Great Quotes on Film #2

By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring common place milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one hand, extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action. Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling. With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended. The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject. So, too, slow motion not only presents familiar qualities of movement but reveals in them entirely unknown ones “which, far from looking like retarded rapid movements, give the effect of singularly gliding, floating, supernatural motions.” Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye – if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man. Even if one has a general knowledge of the way people walk, one knows nothing of a person’s posture during the fractional second of a stride. The act of reaching for a lighter or a spoon is familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really goes on between hand and metal, not to mention how this fluctuates with our moods. Here the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, its extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions. The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.


– Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936)

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Great Quotes on Film #1

“. . . Do you know what film is?” Bergmann cupped his hands lovingly, as if around an exquisite flower. “The film is an infernal machine. Once it is ignited and set in motion, it revolves with an enormous dynamism. It cannot pause. It cannot apologize. It cannot retract anything. It cannot wait for you to understand it. It cannot explain itself. It simply ripens to its inevitable explosion. This explosion we have to prepare, like anarchists, with the utmost ingenuity and malice . . .”


– Christopher Isherwood, Prater Violet (1945)

“It’s just a show, I should really just relax”: New Dimensions of Fear

I don’t scare easily. I can get as startled as the next guy, and the typical realms of death and gore usually manage to shake me, but getting a good honest scare out of me through a movie is tough. It may be because I didn’t really grow up with any of the classics–I saw The Blair Witch Project as a youngster, and was frightened for a whole week afterwards, but I didn’t see Halloween, The Exorcist, Nightmare on Elm Street, or any of the other classics until high school, when I started looking at them with a more critical, less sensational eye.

What I did grow up on, though, was a whole different kind of horror, the horror that strikes you not with how terrifying the film is, but with how terrifying it is that the film got made in the first place. Films that, because of some magical mix of poor production values, scattershot direction, and an obsession with capturing the misguided zeitgeist of their times, fail so spectacularly that I’m entranced. Not because the monster is dreadful or gruesome, but because it is definitely glued together. (Though I won’t cover it here, Tommy Wiseau’s The Room is an exceptional example of this.)

Somewhere in this shot is a monster of unspeakable horror. Yeah, I can't find it either.

Somewhere in this shot is a monster of unspeakable horror. Yeah, I can’t find it either.

These kinds of films have attained a stature in my mind equivalent to the landmark horror films. To name a few, my new pantheon includes Plan Nine from Outer Space, The Giant Gila Monster, The Corpse Vanishes, Devil Doll, and Manos: The Hands of Fate. Black and white or color, monster supernatural or scientific, and featuring a group of college kids or a rag-tag band of survivors, these films have plenty of differences. But there is one thing that brings nearly all of them together: Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 (or MST3K to adoring fans) was a tv show based in Minnesota that ran from 1988 to 1999. It began in the exalted annals of public television, and though it eventually moved to Comedy Central, and then the Sci-Fi Channel, it never dropped its humble production values and Midwestern attitude. The premise was simple: a bumbling janitor (first Joel Hodgson, then Mike Nelson) is launched into space by evil scientists, who perform “experiments” that amount to forcing him to watch terrible movies. To cope, he builds robot companions to help him “riff”, or mock, the movies, thereby retaining his sanity.

But this simple conceit allows for some of the wittiest, blistering, and most referential humor ever. And its sacrificial lamb is every film that skimped on its monster budget, or forgot to move its camera while filming. In short, my horror pantheon. Indeed, the ingenious terror of these “scary” movies MST3K uncovers is that, for all their vague gesturing to a not quite conceivable force invading (read: the monster) reality, they make reality itself a not so conceivable thing.

With a guy like Mike Nelson in charge, what could go wrong?

With a guy like Mike Nelson in charge, what could go wrong?

Take, for example, the episode “The Touch of Satan“, where Mike and the bots are forced to watch a 70s flick about a youthful wanderer who happens upon a farm with a bit more history than he had hoped for. The young lad meets a pretty girl on a farm, sees her unnaturally-old “grandma” (really her sister) kill a policeman, and then he decides he loves her. The movie is a mess, featuring an overly-long credits sequence, clunky dialogue spoken by one-dimensional characters, and no less than two appearances of “The Star-Spangled Banner”. And the “terror” of the film, that these sisters were forced to consign with Satan to save themselves and now, cursed, murder random farmers, is constantly undermined by the kabuki-actor appearance of the old grandma and the sputtering dialogue the two leads share. These blinding flaws are turned into humorous scenarios by Mike and the bots, who gleefully reduce (or elevate?) the films mistakes. Why is the farmer tending to hay bales when he works at a walnut farm? What does a walnut farm even look like? Why am I wondering about a walnut farm when I should be getting scared out of my mind? Nothing about The Touch of Satan will frighten you while watching it, but trying to piece together how this movie makes sense? Now that’s a frightening prospect.

After this movie, I'd give my soul to get those 90 minutes back

After this movie, I’d give my soul to get those 90 minutes back

But these “horror” films do share one thing with the tv show that so mercilessly mocks them: they’re both honest endeavors with big hearts. In the case of some of the giant monster movies, more literally than others, but behind the shlock and cheesy effects, obscured by the obfuscating and confusing dialogue, is the intent to make a movie, and have a good time at it. There’s a level of determination there that, even if horribly flawed, is inextricably human.

And that’s something that appeals to me infinitely more than most contemporary horror films, which not only show little sympathy for their lead characters, but more often than not exhibit a cold and distant touch in their approach. Contemporary horror films seem designed to simultaneously inspire hate in their protagonists, which allows viewers to experience glee at their deaths, and instill alienation towards their monsters, which leads us to learn nothing from or about them. What’s left is akin to a cut power line in the street: lots of sparks and fizzes, but no actually information being relayed.

