I Don’t Know How I Feel About Dreamlight Valley

Disney’s new “kind of free-to-play but also not really” game is confusing the heck out of me and I can’t stop playing it

Disney Dreamlight Valley is like if you took Kingdom Hearts, removed all the traces of a Japanese RPG, and replaced them with The Sims and Animal Crossing. Or, if you want an unfairly uncharitable interpretation: if you made an IP-synergy game mashing up most of Disney’s characters, applied free-to-play mechanics, and then sold it as a retail product.

To be clear, it’s not actually a free-to-play game, and its mechanics don’t feel anywhere near that exploitative. It’s more like the Sims 4 model, where there’s an endless supply of purchasable content, except you can get much of it just by playing the game normally. Even though “normally” does often feel like doing fetch quests or variants on “collect these 3 things” or “cook these 3 things,” or waiting for timers to expire.

It’s odd, is my point, which might be entirely because I’ve largely been out of the whole “casual games” environment for the past several years. Maybe this is just how these types of games work now, and I’m unfairly equating the mechanics with the types of free-to-play games that I absolutely hate?

Whatever the case, the end result is that I’m absolutely hooked on it, even as I’m constantly wondering whether it’s “okay” for me to be hooked on it. I keep wondering whether I can just enjoy it in perpetuity until I get tired of it, like Animal Crossing, or whether the other shoe is going to drop at any moment, and I’ll find the seedy underside of the business model. I suspect that I’m either just paranoid, or too set in my ways, where you paid your 50-60 bucks and got the entire game until the sequel came along a few years later. I get nervous when I see any sign of the business model in the game design itself.

Which isn’t entirely fair, because Dreamlight Valley is charming as hell. I’ve played this kind of “let’s throw all of our IP together in one place” type game a few times before, from cheaper mobile games to more ambitious stuff like Kingdom Hearts and Disney Infinity, and the art direction and production value of Dreamlight Valley is some of the best yet. It feels aimed at a mid-range, widely accessible game engine, instead of being thrown together on the cheap. The characters and locations I’ve seen so far all stay close to their on-screen versions — without radical redesigns to give everything a common art direction — and I think it all works pretty well.

I’m also very happy that they’ve continued the trend of the Disney Animation Studios 3D character designs for humans that started around Tangled or Frozen, which allow for customization and skew towards cartoons, but are all inherently appealing. I can only dream of hitting the level of Daddiness that my in-game avatar pulls off effortlessly, even if I do still wish that the game had representation for people like me, i.e. those whose hair and beard are completely different colors.

It looks like they’re ready for a full suite of dozens of different characters, so they’re not all exhaustively animated, but each has a set of standard animations that’s still full of character. Merlin does his happy dance, Maui slaps his chest, Remy acts enraptured by what he’s smelling, and so on.

Also, for all my uneasiness at the systems and “compulsion loops” seemingly laid bare, the systems do all fit together in clever and frequently satisfying ways. I’m too much of a Gen Xer to ever be completely comfortable when Disney starts laying it on thick with the power Dreams and Magic and Imagination, but I still am extremely pleased to be playing a game where you level up by doing nice things for your friends. It’s just a really nice, comforting suspension of disbelief to be able to ignore the fact that you’re looking at a semi-randomly-generated list of craftable items, and instead tell yourself, “I’m going to take the time to make Mickey Mouse a vegetable casserole, because I know it’s his favorite.”

I’m playing the game on PC with Xbox Game Pass, which might be part of why I can’t quite get comfortable with it. I still don’t fully understand the business model of subscription services. At least with free-to-play games, I had a vague understanding that they were exploiting “whales” who contributed more money than the average player. I hate it, but at least I understand it. Playing a game like Dreamlight Valley — with its roped-off hallways suggesting near-infinite expansion packs and downloadable content in the future — might feel more relaxing if I’d paid for it up front.

At least for now, though, I’ll keep doing favors for Scrooge McDuck (more or less the Dreamlight Valley version of Tom Nook) and trying on different outfits and cooking meals for Mickey Mouse to take on picnics and do my best to ignore the feeling that the rug is going to get pulled out from under me.

One Thing I Like About Confess, Fletch

A re-vitalization of Gregory MacDonald’s 1976 novel that somehow feels timeless

Confess, Fletch came out in 2022 (with seemingly no promotion from the studio), but one thing I like about it is that it feels timeless. It feels like it could’ve been released any time in the past 40+ years since the novel was released.

That’s kind of an absurd claim to make, since it’s by no means a period piece. It’s firmly set in the present. The very first (and last) line of dialogue sets it within the past 10 years, and Fletch spends most of the movie catching Lyft rides.1IM Fletcher might be kind of an asshole, but at least he knows better than to use Uber. And that’s before the movie explicitly references the pandemic, or Oxycontin addiction.

