Trying something new: The Cultural Apocalypse Podcast

I’ve decided to do something constructive. Starting in the near future* this blog is going to host a podcast. That podcast will feature yours truly and will usually have two good friends as part of the regular ‘cast with various experts, fun people and assorted “friends of the show” popping in when I can convince them to do so. We will talk about, more or less, the same topics that I write about on the blog. Not the exact same topics. My ego isn’t quite so out of control that I think anybody wants to listen to people discussing eight hundred words on an adventure game from the mid-1980s. The same general topic areas: video games, action films, sci-fi and fantasy novels, popular music. Generally apocalyptic culture and the kind of culture swimming around in this, our cultural apocalypse. 

*I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but we’re not talking “Summer 2013” here. 

There are long stories and there are short stories behind this idea and I won’t go into them all. I will, however, briefly go into an important one for me personally. About two years ago, I shamelessly tried to jump in on a podcast idea being thrown around by two of my friends. They were closer to each other than I was to either, and they had a certain dynamic, but I really wanted to be on a podcast and I wanted to hang out with them. Landing a spot on their podcast would satisfy both desires. Hey, I argued: you need some form of host or producer type and I do have an accent.* That podcast never quite came into being and not that long after one of my friends fell terribly ill before leaving us, I hope and believe for better pastures. When he passed, I told myself that I would work to be better, that I would write more, that I would do my job better, that I would be a better husband. Sometimes I have lived up to that promise and sometimes I have not. I believe that by writing in this blog more regularly, I am doing that. I also believe that starting this podcast is living up to my promise. 

*I do. I mean, I know we all do, but I have what Americans refer to as “an accent.” Being that I’m not an American. 

It’s an odd decision to make. I like podcasts, very much. I frequently listen to podcasts and get frustrated. Many, particularly in some of the rather nerdy interest areas to which I am drawn, go on for too long, or sound like a bunch of people hanging out. I get the latter tendency, certainly. There’s a certain intimacy to a podcast that is hugely important to its success. But otherwise, I find myself wishing that every single podcast I listen to is as good as the ones that have won me over regularly, such as the Idle Thumbs Podcast, the Anfield Wrap, the Guardian Football Weekly Podcast and the Football with John Giles podcast. All of these ‘casts benefit from professional-level production, something I’m not sure I can duplicate, but I can at least endeavour to make the podcast sound as good as possible. All of these podcasts are fairly regular in how they reach a typical length. There tends to be a sense of structure.  

Really, the podcast is a rather wonderful medium. Radio programming on demand from all kinds of sources. Truly democratic media. There are many good podcasts, and podcasts that don’t set my heart racing find their audience. So why bother with one of our own? There are two reasons.  

One, a favourite podcast of mine recently changed its approach. Despite representing the biggest sports broadcaster in the United States, the Baseball Today podcast had found its own niche with a nice solid cast of participants that regularly discussed the sport in an evenhanded fashion and with a solid sense of fun. Eric Karabell, Keith Law and Mark Simon had successfully established a sense of rapport with their listeners. It was a great example of what a podcast should be. ESPN, for reasons which I am not privy to of course, decided to ditch this in favour of a “Baseball Tonight” podcast that more clearly reflected the podcast’s relationship with the TV show. It’s host, Buster Olney, is an incredibly hard working sports journalist. Not just that, he is an excellent journalist. The show he’s been asked to host however is not the show that I enjoyed listening to. Most days I either skip through the podcast or abandon it all together. This may seem a little foolish, but I was incredibly disappointed. I had underestimated just how much the Baseball Today podcast had become an important part of my daily commute. This frustration led me to think about podcasts from the perspective of how to create an interesting show. I believe very strongly that podcasts present a great chance for anyone to have a show. Small scale works for podcasts. I can do small scale. 

Second, the only thing holding me back from starting a podcast was that I was afraid. Afraid that it wouldn’t be good. Afraid that people would laugh at it. Afraid that my friends would make fun of it or roll their eyes if they got together while I wasn’t there. Insecurity. It’s a terrible thing. And my friend didn’t believe in it. At least, he didn’t believe in letting it hold you back. He believed in creativity and he believed in encouraging it in others. If he was still with us he would tell me to do it to the best of my ability and figure it out as I go. He’d be right. 

I can’t pretend this podcast will be fantastic right out the gate, and truth be told I’m not sure what to expect. I’d rather have the crew meet in person but that’s not possible I’m afraid. The first big challenge will be to try and create a sense of chemistry over video-conferencing. We’ll see how that goes. I’m not a natural podcast host by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I’m thinking of myself less as the “host” and more as the guy that says hello, introduces people, and tries to move things on if the conversation has become too indulgent. I’m not trying to say that this show will be anything earth-shattering, either. But, if you like reading random posts about action films and video games, I hope you will like this podcast, and give it a chance.  

We’re going to focus on themed podcasts for the most part. Here are some examples being thrown around for the coming weeks: 

The first Die Hard film, its setting in a Japanese owned building, and US-Japan relationships in 1980s movies that may or may not involve discussing Gung Ho.* 

Michael Keaton’s career (specifically Night Shift, Gung Ho, Batman and Pacific Heights) 

The films of Stanley Kubrick. 

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s refusal to even pretend to have an American accent in his films and America being okay with that. 

History in video games, good and bad. 

*It will involve discussing Gung Ho. 

This podcast is intended to be casual and friendly. A couple of ‘cast members are professional historians but we’re not looking to create a history podcast. Rather, we’d like to chat about historical context here and there when we think it’s useful. So, if we’re discussing Barry Lyndon we will most likely talk about the historical relationships going on there. Chatting about Ahnuld and his accent is going to lead to some Cold War discussions. We’re not trying to be something entirely new here and Lord knows the Internet doesn’t necessarily need another podcast that just talks about Stanley Kubrick and other huge figures in popular culture. We’re just going to make a podcast that we like and hope that others like it too. More information will be forthcoming soon, and if you’re reading this I hope you consider giving the podcast a chance. With a bit of luck we’ll get better at it and maybe we’ll end up doing it for a while. 

Something familiar this way comes (King’s Quest I)

A quick note: I’m not slipping already, I was travelling this past weekend. I’ll be back with the next video game post this coming Friday.

