Wet Hot

Still from Wet Hot American Summer: First Day At Camp
Few things are more tedious than over-explaining a bit of goofy comedy in an attempt to analyze how it works and put it in some kind of wider pop-culture context. One of those few things is the self-important “Am I the only one?”-style takedown of something, as if it’s a crisis of cultural degradation just because other people like something that you don’t.

I’m going to do both anyway, since Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp is really neat. I don’t just think it’s funnier than the movie, I think it’s a lot smarter and even retroactively makes the movie better. Plus I think it may be the best example so far of how Netflix is really doing stuff that “normal” television can’t.

So yeah, to get it out of the way: I’ve never liked the movie. This weekend is the first time I’ve been able to watch it in full, and it was only thinking of it as preparation for watching the series that I was able to finish it. I liked the general concept behind it. I liked what they were trying to do with a lot of it. Paul Rudd is so innately charismatic that it’s impossible for him not to be entertaining in anything. But every time I’ve tried to watch it in the past, I’ve just gotten bored and frustrated.

To me, it feels like it treats being in on the joke as a valid substitute for actually making jokes. It looks like it’s going to be an absurdist non-parody of 80s summer camp movies, like Airplane! and Top Secret! were for Irwin Allen and World War II movies — where parodying the “source” material isn’t the point so much as using it as a jumping-off point for an absurd gag. But it’s made by people who’ve already seen Airplane! countless times and heard the gags and one-liners repeated incessantly over twenty years, so that even that is over-familiar. As a result, the fact that they’re not making the joke you’d expect becomes part of the joke. Surely this can’t be humorous.

But it does work, sometimes. It’s pretty much the same tone as Childrens Hospital, and that show is occasionally brilliant. The problems are that even at fifteen minutes, the show can feel meandering as it struggles to land a joke; and because it’s so far removed from wanting to parody its source material, there’s not much of anything holding it together. Apply that to a feature-length movie, and the effect is that I really wanted to like it, but it just felt flat. It often seems as if the fact that we all know what’s supposed to happen in this scene makes up for the fact that nothing really does happen.

I enjoyed the hell out of First Day of Camp, though, and it’s pretty much exactly what I’d hoped the movie was going to be when I first heard the concept. This article by Andy Greenwald on Grantland covers a lot of what I like about it. He also articulates that preoccupation with being in on the joke, but he calls it “sitcomity” and is a lot more charitable towards it than I am. He might also have explained why the series works for me where the movie didn’t: I’m an unabashed fan of Arrested Development, and maybe that’s just a sign I need to have the high-concept-as-basis-for-lowbrow-humor spelled out for me explicitly.

But whatever reason, the high concept finally works for me. One of the implicit gags in the movie is that a bunch of actors in their mid-to-late 20s were playing teenagers alongside actual teenagers. Which on its own, especially when it’s presented without comment, is kind of funny. But when you’ve got the same actors in their 40s playing even younger versions of those characters, it’s hilarious. And then they take it a few steps farther, when Abby has her first period and becomes a woman, and when Lindsey goes undercover as a teenager at a summer camp even though she’s obviously in her mid 20s. (I actually respect even more that they’ve got Paul Rudd right there, and they still don’t even bother with the “he looks younger than he really is” joke).

Most of the “structure” of the series is built off that basic idea: paying off on jokes they started 15 years ago. Which makes it kind of a masterpiece of comic timing. Stuff that feels like it was probably the result of a random comment after a bong hit in the late 90s is now given an overly elaborate backstory and justification. Stuff that felt like a throwaway gag in the movie, or a desperate attempt to come up with a punchline for a scene, is stretched out and forced into the shape of an actual character arc. Even stuff that would’ve just been fanservice references to the movie (e.g. “Jim Stansel”) gets turned into sub-plot. It actually made me nostalgic for a movie that I didn’t even like all that much.

Plus, it looked like a ton of fun to make. They didn’t just get (as far as I can tell) every adult member of the original cast to come back, but they added what seems to be every single actor working in comedy (and/or Mad Men) today. The movie’s gotten a reputation over the years for being the first film for a lot of people who went on to become super-famous, so “he‘s in this, too?!” becomes itself a sort of call-back. I got the sense from the movie that it might’ve been more fun to make than it was for me to watch, but the series feels like they’re letting me in on the fun.

And the last thing that impressed me was how well it was structured as a series. I read a comment online from someone saying it was basically just a four-hour movie, but I don’t agree. All of the series that I’ve seen on Netflix and other streaming services have been too beholden to either broadcast TV or movies: either they’re structured exactly like a series that was intended to broadcast one episode per week, so binge-watching really does feel like an overload; or they’re structured like super-long movies somewhat arbitrarily broken into hour-long segments. First Day of Camp is the first I’ve seen that actually uses it as a storytelling device instead of just an artifact of distribution. That familiarity with how episodic television works becomes part of why the story’s engaging (which is part of what Greenwald’s “sitcomity.”)

The whole style of the series (and the movie, and every one of David Wain and Michael Showalter’s other projects that I’ve seen) is “punchline-averse.” It often seems as if they think the traditional structure of setup and punchline is such an obvious crutch that they’ll do anything they possibly can to avoid it. Including stretching a scene out for minutes by having the characters draw attention the fact that they’re not delivering a punchline (like with The Falcon’s final scene, or the embarrassed teenager having to stand through a price check on everything except the condoms and lube). It can sometimes feel 1990s-style reactionary: we’ll comment on how tired and overused this thing is, without really putting anything in its place.

But each episode of First Day of Camp has a cliffhanger ending, a cold open, or both. They force the scenes to end on a big moment, and even in something that’s deliberately and self-consciously not meant to be taken at all seriously, it’s exactly what’s needed. For one thing, it just helps the pacing: scenes can still have funny moments piled on top of each other and veering off in different directions, but it doesn’t feel like the whole thing is just meandering while waiting for something hilariously funny to happen. (Plus the pacing is just better overall: possibly my favorite gag in the entire series is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot to a sheet of paper on which someone has written “(PHONE) NUMBER”).

More than that, though, it feels constructive instead of dismissive and reactionary. It acknowledges that you don’t have to be genuinely, deeply invested in the dramatic developments of an intricately-constructed plot, but you can still be curious to know what happens next. And that, plus everything inherent to the concept of making a prequel to something you’ve already seen, meant that I did get invested. How were they going to take this ridiculous concept and pay it off? How would they get rid of this character who clearly wasn’t around by the time of the movie? How would they explain this setup that was directly contradicted later on? It doesn’t have to be meaningful or profound, or even make sense at all, for it to be satisfying to see how all the pieces fit together. It doesn’t have to be High Art, just basic storytelling.

Of course it’s possible for something to be so obsessed with working on an intellectual level that it’s not funny or interesting (see: this blog post). But you can also go the opposite direction, so averse to pretense and protective of being-stupid-for-stupid’s-sake that it just falls apart. For me, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp was just smart enough to be hilariously stupid.

Lowest Common Denormative

Trainwreck is reasonably (if not spectacularly) funny, and the most surprisingly brave thing about it is that it’s so often sincere, not that it’s so often raunchy. It’s also overlong, oddly paced, too reliant on celebrity cameos, and disappointingly reluctant to go over the top with its gags, especially since we’ve all seen just how amazing both Amy Schumer and Bill Hader can be when they’re free to go full-on bizarre.

What Trainwreck isn’t:

  • Anti-feminist
  • Anti-drinking
  • Anti-marijuana
  • “Heteronormative”
  • “Slut shaming”
  • Prudish

I’m not quite sure how anyone could have misread this movie as badly as they did. When the first reviews came out, a recurring complaint was that all the potential of Schumer’s breakthrough feature film starring vehicle had been Judd Apatow’ed: turned into a raunchy but ultimately conservative spin on a completely conventional movie format.

It wasn’t until the very last scenes of Trainwreck that I started to see why some people may have thought their America’s New Feminist Hero had been straitjacketed by a guy who likes to make movies about 40-year-old stoners getting happily married. It’d still be a dense and wrong conclusion, considering the rest of the movie, but it was just a simple misinterpretation that could easily be cleared up by one of my remarkably insightful blog posts.

But not only does Amy explicitly explain what the point of the final scenes were, Hader’s character interrupts her repeatedly to say “Yes, I get the metaphor.” She went out of her way to make sure her message is clear, but it’s still not clear enough for the faux-progressives.

Our Miss Schumer

Take for instance “Judd-ging Amy: The Slut-Shaming Heteronormative Morality of Trainwreck”, which, if the title didn’t already give it away, is written with the tone of someone who doesn’t understand that Los Feliz Daycare is a parody account.

In case you can’t make it past the part where he inexplicably puts “married” in scare quotes, the gist is that writer Peter Knegt and his diverse group of friends felt betrayed. They’re long-time devotees of Schumer’s stand-up routine and Comedy Central series, and for them, this was going to be their big event movie. (“…like I imagine various demographics might approach ‘Star Wars’ or ‘The Dark Knight.'” where “various demographics” is code speak for “straight nerds”). But Judd Apatow took Schumer’s slutty, boozy persona that they all identified with, and turned it into a judgmental and heteronormative morality play that “slut-shamed us and brought Amy Schumer along for the ride.”

It seems to throw the very people Schumer has been vouching for all these years under the bus with an essential moral that excess behavior will only lead to unhappiness and that we best assimilate into societal norms even if it doesn’t feel natural. Why would Amy Schumer — our Amy Schumer — want to express such a notion?

Okay, for starters, she’s not your Amy Schumer.

The basic premise of the entire article is more backwards and offensive than even the most willfully ignorant interpretation of anything in Trainwreck. It says that a successful woman at a huge breakthrough point in her career, who’s got her own television series (not to mention the pull and the sense of loyalty to cast her friends and family along with the people she admires), managed to write, star in, and co-produce a feature film, but simply couldn’t help but get steamrolled by a man who’s powerful in the industry.

Another thing I find “problematic” is the increasingly widespread trend of people so eager to take offense at something they find “problematic” that they forget how fiction works. So they insist that celebrities explain it to them, or else there’s gonna be hell of think pieces about it on Salon. Knegt even acknowledges that Schumer’s slutty, boozy routine is an exaggerated persona. But he ignores that to go on for another page and a half, refusing to acknowledge that stand-up routines are painstakingly written and rehearsed performances, instead of just humorously-delivered affidavits.

For me, the reason this crosses the line from just annoying to downright infuriating is that Schumer has been so deft and clever at handling it without having to explicitly explain it. One of the most subtly brilliant things about her TV series (and which is carried on in Trainwreck) is that all her characters — even the wackiest and even the most offensive — are named Amy. That implies that they’re all, at least to some small degree, aspects of her. Which is huge, because it removes both the defensive distance that comedians usually keep between themselves and their subjects, as well as any sense of judgment.

That’s why my initial take on Schumer’s material years ago was so flat-out wrong: she’s not just a shallow gender-swapped, raunchy shock comic. She didn’t just combine Lisa Lampanelli’s “I can be as raunchy as any man!” schtick with Sarah Silverman’s “I play the part of a clueless white girl to make a larger point” and call it day. The bulk of her material is carefully constructed to talk about multiple things at once, and she almost always includes herself as a target. It’s what elevates much of her material to satire instead of just gags. And it’s probably why Knegt and his friends have always felt that she was representing them instead of judging them.

I Feel Like I Won

As long as I’m draining all the humor out of things by over-explaining them, let me do it with the bit that Knegt quotes (in full) in his article, the one where Amy has to endure a bridal shower with a bunch of “Stepford Wives” from Connecticut.

Schumer adapted this joke into the storyline of Trainwreck with a couple of changes. It’s the changes that Knegt takes issue with, by — surprise — finding them “problematic:”

But the other, much more problematic difference is that it seems Amy doesn’t quite feel like she’s won the game this time. She even feels the need to call up the person whose baby shower it was and apologize.

Considering that he’s a self-professed fan of Schumer’s comedy material, it’s weird that Knegt would only acknowledge the change in wording (with a “fair enough,” as if it were arbitrary), and the addition of a scene afterwards, instead of taking into account how the context, subject matter, timing, and in fact the entire punchline changed. Here’s a few things that he either missed or didn’t acknowledge:

That joke is old, in stand-up terms. If you’ve heard a comedy bit enough times to have it memorized, you can be sure that Schumer’s heard it a thousand times more. And considering that Trainwreck isn’t a “best-of” concert movie, but instead a debut screenplay, you can make one of two conclusions:

  1. The woman who’s co-written three seasons of a comedy series, years of stand-up sets, Comedy Central roasts, and countless smaller routines for hundreds of appearances, was either so in love with that one gag, or so hard up for material, that she just put in as much of the bit as Apatow and Universal would allow.
  2. Amy Schumer’s really smart, and she reworked some of her older material to fit in with a larger message, to make it say something more than it did as part of her stand-up set.

I’m skeptical that even Judd Apatow was saying “Shit, early cuts of our romantic comedy are only 2 hours long. We need some filler material, quick. Amy: do your ‘Connecticut Stepford Wives’ bit!”

Schumer’s raised her own bar for shock value. Changing Amy’s contribution to the game wasn’t just arbitrary. “I let a cab driver finger me” just doesn’t have the same punch after doing a commercial for Finger Blasters with a bunch of teenagers. So there’s probably a reason it was changed.

The stand-up version of the joke is still funny, but kind of mean. At least by Schumer’s standards in 2015. Not undeservedly mean, because she’s making fun of her friend for being ashamed of her younger behavior, and making fun of the arrogant and judgmental women who’d try to shame her. But in that version of the joke, they’re exclusively the targets. The gag is “I really shocked the hell out of those uptight bitches.”

The old joke is still there. You still get to see the shocked expressions on Nikki Glaser and Claudia O’Doherty’s characters. (Which is itself funny, knowing that instead of bringing in the usual suite of blonde actresses hired to play the Stuck-Up Bitch role, they cast a bunch of women comedians). But it doesn’t end there. Schumer’s newer material builds on the assertions of her older stuff, adding more layers and more targets, but without losing what made the original gag work.

The timing of Schumer’s line completely changed. Now it’s more drawn out, into a vulgar (but still pretty funny) story about having to fish out a condom that’d gotten lodged in her cervix. After the “she just said something shocking!” moment, we get to see how she keeps pushing it just for the sake of making everyone uncomfortable. And the person she’s making most uncomfortable is no longer the friend who’s ashamed of her past and worried that Amy’s going to embarrass her. It’s her sister, who’s long been the butt of Amy’s jokes for living a “boring” “normal” life.

Amy’s line is no longer the punchline. Instead, that goes to the character played by Schumer’s friend Bridget Everett, who feels “empowered” enough by Amy’s story that she can admit to getting double-teamed by her husband and another dude. It’s telling, too, that Everett’s story is about a kind of sexual adventurousness, while Amy’s has been changed to be not about casual sex itself, but the tedious and kind of gross aftermath of it. That acknowledges something that wasn’t present in the old version of the joke: some of these women have their own wild-ish stuff going on too, without choosing between the polar opposites of “enjoying life” and “being married.” (It also shows that Schumer isn’t so wrapped up in her breakthrough starring vehicle that she won’t give good lines to her friends).

