Revisionist History and Revisionist Present, Splash Mountain Edition

Thoughts on an update of a Disney ride, and being on the internet without taking the bait.

Update 08/27/22: If I had done just a few more minutes’ worth of digging, I would’ve seen that the people vocally objecting to the Splash Mountain re-theme all, without fail, quickly revealed themselves to be blatant bigots. The entire thing is obviously a “Comicsgate”/”Gamergate” style campaign, trying to insert alt-right talking points into discussions about pop culture. They’re assholes who are using people’s legitimate nostalgia for a ride and a movie to help amplify their bigotry, and I regret giving them any attention whatsoever.

Splash Mountain remains a problem, and not just for the obvious reasons. Possibly because the re-theming of the ride was delayed by COVID, we’ve gotten to hear an extra two years of people complaining about it.

I already talked about my reaction to the re-theme back when it was announced. Digest version: it makes me sad, because I grew up with Song of the South, I associate it with a family member who passed away, and when I was little, those animated characters were Quintessential Disney to me even more than Mickey Mouse. But the re-theme is going to be better in every possible way: better for Disney, better for Disney’s merchandising division, better for the young kids who’ll have new characters to get attached to, and better for guests who’ll get a fairly significant overhaul for a 30-year-old ride.

But there’s still a lot of revisionist history going on around Splash Mountain and Song of the South. Not just the movie’s absurdly Disney-fied version of a plantation during Reconstruction, but this bizarre idea that objections to the movie and the ride are some recent “woke” invention.

Simply put: Disney was well aware that there were objections to the movie when it was made in 1946, and that there were objections to the movie when the ride was made in 1989. Suggesting that it was a simpler time and they were just unaware of the connotations is an insultingly lousy defense, because it suggests that the people at Disney were either stupid or grossly naive. No, they’ve known at every step that there was going to be push back, they just never had enough incentive to care.

Really, the whole history of the movie and the attraction has been a series of half-measures to work around objectionable material, for the sake of preserving a bunch of charming characters. The movie was re-worked to emphasize that it was set during the Reconstruction and therefore the happy, magical black people weren’t actually enslaved. The ride was re-worked to change the “tar baby” to a beehive and put all the focus on the animated segments. The benefit of hindsight makes it clearer that it would’ve been a lot easier to just pick different source material, instead of juggling a hot potato for decades, trying to surgically remove the most objectionable thing and then leaving the rest for the next group of people to deal with. But to suggest that nobody’s ever had a problem with it until political correctness came along is just laughably false.

Even if you have the most charitable possible impression of Joel Chandler Harris, and believe that he was sincerely trying to bring African-American folklore to both black and white audiences as a reunification effort, it’s still obviously a problem because it’s black culture as filtered through a white man. I personally think it’s reasonable to give him the benefit of the doubt — just like with everybody involved with the movie, who I think were at worst insensitive, not malicious — but the whole thing is a problem straight down to its origin.

Ironically, one of the stupidest things I’ve read online also has the barest nugget of a valid argument against a Princess and the Frog re-theme. One of the chuckleheads complaining incessantly on Twitter about “woke Disney” actually said that it was objectionable because it was replacing characters from African-American folklore with a fable written by “two European white men.” Once I stopped laughing at the sheer cluelessness of that, I did feel the barest tinge of regret that we were losing a piece of what is authentically Georgian culture.1A digression about that: since I loved the animated parts of the movie growing up, and just ignored the live action, I had no idea just how much of the movie people find objectionable. I was surprised to hear people call the voices for Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear “racist” since I always just thought they were exaggerated cartoonish versions of how some people in Georgia talk, unaware that the actors were from Amos & Andy and their dialect was dated at best. I have to say I still kind of shrug at that, since I swear that I’ve met several white people who really do talk like Br’er Bear!

So I definitely sympathize with anyone sad to see Splash Mountain go, but I’d also encourage them to get over it, since the re-theming is absolutely a no-brainer of a good idea by every measure2Except for the new name, which I sincerely dislike. It really needed to have “Mountain” in the name, even though there are no mountains in New Orleans as far as I’m aware.. But the actual complaints about the change are so fatuous — even by the standards of people complaining online about Disney parks3I once read a sincere comment from someone complaining about smoking areas, back before they were all removed, and saying that Walt Disney would’ve been disappointed to see so many people smoking in his parks. — that I can’t even believe that they’re being made in good faith.

That’s now true of every complaint about anything “woke” now. It’s so disingenuous and fake and deeply, deeply cynical. Opportunists have realized that they can get immediate attention any time they complain about whatever book, movie, comic book, video game, TV show, or really anything that includes women, LGBT people, non-whites, or non-Christians. Everything gets targeted with a campaign of review bombs and blatantly fake Twitter comments, because they’ve seen over and over again that it’ll generate a ton of reactions.

At this point, it’s just depressing to see people repeatedly taking the bait. Whether by reacting as if the comments are being in good faith, or much more often, just amplifying the stupid comments in order to publicly dunk on them. It’s too tempting to think, “I have the perfect response that will put an end to this kind of backwards thinking once and for all,” or, “I will shine a light on the kind of toxic behavior that permeates the internet, instead of letting their targets suffer privately,” which is exactly the goal behind them: to elevate nonsense and treat it as if it were the subject of reasonable debate.