King’s Quest I is a weird game. Not that I was expecting it to be otherwise, I suppose; a big attraction to going back and finally playing the King’s Quest games was to look at adventure games as they evolved through the 1980s and 1990s, despite the rather perverse nature of said evolution drawing the genre closer to death rather than further away from it, and recollecting my own experiences with the series.

Roberta Williams’ adventure games about a man called Sir Graham, his various progeny and the kingdom(s) they inhabit mean a lot to me. My first experience with video games came sitting beside my dad as we played the games together. I marveled at my father’s ability to figure out the various puzzles, my eventual discovery of the official Sierra hint book covered in magic highlighter reveals notwithstanding. I first learned to type on a computer at a decent speed playing the first three King’s Quest games and become acquainted with function keys for the first time. F3 repeats the last line of text. Various other function keys (in later games) save, load and the like. I even got the hang of basic DOS commands by figuring out how to load the games myself when my father was at work.

So yes, the Sierra adventure games genuinely hold a special place in my heart. It’s a well-worn phrase, but I do care about these games quite a bit. I’ll never have quite the same personal connection with the classic LucasArts adventure games for example.

But man, King’s Quest I is weird. I sat down after a few minutes and took note of the various ways that poor Graham had died.

Walked into moat by accident within seconds of game starting, eaten by moat serpent.

Attempt to dive into lake thwarted by… gravity, I think.

Snatched by enormous bird.

Chased down by sorcerer and frozen in place. Then killed by ogre.

Turned into confectionary by witch from Hansel & Gretel.

I vaguely remembered the games (and the early games in particular) in this series being arbitrary. A timed opening section to King’s Quest III is particularly memorable and to this day I’m not comfortable playing a video game on PC if I can’t save every three or four minutes. Not to mention the need in Sierra games to effectively stagger your save games in case an ogre/king/goblin/leprechaun/fairy asks you for that innocuous item present earlier in the game but no longer accessible. Then, of course, you have the text entry model for the first few games. I was actually looking forward to using it though I was concerned at how finicky text input would get. Imprecise memories of having trouble using the right combination of words to open a door proved to be faulty however. I didn’t have many issues with using text input exclusively. I even typed actions such as “duck” and “jump” despite *gasp* there being an option to use a function key for these specific actions.*

*I have no idea why. I only actually needed to jump once and there was no ducking. But hey. Technology.

So yes. Weirdness. Ultimately though, I really enjoyed King’s Quest I. I had been a bit worried. Sure, I thought, nostalgia will get me through a game or two, but how am I going to get through the next six games if that’s all they have going for them? It ended up not being so. King’s Quest I is a fun game. It seems rather simplistic not just in technology but in theme, but there’s a lot of fun to be had. Trolls over bridges, a witch in a house made of candy, a goblin weaving gold: the clichés abound but King’s Quest I gets away with it. The game frequently hits a pitch at homage rather than simple theft. I suppose it’s possible I’m being too kind to the game, but it hit a nice level for me and by the end of the game the weirdness had become a bonus. What’s the deal with the dwarf thief that basically breaks your game if you haven’t located a magic ring yet? Did I get the magic mirror too early in the first place? It felt like I got there very early, and I completely fluked it thanks to a spell cast upon my character by a fairy godmother I didn’t see again for the rest of the game. The king that had promised the protagonist a just reward for locating the kingdom’s lost treasures collapsed prostrate in front of his own throne, his death granting Sir Graham’s ascent to power. I mean, it’s odd.

This is more an effect of playing the game in 2013 I think, than anything in the design of the game itself. In that sense I am guilty of filtering my enjoyment of the game through nostalgia after all, or at least a hipsterish skewed view of the game that seeks the status of a hidden treasure from the outset. Well, I’ll cop to the former but not the latter. In its own way, the game truly does stand up: this is a classic not just because it was a pioneer in the genre or because it pushed video game graphics of the time. Roberta Williams struck on something fundamentally impressive here, with a gameworld that could so easily have skewed generic but instead successfully evokes faery tales from Western literature to flesh out its own atmosphere. I’m rather looking forward to the next few King’s Quest games now. Thank God for that.

Next up: The Longest Journey!

Maggie and The Dig

My video game Friday posts have gotten off to a nice start. My mixed feelings about The Dig didn’t preclude me enjoying the game, thankfully. I’m navigating through King’s Quest I now and it’s… weird. More of that anon, as they say. They like to say “anon” a lot.

I wanted to sit down now though and write a quick post about one of the characters in The Dig. The lady character, specifically. I thought about talking about Maggie in the post itself but it was already getting quite long and I’m not sure that any kind of serious attempt to discuss the game’s portrayal of a central female character was going to fit in with the “I liked it but I didn’t like it but ultimately I liked it” vibe that post ended up giving out.

One of the reasons The Dig worked for me is because I knew very little about it. Early in the game, it appeared to be a video game adaptation of Armageddon, one of the worst films ever made, or possibly Deep Impact, a terrible film that still wasn’t as bad as Armageddon. I had no idea it was going to end up being a surprisingly limited adventure on a weird alien planet with a fantastic ending that referred to alternate dimensions and talked about travelling between Spacetime Four and Spacetime Six without irony. I also had no idea what was going to happen with the characters and so assumed that all five would be important for the entirety of the game. Not so. The mechanic guy and the senator that had a slightly troubling relationship with the mission’s flying supply closet both disappear from the narrative early on, leaving us with three characters: Grey tips with an extra dollop of leadership, Boston Low; stereotypically clinical German, Brink; intrepid journalist with a range of research skills one would not expect from a member of the Fourth Estate, Maggie.

There are a lot of things about Maggie that are… that are just so nineties. I don’t mean that in a bad way. I love the nineties. It does date her, though. She’s a journalist, she’s sharp, she’s witty and she won’t take sass from the men. However, to the writers’ credit, she isn’t simply a female character with a one-note recurring statement of independence. Most of her interactions with the other characters rest on a believable conviction borne of her own independence that is, for the most part, gender independent.

For example, Maggie bails on Low shortly after they land on the alien planet, magically travelling to some other area before Low has solved the puzzles to get there himself (don’t think about it too hard), stating that she doesn’t see any point in sticking together. What’s nice about this is that it sends Low into a minor panic. As the team member with the military background, he’s unsure how to handle civilians that decide to bugger off and ignore him. Maggie’s decision to strike out on her own is also a problem for his masculine sense of chivalry. Who will protect her? Maggie isn’t bothered by notions of Low’s supposed ability to protect either of them, and takes off. Her decision has nothing to do with the fact that she’s a woman. Low’s reaction has everything to do with the fact that he’s a man, and a military man in particular.