Ultimately, contemporary horror films create cold, indifferent films that don’t allow you to appreciate the frailty of life because they ask you to revel in the deaths of their characters. They scare me not because of their dark, tense atmosphere, or startling jump cuts, but because they remove the humanity from not just their characters, but from their viewers as well. I can think of nothing more terrifying.

MST3K, conversely, injects humanity into cheesy horror films by pointing out their failures, which posits them as wholly human efforts. The boom mic might be evident, and the rubber makeup of the monster quite apparent, but the effort made to create that world, however scattershot and unbelievable, represents a human endeavor that I am much more inclined to buy into then, say, this. There’s a line in the theme song meant to act as back-story for the show, but I find it more useful for explaining why I love my cheesy horror pantheon: “If you’re wondering how [Mike] eats and breathes, and other science facts (la-la-la), just repeat to yourself, “It’s just a show, I should really just relax . . .””.

The good ol' Satellite of Love

Across Both 110th Street and Film Noir: “Jackie Brown” and New Noir Potentials

(originally published at thefocuspull.com)

The film noir genre is easily recognized by a dark mood, a high-contrast setting, or a protagonist with a tight tongue and a loose code of ethics. It reeks of doom and stale cigarettes, and is always about a bad idea, a bad guy, a bad girl, and a bad outcome. It is insistently pessimistic.

Recently, however, the pessimism of noir has peeled away to reveal new potential. Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express (to be written about here shortly) deflects noir impulses with ‘90s music video sensibilities. The Coen brothers have made mincemeat of noir, playing it straight for one movie (Blood Simple), slapstick the next (Raising Arizona), and then being very meticulous about not being meticulous at all (The Big Lebowski).

And most recently, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice drops Raymond Chandler’s famous shamus Philip Marlowe into the burning joint roach of the 1960s, makes him a doper, and lets him fumble through a haze of drug smoke and red herrings. Similar to the way Marlowe was shunted from his comfortable inter- and post-war domain to the excesses of the 1970s in Robert Altman’s adaptation of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, Inherent Vice’s P.I. Doc Sportello finds (albeit unconsciously in his case) that he is always two steps behind a world that is literally changing right before his eyes.

These contemporary films noir are united in their intent to push conventional noir boundaries, upsetting the tropes that allowed noir to become so alluring in the first place.

These contemporary films noir are united in their intent to push conventional noir boundaries, upsetting the tropes that allowed noir to become so alluring in the first place. One of the best of this new breed is the criminally underrated Jackie Brown, Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 caper noir. While Tarantino’s name is synonymous with stylistic flourishes, Jackie Brown [i] is one of the most straightforward films he’s done. One of it’s most interesting qualities is its sense of play between the actors: the film world they inhabit, their prior film history, and how it can subtly change the power relations of a scene. Nowhere is this sense of play as tangible, however, as in the soundtrack. By examining this dissonance and confluence throughout the Jackie Brown soundtrack, we can see how Tarantino aimed to subvert the femme fatale role so codified in the genre.

 The film’s plot provides just enough space and ambiguity for the soundtrack to engage in its interplay. Pam Grier plays Jackie Brown, a 44 year-old flight attendant who smuggles gun money to and from Mexico at the behest of badass gangster Ordell Robbie, played with the suave lack of sophistication that can only be achieved by Samuel L. Jackson. As the movie opens she gets caught in the act by Special Agent Ray Nicolette (played by Michael Keaton with just the right amount of smarminess) and he gives her the option of languishing in jail or cooperating to bust Ordell. Max Cherry (Robert Forster), a bail bondsman past his prime, helps bond Jackie out of jail, and their murky positions with regards to the law help them develop an earnest yet imperfect relationship. Stuck between the demands of Ordell, who wants Jackie to give him his gun money, and Ray, who wants to catch big-time crook Ordell in the act, Jackie sets up a plan with Max to swindle both parties and run off with the money, a cool $550,000. She plans to do this by using sleight-of-hand during a money hand-off in a mall. In typical noir conventions, Jackie would be the femme fatale; Ordell, the unsavory bad guy; Max, the private eye over his head; and Ray, the cop whose own allegiance to the law is flexible.

Jackie Brown Poster 01

In Tarantino style, the soundtrack of Jackie Brown is full frontal, funky, and self-referential. More to the point, however, the soundtrack highlights a slew of connections between the characters, the actors who play them, and the genre films in which they’ve starred. This interplay, and its ability to evoke multiple references from a single scene, ultimately makes Jackie Brown an optimistic noir because it allows the eponymous lead to not only get out of her predicament alive but do so triumphantly. This noir still has its dark turns, unexaggerated violence, and moral ambiguity, but it’s ultimately about successfully navigating these traps, rather than pessimistically falling to them.

Jackie Brown Poster 02

The soundtrack is split between two genres: soft soul music that plays for Jackie and Max, and tainted rock music that plays for Ordell’s posse, which includes Louis, a goon played by Robert DeNiro, and Melanie, a surfer chick of his played by Bridget Fonda. The cool, smooth and sensual feel of the soul music is meant to endear us to Jackie and Max, to make us long not only for them to get out of this mess, but to do so together. The rock soundtrack, by contrast, is slightly unnerving, from the incessant horns of “Midnight Confessions” to the bad acid trip of “The Lions and the Cucumber”. Like the drug-addled characters they play for, these tracks are brash but murky, suggesting threat and unconcerned with how to carry it out. The film’s central conflict is emblemized by this clash of cool and collected with angry and anxious.

