If You Was a Pedant You’d Understand

Enjoying pointless endeavors like encouraging the correct use of language and finding fault with years-old internet video essays


For various reasons — including, no doubt, sins I committed in previous lifetimes — I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube lately. I wonder if it’s fundamentally changed my temperament: a year or so ago I would’ve thought it was ridiculous to spend time watching other people go to theme parks or play video games. Now, I still think it’s completely ridiculous, but it’s also quite pleasant.

It also means that I end up watching a lot of video essays and end up forming really strong opinions about inconsequential topics. (The whole world of “video responses” used to be bafflingly alien to me, but now I kind of get why you’d want to set up a camera and lighting to explain exactly how someone else was wrong).

Other times, though, they hit closer to home. They violate everything that we civilized people hold to be good and true, such as Tom Scott’s outrageous claim that the difference between “less” and “fewer” is purely pedantic.

For the record: I do get the irony in writing an essay to explain how I’m not actually pedantic. But this one especially bugs me because:

  1. I’m constantly hearing it called “pedantic”
  2. Without fail, everyone who calls it “pedantic” goes on to hypocritically complain about something even more pedantic
  3. Technically, a list should always contain at least three items

I’ve heard the complaint from no fewer than a dozen people over the years, and from no less than Stephen Fry himself. Scott claims that it’s a prescriptive distinction; it’s an assertion of how people should speak instead of an observation of how they actually speak. The idea is supposedly that for those of us who think it sounds wrong enough to be jarring, we’re making the distinction just so that we can feel superior, even though the meaning is perfectly clear either way.

But there is an actual distinction between the two, even though Scott’s video calls the distinction “dodgy” and relegates it to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it footnote. “Fewer” is used for things you can count; “less” is used for more generalized or indistinct things or concepts. Or in other words, “fewer” relates to “number,” while “less” relates to “amount.” (And yeah, it’s jarring to me when people say stuff like “a smaller amount of people,” too).

Everyone can decide for herself whether it’s a big enough distinction to care about, but it’d be disingenuous to say that there’s no distinction. I’m definitely not an authority in linguistics, but I do know that the Japanese language has different counting words for cylindrical objects, flat objects, abstract concepts, and so on. The video that made me discover Tom Scott’s channel in the first place was this one about “language features” such as that, and the importance of preserving endangered languages, since they sometimes have concepts and ways of thinking of and expressing concepts that don’t exist in other languages.

I agree with that part. It’s why, for one example, I started writing “everyone can decide for herself” after years of dismissing it as arbitrary political correctness. Since the “feature” that English lacks is a truly gender-neutral singular pronoun, using “she” is no more or less correct than using “he.” (It is more correct than “they,” because if we’re going to stop caring about subject-verb agreement then we might as well just go back to banging rocks together and grunting). But the whole argument is that language is about more than just being “correct;” it’s about expressiveness, and choosing “he” as the arbitrary default expresses assumptions about what’s normal and what’s an exception. It’s rarely intentional expression, but it’s still there, whether or not you choose to spell it “womyn.”

Obviously, “can I count it?” is a much less charged and much less important question than “can I systematically oppress it?” but it’s still a concept that we can express in English. It seems hypocritical to spend an entire video defending all the nuances and connotations that languages can express, and then spend another video insisting that two words in English are interchangeable and anyone who says otherwise is a pompous know-it-all.

One of my favorite podcasters is Helen Zaltzman, of The Allusionist and Answer Me This. She’s made the assertion that the difference between “less” and “fewer” is purely pedantic. But she’s also said several times that her pet peeve is when people say “and I” instead of “and me,” and vice-versa; as in, “The rings of power were given to Galadriel and I.” It sounds jarring to me, too, but ultimately that is a purely prescriptive distinction. Whether a word’s the subject or object of a sentence or clause is purely a grammatical rule, and it doesn’t change the meaning or make it any more difficult to understand.

Above anything else, though, I think the key thing to realize is that I need to watch less YouTube. Or if you prefer, I need to watch fewer video essays. If nothing else, it’d save me the cognitive dissonance of watching this video of the Nerdwriter bitching about how selfies and pictures of food are ruining Instagram by turning it into a gross platform for personal branding (an allegation I take personally!), and then seeing his Instagram feed filled with photos of himself eating food in Venice with his girlfriend. Maybe the key thing to realize is that people writing blog posts and making videos online need to be a hell of a lot less judgmental.

The Right People

About the return of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the creepy complexities of nerd ownership


There’s a new season of a new version of Mystery Science Theater 3000 running on Netflix and I’ve been enjoying the hell out of it. Cry Wilderness is my favorite episode so far; I love the band playing “classic” MST3k songs like “Wild Rebels” and “Creepy Girl;” and even as much as I hate change, all the new cast quickly won me over.

My only complaints: I have a hard time telling the guys’ voices apart, and the pacing is rushed. It feels like they’re trying to cram too much into a show that was originally designed specifically to kill as much screen time as possible. The recurring gimmick that Jonah gets sucked out of the satellite to re-enact the opening credits seems weird and unnecessary. And the mad scientist segments are no longer shot with a Batman ’66-style dutch angle, which was one of my favorite subtle gags from the original.

Well, those are my only legitimate complaints. My main complaint is that all of a sudden out of nowhere, there are thousands of other MST3k fans who claim to enjoy the series as much as I do.

The series was formative for me. It didn’t just play into my sense of humor; it helped define it. I still find myself using phrases I picked up from the show without realizing it. I can distinctly remember the first time I watched it, and the joke that got me instantly hooked. (From Robot Holocaust, “Is that Wendy, or Lisa?”) My .plan file had an animated version of the “Turn Down Your Lights (Where Applicable)” opening. (Yeah, I just used USENET as evidence of nerd cred).

But that’s not particularly unique, as it turns out. I had to get my animated ASCII art from somewhere, after all. There were thousands of MSTies in the info club, and I’d see photos and video from conventions and such. I went to a screening of Zombie Nightmare at UGA during a college tour, and the theater was filled with hundreds of obsessive fans. Cinematic Titanic and RiffTrax live shows in San Francisco would have lines around the block. Obviously, a lot of the cast of the new MST3k are there specifically because they were huge fans of the original.

It should create a kind of camaraderie, which is why it’s odd to see the long list of Kickstarter backers at the end of each episode and feel a bit deflated. In this review of the new series on “What the Flick?”, Alonso Duralde points out that nerds have taken over pop culture, for better or worse, and “I long for outsiderdom.” Of course, it’s completely irrational — even counter-productive — to begrudge something you love becoming successful. But it does inevitably change the dynamic to go from feeling like the creators of the show are talking directly to me, and then to find out it’s more like they’re talking to thousands of people, and I’m listening in.

“Missing Richard Simmons” didn’t do a lot for me overall, but one of the few “larger themes” of it was the asymmetric relationship between a creator or a celebrity and their fans. It’s not accusatory or anything; even artists who knock themselves out being accessible and personable will inevitably run into the fact that it’s a one-to-many relationship. And while the internet does bring fans of weird niche stuff together, it’s perversely isolating, because it reminds you that you’re not all that special.