She doesn’t call her sister to apologize. It’s kind of a pivotal scene in the movie, in fact. Her sister calls her, Amy casually (but sincerely) apologizes, and her sister dismisses it as no big deal. Partly because she just knows that’s the kind of thing Amy does, and she understands where it comes from even if Amy herself doesn’t. But mostly because there’s something much more important to talk about.

What Schumer’s done is keep everything that made the old bit work, and then added a layer of empathy and self-awareness to it. The character of Amy had been so concentrated on saying “fuck anyone who tries to judge me” for so long, that she’d ignored how judgmental she’d become herself.

I think the funniest line in her “Last Fuckable Day” sketch is when Julia Louis-Dreyfus asks her “Are you that girl from the television who talks about her pussy all the time?” Amy looks absolutely elated and replies with a delighted “Yes! Yes! Thank you!”

By complaining that Trainwreck sold them out and is being judgmental of them, Knegt and his friends are saying they’re not interested in actually listening to anything that Schumer wants to say beyond the most superficial level. They just want to feel empowered by hearing her talk about her pussy some more.

But At What Cost?!

Now, if I went off on a tear every time a young writer for a queer blog found something “problematic,” I’d never get anything done. It’s the kind of thing they do, and I understand where it’s coming from even if they themselves don’t. But when I hear basically the same thing coming from a Pulitzer-recognized film critic, I worry that it’s becoming a trend.

What makes Knegt’s article such an easy target is actually part of what’s good about it: it’s completely honest in what it’s trying to say and why it upset him and his friends. And while he does ignore everything Schumer’s trying to say with Trainwreck in favor of how it didn’t meet with what he wanted to and expected to see, at least he does it by comparing it to her older work.

The Taming of Amy Schumer by Stephanie Zacharek is more worrisome because it not only ignores the fairly easy-to-read message of the movie, it compares it to a simplistic, two-dimensional, and frankly antiquated conception of what feminism is supposed to be. (Granted, it’s the Village Voice, so know your audience and all that. But still).

Zacharek gets off to a good start, lamenting how there’s an extra burden on women writers and comedians now that we’re living in the age of the “problematic:”

in the current climate of watchfulness — one in which every joke must be constructed and sealed drum-tight so as not to offend anyone, at any time — it’s not enough for a woman just to be funny. Women comics must also be spokespeople: for feminism, for all women, for anyone who might be perceived as oppressed or marginalized in any way.

Yes! So far, we’re in near-complete agreement. But then the entire rest of the review contradicts or undermines everything in that first paragraph.

Zacharek’s problem with Trainwreck, like Knegt’s, is that she believes the movie is too focused on conservative moralizing. And she too believes that it’s mostly the fault of the same man:

But there’s a much bigger, more insidious problem with Trainwreck: Schumer may be the writer and star, but Judd Apatow is the director, and in the end, you can’t escape the feeling that somehow Schumer’s vision has been wrestled into the template that nearly all of his movies, even the best ones, follow […] Apatow and Schumer probably believe they’ve made a feminist picture, but the reality is something different. This is a conventional movie dressed as a progressive one.

Complaining that the movie isn’t feminist enough while also asserting that Schumer’s will has been beaten into submission by Apatow is a pretty impressive double standard. I can only assume, naturally, that Zacharek’s original vision for the review was wrestled into the standard Village Voice template by some male editor.

(Hopefully, he’s also the one who thought “Don’t be a Hader” was a funny gag. Because if that’s hers, I don’t even know why I’m bothering).

Some of it I’ll assume is just tone-deaf instead of sexist: I’m skeptical that if she were aware of just how much of Amy Schumer’s material has been devoted to ruthlessly excoriating the bullshit, esteem-destroying standards of beauty in the entertainment industry, and how much she’s mocked her own weight gain, “baby fat,” and the men who’d call her “butterface,” Zacharek wouldn’t have described Schumer’s appearance as “like a Campbell’s Soup Kid.”

To illustrate how there’s an unfair added expectation for women in comedy to be funny and smart, Zacharek references another Voice piece about Inside Amy Schumer, and a couple of sketches from the show. But she only references the ones that went super-viral, and the reason that they went super-viral is because in addition to being funny, they were so overtly political that they were easy to interpret.

But the entire premise, that Schumer’s too occupied with being feminist to just let loose and be funny, is completely invalidated by the existence of Cat Park. Anyone who doesn’t think ending a sketch by having a cat looking into a microscope to develop a vaccine to save the world’s children is someone who just doesn’t understand comedy. I said good day, sir.

And more than that, the true genius of the series is how it takes an overt statement and then layers more stuff — from a point about feminism to some shamelessly goofy gag — on top. One of my favorites is still Love Tub, which is a parody of The Bachelor that wants to say more than just make the obvious assertion that The Bachelor is backwards, sexist bullshit.

In a lot of ways, it’s another expansion and evolution of the “Stepford Wives of Connecticut:” it’s still indomitable-spirit Amy sticking it to the squares and prudes. But the target is no longer just some concept of boring “heteronormativity;” the target is the corruption of that into a schmaltzy and insincere televised competition for a man’s attention. The guy’s creepy whispered “Congratulations” as he undresses the “winner” is still my favorite part.

Amy’s still doing her slutty-and-boozy-as-I-wanna-be schtick, but it’s even more exaggerated. She still, without question, gets to end the night saying “I think I won,” because she refused to take any of that bullshit seriously. But the coda takes it a step farther: you’re not supposed to watch the end of that sketch and conclude, “Now there’s an independent woman who’s entirely got her shit together.”

Still, for some reason, people went to see a movie called Trainwreck, and they went away feeling betrayed that it wasn’t intended to be aspirational.

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One

Zacharek’s review of Trainwreck is a prescriptive piece of film criticism dressed as a progressive one.

It starts with the assertion that Schumer’s making an argument she’s no longer particularly interested in making, and then criticizes her for doing a lousy job of making that argument. Essentially, Zacharek is faulting Trainwreck for not being about Kim Cattrall’s character in Sex and the City (which began in 1998):

We think we’re getting a movie where a woman gets to enjoy the company of lots of partners, without remorse or shame, the sort of freedom men — some of them, at least — have enjoyed for centuries.

Or in other words, the same assertion that was the basis of Schumer’s stand-up routine for several years.

And this is despite the fact that every piece of promotional material before the movie’s release made it clear what the premise was: what happens when a character like that has lots of remorse- and shame-free sex and then falls in love with a boring, “normal” guy? That had to be in the press kit.

While Knegt sees it as a betrayal that Schumer’s not still doing her earlier, funnier, stuff, Zacharek’s holding up a lighter, yelling “Freebird,” and demanding a repeat of the deepest cuts from Ms. and Cosmopolitan-era feminism. Even after dismissing the idea that women can’t be funny as a “boneheaded dictum,” she goes on to let the counter-argument of that frame the rest of the review. Women can be as funny as men! Women do enjoy sex!

It doesn’t matter that Schumer’s spent her career distilling complex observations about feminism and empowerment into two-minute long comedy routines. Why can’t she keep doing that? We just want to hear the same trivially true assertions repeated over and over again.

What Amy actually wants — Schumer or Townsend, take your pick — is pretty much irrelevant. You want to write a story about a woman whose self-destructive behavior is visibly making her life worse? What are you, some kind of prude? We paid our money to see a successful and empowered career woman (circa 1988) who gets to have it all and can be just as raunchy as any man. But instead of that, you went and wrote something conventional. So arrogant.

Also it’s not funny enough. You should smile more.

What’s especially frustrating in this case is that Trainwreck contains exactly the simple-minded gender-swapped romantic comedy that internet progressives crave. Amy works for a lifestyle magazine! (And it’s a men’s magazine! That’s run by a woman!) Bill Hader’s character is the over-achieving career guy who’s got it all… except love. Not only is he a surgeon who has every single famous athlete as a client, he also does award-winning work for Doctors Without Borders! Vanessa Bayer is Amy’s enabling, perpetually horny, commitment-phobic best friend. LeBron James is Hader’s supportive and nurturing best friend who’ll do anything to keep him from getting hurt.

In the age of feminism-as-meme-and-YouTube-series, that’s supposed to be enough. It doesn’t matter whether or not there’s any acknowledgment of context or whether it’s saying anything of substance: just look at it! Isn’t that something?! Like, subscribe, and retweet.

But the most interesting aspect of the basic premise in Trainwreck is that no one comments on it, ever. It’s just accepted as a given. I’ve been struggling to think of any instance in the entire movie where someone makes any reference to traditional gender roles, or makes any sort of comment that it’s weird how everything is swapped, and I can’t remember a single one. The only thing that comes even close is when Hader tells her he’s slept with three women, and the gag is that she replies “I’ve also slept with three women.”

In other words, Schumer is so uninterested in the argument that women can do everything men can, that she doesn’t even bother making it.

Strong Female Character

There’ve been sketches on Inside Amy Schumer that started with the premise of the gender swap, like the uptight office worker who finally breaks free of his inhibitions at an all-male version of Hooters, or the porn from a lady’s point of view that still turns out to be for men. (Note the pop-up ad for O’Nutters). An underlying message is that the swap is silly, because the context will always be completely different. The double standard is just too deeply ingrained.

Which turns out to be depressingly accurate, since in Trainwreck, Amy gets criticized for not even being able to be a lovable fuck up in the right way:

…her character in Trainwreck is at times so badly behaved — toward a man she supposedly loves — that it’s hard to be on her side. We shouldn’t have to approve of characters’ behavior; in comedy, especially, it’s more fun if we don’t. Still, we have to be mostly sympathetic to Amy for the movie to work, and if I were Aaron, I’d run a mile from her. […] Anyone, man or woman, can be an emotional bully. And in the end, it’s supposed to be a triumph that Amy is won over to the wonders of monogamy.

In the movie’s terms, we know she’ll never miss any of those other guys, because she never had much invested in them anyway. Trainwreck pretends to be frank about sex from a woman’s point of view, yet it refuses to reckon with how ferocious and unmanageable sex really is. A retreat into the safety of couplehood is the only possible future it can imagine, the necessary corrective to sleeping around. In its too-tidy universe, good girls don’t. And bad girls probably shouldn’t, either.

We already know that acceptable behavior in a romantic comedy would be creepy if not outright illegal when applied to real life. But there’s a much older fucked-up but universally accepted aspect of romantic comedies that’s even more insidious and more pernicious: the double standard. When men in romantic comedies (and real life) do stuff that’s callous, insensitive, selfish, or irresponsible, it’s a plot complication. We scramble for justifications: he’s just defensive or insecure. He’s been hurt in the past. It’s the age-old mantra for women everywhere: “I can fix him, I just know it.”

When Amy’s self-destructive behavior causes her to be insensitive or hurts people’s feelings, she becomes completely irredeemable and unsympathetic. Toxic. Avoid at all costs. Character flaws don’t just make her a bad person, but a bad role model for young single women and men everywhere.

Knegt’s article says it’s a “cringe-worthy montage” (and yeah, the montage aspect is pretty cheesy) when Amy tosses out all the booze and pot paraphernalia in her apartment. What he neglects to mention is that this scene comes after Amy gets upset over a break-up, drinks to excess, hooks up with a guy she doesn’t like at all, comes just short of being guilty of statutory rape and assault, and loses her job as a result of it.

In a later scene, she outright tells her sister that she’s not happy, and that she feels like she’s “broken.” The response from Knegt and his friends, apparently: “Sack up! Learn to deal with it, because you’re making the rest of us look bad.” It’s the kind of compassion that says a true friend is the one who holds your hair back when you puke while you’re drinking yourself to death.

And Trainwreck absolutely does “reckon with how ferocious and unmanageable sex really is,” just not in the too-tidy way that Zacharek wants. It says that one of the consequences of sex is that people can get hurt. That’s the entire point of John Cena’s character.

I think Zacharek’s read on the character — “somehow he believes they’re exclusive and is crestfallen to discover his mistake” — is totally at odds with what’s shown in the movie. It’s not “his mistake,” since it’s completely reasonable that he’d have different expectations from their relationship. And it’s not that he “somehow” thought they were more serious, since they’re going out to romantic comedies together. (Incidentally: the movie-within-a-movie was bafflingly pointless). As he says, having to declare that you’re “exclusive” is not something that adults do after high school, since they’re supposed to talk about it with each other and get a mature understanding of what they’re both hoping to get.

Their break-up is not at all ambiguous: she likes having sex with him (even if it is “like fucking an ice sculpture”) but had so little respect for him that it never even occurred to her to consider what he wanted. His last lines are explicit: “Fuck you, Amy. You’re not nice.”

Still, the script puts the blame on Amy but doesn’t condemn her for it. She genuinely doesn’t understand that he could’ve wanted something different, because isn’t this just the way things are for everyone? If you’re not married by your early thirties, it’s because you’re never going to be because you don’t want to be. That’s just the way things work.

(To underscore that — or maybe it’s just a funny recurring gag, but I’m going to run with it anyway — there’s the suggestion that he might be gay and doesn’t even realize it himself. He’s just going through the motions of what he thinks he’s supposed to like and supposed to want).

Another of my favorite sketches from Inside Amy Schumer shows how men and women can have very different expectations after having sex. It’d be easy and simple just to say that the guy’s a dick for taking advantage of her and then immediately forgetting about it. But the sketch careful to exaggerate how much she’s responsible for her own unrealistic expectations. Which says to me that whether she’s playing the apart of the emotional bully or the one being taken advantage of, either way she’s going to be the one who takes the blame.

Ten Things I’m Not Saying About You

This time, Schumer’s getting criticized (albeit indirectly, since remember she’s apparently nothing more than a mouthpiece for Judd Apatow) for saying that “a retreat to the safety of sobriety and monogamy” is The Only Way.

Except of course she’s not saying that at all. The most didactic that Trainwreck gets about monogamy is to say that it’s nothing to be afraid of, and nothing to be dismissive of.

Typically, when a flawed character is criticized for being a negative representation of Everyone Who Ever Lived Who Has Any Recognizable Traits In Common, it’s because there’s a genuine lack of diversity. The character has to bear the weight of representing everyone, because there’s no one else in the story who can.

That’s not the case with Trainwreck at all. Not only are there many types of women, there’s many types of relationships. Tilda Swinton’s character seems to be a fascinatingly bizarre take on Richard Branson, and she’s callous, cruel, and just plain weird, but there’s never even the slightest question whether she’s exactly where she wants to be. Bayer’s lecherous idiot doesn’t just come out of the movie unscathed, she gets awarded with a promotion. I already mentioned that Bridget Everett’s character is happily enjoying married life in the suburbs with her husband and the other guy who double-teams her. Even in Chris Evert’s cameo, she spends the entire time not-at-all subtly hitting on Hader.

And of course, the boring, uptight housewives are now even more boring and awful than they were in Schumer’s stand-up routine: now the scandalous secret is that one of them is sneaking a whole box of Skinny Cow ice cream at night. That’s like a whole ice cream!

As it turns out, people didn’t need to spend so much time worrying about what she was saying about them. On the day that Trainwreck opened, Schumer came right out and said what it was about:


Which, really, is the most offensive thing you could possibly say to some people: this isn’t about you.

At the beginning of the movie, Colin Quinn’s character is lecturing his two daughters about how monogamy is unrealistic. The humor comes from two places: that he’s dismissing monogamy as a fundamental concept when it’s completely obvious he’s just frustrated he can’t fuck around like he wants to, and that the two little girls are repeating what he says word-for-word as if it were a crucial life lesson.