I don’t know what the actual solution is, but I do know that, for instance, I wouldn’t have given a second thought to the casting of The Sandman (apart from “hey, good choices all around!”) if Neil Gaiman hadn’t publicly responded to complaints about gender-swapping or casting black or non-binary actors. Some of the comments were so obviously phony, written by someone who’d never read the source material, that it’s tough to see what was gained by engaging with them as worthwhile. But if the alternative was for Gaiman to just let all of that garbage float around unaddressed, that’s not great, either.

And the part that’s especially dispiriting is that we’re in at least the fourth or fifth generation of this whole process. You can see how thoroughly it’s infected the conversation around everything. Bullshit, regressive ideas that would’ve been roundly rejected in the days before Web 2.0 are now just taken for granted and expected. This story has a woman superhero, so naturally some people are going to find that objectionable.

Real progress would mean that yes, of course, in 2022 we can see, for instance, a Predator movie with a bad-ass Comanche woman as its lead, that sounds awesome, you’d have to be a fool to object to that. But instead, we get a round of “hey look at this fool who’s objecting to that, let’s all point and laugh.” Even if we’re dismissing them as bullshit, we’re still spending way too much time thinking of bullshit.

What’s even more dispiriting than that is that I’m having a harder and harder time believing any of it is genuine or in good faith, from any direction. We’ve already seen worthless, contemptible piece-of-shit policitians4And that’s me being polite. shamelessly gin up culture wars — putting real people in danger — to advance their own political careers. If those assholes can get so much attention for it, it stands to reason that crass media marketing types are much, much better at it.

For instance: I think that Kate Bush is undeniably a genius, but you could show me detailed transcripts from Netflix headquarters and I still wouldn’t believe that the recent popularity of “Running Up That Hill” was completely organic, and not manufactured by the Stranger Things team doing some extremely effective viral marketing. That’s the innocuous version. What happens when a marketing campaign realizes that people complaining about a black or a Muslim or a female character in a movie or TV series generates a ton of buzz around it?

I know it sounds implausible that people involved in marketing would knowingly do something that makes people’s lives worse, but humor me in this obviously fantastic thought experiment.

It’s entirely possible that I’m being overly optimistic when I assume that people can’t possibly be so genuinely upset about a 30-year-old theme park ride, or a black man or a white woman being cast as the lead in an action movie, or transgender people simply existing. But even if I’m wrong about that, I’m right in thinking that those people don’t deserve to keep having such an outsized part in our conversations.

  • 1
    A digression about that: since I loved the animated parts of the movie growing up, and just ignored the live action, I had no idea just how much of the movie people find objectionable. I was surprised to hear people call the voices for Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, and Br’er Bear “racist” since I always just thought they were exaggerated cartoonish versions of how some people in Georgia talk, unaware that the actors were from Amos & Andy and their dialect was dated at best. I have to say I still kind of shrug at that, since I swear that I’ve met several white people who really do talk like Br’er Bear!
  • 2
    Except for the new name, which I sincerely dislike. It really needed to have “Mountain” in the name, even though there are no mountains in New Orleans as far as I’m aware.
  • 3
    I once read a sincere comment from someone complaining about smoking areas, back before they were all removed, and saying that Walt Disney would’ve been disappointed to see so many people smoking in his parks.
  • 4
    And that’s me being polite.

One Thing I Like About Last Night in Soho

An over-saturated experiment in style that was much more entertaining than I’d expected.

I wasn’t expecting to like Last Night in Soho as much as I did. Before its release, it seemed to be getting a ton of buzz and promotion, and then it just kind of disappeared. I assumed that must mean the movie was a disappointment.

And I can understand people being disappointed, if they were watching it as the type of mystery/thriller that could work on the strength of its screenplay alone, no matter who was directing it. I went in expecting it to be a case of “style over substance,” and I ended up enjoying it a lot, for exactly that reason.

It doesn’t have the energy, inventiveness, or reckless abandon as Scott Pilgrim vs the World (by far my favorite Edgar Wright movie, and one of my favorite movies overall), but it is recognizable as coming from the same place: a filmmaker with an unabashed love of music and movies and a desire to share and celebrate all the stuff that inspires him.

I’m not quite as big a fan of Wright’s work as My Demographic would suggest — I liked but didn’t love “The Cornetto Trilogy”, and Spaced remains baffling, since on paper it seems like it should’ve been my favorite series ever, but I bounced right off of it. But one thing that’s common to all of them that I’ve seen1I haven’t yet seen Baby Driver is that they feel unapologetically like fan letters.

In Last Night in Soho, the objects of affection are 1960s London and giallo movies. But even more than Suspiria — which I think is the only “genuine” giallo movie I’ve seen — it reminded me of Malignant, which came out around the same time and feels like a “companion piece,” in case you’re planning a double feature2And is a lot more fun, honestly, if you haven’t seen it and can only choose one of the two.. They’re not even in quite the same genre, since Soho is much more a mystery/thriller, of the kind they used to make in the late 1980s with titles like Lethal Obsession or Consequences of Passion, than a full-on horror movie. But they are both examples of filmmakers who earned the luxury of making a movie mostly for themselves, broadcasting their inspirations right out in the open with little attempt to hide them, and giving the entire project their personal voice.

