Yearly Archives: 2015

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.)

September 28, 2015

80. The Element of Crime (1984)

directed by Lars Von Trier
written by Lars von Trier and Niels Vørsel

2000: 080 box 1


Criterion #80.

to this particular entry
after a minor hiatus

I was just looking at one of those sites that sells a bazillion indie computer games that nobody’s ever heard of, and I thought: “Man, there are a bazillion of these things. I’ve been trying to make a point of playing them and writing about them like there aren’t, like the one I’m writing about is in some way important. But I think that might be making me crazy. It’s good to acknowledge that there are a bazillion of things that there are a bazillion of.”

If I declared that here on my B-Log I was going to write a separate entry about each and every M&M I eat — that’s a fine project with a book deal built into it — it would be right and good for me to always keep in mind that M&Ms are plentiful. And let my writing reflect that.

That is, to remember that an individual M&M has only one “m” on it. So too does any given book, movie or game have only one “m” on it.

That goes for those horrid ones with arms and legs, too.

Speaking of which, here’s an apparently true sentence that made me laugh when I read it a few hours ago:

“On September 24, 1982, the Care Bears franchise was launched in New York City before members of the area’s Society of Security Analysts.”

I’m picturing something like The Witches.

Now on to our scheduled programming.

On the disc, there’s a documentary of Lars Von Trier being quite relatable, personable, not at all the smug provocateur I had been taught to be wary of. I’ve never seen any of his other movies (except for The Five Obstructions, which doesn’t really count). Here I saw him being nervous, nervy, but basically humane and well-intentioned and sensitive, and felt comfortable, retroactively, with the movie I had just watched.

It’s a high-fangled film-schooler moonshot, Von Trier’s first movie, something made by some very young guys with big big artistic ambitions. They mostly succeed. Yeah, there are some problems with proportion, and maybe also problems with funness, but I admire the moxie and the love of craft and the basic, undeniable level of aesthetic achievement. Willfully unappetizing though it may all be.

Actually I can’t even complain that the aesthetics are of no value to me, because that’s not true. I’m interested in trance and hypnosis and states of consciousness between waking and sleep, and so is the movie. That’s the explicit justification for the high-MTV bad-dream stylings — the protagonist gets put under hypnosis at the very beginning, to explore his repressed memories. But I think it’s also the actual rationale for all the artsy choices, and I respect that.

The whole thing is a sopping yellow nightmare, the slow dripping sickly kind of nightmare that never makes quite enough sense or reaches quite enough of a crisis to wake you up. It’s all shot in Piss Christ underwater sepia and its attention oozes around nauseously like your mind when you’ve got the flu. That’s the project and that’s basically the achievement. Hooray, you did it!

You might read that The Element of Crime is a “take” on detective-movie conventions, but I came to it expecting post-modern gamesmanship (or some kind of Alphaville gaseousness) when in fact it’s not at all like that. It’s really just that its subconscious has been fed some movies and is using them to give form to its uneasy arthouse dream, which is another sort of beast entirely. If you’re here for “neo-noir,” you’re outta luck. Sure, there’s a crime and an investigation and a solution and a twist and all that, but they only function the way those things do in my real-life dreams: as borrowed bodies for my churning emotions. I admire how conscientiously it’s been done, in fact. In the abstract.

In the actual viewing, though — when I don’t “admire,” I just watch — all it could be was, at best, simply like having one of those dreams. Except not half so intense, because it’s just a movie. I respect the effort but maybe Von Trier aimed a little high for his first film (“hey look at me everybody!”) — it’s like he deliberately addressed himself to the most incommunicable experiential state he could, the feverish sub-dream. Something of it comes across, but of course it’s not the thing itself, just a careful evocation of it. Given how bodily overwhelming the thing itself is — and how that’s the point — a mere evocation feels a bit pale and conceptual.

Having seen the interviews on the disc, I’m sure Von Trier was getting at stuff that was true for him, that he pulled up from an honest place inside. The psychology of the plot is, I see in retrospect, fairly astute. I’ve sent a lot of people to the video of Fritz Perls telling a woman to say “I” about each of the elements of her dream, to recognize them each as a facet of herself. She’s recounting a hopeful dream. This is basically the nightmare version of same: The world is horrifying, eh? Now say “I,” “I am horrifying.”