This is why another song that plays in the movie, “(Holy Matrimony) Letter to the Firm”, is so interesting. The song plays in a record store that Max visits; he is already smitten with Jackie not long after bailing her out. He’s clearly looking for some music to impress her, as their earlier conversation hovered around music and Jackie’s substantial record collection, which she couldn’t update because she “can’t start all over again” with CDs. Max is looking for some old hits to help him connect with Jackie.

It makes sense that Max is greeted in the store by this song, a contemporary (at that time) hip-hop track by rapper Foxy Brown. If that name sounds familiar, it should — not only does it echo Jackie’s own last name, but it is the exact same as the character Pam Grier played in the 1974 film of the same name. The song is harsh and asynchronous to Max, whose own sensibilities tend toward the safer soul tracks played both diegetically by Jackie and felt non-diegetically by him. Its lyrical content is off-putting as well, with its provocations to the singer’s lover (we’ll be “forever hand in hand”) being undermined by prior, and more pressing, commitments (“I’m married to the Firm, boo, you got to understand…”). These points establish tension with the similarity of Foxy’s name to Jackie’s/Pam’s, the effect of which is to throw Max into an in-between space where he has Jackie’s confidence, but not her trust. Whereas most noirs keep the intentions of their characters held tight until the end, Max runs into his central dilemma near the beginning of the film: the woman he can’t get out of his head, who he’s going to a music store to impress, is already two steps ahead of him (“her” genre of music is too far ahead of Max’s sensibilities).

Jackie Brown 02

The song that resonates most powerfully in this sense is the one that plays during the opening and closing credits: “Across 110th Street” by Bobby Womack. When the movie starts, the song kicks in over the opening credits, and Jackie only enters the screen, moving from right to left, when the lyrics begin. She’s on a moving walkway, standing profile to the camera, clearly going forward but without any effort on her part.

Tarantino, in an interview with The Guardian, sets up how this scene initially configures Jackie: “[Pam] is walking down the airport and she just looks like the baddest creature a guy ever created. She has just got all this power and strength — and she is Foxy Brown 20 years later, she is Coffy 20 years later — and she has all this womanness, and it is great . . . [but] after the big bad ass opening credit sequence, two minutes later she is serving peanuts. So it starts off as this mythical, super hero figure and then by the end of the credit sequence we have brought it back down to earth.” [ii]. Pam’s own Blaxploitation background, alluded to by Tarantino, pushes her toward a position of power that Jackie just can’t live up to, at least not yet. Whereas most femmes fatale flaunt their power when we first see them (think Barbara Stanwyck’s insouciant Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity), Jackie instead cedes it almost immediately. Her agency seems apparent but is cribbed: she’s moving in the shot, but not of her own accord; she gets to travel around frequently, but only on the same run-down airline, and only at the behest of a criminal.

Whereas most femmes fatale flaunt their power when we first see them (think Barbara Stanwyck’s insouciant Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity), Jackie instead cedes it almost immediately.

By the end, however, Jackie has completed her plan: she’s duped Ray out of the extra gun money, set Ordell up, and left Max in the dust. Once again, “Across 110th Street” plays and Jackie appears on the screen only when the lyrics start. Except this time the blocking is different: Jackie is at the wheel of a car, driving forward, and the camera is right on the hood so that Jackie is looking directly at it. But she’s not looking at it, she’s looking through it, past it, at the future she’s just created for herself. While the song begins insistent in its concern, it ends triumphantly as Jackie mouths the lyrics, subtle lip movements giving way to brazen pronouncements. The song has moved from a non-diegetic source that imposed itself on her to a diegetic one that she now embodies. The last lyrics we hear before the end credits, “You can find it all / on the streets”, symbolize Jackie’s newfound mobility. Instead of ending the film with one determined outcome (her death), Jackie navigates to an indeterminate one: we don’t know where she’s going (Spain is suggested), but boy, is she getting there.

It’s the use of the soundtrack that signifies the play between Jackie Brown and its many references, and these subtle allusions allow the film to transcend the doom-filled noir conventions it seems to set up. The femme fatale role in particular is irresistible, alluring in its danger and potential. Yet really, femmes fatale are more often trapped in their roles, stuffed there by the male characters who surround them, and as a response must use their remaining power (their sexuality) to navigate. Julie Grossman, in her excellent book Rethinking the Femme Fatale in Film Noir: Ready for Her Close Up, notes this misidentification of the role of women in noirs and concludes that “In the end, the opaque powerful woman persists in objectifying female experience: the ‘femme fatale’ is a symbol of fears about absolute female power, not a representation of complex female experience…” (Grossman, 5) [iii] For Grossman, the traditional femme fatale role is not strong because of the sexual power she can exercise; she is weak because it is the only power she can exercise.

Jackie Brown 03

This clarification is important because it allows us to see how, as with the soundtrack, Jackie projects one perspective while having access to a multitude of others. She is able to navigate through the webs cast by Max, Ordell, and Ray without being trapped by any of them.