It’s not entirely my weird nerd neuroses at play, either; I think Joel Hodgson is at least partly to blame. There’s an old quote from Joel that MST3k fans tend to love: “We never say, ‘Who’s gonna get this?’ We always say, ‘The right people will get this.'” In 2017, it can seem a tiny bit insufferable, but for those of us who were fans of a weird puppet show in the early 90s, it was like being inducted into a special private club. I’m one of the right people!

Even though it’s a bit disappointing to find out that my super-special private club wasn’t all that exclusive after all, the show’s still a heck of a lot of fun. Coming from a skeptical and overly-possessive fan, that’s high praise. Even though it feels “bigger,” more polished, and it forgoes the original’s awkward charm for more confident gags, it’s still resolutely its own thing. I found that I enjoyed it a lot more when I stopped trying to compare it to the original and just watched it on its own merits. After all, it’s just a show.

Cyber-Hot Take Strike Force 2017: The Reckoning

Reports from an alternate timeline where the sky’s the color of a television tuned to a dead channel.


Like everybody else in the US, I saw the story about a man being beaten and dragged off a United Airlines flight for refusing to “volunteer” the seat he’d paid for. Seeing friends’ reactions to it on Facebook beat and dragged me just far enough out of my white middle-class bubble to realize that yes, it’s almost definitely the case that the man’s ethnicity played a factor in how far it was allowed to escalate. Fortunately for you, the reader, it didn’t drag me far enough out of my white middle-class bubble to convince me that the internet wasn’t interested in hearing my opinion about it.

When I saw the video that had been recorded and broadcast by a passenger on the plane, I was sitting in San Francisco at my job writing social media software for mobile supercomputers. I watched the video on my touchscreen-enabled internet-connected tablet computer, playing in a window on the screen around the comments coming in live from viewers around the country, next to a sidebar describing how the reality TV celebrity who was now the President of the United States had authorized military theater missile strikes on another country without Congress’s permission.

And in response to one of the most viscerally blatant abuses of power against a person in an objectively, grossly unfair situation, reaction was mixed. Outrage against United Airlines was running neck and neck with assertions that the real problem is the guy didn’t do what he was told.

It was at that point when I realized son of a bitch, I’m living in a shitty 1990s corporate-run future dystopia.

I spent years making fun of those things as being hackneyed and adolescent. I rejected anti-corporate paranoia as sophomoric, literally — the kind of thing that college students choose as My First Liberal Outrage Experience on their way to becoming truly Woke. Now here I am just one cybernetic implant away from living it.

What’s especially magical about the United Airlines incident is how it combines so many 21st Century United States attitudes into one thoroughly unproductive and distressing conversation. There’s absolutely a streak of the “Conform! Embrace the police state!” types, but it’s at least tempered with — if not actually overwhelmed by — the kind of lazy, cynical, apathy that pervades everything in 2017. Even cheering the Chicago PD for beating up a guy would be taking too strong a stand. Instead, you get more of the “Well, actually, FAA regulations state that…” contingent.

They’re not defending United, oh no. They just want to make it clear that it’s not as simple as you’re making it sound. There are just so many shades of gray to the issue of a corporation requesting the physical assault of a civilian for not peacefully complying with the fact that they’re denying him the service that he paid for.

(And yeah, I will go to the easy comparison: it’s the same thing you heard a lot of before and after the election. People kept insisting that they’re not necessarily a supporter of Trump, but then would go on to defend one of the hundreds of completely reprehensible and un-American policies he proposed during his campaign. “Look, I’m no fan of the man who openly mocked a disabled reporter during a campaign speech, I just believe in common sense immigration reform, like a multi-billion dollar wall between two peaceful trading partners.”)

So now I’m in the biofuel-powered hoverboat of someone who knows enough about crappy 90s dystopian sci-fi to be able to make fun of it, but not enough to actually live in it. And on the bright side, if we had to pick one thing from the late 80s and early 90s and agree that we were going to make that our future, we could’ve done worse. At least we’re not all living in a global version of that 4 Non Blondes video.

Harambe of Darkness

Kong: Skull Island is a focus-grouped action movie franchise launch, but it’s clever and artistic enough to avoid being disposable and forgettable.


There’s a lot that Kong: Skull Island gets right. Making it a post-Vietnam War period piece is the first, most obvious good idea. Peter Jackson’s King Kong was a period piece, too, but it felt like a tedious, overlong homage to the original. Skull Island doesn’t feel like it’s paying homage to the 1976 version so much as agreeing with that movie that the 1970s were a pretty rad time for giant ape cinema. (Not a great time for Jeff Bridges, though).

The setting is about 95% visual and only 5% thematic. The whole thing is infused with a sense of the futility of war, paranoia about conspiracies and shadow governments, pessimism about man’s ability to solve problems, and a burgeoning sense of respect for the environment. I honestly couldn’t tell you if all of that is actually in the movie, or if it’s just subliminal holdover from a childhood in the 70s.

Regardless of whether they wanted the post-war attitude, though, they absolutely wanted the post-war aesthetic. The Apocalypse Now homages are visible throughout all of the marketing, but the designers of Kong: Skull Island were clearly going for the Deep Cuts. Costumes, cameras, ordinance, and electronics are all chosen as if they were being used by the Dharma Initiative. In the beginning of the movie, there are several shots of rotary phones that seem to fetishize them as even more fascinating and exotic than giant spiders.

For me, the end result is that the entire movie feels like an animated Mondo poster. (Ironically, this is the one time I actually prefer the movie’s actual marketing to the Mondo versions). There’s an aggressive sense of aesthetics all throughout the movie: every shot is lit or framed or color graded to look like graphic design as much as cinematography. Most of the fight sequences feel like transitions from one storyboard to the next; Kong will smack a giant skullcrawler into the frame and the pose looks almost like something from the opening of Batman.

The reason I mention Mondo is because the design seems as conceptual as it is graphic. The aesthetics are chosen for their connotations; it cleverly plays on nostalgia, familiarity, and audience expectations. Skull Island isn’t as full of direct reference to Apocalypse Now (or Platoon, or Full Metal Jacket) as the trailers suggested, but it feels like it’s making constant references to it because the imagery is so potent.

Ultimately, though, it feels about as deep as an animated Mondo poster, too. The movie’s entertaining and never feels dull, but there’s almost nothing surprising about it, either. (“Almost” because I wasn’t expecting the moment that introduced the giant spiders). It’s clever, but it doesn’t say anything apart from the standard “respect the majesty of nature” you’d expect from any respectable King Kong story.

The characters exist only to have a dramatic entrance and, where possible, a dramatic death scene, with no arc or change in between. And really, that’s fine for an action movie. The downside is that it made it feel more like a slasher movie than a monster movie, where impactful death scenes had to be shoehorned in even when pacing hadn’t allowed for any genuine characterization or sense of attachment. Plus, I’d been hoping they’d be modern and clever enough to sidestep any romance, but the leads do end up falling in love for no reason.

I’m assuming that the lack of anything surprising or challenging is largely due to aggressive focus-group testing and franchise building. I didn’t follow any of the pre-release marketing or gossip around Kong: Skull Island, but I’ve heard that Kong grew dramatically between the first teasers and the finished movie. Even without knowing the backstory, it’s clear in some parts that any sharp edges had been thoroughly sanded down over the course of production, and it’s clear that other scenes were stitched together as best they could despite continuity-breaking changes.