And they both require the audience to just go with it. Last Night in Soho is a lot more subtle in telling you that it’s not meant to be taken entirely seriously, even though it starts dropping hints in its first scene with suggestions of the paranormal. (Malignant starts out with a hilariously gothic castle in Seattle (?) and an over-the-top medical procedure, cluing you in from the start that things are going to be wacky). But everything in Soho is dialed up just a little too high — Ellie is a bit too into the 60s, the cab driver is a bit too leering, Jocasta is just too relentlessly an intolerable C-word, Terrence Stamp’s old man absurdly too sinister, Diana Rigg’s landlord too curmudgeonly and old-fashioned to be taken as anything other than a stock character.3How brilliant was that casting for Stamp and Rigg in a 1960s London throwback, by the way?

It gets more overt in the first dream sequence, which feels like the sequence that the entire movie was built around4And which it never quite lives up to again, unfortunately.. The entire room is saturated with red or blue light, which lets you know that the filmmakers have seen Suspiria, and the blinking is in time to the song playing on a record player, which lets you know it’s an Edgar Wright movie. What follows is a gloriously romanticized version of 1960s London, presented by someone who clearly believed the lights, fashion, music, cars, and just style of that period was both impossibly magical and also a little sinister.

The highlight is a meticulously-choreographed spectacle of mirror effects, character introductions, banter, dancing, actors switching positions, and tons of directorial flourishes. It’d be easy to point to it as the prime example of style over substance, but of course it’s not; it’s the “mission statement” of the entire movie. It lets the audience feel why Sandie was so optimistic and enchanted with London, why Ellie became so obsessed with her, and why Wright was so taken with all of it that he wanted to make this movie in the first place.

But while it’s my favorite sequence, it’s not what I thought made the whole movie distinctive. That’s in the rest of the movie, the sequences that don’t work as well, but show (what I assume are) Wright’s interests throughout: music, pubs, being a young person in London, and yes, hordes of the reanimated dead. I can understand the complaint that none of it feels “real,” that a lot of the third act is repetitious, or that the movie feels like a pastiche of its inspirations instead of an attempt to build on or reinvent them. But to me, it all felt like it came from a genuine love of those inspirations and an earnest desire to share that enthusiasm with the audience.

  • 1
    I haven’t yet seen Baby Driver
  • 2
    And is a lot more fun, honestly, if you haven’t seen it and can only choose one of the two.
  • 3
    How brilliant was that casting for Stamp and Rigg in a 1960s London throwback, by the way?
  • 4
    And which it never quite lives up to again, unfortunately.

Literacy 2022: Book 9: The Westing Game

A light children’s mystery novel

Book
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

Synopsis
In his last will, an eccentric multi-millionaire summons a group of seemingly unrelated “heirs” to solve a puzzle to find his murderer, the prize being the inheritance of his fortune.

Pros

  • A light-hearted mystery story that seems like it might be well-suited to its target audience of around pre-teens.
  • Fairly progressive for a children’s book written in 1978, with some anti-racist, anti-ableist, anti-classist, and pro-feminist ideas taken as a matter of course without being too strident.
  • Doesn’t shy away from presenting the adult characters as real, flawed, people, but also works to provide satisfying endings for everyone that feel earned.
  • Keeps the feel of a murder mystery while staying almost entirely free of actual violence.

Cons

  • Must’ve felt very contemporary at the time, but seems like it would be too dated for kids to relate to now. (Especially all the references to stock market trading).
  • Impossible for me to tell if the two central puzzles were intended to give a flash of recognition to younger readers, but felt frustratingly obvious for me as someone reading it 40 years “too late.”
  • The implications of the puzzles aren’t revealed until long after you’ve figured out the solution, because information is withheld until the last minute.
  • Flirts with some more mature ideas for its adult characters, but they’re still so shallow that it doesn’t feel like there’s a genuine ethical or moral arc for any of them.

Verdict
Feels a bit like a novella-length Encyclopedia Brown mystery, where everything revolves around one or two puzzles. This definitely feels like a children’s book instead of an “all ages” one; it’s difficult to tell if I’d have enjoyed it if I’d read it when I was in the target age range for it.

My Favorite Games: Device 6

A brilliant, Prisoner-inspired game for iOS from way back when iOS felt like it had limitless potential as an inventive gaming platform

As I said back in 2013: Device 6 is a painfully good game for iOS by Simogo. From inspiration to execution, art direction to technical implementation to music, it’s just a masterpiece.

Everything I loved about it in 2013 is still true. It’s so imaginative, so slick and inventive in its presentation, that I was scrambling to solve the puzzles just so I could get to the next scene. It still feels like they approached the project as if they could do anything they wanted, and every decision they made was exactly the right one. It’s even got a few really catchy songs!

One thing that’s changed since back then: a while ago, I realized that I’ve been absurdly fortunate that people have made the effort to get in touch with me a few times and tell me that they really enjoyed something I worked on. It makes me feel great every time, but my imposter syndrome always kicks in before I can really appreciate what a gift it is. And yet I never do the same for the creators of stuff I like, instead just coming here to gush about stuff on a blog that essentially might as well be private. So one night I wrote a fan email to the Simogo website, sending thanks for the game and a link to the above blog post. And I got a kind and gracious response from one of the makers of the game, assuring me that yes, the homages to The Prisoner were very much deliberate.

Looking back at the game now just reminds me of how, early on, it seemed like iOS was a platform with infinite potential for imaginative new games and an install base big enough to make development of those games sustainable. Thinking of non-shooting games a few days ago reminded me of another favorite iOS game, Helsing’s Fire, which had such charming presentation and a central mechanic that was a) ingenious, and b) really only suited to a pocket-sized, powerful computer with a touch screen1I’d forgotten how clever that game was. “DRACULA: What are you doing? Stop it.”.