But I might be biased or overly nostalgic, based on the movie’s poster — and come on, that is a great poster — and my love of the first Fletch movie. Back in high school, I thought it was just fantastic, and I loved it enough that it led to a minor obsession with all of the Fletch and Flynn novels by Gregory Mcdonald.

The movie hasn’t aged very well, and I’m not sure how much of that was due to the huge disappointment that was Fletch Lives. If there’s anything good to be said about that movie, at least the tone-deaf Song of the South parody distracted from the first movie’s rampant, casual sexual harassment. When I was a teenager, I thought “Why don’t we go in there and lie down, and I’ll fill you in?” was the absolute ultimate in witty double entendre, which probably says a lot about the level of maturity the movie was aimed at. It’s still funny enough to be a classic, but it says a lot that the fantastic Harold Faltermeyer soundtrack, which dates it squarely in the early-to-mid-1980s, might be one of the least dated things about it in 2022. It also didn’t try too hard to be a faithful adaptation of the novel, since it was pretty clear it was just a vehicle for Chevy Chase to do comedy bits while the people around him acted annoyed or confused.

That’s one of the remarkable things about Confess, Fletch: it’s not just closer to the books2Or at least, my 30-some-odd-year-old memory of them, it gives pretty much everyone in the cast the chance to be funny. Hamm plays Fletch less like a charming asshole and more like an exasperatingly charming screw-up who somehow proves to be competent in the end. He’s very funny3I was the only person in the theater who laughed out loud when a cop says “around the corner” and Fletch asks, “Where the fudge is made?” Which does say more about my level of maturity than anything else., but it’s less like he’s always doing a bit than that he exists in a world where everyone is kind of weird and goofy. Annie Mumolo has a fantastic scene in which she’s basically giving a huge exposition dump of clues to the mystery, none of which you can pay attention to because of the chaos around her. And Marcia Gay Harden goes over-the-top with a character that absolutely shouldn’t work, but she somehow pulls it off.

Also, it’s got to be said: this is the perfect role for Jon Hamm, both because he clearly enjoys doing comedy, and because he’s one of the only actors who could make this character believable. It’s hard to believe that any real person could be as annoying as IM Fletcher and get away with it so often, unless he looked like Jon Hamm.

My only real complaint about the movie is that the mystery itself isn’t very satisfying. Honestly, although I’m pretty sure I read all the books, I can’t remember the plots of any of them except the first, but that’s kind of understandable since I read them so long ago. But I couldn’t really recount the actual murder in Confess, Fletch even though I just finished watching the movie about an hour ago. I can’t remember if it’s any stronger in the book. The only details I can remember about the books are that Fletch spends a lot of time in his car waiting for something to happen, and that Mcdonald seemed to include a lot of passages describing how Fletch found makeshift ways to shave4But then, I read them in high school, when that was still a novelty..

The main thing I loved about the books was that they all shared a similar plot device. At first I was reluctant to spoil it here, but one of the most remarkable things was that even when I knew it was going to happen, I could never predict exactly how it was going to play out. The books all had two seemingly separate mysteries that turned out to be connected by the end. And Fletch would seem to spend the entire story stumbling through the mysteries, reacting to people getting angry with him or wanting to kill him, until it was clear that he had a better handle on what was going on than he’d let on to anyone, including the reader. There’s some sense of that at the end of the movie version of Confess, Fletch, as you see various different plot lines getting satisfyingly tied up in one montage sequence.

So I guess what makes the movie feel timeless to me is my nostalgia for the books. It’s a cliche to say “they don’t make movies like this anymore!” but it’s pretty accurate in this case: it feels a bit like Knives Out, with a bunch of great performances in a somewhat old-fashioned murder mystery that succeeds on charm and cleverness more than anything else.

I don’t know why Confess, Fletch hasn’t been promoted at all — I probably wouldn’t even have heard about it if not for a tweet from Patton Oswalt — and am guessing it might have something to do with the shake-up at Miramax? In any case, I’m hoping that it can turn into something of a surprise hit, because it was hugely entertaining, and there are still nine other novels out there waiting to get adaptations as good as this one.

  • 1
    IM Fletcher might be kind of an asshole, but at least he knows better than to use Uber.
  • 2
    Or at least, my 30-some-odd-year-old memory of them
  • 3
    I was the only person in the theater who laughed out loud when a cop says “around the corner” and Fletch asks, “Where the fudge is made?” Which does say more about my level of maturity than anything else.
  • 4
    But then, I read them in high school, when that was still a novelty.

Long Live the Smarm

The Queen is dead. Now is the time of warring edgelords.

Update 09/14/22: I’d hope it wouldn’t need to be said, but “showing grace after someone’s death” doesn’t include “screwing over people needing essential services in a display of extended performative wealth-hoarding.” This post is seeming increasingly tone-deaf the more I hear about how England is handling the mourning rituals, but I was exclusively talking about people debasing themselves on Twitter either for yuks or narcissistic self-righteous indignation. Also: nothing in this post applies to the recent death of Ken Starr. Make fun of him all you want, because that guy was a really irredeemable bag of shit.

