the main title.


October 10, 2015

Lone Survivor (2012)

developed by Superflat Games [= Jasper Byrne] (Cambridge, UK)
designed and written by Jasper Byrne

Lone Survivor is precisely what I am acknowledging there to be a zillion of: a miniature production that doesn’t outwardly seem very distinctive, despite actually being a painstaking attempt to put across some subtle emotional thing that is highly particular to its author. Hey, that’s what “art” is, isn’t it.

This is a textbook example of an indie “little pixel guy” game, a boom genre of our time. What lies in the hearts of little pixel guys? Are they doing good or evil? Are they visionary or lost? Will they prosper or are they doomed? Is the world for or against them? The spiritual condition of the little pixel guy is an endless source of interest to a certain mindset.

In this particular case, the little pixel guy is poignantly just getting by, lone surviving in a desolated monster-ridden city which may or may not be all a dream. If it’s a dream, it’s about grief over a dead lover. Which is to say it’s in the “Lost Lenore” category of the emo-pocalypse subgenre, also surprisingly well-populated these days.

Basically, it’s exactly what you see it to be in the trailer above. But despite all the magic creepiness that interactivity can offer — and the game is indeed quite creepy to play — the trailer is ultimately a more effective delivery system for the vibe than the game. My play experience got bogged down in design misjudgments, which I have articulated below at great length and then immediately cut and pasted into my dead letter file so that you don’t have to waste your time reading.

In superbrief: the design is overthunk and overtheorized, with attempts to create “interesting systems” that end up diluting the atmosphere that is the whole point. Atmosphere is not a system. Emotional experience is not “interest.” Imagination is not a collection of hypotheticals.

The game is not unsuccessful at being indie-particular and getting some of its special thing across. It feels mostly quite earnest, which is always good. It’s scary, and it’s peculiar enough that I genuinely wanted to see it through to the end, despite my irritations. But being a four-hour game full of lots of little variables (plus various incentives for repeated replay) doesn’t suit it. I would rather have done this as a streamlined 1-hour experience. Or, like I said, maybe best of all just as a 2-minute trailer. (In that spirit: here’s the slicker “Director’s Cut” trailer, synced to hipster dream-pop.)

It felt like a staple-bound self-published comic book. A high-quality one, well-trimmed and printed on good paper, and skilled, with spirited experimentation. But there’s a certain scale appropriate to such things. 32 pages, or 48. 64 starts to feel like a lot.

Maybe I’m just getting old. (“Maybe I’m just getting old.”) But, you know, four hours! Of little pixel guy hiding from zombies and making coffee in his apartment. That’s a long time.

October 5, 2015

Bastion (2011)

developed by Supergiant Games (San Jose, CA)
designed by Amir Rao and Greg Kasavin
written by Greg Kasavin

Next rule of 1-m cultural consumption: if I don’t like it, so be it. There’s a lot out there and of course I’m not going to enjoy it all. No need to do a negativity penance in the form of endless second chances.

Everyone online seems to really loooove this game but I didn’t. Everyone says it’s beautiful and short and sweet, but I was never actually charmed, and I stopped before it was over. “Short” is relative, after all. I played for 6 damn hours. That’s time I could have spent watching 45 Donald Duck cartoons, goddammit!! What’s the big idea? Blkhgh blkhgh blkhgh blkhgh blkhgh!

That’s my best attempt at typographic Duck.

The boldest thing about Bastion is that it has a narrator; a faux-gravelly faux-homespun voice tells the tale of the player’s progress as it’s happening. You heard him in the trailer; he goes like that the whole time while you’re playing. I think it’s intended to give a stronger sense of narrative drive to a game whose actual mechanics aren’t particularly narrative. For a lot of reviewers it seems to have worked. But the effect for me, unfortunately, was just the opposite: the narration came off as transparently aspirational, artificial ‘tude obviously unmerited by the onscreen action. Which just pointed up the awkward phoniness of the story being told, and of the needy pretensions of the game as a whole.

This particular narrator voice is, I feel sure, stolen from The Big Lebowski, which is indicative of the rather limited imaginative literacy at work here generally. If you want to tell a story that beguiles and moves me, you’re going to need to have a deeper bag of tricks to reach into than just the stack of DVDs and comics in your dorm room. This game tells a totally “epic” “tale” but the words “epic” and “tale” are cut and pasted from elsewhere, ransom-note style. Probably from the back of an anime DVD case.

The graphics and sound and music and kinetics are all perfectly polished and attractive. There’s just no glue in the interstices. It felt to me like a portfolio of game design elements rather than a game with a heart. “Heart” was one of the things in the portfolio, underlined heavily. Maybe if there hadn’t been that damn narrator telling me every 20 seconds that this was a hell of a tale, I might have found out what it really was — not actually a story game at all, but with kind of a story loosely off in the background. Like pinball. I can enjoy pinball, but not if someone stands over my shoulder doing a cowboy voice and saying “Ball tries going up the ramp… next thing he knows, he’s slidin’ back down. Well, no one ever said this was gonna be easy.”

