1984 Upside Down, or, Use Your Allusions

Stranger Things would still be pretty great if it were just a shameless pastiche of 80s movies, but it ends up transcending that.

Stranger Things is so blatantly, aggressively an homage to the early 1980s that it’s amazing it works at all. There’s hardly a single shot or character or situation that doesn’t in some way reference something from pop culture during the age when Amblin Entertainment Ruled the Earth.

On Vulture, Scott Tobias made a list of film references in the series. (If you haven’t yet watched all eight episodes, be forewarned it’s full of spoilers even from the first entry). Vimeo user Ulysse Thevenon made a compilation video with even more references in a side-by-side comparison.

With all of that referencing going on, it could’ve ended up like nothing more than a dramatic adaptation of a VH-1 I Love the 80s special: a bunch of callbacks that amount to nothing more than vacuous nostalgia. But somehow Stranger Things doesn’t just strike the right balance between “inspiration” and “slavish recreation;” I genuinely think it synthesizes everything into a uniquely 21st century kind of storytelling.

It’s the pop culture equivalent of the Higgs boson: proof of something that had previously been purely theoretical. In this case, a piece of art that’s both aggressively meta-textual and completely earnest.

Since I started writing this, there’ve been dozens of hot takes, explanations, recaps, and analyses written of the series. Instead of rehashing all of that, I’ll try to keep it (relatively) simple and just focus on how I think the references worked, and how they made the series resonate so much with me.

Super 8 Upside Down

Still from Super 8 from Dan North's Spectacular Attractions site
I’ve seen several people compare it to Super 8, which I liked a lot, and which is another extended love letter to early 80s Steven Spielberg. It makes sense, since they have so much in common. But essentially, I think Super 8 and Stranger Things are conceptual opposites.

Super 8 is a modern filmmaker’s attempt to reproduce the feel of late 70s to early 80s Spielberg. It’s like JJ Abrams’s American Graffiti, except he grew up loving filmmaking more than cars. It’s 2011 in “cinematic language” — the images are too sharp, and just look at those lens flares! — but it’s trying to tell a story that’s around 1984 in spirit.

Stranger Things, on the other hand, uses the “cinematic language” of the late 70s and early 80s to tell a modern story. I don’t think the nostalgia is the end goal; it’s a stylistic flourish, or (less charitably) a really effective gimmick. The story, though, is not the kind of thing they were making in 1984.

Calling it just a pastiche of scenes from 1980s movies ignores the fact that those scenes wouldn’t survive in 2016 unaltered. Salem’s Lot scared the pants off me as a kid, but the scene that frightened me the most when I was eight years old seems pretty silly now. And it only took a few years for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial to ripen from “spellbinding” and “uplifting” into “nauseatingly maudlin” and “difficult to watch.”

Super 8 seemed like it wanted me to appreciate 80s Spielberg from a respectful distance. As a result, it made me feel like a guy in his 40s reminiscing about the movies he loved as a kid. But Stranger Things made me feel like I was that kid again, completely wrapped up in the story and eager to find out what happened next, the same way I watched TV and movies in those innocent days before I took cinema studies classes and started a blog.

Indiana Jones and the Curse of the Jaded Eye

I was completely on board for the whole thing, without that one-level-removed detachment I usually maintain when watching a movie or TV show. The last time I can remember being so engrossed in something was — not that long ago, actually, since it was while watching The Force Awakens. That movie was criticized for being too much of a retread of the originals, or being too much of an exercise in nostalgia to become a classic in its own right. I say that using so much of the “language” of the original movies is a crucial part of why Force Awakens was able to make a 45-year-old feel like a 6-year-old again. It stops being conscious reference and starts to work subliminally.

Stranger Things does something similar. It’s constantly making references but rarely drawing attention to them. Since the Amblin influence is almost never explicit, the series isn’t making any kind of commentary on it. It’s set in the early 80s, but it’s not making any explicit commentary on the time period, either. (Apart from Firestarter-style government conspiracy paranoia, but that’s been pretty much a constant since the 70s). Phones and huge walkie-talkies feature heavily in the plot, but there’s really not a whole lot that would have to change to accommodate cell phones and the internet.

I think that’s worth pointing out because the main influences — Stephen King and Steven Spielberg — were both so focused on being contemporary. King’s entire schtick with his blockbuster novels was taking classic monsters and horror stories and giving them a modern (for the late 70s) update. And Spielberg was so dedicated to putting fantastic stories into completely mundane settings that it almost seemed like he fetishized suburbia. I think in both cases, the goal was to make the subject less distant and more relatable: vampire attacks, telekinetic teen witches, and alien encounters may just as well be happening to you in your very neighborhood!

So Stranger Things is neither contemporary nor a traditional period piece. It isn’t really like Super 8, because it’s not really making any explicit commentary on the 1980s or the love of filmmaking or the naive enthusiasm of youth. And it’s not exactly like E.T. because it’s not trying to be contemporary. In terms of period references, the Steven Spielberg movie it most resembles is Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Raiders isn’t trying to depict the real 1936; it’s a fantasy version that exists only in the movies. It borrowed character archetypes and situations from old movies not in the hope that the audience would recognize them as references, but because the imagery immediately evokes “high adventure.” And Raiders has about as much to say about Nazism as Stranger Things does about post-Watergate paranoia over government-sponsored shadow programs: nothing, except that they make great villains.

Nothing’s specific enough to become parody or reference; it all just blends together into a pleasant melange of K-cars, mix tapes, big phones, bad clothes, and kids who still spent most of the day riding their bikes. As somebody who was around the same age as the kids in Stranger Things in 1984, it’s extremely unsettling seeing my childhood turned into gauzy days-gone-by Happy Days-style nostalgia. Especially since we were a generation so self-obsessed that we didn’t even wait until the end of the decade before we started deconstructing it and trying to define the zeitgeist. It feels like all the significant details getting sandblasted away in favor of a pair of Foster Grants and a Walkman, just like how I know nothing of the 1920s apart from flappers and prohibition.

It also means that your brain isn’t looking for specific flashes of recognition so much as taking it all in sub-verbally as the tone and mood of 1984-ish. It was a distant, simpler time, when pre-teens were always getting into fantastic adventures, and the little sister from E.T. grew up to develop pyrokinetic powers and went on adventures with The Goonies and the teens from Some Kind of Sixteen Pretty In Pink Candles to go look at a dead body that was left by the Alien.

The Epic of Lando

Although I think the “cinematic language” of Stranger Things is supposed to work silently and subconsciously, the show does make a lot of explicit references, too.

That in itself makes it weird: even today but especially in the 80s, movie and TV stories all existed in their own distinct parallel universes, each complete with fake brands, fake celebrities, and fake popular culture. Whether it was because of licensing issues, fear of being labeled a “sell out” with product placement, fear of being too topical or dated, or fear of being too unimaginative, productions almost never made mention of identifiable aspects of the real world.

