Monthly Archives: December 2016

December 29, 2016

84. お早よう (1959)

2000: 084-box-1

directed by Yasujirō Ozu
written by Kōgo Noda and Yasujirō Ozu

criterion084-title criterion084-title-streaming

(Image on the left is from the Criterion DVD that I watched. Image on the right is from Criterion’s present-day streaming service with a restored copy of the film, which I have only discovered after the fact. Subtitles are burned right into the image but otherwise far superior, as you can see.)

Criterion #84: Good Morning.

お早よう = Ohayō = “Good morning.”
(Ohayō gozaimasu, literally “it’s early,” is the customary morning greeting; Ohayō is the more informal abbreviated version, essentially a specialized form of the word meaning “early.” This root word, “haya,” is the single red character 早 in the title card, so I’m guessing that its emphasis is natural, has no particular significance, and is just for visual effect.)

My first Ozu, though I already had a sense.

Composition, precision, control. Perpendiculars, rectilinear blocks of content. Mondrian. Technicolor palette: brown, white, black, light blue, small areas of strong red. High 1959.

The quadrilaterals make comfort possible. Frame as prerequisite for safety, feeling, humor, beauty. Marie Kondo / Ikea / Wes Anderson. Packaging as Pieter de Hooch. Quest object of the movie is a TV in a cubic cardboard box: comfort and joy, and beyond that, meditation and trance. “ASMR unboxing.”

Objects at the edge of the foreground; people at the center of the distant background. Space is framed along all 3 axes. Nested perspectives: sets within sets; boxes within boxes. My fantasies staring into Escher prints as a child.

Art that “teaches us how to look,” my misquote from John Armstrong. A vision of what domesticity is. Takes its place for me alongside other works of heartfelt suburbiana: Edward Scissorhands, A Christmas Story.

Great warmth and beauty for me in the charades scene. Comedy as a shared serenity. Resonates with my own wishes for how life should be, has been, is. “Cute kids” is too often something else substituted for the transcendent thing itself. Here for a moment is the thing itself. The same goes for “humor.”

The camera low to the floor, unmoving, direct, trustworthy, loving. A child watching raptly from the next room, taking in all, the purest possible gaze.

“I love you” / “Good morning” / 👌. The message of the movie: speech vs. truth. Silentium! Small talk vs. love / English lessons vs. the musical fruit itself. (“Did you call me?”)

Word vs. texture. Look at even the woven surface behind the title card. All the busy talk of the neighborhood gossips is no match for a tactile Ikea paradise. The sensory order reigns supreme; its spirit is unbreakable. As long as you can reach down and touch the carpet, all is well. I believe it.

The encroachment of the West as a flowering of innocence. Dire warnings about the boob tube are just so much “good morning,” the refuge of nervous grownups; they sing a different tune when they’re in a better mood. “Look at his face; I can see he doesn’t mean it.”

No need to fear the pajama-wearing hipsters and their TV set; jazz and English and hula hoops are just more sounds and colors to fill our cabinet of curiosities. Hedonism is not incompatible with order; childish things are not spiritually void. All of this new sensual absurdity is safe; Japan is ready to bear it in its heart. “I love you!”

The movie itself — simple, gentle, immediate, human — is what the meticulous construction has allowed. Elegant and quietly nourishing. A friendly film above all; for which, in a lonely moment, I was profoundly grateful.

There, that was a hundred times easier than usual! It’s the connective tissue that costs. That and the verbs.

Music by Toshiro Mayuzumi. A flashy concert composer and skilled orchestrator who perfectly understood what was called for. I wish I could have grabbed the main theme, the one that recurs many times throughout, because it’s the heart of the movie. Unfortunately it’s always interrupted by dialogue.

Here then is the splendid Main Title, with suggestions of Haydn, Rossini et al. but treated with sweet zaniness. (I don’t think it alludes to any specific classical work, but I’m not certain.)


December 25, 2016

83. The Harder They Come (1972)

2000: 083-box-1 (OOP 9/2005)

directed by Perry Henzell
written by Perry Henzell and Trevor D. Rhone


Criterion #83.

(This trailer has been transferred 5% too fast. The same song is posted below at its proper pitch.)

On Criterion’s site, one of the user comments about The Harder They Come says that it “feels more like folklore than film.” That’s aptly put, and the phrase lingered in my mind during my time with the movie. The distinction it makes is real, but it’s also relative; you can feel the shift by degrees as you walk through an art museum from, say, the “19th century European” galleries to the “medieval European” to the “ancient Egyptian” to the “Pacific Islander” galleries. Things start to seem more essentially sociological than aesthetic, “more folklore than film,” as they become more culturally distant from you.

Art is made by and for communities, and I only belong to a few communities. That puts limits on how much art is accessible to me. When I’m at the museum looking at ancient Chinese sculpture or Greek pottery or Polynesian idols, I understand very well that I’m only a tourist, peering in on someone else’s business from far, far away. I can speculate about what it was to them, or I can let it be whatever it happens to be to me. But I can’t “just get it,” which is the truest form of artistic experience. That’s a privilege exclusive to those for whom it was made.

The Harder They Come is a movie for Jamaicans of 1972. It is for me about as much as Seinfeld is for them.

1. I can speculate about what it was to them.

There had never been an indigenous Jamaican movie before. Suddenly they got to see themselves. They got to see that the inherent glamour of cinematic space and time was accessible to them, was applicable to their lives, their language, their world. I’m generally pretty cynical about “identity politics,” but there’s no denying that at its core is something real and important: everyone sees themselves in a cultural mirror, and everyone’s sense of self-worth is affected by what they see there. Film is intrinsically a mirror of glory: I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me. It’s one of the greatest affirmations a community can give itself.