When I wrote about Michael Schur’s book How to Be Perfect, I mentioned how I was disappointed that he’d chosen to praise two of my least favorite essays ever published on the internet. One of those was John Scalzi’s probably-well-intentioned but disingenuously tone deaf analogy for the concept of “privilege” as playing a video game on the easiest difficulty. The other was an absolute piece of garbage from Gawker1Redundant? titled “On Smarm.”

I’m not a good enough writer to describe the visceral reaction I had to reading that essay; it was as if the concentrated nugget of evil from Time Bandits had been converted to HTML and was actually being praised online by seemingly dozens of people who should’ve known better. If I remember correctly, my eyes widened and I impotently screamed and pointed at the obscenity, like Carrie White’s mom, then ran away and took a shower, knowing that I’d never be able to wash myself clean of the stain of it.

Ostensibly, the essay was about the tendency of politicians, pundits, corporate media, and “authority figures” in general to stifle criticism or opposition via insincere, overwrought tone-policing. We saw a perfect example of this recently, when Beto O’Rourke called out some trash in the audience who was laughing after O’Rourke was talking about the Uvalde children who’d been murdered in their school. Plenty of people — including NPR, in their desperate attempt to both-sides everything — instantly began deflecting from the epidemic of gun violence in the US, instead running to their fainting couches and worrying whether it were appropriate for a prominent gubernatorial candidate to be using the f-bomb2My self-censoring might seem like a hypocritical example of smarm, but the fact is simply that I promised my mother I’d stop using the word in public.

On the surface, that sounds fine, even if it’s too shallow to qualify as significant social commentary. That kind of smarminess is abundantly obvious, and it doesn’t actually fool anyone who isn’t already eager to be fooled. Call out that nonsense if you want, but it’s not a genuine threat because nobody of substance is actually buying it.

The problem is that that trivially-true observation was used as the vehicle for defending the awful mission statement of Gawker, the candy coating wrapped around the poison pill that had passed undigested through Nick Denton’s intestinal tract. The morally bankrupt notion of shittiness as a public service. The disingenuous idea that being gossipy, crass, petty, bitter, hypocritical, and narcissistic is okay as long as you can make the case that you’re “punching up.”

If you had the misfortune of being on Twitter last Friday and the following weekend, seeing the reaction to the death of Queen Elizabeth II, you’d quickly see that that although original Gawker is dead3Apparently a version of the former site has been brought back to life by people almost as adept at being self-righteously shitty and awful? I haven’t read it, and won’t., that mindset is still alive and in full force.

In both varieties, too. There was the predictable wave of smarmy and insincere In Memoriams, from politicians eager to distract attention away from whatever they’re doing wrong at the moment, and from corporations too eager to show how reverential they are. Even here in the US, they were excessive, so I can only imagine what a barrage of insincerity it was for people in the UK and other places that still have the Queen on their money. And in addition to being predictable, they were pretty transparent.

What stood out a lot more to me, though, were the people practically stumbling over themselves to be shitty about the death of a much-beloved woman. A lot of it was dumb and obvious but probably harmless; I’ve fallen hard off the wagon and have almost returned to my 2009-era levels of posting nonsense on Twitter, but even I’m knew enough not to make hacky jokes about chess, bees, or Freddie Mercury. But I was more struck by how many people were doing the virtual equivalent of dancing on her grave.

And then, the part that reminded me of Gawker and “On Smarm”: throwing a days-long shit fit when they got called out on it. They will not be tone-policed by royalists! “Don’t speak ill of the dead” is not just wrong, it is anti-journalism! Repeated comments on how this was a joyous occasion for Irish or Scottish people. And of course, all the variations on how people of European descent have no right to be telling “folks”4My new least-favorite thing on the internet is preachy, self-righteous types using “folk” instead of “people” as some bizarre signifier of community or identity, ignoring that the word “folks” has decades of connotations that are even more othering, making it sound like you’re talking about people from Appalachia or The Shire. from places that had been colonized by Europeans how they should be reacting to the death of their oppressor.

Now, I’m an extremely white guy from the United States, but I’m pretty confident in saying that one thing that unites us across cultures and nations is that talking trash about someone who just died is petty and shitty. Different people have their own ideas of when it’s justified, but that doesn’t make it any less petty or shitty.

I can think of at least 5 Americans alive today for whom news of their death will fill me with glee, because death is the only way they’ll ever face any consequences for all the terrible stuff they’ve done. I fully admit that I did feel satisfaction and vindication hearing of Rush Limbaugh’s death, for instance, and also Ronald Reagan’s, and being reminded that there were probably, somehow, people who loved them in life and were sad at their passing didn’t affect that feeling of petty satisfaction at all. That doesn’t make it any less petty, though; it’s just a level of personal shittiness on my part that I’m willing to accept and won’t try to defend by claiming it’s justified or at all righteous.