I should also acknowledge my personal antipathy toward games with a lot of configurable options. Man, when I’m playing an action game in a fantasy world I so don’t want to have to care about a lot of configurable options. Whereas this game is pretty clearly designed around the player thinking that configurable options are the absolute bee’s knees. Mimesis meekly lays down flat on its face every few minutes so that you can have the pleasure of wrangling yet again with weapon selection and weapon upgrades and player power-ups etc. etc.

In the trailer, you’ll note that the first specific thing named and illustrated about the gameplay proper is “… this distillery, chock full of the finest spirits.” Understand that the “spirits in the distillery” are power-ups that the player can choose before each level; +10 Health and the like. To me it seems obvious that that sort of stuff shouldn’t be the first selling point in the trailer; it’s fundamentally auxiliary. Yet there it is, front and center. And it’s that way in the game too; all the real hoopla is reserved for the occasions when the game reveals awesome new opportunities to configure options! To me it’s more like the waiter who won’t go away. “Would you like some ground pepper on that bite, sir? No? And how about that bite, sir?…”

I just want to bop the little bad guys, which is the actual game of the game. I get the sense that the game is embarrassed to actually be a game about bopping little bad guys. Don’t worry, game, it’s okay. Embrace yourself. It would make this easier on all of us.

I was not nowhere, playing this game, I was at least partially somewhere. There were sounds and colors and presences, the insinuation of a something. I want to give it credit for that; that’s the main stuff, in games. But when a game is really working, that stuff coalesces into something strong and enveloping, whereas after 6 hours with Bastion there was still only that vague insinuation. Plus an ever-rising sense of tedium and annoyance. And now it’s months later and I’m not going to pick it up back up. I’m going to click “Publish” and move on.

October 2, 2015

Pincher Martin

William Golding (1911–1993)
Pincher Martin (1956)

035_Golding-library 035_Golding

Roll 37: 1551. William Golding: Pincher Martin.

This is the only work Bloom lists for William Golding, which is a little like only listing one novel by Bram Stoker and having it be Miss Betty. It’s yet another indefensible pretension on Professor Bloom’s part, in assembling a list that’s ostensibly his best guess as to which 20th-century works will persist as canonical. His words: “What I have omitted seem to me fated to become period pieces.” (Peering down my nose smugly harrumph harrumph. To the power of twenty.)

However, Pincher Martin is better than Miss Betty.

I made a tentative start in the library copy at left, then happened across the copy at right in a bookstore and started again.

This is as brutal as they come. The word I have been using is “grueling.” This is a book that sets out to hurt, to sting, to be hard.

When I wrote about Lord of the Flies I said that people like it because it’s just Halloween. This is not. There’s no reading this to savor the ghoulishness; or at least there wasn’t for me. It is existential horror, meant very seriously and only to be taken seriously.

In fact it is intended so seriously that where my core beliefs differed with the book I found the book difficult to comprehend. Where once I would have contorted my mind to his theology just for the sake of the sentences, now I had the sense to preserve myself and accept a degree of vagueness. My quantities for “man” and “nature” and “consciousness” and “greed” are not the same as his, and I’ve decided I like mine. Everything I said about Golding in the Lord of the Flies entry applies here several times over. Ontology is psychology; this is the ontology of a kind of pain to which I am no longer committed.

(Artistic spoiler coming, but it won’t mean anything to you if you’re not in the process of reading the book.) In the climactic sentence, Golding identifies the consuming nothingness of death, the irresistible force of Nature, as “a compassion that was timeless and without mercy.” This is astute and moving, given the order of the world he is exploring, but to me it’s also an admission of the psychology within which the author works.

A “compassion without mercy” is pure oxymoron to a well-adjusted personality, whereas it makes deep and poignant sense to a self-repressive one. The grand struggle depicted in the book, which Golding seems genuinely to believe to be that of man against his own nature, of consciousness against its existential status, is actually just the struggle of one mental tendency against another. It’s a struggle whose resolution or lack thereof is not existential. Nature is not only death, and one’s feeling even about death is not necessarily horror. I’m not sure Golding believed that.

I recognize that the protagonist is not entirely an everyman, he is a particular furious, amoral, stubborn, demonically defiant individual, a Captain Ahab type. But Moby-Dick is clearly not of and by Ahab; it’s delivered in the voice of another mindset entirely. Pincher Martin allows room for anti-Martin interpretation but it certainly doesn’t spell it out. The impression given by the work as a whole is that this man’s struggle may be grotesque but that it is archetypal on a grand scale. Christopher Martin is not just a personality type; he’s the human condition. Or at least he’s a human condition.

