Monthly Archives: January 2016

January 22, 2016

The Twilight Zone: 8. Time Enough At Last


directed by John Brahm
teleplay by Rod Serling
based on a short story by Lynn Venable
starring Burgess Meredith
with Vaughn Taylor, Ja[c]queline deWit, and Lela Bliss
music by Leith Stevens

Friday, November 20, 1959, 10 PM EST on CBS.

Watch it on Netflix.

This is the first episode to credit a writer other than Serling. The source story comes from the January 1953 issue of If: Worlds of Science Fiction. In this case, Serling gives credit, because he bought the story outright (for $500) and adapted it faithfully — but all his “original” scripts were just as much indebted to that world of magazine writing, which was at its peak in the 40s and 50s. In coming up with his various storylines and conceits, Rod seems usually to have been operating in the twilight zone that lies between deliberate plagiarism and subconscious influence.

Of course, magazine writing was itself already thoroughly incestuous; sci-fi stories tended to share all sorts of recurring assumptions and preoccupations and tropes. So “plagiarism” isn’t really a fair word to use. And I certainly don’t hold “unoriginality” the least bit against Rod. All I mean to point out is that The Twilight Zone emerges directly from a particular creative culture in which a shared body of ideas had been stewing back and forth for years from writer to writer, a process that tends to mulch things down into their underlying subconscious archetypes. That’s why I think the show merits the kind of reading I’m doing here — because it’s not really one guy’s fantasies; it’s the potent commonalities distilled from among many people’s fantasies, over many years.

Witness Mr. Henry Bemis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers. A bookish little man whose passion is the printed page, but who is conspired against by a bank president and a wife and a world full of tongue-cluckers and the unrelenting hands of a clock. But in just a moment, Mr. Bemis will enter a world without bank presidents, or wives, or clocks, or anything else. He’ll have a world all to himself — without anyone.

We’re all afraid of being this guy: incapable of participating in the social order because of our emotions and enthusiasms.

The conflict between Bemis and society is exaggerated, to the point where we can’t conceive of any possible reconciliation. He is an irredeemably terrible bank clerk; his wife is impossibly unkind. A pitiable fool and a painfully hostile world. This sort of exaggeration is a more promising mode of comedy than any of the series’s previous efforts. It makes absurdity out of angst, rather than of complacency. We fear that there’s no place for us in the world, but this fear is already an exaggeration, so it’s ripe for further exaggeration. Much healthier than exaggerating something quite real and ordinary; to try to stir up shame about, say, the fear of death, as in Escape Clause.

So, thus taken to its extremest, most anxiously catastrophic form, the question being posed here is: if the rest of the world or you had to go, wouldn’t you pick the rest of the world?

Once you and Henry Bemis sheepishly admit that “yes, I think I might pick the rest of the world,” the teacher’s ruler comes down on your wrist, in the form of dramatic irony. How dare you! The whole rest of the world? You monster. Here’s what you and your glasses deserve.

Angst wins the day after all.

This twist ending is, in a way, completely unnecessary to the story itself. If Henry Bemis just sat there reading, out beyond the end of the world, in lonely thick-lensed happiness, that would be plenty eerie enough. In fact, imagining a slow pull-back from that last shot gives me the willies; that would be a much more provocative final image for this very same episode.

But the twist is necessary for completing the standard Twilight Zone two-step: first we dare, and then we pull back from the precipice. Here the thing we dare is subjective indifference — we dare admit the part of us that thinks that “everybody’s dead but me!” might be a relief, might be fun. So then of course we must spin back around and receive the censure we apparently think we deserve. Otherwise we would really disturb some of the audience, which could affect the sales of Sanka.

The idea that the last living human might still be able to experience meaning and pleasure in existence is much more radical and disruptive than the idea that he would surely have any such pleasure arbitrarily whisked away. I mean, Murphy’s Law, am I right? TGIF!

The episode does a good job seeding the glasses. From the start we understand them as being a conspicuous signifier, but entirely within the realm of wardrobe, a zone without words or names. We don’t generally expect such ineffable stuff to graduate to having a role in the story proper. So we feel good and truly “gotten” when the glasses, with which we have developed a strong subconscious relationship, turn out to have their own fate, in the conscious, conceptualized part of the action.