As adults, we can acknowledge that two things can be true at the same time: 1) The Queen served as a kindly, grandmotherly face on centuries of atrocities done in the name of the British Empire; and 2) That kindly, familiar face of stability was hugely important to millions of people. Of course it’s true that the image of a nice old woman who loved her dogs and had a pretty good sense of humor, is inseparable from the history of stolen wealth, colonialism, and scandals, both decades old and recent. Both as a figurehead, and as someone who was complicit to one degree or another.5I am one of those people who believes that how complicit you are in wrong-doing makes a huge difference. Are you actively making people’s lives worse, are you knowingly benefitting from it and refusing to make reparations, or are you just a representation of it? But if they’re inseparable, that means that you have to accept both.

There was a video going around on Friday, in which a member of the royal guard was telling a pretty charming story about the Queen’s sense of humor: An American tourist encountered them in passing, but didn’t recognize the Queen. When the guard said that he’d met the Queen before, the tourist got excited and asked Elizabeth to take a picture of the two of them together. It’s cute, but it’s also an example of how even a story intended to humanize her is entirely based on her being the Queen of England. The role was universally recognized even if the person wasn’t, and the vast majority of people in the world will never know the difference, or even if a tangible difference exists. (How much of a unique person is left when you’re born into a role and spend your entire life publicly serving it? Do I need to watch The Crown to know the answers?)

Anyway, for anyone trying to turn this into a teachable moment about the history of colonialism, imperialism, stolen crown jewels, or any of the other evils from a century’s worth of world history: your meme of the Queen meeting Margaret Thatcher in Hell ain’t it. Neither is your video of Irish dancing in front of Buckingham Palace. But then, they’re not truly intended to be teachable moments; they’re narcissistic displays that people try to dress up as being more righteous when they get called out for being vulgar or lacking grace.

That’s the part that reminded me so vividly of “On Smarm” and Gawker in general: the lengths to which people will defend their right to be shitty and awful. Mocking the death of an elderly, much-beloved woman is not just my right, but my duty! The thing I found most repulsive about the whole mentality of “On Smarm” was that it was so deeply cynical to the point of nihilism; it didn’t just reject insincere displays of false compassion or sympathy, it refused to even entertain the idea that public compassion or sympathy — or just plain good taste and grace — could ever be genuine. All of Gawker Media was rooted in the assertion that every one of you is as awful as we are, you’re just not brave enough to admit it! It’s an ethos that somehow manages to be more repulsive than Randian Objectivism, because it so frequently sucks in people whose opinions I actually care about.

And that’s not even getting to the rancid, rainbow-colored oil slick of hypocrisy floating on the top of it: it’s its own kind of smarminess, evident in the sheer outrage at being tone-policed by white Europeans who can’t understand the history of oppression that’s embedded in shitty, opportunistic mockery of somebody who just died. It’s still disingenuous self-righteousness, but at least the people who are publicly performing their Reverence For Her Majesty as a distraction are aware at some level that they’re being disingenuous.

Personally, I’m anti-imperialist (both in British and American flavors), and I think the monarchy should be abolished. Those aren’t in any way bold or controversial claims; I think they’re just table stakes for being a decent person in the 21st century. Which is what the whole question of “grace” ultimately comes down to: being a decent person. You don’t have to respect the United Kingdom, or the monarchy, to still be able to respect the people who are affected by it and who lived their entire lives surrounded by it. A lot of people, including myself, could be better educated about the details of history of imperialism and colonialism, not from the point of view of the colonists, but of the people affected.6In college I took a course in African History, because it was a topic I knew almost nothing about. It was essentially a course about Europeans, with almost nothing about the cultures apart from how they were affected — or outright devastated — by colonialism. But there’s a time for that, and it isn’t when someone is really sad because it feels like their grandma just died. Even if they’re sad because they’re focusing on the positive aspects of a public persona, and choosing not to focus on the bad while they’re in mourning. If you’re the type of person to stand outside of a funeral and shout “Your grandma is in Hell because of the British Raj!” there’s a word for you, and it’s not “activist” or “educator.”

  • 1
    Redundant?
  • 2
    My self-censoring might seem like a hypocritical example of smarm, but the fact is simply that I promised my mother I’d stop using the word in public
  • 3
    Apparently a version of the former site has been brought back to life by people almost as adept at being self-righteously shitty and awful? I haven’t read it, and won’t.
  • 4
    My new least-favorite thing on the internet is preachy, self-righteous types using “folk” instead of “people” as some bizarre signifier of community or identity, ignoring that the word “folks” has decades of connotations that are even more othering, making it sound like you’re talking about people from Appalachia or The Shire.
  • 5
    I am one of those people who believes that how complicit you are in wrong-doing makes a huge difference. Are you actively making people’s lives worse, are you knowingly benefitting from it and refusing to make reparations, or are you just a representation of it?
  • 6
    In college I took a course in African History, because it was a topic I knew almost nothing about. It was essentially a course about Europeans, with almost nothing about the cultures apart from how they were affected — or outright devastated — by colonialism.

