Monthly Archives: May 2017

May 13, 2017

The Twilight Zone: 17. The Fever


directed by Robert Florey
written by Rod Serling
starring Everett Sloane and Vivi Janiss

Friday, January 29, 1960, 10 PM EST on CBS.

Watch it on Netflix.

Oh my god! The stern anti-gambling moralist turns out to be a latent addict!

Of course, we all see it coming from a hundred miles away. Everyone has an intuitive grasp of the principle: the scold is always the one most in thrall to the thing he scolds. And that’s not just for TV shows; it’s how projection actually works. The difference between a negative fixation and a positive fixation is just words, and words can be ignored; the essential emotion being expressed is only fixation itself. The rule of thumb for the TV audience is that any character who says “If there’s one thing I know, Flora, it’s morality” is going to be exposed as a creep. Even if we can’t articulate it consciously, drama has taught us well that all disapproval is projection; all moralizing is hypocrisy. It’s just that being hypocrites ourselves, we’re generally not ready to admit that we know it.

Everett Sloane’s performance is quite good in this respect; he shows us physically that the severity of the scold is identical to the severity of the addict. The domineering husband whose wife doesn’t dare contradict him is transformed into: the domineering husband whose wife doesn’t dare contradict him.

All very straightforward stuff. So straightforward, in fact, that one may wonder why The Twilight Zone, which is to say Rod Serling, took up this subject at all. Reportedly the idea came to him while — get this! — playing the slots in Las Vegas. He observed his own sensation of compulsion, and thought “there’s an episode in that!” But the episode feels thin, or at least simplistic, because you don’t get the impression he was actually worried about being a gambling addict. It was just a hypothetical fear, with no real sting in it.

As with “Escape Clause,” our hapless protagonist is more of a cautionary nudnik than he is a real audience surrogate. That’s why the wife is there: to scoop up all of the leftover sympathy that we aren’t inclined to grant to the grimacing Mr. Gibbs. We might have once or twice entertained a worry about becoming an addict, on a whim, but really let’s be honest: that’s the kind of thing that happens to other people. And Franklin Gibbs is far, far older than 36.

Addiction is an interesting subject for the Twilight Zone treatment, but this isn’t a particularly insightful portrayal of addiction generally or gambling addiction specifically; Gibbs’s motivations are too vague. In the second half when he’s agitated because he’s got to win back his losses, that makes a certain sense: the shame of having begun to gamble is the same blot as the shame of being susceptible to temptation in the first place, and he’s willing to expend any amount of energy to wipe the blot away. But his actual seduction is left awfully sketchy. All we get is the creepy voice of the coins calling to him, after his hand is initially forced by a highly unlikely chain of events.

By keeping the thought process of the addict in shadow until he’s good and crazy, the episode lets the viewer off the hook. If he has no actual reason to become an addict other than a bunch of TV nonsense, then neither do we. Of course, we know that even a stock sourpuss character must have some inner wound. What is it that Mr. Gibbs wants, deep down, that makes him such a scold at the outset? That would be the real source of his being haunted, and Rod doesn’t dare touch it. We have to fill in the blanks ourselves. He’s lonely, probably? His parents were cruel to him? Oh who cares.

The hallucination that generates the climax is obviously contrived and silly, but for the blog’s sake I’ll still briefly address the principle of the thing: he projects this monster, and it’s with him. It knows him. As always, that means it’s a part of him that he hasn’t accepted. “A monster with a will all its own,” he calls it.

Franklin, like Rod, has a subconscious impulse to use the slot machine, and because it’s subconscious, it seems somehow external to him. He isn’t quite able to identify with it, because he fears his own subconscious — which is to say he fears other people’s responses to it. Why else would he lie to his wife, when he claims he’s only going to dump the coins back in the machine to rid himself of their sin? He makes excuses because he doesn’t trust her with the truth of what he feels, and the rationalization he invents to deceive her is soon adopted to deceive himself, too. The thing gargling his name at the end is just his own private inner experience, which he has tried to deny.

The obligatory Twilight Zone bet-hedging is to show us the machine lurking nearby even after there’s nobody left to perceive it; “maybe it was real after all!” But under the circumstances it just feels like going through the motions. Of course it wasn’t real! There hasn’t been any ambiguity about what we’ve been watching here. The wife couldn’t see it; it wasn’t there. The “literal” version, where an objective haunted slot machine objectively menaced this guy, doesn’t even hang together as pulp. (Why would it go hang out near his corpse?)