Scott Tobias’s article mentions how Stranger Things explicitly mentions Poltergeist, and then creates a “hall of mirrors” as the characters go on to experience much of the same events as in Poltergeist. There’s an actual 1980s song in every episode, even if they weren’t 100% accurate to the year. (And they’re good songs, too! The Bangles’ version of “Hazy Shade of Winter” has always been severely underrated). Eleven watches a Coca-Cola commercial, and she’s nuts for Eggo waffles instead of Reese’s Pieces. There are movie posters for The Evil Dead and The Thing prominently visible hanging on walls in the background.

I don’t think they’re supposed to be just period details (apart from the Coke ad), but thematic. It’s significant that Joyce is the one who mentions Poltergeist, since the memory foreshadows the fact that the rest of the her story mirrors that of the lead character in Poltergeist. (If you don’t think Jobeth Williams was the star of that movie, you saw a very different movie from the one I did).

The other characters have references that reflect their character arcs, to a lesser degree. It’s Jonathan who has the (inappropriate) Evil Dead poster, and his “major” moment is setting up traps in a small house to try and kill a rampaging monster. Mike has the poster for The Thing in his basement, and he’ll go on to discover something alien that causes his whole group to be suspicious of each other and makes him wonder who he can trust.

It suggests that they’re using 80s references similarly to how ancient poems use allusions: they place the characters in a lineage of archetypal heroes. I don’t think that’s an entirely BS too-many-cinema-studies-classes read on it, either, since the show is even more explicit with it.

The three pop culture institutions that get the most direct references in Stranger Things are The Lord of the Rings, Dungeons and Dragons, X-Men, and Star Wars. One interesting aspect of that is that all of those properties were still fringe nerd-markers in the early 1980s, which had a big resurgence into the mainstream by 2016. (Even as ubiquitous as Star Wars was, there was always the idea that it was silly and you were supposed to be at least a little embarrassed for liking it).

The more interesting aspect — and possibly something that’s only possible because of their renewed popularity and status as “cultural institutions” — is that the references are used as shorthand. They mention “Mirkwood” as the scary place where the first attack took place. They describe the alternate dimension as “The Vale of Shadows” to immediately understand what it is. They understand Eleven’s powers by comparing her to Professor X or Jean Grey.

Most directly of all, they compare Eleven alternately to Yoda (as an unassuming figure who turns out to have great power) and Lando (as a traitor). To drive the idea home, they have Eleven levitating the Millennium Falcon with her mind when she’s trying to find out what she can do. For audiences in 2016 — and for nerdy kids in 1984 — the characters and story of Star Wars are so well-recognized that just the name of a character can tell you everything you need to know.

Digress Much?

Since I made the claim that Stranger Things is “uniquely 21st century storytelling,” I’ve got to compare it to how they did it in the 1990s. The best example I can think of is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the TV series.

It was also an attempt to take classic stories about monsters and update them to make them relatable to a contemporary audience. And like the Stephen King novels, it tried to turn its monsters into metaphors. But it took the idea and did something completely — even tragically — 1990s in spirit: it made the characters self-aware. King’s early novels and short stories still showed affection for the classic monsters; the psychological interpretations and metaphors expanded on traditional horror stories.

But starting with the premise (and obviously, the title) of the movie, Buffy the Vampire Slayer wanted us to know that the monsters were old-fashioned and silly, and that it was in on the joke. The TV series was more earnest and much less gimmicky, but the inherently 1990s part of the tone remained: vampires and werewolves are fun, but it’s the metaphors for young adulthood that are really important.

So when the characters in Buffy call themselves “The Scooby Gang,” the show’s acknowledging that sure, the concept of a bunch of mystery-solving teens fighting monsters is corny and silly, but they’re aware of it, and they’re doing it for a reason. Stick around for the good stuff, and you might just learn a thing or two about growing up. When they call their enemy the “Big Bad,” they’re acknowledging that the format of their season-long story arcs is formulaic, but don’t worry about it because they’re in on the joke.

Stranger Things doesn’t feel the need to be that defensive. And it’s really no longer necessary: back in the 90s when I was watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I absolutely loved the self-aware references, since they felt like the makers of the show were talking directly to me. But when the kids in Stranger Things make reference to Lando or Yoda or Professor X, it’s a point of cultural reference that the writers, the audience, and the characters all have in common.

No “Spielberg Stares”

The “Spielberg Stare” is the one thing that makes me keep forgetting what a brilliant director Steven Spielberg is. It makes me forget that The Lost World had one of the best extended action sequences of any film ever with the van teetering over the edge of a cliff, and remember that movie only for the scene in which a teenaged gymnast uses a conveniently-placed set of parallel bars to drop-kick a velociraptor.

The stare is when he has the camera linger on a character looking wide-eyed and open-mouthed at something unbelievable just off-screen. It’s meant to drive home that we in the audience are about to see something absolutely wondrous AF and if we aren’t as blown away by it as the characters in the movie, then what the hell is wrong with us anyway? Around 25-30% of the time — double that if the movie is E.T. — the stare ends with a sudden, rehearsed-a-billion-times-to-try-and-make-it-not-look-so-rehearsed burst of laughter, to let us know that we just can’t contain our delight at what we’re seeing.

If it’s not clear, I hate it. I think it’s maudlin and manipulative, and it didn’t even survive until the mid-1980s before it became completely insufferable. (He kept it up through the 1990s, and it’s one of my least favorite aspects of Jurassic Park).

And there’s none of it in Stranger Things. The closest I can think of would be the scene where the kid is suspended in mid-air over a cliff, or the scene where the utility truck does a back flip over the kids on bikes. Apart from that, though, the characters aren’t allowed to be stunned by anything for too long.

It’s part of the idea that the story doesn’t take place in its own separate universe. The characters aren’t seeing something completely mind-blowing, because they have a frame of reference for most of it: this is like that D&D monster, that’s like that comic book character. So much of science fiction, horror, or action TV is spent establishing how the universe works, showing characters being exposed to the unbelievable for the first time, and repeating the key “rules” in long expository sequences.

And dealing with characters’ skepticism! It’s so common in these stories to have much of the plot revolve around the fact our characters have seen something fantastic and no one else will believe them. There’s certainly some of that in Stranger Things, but it’s usually relegated to the background instead of made the focus of the conflict. Instead, characters who are exposed to the weirdness are quick to get on board and start formulating a plan of what to do next. Even Steve jumps right in to help!

It gives the whole thing a kind of forward momentum that’s so unusual in episodic television that it’s almost jarring.

The cold open has a cold open

Finally, an example of how all of this stuff works together. The still below is from the first scene in the entire series. I don’t believe I’m spoiling anything when I tell you not to get too attached to this guy:
Stranger Things Still
Everyone in the target audience for this series has seen this scene, hundreds of times. Dozens of those times were in The X-Files alone.