Maggie certainly has her moments when the gender issue lands on the nose a little too squarely, when she openly challenges Low’s concern for her as being determined by the fact that he sees her as a member of the weaker sex in need of protection. For the most part she ignores it, spending the game learning a complex alien language in a matter of hours. This doesn’t make sense, but neither does the fact that the team sent to save the planet from an incoming meteor brought an embedded journalist (another trope that feels very, very nineties).

Towards the end of the game, Maggie starts to make interesting decisions that make Low seem boring in comparison, to the point that I am increasingly coming around to the idea that this was intentional on the part of the writers. Seeing Brink’s descent into horrific addiction, or possibly even his resurrection as something inhuman, she informs Low that she doesn’t want to be resurrected no matter what. Of the three characters she has shown the most agency. Brink’s overtly masculine desire to displace Low as leader of the group led him to falling into trouble in the first place. Low’s agency is extremely limited. He wants to get home and considers that the next step of his mission; choice isn’t an issue for Low. Maggie, however, actively chooses to accept death over the newly discovered alternative provided by the “life crystals.”

This becomes particularly interesting with the game’s ending, with Maggie’s decision to sacrifice herself for Low intentionally telegraphed ahead of time to the player. Low has spent the game agonizing over how to take care of Maggie, but ultimately it is Maggie that saves him. Let’s play a little game here and switch some characters around. If Low or even Brink sacrificed themselves for Maggie to go on alone, it would present a completely different message. Low, by dying, finally saves the woman in his last manly act. Maggie, who has rejected such a worldview for herself and criticized it in Low, sacrifices herself not as some kind of emulation of Low’s supposed chivalry but as a genuine act of sacrifice for a fellow human being. Truth be told, we hit the bumpers here a little. What is Maggie’s motivation for taking the shot ahead of Low? I suppose it’s that she’s a good person? Fair enough, but it seems that the writers pulled a bit of a fast one on us here. Still, I can’t complain too much. I think the end result worked well.

The Dig is a game that seeks to do some interesting things, and though I remain convinced of its many flaws the game has been growing on me since I completed it. Maggie’s character is genuinely interesting, and though based on a slightly cringeworthy archetype of the spunky female journalist emerges as by far the most interesting and most genuinely independent character in the game. In that sense, she’s a triumph.

Missives from Spacetime Four (LucasArts’ The Dig)

So, first things first. I cheated. Repeatedly. Often. With glee. I cheated my way through The Dig.

Now, I have to take a moment to explain myself. I’ve always been a bit of a cheat with adventure games. So much so that I have created my own workflow for cheating to ensure that I don’t simply ruin the game for myself. I was quite surprised playing through The Dig at how this came back so naturally. Essentially, I turned to Google only when being stumped was driving me around the bend, and it usually took about half a sentence or two to get me back on track.

While saying that… The Dig’s puzzles seemed fine at first but soon enter a rather frustrating range of difficulties that ultimately was unafraid of the utterly obtuse. This was a big problem for my enjoyment of The Dig because it absolutely destroyed my momentum.*

*Truth be told, my momentum was also hurt by an odd bug that refused to save my game and saw me go through about an hour and a half of gameplay again, albeit in about ten minutes (ah, adventure games).

Now, I suspect that momentum is more important for enjoying The Dig than it is for most adventure games. The Dig, you see, trades very heavily on a sense of wonder. Its plot, though resolutely B-movie in origin, transports our characters to a completely alien world that shows off the art design of the LucasArts studio. This isn’t a bad thing. The art design is very good indeed. The music, though a little aggressive in its desire to be atmospheric, was also very good. Overall, I was really enjoying this story.

However, everything started to go wrong. I got stuck here and there. It happens in video games. Before too long, the game became a series of journeys between areas connected to a central hub. All well and good, but the sense of wonder that accompanied the first hour or so of play was gone. I was used to this world now. I just wasn’t all that impressed anymore. Well, that’s not fair: I very much was impressed, but in a rather technical “Isn’t that a lovely bit of work by the art team there” rather than the pure escapism that I had felt in the game’s initial stages.

The game’s lack of humour doesn’t help either. There is humour, and at first I was happy with it, delivered in fairly small doses. As the game went on though, I found that I missed some of the wackier moments in adventure games. I had never thought of such a tone as critical and after all, I was a King’s Quest guy more than a LucasArts guy so it clearly can’t be that critical to my experience. The Dig needed more laughs though, or something anyway to distract me from the fact that I was sick of this planet and sick of Boston Low, however wonderful his name or committed Robert Patrick’s voice acting.

The game’s puzzles, especially towards the end, began to rely quite heavily on visual cues. Now, this could be a particular weakness in the way my brain works (or doesn’t as the case may be) but this ceased to be fun rather abruptly. The puzzles drifted from being a bit harder than I perhaps expected to being utterly beyond any reasonable attempt to put two and two together. I know that adventure games struggle from this problem all the time, and The Dig had some classics, such as remembering this one thing an item did thirty minutes into the game when you arrive at a completely different situation six hours (of game playing time) later. That’s standard, and I made my peace with that kind of thing a long time ago. Having to keep track of which item had or hadn’t been used yet, all these aspects of older PC games that people often lament today… Well, maybe I’m lazy. I was a bit peeved I had to spend a fair bit of time before realizing “Oh that’s right. I didn’t use the red one yet.”

All that being said, I enjoyed my time with The Dig and I’ve developed a bit of a soft spot for it, in the way that one does with things that perhaps don’t quite cut it or reach expectations but deliver something interesting anyway. The Dig, despite the relative lack of humour mentioned above, does have an undercurrent of cheekiness throughout. The protagonist is a bit of a smart-ass even in his difficult situation and every conversation includes the option to “say something profound.” The most interesting character is probably not the one you control but Brink, the scientist that goes through the most trauma on the adventure. By some distance.

The Dig tends to be frustrating. Once you’ve made one of the last major breakthroughs in the story, the protagonist gives a brief “this is what you needed to do all along” speech, which wasn’t the most enjoyable thing to be told by a game. It seems like so much in between the two points was fluff, but again… adventure games can toe that line quite often. It’s hard not to feel The Dig isn’t being a bit cheeky here and there though, not least with areas that feel a little off the beaten track usually so well defined by moving the cursor to the edge of the screen.