Max’s ability to connect with Jackie has to do more with his feelings for her, as explained earlier in the essay. While Max can be seen as the ‘private eye’ of the film, he is so at the behest of Jackie, who he feels affection for, both emotionally and physically [iv]. When he visits the record store, he ultimately ends up with a cassette version of “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time” by The Delfonics, the band that Jackie played for Max in her house. With the movie coming out in 1997, this purchase can be seen as the middle point between CDs, a newer format, and records, which were out of vogue. While Max wants to look ahead, his connection to Jackie compels him to compromise and choose an older musical format. This sense of lingering ultimately prevents Max from leaving with Jackie after they manage to swindle Ordell and evade Ray. Max could buy into the fantasy of helping Jackie, but not run off with her, a decision contingent on a relinquishing of prior responsibilities. Jackie herself points out this impossibility: “You’re running a business, Max.” Far from being powerless, Jackie willingly chooses to give up a life with Max that, it seems, would’ve been great. This sacrifice is not without heartache, but is done with certitude: Jackie feels loss, but not as much as Max, reduced in his last shot to a vague blob of despair.

oh, Max

oh, Max

For Ordell, the crucial scene is when he comes to visit Jackie in her home and interrogates her over what she did or didn’t tell Ray and the police about her money smuggling. The scene starts with Ordell outside her house, in his car, putting on gloves while Johnny Cash’s “Tennessee Stud” plays. Cash’s song is about a horse that seems worth more than its rider, and in conjunction with its stylistic genre difference from every other song in the film, the implication is that Jackie is a weak link that must be roped in. Ordell gets inside her place, keeping the lights off and the mood ominous, and begins questioning her, getting closer and closer to her.

Then the screen splits, with Max (who had just dropped Jackie off) coming into view from the left. What results is a bisected screen, and while Max is on the left by his lonesome, the cutting of the other scene results now in Ordell literally trapping Jackie between himself and the screen’s edge. Not only is Jackie enclosed, trapped between these two men; she is beginning to get physically choked by Ordell. This traditionally marks the femme fatale’s gruesome end, one slip up too many.

It’s at this point that the two scenes, which hadn’t been clearly connected beforehand (are they taking place at the same time? Are we meant to sympathize with Max, or with Jackie? Is Jackie imagining Max?), now converge. On the left, Max checks his glove box and realizes he’s missing something: his gun. On the right, Ordell’s hands close around Jackie’s neck right as we hear a recognizable clicking sound: the gun. At that moment Jackie and Ordell’s scene opens back up on the left side, pushing Max out of the scene and opening up the space for Jackie. From the tightest position imaginable she has made her way out, playing both Max (for his gun) and Ordell (for his delusion of power). Empowered, she immediately starts dictating the terms, coming up with the plan that will ultimately net her $550,000 and leave everyone else miles behind.

For Ray, it’s simple. She dupes him. She dupes everybody, actually, in a move that shows Jackie’s true intentions. She tricks Ray into thinking Ordell was only transferring $50,000 when in fact $500,000 was in play. At the handoff, she betrays Ordell’s confidence by giving Melanie and Louis a suitcase filled not with the gun money, but with a plethora of romance novels. Those novels then foreshadow her duping of Max, as they represent her decision to give up the fantasy of a romantic life with Max for the freedom that money allows. They can also be seen as reifying the fantasy that she’s been portraying, of a tool to Ordell, of a woman out of options to Ray, and of a romantic partner to Max. Jackie makes the hard decision that she’d rather have the powerful and enabling future rather than the comforting-but-powerless one.

“If I was a 44 year-old black woman working a shitty airline job, I wouldn’t have a year to spare.”

But an earlier example would be at the beginning, when she first gets caught smuggling Ordell’s gun money. She’s interrogated by Ray and it initially seems Jackie is down on her luck, as emphasized by Ray’s partner Mark Dargus (Michael Bowen): “If I was a 44 year-old black woman working a shitty airline job, I wouldn’t have a year to spare.” Again she seems trapped, like most femmes fatale. While she does exhibit some power, by smoking in Ray’s office, he’s really in control, his squeaky jacket and almost-audible cartoonish brow-furrowing providing his own soundtrack.

All of this doesn’t seem to matter, because Jackie ends up in jail anyway. As Jackie is incarcerated, “Long Time Woman” plays. The song is the opening credits song of the 1971 movie The Big Doll House, a supercharged exploitation film where lesbian prisoners battle sadistic guards in a tropical setting. The singer of the song is none other than Pam Grier herself, who plays a role in the film as a convict who helps the lead characters escape. While we’re visually seeing Jackie down on her luck and in jail, we’re aurally treated to Pam Grier singing a song about another heroine who escapes from a much tougher prison. The scene that culminates visually with Jackie on a prison bench culminates aurally with Grier singing “Look at me, I’ll never be free.” Yeah, right. Instead it’s “been there, done that, no big deal.”

The connections don’t stop there. Also in The Big Doll House is Sid Haig, a staple of many exploitation films. But another of his acting credits just happens to be in Jackie Brown, as a judge who lowers Jackie’s bond by $15,000 — but only after looking up from her rap sheet to get a look at her. Haig helps Grier’s posse escape in The Big Doll House, and the favor continues on here. Tarantino configures Jackie as part of the lineage of ass-kicking strong women, but she is the pinnacle because she is able to flaunt her sexual and physical power without relying on it. By flaunting her exploitation roots she owns them, surpasses them, and in doing so presents herself as a complex character able to navigate dangerous crossroads to a path she forged for herself. It’s not a completely victorious path, as her sorrow over leaving Max testifies, but it is one that’s been forged by her own efforts.

Jackie Brown 04

You can find it all in the street, yes you can

Tarantino’s films have a number of noir-ish elements, but nowhere has he so invigorated the genre as in Jackie Brown. Though the story seems routine on the surface, Tarantino is able to subvert noir expectations by using the intertextual play of the soundtrack to hint at Jackie’s fluidity, which allows her femme fatale to redefine both the role and herself. Film noir is nowadays most often played as a style, some high contrast lights and quick-witted dicks talking to bombshells in red dresses, but the dire mood and pessimistic perspective of the genre can do with some revitalization. And as Jackie drives away, triumphantly mouthing “Across 110th Street”, we see not only the potential of where she could go, but the potential of where film noir can.