It’s the monster’s first victim, the incident that brings our main characters into the story. It sets up a bit of intrigue, giving us some clues as to how the monster works — lights go out when it’s around — but leaving the details for us to figure out — how did it move around so quickly, is it invisible? It sets the tone for the series: how scary is it going to be? How gory? Do they show the attack or leave it to the imagination?

The scene’s always followed by one that introduces our heroes in their natural habitat. We get a few moments of character development, and then something happens that pulls into the story, tying them to the monster from the cold open. Maybe there’s a close call that our hero just barely survives. Maybe there’s a brief flash of the monster, showing us a bit more of what form it takes. Maybe the hero will see something that no one else believes.

I’ll tell you what’s not supposed to happen: the monster isn’t supposed to appear in full view in the second scene of the series. When a kid gets safely into his house and locks the door, that’s supposed to be the end of the scene. The monster shouldn’t still be outside, and the monster sure as hell shouldn’t be able to follow him inside. And on top of everything else, you’re not supposed to lose one of your main characters before the credits even start.

I think the main reason that Stranger Things so effectively scared me, without gore or violence, is that it kept that forward momentum and kept changing up the “rules.” (“We just saw the monster kill someone. Why are we seeing it again so soon after?”) I believe that they were using the same gimmick as in Psycho, but more subtly: using the audience’s expectations of how the story’s “supposed” to work against them. In retrospect, so much of the series’s story was easily explainable and full of standard, formulaic story structure.

But going into the show knowing almost nothing about it, I found myself surprised over and over again. Both by how quickly some parts of the story were moving, and by how scenes would escalate in intensity past what I’d expected them to. (I absolutely did not expect Joyce to see the monster trying to push itself through the wall of her house, for instance). Surprising for a series that’s essentially Frankensteined together from the pieces of movies and TV I’ve already seen: for the bulk of the series up until the final episode, I really had no idea what was going to happen next.

Meta-textual Earnestness

So when I say that Stranger Things is a uniquely 21st century form of storytelling, it has nothing to do with the Netflix distribution and binge-watching. It’s because it’s a synthesis of the kinds of stories we’ve been telling in popular media for the last four decades.

It’s got the fascination with the mundane and realism that I consider to be the hallmark of the 70s cinema, along with the Firestarter elements of paranoia about the government that have just gotten taken more for granted in the decades since.

It’s obviously an homage to the 80s, but I think the main thing it gets from there is sense of a return to fantasy and wonder, plus the kind of genuine earnestness you get when a writer or director isn’t afraid of being too maudlin.

From the 90s, it gets the fascination with references and being self-referential, plus the attempt to assert shared modern pop culture as a type of mythology.

From the 2000s, it gets the fascination with mash-ups and meta-text, along with the decade’s lesson learned by over-saturating cinema and TV with CGI, then scaling back to over-correct.

And the result is something that’s simultaneously meta-textual and earnest, referential without winking. It’s a story focused more on forward momentum and formulating a plan of action that showing an action scene followed by multiple scenes of actors dealing with the consequences. Its scares are earned and they’re old-fashioned, and it’s surprising just how well they work. It recreates a fantasy version of 1984 that somehow feels more “real” than Spielberg’s attempts to be contemporary.

I’ve got no idea whether it can work again as well as it did the first run, or whether you could achieve the same effect without the 1980s homage being an essential part of the whole project. As it stands, though, it does a fantastic job establishing and maintaining a tone of referential sincerity that doesn’t just pay honor to the originals, but in so many ways, surpasses them.

First They Came For The Valleywags, and I Said Nothing

Navigating the minefield of principled opinions that results when wealthy strangers sue each other.

Alien vs Predator poster
As an indication of how plugged into the zeitgeist of Silicon Valley entrepreneurship I am: I’d never heard of Peter Thiel before around 50% of my Twitter feed suddenly started making repeated references to him. That alone isn’t noteworthy, but it is unusual to find myself disagreeing with practically everyone about an issue.

The short version, as far as I’ve been able to tell: the financially devastating lawsuit that Hulk Hogan recently won against Gawker media was secretly financed by Thiel, an absurdly wealthy investor. His motivation for backing the suit, supposedly, was a long-standing vendetta against Gawker for an old piece in Valleywag that outed Thiel as gay. (Apparently, he’s now openly out of the closet, so I’m not hypocritically spreading rumors here).

We’re told by people that I generally agree with, and also John Gruber, that this is a case with chilling implications for every one of us who’s not super-wealthy. TPM warns us that it’s horrifying when a “bully plutocrat” can take advantage of the American judicial system to obliterate journalists he doesn’t like. The Wired piece I linked to at the top suggests a future in which sites can only publish what the wealthy want to hear about themselves. On The Atlantic, Ian Bogost compares Thiel simultaneously to a Bond villain and an internet troll.

(Bogost’s article acknowledges that there are no “good guys” in a story involving Gawker, Hulk Hogan, and a billionaire with a vendetta against a blogging empire, but it also highlights and hyper-links “Trump-supporting” twice when describing Thiel, so it’s kind of easy to see who’s the real villain here).

I’m a little torn. I’m a decidedly non-wealthy person with zero influence in Silicon Valley, and I tend to say “libertarian” and “Trump-supporter” with the same sneering disdain that Ann Coulter uses to talk about “liberals.” I’m also a gay man who spent a lot of years in the closet, and I’m particularly appalled by how Gawker created an environment of muckraking disingenuously disguised as progressivism: having it both ways by treating homosexuality as money-making scandal, and then trying to rationalize it by claiming that they’re doing it to expose hypocrisy or promote visibility or dismantle the heteronormative patriarchy or some such bullshit.

Of course I care about free speech and freedom of the press. Yes, I think the American justice system has been corrupted to be a travesty of “justice,” where the outcome rarely has as much to do with what’s fair as it does with who has the most money. I’m appalled at the idea of a racist, fascist clown taking power of the country, and the creation of an American class of people with such stratospheric wealth that their concerns are completely removed from the rest of the population.

But this story has made me realize one thing: More than any of that, the thing I care most about is a good dramatic arc. Gawker media getting wiped out by a no-longer relevant professional wrestler who starred in No Holds Barred and an adulterous sex tape — that’s just a weird, sleazy story. But Gawker media getting taken down for writing a sleazy non-journalistic gossip item outing a billionaire against his will? That is straight-up delightful cosmic justice.

Have you heard the good news?

Valve has turned me into one of Those People.

I’ve been hearing people evangelizing about VR for years. I always put it in roughly the same category as new parents: they say “it’s changed the way I think about everything!” and “you can’t really understand until you experience it yourself!” I figured okay, fine, that’s genuinely great for you but I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything.

But I finally got a very gracious offer to try out the Oculus and Vive headsets. And now I’m going to have to be one of Those People.