(For instance: somehow Kong manages to reach inside a monster and pull out its guts while simultaneously holding a human unharmed wrapped up inside his fist. This bothers my suspension of disbelief even more than the notion of an ape that can hold a human unharmed inside its fist).

And I’m not sure why we’re supposed to be coy and secretive about the post-credits sequence; it couldn’t be more obvious what franchise they’re trying to build. They put “from the producers of Godzilla” all over the marketing, and I’m skeptical that they’re banking on the tremendous success of the most recent Godzilla movie.

Kong: Skull Island is much, much better than the 2014 Godzilla, and it’s actually much better than a monster movie needs to be. (I enjoyed it a lot more than Peter Jackson’s Kong, too). That’s almost entirely due to casting — John C Reilly is the only one given anything to work with, but every actor makes the absolute best of his or her part — and set direction, which is where all the creativity lies.

I still say that the secret to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s success is that they were brave enough to allow for auteur-driven franchise installments. So Joe Johnston could remake The Rocketeer with a bigger budget, and Jon Favreau could turn Iron Man into an indie romantic comedy, and Joss Whedon could continue to kill off beloved side characters at the beginning of Act 3. Kong: Skull Island doesn’t have any sense of being an artist’s personal work; it feels like an artist came up with a high concept and an aesthetic but wasn’t allowed to follow through completely. It leaves me wondering what could’ve happened if they’d tried to be weirder and more original.

P.S. The “related links” at the end of this post took me to my earlier review of Peter Jackson’s King Kong, which I hadn’t read in 12 years. Apparently I loved it at the time, which is not how I remember it at all. Maybe I was a lot easier to please at the time, because now I just remember its being three hours of Jack Black and Adrian Brody-filled tedium and maudlin scenes in Central Park. I guess I’m due for a re-watch, but to be honest I’d rather just ride the Universal Studios Hollywood tour again.

The Road Not Taken

Playdead’s “Inside” is a beautiful and horrible masterpiece, but it also feels like it reveals a hard limit on what video games are capable of. Spoilers throughout, so please don’t read this until you’ve finished the game.

Inside screenshot
Inside is easily one of the best games of 2016, and it deserves a place in any list of the best games of the decade. It’s relentlessly intriguing, almost always preferring subtle, disturbing imagery to spectacle, but still finding a way to top itself over and over again with an even more surprising or evocative scene.

Like Limbo, it’s unapologetically brutal, but unlike Limbo, it seems dispassionately so. That game had the tone of a dark, corrupted fairy tale, and so there was still a trace of sentimentality about the young boy protagonist even as it showed him getting gored by a giant spider or crushed in a bear trap. There’s no sign of sympathy for the young boy the player controls in Inside. He’ll be pursued by faceless men in suits, shot, strangled, have his throat torn out by wild dogs, stabbed by strange cables that drop from the sky and kill him instantly, disintegrated by a concussion blast, crushed, drowned, or pulverized, dozens upon dozens of times. The game simply observes all of this silently, showing the death with hardly a shrug before starting you back at the last checkpoint.

After a couple of hours playing Inside, I started to find the dispassionate silence after the boy’s death to be even more unsettling than the death animation. There’s no one freaking out, screaming “Snaaaake!” over this kid’s body. Part of the game’s oppressive tone is the idea that your protagonist isn’t just alone, but is completely disposable.

It’s part of how Inside manages to be simultaneously beautiful and horrible. Or maybe, like The Road, it mires the audience in a world that’s so relentlessly gray and cruel and bleak that it makes us able to appreciate the profound beauty in simpler things. Or maybe it’s just got really fantastic lighting. In any case, it’s a platformer that rejects — almost violently rejects — the reward structure typical of platformers. For instance, here’s a game that has you repeatedly watch your avatar drown because a section is just a little too far to swim without solving some puzzle first. And then: it grants you a cool submersible that lets you explore freely with no time pressure, and which even lets you start smashing through walls!

Except of course Inside can’t just give you something to make your life easier. Instead, it has to raise the “what in the hell is that thing?!” factor with horrible sea-children who want nothing more than to smash your submersible, drown you, and drag your corpse to the bottom of the ocean. And yet: the sight of their freakishly long hair flowing in the water as you cast your light on them is undeniably, almost hypnotically beautiful.

And it can’t be emphasized enough: Inside does everything it does elegantly and wordlessly. There’s no dialogue conveying the mood of your character or his pursuers. There are no signs telling you where to go. There are no hint systems pointing you to the solutions to puzzles. It just takes your innate desire to keep moving your character to the right to find out what happens next, and then relies on brilliant level design, animation, sound design, and the subtle use of color and lighting, to guide you through to the end. That means that you process everything in the game on a more visual and visceral level than on a verbal one. You find the solutions to puzzles by experimentation. You pick up on the mood and tone of the game by feeling it instead of by having it described or explained. There’s so much in the game that’s still unexplained, open for the player’s own interpretation and projection.

That impresses me so much, after having worked in places where there’s been so much pressure to compromise, over-simplify, and over-explain. Studio heads shitting themselves over the prospect of a player feeling even a moment’s frustration or confusion, and trying to justify it as some kind of artistic accessibility instead of just fear of a lost sale. It’s incredibly refreshing to see a game that simply refuses to explain itself, trusting that players worth pursuing aren’t the drooling simpletons that marketing departments make them out to be. And even better: a game that rejects the notion of the player as center of the universe.

Spoilers

All that would be true even if the game ended about 20-30 minutes earlier, and it had been “about” nothing more than a young boy trying to escape a horrible and beautiful nightmare world. But of course, it doesn’t. It has a young boy escaping into an observation tank in the center of that nightmare world, at which point the game goes absolutely apeshit bonkers.

Even though I started Inside around the time it was released in June of 2016, I didn’t finish it until a couple of days ago. It does such a good job of driving home its bleak mood that playing it made me anxious, and I kept procrastinating getting back into it until it started being mentioned again in terms of game-of-the-year lists. So I’m genuinely impressed that I went so long without having the internet spoil the ending of the game for me.

Usually, even the best-intentioned reviews manage to spoil an experience a little: simply knowing that something is “spoil-able” is enough to make me spend the whole time watching for the twist. Inside manages to sidestep that as well, by virtue of its own stubborn, uncompromising integrity. I’d heard that the end of the game was weird, so after playing through multiple scenes involving mind control helmets, I’d been expecting yet another tedious reveal that broke the fourth wall and confronted the player with the question: who’s really in control here? I’m sorry, did I just blow your mind?!

As it turns out, the ending can be interpreted as a commentary on control and free will. But it’s so, so much better, grosser, and more disturbing than anything I ever would’ve imagined. Any respect that I had for the developers for being uncompromising on the base game is multiplied by 100 after seeing the ending. I can’t even imagine trying to pitch that concept to some of the chicken-shit marketing teams — sorry, “risk averse” marketing teams — at studios I’ve worked at.

I’d be fine with giving a Danish game studio infinite high-fives for having the integrity to make an uncompromising game with an uncompromisingly bizarre and gross finale. But the finale isn’t just bold; it’s really smart as well.

At least, if you buy my interpretation of the ending: the player’s avatar throughout the entire game has been the monstrosity in the tank at the end. The little boy was actually just another of the zombies/golems you encounter throughout the world, being controlled by the monstrosity in an effort to free itself and escape the facility.