If you’re less jaded than I am and are able to grant the final shot its intrinsic meaning, it’s this: even the catastrophe that the anxious mind foresees for itself will not stop the subconscious, which lives ever on in its eerie otherness.

A more psychologically realistic ending would be for us to see Gibbs dead on the pavement, see the slot machine looming in the shadows… and then see Gibbs the next day, back at it again in the casino. The notion of being driven to some ultimate disaster is itself just part of his hallucinatory pathology. This is Gibbs’s bad dream, and every bad dreamer lives to bad dream again.

We have here a particularly absurd instance of the trope wherein suicidal madness can drive a man “out the window” at any moment. Mrs. Gibbs stands by in helpless horror because she understands all too well that walking very very slowly toward a window is an unstoppable act of absolute doom. Franklin has to back out of the window accidentally so that we don’t have to broach the subject of actual suicide, since under the flimsy circumstances it would seem distasteful. But we all know it’s code for suicide, or at least for self-induced psychic cataclysm. Rather than being what it is literally: a man getting a little upset in a hotel room.

Sadly, Everett Sloane really did commit suicide, six years later, possibly because he feared he was going blind. I didn’t know that before, and it’s going to make my viewings of Citizen Kane a little sadder in the future. We’re only 17 episodes in and we’ve already had Gig Young and Inger Stevens, too. The Twilight Zone isn’t shaping up to have a very good track record on this count.

In a sense, this is the most forthright Twilight Zone episode yet; it gets at the same old themes, but in what is essentially a realistic context. Barring the couple of hallucinations set to film, there’s nothing supernatural here. The issue is, as always, whether we can bear to live with our own fear, and what we do to rationalize it and push back against it when it overwhelms us. Here Rod gestures toward what are, indeed, familiar real-world answers to those questions. But he does it sloppily and with no great insight. Just enough to get the episode out the door.

Second one directed by Robert Florey, after the artsy “Perchance to Dream.” This assignment is pretty ordinary by comparison but he still brings some panache to it. Gibbs’s death sprawl is nicely laid out.

The monster in action. Bet you didn’t imagine it was yellow.

This episode uses library music, but in a limited and cohesive way. After a few loose establishing cues, it’s essentially just a score by Jerry Goldsmith borrowed whole from a Studio One in Hollywood episode of the previous year:

“The Fair-Haired Boy,” aired Sunday March 3, 1958 at 7:30 PM on CBS. Written by Herman Raucher. Starring:

Darren McGavin as Tom Kendall
Jackie Cooper as Dave Tuttle
Bonita Granville as Ann
Robert H. Harris as Pogani
Patricia Smith as Clare
Lyle Talbot as Trent
Ainslie Pryor as Dalsky

I find the action of “The Fair-Haired Boy” described variously as

“Partners in film company clash over ethics of public relations.”

“Although favorable results are soon realized with the art director and a young promising public relations man working as a team in a concerted effort to promote the company’s films, an animosity develops when the older man is suspected of claiming his partner’s ideas.”

“A murder takes place in the public relations department of a motion picture company.”

Which feels like a pretty good plot summary right there.

“The Fair-Haired Boy” doesn’t seem to be in the Paley Center collection, so for all I know it hasn’t survived, and nobody will ever again get to see Jackie Cooper kill Darren McGavin, or possibly the other way around. But we can still hear what it sounded like! Cool, is what it sounded like.

Plus Goldsmith’s music is supplemented by a perfectly matched piece of library music by René Garriguenc, called “Street Moods in Jazz.

This atmosphere of forbidding angular hepness was a standard palette color in those days. “Crime jazz” had been on the rise for a while in TV and movies. That said, I suspect that the particular angles heard here are deliberately taking a page from West Side Story (1957).

I like the philosophical ambiguity in this kind of music: is it comic or serious? Is it threatening or charming? The less certain you are about how to name the mood it evokes, the richer the art, I think. These scores are richer than they might seem at first glance. Goldsmith and Garriguenc are responsible for imparting to this shallow episode a few faint suggestions of depth.

May 12, 2017

Game log 1–4/17

Not a lot of game-playing these past few months. But a few things.

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (2001, for Game Boy Advance): Konami Computer Entertainment Kobe (Kobe, Japan) [played for about 6 hrs?]

(I can’t find any original ads. Maybe there were none. Here’s a trailer from a 2014 Wii U rerelease.)