From hearing the descriptions, I’d expected it to be the case where I put on the headset and am instantly transported to a fantastic, vividly-realized world. It wasn’t. I put on the headset (Oculus Rift first) and found myself in a nice, slightly stylized version of a modern living room where I could look around what was clearly a 3D space. I’d expected it to be like the people who saw the first movie footage of an oncoming train and (according to legend) dove for safety. Instead, it was more like the first time I saw a 3D movie. Clearly a neat effect, and genuinely more immersive, but nothing transcendent.

I played the first two levels of Lucky’s Tale, which is completely charming and a perfect packaged game for the Rift. I’d never thought a 3rd person VR game could possibly work, but it does: it feels like being inside the level along with the character you’re controlling. Essentially, you’re one of the Lakitu. I only wished that they did a bit more with the VR right off the bat; I got to a section that did depend on looking at targets, but apart from that it was just a more immersive presentation of a 3D platformer.

The other issue is that I was standing up, and the camera’s constant gentle drifting was starting to throw off my balance. It wasn’t outright nauseating for me, but it did feel like I was on a slowly rocking boat and felt unsteady on my feet. I tried a few minutes of Adrift — the game I’d most been looking forward to — but after being unsteady already, it was way too disorienting for me to tolerate for long.

Then I put on the HTC Vive, and started up Valve’s The Lab. And it was, without exaggeration, possibly the coolest thing I’ve ever seen on a computer.

I’d already seen the “Robot Repair” demo on YouTube in its entirety, so I was kind of spoiled for it. In a way, though, it’s the least spectacular part of The Lab, since it’s the least interactive even though it’s the most “produced.” It’s hilarious and a fantastic experience in its own right as well as being a perfect teaser as to the potential of a VR version of Portal. The tone of humor combined with menace that the Portal games get so perfect is made 1000 times better when you’re convinced that you’re trapped inside a space with GlaDOS, and that GlaDOS is enormous.

But the rest of the demos take that tone and let you interact with a space that feels less scripted. The “Slingshot” demo is my favorite, but they’re all fantastic. Bending down to pet a robot dog, flying a drone around a huge warehouse, launching an endless stream of balloons: it all cements the idea that I’m in a fantastic place better than anything else. I was sold within a minute.

The technology is astounding, but if The Lab proves anything, it’s that technology is only part of it.

It’s easy to see why so many people have become fascinated by it, and more importantly, why it doesn’t feel like just another gimmick. It’s also easier to understand why there’s such a “new frontier” aura around VR: it feels that there’s still a ton of experimentation and innovation to be done. How can you move people through an environment without its being nauseating? What are the different ways you can immerse the player in the experience without drawing attention to the fact that none of the objects can touch them or be touched? How do you keep the experience from feeling completely isolating?

Whatever the case, I’m a convert. And since I’m relatively late to the party, I have to catch up on all that lost time by being extra insufferable about it.


Everything a cowardly adult needs to know about 10 Cloverfield Lane

I was a huge fan of Cloverfield, so I was super-excited to hear that Bad Robot had been quietly working on 10 Cloverfield Lane, and that it’d be released in just around a month from the first appearance of a leaked teaser trailer.

Of course, that trailer almost certainly wasn’t actually “leaked.” Half the fun of these things is the mystery and the showmanship. And even though this is just a couple of days into opening weekend, I’d already read two reports that a) stressed how the movie’s best not knowing anything going into it, and then b) immediately revealed something (no matter how oblique) that I’d rather have not known going into the movie. I had to go see a matinee today to avoid the bigger spoilers that almost certainly would’ve hit me over the course of the next week.

Still, this looked more “adult” than Cloverfield‘s millennial monster movie, so I was worried it’d be too heavy and disturbing to be fun. Here’s my attempt at answering the stuff I’d been wondering about 10 Cloverfield Lane while divulging as little as possible:

Is it good?
No, it’s excellent.

Do I have to have seen Cloverfield to full appreciate it?
No, you have to have seen Cloverfield in order to have a basic level of film literacy, since it’s one of the outstanding genre movies of the 21st Century.

Aren’t Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman the best?
Absolutely! And no matter how many times people talk about how good they are, I still think they’re underrated.

Is it scary?
I couldn’t tell you for certain, since I spent at least 50% of the movie twisted in my seat watching what was happening from underneath my hand over my eyes. It’s intense.

So it’s a brutal psychological horror film, then?
I wouldn’t say that. Like Cloverfield, it’s a contemporary attempt to make a movie with an “old-fashioned horror movie” spirit. It’s intended to be thrilling, surprising, and fun. (And it succeeds at all three).

Doesn’t the trailer already give away all the surprises?
Surprisingly not.

For real, though, what elements does this movie have in common with Cloverfield?
Both have internet movie fans and reviewers complaining about them, and those fans and reviewers are wrong.

Is there anything I should know that won’t spoil the movie but will give me something to look out for while I’m watching it?
Try reading about Slusho!

Does the movie inspire a perfect do-it-yourself Halloween costume for girls women?
As a matter of fact, yes!

Without giving anything away, what’s the most clever scene from the standpoint of masterfully-written character development?
The charades.

This doesn’t tell me anything other than that you really liked the movie. What if I want to read an actual review?
I like Alonso Duralde’s review on The Wrap, although I don’t at all agree that it felt over-long. I almost entirely agree with Peter Travers’s review in Rolling Stone, although I think he (along with most other reviewers) gives a little bit too much away in describing how this movie relates to Cloverfield.

Is this better or worse than Cloverfield?
I don’t really care, since I’m mostly excited to see the next one come along!

One of the Good Ones

Zootopia is surprisingly great, and a reminder of the value of family movies as parable

Zootopia is “surprisingly articulate.” And that patronizing compliment is one of the best parts of the movie, and the clearest sign that the filmmakers had something more sophisticated to say than I’d expected. It seems weirdly appropriate that a movie I’d initially dismissed as unimaginative and uninteresting would turn out to be a mature and distressingly contemporary parable about prejudice.

In my defense, early marketing didn’t give us a lot to go on. It looked like the entire premise of the movie was: “Wouldn’t it be wacky if there were a whole city full of animals who walk and talk like humans do?!” It seemed as if the Walt Disney Company were releasing a movie with no prior knowledge of the work of the Walt Disney Company.

But after a charming and well-delivered version of the Standard Disney Believe-In-Your-Dreams® Formula, Zootopia immediately sets to work dismantling that formula and then putting it back together again as something with more heft and complexity to it than just an empty aphorism. This is a movie where the hero’s kind and loving parents advise her in the first scene that she should give up on her dreams. The hero’s begrudging partner explicitly says that the idea that you can be anything you want is unrealistic nonsense.

Most importantly, we see Hopps going through her whole journey of overcoming adversity — complete with training montage! — and showing everyone that they shouldn’t assume what she’s capable of, just because she’s a bunny. And almost immediately afterwards, she’s flinging out micro-aggressions at a fox as if she were no better than some ignorant elephant!