I suppose you could argue I shouldn’t be quite so lazy, but that was a big part of the problem with the game: I regularly found myself moving the cursor around the screen and clicking on everything that provided a response. This was how I solved the “puzzle” of saving a character late on, finding myself wandering off to another screen for no particular reason and then pushing a rock. Thrilling stuff.

When it comes right down to it, I had a hard time completely suspending my disbelief with The Dig in large part because it was a bit all over place, tonally speaking. B movie schlock, light comedy, survival drama, it’s all there. Spread unevenly, but there. I would have liked to talk about The Dig as a game that made me laugh, made me cry and all things in between, and it did elicit various reactions but it never came together as a whole. I liked the way the game ended, as the drama regained its impetus and the group dynamic came back into play, but the overall journey had been full of dips and swells. It felt more like I had returned to the game I’d been playing hours earlier than anything else.

I liked the ending though. Really, once I had characters talking about “Spacetime Six” I was happy as a pig in sci-fi themed muck. It’s a pity about the mundaneness in between the exciting opening and the equally interesting (and openly nerdy) ending, but it makes it difficult to stay mad at The Dig, even if it does pitch for an emotional moment that feels contrived. I would much rather The Dig revealed its slightly mad sci-fi plot earlier and allowed me to branch out a bit more, and fully committed to what it wanted to do, one way or the other. Then again, I think this game has won me over by refusing to do that, by insisting on being this other type of story. I admire it for that. I don’t think The Dig is a success, but I do feel quite strongly that it’s the game its creators wanted to make, for good or ill. And that’s good enough for me.

So a nice solid start to this Video Game Friday thing. I’d like a break from the LucasArts games, so next week’s game is…

King’s Quest I!!!

Will Graham’s Humanity

Over the weekend, inspired by the recent TV series Hannibal and the odd Hulu Plus policy that had made the pilot freely available but had apparently restricted the second episode to online only, I wandered over to my bookshelf and grabbed my old copy of Manhunter. It’s a great film, and I didn’t feel like hooking the computer up to the television. Hey. It was a long day. Enough with the judging. 


You shouldn’t be judging anyway. Manhunter is fantastic. It looks beautiful. Mann is in top form, putting his characters in sterile consumer catalogue shots from the future and making it look beautiful. This is a film that happily dates itself but actually comes off looking better with age. The performances are wonderful too, with Brian Cox fantastic as Hannibal Lecktor for all the psychopath thriller genre hipsters out there. Dennis Farina puts in a remarkable performance as Dennis Farina, which is to say that he’s really, really great. William Petersen reminds us of a gentler time, when CSI was but a glint in his steely eyes, putting in a very nice performance as Will Graham, the empathetic investigator called in to try and find a serial killer before he strikes again. 

The killer adheres to a lunar cycle, but the plot doesn’t put an awful lot of stress on the “countdown” leading up to his next insane attack until one of the better scenes in the film: a hectic attempt by Graham and the FBI to decode secret messages between the killer and Lecktor without alerting the latter to their interference. This is a story concerned almost exclusively with our protagonist. Graham is genuinely tortured. We’re shown him hugging his wife, fighting with her, talking to his son in the grocery store, but we’re ushered away from maudlin shoegazing throughout. It’s the little things that keep me interested in Graham. Calling his wife in the middle of the night to connect with another human being amid the horror of his investigation. His final act, a rash decision that effectively puts the lives of other police officers in danger, can be read in two different ways: a cheap action film denouement that doesn’t mind sacrificing unidentified minor characters or a foolish decision by the protagonist borne of his own fragile state of mind and desperation. I choose to believe that it is the latter. 

I suppose it’s possible I’m giving Manhunter too much credit, but mostly I wanted to write about how much I like the central character. Will Graham is the best character that Thomas Harris has brought us. Lecter (or Lecktor) has never really graduated into some kind of popular cultural bogeyman; rather he has remained a “classic character” played by Anthony Hopkins, a perception that ignores Cox’s prior performance and that is only now being challenged by Mads Mikkelsen’s performance in the new television show.  Whether you consider Hopkins’ performance to be comically overblown or not,* Hannibal Lecter seems, these days, to inspire television and film executives more than he does actual genre fans. He has graduated from a genuinely powerful pop culture figure to a character that will be wheeled out in front of us at every opportunity, slurping and leering and grasping at our wallets. Then again, I’m sure there are plenty of people working in entertainment with market research that would point out this doesn’t seem to sap the depth of the character’s popularity. 

*For what it is worth, I do not. It’s easy to criticize Hopkins but his Lecter, particularly in Silence of the Lambs, was genuinely successful. In many ways the criticism of the character is an inevitable product of Hopkins’ success in portraying him.  

No, I find Will Graham a lot more interesting than Lecter, and I suspect that not only am I not alone, but that I am part of a sizeable constituency among the audience for network television crime thrillers. With Hugh Dancy’s portrayal of the character in the new show, I find myself remarkably happy to welcome the troubled investigator back. True, the character was revived in 2002’s Red Dragon, but I’d really rather not think about that too much. Dancy’s Graham shares a lot in common with Petersen’s: the guy’s got what we used to call “issues.” Ask your parents and older (and therefore cooler) friends, kids. However, unlike so many other characters, Graham’s issues feel tangible despite the relative lack of detail fed to the audience, genuinely visceral when conveyed. Television and film are often remarkably violent with no sense of responsibility whatsoever. I do not subscribe to theories that this affects the behaviour of individuals out there in the real world (if it truly does exist) but I know that cheap violence lessens dramatic effect. In a medium (network television) where gore is rather common, it’s refreshing that we have a show in Hannibal that stops and shows you just how difficult this is for our protagonist to take. 