[i] Jackie Brown © 1997 Miramax, A Band Apart

[ii] “Quentin Tarantino interview (I) with Pam Grier, Robert Forster and Lawrence Bender,” The Guardian, accessed January 12, 2015.

[iii] Grossman, Julie. Rethinking the Femme Fatale in Film Noir: Ready for Her Close Up. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 5. Print.

[iv] The best line in the movie might be an endearing bit of play between Max and Jackie/Pam. Max highlights that, besides an afro, Jackie doesn’t look any different from she must’ve been when she was 29, which was when Pam was hitting her Blaxploitation highs. Jackie frets that “my ass ain’t the same,” and when they both agree that it’s now bigger, Max fires off a satisfied “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that!”

A Review of Sokobond the (fun) Game about Chemistry

(originally  published at Killscreen.com)

The beauty of a puzzle game is that it can be about anything, since the subject often serves as a red herring for the meat of the experience: the puzzles. A great puzzle game doesn’t need a story, or even any context, to be masterful (Tetris, anyone?). The ingenuity and interior logic of the puzzle is paramount. But by couching the puzzles in a larger environment they can become metaphorical, rewarding not only because you solved them, but because they further a storyline (Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes), provide intrigue (Professor Layton), or humor you somehow (Thomas Was Alone).

Of those categories, Sokobond  most easily fits into the middle one. Created by Alan Hazelden and Harry Lee, two designers who met at a game jam, and Ryan Roth, who cut the future-ambient, waiting-in-line-at-Space-Mountain soundtrack, the game cuts a striking figure: clean, minimal, uncluttered by framing devices or special power-ups. The formula is simple: you control an element, and must use the limited bonds (represented by the circumambulatory electrons) of both your element and the others in the level to form increasingly complex chemical compounds. Hydrogen can make one bond, Oxygen two, and so one of the first levels is simple: make water by connecting your hydrogen to a free oxygen, which can then use its remaining bond to connect to the second hydrogen on the map. The difficulty comes from the limited space on each map, and the awareness that some moves will cause unwanted bonds to form. Simple additions, like bond splitters, double bonds, or the introduction of noble gases will lengthen the challenge, and often lead to levels where you’re flitting your atoms about haphazardly, trying to avoid the space around one hydrogen atom until you can connect your hydrogen to a nitrogen first.

soko2

This fits, since “Soko” is Japanese for “there,” although it more accurately inhabits a space that is between here and there (kind of like the Dark World in A Link to the Past, or at least the idea of it). This sentiment abounds in Sokobond, as the game guides us through the bonding processes of molecules, its mechanic contingent on the ways they can and cannot interact with each other. Yet these connections tell us nothing of how these bonds work, or what the bonds are at all (remember the differences between covalent, ionic, and metallic bonds?). Biology is already made up of stratified zones—protons are made of quarks; protons, along with neutrons and electrons, form atoms, which then form molecules, which form cellular organs, which enable the many functions of cells, which themselves can specialize and beget organs, and all the way up to a sentient being, and beyond. It’s like a familial lineage in the Bible, with its bewildering sense of continuation, and provides a distance that is enforced by the minimalist, sterile presentation and the contemplative soundtrack.

So, do you need to be interested in chemistry to enjoy Sokobond? In college, I managed to sneak my way into a job in our Biology Department’s Laboratory. The job was tedious: I had to sterilize test tubes; measure agar, glucose, peptone, and yeast extract to make a petri dish; make sure the red pin was in the duodenum and not the bile duct; and other things to prep your Intro-level Biology class. But it brought me into direct contact with a variety of chemicals both familiar and foreign. (The most worrying temptation we had was the 5 kg. container of pure caffeine.) Most of these chemicals appear in Sokobond, and it’s refreshing to see such a normally dry topic handled with such fluidity and verve. Removed from the strain of having to balance a chemical equation, the chemicals are instead heralded for their intriguing spatial formations. This allows the repetitive mechanics to remain fulfilling, as you won’t realize until after you’ve solved the puzzle that you’ve formed methane for the fourth time.

soko3

Sokobond is a challenging, quiet game. But it’s also a fun game, as the post-level facts come out, telling you about the practical applications of these little elements you’re pushing around. The game is a blast to play, but if nothing else, it reminds us of the fact that our universe is made up of a discrete number of elements, and that they can combine in intriguing, illuminating, and irrationally amusing ways. Where else would you learn that Bombadier Beetles shoot hydrogen peroxide as a defense mechanism, or that the very same chemical is also used to bleach writing paper? Just as the puzzles of Sokobond are flexible and multi-faceted, so too are the chemicals they portray. With Sokobond, there’s a brave new world out there—or is it in here?

It’s About Positioning

(originally published at Unwinnable; updated 10/14/15)

The thing about sex is that it’s all about positioning. Don’t lie: people joke about the familiar trope of doing the deed in the darkness, but I need to see what I’m doing to get the most out of it. The human mind is a powerful thing, but one of its greatest attributes is its ability to put the human body in all sorts of ludicrous positions. And when you throw another human body in there, the possibilities are more endless than the character creation options in a Bethesda game. Put simply, you and your partner (multiple, if you’re so lucky) need to be in the right place, at the right time, and then oh, the magic happens. And then, like in love, one calamitous moment happens, an assumption you’ve taken for granted shatters and everything just simply falls apart…

In that regard, sex is a lot like Dota 2. No other game (hell, no other activity) has as strenuously tested both my wits and wills. No other task has forced exquisite beads of sweat to pearl on my brow so easily. And nothing else has compelled me to work my wrists so damn hard, with only the briefest yet tempting promise of payoff.