Zootopia isn’t a subtle movie, but these aren’t subtle times. Apparently a lot of people need to be explicitly reminded of the things we were taught in kindergarten. What’s most impressed me about the movie is that it explicitly states its message over and over, but it doesn’t come across as dogmatic or self-important, and it doesn’t get in the way of its being a pretty solid detective story. The more I think about it, the more I see how cleverly it’s constructed and how it’s actually pretty transgressive.

It’s fantastic to see Disney Feature Animation using their hugely successful blockbuster hits to take risks with the Disney formula. Frozen (which is the butt of a pretty clever gag in Zootopia) was a movie about princesses that rejected the idea of love at first sight as dangerously naive, instead emphasizing the family that most Disney princesses tend to abandon to get their happy endings.

Zootopia sets up its premise in the very first scene: animals have evolved past their predator and prey relationships. It then spends the rest of its story showing its characters and the audience how many stereotypes they still hold onto. Some of the gags are pretty corny or in danger of passing their expiration date — an extended parody of The Godfather, a cute Fennec Fox who’s actually a deep-voiced adult, an animal nudist colony — but almost every one is another play on that idea of holding onto stereotypes that don’t apply. Even the stoner yak who turns out to have a better memory than an elephant.

Richard Scarry’s Cars And Trucks And Things That Perpetuate Systematic Discrimination

I call that “transgressive” for a couple of reasons. First is that it’s not how anthropomorphized animal stories are supposed to work. People have been using animals as stand-ins for humans for as long as stories have existed, but every example that I’m familiar with handles it in one of two ways: either the fact that they’re animals is arbitrary and mostly ignored, used only to make the story universally appealing, as in Richard Scarry’s books and the early Mickey Mouse cartoons; or it takes advantage of our inherent perception of the animals to make a satirical point, like the pigs in Animal Farm or the cats and mice in Maus.

Zootopia cleverly splits the difference. The entire story is based on the premise that the characters’ “animalness” is arbitrary, but then it presents one example after another of how our perception of inherent traits is so deeply ingrained that it’s almost inescapable. In the world of the story, the predator/prey distinction has become meaningless, but it’s still the one that all the characters fall back on. All the adversity that Hopps overcomes at the start of the movie has nothing to do with being a prey animal (her gruff and unsympathetic boss is a water buffalo) and everything to do with size. But when she’s put on the spot to come up with an explanation for the “mystery,” she asserts that it must have something to do with predators and might even have some biological origin.

Which leads to the other aspect of the story that I’d call transgressive: none of the characters are allowed to be exempt. Hopps’s parents are kind and completely sympathetic, but they’re also undeniably bigots. Hopps repeatedly demonstrates how she “gets it” intellectually, but when she’s pushed into a conflict or presented with something she can’t explain, she falls back on her stereotypes. Nick’s character has internalized the discrimination and let it define him; it’s a solid example of how defeatist cynicism so often disguises itself as “being realistic.”

When I first heard the term “intersectionality”, I thought it was a fantastic way to move forward in how we think about discrimination and civil rights. Then I found out how it’s actually used in practice. I’ve never seen it used to promote empathy or shared humanity, but only in terms of oppression, victimization, and guilt. Instead or being something positive, I’ve only ever seen it presented as a way to make sure that everyone, no matter what struggle they’ve been through, can have something they should feel bad about.

I think Zootopia presents a more optimistic take on the concept, by repeatedly setting up an obvious one-to-one metaphor and then subverting it. The story of Hopps could clearly be taken as a parable about feminism, but then nobody puts any emphasis on gender (her demanding drill sergeant is a polar bear with a female voice). The central tension of predators vs prey seems to correspond exactly with racism against African Americans, but, unlike Maus for example, it flips our assumptions about oppressors vs. oppressed.

One of the most clever sequences has Hopps pursuing a crook into a neighborhood populated entirely by small rodents. It comes very soon after we’ve seen her fighting against the stereotype that she can’t be “a real cop” because she’s too small, and now she’s a giant, in danger of knocking over buildings and stomping on terrified citizens.

The story refuses to let any of the characters settle into a role as purely a victim of oppression or purely an oppressor. It stresses that kindness, empathy, and cooperation are the only way to fight prejudice, ignorance, and fear.

Not All Sloths

Of course, I’m projecting my own beliefs onto the movie. Middle-aged white guy Merlin Mann took to Twitter to make fun of middle-aged thinkpiece-writing white guys like myself:

To which I respond: suck it. Even if you don’t buy the premise that comics and animation have become the modern parable and myth-making, the dismissive idea that “cartoons” are only relevant to kids is weak, tired, and so very, very old. On top of that, the level of public discourse around the themes that Zootopia addresses has become a travesty of progressivism. We could probably use some cartoon animals to set us straight.

While the movie isn’t subtle, it does leave a bit of room for interpretation. Two interpretations I disagree with are reviews by Matt Zoeller Seitz on RogerEbert.com, and Scott Renshaw in Salt Lake City Weekly. (Who are, coincidentally, also middle-aged white guys). I only found Renshaw’s review because his is one of the very few negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and he’s getting a ton of undeserved flak from that, because people on the internet tend to be ridiculously and obnoxiously defensive and abusive. (As evidence, see my telling a stranger to “suck it” because he made fun of guys like me and posts like this one).

In any case, Seitz says that the movie is too open for interpretation:

“Zootopia” pretty much rubber-stamps whatever worldview parents want to pass on to their kids, however embracing or malignant that may be. I can imagine an anti-racist and a racist coming out of this film, each thinking it validated their sense of how the world works.

Which implies a sort of moral relativism that simply doesn’t exist in the movie. For one thing, the story rejects the idea of “a racist” or “an anti-racist.” It portrays discrimination as behavior, not an identifier. It suggests that we can all be simultaneously on the giving and receiving end of it. I feel that so much of what passes for progressivism these days treats oppression, prejudice, and discrimination as perpetual states of being instead of injustices that we can work together to correct.

And the movie absolutely doesn’t stop at saying “we’re all a bit culpable” and leave it at that. There are most definitely bad guys. It acknowledges that prejudice is motivated just as often by fear as it is by malice, and the bad guys are the ones who manipulate that fear to drive us apart. Which is why the movie’s message is so depressingly relevant for 2016.

Both reviewers conclude that the movie’s message gets muddled because it simultaneously says that stereotypes are bad, and then relies on stereotypes for its gags. Renshaw writes:

It’s even more confusing when it starts to feel that Zootopia is working against its own message to get easy laughs. One extended sequence is set at the animal equivalent of the DMV, which is staffed entirely by slow-moving sloths. It’s a decent-enough idea, until you realize that it’s based on a stereotype […] For a movie built entirely around “don’t judge an animal by its species,” there’s also plenty of “a leopard can’t change its spots.”