Fast forward to the girls as adults, and we see that one sister has taken the lesson completely to heart and the other has rejected it. One sister is having plenty of remorse-free sex and partying and advancing in her career, while the other has settled down in the suburbs with a dorky guy and a heartbreakingly nerdy stepson. One sister is living exactly the life she wants to lead, while the other is just settling for doing what she thinks she’s supposed to be doing.

Can you see what she did there?

I don’t know how much of the movie autobiographical, just like I don’t know how much of Schumer’s stand-up routine is “true.” Not only is it none of my business, it’s almost completely irrelevant. Unless I need her to explain to me explicitly how much of it is satire so I can determine exactly how much offense I can take.

What I suspect, though, is that the finale of the movie is framed like a totally conventional romantic comedy sell-out moment, specifically as a pointed “fuck you” to anyone who’d dismiss it for being a conventional romantic comedy sell-out moment.

Throughout the movie, she’d mocked the men she was sleeping with, mocked her nephew, mocked her brother-in-law, mocked her sister for being boring, mocked her job for being beneath her, mocked herself for falling in love and becoming such a cliche, and mocked cheerleaders and sports in general as being stupid and pointless. In the end, she puts on the cheerleading uniform, does a cheerleading routine to a song she hates, and — as befits an empowered 90s woman — makes a run for the basket. The entire time, Hader’s character is telling her that she doesn’t have to do this, but she keeps doing it anyway. Of course she doesn’t have to do it, but she wants to.

And then, when she’s breathlessly trying to explain what it all means while he’s saying “Yeah, I get the metaphor,” is the first time since I Know Where I’m Going that I almost teared up at the end of a romantic comedy. Partly because Hader’s a good actor even when he is playing it totally straight, and the look on his face was one overwhelmed by sincere appreciation. But mostly because I was genuinely happy to see her be truly fearless and risk looking stupid to get what she wanted.

This Is What You Think Is Hot?

I said earlier that it’s disappointing that the sketches from Inside Amy Schumer that go viral are always the ones that are overt in their message, when there’s so much even better material that works on multiple levels. An exception to that is the one that went viral at the beginning of this season: Milk Milk Lemonade.

In the grand tradition of funny stuff that boring people like me love to write think pieces about to over-analyze: it’s a parody of Anaconda that wants to say more than just “Anaconda is kind of silly.” It suggests that women having the freedom to objectify themselves is a pretty shitty substitute for actual empowerment.

When Anaconda came out, everybody was stumbling over themselves to use terms like “sex positive” and “positive body image” and “owning your own sexuality,” trying desperately to put a progressive spin on a video in which a bunch of women writhe around in the jungle celebrating each other’s loaf pinchers before presenting them to Drake. Putting the whole thing over a sample from a 20-year-old novelty song was apparently supposed to be an example of “taking it back.” Inside Amy Schumer’s version responds, “Nah, I don’t want it. I’m good.”

Something that’s not mentioned in Schumer’s video (for that matter, I’m only assuming it’s parodying Anaconda in the first place): I’m going to call bullshit on any claims that Anaconda is positive or empowered when it spends so much time saying “fuck the skinny bitches.”

And that’s why I think “Milk Milk Lemonade” is kind of brilliant, and ultimately why misinterpretations of a romantic comedy I liked but didn’t love were enough to set me off on a few thousand words of rambling commentary. The video makes a pointed commentary, but it’s not particularly interested in condemning or even really judging anybody. More than anything else, it feels like Schumer wanted to dress up with her friends and have fun.

It’s gloriously, unapologetically juvenile. If it makes a statement about women owning their own bodies, it does so the same way a six year old makes a statement about owning a cookie by licking it before anyone else can — ha ha I ruined it for you! It treats the whole thing as completely silly, because it is silly. “My sense of self-worth isn’t dependent on whether or not a guy is turned on by my ass.”

But also: hey, if it’s your thing, knock yourself out. No need to get defensive because it doesn’t affect her. She’ll just be over here dancing with Amber Rose and Method Man because they seem cool.

To me, it shows just how much the culture of “engagement,” retweets, trending topics, and think pieces have helped corrupt every progressive “social justice” ideal into a defensive version of “fuck the normals!” (And how that’s always rationalized with some “they attacked us first!” justification like the inexcusably insipid “always punch up!”) The goal of self-actualization has been de-emphasized in favor of just swapping one version of conformity with a different one. Inclusivity has given way to word-policing. The word “heteronormative” has been so casually tossed around as a pejorative that people now act as if “hetero” is the toxic part of it.

And every time some pinhead pipes up with an antiquated opinion, people stumble over themselves to correct it, or to at least show they are vehemently opposed to it. Not because it actually advances anything, but because it’s easier. At some point, we each have to decide how much of our lives we’re going to waste reacting to other people’s opinions of us. Otherwise we’re going to just keep having the same stupid arguments every 5 years until we’re all lying in our cryo-feeding tubes croaking “People can be whatever they choose to be!”

Amy Schumer gets to make her voice heard and waggle her ass in tight skirts. She gets to mock anyone who’d judge her for her looks and make fun of her looks for a ton of comedy material. She gets to write at length about cunnilingus and about a girl winning the heart of her One True Love. And she gets to do it without demeaning or mocking anyone who doesn’t deserve it, because they’re simply not a threat to her.

Some people may call it selling out, but I’m like, “Really? Because I feel like she’s won.”

Impressions de Disneyland

Sleeping Beauty Castle
Last week, we went to Universal Studios Hollywood and Disneyland to celebrate my 44th birthday. It was my third trip to Disneyland this year and no, you’re the one with the problem. I’d never been to Universal in Hollywood, although I’ve been to the Orlando version a few times.

Join me for a magical journey of memories and unsolicited opinions, won’t you?

  • Universal Hollywood is surprisingly fun. “Surprising” because I’ve always been an obnoxious Disney snob and thought of the Universal parks in Orlando as pale imitations. (Except for the Spider-Man ride, which is awesome). I still think it’s fair to judge the Orlando parks on that basis, since I think they’re clearly trying to compete with Walt Disney World. But Hollywood is its own thing, built up around a deservedly famous tram tour and functioning studio, and committed to making its own type of attraction.
  • The studio tour was the best part. I’ve been seeing ads for the tram tour for as long as I can remember — the queue area cleverly shows scenes from ads, promos, and movies that have featured the tour, establishing it as something “historic” in itself — and it didn’t disappoint. The fact that it’s a random assortment of highlights over the past few decades was a feature, not a bug, because it added to its charm. I’d just wanted to see the Bates Motel and Psycho house, so everything else was a bonus. The best aspect of it was that they got the “charmingly cheesy” tone exactly right: they don’t take anything too seriously or oversell it as a fantastic spectacle, but they don’t let it devolve into the Jungle Cruise, either.
  • The Kong 3D section of the tour was amazing. Easily my favorite part of the entire park, and, like the Spider-Man ride in Orlando, one of my favorite attractions at any theme park. The synchronization of the effects and the motion simulator was perfect, and more important than that: the show itself was designed to immerse the guests (and the tram) into the experience completely, with real pacing and an actual climax instead of just a sequence of effects.
  • The Rock gets it. This year’s highlight (and honestly, the main reason we went) was the Fast and the Furious “ride,” which turns out to be not so much a ride as the finale of the tram tour. It was fine, and fun, and appropriately campy, but it seemed a little too enamored of its “story” and effects and special guest stars to really work. The beginning was way too talky to setup what was just “batshit crazy race through LA;” they would’ve been better off going the “King Kong fights monsters, the end” approach. Plus Dwayne Johnson was the only person who seemed to realize it was supposed to be goofy and fun instead of wry and extreme; he was clearly having a blast with it.
  • Universal is still lousy at crowd control. We were warned to get to the park obscenely early because of the Fast & Furious crowds. Being the third group of people waiting in line before the park opened seemed like a waste… until we tried to leave later, and were hit with an unstoppable wave of people just showing up and headed for the studio tour. Going early not only meant we got to avoid the crowds, but we rode everything we wanted to and were done before noon. It gave room for the Despicable Me and Simpsons rides to be charming and fun without having to be Big Event showstoppers. And there’s no way in hell I’m going near the Harry Potter land when it opens in Hollywood. Even in Florida, where they have plenty of space, it still feels overcrowded and claustrophobic; in Hollywood it’s going to be bonkers.
  • Universal should make an effort to take bigger guests into account. It was a lot more jarring and infuriating in Orlando, after being immersed in Disney’s obsession with making rides accessible to absolutely everyone possible, to be confronted with an attraction that took millions of dollars to create but won’t let you ride if you’re too big. But even after going into the Hollywood expecting it, it was still a drag to be jammed into small seats with uncomfortably tight restraining bars. We didn’t even ride the Mummy coaster because the test seats ended up being too tight to be worth it.
  • Disneyland’s 60th Anniversary is more about the shows than the rides. The Matterhorn and Haunted Mansion got some new effects, and the newly-refurbished Peter Pan ride was doing a soft open for annual passholders (that we skipped because the lines were too long). But the highlights are the new World of Color show at DCA, and the fireworks and “Paint the Night” parade at Disneyland.
  • The Hatbox Ghost is excellently done. Granted, it’s something that’s aimed exclusively at Disney nerds, so it’s barely enough to be a draw on its own. But it fits so perfectly that it seems like it’s been there since the ride opened. And it actually kind of hurts the scene with the bride in the attic, which is something I never had any problem with before. But seeing a modern effect done in the art style of the original mansion makes it jarring to see the real photographs and live action video of the previous scene.
  • The fireworks aren’t what I expected, but are still cool. The 50th anniversary fireworks show is still the best fireworks show that Disney’s ever done (even better than Illuminations at Epcot). I’d been hoping that they’d do the same thing for the 60th, focusing on the parks and attractions themselves instead of being a treacly pastiche of songs from the movies. They kept it a collection of songs, but downplayed the usual dreams & wishes of magic and imagination and chose some songs that haven’t yet been overplayed to death, and also “Let it Go.” The architectural projection down Main Street is fantastic; chimney sweeps dance on the roofs in “Step in Time” from Mary Poppins, and the buildings wobble and shrink during “Heffalumps and Woozles” from Winnie the Pooh. The effects are so well done that they threaten to overpower the fireworks themselves — which is really only a problem if you’re only seeing it once instead of over and over again.
  • “Let it Go” has crossed the line to unsettling. As tired as I am of seeing Frozen stuff — the movie was completely charming, but Disney’s over-marketed it past the point of annoyance — including it in a show at the theme park was simultaneously cool and creepy. Being surrounded by dozens of little girls (and young women) (and older women) (and guys too) all singing in unison makes you realize that Disney could totally start a cult army if they wanted.
  • “Paint the Night” is the best nighttime parade they’ve done since the first. You’ve got to feel a little sympathetic to Disney, since they want to keep making new stuff, but the Main Street Electrical Parade (or “The Electric Light Parade” to those of us from the east coast) was so incredible that everybody just wants to keep seeing that. Previous attempts to come up with a replacement have been disappointing at best, but the new show is the first one that didn’t have me missing the old one. The floats and costumes all seem to be shooting for something between SpectroMagic and the Electrical Parade, and they all hit the sweet spot of weird enough to be imaginative but not so weird that they’re creepy. And having the characters ride around on modified versions of the old ladybug cars was a great callback.
  • I’d buy a copy of the “Paint the Night” song. I’m not a fan of the vapid One Direction-ification of Disney music, but if that’s a mandate now, they did as good a job as they possibly can. What impressed me the most is that it’s got enough “Baroque Hoedown” in it to satisfy old farts like myself, but not so much that it just feels like a rehash. And it’s catchy as hell. Asking “When can we do it again?” over and over seems like a slightly less subtle version of the Mount Splashmore song.

    BREAKING NEWS UPDATE: Dave Cobb informs me that the song is already available on the Wreck-it Ralph soundtrack as “When Can I See You Again?” by Owl City. I don’t remember it from the movie (or any of the music from the movie, actually), and I’d assumed it was written specifically for the parade. I’d still like to get a version that’s used in the parade, mixed in with a lot of Baroque Hoedown and other songs.
  • World of Color is what I’d expected the anniversary fireworks to be. It’s more of a history of Disney and Disneyland, and it’s really well done. It does veer a little too far into preaching to the choir and comes off as a marketing push reminding us all how great Disney is. But for people like me who are more fans of the parks than of the studio, it has a section devoted to celebrating the classic attractions, with some new 3D animations projected onto Mickey’s Horror Wheel.
  • If Disney pays 4 billion dollars for something, they’re going to get their money’s worth. The section of the World of Color devoted to Star Tours starts out innocently enough, with the familiar chime and some audio from the ride. Then it inexplicably goes nuts and turns into a full-on ad for the new movie, with TIE Fighters swooping in and BB-8 rolling all over the place and the Millennium Falcon flying across the fountains and lasers and for some reason, a giant fireball. It was completely gratuitous and I loved every single second of it. At the theater in Downtown Disney, they had a teaser poster for The Force Awakens and I felt my heart rate increase along with a sinking feeling in my stomach that oh crap I’m a fan of Star Wars again.
  • It wasn’t that crowded, surprisingly. I’d been planning to wait until after the summer to go to Disneyland again, since I expected the turnout for the 60th Anniversary to be so huge that it’d completely ruin the fun. But seeing all the pictures and videos coming in from the park were just too much for me to wait. As it turned out, it wasn’t all that bad — in line with a busy day at Disneyland, but not obscenely crowded. There was a lot of stuff we didn’t bother riding, since we’d been so recently, but nothing that felt like I was missing out. Still, I wish they’d get moving on the third park that’s been rumored for decades: if the parks are so busy even on weekdays that they’re considering charging extra for peak times, that’s a clear sign that they’re at capacity and it’d be a good investment to expand. (Note to Disney executive staff: I’m available any time to tell you how to run your business. Glad to help).

Inside Out

insideoutmomshq
It’s taken the better part of 24 hours and three drafts of a blog post, but I finally have to begrudgingly concede that I liked Inside Out.

That’s not a review of the movie, since this isn’t a review. It’s just an unfocused — and completely personal — attempt to sort through the aftermath of the movie.

(And it doesn’t make any attempt to avoid spoilers, so it’s probably best to avoid this if you haven’t seen it).

If I were writing a movie review, I’d just cut-and-paste the review by Dana Stevens on Slate, because I agree with it completely, from the non-hyperbolic “astonishing” all the way to that killer of a closing sentence:

As Inside Out is aware to a degree that’s rare in kids’ movies, growing up is both a grand triumph and an irreversible tragedy.

The only part I’d take issue with is the suggestion that it’s a “kids’ movie,” even if it’s just used for contrast. Maybe that’d help put a little emotional distance between me and a movie, but lumping it in with “kids’ movies,” even in passing, just seems oblivious to what Pixar’s been doing for decades. They’ve built a well-deserved reputation by insisting on making deeply personal movies that try to focus on themes that are completely universal.

And Inside Out takes that one “irreversible tragedy” that is completely universal and submerges us in an extended metaphor that forces us to confront it head-on. Like the reconditioning scene in A Clockwork Orange, but instead of violence, it’s the loss of childhood.