That distinction is important. Which is it? How universal a statement is this meant to be? Golding’s intentions on this point are very hard to read. There are characters in Martin’s flashbacks who put forward positions of relative moral grace, but of course they aren’t existential centers. They aren’t the self, within this artistic universe.

All I can say is that the supreme brutality of the prose gives no indication that this artistic vision is being moderated or qualified. It is full force.

The ambition is about as high as one can aim and the artistic achievement is real. It is highly admirable stuff and I have no regrets about the time or emotions spent in reading it.

But I do differ with it.

Here’s an excerpt from early in the book.

Where we are: our protagonist’s ship has been torpedoed in the mid-Atlantic. He has been blown into the water, and has chanced to wash up on an isolated rock. He has hoisted himself to the top and now, utterly battered and exhausted, has found a crevice to lie in for shelter. All of this has been accomplished in what seems perhaps to be a state of compromised consciousness. This is the start of chapter 4:

The man was inside two crevices. There was first the rock, close and not warm but at least not cold with the coldness of sea or air. The rock was negative. It confined his body so that here and there the shudders were beaten; not soothed but forced inward. He felt pain throughout most of his body but distant pain that was sometimes to be mistaken for fire. There was dull fire in his feet and a sharper sort in either knee. He could see this fire in his mind’s eye because his body was a second and interior crevice which he inhabited. Under each knee, then, there was a little fire built with crossed sticks and busily flaring like the fire that is lighted under a dying camel. But the man was intelligent. He endured these fires although they gave not heat but pain. They had to be endured because to stand up or even move would mean nothing but an increase of pain — more sticks and more flame, extending under all the body. He himself was at the far end of this inner crevice of flesh. At this far end, away from the fires, there was a mass of him lying on a lifebelt that rolled backwards and forwards at every breath. Beyond the mass was the round, bone globe of the world and himself hanging inside. One half of this world burned and froze but with a steadier and bearable pain. Only towards the top half of his world there would sometimes come a jab that was like a vast needle prying after him. Then he would make seismic convulsions of whole continents on that side and the jabs would become frequent but less deep and the nature of that part of the globe would change. There would appear shapes of dark and grey in space and a patch of galactic whiteness that he knew vaguely was a hand connected to him. The other side of the globe was all dark and gave no offence. He floated in the middle of this globe like a waterlogged body. He knew as an axiom of existence that he must be content with the smallest of all small mercies as he floated there. All the extensions with which he was connected, their distant fires, their slow burnings, their racks and pincers were at least far enough away. If he could hit some particular mode of inactive being, some subtlety of interior balance, he might be allowed by the nature of the second crevice to float, still and painless in the centre of the globe.

Sometimes he came near this. He became small, and the globe larger until the burning extensions were interplanetary. But this universe was subject to convulsions that began in deep space and came like a wave. Then he was larger again, filling every corner of the tunnels, sweeping with shrieking nerves over the fires, expanding in the globe until he filled it and the needle jabbed through the corner of his right eye straight into the darkness of his head. Dimly he would see one white hand while the pain stabbed. Then slowly he would sink back into the center of the globe, shrink and float in the middle of a dark world. This became a rhythm that had obtained from all ages and would endure so.

This is not a special effect; most of the book is like this. The objective and the subjective, external and internal, are always intermingled.

I find it both thrilling and harrowing, to see substrata of conscious experience articulated on the page. Perhaps some of the electricity I feel in reading this stuff is specific to me personally, as someone who has struggled with horror in these same dissociative internal zones.

That kind of electricity is valuable; it means that the art is offering contact to rarely contacted parts of myself, live wires. For all that I came away with reservations about its particular vision, above all the book reminded me how unfortunate it is that most other artists just inherit their most basic existential premises, and never question them. It doesn’t need to be so.

Pincher Martin is about consciousness as an ordeal, but it’s still rewarding because it’s about consciousness at all. There are lots of other claims that could be made in the same conceptual space, and I’d probably prefer one of them. But I was deeply grateful simply to have been invited into that space. It is too rare a thing.

October 1, 2015

Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010)

developed by Frictional Games (Helsingborg, Sweden)
designed by Thomas Grip and Jens Nilsson
written by Mikael Hedberg
story by Thomas Grip and Mikael Hedberg

Part of the new “1-m” attitude toward these computer game entries is: less OCD infobox stuff at the top. Director + writer continues to feel solid and sufficient at the top of the Criterion entries, so I figure an equivalent here is studio + designer. And writer where applicable. Done.