While Seitz describes it:

The film isn’t wrong to say that carnivores are biologically inclined to want to eat herbivores, that bunnies reproduce prolifically, the sloths are slow-moving (they work at the DMV here), that you can take the fox out of the forest but you can’t take forest out of the fox, and so on. […] This all seems clever and noble until you realize that all the stereotypes about various animals are to some extent true, in particular the most basic one: carnivores eat herbivores because it’s in their nature.

This complaint seems wrong to me on two levels: just on the surface, it seems like what would happen if Aesop took his stuff to the internet and had a thousand of us middle-aged white men pointing out that actually, foxes don’t enjoy grapes, so his entire premise is invalid.

The entire premise of the movie is that the carnivore/herbivore relationship doesn’t exist anymore, so it’s a completely artificial distinction that’s dangerously foolish for the characters to cling to. If you’re going to take issue with that, you might as well take issue with the idea of animals talking and wearing clothes.

You might even say that this lack of a predator/prey relationship is what makes this an ideal fictional city, as suggested by the movie’s diabolically subtle title.

And again, I think what makes the movie so remarkable is that it teaches a lesson about prejudice by showing us repeatedly how our own prejudices work against the story’s main premise. They start the story by saying (explicitly), “here’s the setup,” and then go on knowing that the audience won’t be able to fully buy into the setup.

If you look at the complaint deeper, though, it gets at why I think Zootopia is a more mature and sophisticated allegory than I’d given it credit for, even while I was watching it and enjoying it. Yes, there are indeed a lot of gags based on the animals behaving like animals. But I don’t see it as “leopards can’t change their spots.” In the context of a story about discrimination, it’s a symbol of cultural identity and a rejection of whitewashing.

The sloths are a shaky example, since it really is played more for laughs than anything else, and it isn’t subverted until the very end of the movie. But it gets a pass since it’s such a good scene, and kind of a masterpiece of comic timing.

For all the other examples, though, the movie acknowledges the differences but is careful not to place any value judgments on them. The bunnies do reproduce prolifically, the wolves can’t help but howl in unison, the polar bears enjoy the cold, hamsters like going through habitrails, and the movie doesn’t find anything wrong with any of that.

It makes a distinction between traits that are limiting and those that are a part of our identity. The gentlest character in the movie is a cheetah cop who loves doughnuts and idolizes a gazelle. It’s a valuable reminder that rejecting the preconceived notions of how we judge each other doesn’t mean rejecting everything that makes us unique.

That’s as good an opportunity as any to point out how great the character animation is throughout. I’m ambivalent towards the character design and environmental design in general — it’s well done and pleasant if not particularly spectacular. But the character animation hooked me from the first scene, with the wide-eyed kids nervously waiting for their cues as they presented the school play. It was just plain delightful to see Hopps insist that “cute” is derogatory for bunnies, and then spend the rest of the movie stamping her foot like Thumper when she got excited, or wrinkling her nose whenever she was curious.

I’m sure I’m being completely unfairly dismissive of the work that went into the character design; it had so many opportunities to go wrong, as is evidenced by the horrific background dancers for pop star Gazelle, which I’m against on the strongest possible terms.

Would That It Were So Simple

A cursory and non-reductive look at Hail, Caesar! by Joel and Ethan Coen

I’ve been promising for a while that I’m going to be less reductive about movies. So even though I saw Hail, Caesar! last night and have been thinking about it ever since, I won’t try to come up with some belabored explanation of what I think it all means.

After all, trying to assign a “meaning” to everything is insufferably pretentious. It’s the kind of thing that self-important writers do, sitting together flinging high-minded concepts at each other without being able to put them into practice or make them relevant. It’s not actual communication, but just a pretense of superiority to cover up a deep-seated bitterness over the fact that writing is not universally accepted to be the most important thing there is.

It’s all part of the value judgment we tend to put on the labels of “art” vs “entertainment.” As if entertainment is inherently ephemeral, vapid, and valueless. The only way to elevate it to the higher and worthwhile level of “Art” is to put it in service of some important and meaningful statement. By, for instance, inserting ideas into unrelated stories for audiences to decode and pick apart like puzzle boxes, with the goal of “changing minds.” Or having a movie end with a forceful, dramatic monologue that explains to the audience exactly what the whole thing is about.

If it were just self-important ramblings from someone who’d taken too many cinema studies courses, it’d be bad enough. But the problem is that it’s reductive. It’s dismissive of all the wonderful things that movies can do, and it undermines the efforts of the hundreds of people who work to bring those wonderful experiences to audiences.

After all, there’s a ton of artistry that goes into a movie that’s more than just the self-congratulation of screenwriters and attention-grabbing performances by movie stars. There are cinematographers, editors, composers, choreographers, set designers, artistic directors, dancers, and stunt people. And that’s not counting all the people whose work doesn’t make it directly onto the screen, but who are essential to making the entire thing possible.

It’s an attitude that assumes that the movie industry’s days of spectacle and pageantry and displays of raw talent are gone and no longer missed, because the medium “matured.” It assumes an evolution from cheap tricks and stunts into more refined and intelligent stories of beautiful and sophisticated people delivering clever dialogue. It claims that there’s no true artistry in a well-executed farce, or a perfectly choreographed musical number. It ignores the delight of an audience enjoying something together in favor of being able to say I get it.

So I’m going to resist my natural tendency to talk about the Coen brothers as populists. Or to mention their disdain for pretense and self-importance. Or to put anything in the context of their recurring theme of spirituality vs. religion, and the futility of being so focused on the meaning and the answer that we lose sight of the wonder of life and the beauty of experience itself.

Instead, I’ll just talk about what I liked most in Hail, Caesar!, the Coens’ absurd, spectacular farce about the “golden age” of Hollywood.

I loved that they went all-in on reproducing genre after genre of classic movie, not just as casual reference but full-blown production. The result is the best living cinematographer and film composer working with scores of the most talented people in the industry making pitch-perfect recreations of old musical westerns, Gene Kelly-style musicals with elaborate dance numbers, Esther Williams-style “aquamusicals,” pompous sword-and-sandal epics, and high-society melodramas. And then made the references pitch-perfect as well, to Cold War spy dramas, a film noir car chase, and of course, the Singin’ in the Rain-style movie-within-a-movie.

I loved that the Coens returned to their Blood Simple-era mastery of timing, setting up the slow burn “Would that it were so simple” gag that’s shown in the trailer, waiting for a few more scenes before setting up the punchline, then stretching out the delivery of the punchline even more by inserting one of the other funniest scenes in the movie, with Frances McDormand’s film editor.

Every single performance in the movie was perfect, which is especially remarkable considering that they weren’t all in the same genre of movie. Being the straight man in a screwball comedy is a thankless job, but Josh Brolin keeps it grounded. But Alden Ehrenreich is kind of amazing, not just for completely getting the wild changes in tone from scene to scene, but also being able to do an affected accent trying to affect a different accent. And this is the first movie where I’ve liked Channing Tatum.