That’s the central mechanic to Will Graham as a character, and it’s what makes him compelling. Hannibal seems to understand this, which is great; Lecter only really becomes tedious when he’s taken for granted either through too much attention being paid to him or too little. When used correctly, you can see why the character is so popular. Using him correctly means placing him in opposition to Will Graham and developing that relationship. Going backwards in Graham’s story makes perfect sense. One of the few things I found interesting about Red Dragon was the decision to actually show us the moment in which Graham realized he was betrayed, though truth be told once I had seen it wasn’t sure I had needed to. It’s almost a throwaway line in Manhunter, the complex relationship between Graham and Lecktor something that is simply presented to the audience and that works thanks largely to Petersen’s and Cox’s performances. It was always going to be an interesting topic to go back to. There’s nothing for Graham going forward; once he has caught the Tooth Fairy he is finally done, emotionally spent. Having a Continuing Adventures of Will Graham storyline would be utterly ridiculous, though I suspect we have been saved from it only because there has been so much focus on Lecter. The development of the relationship between the two has always had potential because Graham, despite his virtually superhuman abilities as an investigator, is profoundly human and more horrified than most fictional investigators by the crimes he was written to solve. I’m thrilled to see this dynamic explored so skilfully in the new show, honestly. I was extremely pessimistic having seen the promo spots. It seems that Hannibal has garnered a lot of positive reaction and I’m not surprised. I hope this show gets the support it deserves. 

NOTE: I haven’t mentioned Clarence Starling here at all. This is largely because I don’t recall enough of the Silence of the Lambs either in film of novel form (The Silence of the Lambs is the only Thomas Harris book that I have read). The complete absence of any mention is also because I want an excuse to watch The Silence of the Lambs again soon. Maybe I can write out a Starling v. Graham showdown.

Revisionism and Thatcher

First, a disclaimer of sorts. Although it is virtually impossible to remove one’s own fundamental biases from one’s writing, this post is intended to be a brief discussion on the importance of developing an accurate historical representation of Margaret Thatcher going forward. On this little blog that I have, I actively avoid discussing politics, preferring to write about films and songs and other aspects of popular culture I find interesting. This post is not intended as an exception to this approach, but rather a brief comment on the mechanics of writing history, a topic I have been meaning to write about more often here and there. Normal service will be resumed presently.

I find the use of the term “revisionist history” an interesting one. It is fundamentally pejorative in the popular context: the historical record is being perverted for political or personal ends. Thus is the claim lodged against those eulogizing Margaret Thatcher this past week. They are engaging in “revisionist history” because they are saying that her reign (and I use that word most intentionally) was a benevolent one during which all boats were raised by the tide of her magnanimity. Those in opposition to this view rage and point to her treatment of all social classes of British life she deemed unimportant, such being the majority. Her failure to object adequately to Apartheid. The astonishing state of disrepair in which she left the National Health Service. And on, and on, and on.

All valid complaints. Indeed, if one is to say anything about Thatcher one could certainly say there are many valid complaints. A balanced history will present such complaints as part of portraying a complex human being and political figure. Leaving these issues out is indeed extremely problematic, not least because you’re completely ignoring the vivid cultural atmosphere of the time. During the 1980s, Thatcher was deeply unpopular with a large percentage of the people over whom she and her party governed. Her victory in election is testimony to the fact that Thatcher supporters did in fact exist as much as it is testimony to the impotence of her political opposition, but the existence of such people does not belie the fact that Thatcher was reviled by many and thus lampooned, criticized and generally maligned.

There’s nothing new in this, and so people complain that presenting the “Iron Lady” in hagiographic terms is extremely problematic. They have a point. But is it “revisionist history”? Is it revisionist if, in truth, the popular narrative around Thatcher within large sections of the British media and in a more general sense globally has talked up her achievements for quite some time now? Surely this is not revisionism but retrenchment of a conservative-led historical narrative that has been in place since the early 1980s. The true revisionist voice emerges from those who wish to air Thatcher’s flaws, mistakes and questionable decisions in the clear light of day. People who want to intelligently dissect her years in power, whether to examine how her policies could have been executed differently or to look at the central ideological dynamic of the 1970s and 1980s and question ourselves: had socialism in Britain rendered the state a barely functioning bureaucracy gasping for air as it held society’s entrepreneurial potential under the water? Were there elements of Thatcherism that were, and whisper this one, needed?

The reason we whisper is because so much of Thatcherism is difficult to stomach. For myself, the issue lies not so much with her specific policies as it does with her overall ideological outlook. Not the frequently misquoted “no such thing as society” comment. Forget that. My issue with Thatcher is her complete neglect of people she didn’t consider to be British. Being British meant sounding like her (or as she had come to sound as an adult). Worshipping the same deity as her, preferably in some form she found relatively familiar. Having the same “values” as her. Ah, values.

This dedication to a Britain that had not truly existed since the time of the Blitz, if even then, engendered astonishing policies that made little or no sense to someone not caught up in this revival of British glory. The impossibility of British sovereignty over the Falklands and the ridiculous military conflict that ensued. Her frequently boorish and arrogant treatment of Irish and continental European political leaders. The hunger strikers in 1981 are an excellent example of this. I am by no means a fan of the Irish Republican Army and their behaviour in the 1980s would only become more reprehensible as the decade went on, but Thatcher humanized the hunger strikers by refusing to be humane: by letting people die. Don’t fall for those who talk about the IRA as “freedom fighters”; at least don’t bring that term up with this Irish nationalist. But one has to wonder what kind of mindset permits such a hunger strike to continue and refuses to back down on the basis of principle, a principle determined by British imperial supremacy. A principle more suited to the nineteenth century than the twentieth.

She made mistakes. She was divisive. In many parts of the country she was elected to represent she was far more than divisive. The parties held to celebrate her death are macabre shows of a lack of interest in intellectual investigation, chants at football matches about her passing embarrassing for the sport as a whole. I find it interesting that so many would fulfill the stereotypical views that Thatcher had of people outside her carefully chosen elite. Acting like a thug and an uneducated clot will only reinforce the opinions of those that consider you a thug and/or an uneducated clot. Thatcher needs to be criticized intelligently, not railed against by people with the intellectual depth of a toddler’s paddling pool.

The revisionist history needs to be written. It needs to take into account all of the hatred of Thatcher both during her life and unleashed upon her death. It needs to take into account the shifted landscape of British politics in the 1990s and fully interpret her legacy. It needs to accept that the mining industry could not continue in the manner that it had, though it could also question why the farming industry was left alone (the British are by no means unique in subsidizing farmers, of course). A truly “revisionist” history will indeed revise, it will go over the historical record and it will discuss, and it will question. There’s nothing revisionist about the idea that Thatcher was wonderful and her country needed her; that’s an old idea. That narrative will not be challenged by a revisionism that is one-sided or that allows itself to be dismissed as bitter caterwauling from people that see themselves as losers in a political conflict. She must be humanized, as much as is possible. For years to come, the success of “Ding Dong The Witch is Dead” in British pop charts will not make British society look particularly enlightened. It also, unfortunately, undermines the case against Thatcher and allows the supporters of her political message to imply that a crude vocal minority dislikes her but a silent majority benefitted and remembers her fondly. I’m not convinced that’s true, but that’s for the historians to figure out. The true revisionism starts now.