I believe in that. But this is not in the least a therapeutic movie. Like I said about Autumn Sonata: the writer’s psychological insight hits its limit, and then we’re left with the authoritative assertion of the inevitability of whatever scares him. That said, it was relatable. I found the very final moments of The Element of Crime effective and unnerving.

I can relate to what scares Lars Von Trier. Let’s call it “I.”

This is all meant to be enthusiastic faint praise, and not more. I admired it, with some condescension, and only very slightly enjoyed it. It was, to be honest, a bit tedious. It’s a mega-artsy first film about being in a nauseating monochromatic trance. Do the math.

Basically, it’s no Mary Poppins. But it has its virtues.

You know, like Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

Music is by Bo Holten. It’s all trudging, ominous lugubriousness, exactly in keeping with the visuals and as such does its assignment very well. Hooray for you, too!

There are some much longer, more hair-raising cues than the following, but not a single piece of music is entirely in the clear — every musical moment has been layered with either muttering or sound effects. In fact even this selection is just the exposed tail end of a cue that had been running under a scene of dialogue. And even this has some sfx. But it’s what there is; everything else was even less usable. Anyway it’s all very much in the same vein.

This is the music from the “dead horse hanging from a crane” scene. Which I’m just now reading is a visual quote from Eisenstein. I wasn’t aware. But I was aware that opening shot of a struggling horse was a direct quote from Andrei Rublev.

Film-schoolers, like I said.


August 14, 2015

10 years of this

Oops. Looks like I missed the proper “10 years of broomlet” anniversary, which would have been on June 20.

In a Tristram Shandy spirit of embracing the arbitrary, I will instead celebrate “10 years since the entry about Tristram Shandy.” Which is today!

(“Speech, speech!”)

Thank you, thank you. I couldn’t have done it without me.

Ten years is a long time — but then again so is one year, and so too is a million years.


July 8, 2015

79. W.C. Fields: 6 Short Films (1915, 1930, 1932–1933)

2000: 079 box 1 (OOP 4/2013)


Criterion #79.

This is a DVD transfer of a Voyager laserdisc not initially published under the Criterion banner. The very last such, in fact; copyright 1995 but reportedly not released until 1998, after the Voyager Company proper had already been dissolved. I went and looked at the catalog of Voyager non-Criterion laserdiscs and there’s all sorts of odd stuff in there. (The Best of TED 2 (1990)?!)

The DVD, like its laserdisc predecessor, has no bonus features, and the essay is uninspired.

1) Pool Sharks (1915)

directed by Edwin Middleton
[written by W.C. Fields]


I watched it and immediately wrote:

Mean-spirited, asinine, and lazily put together. See young W.C. Fields as a normal-looking guy who wasn’t predestined to be a piggish alcoholic creep — he just made himself turn out that way. All the pointless knockabout finger-in-the-eye crap seen here is leading him in that direction.

He just seems like a jerk. You want to believe that jerks will get their comeuppance and I tend to feel he did, by turning into a cartoon snowman.

But comedy is a strange beast and, I suppose, so am I. There’s more than one way to plug in to a farce, more than one place to stand in relation to the laugh. I don’t mind laughing at the petty brutality of men as long as I believe that I’m laughing along with the clowns. So: am I? Was W.C. Fields a sad and angry man with an unreflective belief in showbiz, or a hopeful man who wanted to poke fun at sadness and anger? Are those necessarily different things?

The more comfortable I get with myself, the more I understand that all my responses to anything are fleeting and eccentric. And so are everyone else’s, so criticism as a discipline doesn’t really exist. When I looped back to the beginning to grab frames after having watched the whole disc, the soul of this first outing seemed to have moved in the right direction. Maybe all the knockabout is just like kids playing, and maybe that’s fine.

The Raymond Rohauer-ized sloppy organ music and tacky intertitles, added much later, don’t help it at all. The music sets the tone in silents, and this music sets a tone of distracted, uninterested insensitivity. Maybe W.C. deserved better. Or at least I did.

2) The Golf Specialist (1930)

directed by Monte Brice
[written by W.C. Fields]


15 years later, still wearing a bad Charlie Chaplin moustache. The man liked golf, had a golf stage routine, and here it is, past its prime, being somewhat clumsily put to film after having been perfected (and exhausted) by decades of vaudeville use.