From the commentary track, here’s director Perry Henzell (a white Jamaican, born into and then disowned from an old plantation-owning family) talking about the movie’s premiere. He’s referring to the very first shots of the movie, in which a bus — see the title screen above — travels down a narrow seaside road and gets blocked by oncoming traffic:

The audience came to the theater and then at this point, where the bus [has to brake], they went mad. … Right at the start, this whole thing is so familiar to Jamaicans. This business of two trucks coming together and one won’t move, you know. The opening night was in Kingston at this big old theater that we had there, 1500 seats, called the Carib Theater. It was just, you know, crowd as far as you could see. And they beat the doors in and rushed the theater. And invited guests… I mean, the prime minister’s wife was sharing a seat with the prime minister’s mother, that kind of thing — she’s in the film, actually — three people to every seat. And they just started screaming. And I never — tell you the truth — never heard another word of dialogue that night.

There is no thrill in moviedom like people seeing themselves on the screen for the first time. Jamaicans had never ever seen themselves on the screen, their lives represented on the screen. The first time that it happens it produces this unbelievable audience reaction, like nothing else ever could.

This is not to imply that The Harder They Come is a simplistic film catering solely to the most primitive needs; taken as a societal self-portrait it’s actually pretty worldly and layered.

Based roughly on the career of a real-life celebrity criminal, it’s a film that follows the standard “antihero” formula: letting the audience vent their resentments and “know better” at the same time.

Jimmy Cliff’s “Ivan” is a ne’er-do-well wannabe singer whose ambitions are so frustrated by the exploitative music industry and the everyday realities of Jamaican poverty that he eventually drifts into becoming a murderous outlaw, vaguely entangled in the “ganja” trade. His infamy turns him into a folk hero and his song becomes a hit. He embarrasses all the petty authorities by the swagger with which he outruns and outguns them; the harder they come, the harder they fall — at least in the fantasy he’s trying to live out. The mass audience within the film, as outside it, roots for his rebellious violence against the whole corrupt system, roots for his single-minded commitment to the poor man’s dream of being someone who counts, a celebrity, a big shot. Then he gets inevitably gunned down, like Butch Cassidy or Bonnie and Clyde; this, too, is what he and the audience expect and want.

The final shootout is actually intercut with shots of raucous, delighted Jamaican moviegoers. In one sense, these are the admirers in Ivan’s head, the imaginary audience for whom his whole spree has been a performance. In another sense they are the actual society within the movie, living vicariously through his criminal exuberance. And at another level they are a nod to the actual audience actually watching this actual movie: the mirror of art brought to an absolute head, a depiction of the viewer in the moment of viewing. It’s like the movie ends by cheering for itself; the whole thing has been a cheer, simultaneously cynical and heartfelt.

But I, here in the USA in 2016, am way, way on the outside of that cheer. Trying to imagine that I am on the inside is just an exercise. It will never be an aesthetic immediacy, for me.

2. I can let it be whatever it happens to be to me.

Unfortunately that’s not very much. I can appreciate that the Jamaican accent and speech patterns and attitude are warm and melodious, but the whole manner makes me disengage; it feels somehow like nobody thinks anything they’re saying or doing really matters. I know that’s not the case, but I can’t deny that it’s how my American ears process it.

It’s not a film by or for primitive minds, but it is a primitive film by any normal technical standards, performed by unskilled non-actors and with all the hallmarks of a very low budget. These kinds of factors are significant not because expensive sets and lights and performers have cachet in themselves, but because the more advanced the execution, the more universal the product. Just as money is a universal standard for value, the things money can buy tend to enable communication in more universal terms. A cheap little third-world movie like this has to rely fundamentally on the existing human value-exchange systems of its particular culture. That’s not at all a bad thing, but it is a boundary.

Both literally and figuratively, I have a hard time understanding these people, and the movie isn’t speaking in any voice other than the voice of these people. It can’t afford to and it doesn’t want to anyway.

In the commentary, Henzell talks about his interest in capturing real things on film as they are, and not constructing sets or hiring trained actors. He says proudly that a scene in a Kingston arcade was shot simply by walking in and filming whatever was really going on there that night. That kind of access is of value to me, and it’s true that this film is built out of such footage; it lets me experience places and people that I would never otherwise experience. When I saw the arcade scene the second time, while listening to the commentary, I thought, “yeah, he’s right, it’s fascinating to get to take a virtual stroll into this place and check out what’s going on.” And yet in the course of watching the movie I hadn’t been able to appreciate that, because it had told me it was a story, and I was trying to watch it that way.

Had the same footage been presented as a documentary I would have been able to get so much more out of it. Every film is, in an esoteric sense, a documentary about what was really going on in certain places at certain moments. The question is whether the film indicates, by its body language, that this way of watching is intended, is desired. Black Orpheus, which has a lot in common with The Harder They Come, made very clear to the audience that it was offering a poetic form of virtual tourism at least as much as it was offering fiction. The Harder They Come seems in retrospect to have had some of the same intentions, but it didn’t make the gestures. Or if it did I didn’t pick up on them.

I found this movie extraordinarily difficult to get through. It took four or five false starts over the course of a full year before I finally managed to see it through to the end, and even then I was in something of a stupor. There’s something stupefying about it, exactly as there is something stupefying to me about the anthropological rooms at the art museum; I can only look at Polynesian idols and Greek pottery for so long before I exhaust the spontaneous artistic response they provoke in me and become aware of myself standing in a room alone with some “interesting” objects. They are not mine and I am not theirs; that’s okay. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. We can’t all be one another’s.