Just as the hours whittle away in bed as day sex turns to night sex (I even missed a St. Vincent concert for the stuff), so, too, can hours pass unmarked as you rough up and get roughed up in Dota. But first, for those virgins: Dota 2 is the offspring of a game that had its inception in the fertile grounds of Warcraft 3′‘s customs games on Battle.net. Apart from its normal RTS game, Warcraft 3 had a vast modding community that was very experimental, leading to kinky new genres that all fit into the technical format of Warcraft 3‘s perspective and gameplay.

That setting – that I not so coincidentally happened upon as a 15-year-old – was like a video store before Netflix, with titles, images and genres all available if you’d just mosey on into them. “Sheep Tag” would be the kids section, with its fast and silly gameplay about tagging sheep and then hiding amongst evergreens. There were plenty of grand RPGs, many even directly based off the movies coming out at that time (with a particularly epic one centered on the Battle of Helm’s Deep). For those into dramas, there was the aptly named “Life of a Peasant,” which at once showcased the payoff and monotony of hard work. Those sad sacks who were just looking to play the actual multiplayer map were like those old ladies fingering through the Hallmark section. And then there were tower defense games for those who just wanted to sit back and see waves of things die for 20-40 minutes.

Johnny Carter, heartthrob

But then there’s another section of the video store. Not every store has it, but in the ones that do, it’s hard to miss. The original version of Dota was like the adult section of the video store, a paradoxical place where you were out on your own, but if you didn’t have your credentials ready you would be out in a flash. Of course, the titles would warn you in advance; for every non-descript title you’d see, there would be three with colored and italicized words proclaiming “NO NOOBS” or “HIGH LEVEL ONLY.” For me, as a person who became sexually active in high school (and so was still in my super-awkward phase at this time), the titles always enticed, and I felt a certain rush joining and acting like a hardcore professional. Inevitably, some Asian guy would team up with an ebony dude, the two would gang up on me and, in my amateur status, I would have to stand there dumbly as they gave me the money shot of their stun into physical burst combo. (And if that didn’t sound weird enough, the characters they were playing as were a bone fletcher and a blue cow from space.)

Dota 2 emerged in 2010 when Valve snatched up IceFrog, the reclusive game designer who had been in charge of Dota and had been responsible for balancing the gameplay. At that time I was in college, having sex and not thinking about Dota. But three years later and it’s nearly the opposite, playing Dota 2 on a nearly daily basis and rarely having a spare thought about sex. (Before you get too sad, I am also working full-time, which is just such fun.) And what shocked me was, in the moments when I finished thrilling victories, frustrating victories or bitter defeats, the feeling of physical tiredness mixed with utter relief – and just a dash of mental clarity – was just like after sex. Of course it’s ridiculous, bad writing stretched too far. But then I thought about it, and the connections seemed even more apparent.

For example, Dota 2‘s own matchmaking system does an admirable job of mirroring the courting/dating system many people experience. Invite some new friends to have a fun (but slightly awkward) time as you school them on techniques, tactics and approaches; decide to take the solo route and risk getting spanked by a vindictive man who puts your paltry knowledge on the subject to shame, and is only all too glad to let you know about it; or send an invite to your paramour, the one who pushes all your buttons, is the Chaos Knight to your Io, the Keeper of the Light to your Phantom Lancer, and sets your lane ablaze.

“rawr”

Note that, in the discussion, I never said that Dota’s matchmaking system was good. It hardly is. But it does effectively embody what it means to put yourself out there and depend on the ability and whims of others. The longest relationship I’ve been in lasted a little longer than a year, and I’ve been on some epic win streaks in the game where I’m elated, in tune with those around me, and unable to do or see something that couldn’t be forgiven. And then, like in love, one calamitous moment happens, an assumption you’ve taken for granted shatters and everything just simply falls apart, with no one involved knowing exactly went wrong, only that it is irredeemable and represents the closing of a chapter that will only be mentioned in neutral tones and averted looks. Just as I’ve had those glazed-over moments of bliss, there have been times when I snapped at family, ignored friends, and frankly took things much more seriously than my partners. Sound familiar?

You may have noticed, but I find it very hard to write about exactly what happens in a match of Dota 2. I can get the gist of what went wrong – our Magnus couldn’t land his Reverse Polarity, they countered us with that Scythe of Vise item pick up, our Venomancer decided he wanted to try to carry – but to break it down on a microcosmic level is pretty difficult. More than that, it takes some of the magic away, reduces the game into a series of mechanistic impulses and cold-hearted decision-making, a “push button here and cast spell x there to win” mentality. The truth is, Dota 2 is about positioning, just like sex, but that positioning isn’t a simple thing to communicate. It takes time, space, skill, and not an insignificant amount of trust. Maybe that makes me a romantic about it.

And then, like in love, one calamitous moment happens, an assumption you’ve taken for granted shatters and everything just simply falls apart…

But maybe that’s also why I can’t get into romance novels, or writing about sex, and always find in those passages an awkward grasping that feels metallic and invasive. Or, more accurately, they feel like a virtual reality, a simulacra, replicating the parts involved, their motions, the smells and sounds they produce in an effort to capture the fleeting feeling of what those concurrent actions mean. It’s as if people who spend too much time reading or writing romance novels, or watching instead of playing Dota 2, are just looking for a cheap sensation, a husk of the actual thing without the work, success, pain, and remonstrance involved. (Don’t get me started on the voyeuristic nature of the streams, where thousands of people can watch two people watch a game between 10 people.)