How chastening, for unspoken comfort to suddenly become spoken discomfort! The sting — the reason everyone remembers this episode — is because in some deep way it’s downright embarrassing. “That’s not fair!” Bemis cries along with the viewer. How harsh and humiliating, for both of us, to be reduced to such whimpering, to have all narrative sympathy suddenly yanked away. It’s like being beaten up by a bully who spent the day pretending to be your friend. You don’t forget experiences like that.

The pacing is sort of surprising. Working backward from the iconic ending, you might think that the way to tell this story would be to spend most of the episode demonstrating Bemis’s frustrated yearning to read, and then have the bomb descend near the end and have him go straight to a state of elation at his good fortune. But a subtler math is in play. If Bemis were unreservedly elated at the end of the world, the situation would be so grotesque that there’d be no punch in the final irony — the authorial coldness would already be too complete. That’s not the Rod Serling way. He wants pathos, if he can manage it; he wants this to really smack. So first Bemis’s fear of solitude needs to be established.

“I’m not at all sure that I want to be alive.” “The very worst part is being alone.” Which prompts the question: why did he love reading so much in the first place? What exactly were other people to him? The answer seems to be that he has always had both an individual and a social side, and is now forced to reckon with making a choice between them. The social side is ready to self-destruct, but, seeing the library and being reminded of the joys of being alive, he crawls out from under his vestigial social fear and chooses himself, the individual, who has a chance at happiness. That’s when Fate lashes out. Hell is other people, but “other people” includes Fate. It includes Rod. It can’t be gotten rid of just by getting rid of physical people.

There’s a psychological truth to this. Being physically alone doesn’t mean your mind stops subjecting you to social standards. If you want to sum up the message of The Twilight Zone — and pretty much all supernatural horror ever — you could do worse than: “other people are all in your head — so you can run, but you can’t hide.”

We dare enjoy the fantasy of hiding, but how boldly we dare it varies from person to person. “Time enough at last” means solitude enough at last. And this show is of (and for) an anxious mindset that believes we can never, ever, ever afford that much solitude. Not even after the end of time.

That all said, I feel like there’s a somewhat odd flavor to the moment when Bemis contemplates suicide. It’s a strangely dark note for this goofy character to sound (especially given that we can reasonably deduce that he will in fact follow through, immediately following the end of the episode). The gun makes sense to me mostly as a kind of misdirection, a tragic threat that forces the audience’s sympathies to rebalance. Bemis’s delight at the destruction of mankind would be untenable in itself; but as an alternative to self-murder, it becomes highly sympathetic. (All the better to eat you with, says the irony machine.)

“I’m sure I’ll be forgiven for this, the way things are,” he reasons of his imminent suicide. He’s right — by Twilight Zone logic, he would have been forgiven for suicide, “the way things are.” What he’s not forgiven for being happy the way things are.

“Just a fragment of what man has deeded to himself,” says Rod at the end. On the face of it this is standard cold war grim grandiloquence about The Bomb. But I prefer to hear it as something more basic: I, Rod Serling, hereby deed this nasty ironic twist to myself, and so too do you, the viewer. We do it every day.

Original music by Leith Stevens, an industry fixture who isn’t much remembered today (despite having at one time been so esteemed as to get this plum assignment). This, his one Twilight Zone score, is done in a sort of generic TV style that only points up Bernard Herrmann’s brilliance by counterexample. Stevens fails to stake out his own artistic position and generally just plays the existing action in an ordinary, redundant way. There’s a little fanfare figure that ties it all together, perhaps meant to be “Bemis’s motif,” but it doesn’t seem to have any psychological meaning; it’s just a compositional device.

Especially at the beginning, Stevens misses the opportunity to give us any particular handle on our sympathies, just offering noncommittal “isn’t narrative splendid” music. (I suppose his intention might have been “a day at the bank” music, which comes to about the same thing.) The long suite of devastation ambiance in the second half is, I think, the most successful passage. And I suppose I respect the way he plays the ultimate irony: neither as sick joke nor as grand tragedy, but as simple pity, clarinet solo over a timpani roll.

January 13, 2016

The Twilight Zone: 7. The Lonely


directed by Jack Smight
written by Rod Serling
starring Jack Warden
with John Dehner and Jean Marsh
music by Bernard Herrmann

Friday, November 13, 1959, 10 PM EST on CBS.

Watch it on Netflix.

This one is a gem.