I have borne this “interesting” film with me for a year and have now finally fulfilled it.

I wrote everything above before finishing the commentary. Here’s something Perry Henzell says at the very end:

It’s two movies, Harder They Come, two totally different movies. In Europe and America and Japan, it’s a movie for college audiences who are sophisticated enough to want a glimpse into another world. In the other world that they’re glimpsing into, like Brazil, Africa, Caribbean, and so on, it plays to people who, you know, are poor people living in slums, living in the conditions that the movie represents, and it plays like Kung Fu.

I guess I will try to hold it as a point of pride (?) that despite falling squarely in the first demographic, I nonetheless instinctively tried to watch the second movie. And failed.

In America, the most lasting mark left by this movie is that its soundtrack was decisive in introducing reggae to the masses, much like what the soundtrack of Black Orpheus had done for bossa nova.

There’s no instrumental underscore, just songs. The obvious choice for our selection is the title song, which we get to watch sung live in the studio, in its entirety. From the commentary we learn that this was the first time the song had ever been performed.


December 21, 2016

The Twilight Zone: 16. The Hitch-Hiker


directed by Alvin Ganzer
teleplay by Rod Serling
based on the radio play by Lucille Fletcher
starring Inger Stevens
with Adam Williams, Lew Gallo, Leonard Strong, Russ Bender, and George Mitchell

Friday, January 22, 1960, 10 PM EST on CBS.

Watch it on Netflix.

Oh sure, women get to be 27 years old.

This is a genuine thrills-and-chills episode, with multiple jump scares. They got me! But a jump scare is just a buzzer. If it feels like more, it’s because of fear that has already accumulated, set free by the shock. Something has to have primed the pump. So what’s the underlying fear here?

Let’s get straight to the psychoanalysis. Loyal readers should at this point be entirely unsurprised to hear me assert that this episode is about the individual self being haunted by the social self. (Yeah, yeah.)

By now some of you should have received your own decoder rings and will be able to work out the following on your own. For the rest I’ll try to be concise:

Nan travels away from her accustomed people and places, into the wide-open country of being an individual, alone. In this realm, she is fundamentally confident and relaxed, as we see her in the opening scene, but she gradually becomes aware of a vague fear of a vague other. As with all ghost stories, this is a depiction of a real-life sensation: the social circuits misfire when there’s no one around, creating an eerie afterimage — specifically, the afterimage of one’s social defenses. In other words, she lets her guard down, and then begins to experience residual anxiety about how risky that is.

She wants to be rid of the anxiety, so she tries to get help from other people, but of course by definition other people can’t help her with her experience of being alone; only she can make peace with her asocial core. In the end, she does: she accepts that to be truly oneself, alone, means allowing the social self to die for the moment — which is to say allowing oneself to have died in the eyes of others. Having done this, she now recognizes that the spooky “other” who has been menacing her was only her own projection, and calmly reintegrates him back into her zone of selfhood, within her car, her innermost privacy. He says she’s going his way, and of course she is.

Read this way, it’s actually an entirely happy ending. The threat it seems to hold over our heads is that she’s “really” dead, permanently, and will never be able to be with other people again. But that’s not what the show actually tells us. She’s still sitting up and driving a car at the end, after all. The sense that she has met her doom is something the audience imposes on this story from their own phobias, which warn that once you’ve completely detached from society, even for just a moment, there’s no coming back. It’s not so, of course, but the phobia is common and runs deep.

Maybe some of you are thinking this interpretation seems like a stretch — fine for a term paper but, you know, kind of bullshit. I can hear you now, saying: “She really is dead, at the end. It’s not ambiguous. They say so, in so many words.” To such skeptics, I put it to you that you don’t need to play any esoteric Freudian games to arrive at my reading. Consider:

Even in the most literal-minded viewing of this episode, the audience understands that only Nan can see the hitchhiker; he is in her reality but not the mechanic’s or the sailor’s. This is a standard ghost-story conceit. Well, all it takes to get from there to my psychological reading is to consider that the revelatory phone call at the end might be in the same category.

After all, the phone call is certainly “uncanny,” so we have to wonder about its status in relation to the “only she can see it” rule: what would it have look liked to the other characters? We don’t get to see the scene from anyone else’s point of view, but we can imagine that perhaps the sailor might have seen Nan standing by a payphone in a trance, not dialing. Or having an ordinary conversation with her mother, but with a glazed look in her eye. Or just sitting in her car. Whatever. The point is just that if you are willing to allow that “being informed that she is dead” might be just as much her private burden as the invisible hitchhiker is — just as exclusive to her reality — then it becomes quite natural to see them both as elements of her psyche, and with the values I’ve outlined.

(It’s true, Rod says that “she didn’t make it” to Los Angeles. But who’s to say what he means by “she”?)

(Also maybe she just decided to go somewhere else.)

Almost every story of the supernatural will at some point tease the audience with the possibility that the spooky phenomena are only the protagonist’s subjective hallucination. “Is it real or is it just in the character’s head?” is almost as fundamental to supernatural stories as “who done it?” to mystery stories.

But of course, the whole thing is always in our heads. This may seem absurdly obvious but it bears attention. The value of any story, for the audience, is exactly that we experience it even though it’s not “real.” And our emotional access to the characters is always through the lens of subjectivity; we relate to their experiences as experiences. How else are stories about ghosts and magic and monsters and aliens even comprehensible? The fact that we are able to make any sort of meaning of such things is proof that these things exist for us; i.e. that they correspond to elements of our perceptual complex. And so any attempt by an author to decisively resolve the “is it real” question is going to be beside the point. The ambiguity, the equivalence, is the point: ghosts are in our heads, which means they’re real. That’s how stories work, and that’s how heads work.