The Toy Story 3 Scale

When early reviews of the movie started to pop up, I made an only half-joking request that reviewers include an indication of how likely it would reduce us to heaving sobs. Crying in a Pixar movie is all but inevitable — I found myself tearing up at the storyboards for Brave — but I wanted to avoid something like Up‘s completely unfair sucker punch. I suggested a scale from Finding Nemo (bittersweet sniffling) to the finale of Toy Story 3 (complete emotional breakdown).

As it turns out, Inside Out affected me like the end of Toy Story 3, stretched out to feature length. It was too potent. It just left me feeling drained, exhausted, and pretty miserable for the next day.

It didn’t even feel like a cathartic “let it all out” venting, because there wasn’t a devastating but optimistic thanks for the adventure, or even the implied promise of new adventures with a new child and ongoing specials on ABC Family. It’s not that I think Inside Out was poorly structured or manipulative, but just the opposite. The “problem” is that I think it insists on being honest. The actual tear-jerking moments felt earned because they were an inevitable and integral part of the story. Which means that an uplifting “here’s how everything turned out great forever” would’ve felt artificial, too.

So instead, I interpreted it as a celebration of sadness as necessary and inevitable. Which may be true, and surprisingly mature, and exactly what I’ve been asking for as an alternative to what usually tries to substitute for a profound statement in “family movies.” But instead of a promise of adventure, the promise is… life as a relatively well-adjusted adult. I’ve seen how that turns out, more or less, and it’s not that great. There’s even the gag about the looming specter of puberty and the repeated question of “what could go wrong?” that seem — if not dark, exactly, then a little sardonic and defeatist.

“You’re going to be sad. A lot. It’s part of growing up.” It’s entirely possible that it’s just because my own headquarters functions better when Anger and Sadness are kept in check by the happy sprite of Wellbutrin, but I left the movie wishing it had been a more explicit, obvious, and artificial celebration of the grand triumph than an acknowledgement of the irreversible tragedy. That it’d let me keep on enjoying my already ridiculously overextended arrested development, instead of reminding me that “Growing up means that joy and optimism need to learn their place.”

Don’t Spoil Titanic For Me

Instead, they introduced (among other things) the character of Bing Bong, and as soon as it was clear that he was Riley’s imaginary friend, we all knew exactly what was going to happen. Because I’m sitting in the audience, realizing that it’s not just nostalgia for toys that I’ve put away or happy memories from childhood, but I can’t even remember the name of my imaginary friend. It played out less like an abstraction of a growing child’s mind and more like a primary colored version of Final Destination.

There’s more subtle foreshadowing throughout. When we first get a glimpse into the headquarters of Riley’s mom and dad, it’s played for gags but has an undercurrent I felt like a slow-motion punch to the gut as all the implications sunk in. Dad’s mind is run like a submarine in war, dominated by Anger keeping a tight check on any outbursts of emotion. And while the movie is still in the process of answering the question “what is the purpose of having Sadness?” we see inside Mom’s head, where the emotions are sitting around like the hosts of The View, pining over a long-lost potential romantic adventure, and we have to notice that Sadness is clearly in charge of the show.

“Here’s what you have to look forward to, kids! Now let’s get back to the action and find out what could possibly be in store for this little girl’s brightly colored imaginary friend!”

As it turns out, there’s a good bit more to it than that. Using colorful abstractions to tell the story doesn’t just make it universal beyond the experiences of one little girl, but it also allows the movie to make some pretty profound observations without stating them explicitly. So I’m going to do exactly what I’ve resolved not to do, which is to be reductive about the “message” of the movie. Simply because it took me a while to parse through everything I think it says and think it implies.

I also just want to call out some of the decisions that make Inside Out astonishing, since the movie doesn’t draw that much attention to them.

Cartoon Modern


On the technical side, Pixar has progressed to the point where I’m too much of a layman to even identify what’s remarkable. It seems like every feature has required at least one big technical breakthrough, but usually they exploit the hell out of it — if not showing off, then at least making sure they got their money’s worth. So if they’re going to set a movie underwater, you’re going to get a lot of sequences that just show how beautiful the ocean is. Or if they’re going to simulate every hair on Sully’s body, you’re going to see it in close-up. I wouldn’t have noticed the natural lighting effects developed for Monsters University if they hadn’t been pointed out to me, but it makes perfect sense for a story that’s set over the course of a year.

With Inside Out, I initially had a minor mental criticism that Pixar’s gone all-in on its House Style for human characters — they’re fine, but ultimately inoffensive at best, too cartoonish to be realistic but not cartoonish enough to be interesting. I quickly realized that that criticism is missing the point when the “stars” of a movie are toys, fish, bugs, robots, and emotions. In Inside Out, the emotions need to be expressive (obviously), but the humans need to be universal enough that every human in the audience can project herself onto them.

And with the emotions, the character design goes all-in on modernism. That’s possibly not the “correct” term, but it’s referring to the style from the 50s that was more graphic and abstract. So you get the character of Fear, who should only be able to work in two dimensions, and yet he coexists with the others with no obvious cheats. And then we get a sequence that drives the idea home, where the characters are rendered in more and more abstract forms until they’re reduced to a single line.

It’s even more apparent with Joy, who looks like someone took a piece of concept art done in pastels or crayons and said, “We want this, exactly, to be the main character in a feature-length piece of 3D animation.” I can remember only a couple of scenes where the camera’s allowed to linger on them up close, to show off the effect. But much like the animated paintings in Ratatouille, it takes what is steadfastly a static, two-dimensional art style and gives it depth and movement. It insists that the rough speckles aren’t just an artifact of Joy’s concept art, but an integral part of the character.

It seems like a confident decision that could’ve been sacrificed in the name of convenience. The movie’s full of confident decisions that could’ve been sacrificed in the name of “accessibility.” Most obviously, it’s a movie driven by female characters. It’s worth pointing out, even though it’s a shame that it’s worth pointing out, and even though it goes so far into the realm of universally accessible story that it makes the entire question seem irrelevant. Maybe its success will finally put the stupid “debate” — which is itself a modern invention, as a simple scan of centuries of female protagonists would illustrate — to rest.

What interests me a lot more is that there’s no villain. It’s especially astonishing considering that both Up and Frozen were brilliant movies that also took on more subtle and sophisticated themes than usual, and yet each one still suffered from a third act that required a Disney Villain to pop up and cause conflict. Again, maybe it’s optimistic, but I’d hope that the success of Inside Out will finally convince people that you can have a story based entirely on emotional conflict and it’s still completely accessible.

Sunny-Side Up, or, Happy Together

Which gets back to the last confident decision I’ll mention, which is the one that took me a while to get. Because it’s a question that’s asked at the beginning of the movie but isn’t explicitly answered. (At least explicitly enough that I picked up on it).

I read a review of Inside Out that made the minor complaint that the beginning of the movie, where Joy introduces herself and the other characters, was regretfully necessary exposition in an otherwise subtly-told story. But I don’t think it was just exposition. I think it was setting up the central conflict that Joy (and the audience) would spend the rest of the movie — and in my case, the weekend after — trying to figure out.

When Fear, Disgust, and Anger are introduced, we get an illustration of what they do and why they’re there to protect Riley in one way or another. In fact, that assertion that they’re not just manifestations of personality, but deeply invested in making sure she’s okay, is one of the subtle ways that Inside Out makes the complaint “this idea’s been done before!” seem laughably irrelevant. Tasha Robinson’s review on The Dissolve lists more examples of films and TV series that started from the same concept, but in comparison, they feel like gags riffing on a premise instead of a genuine attempt to explore all the deeper implications of a premise.

But instead of just an introduction to the “rules” of how all this stuff works, it asks the movie’s important question: why is Sadness there? For as much as I talk about Pixar being universal instead of just for kids, and how it tackles some mature and sophisticated themes, it could seem like “Why do we feel sad?” is an insipidly childish question. But it’s clearly one we struggle with as adults. Anyone who’s tried to figure out what’s “normal” vs what’s a breakdown in brain chemistry has had to ask it. Anyone who’s been frustrated to be told “stop trying to fix things, I just want to feel sad,” has had to ask it. If you use Facebook, you likely see people struggling with it every day, with self-actualization aphorisms like “Today I Choose Happiness.” How is sadness productive? What practical purpose does it serve?

On the surface, Inside Out seems to suggest an acceptance more than an answer. “Being grown-up is complex, yo.” The age of “pure” emotions doesn’t last long, and our memories are really tinged with a bunch of different emotions. Sadness is just there, and being an adult means learning how to deal with it. At best, it seemed to say, sadness made the joyful memories stronger. The explicit “moral” seemed to be that you can’t suppress it and contain it. You can’t expect to be happy all the time.

That was the part that hit hard with me, because it seemed to be reaching directly into my subconscious and calling me out. Cripes! They’re onto me! They know that I feel like I’m constantly trying to stay content and optimistic and put a positive spin on things when I’d rather just lie on a couch and moan.

And just like the jackasses who call me a “grouch” or “curmudgeon,” or tell me to “smile more” (as if I were a woman in corporate management or running for office!), they’re calling me a charlatan! They’re saying I’m doing a lousy job of it, and they can see right through me.

And if that weren’t bad enough, they’re saying it’s a futile effort in the first place! I just came here to see some bullshit about believing in my dreams; I didn’t come to see a Disney/Pixar movie whose uplifting message was “You are fated to a life of sadness so Deal With It.”

(Ever since I heard multiple men say that The Little Mermaid was exactly what they needed to deal with coming out in the 90s, I’ve made it a point not to under-interpret family movies or resist taking them too personally).

But then: movie studios don’t stay profitable with an audience of one. And if I were the only person feeling like that, then they wouldn’t have made a movie about it. Maybe the message is that everybody feels the same way, that they’re struggling to stay happy and keep sadness tightly controlled and prevented from leaking out. And it’s not necessarily that I’m doing a bad job of it, but that people can recognize it because they do it themselves.

Which brings back to mind the scene where Sadness helps the imaginary friend* get back on his feet by being able to relate to him, while Joy doesn’t know what to do. [*It’s hard to insist that these are adult, sophisticated concepts that it’s perfectly normal for a 44-year-old not to grasp immediately while talking about Sadness and Bing Bong]. Or the scene where Joy figures it all out, where the revelation isn’t simply that happy memories have an element of sadness to them, but that sadness has a purpose, too. It was sadness that brought the family together and turned the memory into a happy one.

Or the finale, which isn’t the scene showing Riley at hockey practice with all her personality islands back in place. It’s the one just before that, where Angry Dad and Sad Mom tell Riley that they’re sad too. Maybe I would’ve picked up on it faster if they’d included a sequence in which Sadness begins sparkling and magically transforms into Empathy.

But of course they didn’t, and of course the movie is a billion times better for not making it completely explicit. And the peek inside Mom’s mind magically transforms from quietly defeatist foreshadowing of a life dominated by sadness, to one where they’re all cooperating and sharing a happy memory together.

Splatoon for Graybeards

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Splatoon is:

  • a console-based shooter
  • with online multiplayer
  • against strangers
  • aimed directly (and aggressively) at pre-teens and teenagers
  • with an overwhelming late-1990s Nickelodeon network aesthetic.

All of which is code speak for “Chuck should hate this game.”

As it turns out, it’s completely accessible and a hell of a lot of fun. Not to mention that it’s packed full of design decisions that are so elegantly effective it’s annoying. So this post is part deconstruction of why the game works, and part reminder that even if you think you’re too old/too smart/too uncoordinated to enjoy Splatoon, you might end up liking it.

You can jump right into turf wars

After a fairly brief intro and setup (protip: disable motion control camera tilting for the game pad as soon as you possibly can), you’re immediately encouraged to jump into a “turf war” against other players online.

Plenty of multiplayer-focused games do this, always with the implicit promise that this time will be better. Whether it’s because of some ingenious game-balancing feature, or because of their excellent community support, or because of blind optimism, they insist that all players will want to jump immediately into heated battle with strangers despite years of experience saying this is one of the most frustrating and least fun things that humans can do on the internet.

With Splatoon, it actually works. I jumped right into a game without going through a lengthy single-player tutorial. And I actually had fun. And tried it again, several more times. That never happens.

Turf war battles are short

One of the main reasons the multiplayer skirmishes are so accessible is that they’re so short. Matches are limited to three minutes, after which a cat shows you the map and tells you whether the good guys won.

This has the obvious advantage of avoiding matches that drag on interminably because one guy’s off somewhere camping, or the teams are so “balanced” that control just shifts sides over and over. But it has the added advantage of keeping less-than-stellar players (like me) from getting too invested in how the match turns out.

I can imagine this would offend both players and developers who see themselves as “hardcore.” You’re making a game you don’t want players to care about?! But in practice it’s at least as satisfying as the games that take themselves more seriously, because short skirmishes build up to a longer-term feeling of progress.

Even if you lose a match, you still make progress towards leveling up. It’s a nice, steady progression and a constant incentive to “do better next time.” And it makes it almost impossible to get overly frustrated, even if your team is losing badly.

Turf war battles are anonymous

At least in the “regular battle” mode, you can’t choose your team, or even your server or region. (There is a way to play online against friends, but I haven’t checked to see whether you get the same experience/money benefits from those matches).

I would’ve thought this would fail horribly, but again, it’s different in practice. As it turns out, it’s a great equalizer. Everybody’s incentivized to play the same regular battle modes in order to level up, so you’ll usually see a wide range of levels in each match. That means you start playing the “real thing” immediately, instead of being cloistered to some newbie area for the first few hours of the game.

Because there’s no voice chat or much of a sense of persistent “identity,” it’s almost impossible to get harassed or worse, get stuck with a player who tries to tell you how you should be playing. Even if there were voice chat, the time limit would keep it from being practical to say much of anything, anyway. Instead, the game is simple and frenetic enough that “strategies” develop naturally as you go along.

Shooting is incidental

When making a Nintendo Shooting Game For Kids, the most obvious temptation would be to downplay the “shooting” part, or remove it altogether. Splatoon wisely goes the other route. There’s a dedicated Weapons store where you’re buying variations on shotguns and bazookas and machine guns and sniper rifles, and you can try each of them out in a shooting range, and you’re given ample chance to covet the more expensive ones. They just lean in to the fact that they’re all paint guns.

I happen to think that a lot of the pearl-clutching about video games’ obsession with gun violence is overblown. People understand how fiction works, the shooting is an abstraction for game mechanics instead of actual violence, and almost all players quickly start to think in terms of strategy and tactics instead of going on killing sprees. (Add a thousand other defenses of first-person shooters that have been trotted out over the years).

But, even those of us in the Video Game Violence Apologist camp tend to overlook the fact that while shooting in games may not be technically violent, it is absolutely aggressive. While you may not be wishing physical violence on your opponent (I’d hope), you are eager to take her out of the game so that you can win.

It’s obvious in Deathmatch, but even objective-based multiplayer game modes in shooters suffer from the fact that the game itself doesn’t let you do anything other than shoot a guy. To capture the flag, you shoot the guy who’s carrying it. To take over a control point, you shoot the guy that’s guarding it. To win the game, you’re going to have to shoot a guy.

In Splatoon, you win the game by covering the most ground in ink. A lot of the time it helps to take out opponents, but it’s at best secondary to the main objective.