That’ll be a good description of all of the remaining films. This is like seeing some dinosaur band from the 70s that’s still touring, still singing their one big hit. One one hand, the routines have the benefit of years of familiarity and confidence; on the other hand, by the time he got around to filming this stuff, Fields’ relationship to the material has gotten so professional and removed that the clear eye of the camera is unflattering. Practiced vaudevillians — and one can still observe this at circuses and in magicians, party clowns, and all the street and amusement-park performers who do their act every hour on the hour — develop a kind of well-oiled superhuman efficiency that defies psychological viewing. They are not unicycling or juggling or clowning as a person, quite, but more as a kind of person-shaped ritualistic being with no interior. This has the virtue of seeming magical, but the price is that it is completely dependent on that magic. Pop the balloon and the show is suddenly very hollow, very sad. The cold scrutiny of film can be destructive in that regard. In close-up there’s not a lot of magic to be seen here, just a jowly man who used to do this stuff every hour on the hour.

The movie has a circus seediness that stands apart from the seediness of the persona and actually detracts from it. Or at least it did for me.

Of course, maybe that magic has to be brought and I just wasn’t bringing it. I know that when I was a kid I loved the anti-psychological ritualism of comedy, loved it as arbitrary rhythmic stuff to memorize that stood in absurdly for people. And surely W.C. Fields did too; that’s what all the peculiar non sequiturs and silly names are for. In this film, “J. Effingham Bellweather” is a wanted man, with a Woody Allen list of crimes:


Exactly that kind of stuff would be funny to me if a) it were funnier, and b) I weren’t already on the defensive against all these damn carnies.

3) The Dentist (1932)

directed by Leslie Pearce
[written by W.C. Fields]


The remaining four films were produced right in a row by Mack Sennett — the very last things he did before his career ended in bankruptcy — and distributed by Paramount. These all star the iconic, cranky, moustacheless Fields.

The routine here is “An Episode at the Dentist’s,” as performed in “Earl Carroll’s Vanities,” a Ziegfeld knockoff show from 1928. (This is the skit for which Mr. William C. Fields was taken to court for cruelty to a canary. That’s the kind of thing that a commentary track could talk about, if there were one.)

As you might imagine, W.C. Fields is a rather insensitive dentist. Some golf has also been stuck in there.

This film can be summarized by the immortal line of dialogue:

4) The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)

directed by Clyde Bruckman
[written by W.C. Fields]


Suddenly this. Here’s where my response started to shift.

This was a centerpiece of the “W.C. Fields as counterculture icon” phenomenon in the 60s. At one level it’s a straightforward parody of sentimental melodramas and morality plays, but the target is so soft and the delivery so slow and deadpan that most of it feels like a pure surrealism.

The underlying soul in this case can be imagined, if you’re so inclined, to be knowing and weary and philosophical in its absurdism. Poor W.C. Fields, having to live on Earth among the tawdry things of man. So the 60s wanted to believe. But I think it’s actually just the same old performer-as-marionette act described above, caught on a different day.

It’s a pretty good day. I particularly liked the bit when Fields is filling his mouth to the brim with two different kinds of bread while his son emotes.

The routine was called “The Stolen Bonds” and comes from the same 1928 revue as the preceding, though one wonders if the basic material might well have been floating around a lot longer. The archetype of which this is a parody is surely from 1890 or earlier.

I’d never seen this before but somewhere I’m certain I’d seen the famous running gag reenacted. (“And it ain’t a fit night out for man or beast.” [: snow in the face]) Where was that? Does Woody Allen do it in Love and Death? Is it in Airplane? It certainly informed them both.

“Fine, fine,” I thought, “I guess W.C. Fields did some good in the world after all.”

5) The Pharmacist (1933)

directed by Arthur Ripley
story by W.C. Fields


This was my favorite one. Based on a 1925 Ziegfeld routine.

I was tickled not just by the performance but the mere fact of the bit where the inevitable “thing that bothers him” is having to listen to his daughter on the phone with “Cuthbert.” (“No, Cuthbert! Really, Cuthbert? Well who told you that, Cuthbert? Oh, Cuthbert… oh, Cuthbert, that’s very very funny!”)