One single match in Dota 2 can be sublime, with one team fight serving as its representative moment, and a relationship can be much the same, with sex standing as an instance of synecdoche for the relationship at large. It’s a moment that, for all the words said, gifts given, emotions expressed, intuitively enacts the relationship much more forcefully. When it’s over, you can break out that shoebox of letters, pictures, trinkets, but to attempt to get at the narrative of the relationship by connecting them together is unhelpful at best, and revisionist at worst.

kenjataimu

—     —     —     —     —

I was playing a game of Dota 2 not too long ago in which I was Timbersaw, an under-utilized hero who many people think is bad because they don’t know how to play him effectively. He requires constant spatial awareness: as a goblin whose hometown was destroyed by treants, all of his abilities benefit from chopping down nearby trees in the process. As such, he must be played carefully, always looking for ways to string his various abilities together (imagine a combo system with deforestation at its core and you’ll get the picture).

In this particular match, I was doing especially well in the solo off-lane versus a Dazzle and a Phantom Assassin. The details aren’t important, but I was owning the lane, routinely killing them. I became fed, got my items, and helped carry our team to victory. After one particular fight in which I killed the Dazzle, that player remarked that I “should probably stop playing this game and go out and get laid.” At that, I sat back, took my hand off the mouse, and put it on the flesh of my arm. My breathing, erratic beforehand, slowed. I sat there, the right hand enveloping its opposite forearm in a slight caress, when their Phantom Assassin walked up to me, landed a critical blow for 1350 damage, and killed me in one hit. My right hand jumped, an automatic reflex to try to salvage the situation, then came to rest again. I had blown it, was spent. But give me a few moments, and I’ll come back even stronger, even more ready to please.

As always, it’s about positioning.

Wake’s Astonishing Tales of Horror

(originally published at Unwinnable)

Quentin Tarantino opens Pulp Fiction with two definitions of pulp: the first as a “shapeless mass of matter,” and the second as a publication, often featuring fantastic or highly stylized content, printed on cheap paper. While most film critics point to the second definition in providing frame, structure and exploit to the film itself, few give attention to that soft, shapeless mass of matter or what it’s really made of. Traditionally, the pulping manufacture process treats wood through various means to break cellulose down, resulting in a gloopy mess that eventually (some would say miraculously) becomes paper. Having lived in a college town not too far from a pulping facility, I can attest to the inherent inapproachability of the idea of pulp, both metaphorically and literally (the stuff stinks like crazy).

I think a lot of players (myself included, at least initially) had a similar problem with Remedy’s 2010 game Alan Wake. The developers never claimed Wake was just a survival horror game, and the generosity of needed items, repetitive enemy models and Max Payne-esque slow motion time all work against the tense atmosphere the game nevertheless tries to create. It’s a shame, because if you go into the game without genre expectations, you’ll discover a title whose vivid imagery and melodramatic sensibilities scream pulp to such a degree that you’ll have to spit your orange juice out (if you happen to be playing it over breakfast). Wake’s episodic structure, quasi-cheesy dialogue and reliance on improbable action show its nuanced understanding of material that most people read, but few read deeply. In fact, it’s only because people have pigeonholed Wake in much the same way that pulp itself often is, that the game seems to fail to deliver on its promises of excitement, exhilaration, and fun.

There’s a wonderful sense of dissonance to be had in Alan Wake. 

Wake features you as the eponymous character, a thirty-something best-selling thrill writer who just can’t finish his next book. He goes to asecluded hotel to be caretaker with his family, slowly goes mad and thensecluded cabin in the Pacific Northwest town of Bright Falls, a name laughably ironic (until you realize that it actually kind of makes sense). Looking for a period of calm and relaxation, Wake instead gets in a fight with his wife, stomps off and then returns to see her taken away by a mysterious dark presence. Which means, of course, that he has to go after her, setting off an adventure that has him negotiating with kidnappers, getting chased by evil spirit loggers and communicating with dead writers. (I have a feeling this is why most people just decide to go to Disney World for their vacations.) Still, aside from some twists and turns that are too much fun to ruin here, that’s about it. It’s not a masterpiece but then again, if I had to describe the plot of Mrs. Dalloway to someone, I would probably say that it’s a novel about a woman who talks to herself.

You’ll notice I’m taking a fun tone with the game, even though it does have high stakes and is at times genuinely scary. That’s because, to enjoy the game to the fullest extent, you have to mock it. Or at least be at ease with the idea of laughing at its Buster Keaton-sized gaffes every couple minutes.

There’s a wonderful sense of dissonance to be had in Alan Wake. It occurs the instant the game begins, but doesn’t truly dawn on you until you’ve gotten to know Alan a little, fumbled with flashlight and dialogue alike. And it’s this: for all of Alan’s accolades and sense of
accomplishment and distinction, he is a remarkably mediocre writer. It’s the same sense of dissonance that pulled me out of the recent horror film Sinister: how can we believe in a world where these men are popular writers when they both clearly portray a lack of understanding regarding how to research their chosen genres and aren’t very good writers themselves? Both Alan and Ellison Oswalt act as if they had never written a novel in their lives and are excruciatingly unaware of how similar their predicaments are to everything they have written. It’s not just the manuscript pages that Alan find while making his way through the area around Bright Falls, it’s the bone-headed things he says, or the lack of conclusions he jumps to, that make you wonder when he left his job at McDonalds to start a career as a writer.