It’s nearly impossible to be a bully or to hold grudges

And because your objective is covering ground, playing the game as if it were a deathmatch would be the surest way to lose. You’re not penalized for attacking other players — it gives you an acknowledgement and, as far as I can tell, is encouraged. But there’s no advantage to attacking players over and over again. There’s no shortage of long-range weapons and high points on the map to play the sniper, but it’s the least efficient way to help cover the map.

It seems straightforward enough, but it really makes it seem silly how we’ve built this elaborate framework of anti-griefing, anti-exploit, game-balancing, and community-policing around games whose entire premise is “You win by killing your opponents.” It’s as if we’re saying, “Sure, you can fire a bazooka into your opponent’s face and then teabag the corpse, but play fair, kids.”

Splatoon sidesteps the whole issue simply by making it impractical to bully other players. It’s not just that there’s no incentive to do it, it’s that you’ll actually hurt your own chances of winning. In fact, games of Mario Kart 8 often end up feeling a lot more aggressive and frustrating.

Another nice touch is that you’re given the standard “you’ve been splatted” screen while you’re waiting for your character to respawn, but it doesn’t draw attention to the name of the player who killed you. Instead, it shows the weapon that did it. That’s a weapon that you could aspire to buy, as soon as this match is over!

Super-jump is brilliant

In a clever use of the Game Pad’s screen, you always see an overhead view of the map during a match, to get a high-level indication of your progress and how much ground you’ve covered.

In a genius use of the Game Pad’s screen, you can see the location of all your teammates and press a button to jump quickly to their position. Most obviously, it makes sure that you’re never out of the action for too long. More subtly, it encourages teamwork and basic tactics. You’re encouraged to work together to hold ground, or leap-frog each other through the map, because it’s just easier to do.

“Squid mode” has all kinds of clever side effects

When I first heard about the game, I thought that the whole “turn into a squid” gimmick was a clever spin on several now-standard mechanics in shooters: when you’re refilling your ammo, you’re defenseless, but you move faster and are much harder to see. So it seemed like part Halo‘s shield recharging — duck out of combat briefly to get back up to full power — and part Team Fortress 2 Spy — sneak up invisibly behind an opponent to shoot them unawares.

In practice, there are so many different clever off-shoots of the way the two “modes” are balanced that I can’t even tell how much were explicitly intentional. You can silently drop through a gated floor to land behind an opponent. Since squids can swim up vertical surfaces, you can paint a path up a wall to get to a high point for sniping, and other players have to go into defenseless mode to get near you. If you turn into a squid, an opponent may not be able to see you well enough to shoot you, but just firing where they think you are is still effective since it limits your ability to swim.

And my favorite so far: two players can make quick ground across a map by leap-frogging each other, one player shooting a line of ink, the other swimming along behind to refill, then trading roles. Back when I first got interested in Team Fortress 2, I said that I wished the game had allowed for me to discover clever combinations on my own instead of making it explicit which classes work well together. Splatoon makes me feel clever for figuring out stuff myself.

Boss fights are surprisingly clever

I’d thought that if I played the game at all, I’d go through the single player mode and occasionally dip into a multiplayer match or two. As it turns out, I’ve done just the opposite: the single player mode is fine, but the multiplayer is so completely accessible that most of the time, I’d rather play that.

But the single player does let Nintendo designers show off what they’re best at doing, with clever design mechanics and a perfect difficulty ramp. Because it’s an all-new property from Nintendo — a rarity in itself — they get to show off what they can do when not beholden to everything that goes into making a Mario or Pokemon or even Smash Brothers game. It’s all clever and cute world-building — I especially liked the Octarians’ version of Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden, with a squid taking the place of the serpent — that ends up feeling more like a Rare game than anything else.

The boss fights, though, are pure Nintendo (do the same thing three times to win) but with some interesting and bizarre twist in the character design and fight mechanics. You’ve got to find some way to climb up to the top of the monster itself, as in Shadow of the Colossus, to defeat it. And they’ve got tentacles and bug eyes and weird spindly legs or robotic armatures with sneakers at the end, and they pop open to reveal steam pipes or electric wires and shifting plates.

It is completely accessible

Super Mario 3D World hit this weird spot of being almost too good for me to enjoy. It was so clever and so well produced that it seemed fragile, for lack of a better word. I felt as if I could admire it — and I did, over and over again, as each level is just jam-packed with brilliant ideas — but couldn’t just let loose and play around in it.

Splatoon is abundantly clever and has all kinds of ideas that elegantly fit together and complement each other. But it also feels like a game that wants you, first and foremost, to play. The entire premise of the game is to jump in and start making a mess. It does such a good job of it that your age and your competence at shooting games seems entirely irrelevant.

Camp Grizzly

CampGrizzly_Otis
At KublaCon this weekend, I got to play through a demo and then a full game of Camp Grizzly by Ameritrash Games. I wanted to spread the word about it here, partly because the designer Jason Topolski is a former co-worker and a super-nice guy, but mostly because I really love the game.

The premise sells itself: it’s a semi-cooperative game in which you’re playing a camp counselor (in 1979, easily the most dangerous era for camp counselors) being stalked by a homicidal maniac named “Otis,” who wears a bear mask and wields a bloody gardening claw. You and the other players are trying to evade Otis while gathering the items you need to trigger one of the game’s four finales. As you play, you encounter campers, side characters in “cameo” roles, and special events that cover just about every single trope from early 80s slasher movies.

I’ve been wanting to try it for at least a year, but not without a little bit of trepidation. No matter how solid the idea, and no matter how talented the people involved, what if it ends up feeling flat in the execution? As it turns out, I didn’t need to worry. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, and it’s already become my favorite cooperative game.

CampGrizzly_Lunchbox

Ameritrash

The Kickstarter for Camp Grizzly was hugely successful, tripling the amount of money they were asking for and spawning all kinds of expansions for stretch goals. If you missed the Kickstarter like I did, and you don’t see it at a convention, you can get a copy directly from their site. I picked up a copy right after the demo, and I immediately sprung for the miniatures. I never do that. Now all I have to do is wait for the expansions.

The art by Austin Madison (and others) is phenomenal, as you can see here used completely without permission. Not surprising considering the pedigrees of the people involved, but each card looks like polished storyboard/character concept/pitch art for a project from The Studio That Makes the Best 3D Animated Movies. And even better — and more difficult — it nails the tone exactly right between horror and black comedy, from a time when slasher movies were as interested in being exhilarating and fun as they were in going for the biggest gross-out.

Choosing “Ameritrash Games” as their name wasn’t just a self-deprecating gag, either; Camp Grizzly nails that part, too. The board is designed — from the fairly simple layout to the big red “Camp Grizzly” logo just above the “Body Count” tracker — to remind players of board games of the 70s and 80s. Without any context, you could assume it was a marketing tie-in game to some obscure 80s slasher movie.

Once you get into the game, though, it quickly becomes apparent that it could only exist in the “post-BoardGameGeek” era. It includes a lot of familiar elements from games like Betrayal at House on the Hill, Pandemic, and the dungeon-crawl Dungeons and Dragons-themed board games. Then it streamlines them and combines them with fantastic artwork to throw all the emphasis back on storytelling.

CampGrizzly_SplitUp

“Let’s Split Up”

I’m a fan of “pure” cooperative games like Pandemic, Forbidden Island, and Forbidden Desert, even though I always take it as a given from the start that I’m probably not going to win. (I still have never won a game of Forbidden Desert). But they tend to suffer from the same three problems:

  • One or two players can take over, becoming so fixated on a particular strategy that everyone else is basically squeezed out and left just moving pieces around a board.
  • Getting the right balance means making it feel like you’re always on the brink of disaster, which can result in spending two hours on a game and then everyone loses.
  • No matter how strong the theme is, or how well the theme is integrated into the mechanics, it usually ends up feeling like a purely mechanical abstraction.

Cooperative games have been popular enough for long enough that there’s already a sub-genre dedicated to fixing those problems: games with a traitor mechanic, like Battlestar Galactica and now Dead of Winter. The traitor mechanic not only guarantees a winner, but builds in an incentive to keep any one player from running away with the game: you’re never exactly sure if she’s just being bossy, or if she’s deliberately working against everyone else. (From what I’ve read, one of the expansions for Camp Grizzly introduces a traitor mechanic, too, with the intriguingly-named card “So It Was You All Along!”).

As it turns out, there’s another way to fix those problems: go all in on theme.

The tone of a slasher movie is a perfect fit for a modern cooperative game: it’s supposed to feel like the odds are overwhelmingly against you, and there is a “force of nature” appearing completely unexpectedly out of nowhere to make things worse.

One of the many decisions in Camp Grizzly that seems straightforward on the surface, but is actually an elegantly perfect solution to a ton of problems: making the antagonist a character. A forum post on the BoardGameGeek page for Camp Grizzly points out that Otis has a lot more personality than some generic slasher movie villain. He’s obviously a pastiche of Jason Voorhies and Michael Meyers, but he’s still a distinct creation. And it doesn’t just help the theme; it helps the game. You’re not fighting some abstraction like “disease” or “time” or “flood waters” or “zombies” or even “Sauron,” but another character.

The Tabletop episode of Forbidden Desert, for instance, demonstrates one of the aspects of “pure” cooperative games that I hate: the inevitable point when players start counting cards to figure out what’s left in the deck. It breaks whatever minimal theme has been established and makes it completely obvious your antagonist is a deck of cards. When you draw an “Otis Attacks!” card in Camp Grizzly, it feels more like a story moment than the result of a card draw.

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“Foolin’ Around”

One of the reasons I’ve been over-thinking Camp Grizzly is that I think slasher movies are fascinating to pick apart. They started becoming self-referential while they were still popular, and they somehow continue to work even when you’re completely aware of all their tricks. When Scream came out and explicitly made a list of all the standard slasher movie tropes, it wasn’t a last death rattle of irony; it actually revitalized the entire genre.

When you have a genre of movie that comes with a built-in set of rules, it obviously lends itself to adapting that to a game. Camp Grizzly isn’t the first to do it; one of the most popular is Last Night on Earth: The Zombie Game. It’s very similar in structure and theme to Camp Grizzly: you move characters around a board to fight zombies, drawing event and character cards based on the familiar cinematic cliches.

I like the ideas behind Last Night on Earth a lot, but I just didn’t enjoy the game. It felt self-aware about its theme, but didn’t really do anything with that self-awareness. To make a tortured analogy: if Last Night on Earth is like Shaun of the Dead, then Camp Grizzly is like The Cabin in the Woods.

In Scream and Shaun of the Dead, the central gag is that they telegraph what they’re going to do, and then do it anyway. And it still works: they have great moments, even though you know exactly what’s going to happen. In some cases, because you know what’s going to happen. (And a big part of why they work, when so many other attempts at self-aware horror movies just collapse into an insufferable mess, is because they’re self-aware out of affection. It’s not just we all know how these things work by now, but also …and that’s why we love them).

Not to pick on TableTop, but their playthrough of Last Night on Earth demonstrates why the game never really worked for me. For one thing, having some players as zombies introduces a disconnect before the game even starts. Zombies with agency is just weird. Only some of the players are controlling characters, while the rest are controlling game mechanics whose entire purpose in fiction is to be without any agenda except killing and eating. And obviously those episodes are exaggerated for the sake of making an entertaining video, but you can see the problem with Felicia Day’s repeated attempts to create a backstory for one of her zombies. It’s a struggle to impose a story onto the game mechanics.

One of the clever ideas that first attracted me to Last Night on Earth was a card called “This Could Be Our Last Night on Earth.” Two hero characters (they have to male and female, which I’ve got to point out is a minor disappointment) in the same space lose a turn. On the surface, it seems like a really clever way to incorporate theme into the game. In practice, though, it’s just a “lose turn” card with a picture and text.

A bunch of other mechanics subtly throw off the balance as well. Combat isn’t hugely complex, but it’s still more complicated than it needs to be. Certain locations have specific benefits, which seems like it’d reinforce the storytelling but in practice just becomes another mechanic to remember. All the elements combine to keep the focus on the game and leave the story lurking in the background.

It’s not “about” zombie movies and B-movies. It’s ultimately a game “about” fighting zombies — and a solid one, by most accounts! — that’s aware that zombie movies and B-movies exist.

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“Don’t”

If the gag in Scream and Shaun of the Dead was to acknowledge the cliches and then execute on them, the gag in The Cabin in the Woods is to come up with imaginative ways to explain why the cliches exist. (And then in the third act, why they need to exist).

I’m not saying that Camp Grizzly is some arch or cerebral deconstruction of the slasher genre — all the stuff I’m over-explaining here, it says with artwork, a few lines of text, and some game mechanics. But I do think it works the same way. The reason you need characters opening doors that are clearly hiding a monster, or sneaking into the woods to have sex when there’s obviously a killer on the loose, is because smart characters making good decisions makes for lousy storytelling.

Camp Grizzly isn’t a game about careful coordination and planning four moves ahead. Whether it was intentional or not, it feels as if they took a “pure” co-op game mechanic and streamlined or removed outright anything that made for a bad story.

One example: Otis. I already said that he’s a more interesting character than some abstraction. Even more important, though, is the fact that no player controls him. He’s got a simple agenda: stalk everyone and kill them, one by one. If he ever goes off the board, he reappears unexpectedly on a random wooded path. And after every player has taken a turn, Otis moves according to a simple set of rules:

  1. Go after whoever’s closest.
  2. If there’s a tie, go after the solitary characters, the ones who have nobody else in the same cabin.
  3. If there’s a tie, go after the character who’s most horrified.
  4. If there’s a tie, go after the one with the most wounds.
  5. If there’s still a tie, choose randomly.

All the standard slasher movie rules are covered except for “go after the black characters first.”

That impresses me as much as a movie nerd as a board game nerd: it’s not just an elegant deconstruction of slasher movie “rules,” it’s an elegant incorporation of them into an easily-understandable game mechanic.

All the other rules surrounding Otis are just complicated enough to make the decisions interesting. As the body count goes up, Otis gets stronger. “Combat” is a simple dice roll, with stronger weapons getting better dice. Characters can even “panic” thoughtfully: if you’re attacked, you can panic and run away from Otis a set number of spaces.

Another example: the cabin cards. Players start the game with a clear and simple objective: find a set of items. In a lot of similar games, you’d have to spend an action to “search” a location for something useful. In Camp Grizzly, you just move your character, and then do one of two things:

  1. Turn over a visible item token in your space, to see if it’s one of the things necessary to start the finale; or
  2. Draw a card from the cabin deck.

It splits the difference between all the move-and-explore games I’ve ever played, where you have a clear goal in mind and are deliberately looking for something; and all the cooperative games I’ve ever played, where at the end of every turn there’s the chance of something unexpected horrible happening. But what’s key for a story is that something interesting happens every turn. What’s key for a story game is that it’s not the player’s fault.

In the full game I played, we’d found all the necessary items, and we were all limping injured towards the barn to trigger the game finale. On his way there, one of the characters turned up the “Skinny Dipping” card shown above. He had to choose another character to take to the boat house and “tempt fate.”

This was a very stupid thing for him to do. Not only did it take two characters completely out of the way of our agreed-upon meeting place, but it invited Otis to attack and kill both of them. It’s exactly the kind of thing that has movie audiences shouting at the screen, “What are you doing? Don’t do that! Don’t open that door! Get out of the water! Put your clothes back on!” These moments are necessary to drive the story forward, but they’d be frustrating if they invalidated or supplanted the player’s decisions. Players still make decisions in Camp Grizzly, but they’re almost always reactionary.