Most of all I laughed out loud at the sight gag about the free giveaway. I won’t spoil it.

I think this one worked best for me because even the character of the protagonist is up for grabs. Is he in the wrong? In the right? Surrounded by morons? A moron himself? Whatever works; it’s just nonsense time. “And now for something completely different.” I feel immeasurably more at home in that environment than I do in the lair of a jerk.

6) The Barber Shop (1933)

directed by Arthur Ripley
story by W.C. Fields


Retreads a lot of the same ground as The Pharmacist and The Dentist. (Not to mention The Bank Dick.) I like the zaniness spectrum that extends all the way from the sweet hominess of him delighting in his son’s terrible cat jokes to the Daliesque surrealism of the reproducing doublebass… but the centerpiece is torture with a dull razor and, as with the dentist’s drill, I don’t quite get the joke. Is it supposed to be the gratuitousness of the whole schtick? Maybe my nerves have been too dulled by the harsher stuff of later generations for me to giggle at the perversity of my torment, as I’m supposed to? I don’t know. I’m stretching.

The needless recurrences in comedy seem strangely telling, though I couldn’t say quite what they’re telling. Here is a partial catalogue of William Claude Dukenfield’s dream consciousness:

• A figure of benevolent authority is actually not competent or worthy of trust.
• A bank robber is miraculously foiled.
• A daughter is seeing a doofus against her father’s wishes. The father eventually gives up.
• Golf.

I’m not really going anywhere with this because I don’t feel it. As I’ve done before, I’ll just type up the list of topics I’m not pursuing and that’ll do the job for me.

• The “implicit sympathies” of a particular cultural moment, and the differences in implicit sympathies between then and now.
• The legacy of vaudeville / the extremely protracted death and transfiguration of vaudeville.
• The mimetic status of the “skit.” The mimetic status of the “short.” The mimetic status of a single joke.
• The trope lexicon of middlebrow humor; the in-itself significance of recruiting things from outside the standard lexicon (e.g. the existential “meaning” of a cockatoo or a doublebass appearing in this context; or see the absurdist list of crimes above).
• The condition of all humor as stemming from the subconscious of the purveyor, and thus the purity of Fields’s “noncommittal” approach. / But: the burden on the audience to share the subconscious of the comedian or else see the humor simply as a symptom.
•• The destructive effect to society as a whole created by the application of broader and broader communication technologies to non-overlapping psychologies. In god’s eyes there are no jokes, nothing to snicker at; from the god’s-eye-view of the global internet era we have boxed ourselves out of our own senses of humor, which is nothing less than our own smallness.

Aren’t you glad I didn’t go there? Orange you glad I didn’t say “mimetic status”?

Main title from The Fatal Glass of Beer, composer/musicians unknown. (Head of the music department at Mack Sennett’s production company was apparently one Bernie Grossman but I don’t think that means he necessarily did much of the composing.)

There are cute “comedy” band cues at the start and finish of all the sound films, but I like to pick original music whenever possible and I doubt any of that music was original — it sounds like roughly spliced library music, probably from earlier Sennett productions, or perhaps even bought from other studios. Who knows. Whereas the present bit of parody “old-time” music has clearly been made special to order for the throwback parody melodrama of The Fatal Glass of Beer. The sound of the Mack Sennett logo dog barking at the top there confirms that this music isn’t the result of later meddling by the distributors (as reportedly some of it is).

Sounds like this was done as cheaply as possible: two musicians making it up on the spot.


June 30, 2015

78. The Bank Dick (1940)

directed by Edward Cline
written by “Mahatma Kane Jeeves” (W.C. Fields)

2000: 078 box 1 (out of print September 2004)

Criterion #78.

After decades of fake W.C. Fieldses, I finally saw the real thing. And sure enough, it’s a thing that cries out to be imitated. This is a man who deliberately rendered himself impression-worthy. Insofar as his caginess and cruelty and melodious drawling is a vaudeville act, I’m all for it. There’s something inspired and almost hypnotic about the way the “W.C. Fields” schtick is glum and gritty yet at the same time, in its elocutional filigree, airy and unreal. It feels to me like a holdover from a 19th-century sense of humor; it has something of the Mark Twain school about it. I enjoy getting that kind of Rosetta Stone access to the entertainment culture of a more distant past, since pre-20th-century humor can often seem like an uncrackable nut.