Literacy 2022: Book 11: Carmilla

A classic gothic horror story that can’t help but be compared to Dracula (but holds its own pretty well!)

Book
Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Synopsis
A young woman is stricken with increasingly severe nightmares and an unexplained illness after her father takes in a strange guest, a beautiful, beguiling, and oddly familiar girl named Carmilla.

Pros

  • Lesbian vampires! (Kind of)
  • Predates Dracula by 20 years, and is also much easier and engaging to read.
  • Starts out strong with a moody castle, a lonely narrator, a strange and scary encounter in the night, and then what feels like a queasily uncomfortable romance.
  • Has a very 1800s take on vampires: less powerful than the modern versions, fewer weaknesses, more mysterious and dangerous with a less-defined set of rules. And all with the confidence that they can be dealt with by a bunch of well-educated upper-class men using science.
  • Does a fantastic job of exploring the seductive aspect of vampires, without ever needing to become too lurid or too graphic.
  • It’s pretty short, but is still literary enough to count against my book challenge!

Cons

  • The story kind of peters out, with the climax treated more or less like an afterthought.
  • Still has, long sentences, separated by commas, as does much of the writing of the 1800s, where the point, as it were, of a sentence, can be lost.
  • Lots of intriguing details seeded earlier in the story are left hanging by the end. Who exactly are the various other strangers who were in the company of Carmilla?
  • Difficult to tell how much of the story has lost its power due to over a hundred years of vampire stories following.

Verdict
Very interesting for those of us who were excited by the potential of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but disappointed once we actually read it. It’s probably readable and enjoyable even for contemporary readers (like me) who find Victorian novels to be a slog. But you can also see why Dracula became the definitive vampire novel, as Carmilla has a bunch of components of a great story that doesn’t feel quite complete.

Department of Pettiness, Young Adult Literature Division

I demand retroactive credit for biting my tongue for so many years.

It has been extensively documented how the author JK Rowling has decided to make sure her legacy is not “obscenely wealthy writer of a much-beloved series of books for young adults,” and is instead “obscenely bigoted whackadoo actively using her platform to make young-adult and adult-adult lives completely unnecessarily miserable.”

I’m not even a fan of Rowling’s, and I still spent far too long trying to give her the benefit of the doubt, and to see things from her perspective. Even when it was clear that she’d crossed the line into irredeemable, I tsk-tsked at the tragedy of someone who could’ve been such a strong force for good, instead being radicalized by opportunists exploiting her feminism to use her as a high-profile mouthpiece for their anti-trans bigotry. Such a shame, I thought, that she’s so attached to a simplistic idea of feminism, and so thin-skinned that she decided to run from criticism into the open arms of the most dangerously hateful and disingenuous people in the United Kingdom. I was too attached to the idea of her being easily-manipulated that I ignored all the evidence that she was actually an egomaniac with a dangerously large megaphone she could use to broadcast a hateful message to millions and millions of people.

But that’s not what this post is about. This post is how I’ve always thought the Harry Potter books were pretty bad, but I was always too polite to say anything.

See, now it’s fashionable to point out that they’re not very good. Or to point out all the depictions of races and species and sexual orientations1More accurately, lack of depictions, I guess that are “problematic,” arguments which have varying levels of believability but which all ignore the larger point, which is that the books aren’t very good.

The first few are pretty readable, which is different. I went to a Borders on the release day for one of them2The third one, maybe? The Goblet of Magic or something? I’m not trying to be cute; I legitimately can’t remember the titles of them., and it was exciting to see so many kids waiting in line, excited to read something new. It reminded me of the days in elementary school when the Scholastic Book Fair orders came in. I happily bought a copy and took it home, and my intention to “just check out the first chapter” quickly turned into my reading the first 100 pages or so without even realizing it. I have, in fact, read all of the books, and although the later ones turned into absurdly over-long and poorly-plotted slogs that were actively unpleasant to read, the first few were paced pretty well.3Apparently, after you get to a certain level of multi-millionaire, you stop having to listen to editors.

They’re also very savvy at marketing, devoting pages to describing things in the wizarding world that kids and adult fans both would be dying to buy. That’s a compliment, by the way: I think planting the ideas for stuff like chocolate frogs and gross jelly beans is a genuinely clever case of listening to and adapting the kinds of things that kids really want, instead of just crassly building a fiction around a toy line.