Unfortunately, iOS didn’t go in the direction of Device 6, but instead encouraged a race for the bottom and the overwhelming preponderance of free-to-play2Or more accurately, pay-to-win games. Lately I’ve been using the Duolingo app again, and the ads for Unity puzzle games just make me feel like they’ve found a way to take all of my optimism from the early days of the App Store, crystallize it, burn it to cinders, pee on it, bury it in a deep hole near a sewer, plant a tree, pee on the tree, cut the tree down, set the remnants on fire, eat the ashes and shit them out, bury the shit in the same hole, point and laugh at the ground where my optimism is buried, and then come to my house, ring the doorbell, and when I answer the door, slap me in the face.

But Device 6 is still really, really great.

  • 1
    I’d forgotten how clever that game was. “DRACULA: What are you doing? Stop it.”
  • 2
    Or more accurately, pay-to-win

Literacy 2022: Book 8: How To Be Perfect

Michael Schur’s light and conversational introduction to key ideas in moral philosophy

Book
How To Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question by Michael Schur

Synopsis
Michael Schur increases his own personal wealth by writing a book based on the research for which he’d already been compensated by NBC to make The Good Place.

Real Synopsis
A light and conversational introduction to the concepts behind some of the major “schools” of moral philosophy, including virtue ethics, deontology, utilitarianism, consequentialism, ubuntu, and existentialism.

Pros

  • Extremely accessible (almost to a fault). Reads more like a series of blog posts than a book about moral philosophy.
  • Every topic is explained as simply as possible, but still with the sense that the implications are being mentioned. Schur points out where each field is useful and what are its main criticisms and failures.
  • Unlike every other book on philosophy that I’ve read (which is not many), uses concrete examples (although many of them are hypotheticals) and refuses to get bogged down into the types of details that philosophers care about but aren’t suitable for practical use.
  • Opinionated and personal. Schur often describes what he likes or doesn’t like about an idea, and how he has or hasn’t applied it to his own decisions.
  • Describes the topics not as academic, but as tools we can use to make ethical decisions in our own lives.
  • Stresses the idea of our ethical behavior in terms of the things that we owe to other people, which is a really nice way of thinking about it.
  • Schur just seems like a nice person who’s perpetually conscious of trying to do the right thing and bring that sense of optimism and kindness into the real world.

Cons

  • Over-uses footnotes for comedic effect.
  • Can come across as a little try-hard in the beginning until it settles down.
  • Extensively quotes two of my least favorite articles ever posted on the internet, but at least he manages to paraphrase one in a way that gets rid of my main objections to it.
  • Describing his entire career path as, ostensibly, an illustration of how much of our success is based on luck, was fine but just on the edge of being too much talking about himself for me to be entirely comfortable with.

Verdict
Feels like a much less dry and more accessible version of the lessons Chidi probably gave to Eleanor in The Good Place. Carries on the optimistic, kind-hearted secular humanist feeling of that series, always emphasizing that the actual goal is not to be perfect, but to never stop trying to be.

One Thing I Love About Prey

The new Predator movie is set 300 years ago in the Comanche nation and is fantastic

I’d been seeing so much praise about Prey, the new Predator movie streaming on Hulu, that I was sure that it wouldn’t possibly be able to live up to the hype. I was mistaken.

It’s really, really good, and that’s coming from someone who doesn’t consider himself a fan of the Predator series1I realized tonight that I don’t think I’ve ever seen either of the first two all the way through, even though I’ve seen enough of each to get the idea. They’re also streaming on Hulu, so I should probably correct that ASAP.. It’s a great screenplay for a great story: perfect in scope, delivering exactly what you’d want from an action/suspense movie like this, but with a core story and characters that you can actually get invested in.

I love the way that new ideas and new plot developments are introduced and interleaved — this is the type of story where you know essentially what’s going to happen from the start, but it’s presented so well that it never feels obvious or undeserved. There are lines of dialogue that you know full well are going to get a dramatic callback later on near the climax, but the movie stays one step ahead of your predictions, and puts the callbacks in different places.

And even though you think you know how it’s all going to play out, the movie manages to play with those expectations in interesting ways. It absolutely doesn’t lack in tension — there’s one particularly tense moment that plays with your expectation of what’s going to happen, then cleverly sidesteps it with a punchline.

Anyway, the One Thing I Like about the movie is something that seems fairly inconsequential, but affects everything: the main cast of characters, who are all Comanche in North America in the 1700s, speaks mostly in contemporary American English. They frequently use words and phrases in Comanche, presumably for ideas of great significance or which are otherwise translatable, but the bulk of the dialogue is modern, conversational English.

It probably says more about my expectations of how Hollywood treats Native American characters than anything else, but I was pleasantly surprised. Based solely on the still images I’d seen, I was expecting that they’d be speaking in heavily-accented English with an attempt to affect the 1700s dialect. Or that it would be completely without dialogue, making it like an extended art movie. Or that it would be entirely in Comanche2You can, in fact, watch an all-Comanche dub of the movie on Hulu..