That is to say: the received meaning of a story where ultimately the author says “it was real!” and a story where ultimately the author says “it was all in her head!” is absolutely exactly the same for us. And we’re the only ones here. The question of whether it’s the same for the character is just a hall of mirrors.

If you have a puppet on your hand and you make it say “ow,” did the puppet get hurt? Obviously the truest, most correct answer to such a question is a shrug. That shrug isn’t evasive, or highfalutin’ relativism. It’s a shrug; the question merits it. If you’re sufficiently at ease with yourself, you’ll feel it.

This is all, again, to defend my position that Nan is fine at the end of the episode.

“Yes, but isn’t she dead?”


The voice-over talks about intense loneliness, about being “unspeakably, nightmarishly alone.” This seems mostly inherited straight from Lucille Fletcher’s original radio play, and not from Rod Serling’s psyche. Contrast Rod’s conception of loneliness in “The Lonely“: the character’s isolation is simple, absolute and unquestioned, because it’s been deliberately imposed on him by other people. The entire barren asteroid is a manifestation of the hostility of his jailers; the whole landscape has in this sense a voice of its own. It is the “other.” Fletcher’s “Hitch-Hiker” loneliness is more oppressive, is “unspeakable” and “nightmarish,” exactly because it is uncertain and incomplete, because it comes from nowhere and nobody is in charge of it. It’s sticky and existential; it has nothing to say for itself, but it still has the echoes of other people floating around in it. That’s what it is to be truly alone.

In fact maybe it would be best to make a distinction between “loneliness” — i.e. the desire to be around other people — and being “unspeakably, nightmarishly alone,” which is an unpleasant sensation but not necessarily a desire. Nan turns to other people for help but it’s just an expression of desperation; the thing she really wants isn’t people themselves. She wants in fact to be more purely free of them. So I shouldn’t have said this episode is about “loneliness”; rather, it’s about “being alone.” The condition of being alone can give rise to fears, but the fears aren’t always of the condition itself. This episode is about the other fears that live in that space.

There seem not to be any recordings of the first performance of the radio play on The Orson Welles Show in 1941, but Welles brought it back several times, and later performances have survived (including this 1942 version for Suspense and this 1946 version for The Mercury Summer Theater of the Air).

The most obvious difference from the Twilight Zone version is that the radio play has a male rather than a female protagonist — played by Orson, naturally. Your mileage will vary as to whether this feels like a consequential change.

I was originally planning to talk a bit about feminist themes and concerns — such things naturally come to mind while watching this episode — but having heard the Orson Welles version of the story and recognized it as functionally identical, I decided that feminism was a less significant topic than I had thought. I’ll just say that I think the sex swap was a good choice on Rod’s part; in modern American society, women tend to have an even more fraught relationship with “being alone,” so the story is richer for it. But it’s not essential. (“Lady?” “Yes. That’s what I am. I’m a lady.”)

(The male version of the character is — you guessed it! — “36 years of age.” Like I said: if you want to be younger than 36, you’d better be a woman. Though Welles was only 26 when he first performed the role.)

It’s also worth noting that Lucille Fletcher’s original ending is different:

ADAMS: (In a strange voice) And so, I am sitting here in this deserted auto camp in Gallup, New Mexico. I am trying to think. I am trying to get hold of myself. Otherwise, I shall go mad… Outside it is night — the vast, soulless night of New Mexico. A million stars are in the sky. Ahead of me stretch a thousand miles of empty mesa, mountains, prairies — desert. Somewhere among them, he is waiting for me. Somewhere I shall know who he is and who… I… am…

This flourish is more truly “weird” than seems to have been Rod’s taste; it lunges outward toward profound disintegration. Whereas The Twilight Zone is committed to an aesthetic of cleverness, tidiness.

The Fletcher ending doesn’t really work for me — the cadence of it, unfortunately, is too much of a cliché for my ear to take seriously — but I recognize that there’s a real idea behind it, not just a stock gesture. The fear of social death — the idea that if one is not observed one will cease to be oneself — here is thrust wriggling in the audience’s face: it’s devouring this guy right as we listen! It will devour you! If he’s not “alive” anymore, not “Ronald Adams” anymore, who… is… he?

The essence of “the weird” (in the Lovecraftian sense) is, I think, fear of the fact that consciousness — the experience of a self and of a world — is an illusion, prone to dissolution. For those of us who feel it, it can be the most potent and profound form of fear. But it’s really just like any other phobia: a morbid exaggeration. There’s nothing actually dangerous about the fact that consciousness is an ever-dissolving mirage — that there isn’t really any such thing as “I.” The mail still gets delivered, etc.

And Rod Serling, for all his insecurities, was not afraid of dissolving. That wasn’t his burden. Like I said, he seems to have been afraid of loneliness, but not afraid while actually alone. I suspect he couldn’t really comprehend the fear behind the “weird” Fletcher ending because it’s wasn’t his fear. So his reworking of The Hitchhiker into something tidy, something that made sense to him, inadvertently does the audience a service that the original doesn’t: it reveals the solution to the phobia, which his subconscious already knew, as does the subconscious of everyone who isn’t phobic.

It’s the same as the solution to any phobia: it turns out you misunderstood the situation. It’s not something perpetually lurking in wait for you, somewhere beyond the horizon; in fact, it’s already in your car. It’s been with you all along. It’s “going your way.” It’s you. Duh.