But it’s become a pet peeve of mine when people say that the books have been ruined by the author’s revealing herself to be kind of an a-hole, since I can assure you that they all came pre-ruined. They made little sense even before the ripped-straight-from-a-mediocre-videogame reveal of the “horcruxes.” Any mystery elements were insultingly shallow, depending on big twists based on ludicrous anagrams, or over-complicated backstories revealed at the last minute.

Quidditch is a dumb game that makes no sense, by any measure, unless you acknowledge that it’s designed only to give the main character a heroic moment where he can win the game all by himself. But that applies to the plotting of every single one of the books, too: they don’t make any real sense, but are just collections of scenes intended to make the main character a hero without ever doing much that’s particularly heroic.

Also, there’s an awful lot of ALL-CAPS YELLING! in both internal monologues and external dialogue, of the kind you’d expect from fan fiction but not from international best sellers. Just pages and page of it. I feel like even when I was an over-emotional teen with highly unique problems and ideas that nobody else in the world was even capable of understanding, I would’ve reacted with, “Jeez, take it down a notch.”

But I always figured that it’d be really churlish of me to mention any of this stuff, considering so many people seemed to be enjoying it. And it would seem to be deeply hypocritical, considering how much time I’ve spent trying to defend “low art” or art “for kids” as having just as much merit as anything else someone might choose to engage with.

To take two things that I’ve enjoyed a lot as examples: it would be pointless snobbery to say that if someone found something impactful and personally meaningful in, say, WandaVision; that that’s shallower or less valid than someone having a meaningful connection with Piranesi. That doesn’t mean that the TV series is as deep or as nuanced as the book, which would be a pretty indefensible argument. It just means that the connection is what’s important. We should be encouraging people to be finding these moments of connection and inspiration wherever they can, instead of telling them that they’re doing it wrong. Or worse, acting like something that is “higher art” is going to connect with everyone the same way that it does with us. Reading The Catcher in the Rye had me sobbing at my desk in high school, but I know plenty of people who didn’t like it at all, and it would be stupid to claim that they’re somehow “wrong.”

So I’m not here to be dismissive of anybody’s personal connection to the Harry Potter books, because there are obviously many, many readers who consider them formative.4Like the Chronicles of Narnia were for me, even though I’d still insist that those are also much, much better-written and more innovative, beyond any personal connection. But I would like people to back off on the claims that they’re objectively good or innovative books, instead of just objectively popular. Some of us recognized all along that they’re not very good, even for books aimed at juveniles. And we’re just juvenile and petty enough to want retroactive credit for not being joyless chodes about it when so many seemed to be having fun and enjoying themselves.

  • 1
    More accurately, lack of depictions, I guess
  • 2
    The third one, maybe? The Goblet of Magic or something? I’m not trying to be cute; I legitimately can’t remember the titles of them.
  • 3
    Apparently, after you get to a certain level of multi-millionaire, you stop having to listen to editors.
  • 4
    Like the Chronicles of Narnia were for me, even though I’d still insist that those are also much, much better-written and more innovative, beyond any personal connection.

One Thing I Like About She-Hulk: Attorney At Law

Watch me take a few hundred words to say “Tatiana Maslany”

Some people online tried to turn it into A Big Thing when Mark Ruffalo compared the MCU to Star Wars, saying that the MCU lets different projects have different voices, while with Star Wars you’re always getting the same thing. I was happy to see that it failed to drum up that much publicity, since it’s a pretty uncontroversial observation: Star Wars is mostly tonally consistent, while the MCU tends to be more experimental with styles and genres.1That all have identical, interchangeable fight and action scenes of people flying around and shooting lasers and punching things. 2Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

That’s most evident with She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. There have been two episodes so far, and the first episode had a training montage, a little bit of comical fighting, and then a climax with exactly one punch. The second had no action scenes. I was impressed that Marvel was unapologetic about making Hawkeye an action-comedy, but She-Hulk seems to have taken that even farther. They’ve gone all-in on being a comedy series.

There are dozens of ways that could’ve gone wrong3And it’s only two episodes in, so it still can, I guess.. I’ve tried reading John Byrne’s She-Hulk comics, but I always bounce off of them, because they’re in a voice that sounds like John Byrne, not like Jennifer Walters. It’s a kind of comedy that’s pretty common in comic books and video games, where it’s written for an extremely specific audience of comic book readers or video game players. (And to be clear, I have 100% been guilty of writing like that!) And the MCU is usually more successful when they try to be wry or clever than outright funny; their attempts at comedy have been inconsistent at best.

But what has been consistent in the MCU is fantastic casting, and that’s most evident in the She-Hulk series. Tatiana Maslany so completely and thoroughly understands the assignment that she manages to make even the clunkiest dialogue4I really didn’t go for the whole “Steve Rogers is a virgin” gag as much as Marvel wanted me to. at least a little charming. This material could very easily have come across as too broad or too try-hard, but she approaches every single scene not as if she were an actor doing comedy in a Marvel series, but as Jennifer Walters. She’s a character that doesn’t take much of what’s going on in that world all that seriously, but still exists completely and totally in that world.