Some of those might’ve been interesting, some would most likely have been awful, but to a modern English-speaking audience, all of them would’ve been othering. This movie is told completely from the perspective of its Comanche characters, and our easy familiarity with them subtly stresses the idea that they were real people. Not like the alien depictions we’re used to seeing from Hollywood — which usually reduces Native Americans either to ruthless savages, or noble savages. The characters here are smart, occasionally funny, clever, and have a set of skills that makes them uniquely capable of standing a chance against super-powerful alien hunters.

There’s another interesting layer to the way the movie uses language, but it requires minor spoilers. If you haven’t seen Prey yet, and you’re a fan of the Predator franchise in the slightest (or just a fan of tight, interesting, well-scripted, mid-budget action or suspense movies) then I highly recommend it.

Continue reading “One Thing I Love About Prey”
  • 1
    I realized tonight that I don’t think I’ve ever seen either of the first two all the way through, even though I’ve seen enough of each to get the idea. They’re also streaming on Hulu, so I should probably correct that ASAP.
  • 2
    You can, in fact, watch an all-Comanche dub of the movie on Hulu.

The Ineffable Subtleties of “Ow! My Balls”

I get annoyed with a vlogbrother and defend a movie I thought was just okay

Well, I’ve already broken my pledge several times over: not only did I start a new Twitter account, but I’ve gotten to reading it habitually and even actually writing replies to strangers1But deleting them quickly afterwards. Maybe there’s still hope?.

What set me off today was this tweet from Hank Green:

The movie “Idiocracy” is, at minimum, implicitly pro-eugenics.

And I mean, come on, man. It’s tough because I usually like (and occasionally really like) Hank and John Green; and I think they’re generally a force for good on the internet, both for helping make complex topics accessible, and for encouraging kindness, charity, and perpetual learning.

But that’s such a shallow and disappointing take that it seems like it was carefully formulated to irritate me as much as possible. It’s not even that I’m a particularly big fan of Idiocracy — I thought it was fine but not particularly deep or memorable past its core premise. Which, it pains me to have to explain, was satire. It’s as much “pro-eugenics” as A Modest Proposal is “pro-infanticide” and “pro-cannibalism.” And it’s not even that subtle about it.

We shouldn’t have to be explaining satire to grown-ups. And of course, I realize that “No but you see it’s actually satire!” has become the go-to defense whenever anyone says or makes something that makes them look like an asshole. But just because it’s been mis-used so often is no reason to throw out the concept altogether.

Maybe what’s needed is the YouTube IDIOCRACY EXPLAINED! approach, complete with an attention-grabbing thumbnail with big red circles and yellow arrows2I tried my best, but couldn’t figure out how to make the arrows with the latest version of Photoshop before I lost interest in the gag. I guess I shouldn’t have gotten my graphic design degree from Costco.. How about we start with the opening, which sets the tone and makes one thing clear almost immediately: The movie is making fun of everyone.

The “High IQ” couple isn’t being put forward as a role model. They’re self-centered and petty. As the woman explicitly says that they don’t want to have children with “the market” the way it is, they’re shown against a background of increasingly fancier and more expensive homes. (While the children of the “Low IQ” couple lives in chaos and disarray). To spell it out: it’s a criticism of socioeconomics, not genetics. One couple is too focused on accumulating wealth for themselves to be willing to devote any of that wealth to children.3On IMDb, at least, they’re credited as “Yuppie Wife” and “Yuppie Husband,” and if you believe that Mike Judge was pro-Yuppie and was advocating having more of them in society, then I don’t know what to tell you apart from “watch literally anything else that Mike Judge has made.”

And even if you can’t let go of the over-literal extremely-online mindset, and are still convinced that Mike Judge and Etan Cohen were sneaking in a sincere pro-eugenics manifesto and disguising it as a silly comedy, then you could consider the entire rest of the movie. The whole story is about a thoroughly average person who’s forced to make an effort for the first time in his life, because he’s held up as superior to everyone else by a completely arbitrary metric. The movie makes fun of the whole concept of intelligence and wealth as signifiers of actual aptitude. It’s chastising early 2000s society for racing to the bottom, settling for the least amount of effort, and appealing to the lowest common denominator.4And yes, we are all aware that we saw exactly that play out in the late 2010s, everybody can stop saying “it was a documentary!” now.

I hate it when people act like there’s one correct interpretation of any piece of art, but I mean, again: this movie is not that subtle. Which is why it’s so frustratingly ironic to see this movie in particular hit with such a shallow and dismissive analysis, since it’s so stridently criticizing us all for settling for less. It shows what happen if we keep lazily declining to engage with anything of depth, until we’re all buried under trash.

There are a couple of reasons this set me off. First is that I spend too much time online. I’ve seen too many examples of people gradually (and eagerly) descending into idiocracy, since so much of online media favors immediate engagement over thoughtful consideration. Blog posts like this one are an anachronism, and I feel very silly as I’m writing it, because it’s just not cool in 2022 to be devoting so much time to anything so inconsequential.

Instead, they’ve been replaced by explainers: web articles or video essays that aim to take everything from topics in social or natural sciences to the current most-SEO-friendly movie release, pick all of the meat off of them, and encapsulate them into an easily-digestible conclusion. The Green brothers in particular were among the first to popularize the short-and-accessible explainer format, and in a lot of cases, I think they’re great. I appreciate it when someone can take a complex topic and present it so that understanding the basics is easily accessible without scolding me for not already understanding the basics and still acknowledging that there’s much more complexity than can be easily explained.

But while it’s great for sciences and history, it’s just deadly for art and entertainment. The art itself is the explainer.