However, in this particular movie — Fields’s second-to-last — I couldn’t find any real mirth. Even when in theory I liked the material and endorsed the idea of “W.C. Fields” doing it, I was still saddened and oppressed by the fact that the man onscreen was so obviously a genuine depressive alcoholic, doing his murky best to stay on the ball and give the people what they came for, even though by this point in life his drinking had mostly consumed him. All his physical comedy is artifical and inexpert; all the verbal play comes across as slack and distracted. His performance is generally labored and sloppy.

But mostly the problem is his eyes. You can barely see them; they’ve been swallowed up by the heavy mask of impassive meat that his face has become. How can there be comedy without eyes, without openness? He’s presented as some kind of protagonist, an antihero or a clown or something, but all I can see is the deadening sadness that’s turned him into an inexpressive pigface. He can’t even rate “buffoon”; he’s too far away. This is someone who has fled almost completely into his interior, out of sight. Look: even the cartoon Fields in the title card above has no eyes, or soul, to speak of. He’s just an outline with a big nose. The movie shuttles this expressionless caricature back and forth like a paper doll, in apparent attempt to generate Laffs by static electricity.

Shemp Howard is in the movie, playing the bartender (and occasionally whistling the Three Stooges theme): another face like a slab of beef, always depressing to me for the same reasons. The eyes of the Three Stooges are spiritually drained, inexpressive, even when they’re pulling “wacky” faces. There’s no disguising that they are utterly walled-off inside, even from their own comedy. The very fact that there is a wide audience of people who chortle and cheer at their dead-eyed simulacrum of zaniness — or for that matter at The Bank Dick, which is in fact quite beloved — saddens me in itself. Why can’t people see what I can see, that this is all a grim charade by a bunch of guys who aren’t fully present? I get scared that it’s because my fellow audience members are dead inside too, and so can’t afford to distinguish between a person and a “person.” I don’t want to go among such people.

This movie had that heavy working-class feeling of rough, narrow laughter emanating from a resentful worldview. The most famous line from the movie is, apparently, this one, where Fields asks the bartender:

I can hear that it’s a well-formed vaudeville joke in the classic style, that it’s pleased with itself and confident as such… but I’ve been over this many times in my head and I just don’t think it’s actually as funny as the delivery (and fame) seems to imply. At a Chico and Groucho pace, rattled off in 6 seconds, I could get behind this as a cute twist punchline, but drawn out to 15 seconds as it is, it feels like the emphasis is on the real substance, on the psychology and character of this man for whom a memory-erasing $20 bender ($20 1940 = $335.44 2015) is a matter of course. I stop wanting to laugh, and I start getting uncomfortable with the people who do, who want to spend 15 seconds in this self-destructive space.

Try saying “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I don’t know” — but take 10 seconds to do it. The joke disappears and the line becomes sort of ominous, doesn’t it? What’s wrong with this man? What is he getting at?

(I just had the impulse to check the two deliveries against a metronome. Groucho’s pacing is, to my ear, very clearly at 80 bpm. W.C. is doing 48 bpm.)

W.C. Fields in this movie feels to me very close to the line of personhood throughout, but usually on the wrong side of it. I was always rooting for him to really show up and spit poison, or honey — or deadpan pointedly — but it never quite happened. His eyes never sparkle and back up the persona. He just sort of drifts around like an alcoholic. An actual alcoholic.

Of course, all these kinds of fears and sadnesses are just my own personal burden and may not have to do with anything real. It’s possible that The Bank Dick will seem inoffensive and amusing somewhere down the line when I’m in a different state of mind. But I don’t think I’m wrong in being aware that this is W.C. Fields past his prime and trying to hold it together. Probably it would have been better to start with his earlier work and develop a sense of trust in him as a performer before getting into this late stuff. On the other hand, perhaps it was good to start here — now everything else will seem lively and vigorous by comparison. Maybe.

We’ll see very shortly!