Even when she’s breaking the fourth wall, which is kind of a requirement for She-Hulk at this point, but could have been insufferable if any other actor tried it. It feels like the tone of the show is deliberately broad, but she still manages to seamlessly go in and out of a scene, even ones that seem to be begging for her to mug and wink at the camera.

My favorite example so far: in the second episode, there’s a phone conversation between her and and her cousin, where she’s trying to explain why she’s taking the case of a man who tried to kill him, way back at the start of the MCU.5I’d thought The Incredible Hulk was officially in the MCU, but it’s not on Disney+ at least in the US, so I guess it’s tied up in some kind of rights issue? Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner explains that it’s fine, he doesn’t hold any grudges against the guy, and “that was so long ago, I’m a different person. Literally.”

It’s a pretty solid gag, a pretty funny bit of self-awareness aimed at people who’ve been following the MCU on a casual level.6The gag is that Ruffalo’s character was played by Ed Norton in the movie where all of The Abomination’s origin story happened. The scene cuts back to Maslany, who says “Ha!” at the camera before sailing right back into her conversation. And I think she just nailed the delivery: acknowledge it’s a B+/A- gag, and then move on.

It’s not all broad comedy and winking in-jokes. I liked that they cast Cousin Larry as her dad, and he lives completely within a family sitcom, while Steve Coulter as her boss gets a few of the funniest lines delivered completely straight and sour-faced7“I truly do not care who your paralegal is”. And Josh Segarra as “Pug” struck me as instantly hilarious, even though I can’t explain why beyond the fact that every single line delivery sounded like an unnecessarily weird and 100% correct choice. Maslany’s got to play against all of that, matching everybody’s energy to make all these weird shifts in tone flow together, while still nailing her own delivery.

To be honest, when I heard they were casting her as She-Hulk, I thought it sounded like a bit of over-kill. You don’t really need an actor that good to be in what appears to be a light and goofy comedy series. Now after seeing a couple of episodes, I’m realizing I was wrong. Having an actor that good is the key to making it work at all.

  • 1
    That all have identical, interchangeable fight and action scenes of people flying around and shooting lasers and punching things.
  • 2
    Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
  • 3
    And it’s only two episodes in, so it still can, I guess.
  • 4
    I really didn’t go for the whole “Steve Rogers is a virgin” gag as much as Marvel wanted me to.
  • 5
    I’d thought The Incredible Hulk was officially in the MCU, but it’s not on Disney+ at least in the US, so I guess it’s tied up in some kind of rights issue?
  • 6
    The gag is that Ruffalo’s character was played by Ed Norton in the movie where all of The Abomination’s origin story happened.
  • 7
    “I truly do not care who your paralegal is”

Move Over, Bacon, Slowly, Without Making Eye Contact

A short story about the time I went to see a taping of Kate & Allie

Reading Patton Oswalt’s book reminded me of one of his stand-up albums, where he talks about hosting an open mic in which a random heroin addict inadvertently performed a routine that was more brilliant than some professional comedians. That reminded me of this story:

My freshman year of college was in Manhattan, so I’d spend almost all of my free time wandering around the most touristy parts of the city, taking pictures. One day I was walking past a theater near Times Square — I’m guessing now it was the Ed Sullivan Theater? — and they were calling out to passersby to come in and be part of the studio audience for a television show. I was exactly their target demographic of “hapless layabout with nothing better to do,” so I went inside.

It turned out the show was the sitcom Kate & Allie, and the seats for non-ticketed people wandering by the theater were all up in the balcony. When I got up to the balcony, there were around a dozen people already seated, but strangely, almost nobody was in the two front rows. The balcony seat with the best view of the action, dead center in the front row, was taken by one man sitting calmly and quietly. All around him was empty seats. I quietly took my seat a few rows back.

Before long, it became evident why the other people in the audience were giving this guy his space: during recording, he was perfectly silent, but as soon as the director ended a shot, the man would start talking in a non-stop apparent stream-of-consciousness, randomly emphasizing certain words. As soon as recording started again, he would instantly go back to sitting calmly and silently.

I knew even less about mental illness then than I do now, so I wasn’t sure what was the best course of action apart from just leaving him alone. He was inside, safe from the cold, and didn’t seem to be bothering anyone, so I figured, like everyone else had, that there was no point in making it an issue. (I’d lived in New York long enough to learn that the standard operating procedure there is to just ignore anyone who’s not directly getting in your business).

The scene in this episode of Kate and Allie had the irrepressible young boy trying to save time during breakfast by putting all of his food into a blender and mixing it up, God bless ‘im. But there was a technical issue keeping the gag from working. The blender was supposed to spray food hilariously all over the kitchen, but it kept getting stuck in take after take.