There’s a lot of value in forcing the player’s hand. Another game we played this weekend was Cosmic Encounter. After years of seeing it top lists of “best board game ever made,” I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. My conclusion was that it’s apparent how well-designed it is, and it may very well be the best possible implementation of a bluffing/negotiation/character interaction game. I just don’t enjoy that type of game.

But as a game that is striving for negotiation, bluffing, and interaction above all else, it’s crucial that Cosmic Encounter forces an interaction every turn. Encounters aren’t optional, you often don’t get to choose which player you attack, and you often don’t get to choose whether you’re going to be hostile or try to negotiate. It doesn’t just guarantee that something is going to happen every turn, but it ensures that there’s a very good chance it won’t be what you expect. It may violate every carefully-planned strategy and intensely-negotiated alliance up to that point.

In Camp Grizzly, “Tempt fate” is a simple mechanic that encompasses 90% of the plot development of a slasher movie: those moments when a supposedly sympathetic character does something unforgivably stupid. You follow the setup on the card, and then draw some number of cards from the top of the cabin deck. If any of the cards is a red “Otis Attacks!” card, then surprise: Otis attacks. It’s an annoyingly elegant distillation of the cliche. You get the complication, the suspense, and then either the “Whew! It must’ve just been the cat” resolution, or another slasher movie moment.

And most importantly: you can’t avoid it. (Unless you happen to have a card like “Don’t,” pictured above). Camp Grizzly has the appearance of a standard co-op game, but it will happily throw out all of your careful planning and coordination for the sake of making a better slasher movie.

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“Desensitized”

That’s exactly the kind of thing that infuriates some players. There are players who love the type of game where they can plan for three moves in advance, carefully counting up points and considering available moves and calculating card frequency to figure out which of their options will result in 5 victory points as opposed to 4.

For me, the only thing that sounds less fun is doing my taxes while having dental work done. I tend to be on the more “reactionary” end of the spectrum, where I can just try stuff out and see what happens. Even with that mindset, though, it took me a while to wrap my head around the interesting disconnect that’s inherent to Camp Grizzly.

Even as someone who hates having to plan too far ahead, and as someone who’s gotten so comfortable with losing games that I barely even consider it an objective anymore, I still approached Camp Grizzly as if it were a standard co-op game with a horror movie theme baked into it. Our objective was to pick up three items, go to this location, and then win the finale.

But after a few turns, I started to realize that I’d made the wrong assumption. The objective of the game isn’t to find three items and have my character survive the final showdown. The objective of the game is to make a slasher movie.

That’s when I realized we’d spent the bulk of the last hour doing exactly that. Because the art is so vivid, I could picture every scene as if it’d been animated. And because the mechanics themselves are relatively simple, I was remembering them as scenes instead of turns. It had the opposite effect of the flavor text in most board games: I wasn’t thinking “cancel an attack card” and then trying to impose some kind of story moment on top of that. Instead, I remembered lighting a flare in the middle of a dark cabin, or Mike’s character escaping into a crawlspace, and I couldn’t remember exactly what the description of the rule was.

And then I realized that a larger “plot” had pieced itself together. A couple, one of them badly wounded, had snuck into the barn to set a trap for Otis. But she slipped out to the boat house with another guy, and they were both punished for it when Otis attacked! After they narrowly escaped, the other counselors changed plans and decided to regroup at the boat house, with a last-minute and completely unhelpful appearance from Donald Pleasance’s character from Halloween. All the teenagers were panicking on the dock, screaming for the art teacher Karen to hurry up and make it to the boat.

Then we all got on the boat and things got wacky.

As soon as I saw what the setup for the finale was, I laughed out loud. I still think it’s brilliant, even though the character I was controlling was one of the first to die. The finale we got was unapologetically goofy way to end the game and the story. And it seemed like the game was finally explicitly asserting itself as a storytelling engine instead of a co-op game. (I’ve looked through most of the game cards by this point, but I’m carefully avoiding seeing any of the finale cards until they come up in game. I want to be surprised each time).

It seemed to present the same question that The Cabin in the Woods did, although in a less accusatory way: why are you pretending to be so emotionally invested in this cartoon teenager? I finally had to come to terms with the fact that I’m not actually a sexually promiscuous teenage girl, any more than I’m a pirate or a merchant or a Lord of Waterdeep or a kaiju attacking Manhattan. My goal isn’t to gather a bunch of items and escape a homicidal maniac; my goal is to take an interesting situation and see what happens as a result.

After getting burned out on euro games, it was nice to be reminded of a game that’s not super light but still just wants to be fun. And after spending so much time thinking about agency and the various ways that interactive media tell stories, it was nice to see a successful example of favoring storytelling over control that didn’t feel too abstract or too passive.

So much of the talk about player agency, especially in video game storytelling, makes the implicit assumption that the ideal is a “perfect avatar.” The player’s goals and the character’s goals are perfectly aligned. Story moments only happen as a direct result of the player’s actions. But again, horror and suspense movies have been chugging along for decades with the obvious “dissonance” of an audience aware of a monster lurking around every corner, and a bunch of characters doing frustratingly stupid things because of their own obliviousness. Why can’t a game do the same thing? Acknowledge that the player isn’t her character, and it’s not as important to control the experience as it is to enjoy it?

If you spend an hour playing a game and then “lose” at the end, what’s more important? That you didn’t win, or that you spent an hour having fun?

Everyone Has Their Shows

madmaxbloodbag
One of the many great things about Mad Max: Fury Road is that it defies attempts to explain it. So this is less of my usual “here’s a report to tell the internet how well I understood that thing I just saw,” and more just, “Did you guys just see that?!”

I happened to see it on the same night the series finale of Mad Men aired, and the juxtaposition is kind of interesting. A few years ago, I watched the pilot of Mad Men and dismissed it as an overly simplistic, almost Disney-fied codification of a period piece. Now, I realize that was unfair. (And if it’s any consolation to fans of the series: I’ve spent the last 5 years consistently seeing the search terms for this blog come up as “Mad Men sucks” or “Mad Men is overrated,” and every time I want to reply with a, “No wait I didn’t mean that I just meant…” that will forever fall on deaf ears). I’m still not that interested in it, but I’m no longer arrogant enough to dismiss it. I’ll just acknowledge it was a social phenomenon that completely passed me by, and that’s fine.

But seeing all the analyses of and thinkpieces about Mad Men, like this one from The A.V. Club, is downright jarring the morning after seeing Fury Road. While watching the movie, I felt like it had been beamed in fully-formed from another planet, one that was colonized by Cirque du Soleil, Smash-Up Derby promoters, and Burning Man organizers, who were left to interbreed and develop their own culture over thousands of years. It may be more accurate to say that it’s like a product from another time, bounced off a satellite from a time long ago, back before all the people had their own shows, and all the shows had their own recap blogs.

Turning Your Brain Off

Fury Road is completely, unapologetically, visual. Every time my brain tried to take over and ask: What does that mean? Who is that child? Is she from the first movie? Did I even see the first movie? What does this represent?, the movie would respond with, Shut up and look at this tractor trailer with a wall of amplifiers and a union suit-wearing bandit on bungee cords with an electric guitar that shoots flames. Also, there are drummers on the back. Also, the truck will explode.

(Like just about everything on Badass Digest/Birth.Movies.Death., I agree 100% with the premise of that post, then frustratingly disagree with where it goes from there. It’s not just that an origin story for this guy is unnecessary; explaining why it’s unnecessary with belabored analogies to Boba Fett is unnecessary. I shouldn’t even be writing this post).

I’ve already seen complaints about the movie that say it’s nothing more than an extended car chase sequence. Which is accurate, but I believe it also completely misses the point. It takes two hours of footage packed impossibly dense with unforgettable images, and then dismisses it because those images aren’t a vehicle (no pun intended) for something else.

I feel like we’ve been trained over the past couple of decades to believe that the opposite of cerebral is stupid. It’s the Transformers mentality: the people who enjoy those movies tend to justify it by saying that “you turn your brain off.” My response has always been that you shouldn’t need to turn your brain off; a well-made action sequence can still deliver symbolism and meaning and convey all sorts of “higher” concepts.

Fury Road felt like George Miller scoffing at me and saying, “Screw that, poindexter.” That whole attitude of “thinking man’s action movies” feels like a relic of the era of The Matrix: where you can’t just have tentacle ships and bullet time effects and thousands of suit-wearing agents engaged in kung fu battles and a badass slicing a semi truck with a samurai sword. It’s got to have a layer of simple-minded “philosophy” and Alice in Wonderland allusions slathered all over it for it to be worthwhile. So that a bunch of guys on the internet can say that they understood the deeper meaning and then make references to red pills and blue pills.

After ravaging the cinematic environment with that, an ecological disaster like Sucker Punch seems depressingly inevitable. I can’t really fault the basic intention: it recognizes that there’s some visual language of What 12 Year Old Boys Think is Rad that we all need to see. But it tries to stretch shallow ideas into epic spectacle that just shows how derivative all the imagery is, and worse, it tries to couch it in a completely bullshit travesty of gender commentary that’s so clumsily handled it’s offensive.

Not All War Boys

Fury Road appreciates the inherent value of a moving image. And it appreciates that because it invented so many of them. If anyone says the phrase “post-apocalyptic wasteland,” the image that pops into your head is, undoubtedly, from Mad Max or The Road Warrior.

I mentioned wasting time at the beginning of the movie trying to figure everything out. Because the “story” begins in media res, I was wondering whether I needed to have seen the other movies for context. I honestly can’t say whether I’ve seen the other three movies in their entirety; I know I’ve seen parts of them, but couldn’t tell you more than the basics.

Lone guy in a leather jacket driving through the desert in a modified sports car. Bandits killed his wife and child. Hot-rod and motorcycle-driving bandits chasing a tanker truck. Skulls. Communities of outlaws and warlords built with rusted metal and old car parts. Explosions. A guy totally getting his fingers cut off by a spinning boomerang blade thing.

A few minutes in, Fury Road reassured me: yeah, you got it. That’s all you need to know, because those unforgettable images are the whole point. Now watch, as we add dozens more, like an impossibly apocalyptic sandstorm. A “blood bag” strapped to the front of a car, chained to its driver. Four beautiful women appearing like a mirage in the desert, washing themselves with a hose. A white-haired warlord with a death mask, staring intently from behind the wheel of a car in pursuit.

The movie refuses to explain or give context for much of anything, not just because it’s unnecessary, but because it’d undermine their power as raw images. In fact, some of the most unforgettable images are only given a glimpse, a few seconds of screen time and a reaction shot from Max.

With all of that going on, this article in Vice describing the movie as “the feminist action flick we’ve been waiting for” seems misguided. Not that any of it is wrong. Just that pointing it out seems as facile as, for example, being able to identify what a tree is.

Early reports made me expect an action movie with an undercurrent of feminism. Fury Road doesn’t have undercurrents. It’s explicitly written on the wall: “Who killed the world?” and it’s not at all ambiguous. All these men did, and it’s only the women who have any chance of rebuilding it. And actually, by treating it as so explicit, the message is a lot more powerful than it would’ve been as a coded manifesto. There’s nothing to decipher, no nuance, no gray area that leaves room for differences in opinion: this is what happens when you treat people as commodities. Stop acting like it’s at all complicated.

THIS. All the things.

My favorite character in the movie — and with so much vivid imagery it’s kind of tough to choose — is The People Eater: an old white guy standing out of the sunroof of a car looking over a ledger, wearing a three-piece suit that has holes cut out for his nipple clamps. This is not a movie that aspires to subtlety.

So I ended up not analyzing it, but experiencing it. Cringing, covering my eyes, getting excited, staring in wonder, or laughing out loud. It’s a throwback to a time when I just enjoyed movies, instead of feeling like I had to understand them, because there was going to be a quiz later.

When everybody’s social media first exploded with reactions to the movie, most of them were of the format “Max Max: Fury Road is a thing that exists.” I’d thought it was just the standard internet cliche, like “Well, that happened.” After seeing it, I think it’s really just the best response. The novelty of a movie that’s not a mashup or reboot or reimagining, just 100% its own thing that exists in a pure and almost entirely unadulterated state, free of context and inspiration from anything other than itself. A platonic state of Mad Maxism.

From the right-out-of-the-early-80s title screen forward, it asserts itself as a product of another time. A time when someone could ask me what I thought of a movie, and I could just respond with, “It’s got a grotesque old white man in the sunroof of a car looking over a ledger, wearing a three-piece suit that has holes cut out for his nipple clamps.”

One Month With the Apple Watch (Order Status Page Edition)

AppleWatchOrderStatus
As a well-known “early adopter,” I feel I’ve got an obligation to share my experiences with bleeding-edge advancements in SoaC-powered wealth redistribution with users who are more on the fence, baffled by the increasing number of options in wearable technology.

A lot of you have lots of money but no time to wade through all the industry jargon; you just have simple questions that you need answered: “What is the Apple Watch?” “Why haven’t I read or heard anything about it?” And most importantly: “Does Chuck have one yet?”

I can go ahead and conclusively answer the last question: No.

If you were hoping that the Apple Watch would finally be the game-changer that makes me satisfied with the number of gadgets I own, you’re probably better off waiting a month or two. Version 1.0 of Apple products are known for being a hint of the advancements and refinements yet to come, more than complete, functional, devices. It’s as if with the Apple Watch, Jony Ive and his team of designers at Apple are giving us a roadmap for the future, announcing to the world: This is what the smart watch will be like, some time in early July when Chuck is actually able to have one.

So the question remains: is it really that insufferable to be waiting for the delivery of an expensive, inessential device, while surrounded by other people who already have theirs? Let’s find out.

How The Other Half Lives

Marketing Apple’s Most Personal Device Ever

Apple had to take a different approach with their first foray into the world of wearable technology. That meant making sure that before the product even hit stores, watch models were made available to the leading tastemakers: the technology and gadget bloggers who’d complain that Pharell and wil.i.am were posting Instagram pictures of their watches before any of the reviewers could get one.

By now, you’ve no doubt seen the “Big Guys” offer up their opinions about the Apple Watch (48mm Steel with the Milanese Loop band, universally), and their experiences with glances, taptic feedback, the Activity tracker, re-charging it every day, and the importance of selectively disabling notifications. By virtue of the mathematical study of combinatorics and the number of words in the English language, each reviewer’s take is, strictly speaking, unique.

You’ve seen a quirky first person attempt to free the device from Jony Ive’s perfectly-controlled environment and present it in a more realistic day-to-day setting: a tech blogger in New York City with a head-mounted camera. You’ve doubtless savored the definitive review from a suave globetrotting secret agent tech blog editor figuring out how this new innovation fits into a busy day packed with meetings and treadmill-running, including an up-close look at how hard it is to execute cross-site web content scheduling in a New York City bar with the double distractions of a watch constantly tapping your wrist, and a full camera and lighting crew having to run multiple takes of video while in a New York City bar. You’ve seen a stop-motion animated version with paper cutouts, for some reason. By now, you’ve even seen the Tech Reviewer Old Guard offer another look back at the watch after using it for a month.