It’s not a particularly out-there interpretation. I’ve heard that there’s a “secret cutscene” in the game (that I’ll never see, since it depends on collectibles) that reinforces it, and it’s the same interpretation (more or less) than JJ Sutherland explained on the Shall We Play a Game? podcast. I’m confident that it’s reasonable and makes sense, but I don’t want to be so reductive as to say this is what the game means.

But while I was playing Inside, I found myself getting increasingly frustrated that the game seemed to be running into the wall of what’s possible for a platformer to express — if not in fact for any video game to express. The game was trying all kinds of new bold, mature, and tonally perfect stuff, but there was a dissonance between that immersive and disturbing experience, and all the gamey-ness of a platformer. The limitations of what the player can interact with in the environment. The puzzles that would’ve been almost impossible to solve without having my character die at least once. The repetitive format of entering a new environment and solving a puzzle in order to progress to the next environment. When the game is working so well artistically, the cracks in suspension of disbelief become more and more jarring and grating.

If that interpretation is correct, and the entire game is spent controlling a creature in a tank attached to remote-mind-control devices, then that at least gives my annoyances with Inside a purpose in the fiction, even if they don’t exonerate the genre completely:

Trial and error by dying and repeating

I can’t recall any instance where Inside mechanically requires your character to die before you can solve a puzzle. I wouldn’t be surprised to see speed-runners able to make it through the entire game without dying once. But realistically and practically, there’s no way a player would be able to make it through the game without dying. For the majority of puzzles, seeing the character’s death is what defines the obstacle you’re trying to get past in the first place.

As the puzzles get more difficult, that aspect of the game gets more annoying. It robs the game of any sense of accomplishment, or the player of any sense of real cleverness, when you’re reduced to clumsily trying the same thing over and over until you stumble onto the solution that doesn’t have a small child violently murdered. And of course, each death chips away at the suspension of disbelief, since you’re starting again with information you couldn’t possibly have had otherwise.

Which makes sense if “you” aren’t a little boy, but in fact a gross blob of body parts that is running an endless parade of disposable little boys through a gauntlet of death traps all so you can sit in sunlight for once. That would add a disturbing layer to everything else disturbing about the game: knowing that each new “life” was actually a cut in time. The blob had had to start over with a new little boy golem and re-run through the entire course of the game up to that exact moment.

No motivation except moving to the right

The setup of Inside is incredibly intriguing, and there are still so many richly detailed set pieces left unexplained — for instance, what’s the deal with the concussion blasts that will disintegrate your body instantly if you’re not protected by a metal object? But the game’s refusal to tell you what’s going on — which would be respectable on its own — creates an ever-widening gap between the character’s motivation and the player’s motivation. There were several moments where my forward momentum stopped, and I no longer had any clue what I was even trying to do apart from “reach the end.”

You keep seeing interesting environments, but you’ve got no idea of what you’re trying to accomplish in those environments apart from no longer being in them. So you just keep moving to the right. And as a result, the richness of the game world starts to fade as the game itself becomes more and more abstract. It becomes something like the gap between the art on an Atari 2600 game box and the art in the game itself: it’s no longer evocative or intriguing, but purely mechanical.

Which again, makes sense if the character you’re controlling directly has no motivation, but is simply being pulled through a series environments by some force off screen. You realize there is actually no dissonance there, because the boy has no identity, no sense of purpose of his own, and no interest in anything other than the specific objects that will help him get to the observation tank.

Everything has a solution

This one’s bugged me ever since I played Half-Life 2. In that game, you’re playing as Gordon Freeman, lone savior of humanity against an impossibly huge and powerful alien force. You’re out alone in the wilderness, riding a sweet sweet motorboat that’s jumping over ramps and blowing up tanker trucks and helicopters and plowing through Combine soldiers like extras in a Michael Bay movie. Then you land in a secluded area in which you have to build a makeshift ramp for your boat in order to proceed.

There’s a kind of mode switch here, where you go from purely mechanical or visceral to more intellectual. And if you get stuck on the puzzle, there’s a pacing switch as well. With that switch comes an opportunity to get knocked out of your suspension of disbelief and reminded that you’re no longer a post-apocalyptic action scientist, but you’re a guy at a computer solving a puzzle.

Half-Life 2 has an in-world fictional explanation for a lot of this; in puzzle sequences, you’ll usually find a lambda symbol graffitied onto the wall somewhere. It’s to indicate that the whole scene was set up for you by the Resistance, and not set up for you by somebody at Valve Software. It helps somewhat, spackling over the cracks in the suspension of disbelief.

Inside has a similar strange dissonance, where the game world is bleak and oppressive but the player’s experience is, ultimately, somewhat optimistic. You always know that there’s a solution to every puzzle. Considering the elegance of the game design, the solution’s likely as simple as finding a single object, or simply moving to the left or right at the correct time.

The game has its own narrative justification for that, but it’s retroactive only: you can look back through the story and reason that the blob had a similar sense of detachment as you did while playing, and the same confidence that trial and error would eventually give the right answers. You never had to be in the exact mindset of the boy because like you the player, the blob was never in the same risk of physical danger as the boy.

Which is all fine and clever, but doesn’t change the fact that as the puzzles got more complicated, I felt more disconnected from the atmosphere and mood that the game had done such a spectacular job of building. I was no longer exploring an intriguing world, but pushing a joystick around looking for clues of what the puzzle even was, not mention how to solve it. In adventure games, this was the point players complained that you had to “read the designer’s mind.”

So how much of that is a limitation inherent to interactive entertainment? How do you make an experience that’s driven by the player but relies on an unreliable narrator, or a powerless and desperate protagonist, without its feeling like a trick or a gimmicky twist? How much can the mindset of a player’s avatar differ from the mindset of the player before it breaks the fiction and draws attention to itself?

Shadow of the Colossus took advantage of the weird dissonance created when the player is willingly making his avatar do things that he knows are morally or ethically questionable. Thirty Flights of Loving experimented with the idea of a first-person game that doesn’t play out entirely in real-time, but instead uses cuts and flashbacks — maybe not 100% successfully, but still more successfully than I would’ve expected.

So how much of that disparity or dramatic irony between the protagonist’s experience and the player’s experience is an inescapable limitation of the medium, and how much is an opportunity that game developers just haven’t fully taken advantage of yet?

It’s not a make-or-break distinction; it’d be more like the difference between an outstanding game and a genre-defining one. I love how much time and talent Playdead devoted to making Inside a unique experience, and I hate the thought that it’s brilliantly creepy mood was interrupted even for a minute by the knowledge that it’s just some video game.

City of Infuriatingly Charismatic Stars

Reporting back from a movie-filled weekend. Some spoilers for the relentlessly charming La La Land, and a review of Rogue One inspired by Thumper the rabbit

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in 'La La Land'
This weekend I saw two movies. One has space battles in a universe that painstakingly recreates the look of 1977’s Star Wars. The other is a love letter to Los Angeles made by a bunch of people born in the 1980s. The fact that I ended up loving the latter one is proof I don’t understand how the world works anymore.