I loved the recurring gag about not “depicting the godhead” (check the disclaimers in the end credits) while making a movie billed “A Tale of The Christ,” and then not only did they never show the actor playing Jesus, they had an assistant director asking him whether he was principal or supporting cast.

I loved that the high-minded, presumably religious epic On Wings As Eagles was built up with such import and significance and then marvelously deflated. I loved the “No Dames!” musical number that started with a subtle nod to the Gene Kelly performances that seemed just-barely-shy of homoerotic, and then got more and more blatant as the routine got more and more sophisticated.

And I loved that Eddie Mannix’s guilt and loyalty and devotion were depicted as a crisis of faith, and contrasted against the religious leaders who didn’t have the answers; the warmongers who dismissed movies as ephemeral, valueless entertainment; and the biblical epics that depicted sudden, awe-inspiring epiphanies that turned out to be ultimately empty. Mannix didn’t really have any sudden moment of clarity; he just went on helping people who needed help and made movies that reached millions of people and brought joy to their lives.

So no real message, just an astoundingly talented bunch of filmmakers making a silly, funny farce about the “magic” of movies. But maybe I missed the point entirely.

Why I’m Excited About Firewatch

The future of independent game development is now! Or at least two years ago!

Firewatch comes out for PCs and PS4 next week, and you can already preorder it on Steam. There are a couple of obvious reasons I’m happy to see it:

  1. My friends made it.
  2. I mean, just look at it.

But I also can’t help but see it as a victory for independent game development. Not to mention evidence that occasionally, we do actually live in a meritocracy, and you can actually be rewarded for being good at what you do.

It’s likely because I’ve spent the last year being disillusioned by the state of professional game development, but I keep thinking about how much the environment has changed since I started working in games [REDACTED] years ago.

Lately, I’ve been focused on all the ways it’s changed for the worse, because that was all I had to work with. I’d forgotten how much it’s changed for the better. I used to imagine a far-off future where game development finally had more in common with film production than toy manufacturing, and it’s happened without my noticing.

I used to take it as a given that making games meant getting a full-time job at a studio. It was such a huge investment that it was all but impossible to try and make anything of consequence otherwise. The popular game engines like Unity and… well, okay, just Unity weren’t available, so in most cases, making a game meant making an engine. Even if you had the chops to write your own game engine, just getting a license for Visual Studio was a not-insignificant investment, something that’s easy to forget now that free compilers and IDEs are ubiquitous.

While I was bitching about Steam as an unnecessary hurdle to jump through so I could play Half-Life 2, I didn’t realize what a gigantic shift it would bring. Once manufacturing and distribution became more accessible, it all but wiped out the necessity of having a publisher. Of course, it didn’t wipe out the need for a marketing budget, not to mention funding for game production itself (especially since art tools are still a huge investment), but it did finally turn the big publishers from gatekeepers into business partners.

This is all pretty obvious stuff, and most of us would just take it as a given that democratizing game development is a good thing. But the implications are a lot more significant than I’d appreciated: making game development more accessible hasn’t just made it possible for more people to make games. It’s allowed for the existence of better games. When a game isn’t having to depend on risk-averse investors or clueless marketing departments in order to exist, then smarter and riskier games get made.

I used to despair at the proliferation of space marines and dwarves and stripper-killing-simulators as a sign that maybe games were as infantile as the “grown-ups” suggested. The people making games just didn’t have any original ideas. While that was no doubt true in a lot of cases, it’s more likely that the original ideas were there, but were getting ignored by publishers and marketing teams still pandering to an outdated and very narrow audience that didn’t even exist until they created them.

I first got interested in games because the Monkey Islands and Full Throttle demonstrated that they were capable of an entirely new kind of storytelling, and Sam and Max Hit the Road demonstrated that there was room for weird stuff that seemed to exist only for its own sake, because it was something that the people making it wanted to see. Unfortunately, that was around the same time that the “gamer” stereotype was becoming fully entrenched. Everyone who had any power in the industry seemed to be devoting all their attention to pandering to that very narrow and specific demographic of asshole.

But there was still this idea that they could be more than that. That it’d be possible to have games that made good use of dialogue. Dialogue that wasn’t just treated as an afterthought, but actually given as much care and attention as screenwriting.

One day, you’d see as much variety in video game art direction as you did in animation. You didn’t always have to strive for photo-realism or try desperately to recreate Aliens or Blade Runner; you could make stylized art that was stylized for a reason instead of attempting to cover up a limitation in rendering fidelity.

Games could be quiet. They could have you as deeply invested in relationships as you are in checkpoints or puzzles. They could be more personal stories than epic adventures. They could be mature.

Firewatch isn’t the first indie game, obviously. But so many indie projects (with rare exceptions) can come across — no doubt unfairly, but still — as ego-driven and self-important, or crass and commercial. This is one that I can say for sure is driven entirely by people who are completely passionate (occasionally, infuriatingly passionate) about making games as good as they possibly can be.

I’ve spent the last several months thinking about how the slot machine mentality has so thoroughly taken over game development that they no longer even pretend to separate creative from marketing; “monetization” is now considered a part of “game design.” Or how game studios treat increasingly specialized employees as interchangeable resources instead of as talent, and how some studios subtly “gaslight” their employees into thinking they have no option but to keep working for them. How the unreasonable and unsustainable hours are now so firmly entrenched that they’re treated as expected instead of exceptional. How the atmosphere has gotten so hostile and opportunistic that people can be as duplicitous as the worst stereotype of the Hollywood movie industry.

And then, I see that a bunch of my friends made a 1980s period piece about a divorcé who spends most of his time walking through absolutely stunning environments that look like fully-animated versions of National Park Services posters, using a walkie-talkie to have conversations that build a relationship. And that makes me really, really happy.

Exit, surrounded by Muppets

Tremendous respect for David Bowie, and a theory on what seems truly alien

As somebody who really only knew David Bowie’s work “indirectly,” it’s bizarre how profoundly firmament-shaking it is to realize he’s no longer a constant, always creating new things that no one else would be able to do.

I really, really liked Labyrinth a lot (I think I was unfortunately at just the wrong age to keep from loving it), and I totally, genuinely loved his duet with Bing Crosby on “Little Drummer Boy.” But apart from that, I always thought of his music as something that cooler people than me listened to. It honestly wasn’t until The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou that I was aware of individual songs (apart from “Space Oddity” and “China Girl”), and the versions that come to my head are still the acoustic ones in Portuguese.

But amidst all the people talking about how preternaturally talented and legendary he was, and what a huge influence he was on “weird” kids (whether LGBT or otherwise), the thing that I keep seeing over and over is how kind and funny he was in person.

It’s weird because I would’ve expected the accounts of him being like an alien or an impossibly famous artist. But I was surprised by that unassuming response to a fan letter in Letters of Note, or the account of him making fun of his own eye color, or just multiple stories of him putting people in awe of him at ease.