Which leads to another thing that set me off: I’m wondering how much I’m culpable in all this, since I tend to be such a proponent of accessible media. (By which I mean accessible to interpretation. I’m also a strong believer in accessibility for people with disabilities, but I’m not as vocal a proponent of it as I probably should be). I love writing about the MCU and Star Wars — and invite anyone who claims it’s shallow or juvenile to piss right off — because it’s fun and easy. They’re designed to be widely accessible but still have just enough depth that they don’t end up feeling like empty calories.

So I’m all over it when someone wants to point out easter eggs or bits of lore that I’m not enough of a True Superfan to have recognized, but I can feel the soul seeping out of my body when that turns into “explaining” the show or the movie itself. Especially when it just restates the most obvious interpretation of a work. Usually, this stuff isn’t all that ambiguous, so all you’re doing is restating the obvious in a much less elegant way.5One of the things I like about Nope is that it throws out a bunch of ideas and fits them altogether, leaving the overall theme just ambiguous enough to allow for multiple interpretations. I saw somebody had made an explainer video for the shoe in the Gordy’s Home scenes, which just restated the most obvious things then insisted that everybody else was wrong and that this was the “real” meaning of the scene. Don’t be like that guy.

I guess like everyone else who’s ever entered middle age and seen the culture being increasingly driven by younger people, I can’t escape the anxiety that they’re doing it all wrong and ruining everything. I’m generally for the resurgence in earnestness and rejection of unnecessary irony, but not if it’s at the expense of having everything dumbed down and over-simplified.

I get that there’s a lot more noise than there ever has been, and it’s increasingly hard to have patience for people who won’t just say what they mean. There’s a preponderance of people out there actively lying, obfuscating, and disingenuously arguing about things for malicious intent.6I really wish people would stop trying to engage with anyone complaining about women or marginalized people in media. Whether you’re trying to make a point or just dunk on them, you’re not accomplishing anything because they’re always being made in bad faith. All you’re doing by engaging is helping them make basic kindness and common sense seem like something still subject to differing opinions and debate. In fact, I spent some time wondering if Hank Green were pulling some kind of prank with his tweet, but a) that doesn’t seem like his style, and 2) it doesn’t really do anything with the idea, because there’s no twist apart from restating the satirical premise of the movie and calling it a “hot take.” (If that were indeed the “joke” then… okay I guess?)

But if it means that there’s no obligation to analyze a creative work at any level apart from what it says on the surface, and that there’s no obligation to consider whether your first interpretation might not be the one correct interpretation, then we’re heading towards shallower and shallower art. It starts with people believing that the “Twin Pines Mall” becoming the “Lone Pine Mall” in Back to the Future is some delightfully obscure easter egg that only a select few had picked up on. Continue for a few hundred years, and you get “Ow! My Balls!”7But on the brighter side: fewer thinkpieces and blog posts like this one!

  • 1
    But deleting them quickly afterwards. Maybe there’s still hope?
  • 2
    I tried my best, but couldn’t figure out how to make the arrows with the latest version of Photoshop before I lost interest in the gag. I guess I shouldn’t have gotten my graphic design degree from Costco.
  • 3
    On IMDb, at least, they’re credited as “Yuppie Wife” and “Yuppie Husband,” and if you believe that Mike Judge was pro-Yuppie and was advocating having more of them in society, then I don’t know what to tell you apart from “watch literally anything else that Mike Judge has made.”
  • 4
    And yes, we are all aware that we saw exactly that play out in the late 2010s, everybody can stop saying “it was a documentary!” now.
  • 5
    One of the things I like about Nope is that it throws out a bunch of ideas and fits them altogether, leaving the overall theme just ambiguous enough to allow for multiple interpretations. I saw somebody had made an explainer video for the shoe in the Gordy’s Home scenes, which just restated the most obvious things then insisted that everybody else was wrong and that this was the “real” meaning of the scene. Don’t be like that guy.
  • 6
    I really wish people would stop trying to engage with anyone complaining about women or marginalized people in media. Whether you’re trying to make a point or just dunk on them, you’re not accomplishing anything because they’re always being made in bad faith. All you’re doing by engaging is helping them make basic kindness and common sense seem like something still subject to differing opinions and debate.
  • 7
    But on the brighter side: fewer thinkpieces and blog posts like this one!

My Favorite Games: Portal

Looking back on a masterpiece that lets you take a peek through the fourth wall but never breaks it

I’m not going to be the guy who suddenly has a breathtaking new insight about Portal. Even if it hadn’t been analyzed and re-analyzed and over-analyzed over the past 15 years, I’ve already had multiple chances to write something clever about it. And I’ve never come up with something better than “Damn this game is good, huh?”

While I’ve been making this ongoing list of my favorite video games, I’ve been trying to come up with a concise1At least, as concise as I ever get explanation for why it’s so memorable to me. That’s especially difficult with Portal, because it gets everything right.

It’s the perfect length, lingering on each idea just long enough for you to get it before moving on2Which is a big part of why I like it more than its more ambitious and frequently more spectacular sequel. Its antagonist is one of the best-written and best-realized characters in any game. Its aesthetic is instantly unforgettable and fits perfectly with the tone of the game. And that tone was a revelation: confidently hilarious, sinister, and self-aware while never coming across as trying too hard. It’s obvious why it more or less became the default “voice” of the whole company.