But here’s the thing: that dissonance starts to melt away as you play and become increasingly wrapped up in the thrills, twists and allusions that it has to offer. Without coming off as pretentious, it is self-aware of its conventions: it’s obvious in the way Matthew Porretta, who voices Alan, always recaps with a smoky, “Previously on Alan Wake…“; the disinterested tone he always speaks and thinks in, even when discovering mind-boggling revelations; the constant reference to, and even direct quotation of, Stephen King. (In fact, the very first line is a Stephen King line about the poetry of fear being anything but logical).

That line, and the fact that it is framed within Alan’s own formulation (“Stephen King once said that…”) should be a primer for us as we play the game – here’s something that jubilantly points out its inspirations and uses them as a shortcut to set a stark, tense atmosphere that’s surprisingly effective despite its derivativeness. The town is straight out of Twin Peaks, has a nightly program that’s a spoof of Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, the models all look like they ambled out of John Carpenter’s The Fog and the story itself, about a writer with writer’s block who faces extreme problems when he “just tries to get away from it all,” is so overplayed I wouldn’t be surprised if the writing of such a story were the cure for writer’s block. These factors allow the game to create this peculiar tension where half of it is a rollercoaster thrill ride while the other half is a loving jab at those very overblown gesticulations. It makes you think, “I really got surprised by that twist?” and then sneakily gets you with another not five minutes later.

Of course, Alan Wake isn’t the first story to revel in its own flaws. Pulp does that all the time. Or, rather, it does that because many people have decided that it does, chiefly because they decided that literary pulp is not just physically low quality, but in its content as well.

———

George Rozen, “The Book of Death,” from The Shadow, January 1942

One of the reasons pulp fiction was – and is – regarded with distrust is because it stems from a history that is all-inclusive. As increases in printing technology developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, closet dramas, penny dreadfuls and dime novels gave way to pamphlets, digests and pulp magazines, each able to branch off into its own area of interest. Both the low quality of paper and the increasingly-cheaper means of production meant a high supply for the increasing amount of people who could read. Pulp brought the trend of affordable and exciting reads for the masses ushering literary culture into the mainstream. You know the names of writers who got their start in the pulps: Asimov, Chandler, Hammet, Fitzgerald, Lovecraft, Kipling and L’Amour, among many missed.

As a result, many self-perceived “highbrow” writers and critics decided to decry this “trashy material” as vapid and aiming for the lowest common denominator. Nevertheless, it was the pulps that ignited the masses’ imaginations as they found themselves with more leisure time. (If you are really interested in examining the differences in these types of art, check out Virginia Woolf’s letter to the Editor of the “New Statesman” in 1932, and other discussions of highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow). For a good case study, one needn’t look further than the The Shadow, a 1930s radio serial about a wealthy playboy who moonlights as a bandana-clad alter ego capable of clouding the minds of evil men, for a touch of class mingled with populist taste.

You can draw the parallels to Wake particularly in The Shadow episodes starring Orson Welles; the excessively-smug way he speaks as Lamont Cranston gives the audience all the justification we need to judge him, to place him in a comfortable category; yet when The Shadow speaks, the implication is a crucial finger-wagging which reminds us that our judgments are wrong and, more crucially, that it is we who are being judged instead. Often ludicrous and not particularly suave in its execution, Welles’ performances regardless had an earnestness behind them and that resonated with people in a direct and visceral way.

Wake is also similar in its product placement – in the old time radio era, shows only existed because they were regularly sponsored by companies pushing everything from toothpaste and Ovaltine to telephones and tires;Wake, too, wears its endorsements proudly, with Energizer batteries and a Verizon phone being a key to your continued survival. In both cases, nothing is taken away by these intrusions. In fact, unlike most other instances of product placement (their shallow instances in sports and racing games, their bizarre and jarring usage in games like Infamous 2), they actually add a bit to the authenticity of the program. They, like pulp stories themselves, aimed to depict real life in as elevated and sensationalized a way as possible.

Earle Bergey, “Doubling in Murder,” from Feature Detective Cases, July 1947

The reason why I’m not bothered by the idea of Alan fumbling with plugging in some Energizer batteries (but I am with Cole McGrath walking by a Subway) is because the weight of Alan’s psychological descent is increased by the decisions he makes. And in the case of the game, it is how those specific batteries and that specific phone, cause him so much grief, consternation and relief. Without making some grand statement about capitalism, it takes on the fact that it exists and that individuals are forced to make decisions within it that can have pretty big ramifications.

Despite those distortions and how they may have romanticized or exaggerated certain parts of life, both Wake and the pulps of yesteryear have a verisimilitude in their dealings with the often complicated nature of life, love, and money. Consider pulp magazine covers- artists grounded their illustrations in a realism that made their fantastical elements all the more pressing, with even the sci-fi illustrators taking careful note of anatomy and expression so as to transmute the fascinatingly uncanny facial gestures men and women trapped in strange lands (and stranger circumstances) found themselves in.

Looking at it that way, it is those human imperfections that give Alan Wakethe gravitas it needs to be successful despite its many clunkers; it’s merely been mislabeled as something far more reductive than it actually is. Likewise, because of the way people label it (terms like “disposable,” “rubbish,” “sensationalized”), pulp often doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Which is strange, because none of those terms are inherently negative. By giving the material a fleeting existence, and by exaggerating fundamental human concerns, what pulp really achieves is to replicate those passions, that excitement, those sensations that are so refreshingly ephemeral. Like our strongest feelings, our greatest memories, pulp is transient; it lingers, but changes in effectiveness as we do. Most pulp is gone, never to be reclaimed again. Perhaps, in the long run, Wake may join the ranks, as countless older games have done. Until then, I’ll know it as the twitch of anticipation in my fingers, the bubble of anxiety in my throat and the knife of laughter busting my gut.