Purely from a trope-spotting perspective (“Robot in the form of a woman, check”) it’s pretty ordinary stuff. Sometimes I lapse into processing stories like that, like I’m one of those coin sorting machines, separating everything into neat piles by diameter. Taken that way there’s nothing too memorable here. It’s just standard sci-fi (philoso-fi) tropes. “Is it man and woman? Or man and machine?” Sure.

But something in the execution makes the episode stand up and carry real meaning. Principally I think it’s Jack Warden, who is so utterly un-nerdy, un-pulp. Embodied his particular face and manner, the material manages to convey an impression that something strange and fragile is at stake. Seeing this big American lug set against the backdrop of utter desolation and Bernard Herrmann’s weeping celestial vibraphones creates a beautiful cosmic noir effect.

It’s poignant to watch an unreflective type being confronted with emotional issues; we feel the difficulty, the ache. This guy is the old American self-image of everyday sturdiness, squinting hard to try to cope with the idea that he has a spiritual life. “Well if that isn’t the damndest thing…” It’s a nameless but familiar archetype: the tough American male as a kind of big little kid. A guy who… who… damn it — who needs all the help he can get, damn it!

Corry is presented as having the narrowest possible scope of imagination. Surely a man stranded for years alone in a desert would have by now made himself at least somewhat into a creature of the desert, like Lawrence of Arabia. He wouldn’t still be wearing belted slacks and a button-down shirt, or eagerly begging his occasional visitor to “have a beer” and “play cards.” Then again, why does anyone wear belted slacks and a button-down shirt. We’re all putting on silly costumes to go be alone on our blasted asteroids.

The asteroid is existential fact. The little shack is the subjective human bubble in which Corry’s life makes sense to him. Anyone we try to let into our own shack of subjectivity is just an object to us; we will never actually merge our subjectivities. That is to say that from any individual’s point of view, in a very real sense, other people are truly indistinguishable from robots.

The quandary posed to Corry by Alicia is not whether she’s “real” — which is a distinction without a difference — but whether he dare allow himself to have feelings about her, like he does about the (equally meaningless) car and beer and chess, and about his own bodily self.

He desperately doesn’t want to be tricked because he’s afraid of becoming “insane.” His nervousness and anger and embarrassment when she arrives are at the idea of succumbing to insanity. But in the absence of any other humans, what’s the risk?

And for that matter, don’t forget that the other humans in his life — the ones he’s saving his sanity for, in three months, or in years when he’s eventually released — are just as much subjective indulgences. They always have been.

All feelings are equally subjective. Corry, angrily to Alicia, indicating the car: “This heap doesn’t mock me the way you do.” Oh yes it does! You attribute meaning to it, too.

Eventually, of course — upon seeing her tears and thus obscurely remembering his own — he gives in to the inner life, to subjective happiness. To hell with the drab, soulless “sanity” represented by the men in jumpsuits.

It’s difficult to write down what has been the sum total of this very strange and bizarre relationship. Is it man and woman? Or man and machine? I don’t really know, myself. But there are times when I do know that Alicia is simply an extension of me.

Immediately after thus acknowledging that she is him, he sits with her/himself and takes pleasure in the stars, in the universe, to Bernard’s lovely dream planetarium music, as though it’s a romantic date. This scene moves me. Being alive and being oneself is indeed a kind of romantic date. “Always meeting ourselves,” as Joyce says. “Every man his own wife.”

Unspoken but implied, in Corry’s speech above, is the acknowledgment that all his social experiences have been founded on similarly unverifiable grounds. The Turing test is a good standard for artificial humanness because it’s the only standard we have for “real” humanness, too. All we are is subjective — and then, on top of that, social. There is no such thing as “objective.”

What he’s actually waiting on, from the faraway mass of humanity (who in his mind are holding the definition of “sanity” hostage), is, in so many words, “a pardon.” After accepting himself in the form of Alicia, he finally gets the pardon, but now isn’t entirely sure what the point is. Why not live with a robot, alone with this loving extension of himself? Who do these Earthlings think they are, anyway? Just a world of smarmy, hostile Ted Knights.

Of course then they strip him of Alicia, his externalized soul, by violence. He pleads on behalf of the mute, feeling part of himself: “She’s gentle and kind!” He implores her to make herself socially apparent: “Talk to them! Show them!” But the soul, the emotions, curls up under pressure to perform. It’s not good for proving anything to anyone. It simply is.