Adventures in Video Gaming (and writing about it)

I’ve been mulling over themed days for this blog for ages, largely as an attempt to get myself writing regularly. I’m on a bit of a roll recently and I want to keep it up. The themed idea has thus resurfaced.

Previous themed ideas:

Rocky Week: a week of posts devoted to Rocky films.

Die Hard Tuesday: a post on a Die Hard movie every Tuesday for a month or so.

History Wednesday: History themed posts. This day in history, political ideology in historical context, and the like.

Sports Monday: A post every Monday that talks about an issue in modern sport that would usually be focused on baseball, American football or football.

Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed are excited about themed blog posts.

I don’t hate any of these ideas, though the Die Hard Tuesday concept seems far too specific to survive. Rocky Week could easily happen. The others are definitely workable. I suppose the only thing that has held me back is that whenever I try something like this it has the opposite effect of that which was intended: I write less, not more.

The missing suggestion above was a day out of the week that looked at video games specifically. I like writing about video games and I wish I played them more often. Or at least as often as I used to, when I also complained I would have liked to have been playing more often. The idea would be seriously compromised though by being subject to whatever small amount of playing time I had got in that week. For example, if I had a Video Game Friday the last couple of weeks would have been posts detailing the experiences of Starcraft 2 multiplayer for someone who isn’t any good and doesn’t have much ambition to get better. Thrilling stuff.

It is still a topic I’d like to be writing about though, and something that’s been on my mind. This morning I sat down and saw a clear solution to the issue of neither playing games as much as I’d like or writing about them as much as I’d like. I’m going to pick a genre and spend a few weeks getting through games I’ve been meaning to play (or in some cases play again) but have never given myself the time to do so. I have an initial list to work through. The idea is to get through a game a week and write about it on the Friday or Saturday morning. Here’s my list (with an asterisk beside games I’ve played before):

 

Blackwell Deception

The Dig

Dreamfall: The Longest Journey

Freedom Force vs. the 3rd Reich

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis*

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

King’s Quest Collection*

Lone Survivor

The Longest Journey

Loom

Terraria*

To The Moon

 

Most of the games are adventure games. That’s intentional. I like adventure games. I purchase adventure games. I don’t play adventure games. I always find excuses. This is an attempt to essentially manufacture a reverse excuse. Some of them I hope to complete in a week, but my logic is that as long as I am making significant progress with a game then covering it two weeks in a row won’t exactly be a nightmare. For Terraria, it will very much be a “my week in Terraria” post. I have no intention of playing all the King’s Quest games in one week.

The plan is to finish the games but if something just doesn’t strike me as I hoped that it would, then I’ll write a “why I didn’t like X” post. Though honestly, I hope I don’t have to do that at all. I’ve never been patient with games, at least not in the last decade. I have limited time to play games and so I’ve become quite unforgiving. Hopefully this will change things.

So here we go. The game for my first week is:

The Dig!

I’ve always wanted to play The Dig, as I’ve heard good things about it. It’s also my own personal little tribute to LucasArts. I’m going to be sad about that for a while.

See you next Friday. 

Room 237: Genocide, Moon Landings and a Sex Room

Room 237 is a film about ideas. It particular it is about the idea of developing your own interpretations and the joy of discovery that comes with realizing something new about a piece of art (or entertainment, depending on your viewpoint) consumed by millions of others. That chemical reaction in your brain that rewards you for creativity, the joy gained from using your brain and figuring something out on your own. The film is about the inherent joy in interpreting a piece of art in the way that you choose to interpret, a vigorous defence of the postmodern right to infer meaning from work created regardless of whether the intent of the author was aimed in that direction or not.

Room 237 is a film about people. Deluded people, sometimes slightly worrying people. It warns against the perils of falling into your own imagination, of convincing yourself utterly of something that just isn’t there. Those chemical reactions in your brain that tell you something that nobody else can see because it just isn’t there. You’re not seeing anything. You get the same joy of discovery but it is an empty joy. Not that you know. The film is a repudiation of the postmodern idea that one can interpret artistic work in any manner than otherwise intended. If we can, where do we stop?

These are two different ways of looking at this film. I’m being a little cute here, and if I wanted to be completely unbearable I’d crank out another two or three separate interpretations. My aim isn’t to ape the structure of the film though but to comment on it some. Of the two interpretations here, I support the latter as I suspect will most. I do think that we can interpret works of art in ways that were not necessarily originally intended, but Room 237 is a splendid illustration of just how far that can go. How ugly it can get.

Ugly is the word. Room 237 is often very funny. It’s a joy to watch, though I certainly worried at myself as to whether I was engaging in cheap schadenfreude at the expense of people that might need some kind of clinical help. It’s beautifully made. After seeing the film it dawned on me that I had actively enjoyed the use of footage from Kubrick films to convey emotions and actions from the conversations in voiceover (such as the act or surprise or entering a cinema) but by about a third of the way through had become completely used to it. I want to watch the film again to specifically focus on how well this was done, though in truth I suspect it fades a little towards the end as the audience is invited to focus ever more centrally on visual imagery in The Shining and the interpretations of the film’s participants. Room 237 has a lot going on, and so it’s never in danger of being seen as a limited party trick, a one-note mockery of innocent and deluded individuals. The film does not seek to defrock its interviewees, it simply presents their theories.