To be fair, there’s some lightly funny stuff. I liked the “hearty handclasp” and the “paisley shawl” and the silly names. I liked when Una Merkel comes in at the beginning and nasals “hello” to everyone. She seems to be amusing herself. (The maid from The Parent Trap! Boy, I would never have been able to come up with that.)

It could have been worse. Maybe someday I’ll be sleepier and it will come on TV and all seem hilarious.

Connection to the preceding: gosh, this is hard. I just barely retained the preceding movie.

They each star a screen icon much better known for being “a screen icon” than for any actual work he/she did.

That’s lame but it’s what there is.

The Criterion disc has no bonus features whatsoever. Furthermore it’s been OOP since 2004 and is unavailable from any of my sources. Given these two facts I have allowed myself absolutely unprecedented license and watched this movie on the currently available non-Criterion edition. Insert as many exclamation points here as you feel are merited, and then please do compare closely and see if you don’t agree that in this case the substitution was indeed harmless.

Except of course for the harm done to my integrity, my reputation, my trust. From here on down the slippery slope, you’ll no longer be able to believe me when I post about Criterion movies. For all you know I may not even have watched them.

But heck, maybe I haven’t actually watched any of them thus far, either, and have been making up all these “responses” out of whole cloth! That would be quite a twist.

The only music credit is Charles Previn as “musical director.” Charles Previn (André’s great uncle) was head of the music department at Universal, with a stable of staff composers working under him. The word online seems to be that most of the music in The Bank Dick is actually by Frank Skinner (1897–1968), and that some, or maybe all of it, is tracked from other movies.

As far as I can ascertain, the following Main Title is unique to this movie and is probably by Skinner, but these things aren’t well documented. From the sound of it, this piece could just as easily be “Comedy Loop #34” from the Universal library — it sounds a lot like newsreel music. It certainly does not sound like the The Bank Dick, which neither hustles nor bustles.

That all said, I do generally enjoy that old Hollywood newsreel library music — an endless cavalcade of Allegro moderato — and wish there were albums of it. It’s the American spiritual state of the era encapsulated: “well now!” Its vagueness, the way it combines complacency with excitability, is intriguing to me. So I’m quite happy to be adding this track to my Criterion master playlist.

As you’ll hear, I’ve broken another of my protocols, and allowed dialogue into this one. Mostly it’s because I didn’t have a choice, but it was easy for me to rationalize it; for the real vaudeville atmosphere I think a little spoken-word is quite in order. Here we hear two passersby observing our hero’s name on the mailbox.

The “accent grave,” which is a running gag throughout the film, is a big (sic); it’s of course actually an accent aigu on “Egbert Sousé.” Did Fields know? He may have and just not cared. Certainly he was right that “accent grave” is a very W.C. Fieldsy thing to say over and over. Go ahead and try it.


June 28, 2015

Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP (2011)

developed by Superbrothers and Capybara Games (Toronto, Ontario, CA)
first released March 24, 2011, for iPad, $4.99
[PC version trailer]

Played to 100% completion in 4 hours, 6/23/15–6/24/15.

[complete ~1.5 hour playthrough in 6 segments]

In the afternoon of Thursday, May 31, 2012, I received an announcement email about “Humble Indie Bundle V,” which contained five games, of which I was already genuinely interested in about four. I immediately purchased it for a full $10, feeling that I had gotten more than my money’s worth from the previous bundles and ought to take the “pay what you think is right” thing seriously. Also, I was employed at the time so didn’t feel quite as frightened as usual about spending money.

The five games, in the order they appeared on the website, were: Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP, which I did not touch until just now; LIMBO, which I played and enjoyed soon afterward; Amnesia: The Dark Descent, which I’ve started up once (very nervously) but only played for a few minutes; Psychonauts, which I had already played in its entirety on the PS2 back in 2005, but was happy to purchase in PC form so that I could easily return to it or push it on other people; and Bastion, which I have as yet not played at all.

This entry has already been written and deleted twice, in full. The game is thoroughly “hipster,” and that’s a subject that can send me off on long, tortured jags. I’m committed to writing these entries in one go and not agonizing, but I really didn’t like what I was putting out there in either of the previous drafts, so here I am yet again.

I think my mistake was launching straight into “analysis” instead of just trying to convey my experience, letting any analysis arise organically as a tool to that end. That might not be an obvious distinction to the reader, but I think it works out to be something the reader benefits from.