I also am finally getting it through my head that most people just aren’t inclined to click inline links, so hey, how about an embedded Youtube video of the game trailer? Much more reader-friendly.

I’ve considered adding trailers to the Criterion entries, too. But there are some snags involved. Unlike game trailers, movie trailers generally aren’t posted and maintained by the official owners, so quality would be variable and I’d be setting myself up for a lot of broken links down the road. Also Youtube isn’t as complete a repository of old movie trailers as you might think. But it might be a good idea anyway. Gonna continue considering it.

Amnesia is supposed to be a nightmare that haunts you for days, and the general buzz out there says that it is indeed. And it probably would have been, had I not deliberately spoilered it for myself, because I have no interest in having a nightmare that haunts me for days. A one-off nightmare that quickly fades, that I don’t mind. But basically, I’m scared of being too scared, and this game is renownedly scary. So I defanged it by reading carefully about what I was in for. That did the job.

Being scary is the function of Amnesia; other than the carefully calibrated atmosphere, there’s not much going on here. The game is basically a string of “go get the key to unlock the door” scenarios, twist-tied to a completely genre-typical goth-schloth story about otherworldly forces and torture-based alchemy. Basically it’s Dracula with precipitate of Lovecraft, overwritten, which is to say it’s exactly what you assume as soon as you see the haunted castle environs. “Oh, there’s totally going to be a secret laboratory with corpses on whom unspeakable experiments have been done, and long boring pen-and-ink letters to read that make papery noises as you turn the pages.” Well DUH.

The threat, meanwhile, is basically just a moaning, lumbering zombie with a screamo face, who doesn’t have a very sophisticated ability to hunt for you once you’re out of his line of sight.

But you don’t know that for sure until you’ve been playing for a while. And therein lies the brilliance of the game. “Uh oh, I hear a monster coming, I need to hide … oh god, do you think it’ll be able to see me if I crouch over here? I don’t know, dude!! Maybe it will!! Oh shit oh shit oh shit!! … Oh shit it’s still there!!! … Okay I think it went away. I guess it didn’t see me. Oh god that was scary…

This is the part of game-playing that in any other game would be considered the tutorial phase, where you haven’t quite gotten the hang of it yet, haven’t wrapped your head around the rules, figured out just how things behave and what to expect. Amnesia deliberately draws that phase out to last for most of the game. They don’t want you to know what to expect, because that’s not how horror works. Instead they want to keep you in that initial trust-testing frame of mind, where you’re trying to cobble together a sense of how the game reality might work by starting with your own real-world intuitions — always far more nuanced and alive than any game’s actual mimetic system — and then gradually paring them back.

Amnesia says, “Hey, no need to pare back those intuitions. Make yourself at home in a game of your own projection — we won’t interfere.” The haunted house in Amnesia feels like a real, potent haunted house because the game is asserting itself as little as possible, leaving you with all your guesses. “I don’t know, dude, maybe it knows where you are!!! Maybe the walls are, like, watching you!!!

This is why it was so utterly spoilerable. The actual what-goes-on of what goes on is no big deal. But the process of finding out what goes on, working only from your own Dracular intuitions — plus the creaks and moans and shadows that the game carefully stages — is, I’m sure, intensely nerve-wracking. I still found the game “creepy,” “scary,” “atmospheric,” but I basically sidestepped that essential process of sifting it out, picking it out of a lineup from among the shadows of my own imagination.

So maybe I kind of sidestepped the heart of the game. And, having gotten genuine pleasure out of the Halloweeny vibe and the slow, thoughtful pacing, maybe I kind of regret that. In retrospect. But being open to horror is about trust — and I just don’t. Not strangers, not something I downloaded off the internet. Hell no. How could I? The whole wide uncensored world simply isn’t trustworthy that way.

But now I know, these particular Swedish guys turn out to be basically trustworthy. Despite all the heaping schlockola — let’s just agree, no more games where interdimensional evil manifests as fleshy organic matter sprouting from the walls, okay everyone? — this game was clearly designed with intelligence, theatricality, and genuine affection, and that’s all engaging stuff. These same designers just a week ago released their long-awaited next game, another “classy, atmospheric” horror story, and it’s getting great reviews. Perhaps someday I’ll truly submit myself to that one, put my fear at its mercy the way I didn’t with Amnesia.

I’d rather trust than not; it’s more fun! But I have to baby step my way there.

I guess actually that’s my biggest happy takeaway from this game: 5 years ago when everyone online was talking about how Amnesia was the scariest game ever OMG, I worried that it was some kind of gross-out jump-scare shockfest, and that nobody has any taste at all. But hooray, they do! Relatively.

(Then again, I just watched the trailer for their new game again and it sure looks like there’s fleshy organic matter sprouting from the walls. Come on, guys! I thought we had an agreement.)