And while a lot of people (including myself) were navel-gazing and trying to figure out how narrative games function at their core, trying to solve the unresolvable tension between what the game wants and what the player wants, Portal just did it without making a big fuss about it. “What, is this supposed to be hard?”

Now that it’s been so long since I last played it, and I’m so far removed from it, what sticks with me is how it seemed to be making a point of shattering the fourth wall, when in reality it was doing anything but. While there seemed to be a fad at the time for game developers to wave their hands like stage magicians and whisper “ludonarrative dissonance!” as if they’d just blown your mind, Portal just seems to treat the whole question as if it were silly.

The game’s most surprising moment — when you first “accidentally” get a peek outside of the test chamber — is still fantastic, but in retrospect, it’s not actually as performatively avant garde as I’d thought at the time. The designers weren’t suddenly turning around in their high-backed chairs, taunting us with a sneering “Well well well, it seems you have discovered that this is a video game. But the question remains: are you the player, or are you being played?!” In reality, it was just an unprecedentedly ingenious way of saying “hey, the tutorial is ending.”

I have to be a curmudgeon here and admit that I’m now unimpressed with the games that did make a much more overt assertion that they’re meditations on the nature of player choice and free will. They seem kind of obvious and clumsy now, like the people who act astounded that the Rescue Rangers were designed to look like Indiana Jones and Magnum PI and nobody ever noticed! It’s kind of silly for a game to act like it’s making some deep philosophical observation about player agency when they’re all observations that every player makes the first time they’re allowed to jump on a table or teabag someone during a mission briefing.

So what’s remarkable to me about Portal now isn’t that it breaks the fourth wall, but that it keeps the wall completely intact. It embraces the “gameness” of the game in a way that makes players feel like we’re all in on the joke. The last half of the game, outside the test chambers, is constructed of puzzles that are every bit as contrived and artificial as the ones in the first half; the only difference is that the goal of the puzzle and all of its components aren’t as explicitly spelled out for you.

At the time, I misunderstood that to be a minor flaw in an otherwise perfect game, since all of the “real-looking” environments just drew attention to the artificiality. Now, I feel like they were never all that interested in making it feel “real” at all, but instead assuming that people buying and playing a video game understood how suspension of disbelief works.

It’s not a comment on narrative game design, it’s just really good narrative game design. It keeps the player and the player’s character perfectly aligned throughout: what you want is always exactly the same thing that she wants.

  • 1
    At least, as concise as I ever get
  • 2
    Which is a big part of why I like it more than its more ambitious and frequently more spectacular sequel

One Thing I Love About What We Do In The Shadows

The series that makes me like the relentlessly unlikeable

Sometimes I feel like I’m missing out, because there are two closely-related sub-genres in comedy that I just can’t tolerate: ones based on a character looking stupid or awkward, and ones where the comedy comes from how awful and unlikeable the characters are. The “Driver’s Ed” sketch from I Think You Should Leave is one of the most brilliantly funny things I’ve ever seen on television, but I can barely make it through an entire episode of that series.

So it’s a little surprising that What We Do In The Shadows has been one of my favorite series for three seasons, and so far the fourth is looking like the best one yet. The characters are so relentlessly awful but you can’t help but be fascinated by them, even if you’re not outright rooting for them to succeed. (Or at least, not to die permanently).

I liked the movie What We Do In The Shadows even if I didn’t love it; the concept was obviously brilliant enough to carry on indefinitely, but the execution felt a little bit like an improv sketch without a punchline. I felt like there wasn’t quite enough material to live up to the premise.

Now I’m wondering if part of that is because it feels like the movie was holding back. One of the remarkable things about the series is that it just doesn’t need to go as hard as it does, every episode. If I’d been in charge of it, I would’ve probably been satisfied that I’d assembled one of the best casts ever — you can tell you’ve got a bunch of actors operating at their peak when Matt Berry sometimes comes across as the most understated one — and been confident that they can take the pronunciation of one word, or one glance at the camera, and make it the funniest thing on television. Natasia Demetriou as Nadja gets my vote for MVP of the show, but everyone gets a chance to be fantastic. There’s an episode where Kayvan Novak as Nandor has to impersonate each of his male castmates, and it wasn’t until the end of the episode that I realized he’d been doing the impressions; they were so dead-on that I just assumed that he must have been lip-synching to the other actors’ VO.

And even with that cast, they’re excessive in how many new things they try to cram into the series. Make a haunted doll a recurring character? Face-map one of the main actors onto the body of a baby or a toddler for an entire season? Casually include practical-effect sirens, werewolves, orcs, and fairies for one-off jokes? Make a series of period-accurate drawings, paintings, tapestries, and engravings showing the past lives of the characters over hundreds of years, each of which will only be on screen for a second or two? Why not? It often seems like the only rule during production of an episode is that no one ever responds to a request with “no.”

But I’m also now wondering whether the movie feels as if it’s holding back because it insists on having a sympathetic protagonist. The joke of Taika Waititi’s character is that he’s kind of a hapless creature of the night, guiding the documentary crew through the story and presenting all of the weirdness as if it were normal, everyday business in New Zealand. Every one of the characters in the TV series, though, is given every opportunity to be vicious, petty, arrogant, selfish, vindictive, callous, bloodthirsty, pathetic, and just irredeemably horrible.