This turned up in the Raspberry Pi dragnet. All those GBA games were looking pretty tasty so I told myself I’d pick one, imagine I had a GBA back in the day and it had been one of the few games I owned, and play it to completion with that kind of dedication. After about 6 hours the make-believe wore off and I realized I should stop.

As I’ve said, I’m not a fan of games where little numbers fly off the characters like sparks. Hey designers: I want to be to processing either symbolically or aesthetically, not both at once. But in this instance I swallowed it, because the big picture strongly appealed to me at the moment: to be questing through subterranea, trying to acquire and master, acquire and master. I disparage RPGs for conflating inflation with progress — is the “level 2017” USD really all that awesome? — but there’s something undeniably reassuring about any game where your only possible trajectory is upward. Found a new power, a new ability, a new card for your deck? You never have to do without it again; it’s not going anywhere. Eventually you’ll have the full set and be the monarch of all you survey. Personal aspiration modeled on baseball card collecting. A fantasy to soothe the real-world angst of losing things, slipping backward. Here the only possible struggle is forward, forward for hours toward the distant exit. And as you work your way toward the light you have all that wonderful tunnel waiting for you, a haunted house to be savored. In this context struggle is indistinguishable from ease.

I enjoyed the jump-whip-jump-run flow state, but the stingy checkpoints seemed to insist on cautious and strategic play. At every death: aw, c’mon, guys, that’s my flow state you’re messing with! I’ll cheerfully follow your twisting thread of tasks, and if you leave me be, you’re welcome to spool it out forever. But if you insist on interrupting me again and again, I’m gonna come out and say it: this thread is too long.

New release that I bought on launch day ($19.99) because I wanted to be able to relate to the reviews:

Thimbleweed Park (2017): Terrible Toybox (Seattle, WA) [11 hrs]

I mostly give this a thumbs-up. Atmosphere and loving care, sure, but above all: the sense that this really is a product of the same people and the same sensibilities that generated Maniac Mansion 30 years ago. A rare sense of authentic cultural continuity. “Nostalgia” gets sold a lot but this is the real thing: it lives! The only other example I can think of is Cliff Johnson’s 25-years-later sequel to The Fool’s Errand — the production of which seems to have killed the man’s spirit.

Two major problems:

1. Fake-o pixels that get manhandled. Different sizes of “pixel” show up on the same screen, “pixels” get rotated diagonally, “pixels” shake and warp in ways that have absolutely nothing to do with the grid. This is such a profound aesthetic error that it’s hard for me to understand how these designers could blithely get it so deadly wrong. But they do.

Need it be said? “Pixel art” is only meaningful to the eye insofar as it is a rigorous constraint. Otherwise you’re just using a lot of little squares. Why? God knows. “I’m officially obsessed with little squares! They’re kind of amazing. OMG little squares hahahaha ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ lol .”

2. The game is run through with wocka wocka meta-commentary on adventure games, game development, etc. etc. In the old days that sort of thing was an occasional puckish indulgence from the coding side of the curtain. Fine. Here it’s given free rein and a major role in the story: a bit much. Then at the end of the game the meta actually takes over outright, which is far more than a bit much. Monkey Island 2 ended by yanking back the curtain and thumbing its nose at the audience, but that worked because the whole thing had been a paper-thin genre goof all along. (Compare Monty Python and the Holy Grail.) Whereas Thimbleweed Park is a very weird amalagam of stuff, not just a straight parody, and the trajectory of its plot isn’t at all obvious. To punch holes in the screen (so to speak) instead of paying off in full feels like a failure of imagination rather than the daredevil leap it seems to want to be.

That said, these were an enjoyable 11 hours. I resorted to googling for hints three times. One was worthwhile, one was a wash, and one of them I regret.

I didn’t Kickstart Thimbleweed Park — I’m not going to Kickstart any game until a game has Kickstarted me — but I followed along with its development blog. Two years ago, when they crowdsourced the names of the books in the “Occult Book Store,” I totally submitted some that are now in the game (alongside about 6000 others). They’re dumb. But they’re not nearly as dumb as the other 6000.

Backers above the $50 level got their names in the in-game phone book (again, thousands of entries) and were given the option of recording an audio voicemail message, of which there are 1848 in the finished game. I listened to quite a few (including one from Mad Men‘s Rich Sommer, known videogame enthusiast). Hearing the actual voices and senses of humor (and German accents) of the people whose money made the game possible is a rich and rewarding bonus feature to stick in a game. It’s of course an ocean of meaningless monotony but there’s some real depth there too. Hey, just like: the internet!