• Resorting to so much radio-style narration seems a bit weak on Rod’s part. Surely there were visual ways to get the same stuff across. In fact I know there were because two years later, when this episode was shamelessly ripped off as Carnival of Souls, those guys didn’t use narration, and it worked perfectly well. (On which subject: in retrospect I’m a little disappointed in Criterion for not having the guts to admit anywhere in their bonus materials that the whole movie is stolen from an episode of the The Twilight Zone.)

• I love that the first appearance of the hitchhiker not only isn’t foregrounded but isn’t accompanied by any music, either. He’s really just ours to notice and worry about privately, feeling that even “the show” doesn’t know we saw him there.

• She says she’s going from Tennessee to Arkansas but she also says she’s on Route 80. Rod was probably looking at the map of Route 80 but his eye skipped down to Route 40.

• Mom’s phone number: Trafalgar 4—1098. According to this chart, TR(afalgar) was a Manhattan exchange and translates to (212) 874-1098. Today, according to various reverse-lookup services, this is not a listed number. Suspicious, right?

• Eleanor Audley — Cinderella’s stepmother and Sleeping Beauty’s witch — is the uncredited voice on the phone.

• “Hey, so, after the shoot, if you’re not doing anything, I really think you should come over to my place to, you know, have a drink and see my model airplanes. They’re pretty impressive if I do say so myself.

Psycho had begun shooting on November 11, 1959, and would wrap on February 1, 1960. (“The Hitch-Hiker,” for what it’s worth, had been shot July 28–30, 1959.) I can’t find a more detailed breakdown of the Psycho production schedule — I’m sure it’s out there somewhere — but it seems entirely possible that Hitchcock had seen this episode recently when he was shooting and/or editing the driving sequences.

Something else in common with Psycho is of course music by Bernard Herrmann.

This is a library score, assembled from various existing recordings, but the principal material used is, aptly enough, the score Herrmann wrote for the original 1941 production of the “Hitch-Hiker” radio play (and reused faithfully in the extant recordings linked above), which had been re-recorded for the CBS TV music library as general-purpose underscoring. Here it just happens to be having a reunion with its original subject.

It should be here noted for those who are unaware that Lucille Fletcher, author of the play (and of Sorry, Wrong Number), was from 1939 to 1948 Herrmann’s wife, so this material is in a sense doubly linked to Herrmann. In fact the whole thing was inspired by a cross-country drive Herrmann and Fletcher made in 1940, heading to LA so that Benny could work on Citizen Kane.

Unless you’re in a very particular mood, his “Hitch-Hiker” score makes for rather drab listening in isolation, but that’s exactly why it’s so exemplary of his unparalleled craftsmanship in the art of musical furniture-making. This is music like perfectly-milled unfinished wood. No melodies, no form: pure. And yet the drama is served with great sensitivity, both in its whole and in its each individual moment. That said, its ultimate fate as a venerable piece of library music — cropping up on Gunsmoke and the like — demonstrates that a really good piece of furniture, though it might have been designed to match one particular room, will work anywhere.

December 2, 2016

Game log 11/16

Okay, I started to feel bad about neglecting the queue so here I am pushing onward.

It’s been a while so a quick refresher. Previously on Game Log:

When last we saw our spreadsheet, I was making my way through the 10 games purchased as the “Humble Origin Bundle” on August 27, 2013, an assortment of “triple-A” games from Electronic Arts that aren’t quite my usual fare. So far I’ve given at least an hour each to Dead Space (dismember horrors), Burnout Paradise (crash cars), Crysis 2 (DOMINATE WITH YOUR POWER), and Mirror’s Edge (be so so fierce).

Next up is Dead Space 3 … but I’m just declaring this one a no-go without even starting it. Having almost immediately found the original Dead Space too unrewardingly yucky to continue, I think it’s safe to say that this entire series isn’t for me. I don’t need to subject myself to any more of it just to prove that. (Yeah, even though they say Dead Space 3 is significantly less scary than its predecessors. I don’t care.) I’m comfortable resigning myself to getting my $4.95 worth out of the other 9 games.

(In related news: email me if you want a code for redeeming a copy of Dead Space 3! Still good! Never used!)

Five to go.

Medal of Honor (2010): Danger Close Games (Los Angeles, CA) / EA DICE (Stockholm, Sweden) [played for 1 hr]

I had to stop after an hour because I think this game may be evil. Evil in the sense of being by and for a mindset that is responsible for some of the real troubles of the real world. I was worried this might be hard to explain but conveniently it’s all on show in the trailer above.

Is “macho” really evil? I don’t know; maybe that’s too strong a claim. I can hear how extreme it sounds to say that.

But if “evil” is going to refer to anything, shouldn’t it be this? Flipping the switch. The wolf pack. The unknown elite.

It was after this cut scene that I quit. I couldn’t stomach the game’s unbelievable self-satisfaction about having recognized that an Afghan would have feelings. Writer: “Hey, an Afghan saying some emotional stuff, about how he’s, like, a human being or whatever, would be a really awesome opportunity to contrast the kickass hotheaded take-no-shit side of American masculinity with the mature, compassionate, also-take-no-shit side of American masculinity. I’ll have him babbling, and a wise American will cut him off in an awesomely manly fatherly voice and say ‘I understand. Where are the enemy?'”

The idea that an Afghan might resent being cut off, might feel outraged at being threatened and then patronized by heavily-armed self-satisfied foreigners, is beyond the game’s ability to imagine. It’s too busy looking in the mirror and flexing, and being proud of its refusal to take shit. No more shit. Take no shit. We don’t take shit. One thing you can say for sure about the most elite operators in the world: they don’t take shit.