I loved La La Land, and I loved it for exactly what it was trying to do. Much like The Force Awakens transported me back to the feeling of watching Star Wars for the first time, watching La La Land often took me back to the first time I saw Singin’ in the Rain or An American in Paris. Obviously it’s not the first attempt to recapture the magic of classic musicals, but it’s the most successful I’ve seen.

The trick, I believe, is that its sense of self-confidence completely obliterates any sense of self-awareness. It feels not like someone wanted to make an homage to classic musicals, but that somebody wanted to make a movie about the magic of Los Angeles and decided that of course a classic musical would be the best format for that. Once that decision was made, everyone went all in and made a musical with all the earnest enthusiasm that seems to have skipped my generation. Any hint of a wink at the audience would’ve been grounds for immediate dismissal.

Or, I guess, its success could just be on account of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s preternaturally appealing chemistry. I will say that Gosling’s always seemed fine but unremarkable to me, but his performance here is outstanding. Partly because his character is really kind of annoying and insufferable, but he manages to make arrogant stubborn passion seem sympathetic if not exactly likable. He plays a guy who loves jazz and evangelizes it, and yet I wasn’t immediately turned off, which is a monumental achievement on its own. (And I’ve got to say if you’re in the portion of the audience that’s into dudes: much like Gene Kelly, Gosling is an actor that doesn’t really do a whole lot for me until I see him dancing in a well-fitted shirt).

Emma Stone can do pretty much whatever she wants and remain effortlessly likable, since that’s her thing.

The movie starts with a bunch of 20-year-olds all dressed in primary-colored T-shirts or sun dresses all dancing and skateboarding (!) on and around cars stuck in a traffic jam on a freeway off-ramp. It’s odd to see that not being used to sell me Coca-Cola or a Prius. Even though my cynicism threw up a shield, the enthusiasm of that opening number wore it down. It bugged me initially that the movie seems to favor “naturalistic” vocals, so they seem quiet, breathy, and out of balance against big orchestrated music, but it didn’t take me long for me to stop caring. (Unlike, for example, Les Miserables, which demands over-the-top vocals from almost every character, and which wasn’t as kind to actors-who-also-sing). By the time Stone and Gosling are dancing on a bench in Griffith Park, I’d been completely won over.

One of the only complaints I’ve heard about La La Land is that the pacing drags in the middle. I was on the lookout for that, and while the scenes with John Legend didn’t interest me, I inferred that that was kind of the point. His character represents success without passion. I don’t believe that the story dragged so much as I stopped thinking of the movie as a musical for an act or so. I don’t believe that’s a flaw; I think it’s structurally perfect: when it “turns back into” a musical again during an audition sequence, I was genuinely surprised, and it made that song more powerful.

I’ll try to be deliberately vague and not completely spoil anything, but: the end of La La Land pays homage to the extended ballet sequences at the end of An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain, in which the movie’s narrative stopped in favor of a bunch of fantastic imagery and dancing. I say it’s here that La La Land shows its intentions and its double identity: it’s more indie film romantic drama/comedy using the structure of classic musicals than just an homage or recreation of those musicals.

It delivers two versions of its finale, which I first thought was an attempt to give everyone what they wanted. But after thinking on it some more, I realize it’s the crucial coda that has to be appended to any story about the magic of Los Angeles and the beauty of following your passion: it reminds us how much of our lives are controlled by fate and timing. You can (and should) follow your dream, but you’re not guaranteed stardom and fame like, say, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, since it’s often talent and hard work combined with meeting the right person in the right conditions at the right time. And it’s that mentality that lets the movie be earnest and joyful and optimistic without feeling too trite, treacly, and over-simplified.

I don’t think it’s perfect, and I still don’t like jazz, but any flaws that it has don’t just fade away but go into making it a unique and seemingly sincere creation. It’s just delightful.

This weekend I also saw Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I was genuinely surprised by the movie, since when I heard it was about getting the plans for the first Death Star, I never imagined that about half the movie would actually be about getting the actual physical plans for the first Death Star. But its production design was absolutely perfect, from the costumes to hairstyles to spaceships to “incidental” technology. It took everything from 1977’s Star Wars not as a necessary limitation of available technology, but as an assertion of style for a certain time in the Galaxy’s history, and that’s brilliant. I also really liked Alan Tudyk’s performance as K-2SO, and I thought the CG on his character was seamlessly integrated with the live actors.

Looking forward to Episode VIII!

Violent Delights

The end of Westworld‘s first season has felt like a series of reveals for the sake of having reveals. This post is packed full of unmarked spoilers.

Still from Westworld
It’s totally unfair to lump all of Jonathan Nolan’s and Christopher Nolan’s work together, but watching the season one finale of HBO’s Westworld had me flashing back to dozens of different last-act reveals over the years. The last couple of episodes have felt more like big reveals for the sake of having big reveals more than for the sake of being actually revelatory. I don’t think it completely undermines the season as a whole, but it does feel ultimately like a missed opportunity. It ends up feeling like a slick and entertaining ten episodes with a couple of brilliant moments, when it started out feeling like it had the potential to be more.

In my other post about the series, I was getting annoyed at the critics who demanded the show be more explicit in its sympathies. Considering that there seems to be an entire cottage industry of recaps, reviews, interpretations, and predictions all second-guessing what the series is saying, I suppose I can’t fault it that much for having a relatively by-the-numbers finale. If you’ve got people concerned that the show isn’t being explicitly critical enough of the world it depicts, maybe you do just have to show an hour of robots killing people, to make sure everybody’s on the same page.

Even if that means we’ve ended up with a new, modern, and more mature interpretation of the 1970s movie Westworld that ends up being about nothing more than a futuristic Old West theme park where the robots start killing guests.

My biggest issue with the finale is that it repeatedly undermines Dolores’s character while it tries to stitch the narrative together around her. It’s difficult for me to tell what agency she had in her own story. We’re told it was a torturous 35-year-long process for her to gain sentience, but Maeve seems to have done it a lot more efficiently. Ford’s plan was ostensibly for Dolores to repeat the massacre at Escalante but on her own volition instead of at Arnold’s programming, except in the end she does exactly what Ford wants her to do.

And in the final scenes, she seems to be slaughtering folks without hesitation. That works fine as a robot rebellion story — humans are the enemy! hosts are a new species! — but we already had a robot rebellion story in 1978. (And again in 2004, with Battlestar Galactica). This version of Westworld had been promising to be more about sentience, consciousness, and how our identities are defined by the choices we make; and less about violence and peen.

Still, there can be merit in a somewhat shallow story that’s told in an interesting way. A reveal, when done the right way, can be satisfying for its own sake, even if it doesn’t have any deeper resonance or insight into the human condition. Westworld has had a few of those moments where a brief moment shown on screen explodes into a huge network of implications and potential narratives, the way podcast ads describe opening a Casper mattress.

The best of the entire series was the moment in episode seven, in which Bernard and Theresa are exploring the old replica house that Ford had been keeping hidden from the rest of the park. “What door?” It was brilliant on multiple levels: wait, did we see that just a second ago? Can we trust anything that we’ve seen? Does that mean what I think it means? Has he always been a host, or was he replaced? What does that mean about Elsie’s disappearance? Who’s controlling him? Is Theresa walking into a trap? Is something really bad going to happen to her right now?