Okay, now back to the backlog. More from “Humble Indie Bundle 9,” purchased 9/23/13. Four games left.

FTL: Faster Than Light (2012): Subset Games (Seattle, WA) [played for about 7 hrs?]

Not my cup of tea but I drank about 7 hours worth of tea anyway. People love this game and, you know, I get it. I just don’t get it as me. I was pretending to be another person for a while.

The dream is: hey, when Captain Picard says “divert all power to forward shields,” could that be a game? Yes, it could. But what goes on in it? Space battles, naturally, where you do your best to divert all power etc. Beyond that it’s basically just a board game, shuffling Chance Cards at you. It tells about as much of a story as Monopoly. I was able to play it with my board game mind, with occasional interludes for my video game mind. It goes in the long line of board/realtime hybrids extending back to “Archon.” Of course it’s also a direct descendant of the hallowed old “Star Trek” BASIC game circa 1971.

I had heard a lot of indie hyperventilation about this dinky-looking game for the past several years, and accordingly brought some cynicism with me. I’m very pleased to find that this is what engendered all that nerdy enthusiasm: an unpretentious, extremely old-fashioned thing through and through.

People go on and on about the brilliance of “roguelike” games when they’re really just talking about the way card and board games have always been. Thoroughly shuffle the deck and away you go.

Yes, there’s a kind of freedom and perhaps dignity in such games that Mario et al. lack. There’s a certain sense of independence, of maturity, in randomness. A rigid adventure game gives a man a fish; a deck of cards teaches a man to fish. (By saying “go fish.”)

But actually I’m skeptical of equating independence with maturity. Dependence has its own dignity and meaning. A rigid adventure game dares to say something directly to the player; it’s sociable. There are great human joys and depths in the experience of giving a man a fish. You can cook it for him, for one thing: add spices, add a side dish, make it particular. Being connected isn’t inferior to being disconnected. They each have their place. I like video games because they’re connections, because I like encountering the human in cultural works. If I’m going to play a true Game, a system game, a tokens and shuffling game, why would I play it on a computer? A real deck of cards is always a superior tactile experience, a superior social experience. I spent some of my FTL hours fantasizing loosely about a hypothetical tabletop version. It seemed to invite it.

No, I never beat the boss. Yes, I was playing on Easy mode. I made it to the final phase of the boss battle once, but then it got me.

FEZ (2012): Polytron Corporation (Montréal, QC) [13 hrs]

This lived well up to expectations. A mood piece smack-dab in the middle of “video game culture” — pixels as ontological fixation + wistful synth sunsets — and yet it didn’t annoy me in the least. This is the fully committed game all other hipster indie games want to be. Credit the excellent soundtrack, but also the concept and design. Mario World as Flatland is an inspired link-up, and while you’re gently jumping and climbing your way through the game, the environments are taking the premise more seriously than you may at first notice. When the finale goes the full Kubrick it feels earned and appropriate; it’s genuinely spectacular.

One of those games where the unfurling of the content corresponds to methodical exploitation of the various potentials of the “core mechanic,” as they say. That kind of structure is satisfying not just because it keeps the level of interest up — something new is always happening — but because it feels formally unified and whole. For these 6 hours (or 13 if you stick around like I did) you are doing many things because you are doing one thing, and that one thing is synonymous with the game. This was what gave such force to Stephen’s Sausage Roll (and The Witness) last year. I think this structure is probably the platonic ideal for video games: an exhaustive guided tour of a single idea.

Navigation is the weak spot here. Having to re-traverse completed areas over and over becomes increasingly irritating as things drag on. (I assumed some kind of warp power would be granted to the player late in the game, but it wasn’t to be.) For me this had the unfortunate consequence of making me reluctant to leave an area with any unexplored secrets — because it would be such a pain to get back — and thus more inclined to look things up online. Which turned out to be a terrible mistake, because the game was designed with some lovely puzzles in its second half that I had spoiled for me while still in its first half. I imagine that a few tweaks could have clarified to the player that some areas simply weren’t meant to be solvable until — not just “later,” but “much later.” The idea of “not until much later” is its own thing in game dramaturgy; if it had been signaled to me more explicitly I would have recognized it, and been spared the spoilage.