After she’s shot, the blasted mechanism behind her face gives him pause. (“Oh wait, look at the metal; maybe I was crazy.”) But this is a trick ending. After all, blasted bone and blood and gristle would be equally a betrayal of the humanity he felt in her. (“Oh, she was just some kind of gross biological organism; maybe I was crazy.”) The betrayal is not in the nature of the substance but in the fact that there is a substance at all.

We end, appropriately, on the question of Home. “All you’re leaving behind is loneliness.” To the contrary, Corry is reentering the loneliness that has attended him his whole life, the loneliness of yearning for the “real” rather than trusting in his own projection of it.

In this case, I feel pretty sure that Rod was being deliberately sardonic about the hollowness of the conservative redemption being offered: “I must remember that. I must remember to keep that in mind.”

But as usual, the brilliance is that this ending genuinely works for all comers. If you the viewer are desperately afraid of “going insane” and falling in love — as many people are — you are welcome to take sincere comfort in the fact that a paternal, pitying Captain Allenby will surely eventually come along and save you by shooting your love in the face, waking you from your madness and returning you to respectable society. Free at last!

You’re innocent, after all. You deserve a pardon: you only killed in self-defense! “There are still a lot of people who believe me! And it happens to be the truth!”

• There’s no way those stacked and unstacked nuts and washers represent all the chess pieces.

• The whiteness of the desert looks great. Did they do something special to the exposure to make it more asteroidal, or did Death Valley always look white in black-and-white westerns?

• I had thought that the old pronunciation “robit” must simply have become “robot” at some point in time (maybe in the 60s), but I just looked into this, and: 1) apparently “robit” lives on even today in some parts of the USA, and 2) I have ascertained that Leslie Nielsen says “robot” in the highly robot-influential Forbidden Planet (1956), which predates this episode by several years. Is it possible that his Canadian accent provided the model for future American pronunciation? Unlikely, but a fun thought anyway.

The fourth original score in the series, and third by Bernard Herrmann. Probably the least conspicuous, most subliminal music thus far, but deeply effective. Even I, a film music obsessive, had to think hard to peel the effect of the music off of the story itself, so that I could consider it separately. That’s a mark of success, in this game.

Put it on in the background and see how thoroughly it coats every surface of your room with its mood.

January 9, 2016

Portal 2 (2011)

developed by Valve (Bellevue, WA)
project led by Joshua Weier
written by Erik Wolpaw, Jay Pinkerton, and Chet Faliszek

This was a total blast. A splendid performance through and through, a real pleasure, utterly charming.

So what is there to say?

Mediocrity inspires me to want to express myself — maybe as a kind of protest: “Dammit, my feelings do matter!” Mediocrity is obliviousness and obliviousness can be hurtful. But attention and care — the feeling that I’m in good hands — leaves me free to remain in my natural wordless state. Or at least my natural non-analytic state.

I think that’s at least somewhat true for everyone, because it’s fundamental to the nature of the mind. It’s why the word “criticism” denotes both negative response and conceptually sophisticated response. That’s what concepts are for: coping with problems. Whereas when someone is genuinely delighted, no matter how “smart,” they’re likely to lapse into The Chris Farley Show: “Remember when that thing happened? That was awesome!” Because what more is there to want from pleasure itself than simply to revisit it? Perhaps there is one thing to want: to render it more social, by asking “Remember when?” or reenacting it.

Of course you, dear reader, haven’t played Portal 2, so we can’t reminisce together. I can’t just quote it to you and say “awesome.” And I’m certainly not going to spoil it by saying “well, get a load of this!” and describing stuff. Because the surprise is an important part of the offering; it works like a wrapped present, and far be it from me to unwrap it for you just as a way of demonstrating my enthusiasm. You can just trust me: I am enthusiastic. I scarfed the whole game down in two days, because I wanted to.

One of the greatest charms of the original Portal was in the fact that it had no obligation to be charming at all. The collection of abstract puzzles — and despite the impression you might get from something like the trailer above, these games fundamentally are collections of abstract puzzles — would constitute a perfectly satisfying game presented “straight,” without any theatrics at all. So a great part of what makes the showmanship so engaging is that it’s all pure surplus. And I wouldn’t want to rob it off that status by advertising it as the main attraction. It’s not. The main attraction is puzzles. I love puzzles.

(To be fair, after finishing the first game, you bring different expectations to the second one, so you very well might experience it as a storytelling machine that just happens to be propelled along by solving puzzles. It’s to the game’s great credit that it works equally well that way. In fact you might say it explicitly invites you to switch your attitude back and forth, which you can do without experiencing any disorientation because both components have received equal polish.)