And yet, you get as invested as they are in whatever their petty desires are from episode to episode. For a while, it seemed like Harvey Guillen’s Guillermo was intended to be our relatable protagonist. But even at the beginning, they included plenty of scenes with him cutting up dead bodies and stuffing them into dumpsters. As the series has continued, they’ve made it more and more clear that he’s choosing to be a part of all this. It’d be foolish to go along with his self-delusion that he’s the “normal” one who’s holding onto his humanity.

I don’t think this would work at all if it were in lesser hands. They know exactly how to push every one of the characters as far as they’ll go and then pull your sympathy just at the last moment. It’s pretty amazing, and I’m still not entirely sure how they do it. But I love watching these characters who have each proven themselves to be completely irredeemable, and I’ll keep hoping they never stop being awful.

One Thing I Like About Nope

Nope is kind of a mess, and that’s my favorite thing about it

While waiting to see Nope, I’ve been watching the promo videos and interviews to stay sufficiently hyped up, and so I’ve seen and read a lot of gushing praise of Jordan Peele and the movie itself. Peele is frequently and breathlessly called a “visionary,” and the movie is described with all sorts of review blurbs calling it a love letter to the Hollywood blockbuster and a direct successor to the works of Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg.

I don’t know how much I agree with that. That’s not a slam against Peele, who I like a lot, or Nope, which I enjoyed very much. It’s more that treating the movie with too much reverence — even for marketing purposes — misses out on a big part of what makes the movie unique. It’s an imaginative, well-crafted, and thoughtful movie that is still completely accessible.

There’s a tendency among cinema studies types and eager film buffs making video essays to treat the works of Hitchcock, and increasingly, the “classic” movies of Spielberg, as case studies in The Ineffable Art of Cinema, forgetting that they were at least as focused on The Joy of Going To The Movies. It’s the same mindset that sees “crowd-pleasing” as derogatory1The thing that annoyed me so much about Martin Scorsese writing op-eds about how Marvel was killing cinema was his revisionist history about how much Hitchcock was making art for art’s sake instead of “franchise pictures,” which makes Hitchcock sound like an insufferable auteur instead of a director who frequently talked about his responsibility to the audience.. Both Hitchcock and Spielberg made movies with audiences in mind, always conscious of how best to manipulate them. (In a good way).

After seeing Get Out, Us, and now Nope, I feel like Jordan Peele isn’t so much carrying on that tradition as responding to it. That’s largely based on Key and Peele, which always had segments that felt as if they were coming from people who loved movies and were having a blast being able to use a whole production crew to make their own. That’s the vibe I get from Peele’s movies: they’re not just made with the audience in mind; they always feel like Peele wants to be right there in the audience watching them with us.

So when I say that Nope is “kind of a mess,” I don’t mean it as a bad thing. Just that I think the enthusiasm and unrestrained creativity come through more than anything else. It doesn’t feel like it was made with, for instance, Spielberg’s economy of storytelling, in which everything that’s not essential to the core story is excised early in the process. But it’s also not like Quentin Tarantino’s digressions or extended references or rambling dialogue, which don’t really fit into the story but still feel like essential elements of the style2The thing that made me think of Tarantino was Jupe’s extended story about a fictional sketch on SNL starring Chris Kattan. It seemed weird and overlong and clumsy, and I’m still not quite sure how much of that feeling was intentional.. Instead, Nope feels like it’s been over-stuffed with ideas, back-stories, and extended lore. It feels like the result of a brainstorming process where ideas that didn’t quite fit weren’t rejected, but instead worked over and hammered on until they fit.

And it does all fit, somehow! A lot of the movie feels like a sequence of weird or unsettling images mixed with subplots that are weird or unsettling because they feel so incongruous, but they all eventually settle down into two main thematic threads: the need to coexist with nature instead of trying to control it, and people’s obsession with fame and spectacle. By the end, the two ideas play off of each other in a way that’s left open to interpretation3Hence the depressing over-abundance of too-literal NOPE ENDING EXPLAINED! videos on YouTube. and is much more nuanced than you’d expect if it were nothing more than a pastiche of summer blockbuster, horror, and sci-fi cliches. Ultimately I was left with an inexpressible feeling of the value of experiencing and sharing instead of achieving and controlling.

Even if I’m just talking about one thing I like, I don’t want to make it sound like the value of Nope is all in the ideas and not the execution. The performances from the leads are great, especially Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer as polar opposite siblings: one a force of pure charisma and the other a force of near-silent, stubborn integrity. There’s a ton of fantastic art direction and character design, images that will be as unforgettable as Us‘s scissors and Get Out‘s tea cup. And I’m not at all knowledgeable about cinematography, but even I could appreciate how the bulk of the movie was set at night and so perfectly captured the feeling of a night outdoors.

But ultimately the thing I liked best was that it felt like a big, tangled mess of disparate ideas and images that a filmmaker was so excited to finally get the chance to share with us.

  • 1
    The thing that annoyed me so much about Martin Scorsese writing op-eds about how Marvel was killing cinema was his revisionist history about how much Hitchcock was making art for art’s sake instead of “franchise pictures,” which makes Hitchcock sound like an insufferable auteur instead of a director who frequently talked about his responsibility to the audience.
  • 2
    The thing that made me think of Tarantino was Jupe’s extended story about a fictional sketch on SNL starring Chris Kattan. It seemed weird and overlong and clumsy, and I’m still not quite sure how much of that feeling was intentional.
  • 3
    Hence the depressing over-abundance of too-literal NOPE ENDING EXPLAINED! videos on YouTube.