Oh my, what theories they are. The film is clearly an allegory for Native American genocide. Scratch that, it’s clearly an allegory for the Holocaust. Scratch that, it’s clearly an intricately coded message to the American people that Kubrick faked the moon landing footage. He can no longer live with himself by the end of the 1970s and has decided to come clean by making a horror film that discusses his role in faking the footage through visual symbolism and subtle inference. So subtle, in fact…

Well, you know where that sentence is going. The film is about sex, the film has an “impossible window” that’s part of a set architecture that just doesn’t work and is intended to discombobulate the audience and inform us of the chaos of life. The film is about… all these things I suppose. What worries me, and has worried me consistently, is the earnestness of the theorists who agreed to be interviewed for the documentary. They are each convinced of their own theory’s accuracy. This is most effectively highlighted when two interpretations are presented back to back over the same scene, one of my favourites from Room 237, wherein Barry Nelson gets up to shake Jack Nicholson’s hand and we can clearly make out a piece of paper lying in a document tray on his desk as an erection. Except it is also clear that he represents the United States. Maybe the two theorists can get together and discuss how the United States’ erections affect the manipulation of individuals. Horribly, I would imagine.

This is not my first encounter with worrying interpretations of The Shining. In fact, there are numerous theorists out there that either refused to talk to the filmmakers or were not approached. One of my favourites is Rob Ager, an intelligent man that presents some very interesting theories on why continuity in The Shining is so off before diverging into a bizarre argument about Woodrow Wilson and the Gold Standard. Ager becomes remarkably animated when discussing one of the central points of his argument, that the photograph in which Nicholson’s character appears at the end of the film features lookalikes of Wilson and members of his family positioned in meaningful ways around the film’s protagonist. Ager at one point closes in on the face of the man he believes to be Wilson, and drifting as far from the academic tone of his reading as he will throughout his argument, enthusiastically expostulates “It’s Wilson!”

It’s not Wilson. It’s a white man with glasses, yes. It’s not Wilson. Just as that piece of paper is most likely not an erection. The film is most probably not an allegory of Native American genocide, or the Holocaust. The shots that cut from behind Danny’s trike on one floor to his trike on another floor do not have inherent narrative meaning but are simply conveying the swift passage of time.

Unless they are conveying meaning… This is where I have the biggest problem with the theorists participating in the film (and some who do not, like Ager). By reading so much into the film in such a specific manner, the possibility of more interesting artistic ambitions by Kubrick are ignored. Perhaps the problems with continuity stem from a deliberate reason to confuse the viewer and create a specific mental state (an argument that Ager pursues very effectively before losing the plot). Perhaps Kubrick is commenting on the relationship between the creator and his artwork. Perhaps Kubrick is layering on metaphors for all kinds of arguments including the ones discussed in Room 237 and beyond.

Or perhaps the continuity wasn’t quite right because Kubrick was too busy terrorizing Shelley Duvall. I doubt it, to be fair. Of all the arguments, I find those centered on the issue of continuity the most interesting. Those that infer connections bordering on the spiritual, such as the carpet in Room 237 being an intentional representation of sexual reproduction or one of the theorist’s young sons walking in and recounting a story that tied into her interpretation of The Shining years after Kubrick’s film was produced, are meaningless.

It’s also where the worrying comes in. Are these people okay? I genuinely fear for them. This is the same inability to understand reason and how to filter information that affects conspiracy theorists from Holocaust deniers to 9/11 truthers. How can they be so convinced of what they are seeing? Why do they ascribe such importance to The Shining? Do people really think that playing the film backwards and forwards simultaneously gives us significant insight into intended hidden meaning on the part of Kubrick, and that he intended for us to watch the film in that manner at some point?

Why are all these people wilfully ignoring Kubrick’s use of the visual language of cinema? I think this is the point that frustrates me the most. Yes, Kubrick knew what he was doing. Yes, he was a master. He was creating specific images to reach our intellects in specific ways. He did that through framing shots and shaping his narrative and working extremely hard to coax just the performance he wanted out of his leading actors. He didn’t do it by picking a certain type of carpet or hanging a framed poster of a snowboarder that we are apparently supposed to think is a creature from Greek myth. It’s fascinating, this complete inability to account for common sense. For example, why would Kubrick hire a Caucasian man that has skin that is “almost brown” to represent disadvantaged racial groups? Why wouldn’t he hire a person of colour? I guess because it would be dumb. You know, because the whole idea is dumb.

There are so many moments in the film that you can’t help but laugh at, wonder at, shake your head at. It is to the film’s credit however that it never seeks for this response aggressively. It doesn’t make fun of these people and it does not encourage you to do so either. By taking a genuinely impartial view, the makers of Room 237 have produced something very special, an insight into just how important films can be and the places those films can take us.

Room 237 has also reminded me how much I like The Shining. I’m going to watch it again in the next few days. I wonder what theory will present itself.

Going back to the gunslinger.

I am seriously considering re-reading the Dark Tower series. I had a chat with a friend in the gaming store last week. He teaches English in high school and we were discussing what books he gives his students to read, and soon moved on to our own reading habits. I recounted the tale of my falling in love with the Dark Tower series and how I really should start reading more Stephen King. My friend extolled the virtues of several great King books and particular strengths in King’s writing (developing kids’ perspectives, for one thing). He was extremely convincing. He essentially gave me a reading list of King’s work to get started on, one which I could most certainly check with the person that recommended King to me in the first place and encouraged me to read the Dark Tower books. It’s time to branch out, I thought. Time to read something new.

I walked home fully dedicated to reading the Dark Tower books again.

Alright, so I may have missed the point. I’ve been hankering to read them again for a while now though. It would also give me an excuse to write about them on the blog. Full recaps of each book. I have an idea that this blog will basically spoil things that I’ve just consumed for people who have yet to read/watch/play them. It’s time I started living up to that.

A man with no name called Roland travelling through space and time, odd meta fiction that actually works, moments that creep up on you out of nowhere to remind you that Stephen King is a good horror writer… Yeah. The Dark Tower series. It’s happening.

Breaking out of the loop: The Walking Dead.

This blog has recently only stuttered back into life to give voice to issues that bother me on a fairly personal and intellectual level, like my failure to understand the extent to which Timecop is inferior to Terminator 2 until recently.* It’s been coming dangerously close to talking about politics though, and I told myself I wouldn’t do that with this blog. This blog is about the apocalypse of culture, apocalyptic culture and cultural apocalypse(s)eses. That’s it. Also sports. I haven’t written about it in a while but I will.

*I always knew Timecop was inferior. I just failed to realize just how inferior it was. I had somehow refused to acknowledge the fact that Timecop actually came out AFTER Terminator 2. To be fair, it is more or less a 1988 film. Then again, the 1990s up until 1995 or so feels like a 1980s hangover anyway. This note is getting out of control. I’ll get back to that point some other time.