Even a still from Labyrinth with him smiling surrounded by goblins is a reminder that the alien, intimidating, super-powerful menace was the character he was playing. The man himself was just an impossibly famous rock star who’d decided to have fun and share his talent by being in a movie with muppets.

When you’re that cool and that universally loved, it seems like you don’t HAVE to be kind and funny, so it must’ve just come naturally.

It makes me wonder if what we perceive as alien and unapproachable is actually just being able to appreciate exactly how weird and silly we all are. And then, instead of being embarrassed by it or trying to disguise it, just completely celebrating it.

It’s a Shame About Rey

Another note about The Force Awakens, merchandising, and spoiler culture. Contains huge spoilers, obviously.

This post is partly about what an impressive job Disney and Lucasfilm did of keeping details about The Force Awakens secret until its release. So please: if you haven’t yet seen the movie, don’t read it.


While I’m thinking about Star Wars, nothing but Star Wars (if they could bar wars, why don’t they?): one of the things the internet’s decided they just will not stand for is the way that the film is being marketed.

And by “the internet,” I of course mean maybe a couple hundred people who care enough to write blog posts and start a #WheresRey hashtag. Don’t mistake this post for a “I saw this thing on Twitter and am therefore now responding to the cultural zeitgeist,” but instead a comment on an a couple aspects of this movie and its promotional campaign that I thought were interesting.

The outrage I’m talking about [note: not actually outrage] is best summed up in this post by Mike Adamick (which I saw via my friend Chris Hockabout on Facebook): “Rey is not a role model for little girls.”

Continue reading “It’s a Shame About Rey”

It’s True. All of It.

Why I unabashedly love Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and how much I’ve missed being able to unabashedly love a movie

It’s called a “Luggabeast”

A cool thing I discovered after seeing The Force Awakens a second time is that I don’t really care about anybody else’s opinion of The Force Awakens.

Really, though, you don’t care about my opinion of it, either. If you haven’t seen it yet, then you need to stop reading this right now. I’m still somewhat amazed by how well Disney & Lucasfilm have managed to keep the movie in everybody’s consciousness for months but still keep so much of it a surprise.

If you have seen it and have some criticisms you feel need to be addressed: eh, can’t help you there. When people talk about Star Wars being a “religion” to Nerds of a Certain Age, it’s intended to be derogatory of course, but there’s some truth to it. It’s more than a series of movies and their associated merchandise; it’s a phenomenon. In my case, it literally transformed my life. So when an experience so thoroughly triggers that feeling of unbridled delight that I haven’t felt in decades, I’m going to be a little dogmatic. Either you love it as much as I do, or you’re mistaken.

But if you did love it and just want to read another fan gushing about it, you’ve come to the right place. Watching it filled me with the kind of naked, uncynical, bean-to-bar exhilaration I haven’t gotten from a movie since seeing Big Trouble in Little China or Ghostbusters for the first time in 1986. For a few hours last Friday, I was transported back to Phipps Plaza in 1980 watching the premiere of The Empire Strikes Back and tearing up at the sheer wonder of it all.

A Long Time Ago

Of course, the down side to being picked up and transported back in time to being a wide-eyed nine-year-old in 1980 is having to get dumped back into the body of a 44-year-old in 2015. It’s alarming how dyspeptic and self-important we’ve all become.

It’s not just the wet blankets. We’ve always had those. For fun, read “The Empire Strikes Out” by David Gerrold from Starlog in 1980 and marvel at how much of it has survived and spread today. Neil deGrasse Tyson is on Twitter pushing buttons as unconvincingly as any of the people operating electronics in Star Wars. (To be fair, Gerrold’s question of how would a giant worm living in an uninhabitable asteroid be able to find food is actually kind of interesting on an academic level. Unlike the crusty old tired complaints about sound in space).

And Gerrold’s whole preamble should sound hauntingly familiar to anyone who’s on the internet in 2015. It’s the words of the martyr who knows what he’s saying won’t be popular among the “fanatics,” but he’s just got to share his complaints about the movie.

I’m not sure that I’ll ever understand the mentality of the “apathetic pan,” the need to inform as many people as possible that you don’t like something that’s popular. Or that it was good but not great. Or that it was fun but you have complaints that you’ll present as a list now. I’m not sure how to react to that, either, other than with a shrug and an Ayn Rand-ian “Oh well, sucks to be you.”

The whole phenomenon of “spoiler free reviews” really made it clear how far we’ve gotten away from engaging and analyzing arts and entertainment, and now just broadcast opinions as widely as possible. Last Wednesday, some kind of review embargo lifted, which meant every site on the internet was scrambling to be the first to post their spoiler-free review of The Force Awakens. It was a torrent of reviews that no one would read for a movie that everyone would see.

And I do mean every site. I’m not sure exactly why I’d want to know what the writers of a technology site or a video game blog thought about the new Star Wars movie, but I could absolutely find out, in written, video, podcast, and roundtable discussion format.

But who was the audience for these things? If anyone was on the fence about seeing the movie, they wouldn’t benefit from a positive review because tickets had sold out weeks earlier. Which also meant that people who’d already bought tickets wanted to know as little about the movie as possible. Which means that the critics couldn’t address anything of real substance about the movie for fear of “spoilers.” It’s talking in vague abstracts about a piece of art for which I have no context. That’s more search-engine optimization than film criticism.

I’m not cynical enough to think that it’s all SEO. A lot of it is genuine enthusiasm, the same reason I’m writing this. But that almost makes it more tragic: the idea of getting excited to see a movie and then rushing home to list all the problems you had with it.

Maybe it’s a side effect of being told for years that the stuff we loved was infantilizing and shallow? So we have to somehow prove that we’re able to appreciate The Muppets on a much deeper level. It’s not enough just to enjoy something; we have to be able to deconstruct it. If we’re not being analytical enough, it shows we lack discernment.

Part of it might be a by-product of Star Wars itself. One of the side effects of Star Wars’s unprecedented popularity was a fascination with how the movies were made. We all learned about blue screens and miniatures and matte paintings, and I doubt I was the only kid who went out and banged a wrench against a telephone pole support cable in an attempt to recreate the blaster sound effects like I saw in the “making of.” But instead of inspiring us all to become movie makers, it seems to have encouraged us all to think like movie reviewers.

Whatever the reason, it’s meant that even people who loved the movie need to qualify it somehow. “It’s not perfect,” or “it’s not as good as the first two,” or “it’s fine for what it is.” Which is kind of a drag, because I wish people could just lose their minds over it like I did.

I’ve already resolved to be less reductive about movies (and other art), trying to identify and compartmentalize the one thing that the entire work means. But it goes deeper than that. I’m realizing that I go into everything like an analyst instead of an audience. I’m devoting around 75% of my brain to the experience, and the other 25% trying to think of interesting things to say about the experience later. It’s like viewing every big event through a smartphone screen instead of being in the moment.

(The rest of this is spoiler-heavy. Please don’t read it if you haven’t yet seen the movie).

Continue reading “It’s True. All of It.”