But I still say that the first episode’s “twist” reveal — that Teddy was a host and the Man in Black was the human guest — was a strong one. It’s just that in retrospect, it’s most like Lost‘s reveal of the inside of the hatch in episode 2: it implied so many story developments that it couldn’t possibly deliver on.

Worse than a missed opportunity, though, are the ideas raised in episode one that seem to be contradicted by the finale. The first episode twist challenged our assumptions about sympathies: we assumed that it was a story about a beautiful young man and a beautiful young (robot) woman, only to discover that the story’s “villain” was a human and our supposed protagonist was merely programmed to take the fall over and over for eternity. By the end of the season, though, I’m left wondering why Dolores was a protagonist and Teddy a major character in the story at all, other than the fact that they’re among the prettiest?

Again, it seems like all of the things it took Dolores 35 years to comprehend were fully understood by Maeve within a week or so. And while Dolores was essentially just pulled through her loop, Maeve was actually able to make decisions based on her newfound self-awareness. (For that matter, Hector and Armistice each went from sex robot to 80s action movie bad-ass within one cycle and a whole lot less psychological trauma). I can’t think of anything that Dolores has done that seems unique or remarkable. Her “I chose a story where I wasn’t a damsel in distress” moment is undermined by the revelation that she spent most of the following 35 years being exactly that.

And the idea that Dolores has finally advanced to the next stage of “host” by acquiring free will is also undermined by the climax of Maeve’s story, when she chooses to leave the train — and presumably, whatever pre-defined course she’d been set on by a shadow figure to be revealed in season two — for the sake of a daughter she knows isn’t “real.” Not just that, but Dolores’s supposed free will culminates not just in her killing Ford, but shooting plenty of other humans indiscriminately. Which is exactly what we’ve been shown throughout the season as the thing that makes the humans the bad guys: the guests indiscriminately inuring, raping, and murdering the hosts without hesitation. Maeve doesn’t hesitate to kill humans, but at least it’s tactical and she’ll save even the super-annoying ones.

On top of that, Ford not only deserves to die but wants to die. His speeches about spending 35 years correcting his mistake, or giving the hosts the last thing they need to achieve consciousness — they sound good because they’re delivered by Anthony Hopkins, but they’re ultimately shallow and self-serving. As gross as the guests are, the one thing that excuses all of them (except William) is that they believe the hosts are empty shells. Ford’s the only one who knew they were capable of sentience but still let them be raped and tortured for decades. Arnold is shown as being so consumed by grief he wanted to die, and so having Dolores murder him was self-serving but also served a purpose, in his imagination. The finale presents Ford’s “final narrative” as a cunning master plan that will bring about the final phase of the hosts’ “awakening,” but we’re shown little evidence that that’s actually the case.

I’m not sure if I would’ve guessed the truth about Arnold’s identity or the Man in Black’s identity and backstory and multiple timelines. There were plenty of clever clues in there — the photo fake-out and the changing Westworld logo in paricular — but that’s never been the kind of thing I get into since I’m usually too busy trying to piece together the explicit storyline and all the interpretations it implies. I am sure that I wouldn’t have had the chance to guess the truth, though, since I was inundated with theories and speculation the second I looked on the internet for any discussion about the series. As it turns out, the most common theories were all correct, and it looks like all the clues were spotted almost immediately.

I don’t think it’s possible to avoid that, though, and I’m skeptical it’d be worth the effort: to me, it’s not as important for a reveal or twist to be surprising as it is for it to be satisfying and/or meaningful. The reveal that Bernard was a host wasn’t a complete surprise, but what matters is that it was so well done in how it was allowed to play out. Every reveal after that, though, felt like the last few minutes of The Prestige or The Dark Knight Rises or, I guess, all of Memento: dead time where they’re just spooling back the plot like the end of a magic trick, eagerly asking “Did you notice that part? Did you see it? Did we just blow your ever-lovin’ mind?!

As far as I can tell, there’s not much significance to the fact that Bernard the host was based on Arnold. The show seemed to suggest that Arnold’s suffering was a perfect cornerstone for Bernard to attain sentience, since change comes from a desire for the world to be different from what it is — that all sounds like the kind of justification that a writer would come up with after the fact. You could infer that Ford was wracked with guilt after Arnold’s “assisted suicide” and wanted a version of him that could live forever, but there’s little on screen that would support that theory.

I can’t see much weight in the reveal that William is the Man in Black, either. He was originally presented as a guest who’d been coming to the park for 30 years, grew tired of it falling just short of actual consequence, and had decided he wanted to “level up.” That version of disillusionment over time makes a lot more sense than the idea of someone who was tricked into believing the hosts could be sentient during his first visit and then spent the next three decades not learning much of anything. You could infer that that first visit to the park really did reveal his true nature, which fits in with his story of his wife’s suicide after years of being frightened of the “real” him. But this is all stuff that Logan was talking about explicitly, within the first few hours of their adventure. It doesn’t feel that the character at the end of 35 years has progressed any farther than he did at the time of his introduction.

That’s essentially what Dolores accuses him of before their fistfight (which was itself so tone-deaf as to seem like a product of a much less intelligent show). As far as I can tell, that’s the only significance of the Man in Black’s identity at all: it shows Dolores how humans are susceptible to time while the hosts aren’t just immortal but un-aging. Which is implicit in the whole premise and hardly seems like an insight that takes ten episodes to unpack.

So ultimately I still say that the most common criticisms of Westworld — that it’s all about the male gaze, that it’s heteronormative, that it’s as culturally insensitive as the older material that it’s based on — are shallow and largely without merit. But I also think that my initial take may have been overly optimistic. It’s still an entertaining, smart, and intriguing series even if it doesn’t have the spark of genius that makes it profound.

No Insight To Be Had Out There

Shallow takes on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” are a perfect example of faux-progressive pop cultural simplification for the Twitter generation

It’s December, which means it’s time for one of the Internet’s most cherished traditions: writing insipid and uninspired analyses of how the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is creepy and “rapey” (to use Key & Peele’s assessment).

Key & Peele’s parody is four years old, and there are plenty that are even older. This year’s is possibly the most vapid and insufferable version to date, as a couple of indie musicians made an acoustic version that’s updated for our modern sensibilities.

I won’t make a comment on the quality of the music itself, except to say that it’s just really twee and awful and I hate it. But most offensive — yes, even more offensive than making a reference to “Pomegranate LaCroix” and thinking it was a witty punchline — is how it attempts to fix all the problematic aspects of the original instead of making an effort to actually understand the original.

The original song — at least the most common version of it — is a back-and-forth between a woman and a man trying to come up with excuses for why she should spend the night. To suggest otherwise robs the woman of any agency and turns her from a modern, self-aware adult into a gullible victim. It also suggests that adults in the 1940s fell into stereotypes and were all either lecherous or prudish, and nobody realized it until the 1970s came along and everybody got woke. In fact, though, the song is a play against those exact same stereotypes.