I’ve said elsewhere that I relish the sense of imaginary space into which puzzles place me. Proust talks about memories relieving us of the anxieties of time because they place us outside it; similarly, engagement with abstract entities in geometrical worlds relieves me of various anxieties of physical existence, because it occupies the part of my mind that needs to orient itself in space, but still keeps me comfortably outside reality itself. Puzzles situate me into my own imagination space, the unbounded, pregnant, hypothetical space in which my mind stretches out, cat-like, when it is most truly relaxed.

For me a lot of the joy of the Portal games — particularly 2 — is that they have a real intuition for the elastic, spooky, unreal quality of such imagined space, and they embroider their story whimsically on to that. Instead of trying to nail the puzzle world down on the plinth of some reductive fiction, they let it be what it is: the zone of all fantasy, about which anything said will be pleasantly absurdist. The storytelling is constrained at the center, by particular characters and relationships, but around the periphery it stretches off to infinity. It offers me the same exuberant rewards as Brazil, a movie that takes place in a series of charismatic spaces that, it tacitly acknowledges, can only coexist in an impossible world, which is to say inside someone’s head.

In a way, this goes all the way back to the ridiculously vast underground complex in Half-Life, which inaugurated Valve’s 15-year tongue-in-cheek relationship with cold war imagery — more specifically with particle accelerators, dams, mines, tunnels, bridges, power plants, and other engineering projects of mind-boggling scale. An interesting zone of comic nightmare emerges as this kind of real-world awe gets inflated and inflated until it overlaps with the fantastical awe of the infinite plane, where grid puzzles take place.

In the commentary included with the game, a developer says that when they first put a certain big door into the game, it came out about five times bigger even than planned, but they thought it was funny that way and left it in, joking about making it a selling point that Portal 2 contained the biggest door ever to appear in a video game. I don’t know if that’s in fact true; I remember some awfully big doors in, say, the original Tomb Raider (1996). But back then, environmental gigantism felt like it came of the designers being indiscriminate and/or lazy, and was generally something to be nauseated by, or awed by in a dangerous way, a private way. Here, the nightmare of the infinite is delivered with a knowing grin, a wink that takes it all in. I thought the enormous door was funny, because awe is funny. Because things, all things, real or imagined, are absurd. What could be more delightful than that?

Okay, so I’m spoiling this one thing: there’s a really big door somewhere in the game.

The only thing I can comfortably compare this kind of entertainment to, in its effect, is Pixar, which similarly manages to make you feel well cared-for while you’re invited to meditate on supernatural textural or spatial intensities. (Usually subtler ones than these, but then again think of the fantastical spaces of Inside Out — or for that matter the door warehouse in Monsters Inc., which in many ways is exactly like Portal.) But unlike Pixar, Valve feels no obligation to be edifying. Whatever is there is there because it pleased the developers, and then tested well, and no other reason. So there’s something very pure about the ride. No hugging, no learning, no nothing: just stuff they think you’ll like.

I was particularly delighted at all the moments that from a strict “gameplay” point of view were neither fish nor fowl — not really a puzzle, not really story, not really anything — because they always worked anyway. It always flowed. My imagination always felt at home.

This experience came as a real breath of fresh air after the artistic frustrations of BioShock, which sounded so much more promising on paper than it felt in practice. It is so immediately obvious to me that testing was a far larger part of the process of developing this game than that one. I always easily knew where I was, what I was doing, what it meant, how it felt. I recognize that that’s very hard to achieve. It takes discipline and confidence to tailor things to the way people actually are, and not the way they think they are. This game met me where I actually was.

There’s some really great voice work in this game, by real people, but talking about it, or them, would, I think, be spoilage. So would almost anything. So I’m going to stop.

I’m delighted just by the very fact that there can be an abstract puzzle game so utterly packed with inventive storytelling surprises that it’s a spoiler-bomb. I wish all puzzle games were like this, loaded up like a Christmas tree. Okay, maybe not all. But I at least wish this was a rich and well-populated genre — the puzzle game as second-person Pixar movie — instead of just these two games plus a couple of less successful imitators.

So far. There’s time yet. Let’s keep it coming, computer games!

I’ve known since the day I bought this that I had something particularly tasty in store for me, waiting in my backlog. I was right. I feel a little sad that I no longer have it to look forward to. But, you know, there’s a lot of other stuff out there. Onward.