What none of those so-called “professional” reviews will tell you is what life is like for real people who don’t have the product being reviewed. Sure, you occasionally get somebody like Apple insider and sarcasm enthusiast Neven Mrgan making a feeble attempt to relate to The Rest of Us outside Apple’s walled garden clique, but how much can you really say about an experience after only a week or two? How does that experience change after an entire month? [Full disclosure: Mr. Mrgan graciously offered a royalty-free license for me to completely rip off the premise of this blog post, presumably by effortlessly dictating said license into the always-on AI assistant of his futurewatch].

It’s Finally Here

Just Not For You

One thing that none of the reviews mention is how much of the Apple Watch experience is dependent on having not just an iPhone, but an actual physical Apple Watch. The site iMore.com, for example, offers a list of what the Apple Watch can do without an iPhone, but makes no mention of what can be done without the watch itself.

Granted, one site can’t possibly cover every single aspect of the watch (although not for lack of trying), but this seems like an oversight. How do I keep time without an Apple Watch? How is not having the watch changing my health for the better? When will I get one? They’re all questions strangely left unanswered by the “All [sic] your questions answered!” Apple Watch FAQ.

That’s a perfect example of how blog developers are adjusting to the new paradigms introduced by the Apple Watch: They’re not as content-focused as more traditional devices like the iPhone’s reviews. Instead, they’re best consumed as “glances,” not meant to be “read” so much as absorbed in quick seconds-long bursts throughout the day, every day, for months.

The truth is that there’s no amount of parallax scrolling and full-screen looping background video that will provide a truly definitive review of life without Apple’s latest must-have. For that, you need to go to Apple itself.

AppleWatchBallerina
That trademark Apple design is evident from first glance: the photographs of other people with their watches bleed right up to the bezel of the laptop screen, putting a subtle but unmistakable emphasis on the object that you don’t have. It’s a perfect example of how Apple makes cold hardware more personal, by telling a personal story: This woman has a watch and you don’t. She is a ballerina. What does she need a smartwatch for? She can’t possibly have her iPhone in range; her pockets are too small. Also the screen is likely to come on frequently as she moves her arms, causing a distraction to the other dancers. Did she not think this through? I wonder if she ordered her watch at midnight instead of waiting. A good night’s rest is very important for dancers, so it seems foolish to forsake that just to get a new watch that can’t even give incoming message notifications. Not to mention that dancers aren’t usually paid well enough to be spending hundreds of dollars on a watch. I bet she didn’t even wait in line for a new iPhone every other year since the first model, like I did. Who does she think she is, anyway?

This is also likely to be your first bit of frustration when dealing with the lack of an Apple Watch: because the title photograph has to do a full round-trip circuit from designer to marketing team to photographer and model to graphic designer to web publisher, it can get hopelessly out of sync with reality. I still find myself reading the notification “The Watch is Here,” and then glancing down at my wrist only to confirm that it’s most assuredly not here. I hope this is fixed in a future update.

The Best Part of Waking Up

Getting Into the Groove of a Daily Routine Without Your Apple Watch

Apple’s attention to detail and design carry through the rest of the experience. There’s no garish “Order Status” menu, for example, instead offering a simple “Store” menu that reveals more beautifully photographed images of the product you don’t have.

It’s only there that you find a friendly drop-down menu takes you to “Order Status.” That will ask you for your password every time you open or refresh the page throughout the day — you’ll be doing this a lot, so I recommend using a password manager like 1Password.

In the month since I ordered an Apple Watch, I’ve really started to notice how I use technology differently throughout the day and in different locations. On the laptop, for instance, I hardly ever use the Delivery Status widget to track the status of my shipment, both because of the decreasing relevance of the OS X Dashboard, and because after 5 weeks the order is still in “Processing” status without a tracking number. Instead, I prefer to go to the Apple Store page, bring up the order status, enter my password, refresh the page, wait a few seconds, and refresh the page again, sigh, then refresh it one more time. I would’ve thought that this would feel like an intrusion, but it’s become such an integral part of my morning routine that I hardly even notice it anymore.

While out around town, not going to bars or important meetings, it’d be a lot more convenient to bring up the Apple Store app on my phone. In practice, though, the app requires me to type my password again every time I want to check the order status, so I end up not bothering. Maybe they’ll fix this sometime within the next 5-6 weeks. In a perfect world, I could have some type of device on my wrist that could give me order updates with just a “glance.”

On the Order Status page, you’ll see the time period in an elegant but still-readable font. Apple still knows how to make the most of the user experience, giving a moment of delight as you see the estimate change from “June” to “5-6 weeks.” These displays are made possible by “complications,” a term Apple is borrowing from the hardware industry to describe things like doing a huge marketing push for a product release that depends on faulty haptic feedback engines from overseas manufacturers.

Apple makes it really easy to go back to the main store page from the Order Status page, so you can get a beautiful, detailed look at all the various models and colors of watches you don’t have. It’s fun for running “what if?” type experiments, such as “Could I cancel my order and instead get one of the dainty models with a pink band? Would that ship any faster?”

There’s also support for Apple’s new “Force Touch” technology, in which you give a long, exasperated sigh followed by a sharp slamming gesture on all of the keyboard’s keys simultaneously, or pressing a closed fist firmly and repeatedly on the laptop’s trackpad. This gives helpful feedback in the form of Safari crashing. It definitely takes some practice, but in my experience, it became second nature the more often I saw my colleagues unwrapping their just-delivered Apple Watches near my desk.

I Regret Reading a Gadget Blog Post (and I knew I would)

The Cold, Hard Sting That Can Only Happen When You Physically Open Your Wallet

Even though the watch is only available online and who the hell writes for a technology blog but still has to physically open his wallet when he buys stuff online?

He Should Try Apple Pay
Unless Maybe He Also Bought a Really Expensive Wallet, And He Just Likes the Way It Feels

As a mobile software developer in San Francisco, I’ve already seen how the release of the Apple Watch has changed my routine. During my morning workout (two reps climbing up BART station stairs, followed by an intensive 1.5 block walk), I enjoy listening to podcasts that keep me on the bleeding edge of the most disruptive of apps and innovators. (ICYMI: My essential travel gear). (I recommend Overcast for podcast-listening, even if you’re going truly old-school and changing podcast tracks on your Bluetooth headphones by manipulating actual buttons on your touchscreen-enabled wireless mobile computer).

The gang at SixColors.com has been active on various podcasts, letting me know about their experiences after initial unboxing, two days, four days, a week, and several weeks later, while traveling, writing, and recording podcasts. In addition to the roundtable discussions where groups of people discuss how the watch I don’t have yet has changed their lives, I’ve gotten answers to the questions you don’t usually think about with some cursory product review. For instance: what if you have two watches, and you can’t decide which of them you want to keep? And: now that we’ve all had the opportunity to get used to our new watches, what would we most like to see in the new version?

Another highlight: an account of the podcaster whose significant other isn’t much of a technology devotee and wasn’t that interested in the watch, became interested after seeing the podcaster use his for a few days, ordered one, received it, and is giving her first impressions. It’s a magical time, as if entire generations of wearable technology are happening all around me as I watch the Order Status page. Whole waves of Gawker Media-led backlashes are whooshing by with the lasting permanence of burrito farts, the only constants being me, a web site, and a refresh button.

After five weeks, I find I have a lot in common with Mat Smith, who wrote for Engadget a confessional thinkpiece entitled “I regret buying an Apple Watch (and I knew I would).”

Like Smith, I was initially unmoved by the announcement of a new device from Apple. I, too, had bought a Pebble watch but quickly got out of the habit of wearing it. I’ve gotten the first versions of other Apple products and often been surprised by how dramatically and how quickly they’re made obsolete by the next release. I, too, write rambling stuff on the internet that frequently makes me come across as an insufferable asshole. And I also find myself reluctantly falling back into the role of “early adopter” for the sake of completely irrational impulses — in my case, an animated Mickey Mouse watch face that taps his foot every second; in his case, enjoying buying unnecessarily expensive stuff that makes him look cool.

It was important to him to have the sapphire face and stainless steel body, whereas I have large wrists, so it really stands out when I roll my eyes and make a wanking gesture while reading the rest of his post.

We ordered different models of the watch, because we have different needs. He tried on the gold version and was invited to look at himself in a mirror, while I managed to get 10 minutes bending over a bench in an Apple store by scheduling an appointment a couple of days in advance. He fell in love with the Milanese band, while I could only justify getting the cheapest model by telling myself it was a birthday present for myself. He doodles tiny pictures of cocks to colleagues and concludes it’s not a life-changing device; I see colleagues with watches and go back to reading blog posts written by, apparently, sentient, literate cocks.

One More Thing

Adding a Semi-Pithy Coda About Consumerism to What Should Have Been a Short and Silly Blog Post to Make it Unclear How Much of Any of This Is Intended to be Sarcastic

This Is Why People Don’t Read Your Blog

For decades there’s been a tendency to be dismissive of Apple devotees as being cultish and image-obsessed, with more money than common sense. As Macs and iPhones got more ubiquitous (and cheaper), enough people caught on to the fact that good design actually has real value. There are, no doubt, plenty of people who put “shiny” and “has visible glowing Apple logo” high on their list of priorities, but I think they’re finally outnumbered by those of us who just want something that’s really well made. (And who’ve bought enough cheap computers for the sake of saving a few bucks to realize that it ends up costing more in the long run when it needs to be replaced). Now it’s only the cranks in forums and blog comments that insist on complaining about the “Apple Tax.”

When Apple announced a gold edition of its new watch, that was rumored to cost over ten thousand bucks, there were fears that it’d bring all the old class warfare back to consumer technology: the company was now explicitly targeting status-obsessed rich people.

As I look at photos of models tying up their toe shoes, or draping their watch-bedecked arms over other models to make out with them, or stopping mid-jog-through-the-Hollywood Hills, and I see the three clearly-delineated castes of watch available, and I commit a few hundred bucks to the “lowest” caste of thing that I didn’t even want a few months ago, and I get increasingly resentful of the people who already have their inessential thing, and even more annoyed when they have the more expensive version of the thing I don’t yet have (even though I wouldn’t even want the more expensive version), I’m just glad those fears turned out to be completely unfounded.

Dogpile on that thing you like

Andrew Dice Clay
Considering that Grand Theft Auto, Family Guy, and The Big Bang Theory have all received their public nerd backlashes, I’m a little surprised that I haven’t seen one against the game Cards Against Humanity yet. It’s super popular, it sells itself on being transgressive and breaking barriers of good taste; what’s the hold up?

In fact, the only indication of whether it was safe for me to say publicly how much I hate Cards Against Humanity came at the end of a Shut Up & Sit Down video review of something else a while back (which is impossible for me to find a link to at the moment, so just take my word for it). They were talking about gateway games and introducing people to the hobby, and in regards to CAH, just gave the diplomatic and tactful “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

That’s the healthiest and most mature response. Usually, whenever something I hate becomes popular, my natural tendency is to combine the endings of both Invasion of the Body Snatchers movies, running through the streets screaming about a world gone mad, pointing in accusatory horror at anyone who would dare enjoy something that I don’t. But that simple acknowledgement in a review video was enough to calm me down and pull me back into the land of the well-adjusted. It’s a filler game that doesn’t affect me in the slightest. What’s the problem?

The problem is that it does affect me, because I keep finding myself in situations where I’m in a group that wants to play Cards Against Humanity, and I end up having to grit my teeth and play along, or decline and end up looking like an over-sensitive wet blanket, or even worse, looking like I’m casting judgment on the people who want to play. I can’t think of any other game — at least one that doesn’t involve drinking or stripping — that has so much defensive social awkwardness baked in.

So I was relieved when Shut Up and Sit Down posted a three-part review of Cards Against Humanity, finally lifting the embargo and giving me permission to announce how much I hate the game and never want to play it.

For the record, I agree 99% with Matt Lees’s take, especially this:

I despise the implication that those who complain about the tone of Cards Against Humanity are approaching the topic with the mindset of a prude… I don’t need a card game to grant me permission, but I also don’t need one to absolve me from guilt.

It’s a system designed to reliably dose players with an intoxicating sense of naughtiness. Breaking social rules gives people a buzz, but frankly there are better rules to be breaking. One of the great pleasures of games is allowing yourself to briefly play a role that’s different to your own, but I can’t help but cringe when faced with the glee of people using a deck of cards to pretend they’re the square root of Jeremy Clarkson.

But there’s more to it than that, as there always is whenever something that’s frankly lazy tries to pass itself off as transgressive satire. It pulls in all these layers of defensiveness and offensiveness which isn’t actual depth, but just the typical Hipster Spiral of Irony. So here’s my attempt to unpack everything wrong with it, in convenient list form:

The makers of the game actually seem kind of cool.
For as long as I’ve been aware, the game was released in the Creative Commons, which includes an option to print your own copy. And they still have managed to make millions and millions of dollars from it. On top of that, they seem to be genuinely interested in supporting and promoting board and card games as a hobby and a “community,” instead of just swooping in for a sudden cash grab.

There shouldn’t be any resentment over how much money the game has made.
Although I’ve never watched an actual episode, I’m especially impressed with the premise of Tabletop Deathmatch, which borrows the reality show format for a series that supports and promotes aspiring game designers. Of course, it promotes Cards Against Humanity as well, which is a perfect example of the combination of marketing and “giving back” that is understood by the kind of people who make lots and lots of money.

A ton of the backlash against Penny Arcade, for instance, was obviously motivated not just by anything they were actually saying, but because they’d become wealthy enough that they became a safe target. It’s a stupid and self-destructive tendency that we (meaning nerd fans) have to try and tear down anyone who becomes successful doing something they love. We should cut it out.

That said, the game still sucks.
When they released Cards Against Humanity, they chose the tagline “A Party Game for Horrible People” as opposed to the more accurate “We Took Apples to Apples and Added AIDS Jokes.” But really, by adding cards about the Holocaust and sharts, they removed the only element of Apples to Apples that’s at all interesting. Opportunities to make any kind of interesting connection or observation in CAH is an accident at best; 99% of the game is just picking whichever card is going to result in the biggest shock value. It’s pretty much entirely passive.

A couple of times I’ve been lucky enough to play, we included my friend’s toddler as one of the players. Each round, she’d randomly pick a card to get added into the mix. She “scored” as well as anyone else did. That’s a clear sign of a terrible non-game.

I think the game sucks, not the people who play it.
A surprising number of my friends still like using it as a filler game or a time-waster, and in fact a couple of them are some of the funniest and most clever people I’ve ever met. But because of the tagline and the premise, there’s an element of defensiveness baked in: you’re saying I should feel bad for enjoying this. Or even worse: I’m playing this with a level of ironic detachment that you clearly don’t understand because you have a simplistic sense of humor.

Believe me: we get it. There are certainly people who play Cards Against Humanity the same way my friends and I tittered over a copy of Truly Tasteless Jokes when we were in middle school. You don’t sell millions of dollars worth of something without catering to everyone. But I’m fortunate enough never to have to play with those people. The groups I’ve ever had to play with are all approaching it as SF Bay Area Liberals: it’s a kind of meta-commentary on the type of asshole who thinks jokes about AIDS, child abuse, and Michael Jackson are genuinely funny.

It’s not a subtle game; the premise is right there on the box. It presents a kind of “safe space” where you can say stuff you’d never say otherwise.