My experience of Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP was that there was something very tasty and worthwhile here, which I kept trying to bring to the center of my palate, but that there was also the gristle of hipsterism in every bite, preventing the underlying flavor from ever coming into its own. There is a lovely cucumber soup implicit in the fantasy forest twilight ambiance, in the exquisite pixel-art graphics and corresponding dreamy music… and then the soup is given just a little extra hipster zing by the addition of a few lardons, croutons, oyster crackers, jalapeno flakes, pizza bites, chocolate-covered edamame, Corn Pops, and also fuck it how about some dirt, ’cause, you know, “soup,” what’s that all about? #thatmomentwhen

This is not overstated.

Case study: the title. This is a game about a good old mythical quest in a mythical forest, hence “sword and sorcery.” This has been tweaked to “sword and sworcery” in an attempt to lay better claim to the phrase on the game’s own terms, but note that this a deliberately doofy in-quotes pun, one of the staples of hipster argot. (Subtext: “Remember being so simple and innocent as to still make puns? How delicious that was. But make no mistake: we’re sophisticates now, burdened with full censorious awareness of how asinine puns are. Our former innocence is actually an embarrassment. Ha ha we’re making light of it.”)

So far OK, but there’s more. Sword and Sworcery is being presented as though a game is like a rock album. At its core this is a very old idea, going back to Electronic Arts in 1983, but these guys want to be newly fetishistic about it. We know that Sword and Sworcery is an album because it has the “band name,” Superbrothers, shoehorned right into the title. And then the coup de grace: what kind of album is this? Any hipster worth his lardons can tell you that of course it has to be a vinyl EP. And that this, too, needs to be articulated outright in the title to get full credit for it.

Dealing with the string of words Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP exactly encapsulates the player experience in dealing with the game. The various affectations cut against each other and create an anxious little blur of overkill. It’s headache-inducing and erodes the core aesthetic experience.

But here’s where I feel an uneasy ambivalence. The hipster ideology is that this, this itchy, sweet/salty/umami/Trix teary-eyed/tongue-in-cheek overintellectualized/faux-naif fetishistic/sentimental post-postmodern pile-up — which corresponds to their internal psychological pile-up — this is a legitimate aesthetic experience… and I have to admit, they’ve got me there. The artistic answer to “Will it blend?” is always “yes.” The question is really whether the audience wants to stomach it. I can only speak for myself.

I guess my thing with hipsters is that their psyches have been subjected to a sickening Bass-O-Matic process that has utterly intermingled their anxious defense mechanisms with their authentic souls. Then they come to me with these weird slurried hearts and try to interest me in their weird slurried art, and I’m both fascinated and nauseated. I feel like Geena Davis in The Fly listening in horror to disintegrating Jeff Goldblum go on about how spiritual and great it is, what’s happening to him. Um, it doesn’t seem great. #butwhatdoiknow

This game was designed for iPad and only later ported to PC, but without really reworking the touchpad control scheme, which, with a mouse, doesn’t feel particularly intuitive or sensible. This can’t have helped my impression.

I could go on but I think better I don’t. The bottom line is, there is a lovely forested dreamspace in this game, and I was touched by it, some, when I wasn’t fighting against the many currents of convoluted affectation. The game tells us, laboriously and invasively, that it is based on Jungian archetypes. I’m always up for exploring my inner archetypal imagery; less so for being told that that’s what I’m doing. The cigar-smoking psychiatrist figure who introduces each segment of the game is clumsily identified as “The Archetype” — rather than as, say, “The Jungian” — which seems to me like an (inadvertent?) admission that the hipster mind is a hall of mirrors. The ostensible analytic framework is itself just another projection, one that happens to muck up the dream and diminish its pleasures.

If only games were peelable, I would peel this one and love just the seed. But alas I can’t.

And I can’t heal the artists by loving the art more than I do. This is important to remember. It’s just me here.

This game is a damned shame. Given that, I liked it. But that’s a lot to be given.

Craig D. Adams (“Superbrothers”) (concept, art, design, writing)
Kris Piotrowski (design, “project leadership”)
Jim Guthrie (music, sound)
Jon Maur (technical programming)
Frankie Leung (gameplay programming)