January 5, 2016

BioShock (2007)

developed by 2K Boston (Quincy, MA) and 2K Australia (Canberra) [= Irrational Games]
written and directed by Ken Levine
project led by Alyssa Finley
design led by Paul Hellquist

This trailer is a specially animated standalone and includes no footage from the actual game. It’s not terribly misleading as such things go, but you may still want to watch a bit of the game (the fairly effective first 10 minutes, for example) to get a better sense of what it looks like in action.

As I said in a previous entry, I had to put off playing this one until I had access to a computer that could handle the graphics. All’s well now.

A tremendous amount has been said about this game (as already mentioned in these pages on December 13, 2007, which coincidentally is exactly 100 years ago today!). Its ambition, its influence, its depth and sophistication, blah bibby blah blah. I tried to engage with all that, I really did, but that draft was going nowhere so I’m simplifying. Suffice it to say that I think this game is overrated. It has intriguing and impressive aspects, without question, but they all exist principally to give context to the over-elaborate mechanics of a somewhat tedious first-person shooter, not the other way around.

The other way around I’d be very sympathetic to. I’m happy to play almost any sort of game if it’s the vehicle that drives me through a compelling and well-told story. A real story. But the story of BioShock, despite all its bold ideas and memorable moments, is ultimately an opportunistic fake-out. It’s cobbled together from incongruous bits and doesn’t make sense the way it claims to. It’s just the deluxe gold-plated golf cart that escorts the player through a blam-blam zombie slaughter game layered with endless intricacies of resources upon resources, upgrades upon upgrades that are of absolutely no interest to me.

I know, I’m getting to be a real tired clock — as they say — with this complaint, but it’s what I have to say: SYSTEMS ARE NOT EXPERIENCES. EXPERIENCES ARE NOT SYSTEMS. If you’re selling me on an experience, don’t give me systems. The last thing I want, when I’m setting out to explore a spooky undersea art deco fallen paradise city, is to be managing three different kinds of currency and two different resource bars and four different sets of slots for four different kinds of upgrades and five different kinds of upgrade-management stations ETC FOREVER. The amount of blindly inherited D&D “character stat” balderdash in games is, to me, soul-stifling.

I know, there are lots of players who call this “role playing,” who call it “choice.” They get to choose a style of fighting; they get to choose a modus operandi. Want to stock up on X and trade it for Y and then use a lot of Z, instead of stocking up on Z and trading it for X and using a lot of Y? You can! Hooray, choice!

I say “choice” is a false god. Despite what the marketing copy for decades of games might tell you, nobody has ever minded that movies don’t offer “choice.” People like movies because they offer no choice. What games uniquely offer that deepens engagement is not choice but agency. This is such a crucial distinction. I want to be the one actively having the experience. I don’t want to be determining the experience! Stop throwing choices at me just for the sake of choices! It’s frickin’ exhausting.

(Have I already said exactly this in some previous entry? I know I’ve said essentially this, quite recently, but I have the sneaking feeling that I’ve said exactly this, which I still aspire to avoid, believe it or not. But 100 years of opinionating is a lot of text to remember.)

I want to be clear: there’s some neat stuff in BioShock. It has atmosphere, it has ideas, it has style to spare. It has panache. It’s just that I felt like I had to grind through the game itself to enjoy what was enjoyable, like I was sucking hard to get the meat out of the shell. Certainly I had to grind a long time just to finally find out what these twists were that I’d heard so much about. 8 years and I managed not to have had it spoiled for me! I won’t spoil it for you neither. Manchurian Candidate. Oops.

The strongest thing it’s got going is the initial premise: It’s 1960. A megalomaniacal “heroic” industrialist in the Atlas Shrugged mold (the character is called “Andrew Ryan” — get it?) has over the past 14 years been building and presiding over a spectacular art deco city at the bottom of the ocean, where he and other great minds could live according to Objectivist principles, free from interference by parasitic governments and the emasculating cult of “altruism.” But by the time the player arrives on the scene, the paradise has all somehow gone spectacularly wrong — imagine that!

That’s the good part of the premise, and it is indeed good. Even though I already knew the gist, I was thrilled as the opening of the game unfurled itself. “I guess I see why this is considered a masterpiece,” I thought. That was basically the high point of the experience for me. But hey, at least it was pretty high!