“We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

This is a real psychology and, yes, I think it is out there doing evil on this earth. It arises from the taking of shit, and it results in the dishing out of shit.

(The use of echoey middle eastern drones to signify “sober worldliness,” the suppressed and muffled fear and sadness of the proudly battle-hardened, is starting to be a red flag for me. When you hear that keening in a movie these days it’s almost always a sign that some emotional poison has gotten into the water.)

Battlefield 3 (2011): EA DICE (Stockholm, Sweden) [9 hrs]

Yes, I know, this would seem to be exactly the same game. Yet this one I played to the end. Its attitude was markedly less toxic. Naturally, it too dabbles in absurd and unhealthy ideas of masculinity — that goes with the territory — but this time those absurdities felt less directly related to moral rot in the real world. Battlefield 3 certainly glorifies the sights and sounds of war and the act of killing, but it doesn’t dwell on how powerful and manly it all makes you. It offers you a fantasy military-fetish experience that, in good faith, it simply assumes you will enjoy. There’s none of that air of narcissistic bullying about it.

It certainly has some tasteless elements stuck in there, but to me they felt naive rather than calculating. It’s the difference between a teenager who says offensive stuff because he’s enthusiastic and oblivious, and a teenager who knowingly says offensive stuff because he wants to prove that he’s too hot for you to handle.

Battlefield 3 is fundamentally an online multiplayer game, with a single-player story game tacked on. Reviewers generally loved the former and dismissed the latter as a sloppy mess, best ignored. But I of course only played the latter. The graphics and overall sense of environmental immersion were terrific, among the very best I’ve ever seen. The rest was indeed sort of a sloppy mess. But I was too entranced by the production values to stop before it was over.

Fun fact: while I was in the middle of playing this game, C-list tabloid mainstay and DSM-5 spokesmodel Donald Trump was elected President of the United States and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, in what has been described as an “actual event.” On the first day afterward I thought I might not be able to continue with this game because its combination of blinkered idiocy and indiscriminate American military force would ring too relevant for comfort.

But on the second day after I realized, “if I stop shooting at CGI terrorists, the Trumps win,” so I played the rest in one go. It was exactly as fun as the pre-election portion of the game. Let that be a lesson to us all.

The Sims 3 (2009): The Sims Studio [= Electronic Arts] (Redwood City, CA) [played for 2 hrs]
+ “Late Night” expansion (2010) + “High End Loft Stuff” pack (2010) + “Date Night” clothing set (2012)

This is an enormously popular game into which many people pour hundreds of hours. I did two hours and I’ve decided to move on.

I built a guy. I tried to make him be me, but after many minutes of carefully tilting his nostrils and rotating his chin and scaling his eye socket depth etc. etc. etc. I had only managed to build something vaguely like a waxwork Jake Gyllenhaal. The game then suggested to me that he was a “loner” and “artistic” and that his life goal was to be a film composer. (Believe it or not, those were randomly generated, but of course I accepted them, on the fortune cookie principle.) I called him “Fred Zank” and moved him into a house. After a tutorial showed me how to control the camera — extremely awkward! — and order Fred around, I was encouraged to tend to his needs, get him a job, and generally guide him toward a life well lived.

Left to his own devices, Fred just wanted to sit in his house and read a fantasy novel. A newspaper was delivered, and I had Fred read it. It informed us about some kind of sporting event going on, so I sent Fred into the city to try to attend. I guess technically he did, but I was disappointed to find that the interior of the stadium wasn’t actually depicted on screen so it didn’t feel like a rewarding outing. Upon exiting the stadium, Fred indicated that he was thirsty and hungry, so I directed him to a nearby establishment with a martini icon, but the bouncer repeatedly refused to let him in, so I sent him to another one. That bouncer refused to let him in too. These humiliating experiences seemed to agitate Fred somewhat, and by this point it was getting quite late and Fred was apparently weary from lack of sustenance.

In desperation, I found a dive bar on the map and sent Fred there. When he arrived I had him order food and drink from the bartender. Perhaps he would have done it on his own, and my order somehow doubled up the amount of food and drink; in any case, he seemed to go on eating and drinking for a long time. A woman sat down at the bar next to Fred and I was going to have him try chatting her up when he suddenly indicated that he had urgent need for a toilet. I trundled the camera around looking for the bar restroom, and, finding it, directed Fred to use the toilet there, but unfortunately at that moment I saw that Fred had spontaneously added a new task to his queue, called “pee self.” He then stood up rather confusedly from the barstool and peed on the floor, obviously disgusting the 7 or 8 people who stood nearby, whose thought bubbles all filled up with pictures of Fred.

This incident made him fairly unhappy, and he began to emanate a cloud of stink. Furthermore it was now the wee hours of the morning. I sent Fred home to sleep it off in his bed, which he did, not waking until mid-afternoon. I had him take a shower, and then look for a job in the paper, which he immediately found: he could apparently enter the music industry as a professional “fan.” Having accepted the job, the next morning I had him make himself breakfast to prepare for his first day at work. The only thing he knew how to make was “waffles.” I watched him combine ingredients into a bowl, stir the batter, and then pour it into some kind of pan — I guess a waffle mold? — that he put in the oven. After a few minutes of baking, the oven burst into flame. Fred, standing nearby, began to panic, uselessly. The fire spread to the wall and the floor. The fire alarm went off and soon a fireman had arrived to spray the oven — and Fred — with foam.

Soon a mysterious car arrived outside to drive Fred to work. It drove Fred to a high-rise office building. Again, the interior wasn’t shown, so I don’t know exactly what Fred was doing as a professional music fan, but he was there at work for several hours, and left with about $125 of pay.