The technicians on hand seemed to think that the bacon was the problem. (This caused the man in the front row to start punctuating his non-stop sentences with “bacon” in increasing intensity). The crew tried a few different approaches to fixing it, but seeing as how it was 1989 and CGI wasn’t available to family sitcoms at the time, none of their practical approaches were working.

Finally, one of the crew members said, “We need to find something that’s like bacon, but not bacon.” As if on cue, the man in the front row shouted out, “SIZZLEAN!”

I left the taping not long after that, without even seeing the rest of the episode. No offense to the writers of Kate & Allie, but I am 100% certain that there was no joke in the entire script that was half as good as that man’s spontaneous outburst.

Literacy 2022: Book 10: Zombie Spaceship Wasteland

Patton Oswalt’s psuedo-memoir in essay format

Book
Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by Patton Oswalt

Synopsis
A collection of essays, some purely comedic, others a kind of memoir about Oswalt’s suburban nerd childhood and early career as a stand-up comedian. All are loosely themed to the idea of “Why is Patton Oswalt like that?”

Pros

  • A variety of formats, including a short comic story, change up the tone and prevent it from becoming a repetitive memoir in short-story format.
  • The alternating stories give a more complete idea of Oswalt as a person: here’s a story about me or my family, here’s an example of what I find funny. It’s kind of like a comedy routine with behind-the-scenes segments.
  • If you’re a fan of Patton Oswalt’s style in stand-up comedy — hyper-literate, nerdy, earnest, raunchiness — these essays are like extended segments from one of his performances.
  • The essay giving punch-up notes on a (fictional) wedding comedy script is a highlight.
  • I’ve seen from Oswalt’s work that he has a genuine love of stand-up as an art form, he loves the process of perfecting the wording and delivery of a joke, and he loves seeing how comedians innovate with their performances. This was the first time that I got a real sense of why he likes it so much, without its being too “inside baseball.”

Cons

  • Even when you know 100% without a doubt that a writer is in no way homophobic, it turns out there is a limit to how many times you want to read them ironically using slurs. For me, that was about 2/3 of the way through this book.
  • Being a stand-up comedian still sounds miserable to me, even though I have a slightly better understanding of why people are so passionate about it.
  • I’ve liked Patton Oswalt forever because he’s always seemed to strike the right balance of being earnestly enthusiastic about stuff while still being openly critical of laziness, falseness, and cynicism. But this book did still feel like total immersion in the Generation X mindset and reminded me how grateful I am that the 90s are over.
  • The two appendices, with Oswalt writing in the “voice” of bad writers over-enthusiastic about movie treatments and reviews, came across as distractingly snobby and more rambling than entertaining. I ended up saying “Yes, we get it,” and skimming over them.

Verdict
As funny as one of Patton Oswalt’s comedy albums, but more personal and more introspective. I just read a friend’s review of the book that speculated this would probably work better as an audiobook, where the lines are improved by Patton’s specific delivery, and I agree 1000%.

One Thing I Like About Orphan: First Kill

This prequel to a 13-year-old movie has no right to be as much fun as it is. (Spoilers for both Orphan movies in the second half)

A few days ago, there was a flurry of buzz about Orphan: First Kill on social media, and I was dead convinced that it had to be some kind of viral marketing campaign. I had a hard time believing that many people even watched the movie, much less were excited about it.

But I was still hooked on the potential enough to watch it with minimal investment while I was doing other stuff. (The prequel and the original are both streaming on Paramount Plus). And I’ll be damned if I didn’t enjoy the heck out of it.

I had never seen the first movie. The poster was all over the place for a while, and the premise seemed pretty straightforward: evil little girl going around killin’ folks. It seemed to just blend into all of the other Blumhouse-style horror movies that were all over the place in the late 2000s, and I wasn’t particularly interested. I read the plot synopsis on Wikipedia, said, “Huh,” and then forgot all about it.

The prequel starts out feeling like it’s going to be more of the same thing, this time with the premise of the “franchise” already spoiled, making you wonder what’s the point of a repeat. But before too long, it starts pulling in some older-style horror movie twists, suggesting that yes, they’re well aware of what the audience is expecting.

Then, just as it seems to be settling back into its formula, it pulls out the One Thing I Like, transforming into what’s practically a different movie. Unfortunately, it’s also the One Thing I Can’t Say Anything About Without Ruining It, so I’ve got to put the rest behind a spoiler break.

I will say that I really enjoyed it, and definitely consider it worth watching, even if you haven’t seen the original, but you know the original’s “twist.” No, I don’t think I could call it an intricately-crafted masterwork, since I don’t even think I’d claim that it all makes sense. But I thought it was a lot of fun. Anything beyond that is a spoiler, and it’s absolutely worth going in unspoiled!

Continue reading “One Thing I Like About Orphan: First Kill”

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.