The rich environmental design beautifully embodied both the appeal and the menace of the Ayn Rand worldview. Or better put: the game beautifully found a way to hang explicit significance on the subconscious appeal and menace that have always characterized 3D game spaces. BioShock finally gave real, story-grounded meaning to the nostalgic sensuality and architectural triumphalism that have inhered in high-budget games for the last two decades. Such environments have always made me feel simultaneously cozy and uneasy; now, for a change, I knew that they knew I felt that way.

Not that things are inherently better when they have a reason. But it can still be exciting to be given a reason where you’ve never had one before. “For once, I know the name of the vague oppressive force that always seems to lurk behind these lush environments — it’s ‘Ayn Rand’!”

I would have been very happy to wander around in that elegant, creepy, undersea Rockefeller Center nowheresville, listening to the creaks of the ocean bearing down on it, piecing together bits of information to try to make sense of what had gone wrong. Unfortunately what I mostly found myself doing instead was shooting crazy zombies in the head for 12 hours, while constantly gathering resources that granted me more and more choice in how I went about shooting crazy zombies in the head.

Plus I listened to audio diaries of random characters chattering about the “story.” These were scattered around on identical collectible tape players, all optional, all disembodied, just a string of texts. No more interesting or more committed than any number of lazy games where the “story” is just shoehorned in as some document that you find on a desk and read, or don’t.

Yes, there were some genuine scenes and events, and one of them was indeed pretty good. But Half-Life 2, whose influence showed all over this game, managed to deliver a sense of continuous event and forward motion. Whereas for the most part, if you tore the expository text dumps out of BioShock, most of what’s happening to you the player is almost indistinguishable from what happens in Batman: Arkham Asylum, a game that basically consists of following paths that lead to supervillains and then battling them. So too this game, Objectivist critique be damned.

Plus, it didn’t, in fact, offer any real critique of Objectivism. It was about an Objectivist paradise that (spoiler) had been torn apart by a crime boss and a catastrophe of genetic engineering. The Ayn Rand menace angle, despite starting out promising, ended up as just the usual “Ayn Rand was a meanie” laziness.

My take on Ayn Rand — because this is obviously the place for it — is that her philosophy is wrong, but so is the standard rejection of it. “Altruism” vs. “self-interest” is a completely false binary, so anyone who fights on behalf of one over the other is just making noise. And there’s a lotta noise out there.

She confused fear with “subservience.” Her opponents confuse fear with “greed.” Both sides rail against the thing that bears the name they’ve given to fear, and think they’re fighting with each other. Fear itself is the great blind spot. Like a black hole that can’t be seen because it devours light itself: we avert our eyes from fear because it’s fearful, and so we’re unaware of it. The brain dreams up something arbitrary to fill the gap, we fall for it, and then we argue about that instead.

This accounts for the absurd political environment in which we live. And most other ideological disputes. FWIW.

I am disappointed to be disappointed in BioShock. I’m not enjoying writing about it. I stop.

January 4, 2016

The Twilight Zone: 6. Escape Clause


directed by Mitchell Leisen
written by Rod Serling
starring David Wayne
with Thomas Gomez and Virginia Christine

Friday, November 6, 1959, 10 PM EST on CBS.

Watch it on Netflix.

So far on The Twilight Zone, psychosomatic ailments have been presented as weird and terrifying. But in this episode suddenly it’s all vaudevillian. Mr. Bedeker is a clownishly contemptible “type” with “nothing wrong with him” — mental problems being nothing.

Bedeker is served up to the audience as “other people,” who have no interior worthy of sympathy. But the degree of humanity we grant to other people is a consideration that we always eventually turn on ourselves. And vice versa. Here we see the same distrust directed outward that in other more ominous episodes is directed inward. When it’s directed outward it takes on a smug “wry” tone.

Naturally, Mr. Bedeker gets what’s coming to him; the script trips him with a banana peel and down he goes. Ironic justice — which is to say contemptuous justice — is served, ho ho ho. But it’s just this sort of satisfaction in our outward contempt that keeps the private, inward terrors alive.

The Twilight Zone has two quite distinct varieties of “twists” that we ought to keep differentiated. Bedeker here falls victim to an ironic twist, which really has very little in common with the existential twist of something like Where Is Everybody? or Eye of the Beholder. I am, naturally, far more sympathetic to the latter. Ironic twists, it seems to me, are the residue of cruelty and bad faith.