At this point I stopped.

I found all of this amusing, sure, but also sad. There was something disheartening about the loneliness and futility of this sprawling world-system, full of catalogues upon catalogues of options, and something oppressive about Fred’s overwhelming vacuity. Even his most outrageous humiliations were weightless, arbitrary, inconsequential.

It was like the opposite of storytelling: the game offers events that would seem to have obvious dramatic meaning, and then drains them of that meaning. In this game people ostensibly die, are born, fall in love, betray one another, achieve their dreams, lose it all, blah blah blah, but it all has exactly the same texture of utter emptiness. That’s supposed to be the fun of it, I suppose, but to me it means there’s nothing worth staying for.

The Sims 3 might purport to be like playing with dolls, but when kids play with dolls, their emotions are the life of the dolls and the life of the dolls is all emotion. There are no rules other than self-expression. Whereas these computer dolls are all rules, only rules, and they do their feeling by themselves. They have animations for acting sad and happy and scared and eager so that you don’t have need or occasion to imbue them with anything of your own. A doll is a totem; The Sims are just sea monkeys. And if I’m going to raise sea monkeys I want them simple. I don’t want “infinite possibilities.”

Just last month, Stardew Valley managed to draw me into playing a “life simulator” because, unlike the usual fare, it was fundamentally sentimental about everything. The changing of the seasons; the sprouting of a new radish; showing daily affection for your cows: the game’s aesthetics are very specifically selling the idea that any of these things might wet your eyes a bit with existential poignancy. And I’ll buy that; I have use for it. (Yes, sometimes I criticize attempts at that sort of thing as kitsch, or insincere, but I criticize because it’s something I care about, something I need.) The Sims 3 is the opposite: a mechanized simulacrum of life deliberately emancipated from all sentimentality. It invites us to enjoy the forms of shopping and coupling and advancing and earning without the burden of those things having any substance. It is the names and shapes of things without their pesky meanings. That attitude in itself has a meaning, for me, in relation to life, and it means depression. This is what life looks like when you are looking through the wrong eyes.

So that’s enough of that.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 — Uprising (2009): EA Los Angeles (Los Angeles, CA) [played for .5 hrs]

How to parse the title: first you’ve got Command & Conquer (1995), and then you’ve got a prequel, Command & Conquer: Red Alert (1996), which begins its own line of descent, its grandchild being Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 (2008). And then a few months later, the present game, Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 — Uprising, which is a “stand-alone expansion” to Red Alert 3. This all means that my sense of being late to the party is four layers deep. Plus if you watch the trailer you’ll probably understand why I’m not sure whether I was invited to this party at all. Kinda seems like a party for a different crowd.

I like the concept of Real-Time Strategy but my brain doesn’t naturally take to it. I started the tutorial, but trying to get in the headspace gave me such a strong sense of swimming upstream against my own desires that after half an hour I decided it needed to be heeded, so I’m going to skip this game. My superficial impression is that if I were even remotely inclined to play an RTS right now, this would be a pretty good one. But I’m just not.

Thought: I am far more willing to push through tedious rulesets when learning board games because a) the entire responsibility for enacting the game is on the player so it feels natural that I should have to shoulder more information than when a computer is running the show, and b) the point of a multiplayer game is not so much to contend with the rules as it is to contend with other people through the medium of the rules, which holds greater emotional promise and so is worth a greater investment. It’s true that I am a lifelong lover of puzzles and single-player games, but the ones I like generally have fairly simple and immediately intuitive rules. To me, essential to the pleasure of experiencing a thing alone is that you encounter it as it appears, rather than as it explains itself. The appearance is the explanation.


I love the ideal represented by the modern practice of incorporating the tutorial right into the game proper: namely that learning is entirely the teacher’s project, not the student’s, and so at its best it will be indistinguishable from ordinary doing. The only necessity is that the on-ramp begin all the way on the ground — after that, as long as the road is well-constructed, from the traveler’s perspective it’s all just road. Ramps are not “prerequisites” to level ground; all travel is continuously contoured.

For puzzle games this ideal is absolutely achievable; this year The Witness and Stephen’s Sausage Roll were both built entirely around the principle of learning. But with intricate game-systems like RTSes and board games, it’s much more difficult to create a tutorial that resembles play, because the rules are not inherently cumulative. The intricacies usually exist because they’re necessary for structural balance. Starting out with only one or two rules in place is like playing a completely different game, one that the designers rarely want to spend time exploring and making worthwhile in its own right. Nonetheless I continue to fantasize about such things.

I would love board games to come with an interactive learning ritual, something like a Seder.

Populous (1989): Bullfrog (Guildford, UK) [played for a few minutes]

This last game in the “Humble Origin Bundle” seems to have been tossed in as a kind of historical bonus item. Populous is a tremendously influential classic from nearly 30 years ago. It’s probably not my cup of tea, but I was still looking forward to giving it a shot, after all these years of hearing about it. Unfortunately, the version in this bundle displays with the wrong colors and the wrong proportions. More importantly, it does not come with the manual. If any game has ever needed a manual, it’s this one — the gameplay is highly idiosyncratic and the controls are a set of buttons marked only with obscure glyphs. Could I find the manual online somehow, and also try to figure out how to improve the emulation? Yes. But I could very easily have found a pirated copy of this game somewhere, too. This trek through my backlog is about giving a chance to all the games I’ve already acquired. This acquisition turns out to be missing some parts. Moving on.