I might still be silently judging you, but that’s okay.
Again, though, if you can charitably describe it as a role-playing game, the role you’re choosing to play is Jeremy Clarkson or Andrew Dice Clay. I’m the guy who’s saying things that other people can’t. It’s all juvenile stuff that just depends on trying to shock the easily offended and then passing it off as transgressive humor.

What annoys me the most when playing it isn’t when someone picks a card that hits one of my hot-button topics. It’s when somebody, before revealing their cards, gives that half-groan and says something like, “Oh, this is sooo bad,” or “Sorry about this!” with a nervous giggle. It takes all of my willpower not to just shout out Yes that’s the entire point of the game we all get that you score points by being offensive you don’t need to qualify it every single turn!

Which ends up making me feel bad, and it’s the kind of hassle I’d rather not have to deal with. I don’t have to feel bad whenever I say I don’t want to play Notre Dame or Smash Up or various other games that I don’t enjoy, so why’s there all this extra baggage around a stupid card game?

I’ve got a juvenile, “there’s no such thing as too lowbrow” sense of humor, and I still giggle when I hear the word “duty.” There have been billions of times I’ve made a joke and gotten a reaction from friends as if I’d just farted directly onto their face. I don’t take it personally, so nobody should take it personally when I announce that their game is stupid and I hate it.

It’s not about genuine offense, or political correctness.
Part of the reason I think my objection to a simple filler card game warrants a blog post is because there are so many different interpretations of why it sucks. There are three in that Shut Up & Sit Down review, all of which I agree (and disagree) with to some degree. There’s also this brief write-up on Offworld, which I don’t agree with.

I’m not particularly concerned with the type of player who’d start talking about political correctness or free speech or being “edgy” with this game, because as I said, I’m lucky enough never to have to play with that type of person. The problem isn’t that it’s offensive, the problem is that it’s lazy. There’s nothing there.

It’s not about “punching down.”
I’ve already seen plenty of condemnations of the game and apologia for the game that both talk about “punching up” and “punching down.” I’ve got zero patience for this; I think it’s some of the worst fallout from the modern trend towards pop-progressivism on the Internet. Simply because if you’re talking about treating people well and fairly, it shouldn’t involve any talk of “punching.” If you’re truly interested in equality, diversity, and all the other things that progressives are supposed to concern about, then acceptable treatment of people should have nothing to do with their race, gender, sexuality, or wealth.

Removing cards is kind of gross.
The only thing that I do find genuinely offensive about Cards Against Humanity is when I hear about people who remove certain cards before they play. To each his own, of course, but I think this is just downright horrible.

It introduces a kind of ghoulish Calculus of Appropriate Speech. It defies the whole premise of the game (flimsy as it is), which insists that everything is fair game because none of this is real. As soon as you start removing cards because they hit on taboo subjects, then you’re saying that some of it is real. That you are actually making jokes at someone’s expense, instead of mocking the horribleness of the whole concept. Which raises the question of where these players are drawing the line. How can it be unacceptable to make light of child abuse and sexual assault, but acceptable to keep cracks about AIDS or the Holocaust?

I do understand the concept of triggers and post-traumatic stress, and how something that seems perfectly innocuous to me can cause an actual physiological reaction in people who’ve had to go through with it. And believe it or not, I’m sympathetic to that. But I insist that it’s not at all crass or insensitive to suggest that if someone is harmed by the content of a card game that’s designed to be offensive, you’d be better off playing Dixit. Otherwise, you’re suggesting that some of the content is to be taken seriously, and you really are engaged in the activity of making fun of other people’s horror or misfortune for fun.

Stop trying to define what’s acceptable in stuff that’s intended to be offensive.
It goes back, yet again, to one of the worst things I’ve read on the internet, the Jezebel article that tried to delineate exactly how and when it’s acceptable to make light of sexual assault, using discussions of positions of power, CDC statistics, and a counter-example of being horribly mangled by an industrial thresher. It’s a clumsy (no matter how well-intentioned) attempt to codify something for which there’s a simple, straightforward answer: it’s never okay to make light of sexual assault. The reason comedians like Louis CK and Sarah Silverman seem to get away with it isn’t complicated; it’s simply because they’re not making light of it.

And the reason it’s worth pointing out over and over again is because I honestly believe it’s lowering the level of discourse. We keep having cyclical flare-ups when people just fail to get how not to be awful, and the response doesn’t help, but instead perpetuates it. Simple-minded people already talk as if there’s some rulebook somewhere of Arbitrary Rules That The Liberals Have Imposed On Our Society, and they’re not sharing it with the conservatives. Whenever someone suggests that it’s okay for somebody to make offensive jokes because of some arbitrary social status, you’re just perpetuating the idea that it really is arbitrary.

If you think it’s arbitrary, you don’t get it. There’s no simple rulebook or actuarial table of how age or economic background factor into what you’re allowed to say. You’ve got to think about what’s actually being said, not just the words that are being used, or who’s talking. And if you don’t get that, then please, for the love of Pete, stop trying to explain it.

Cards Against Humanity isn’t representative of board and card games.
If I’m being honest: of all the objections raised in that Shut Up & Sit Down review, I think Paul’s are the weakest. CAH has been embraced by the “post-Catan wave” of board and card game enthusiasts, but it remains its own thing. Even the aforementioned Dixit or Apples to Apples are more likely to be “gateway” games for new players, simply because they’re actually games. (However simple they might be). I don’t believe Cards Against Humanity has any real aspirations to “game-ness,” because of all its built-in ironic disclaimers and presenting itself as more of a social activity than an actual game.

Frankly, I think that claiming to be concerned about the impression it gives to new gamers is just a crutch to make it “okay” to say how much you hate it. (And I mention it because I’ve been tempted to do exactly that). I can justify hating on Grand Theft Auto because each release of the series is such a huge event that it becomes shorthand for “This Is What Video Games Are.” Even the people who love Cards Against Humanity would acknowledge that it’s a filler, and that it doesn’t represent the game industry any more than Family Guy represents animation.

And I really do think it’s worth repeating that the makers of Cards Against Humanity are frequently sponsoring gaming events and evangelizing the hobby. I do wish they were doing it with an actual game, but that just brings us back full circle to the “rising tide lifts all boats” philosophy.

For my part, I’m just happy that now that I’ll never again have to explain to anyone why I don’t want to play it.

Avengers: Age of Um, Not So Much

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I’ve been avoiding reading reviews of Avengers: Age of Ultron, to avoid spoilers. I recommend you do the same, since I’m not going to make any effort to avoid spoiling everything here.

My short review: it’s very good, and I liked it a lot. It’s also 100% a Joss Whedon movie, for better and for worse.

While I didn’t read the reviews themselves, I was reading the headlines and summations. There seemed to be one bit of consensus in particular: it was supposedly more franchise than fun, a case of all the joyous excess of The Avengers finally starting to collapse under the weight of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

I don’t agree. I didn’t love it as much as The Avengers, or Iron Man, or even Captain America, and it was largely because it had to strain under the weight of decades of movies, television series, and comic book. But not Marvel’s. The ghosts of franchises and formulas past were from Firefly, Serenity, Angel, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.


If you were to have described to me all the stuff that appears in Age of Ultron, the part I would’ve expected to be the most insufferable would be “Ultron is an advanced artificial intelligence that talks like Xander Harris.”

In practice, though: yeah, not so much. It’s not particularly overdone, and in the end comes across not as “Self-aware supervillain as the writer’s self-effacing defense mechanism” but “this was an AI created by Robert Downey Jr.’s version of Tony Stark.” Sure, he does a comment about revealing his super-villainous plan — itself a bit of self-awareness at least as old as Watchmen, to the point that that’s become even more of a cliche. But it’s incidental to its scene, and ends up feeling more like another reminder of Tony Stark’s responsibility in the whole thing.

It’s also a constant reminder that Joss Whedon is speaking through all of these characters. And it was kind of hard to “turn him off.” Related: I either never knew that James Spader was the voice of Ultron, or I forgot. I thought it sounded like Ty Burrell, so I spent the entire movie picturing him whenever Ultron came on screen.

But I like Joss Whedon, a lot, so what’s the problem? The problem is when all the tics and mannerisms are so familiar that they threaten to overpower everything else.

Towards the climax (reminder that this is a pretty big spoiler, in case “towards the climax” wasn’t enough of a clue), there’s a “ha we have masterfully played off of your expectations” moment. Hawkeye has spent the entire movie with the Grim Reaper looming over his shoulder: he’s injured early on, he questions his value to the team, he has an idyllic visit with his family and a heart-to-heart with his wife, he says both that he’s made his final addition to his peaceful farmhouse and makes plans for one more as soon as this mission is over. He even says out loud that he doesn’t know who’ll be coming back alive.

But then no! It’s Quicksilver who heroically sacrifices himself, much like, say, a leaf on the wind. And he calls back to his rival Hawkeye’s earlier dialogue with the line “Bet you didn’t see that one coming.”

Except those of us who’ve spent the last couple of decades watching Joss Whedon’s stuff respond with a Whedon-esque “Actually, yeah, we kinda did.” It’s not even just a precedent from Serenity (and Dr. Horrible, and Buffy, and Angel); it was in the first Avengers movie! Agent Coulson is still practically standing right there, and they’re trying to act like Killing Someone In Act 3 still has any element of surprise or weight to it.

Even more frustrating is when it’s not just all the old familiar tics and mannerisms and favorite cliches, but the entire sensibility that threatens to overwhelm everything else.

One of the reasons the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” has been so successful is that they’ve been unafraid to let directors bring their own sensibilities to each character. So Iron Man feels like a romantic comedy with robot suits, Thor feels a little bit like a modern take on a Shakespearean tragedy, and Captain America feels like The Rocketeer with a bigger budget and better CG. (I guess DC has done the same, more or less, but it requires you to like Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan’s sensibilities). It was a great fit for Avengers, as well: it had to be epic and packed full of stuff, so it was important to get somebody who could have huge, effects- and action-heavy sequences and keep it character-focused and have lots of good-looking people being flippant and charming to keep the whole thing from collapsing under its own weight.

Age of Ultron is also packed full of stuff, but somehow, none of it feels all that important. Which is a drag, because I think it made the right decisions going in:

  • It doesn’t pretend that the Avengers are anything other than a superhero team. All the “can these misfits work together?” drama was covered in the last movie, so this one starts right away with a big, complicated fight sequence in which it was clear to everyone that the Avengers were going to win. There’s even dialogue to that effect: one of the bad guys asks whether they can withstand the attack, and a henchman simply replies, “It’s the Avengers.”
  • Knowing that “will they win?” isn’t a valid question, the story puts all of the weight onto character conflict. The reason Scarlet Witch is a threat isn’t because she can overpower them, but that she could cause them all to collapse under their own personal baggage.
  • Even with that, the story knows exactly how far it can take the question of whether they’ll all turn on each other — because we know that even if they do, they’ll work around it by the end — and uses it as an impediment instead of a major crisis. The major crisis instead becomes completely character-driven: they have to deal with the left-over “psychic residue” of the Scarlet Witch’s attacks.
  • And that doesn’t take the form of self-doubt (because again: we’ve already seen them effortlessly taking down bad guys), but questioning what they want. Much more interesting than the question “can I win this fight?” is the question “do I really want to keep fighting?”
  • That cleverly side-steps the whole question of “why is Hawkeye even on this team?” The movie still asks that question outright, and answers it, but the implied answer is even stronger: Hawkeye’s the only one of them who has a “normal” life available to him, which is ostensibly what they’re all fighting for.
  • And that most obviously drives the whole romantic subplot between Black Widow and Bruce Banner, which is handled surprisingly maturely for a “comic book movie.” But it also drives the main plot, which is justifying the creation of Ultron: it states outright that the whole reason for the Avengers to exist is to create a world in which the Avengers don’t need to exist.
  • There’s a party scene that’s presented as if it’s meant to be aspirational: a bunch of clever, beautiful people having fun in a penthouse overlooking Manhattan. The recurring theme — from Rhodey Rhodes’s story about tossing a tank to the various attempt to pick up Thor’s hammer — is how much better these guys have it than “normal people.” The entire rest of the story seems to be questioning that scene: what are they doing, exactly, and why are they doing it? I liked the detail of ending the movie with Avengers Headquarters in a more nondescript, ground-level building outside of Manhattan.
  • “Who would win in a fight?” is a staple of superhero comic books, so we get the huge, destructive showdown between Hulk and Iron Man punching each other through buildings. But it’s framed to be both gratuitous and important to the theme: when the heroes are flying around smashing things, they’re making things worse for the civilians they’re trying to protect.
  • Which ties in yet again with Scarlet Witch & Quicksilver’s story, and puts almost all the emphasis of the climactic fight scene on their efforts to save people, instead of just beating the bad guy. (Which is itself kind of an interesting flip on the fight scene in the first Avengers; the destructive fall-out from that was the basis of a lot of follow-up stories, Daredevil in particular. Here they seem to have actually learned something from the experience). The question isn’t presented as “will they win?” but instead, “how many people will be hurt or killed when they win?”

In theory, it all fits together elegantly, giving the entire movie a nice solid through-line. It’s packed full of characters and sub-plots and franchise set-ups, and nothing feels out of place.

In practice, though, it just kind of drains the urgency out of the whole thing. I kept feeling as if the movie was making assumptions about what I should consider important. Ultron’s plan was never quite clear to me — extinction events and meteors kept getting mentioned, but they just seemed like metaphors — so I could never gauge how dangerous I was supposed to believe he was. I started to wonder whether my lack of a Marvel upbringing was working against me. Would I just “get” how he’s the baddest and most unstoppable of bad guys if I’d read the comics? After all, the Avengers seem to have no problem defeating infinite numbers of robots, vibranium/adamantium enhanced or not.

(I’ve read The Infinity Gauntlet but I still can’t for the life of me understand why people are so excited about even the smallest reference to it. “Is it like their equivalent to Crisis on Infinite Earths?“)

Normally, I’ve got a love/hate relationship with self-awareness in movies and books: it’s not just that I appreciate it when a writer respects my intelligence; I really do believe that it can trigger a kind of connection between the artist and the audience that’s impossible to get from something that’s completely earnest, no matter how honest it is. It’s an acknowledgement of the artificiality of fiction, and an implicit understanding that both the artist and the audience have at least one thing in common: we all know how this works.

But I started to wonder if the self-awareness in Age of Ultron had gone a bit too far into the realm of over-thinking it. It wasn’t arch, or really any other flavor of ironic detachment that you get when an artist feels that he’s better than the material he’s working with. Instead, it just felt kind of weary. The ending felt almost confessional, as if everyone involved would be happier just riding off with Tony Stark and getting out of the Gigantic Multi-feature Franchise business.

Maybe the over-inflated threats, villainous monologues, and crises of self-doubt that get resolved just in time for act 3 are in comic book stories because they need to be there. Maybe they’re not just lazy fallbacks that we’ve seen too many times already; maybe their familiarity is part of the appeal, why we keep going back for superhero stories in the first place.

I’ve said before that I was always more a DC guy than a Marvel guy. What’s been great about all the (good) Marvel adaptations is that you get a real sense of how excited people are about these characters. It’s as if they’re sharing their childhoods with us. That enthusiasm was in the first Avengers movie. Age of Ultron is still good, but it feels like they got all that enthusiasm out of their system. Which is a bizarre thing to say about a movie in which the Hulk and a witch fight legions of robots on a floating city, but there you have it.