The classic ironic twist ending is, for the audience, always an uneasy mix of “us”-ness and “them”-ness. Of course “deliciously nasty fates” are things that only befall papier-mâché people, who very decidedly aren’t us, and it’s satisfying to watch them go tumbling. But why do we feel this satisfaction at all? I think it’s because the sardonic, deliberate universe that seizes the poor saps in its pincers is something we tacitly believe in. Dramatic irony is a nervous negotiation with phobia, a whistling in the graveyard. There but for the grace of Rod!

(Setting aside its various infelicities, isn’t this the real meaning of Alanis Morissette’s song? It’s not supposed to be just a catalog of Twilight Zone ironies, but an attempt to evoke the brittle bravado that we assume in the face of such stories — the smirk that tries to mask lonely terror. This is what she means by “a little too ironic,” I think. Yeah I really do think.)

Fear of death is the most natural thing in the world. It’s our biological obligation. Avoiding death is what fear is for. But modern-day culture has placed a tremendous stigma on fear in any form, which means we spend a lot of time concocting ways of convincing ourselves that fear of death is somehow actually childish, or absurd, or too infinite to afford — that it is a mistake.

Serling’s script laboriously tries to demonstrate that too much fear of death makes you a scoundrelly bastard. “You might think you want to live forever,” he proposes, “but that’s just one of those insatiable sociopathic impulses that you must forever suppress. Otherwise look what you’d be like!” None of what happens in the episode makes much sense — what is Bedeker’s internal motivation, at any point? — but we know exactly how to roll along with it because our anxieties are already invested in seeing it reconfirmed that death is better than any alternative.

We’re all well accustomed to stories where eternal life is a booby prize, and quite practiced at being audience to them. In fact the idea that that immortality ain’t what it’s cracked up to be is so completely de rigueur that it’s hard for us to even imagine things working out any other way. If an immortal protagonist lived happily ever after (ever after), that would be a real twist. It never happens.

Once given ultimate assurance of his safety, Bedeker becomes a complete antisocial amoral wild man obsessed with self-harm. It’s an interesting proposition, that the secret desire of a hypochondriac is to court self-destruction; that hypochondria is, perhaps, a fear of one’s own perversity. But we’re not inclined to feel the psychology too deeply, since the conventional anti-fear, anti-immortality imperative explains everything on screen — far better, in fact, than trying to read it at face value.

Because let’s face it, the twist here doesn’t work. Surely our anti-hero would feel that simply sitting back and outliving the society that jailed him — or, for that matter, recklessly attempting a crazy, murderous escape every day — is obviously preferable to conceding ultimate defeat after 30 seconds behind bars. The idea that a “life sentence” is a diamond-hard absolute, impervious even to the powers of hell, is absurd… to anyone, that is, who isn’t already hard on the lookout for something, anything, to serve as the ironic comeuppance demanded by the story logic. But of course everyone in the audience is, and they jump at the chance when they see it: “Sure, that’ll do. Good enough.”

The overt moral is something to do with the insatiability of discontent – “whiners gonna whine,” basically – but it’s a straw moral. The real moral is “don’t rock the boat.” This episode isn’t daring anything or exploring the unknown for even a minute; it’s just smarmily playing along with our anxieties.

It is striking that in a series that aspires to be eerie and unsettling, the two episodes dealing directly with the prospect of death itself (this one and One for the Angels) have been uncharacteristically winking and jocular, with hokey old pantomime versions of “Mr. Death” and “Mr. Devil.” You could see it as a mercenary calculation: “if this isn’t played as an exaggerated clown show it’ll be too grim to watch with the necessary equanimity.” But I don’t buy that. People always take comfort in being leveled with.

There is one moment here that I like. Of his soul, Bedeker asks not whether it will harm him to lose it, but whether he’ll miss it. The devil, pleased at his own wording, reassures him: “You’ll never know it’s gone.” This is how the mind operates. One can’t remember what one isn’t to some degree experiencing. People lose track of their souls this way all the time. No devil necessary.

The acting isn’t bad, given what they have to work with.

The music in the episode corresponds to the contempt: not only is it stock music but stock cartoon music, pieced together out of tiny meaningless snippets. It gives an impression of cagey insincerity, especially taken in immediate contrast to the bewildered earnestness of something like Walking Distance. The music sproings around desperately to convince us that this is all exclamation-point hilarious. That’s a mode that would become particularly prevalent in the 60s — “ha ha we’re zany and wacky and having such a blast aren’t we?” You bet your sweet bippy we are.