Here ends the “Humble Origin Bundle,” which in retrospect was kind of a bust. I bought it for Mirror’s Edge and out of curiosity about Dead Space and The Sims 3, but none of those really panned out the way I hoped. 25 hours of “meh” for $4.95 I rate as not great. It’s cheap enough per hour, but there are, after all, infinite hours of “meh” to be had for free in the real world.

September 20, 2013: GOG adds two new free games to their roster and I reflexively add them to my library. As with prior free games on GOG, these are both games that had already been declared “freeware” by their copyright owners and can be downloaded elsewhere, but I’m still counting them here because they were, on that day, the objects of my acquisitive compulsion. About which I feel slightly ashamed. All this blogging is, I guess, my way of proving to myself that this compulsion isn’t completely empty and neurotic after all; I eventually do get something real out of these things I acquire. (Some of them, anyway.)

Better, I know, would be to accept and embrace any past compulsion, rather than try to vindicate it with a new present compulsion. Yes. But there’s a second aspect to all this game playing, which is that I like games, am comforted by them, and happen to have this bottomless bag of gifts for myself, just standing by. It seems like a genuinely worthwhile thing to be doing at a time when I am seeking peace of mind, to be pulling stuff from that bag.

Flight of the Amazon Queen (1995): Interactive Binary Illusions [= John Passfield, Steve Stamatiadis, & Tony Ball] (Brisbane, Australia) [5.5 hrs]

(No trailer available, so this is the whole game. Skip around; you’ll get the gist pretty quickly.)

This of course I can handle. One of the most competent and committed of the fan-made LucasArts imitations, at least from the era before “Adventure Game Studio” came out and every geek in Europe could make his own Monkey Island knockoff. These Australian guys completely built their own wannabe LucasArts game from the ground up, and then managed to sell it commercially. Albeit not in very large numbers.

The game is in every possible way an imitation of Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992) — plus a couple of elements from The Secret of Monkey Island (1990) — but the designers deserve credit for making their imitation non-slavish. It is entirely derivative but it’s not autistic mimicry, as so many fan games tend to be. It’s a real, original game that just happens to get all its ideas from other, more famous games.

Flight of the Amazon Queen is clearly a passion project, very ambitious for the people making it, and that means its has that special energy that amateurs bring. Like those kids who remade Raiders of the Lost Ark. These guys have done something similar and it’s compelling in a similar spirit.

On the merits, the actual story and puzzles aren’t really interesting or that much fun. There’s an unconscionable amount of slow, slow backtracking, always unskippable. But the graphics are mostly quite good, and I can coast a long way on just the implications of those pixelated DeluxePaint shadows.

Stargunner (1996): David Pevreal, Craig Allsop, James Podesta, & Leo Plaw (Brisbane, Australia) / Apogee Software (Garland, TX) [played 2 hrs]

The other freeware game added to GOG on the same day happens by complete coincidence also to have come from Brisbane, Australia. (I just searched to see what’s the most famous game ever to have come out of Brisbane. The answer is: Fruit Ninja. Who knew? Or cared? Video games are a truly international culture, far moreso than movies or music.)

This is a distinctly ugly horizontal shoot-em-up from toward the end of the “shareware” era of scrappy half-independent games. It plays fair and has generally a good feel to it, but there’s not enough personality here to entice me to put in the time. If this were the only game I owned, I’d probably grow to love it. But I own many, many games.

It’s also very hard and it doesn’t try to ease you in. Right from the beginning of level 1, even set to “easy” difficulty, it’s hard. I’d be more interested in learning how to meet that challenge if only the aesthetics were motivating me to care. As it is, I felt a little like it was someone slamming the door on me every time I knocked. Hey, man, I’m just here as a courtesy, trying to be polite! I’m not, like, obsessed with you. If you’re not going to talk to me, I’m just going to go to the next house. It’s no skin off my back.

Especially since it was free.

September 23, 2013: After twelve days of considering whether buying “Humble Indie Bundle 9” for $5 is really a good idea, I finally take the plunge. This officially nets me ten games, but three of them (Bastion, LIMBO, and Brütal Legend) are already in my collection from prior bundles, so really I get seven games out of it. Of these, I have until now played only one (and not for very long, so I’ll be returning to it here).

Trine 2: Complete Story (2011–13): Frozenbyte (Helsinki, Finland) [17 hrs]

Remember Trine? (It’s okay. I know you don’t. This is just for me.) Well, here it is again, with “2” mostly referring to the production values. Lavish to look at and bask in, in a tasteless, immoderate, Thomas Kinkade kind of way. Also bland and uninvolving in a Thomas Kinkade kind of way. It’s a tad more satisfying than the original — at least as far as I can remember it — but ultimately it’s just more of the same game. I didn’t mind being transported to lush Fantasy Nowheresville for a while; I got something out of it. But that’s hardly a recommendation. I’ve been to plenty of Fantasy Nowheresvilles with much more to offer. We all have.

This release is called “Complete Story” because it also contains a substantial new set of levels that were released a year after the main game. The extra material is markedly better than the rest: less padded, more varied in play and in visuals — which are, to my eye, much more attractive than in the core game. This is the way it often goes: the extra bits of DLC are developed after the pressure of getting the game finished has been lifted, and after the team has developed a comfort with their materials, and so they end up being more confident and compelling precisely because they’re inessential. Then again, sometimes it goes the other way: the extra bits are nobody’s top priority and nobody wants to waste good ideas on them, so they come out timid and shoddy. It kind of depends on the prevailing spirit of the studio. I feel like the superiority of the DLC over the main game actually reflects well on the company culture at Frozenbyte.

There’s a Trine 3 out there but I don’t own it and hopefully I’ll be able to keep it that way.

More from this bundle next month. You can’t wait.