So as for Maggie Thatcher, well… let’s just say I wasn’t a huge fan and continue not to be, but I’m a bit sickened by the kneejerk reactions from both sides of the political spectrum. And for younger people, whether you’re extolling her virtues or writing really unpleasant things on twitter about an old woman that just died (oh, you rebel you!) do yourself a favour and read a book. Then read several more. Then form an opinion. Then have considered conversations with people whose opinions you value. Leave twitter alone,* it’s for cat videos and complaining about The Walking Dead.

Boom. Topic introduced.

*I really do wish people would leave twitter alone and that public figures would know when to use it. Steve Martin uses twitter really well; he essentially makes fun of it. Roger Ebert (RIP) was in a gray area for me, but he was good at presenting his personal political opinions. He wasn’t trying to lend any weight to them because he was a “public figure.” I’m sure he didn’t see himself in grandiose terms. But with the Iron Lady passing away finally, it’s striking how many comments on the BBC from public figures were just pulled from twitter. The woman had a huge effect on your country and your political party (whatever that party is), she’s entitled to you getting off your arse and at least E-MAILING a comment to a journalist or issuing a statement in a more conventional way. God. Come on guys. This shit isn’t hard. Just because your advisors are telling you young people do it does not mean it works for everything.

The Walking Dead. I tweeted at the lovely Meredith Borders last night because I just got through with the third season and, being a mindless drone, immediately turned to see what other people thought of it. In this case, I went to Badass Digest’s very cool TV Talk, and started reading through the various reactions to episodes of season three, until… suddenly… well not really suddenly but abruptly for the guy reading through all of them at once… they stopped.

They just stopped. Outrageous, I felt. And so I contacted Meredith demanding an answer. (Note: I’m being facetious. Nobody demands a damn thing from Meredith Borders. Not even her husband. And he rocks intense moustaches.) She cheerily told me that seeing as they were all so sick of the show they felt physically ill watching the damn thing, they had decided to just drop it altogether and move on with their lives. What a dereliction of duty. I was appalled.

Well, I would have been if I thought The Walking Dead was any good. What a weird position to put myself in. I’ve been there before. I’m looking at you, Sarah Connor Chronicles. Looking at you for being shit, but just occasionally not shit enough for me to hold out hope. That’s The Walking Dead in a nutshell. The first season seemed interesting and then became a bunch of episodes of people feeling miserable. The second season was… horrific. Not in the way the show intends to be horrific. Horrific in the sense of visiting a grandparent and realizing you’re going to have to listen to about an hour’s worth of complaints about the Pope just being too damn liberal. I’m not making any political statements on the Pope either way. It’s just not as interesting a conversation as you’d like.

The Space Pope is more controversial within the Space Catholic community than you might reailze.

Dear me, that second season. Honestly, when Sophia finally came out of that barn I actually turned to my wife and asked “why am I supposed to care about this again?” We were watching the episodes one after the other but I had blocked out all of the Sophia storyline. Because the human brain will strive to protect itself from things that will kill it, like really shitty writing.* So, when stuff kind of happened right at the end, we decided we were on board for the third season. There was no evidence beyond that last episode that anything good would happen, mind you. But, you know. Zombies.

*I’m convinced this explains modern pop music. I hate Taylor Swift music, largely because the lyrics are so astonishingly lazy. The music doesn’t really bear thinking about. I don’t think her fans actually hear the lyrics, though. Or half of the production values. It probably sounds like fucking Wagner to thirteen year olds.

This past weekend we finally decided to give it a shot. And… it was really good! For the first few episodes especially, it was great. David Morrissey was an inspired choice to play The Governor. I thought a lot of the show was finally working, including a lot of stuff other people have complained about. Honestly, Morrissey was so good as The Governor that his shift into pure bad guy mode felt like a reveal rather than an unearned change, his descent into lunacy relatively logical. I absolutely love the portrayal of Michonne in this show. The Walking Dead was figuring out the magic secret of writing interesting stories: stuff should happen.

Then, for a few episodes, not a lot happened. They went back to their old tricks. A story that could have been resolved or moved on at the very least was dragged on for a few episodes more. Characters did things that didn’t make a whole lot of sense. And the writers went back to that old chestnut “conflict is the essence of drama.” Which, to be fair, it is. However, kitchen sink drama works around kitchen sinks in our present day world where people have to deal with alcoholism and divorce and abuse. I’m not saying that kitchen sink drama in a zombie film/tv show is impossible. I’m saying The Walking Dead failed miserably at it. I mean, really: who gives a shit? About any of these people? I’m sick of them, personally. Seeing boring characters talk to each other about how anguished they feel over their lack of personality (I assume this is why they are anguished) is just not that interesting.

The season picked up again right at the end but now I’m more frustrated than anything else. I have no reason to believe season four will bring anything other than more wife ghosts and looking off to the side in jerky motions while having an argument that doesn’t mean very much and people having arguments over really frustratingly boring things. I mean, Carl is becoming a murderer, and that could be interesting except for the fact that’s it yet another arc that is framed around the mechanic of “OMG can you imagine what would happen to our society if there were zombies, all morality would come into question and we’d be faced with difficult decisions as our belief structures were whittled away by the brutality of killing as a way of life, leading to our next generation being unable to distinguish between killing the undead and the living OMG LOL.”

I mean, for God’s sake guys. We GET it. The zombie genre isn’t new, you know. Kirkman didn’t invent it.* We have a basic grasp of the rules. Intense drama can be done, and done well. Go and play Telltale’s The Walking Dead adventure game. Right now.

*I feel this is a pronounced understatement, to say the least.

There is more drama in this still caption of the video game than in an actual episode of the TV show. Really.

It’s good, right? Like, really good. Could you imagine going back to the TV show after that? Me neither! AND YET I DID. WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME? Ultimately, the Badass crew decided to break out of it, to get out of that particular genre nerd hell of watching something in the hope that it gets good, because we’re better than that damn it. The Marvel films exist. Good Lord of the Rings films exist. Nerds have options now. We need to break free from these unequal relationships with fiction that just isn’t good enough. I need to close the book on this show, because if I turn to my wife halfway through season four and comment on how good the show was the previous season, it’s conceivable that my brain will go into emergency preservation mode and switch me to a solid diet of Jack Johnson and The Big Bang Theory. And I can’t live like that.

I won’t.