What makes me so sure that interpretation is the correct one? Well, if there’s one thing The Young People Today love more than overly simplistic gender swaps and song parodies, it’s a bunch of stuff presented in list format. So here’s Eight Reasons Why A More Sophisticated Comprehension of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is Everything In The World Right Now:

  1. The song was performed by a married couple at parties. For years I’d assumed it had been written for Neptune’s Daughter, but it was actually a duet that writer Frank Loesser performed with his wife. So it’s not the stereotype of the cigar-chomping MGM exec who directs a gullible ingenue to the casting couch; it’s the stereotype of The Thin Man-style sophisticates having dinner parties in which they make fun of less-sophisticated stereotypes like playboy and “good girl.”
  2. It’s a duet. In the MPR write-up linked above, the writer describes the song as “like the ‘Blurred Lines’ of the holiday songbook.” It’s not for dozens of reasons, the most obvious being that the woman in “Baby It’s Cold Outside” has a voice, instead of just being “the hottest bitch in this room.”
  3. It’s a call-and-response. In addition to being a duet, it’s a back-and-forth between two adults. You have to listen to both sides to get it, and you have to listen to how both participants play off each other before singing in unison at the end of each verse. If Liza and Lemanski wanted to “improve” on the song, then in addition to actually making an effort to sing on key, they should’ve chosen to end the song abruptly after she says “I’ve got to go away.” If you’re making a point about consent, then actually make the point.
  4. The woman’s objections are all about keeping up appearances. She never talks about what she wants to do, but instead about what she should do. It’s about her mother worrying, her father being angry, what the neighbors will think, her sister and brother’s suspicions, the kind of gossip she’ll be subjected to. “There’s bound to be talk tomorrow, at least there will be plenty implied.”
  5. The woman is totally into it. “Maybe just a half a drink more.” “I wish I knew how to break this spell.” “I ought to say no no no, sir, At least I’m going to say that I tried.” “The welcome has been so nice and warm.” She’s looking for excuses to stay, and playfully looking for a way to spend the night while still preserving her reputation. She’s talking herself into it just as much as she’s arguing against the man. At the end of each verse, they come together because they’ve agreed on the story they can tell people the next day: she had to spend the night.
  6. Esther Williams is the star of Neptune’s Daughter. Her character isn’t being taken advantage of or fooled by anyone. She’s perfectly aware that Ricardo Montalban’s character is a “playboy.”
  7. The gender-swapped version makes fun of all the stereotypes in play. The version of the song with Betty Garrett as the “wolf” and Red Skelton as the “mouse” is played as a farcical take on the more wry and sophisticated one, and that fact alone shows which stereotypes they were making fun of. When Garrett is portrayed as being “man-crazy” and Skelton as flustered, it’s supposed to be funny because women aren’t “supposed” to be eager for sex and men aren’t supposed to shy away from it. When Skelton does the absurd Spanish accent, it pokes fun of the image of Montalban as a sexy Spanish lothario.
  8. Viva Las Vegas has the clumsy and obvious version. Don’t get me wrong: if I had to go back and live in a movie fantasy version of the past, I’d totally choose the universe of Elvis movies over 1940s romantic comedies. But the duet “The Lady Loves Me” between Elvis and Ann-Margaret is another perfect example of what would happen if you took the same basic setup as “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and removed all the wit and subtlety from it. The two characters are simply arguing, and there’s nothing clever or coy about the woman’s rejections. She’s just parading around for the audience in a bathing suit while getting off on the attention. The “the gentleman’s all wet” bit at the end is presumably a 1964 take on “Grrl Power” that doesn’t actually say or do anything positive.

It’s pretty arrogant to insist that “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is supposed to be read exactly as it appears on the surface. In the song, adults could make a wry comment on the idea that “good girls don’t” and that men were perpetually horny aggressors taking advantage of innocent women. Today’s simplistic and reductive hot takes on the song act as if that idea were actually the common belief at the time, and most Americans from 1930-1960 actually did live according to the Hayes Code and network TV standards and practices. Basically, you’ve grown to believe the false version and become skeptical of the real one. (For the record, people didn’t live in black and white before 1950, either).

Okay, so why make an issue of it?

Usually this would warrant about as much concern as worrying about whether Alanis Morissette understands the idiomatic use of “ironic.” It’s well intentioned and at worst harmless, right? Why not remind people about the importance of consent? And isn’t it good to remind guys that they have a responsibility to listen to and respect the people they’re with, and not try to wear them down?

Sure it is, but the problem is that over-simplifications are polarizing. When you find yourself spending years asserting something that’s trivially true — and being rewarded as if you’re making a bold statement — then you gradually chip away at the idea that it’s trivially true. You open the discussion to the idea that the things that are true are in fact somehow controversial, or at least topics about which reasonable people can disagree.

The fact that’s incontrovertibly true about all this is that consent is essential. Only an idiot or a monster would consider that controversial. Idiots and monsters don’t deserve to be part of the conversation, but asserting the shallow and superficial take on an important issue (even if it’s correct) is inviting bullshit to be presented as if it were a reasonable counter-argument.

Reducing everybody who’s performed or enjoyed “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” for the past 70 years to a clueless, sexist stereotype isn’t progressive. It sets an unacceptably low bar for what constitutes progress.

Now They Set Their Clocks By Mine

Moana is a by-the-numbers Disney princess movie that keeps going off-script to transform into something inspired.

In the Animation pavilion at Disney’s California Adventure, they run a looping show where scenes from Disney movies are projected on screens all around the lobby along with concept art and music. Each movie gets about 30 seconds to a minute, so sitting in the lobby will run you through the entire gamut of Disney Movie Emotions in about 5-10 minutes.

I was reminded of it while I was watching Moana, since within the first 20 or so minutes of the movie I felt like I’d already gone through two Disney movies’ worth of emotions, and that was all before Maui’s entrance started the plot.

It’s kind of like shotgunning a Disney Princess movie, having someone stridently yelling Believe In Your Dreams! Find Your True Calling! You Have Five Seconds To Comply! right into your ear. It’s also just self-aware enough to sidestep the most trite aspects of Disney Princess movies, but not so self-aware as to be insufferable. It explicitly mentions its heritage when Moana denies that she’s a princess, and Maui insists that being the daughter of the chief and having an animal sidekick automatically makes her a princess. I also wonder if it intentionally did a bait-and-switch on the audience by setting up the adorable pig Pua to be her sidekick, but then leaving him behind in favor of Heihei, “the dumbest character in the history of Disney animation.”

But for every element of Moana that sticks close to the template, there’s something else novel, original, or simply inspired. I doubt I’m the only white American who’s getting his first exposure to Polynesian mythology from the movie; up to now, I only knew that Pele was a volcano goddess and that Maui gave his people time.

It’s reassuring that the filmmakers made a concerted effort to get it right, consulting with people knowledgeable about the various cultures in the Pacific Islands and casting people with that heritage for the main roles. (Okay, so they kind of lucked out that The Rock is of Samoan descent since he’s proven he can do just about everything, but they still get a point from me).

After Hercules — another movie largely about a demigod and made by several of the same people at Disney feature animation — took so many liberties with the mythology in order to make an acceptable family movie, I wondered why they’d even bothered in the first place. It’s still charming (albeit inescapably 1990s), but if you’re having to change that much of the source material, why make an adaptation? Moana feels more like a respectful amalgamation of the mythology of several different Polynesian cultures than an attempt to sanitize and whitewash interesting stories into trite reiterations of the same idea.

In fact, that scene with Maui’s introduction with the song “You’re Welcome” is a great example of how Moana gets it right. It’s multimedia and multicultural: a traditional broadway-style song about a Pacific Islander demigod, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, an Atlantic Islander demigod. (He shares songwriting credit with Opetaia Foa’i and Mark Mancina, but it certainly seems the most like his work from Hamilton). Maui’s dance is a combination of traditional musical theater and Polynesian dances. The stories he mentions are each from different cultures’ versions of Maui and creation stories. His tattoos aren’t just an example of 2D animation combining with 3D, but of flat and graphic cartooning inspired by Polynesian art.

To me, it never feels like lazy pastiche or opportunistic cultural appropriation, but like an earnest collaboration: this is the kind of moving, often funny, often breathtaking work that we can create when we share what we all have to contribute. Every production has its share of difficulty and 5-year-long animated feature projects most of all, but Moana feels to me like a movie with no compromises. (I think the sequence with Tamatoa is by far the weakest in the movie, but the lighting effects are really cool and Jemaine Clement’s David Bowie impression is always welcome). Disney’s 900,000-lb gorilla status is often criticized and with good reason, but I think that here’s an example of how it pays off brilliantly: something beautiful gets made and stories and values from cultures that aren’t widely known get broadcast to literally of billions of people around the world.

Before the movie was released, there was an insipid and mean-spirited nontroversy around it, an attempt to generate outrage over Maui’s character design. The claim was that people in Polynesian communities were upset that Maui was depicted as “obese,” or according to one particularly nasty complaint: “a hippo.” It was bullshit even before the movie’s release; body shaming passed off as cultural sensitivity. After the movie’s release, it’s even more offensive: not only are the men and women of Moana depicted as being of various body types (most of them buff AF), but an aspect of Maui’s birth and his self-image are ingeniously incorporated into the Disney Princess-threads of the story, to cleverly tie together all the disparate accounts of Maui’s adventures into a single narrative about his relationship with humankind. Which makes the body-shaming even worse.

In Moana, Maui’s big, brash, and self-assured, and there’s little question he can do what he sets out to do. Or at least if there is, it’s not because of his body. The same goes for Moana herself: not only is there no trace of a romantic comedy in the movie, but her gender is never made an issue. In the beginning of the film, it’s established she’s going to be the next chief, and no one questions it or challenges it, and at no point in the movie is there even a hint that her strength is uncharacteristic or unusual for a young woman. (It’s not ignored, either; you could argue that the quality that makes Moana the hero in the climax of the film is not physical strength or stubbornness, but the empathy that’s usually considered a feminine trait).

And in neither case does it feel like anything is missing. Instead, it feels as if we’ve spent years making Important Progressive Issues out of things that aren’t genuine issues at all. In the case of complaining of Maui’s character design (or even more ridiculously, complaining about sexual dimorphism of the volcanoes in Lava), it was dressing up an at-best superficial, at worst genuinely offensive dismissal as if it were a progressive argument. And with all the Strong Female Characters, it was setting a weirdly low and unnecessary “as good as any man” bar for female characters to pass, and then cheering the characters that passed it instead of wondering why we needed such an artificial distinction in the first place.

So sure, Variety, I’ll agree that Moana shows that diversity can be good for business. But I also say it exposes some of the hypocrisies of the faux-Progressives who disguise self-importance as inclusivity, or attempt to use sensitivity as a bludgeon. It shows the kind of breathtaking and beautiful things that can be created when we respect another culture and give it a chance to speak, and then not “appropriate” it, but make it part of the celebration of our shared humanity.

Some-maj

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is at its best when it’s at its darkest and weirdest.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a weird movie, and I still can’t tell if I like it in spite of that, or because of it.

I don’t mean “weird” in the way you’d expect a movie called “Fantastic Beasts” to be weird, but weird in the ways you wouldn’t expect the first movie in a huge new blockbuster franchise to be. It’s oddly paced and weirdly edited. Dialogue-heavy scenes will have long exchanges where the camera’s focused on the people who are listening instead of speaking. Scenes end abruptly or linger a bit too long. Some have music that feels jarringly out of place. Many have swooping camera movements that focus on the wrong thing, or end at a weird angle as if the direction of rotation was broken and no one thought to fix it. There are sudden shifts in tone from rutting-monster-chasing slapstick to child abuse. The main male character is off-putting and unlikeable, and the main female character is inscrutable.

Weirdest of all is that it kinda works.

I also saw Doctor Strange this week, and it’s another movie that’s simultaneously trying to be a huge-budget franchise entry and a cavalcade of wondrous sights like you’ve never seen before. I liked Doctor Strange a lot; it was often visually interesting and surprisingly funny. But it was also 100% a superhero origin story that followed the Marvel template from start to finish. Fantastic Beasts kept doing stuff I didn’t expect — not always in a good way, but in a way that made it feel slightly less like Corporate Entertainment Product. (The reviewers on “What the Flick?” had exactly the opposite reaction, so as always, your mileage may vary).

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was the best of the Harry Potter movies, and if I’m being honest, it’s the only one that I’d be interested in seeing again. I was a bigger fan of the books than the movies, and the general aesthetic of the movies than the movies themselves. When we went to the Warner Brothers studio tour outside London, I loved the look of everything and found myself repeatedly wishing that the movies had assembled all the parts into something better. But Prisoner of Azkaban is the one movie in the series that feels less like a franchise installment and more like Alfonso CuarĂ³n making a movie set in the Harry Potter universe.

Fantastic Beasts isn’t as good as that, but to me it has much of the same feel. It often feels like the movie that someone wanted to make instead of the movie that someone was contractually obligated to work. And when the jokes do land — like Jacob’s reaction to giggle water in the clip above, or when the “Niffler” (the most charming of all the beasts, and they know it) catches a slow-motion forlorn look at all the jewelry in a shop window he’ll never get to steal — they feel like they’ve earned it.

I’m not sure how much I’m projecting, but I’m wondering how much of my reaction is due to the fact that it’s JK Rowling’s first screenplay. She’s accomplished enough to be able to do whatever the hell she wants, but also inexperienced enough with screenplays in particular that she doesn’t feel completely beholden to formula. So much of the Harry Potter series feels like Rowling was savvy enough to know exactly what the book’s audience would get excited about, from candy and trading cards and sports heroes to skipping class and getting the upper hand on your teachers. Fantastic Beasts felt to me like she was including the ideas she wanted to, even if people in Warner Brothers marketing were balking at the idea of a magical animal movie where the villains are religious fundamentalists and the angry manifestation of people suppressing their true natures from a society that persecutes them for being different.

And good for her. I’ve said before that I’m not a fan of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at the Universal theme parks, because it’s beautiful but I think it gets so much wrong about theme park design. Shows don’t have enough capacity, the shops are too small and cramped, and the main attraction is too intense for both ends of the bell curve of its audience. I’ve heard — I still don’t know if it’s apocryphal, though — that a lot of those decisions were mandates from Rowling, who insisted on “authentic” food and “realistic” spaces that would feel like real shops in the UK.

After going back to check out the Hollywood version recently, I’ve lightened up considerably. It’s still not my favorite, and I still don’t think it all works. But it definitely feels like its own thing. It’s memorable, and it feels unique not just in the Universal parks but among theme parks in general. There must be something to be said for breaking from the template and not being worried about screwing everything up.