Friday, March 2, 2018

The Value of Explanatory Scenes

The further away I get from Annihilation, the more I am appreciating the way that the opening scenes put a button on the interpretation. It's a movie which imagines a kind of cancer of alien origin, that operates on the idea of the world as a body. Portman's Lena's small monologue over cancerous cells is, functionally, like the psychiatrist scene in Psycho. Which, at this point, is maybe my favorite thing about Psycho.

A fun thing is how the intersection of spoiler culture and wiki loredump culture means that everyone Theories about every edge of a piece of fiction without ever saying a goddamn thing about it, all while making any discussion of material, formal, or thematic concerns completely subservient. Not only does that provide one of the material foundations for an oppressively dull discursive environment, playing into it leads to moments where things like the interpretation of Mulholland Drive as split into death-dream followed by real life can take functionally canonical status. That can be exciting at first, but (for me at least) it ultimately robs the experience of its ethereality. I worry that this is the ultimate fate of the third season of Twin Peaks as well, its beautiful, complicated sprawl boiled down to a couple timelines and a million wiki entries about character names.

I reference Lynch because he is, to me, the example of a director who most adamantly refuses the Skeleton Key approach to his own work, to the point where any interview with a cast member inevitably runs up against his own reticence. It's a strategy I admire in many ways, but that has increasingly seemed to me to be ineffective. Not because I want everyone to J.K. Rowling all over their completed works, but because the cultural shift has made it simultaneously difficult to find clear, detailed description of specific elements while canonizing everything in a way that rewards only the most general interpretation.

I was probably as likely as anyone to make fun of, or at least discount, the psychiatrist scene in Psycho the last time I saw it, probably a decade ago. But that decade has changed the way texts are approached. When it was shot, a generous reading of that ending would be to allow for Bates' condition to be subsumed not just under the generic mode of "crazy killer," but to give a sense of human motivation to his break and subsequent actions without reducing it to the conscious mind. It was a profoundly psychoanalytic move at a time when many characters had no writing that even acknowledged their drives, much less the plethora of other factors that motivate a person beyond their conscious intentions. Now, though -- and let me stress again that this is an intentionally ahistorical reading -- it is a way of circumventing the interpretive lacuna left in so much media to be endlessly filled with fan labor that corporate media companies can exploit. It is a type of focus that wasn't needed at the time, but is now.

To say that Annihilation is about cancer is to say that, yes, it is a movie about what makes us human, because what is cancer but that which is of and against the very foundation of ourselves? It is to say that yes, it is a movie about the difference between human and animal because what is a thing about cancer that doesn't take into account the human built environment that organizes and exacerbates it? It is even to say that yes, it is a movie about Stalker, because what is Stalker but a movie that poisoned its crew and contributed to the death of its director by, yes, cancer? And, importantly, it is a way of saying that that can say: it's right there. It's part of the thing. It's as transparent as the Shimmer.

So if we want to continue this conversation to something more interesting, we can't simply get caught up on the right way to put the jigsaw puzzle together. We can talk about the aesthetics (they totally didn't work for me) or the way it points to a possibility of a science fiction that advances certain past examples like Tarkovsky, Kubrick, and Carpenter (I didn't feel like it did much in that arena either, no matter my mixed regards for all of them). We can take the central conceit of self-destruction in both the sense of action and impulse. Even more than that we can, though, is the fact that the movie hands us the tools to insist on doing that. And I appreciate that about this film, no matter the fact that I didn't particularly love watching it.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Top Tens of 2017: Full Lists

Here are the full lists of my top tens of 2017, with links to the writeups on each:

Best Podcasts of 2017

#10: Don't Zap the Geek
#9: Switchblade Sisters
#8: The Adventure Zone
#7: Revolutionary Left Radio
#6: The Giant Beastcast
#5: Fave This
#4: The Solecast
#3: Friends at the Table
#2: Trillbilly Worker's Party
#1: Beyond the Filter

Best Films of 2017

#10: The Night is Short, Walk on Girl
#9: Better Watch Out
#8: Okja
#7: Raw
#6: Anarchist from Colony
#5: Lu Over the Wall
#4: mother!
#3: A Taxi Driver
#2: Split
#1: Get Out

Best Albums of 2017

#10: I Believe in You by Dolly Parton
#9: Dedication 6 by Lil Wayne
#8: All American Made by Margo Price
#7: The Autobiography by Vic Mensa
#6: Freedom Highway by Rhiannon Giddens
#5: Dear by Boris
#4: T-Wayne by T-Pain & Lil Wayne
#3: Forgotten Gears by RoughSketch
#2: Chill, Dummy by POS
#1: Rainbow by Kesha

Best TV Shows of 2017

#10: American Gods
#9: Slasher
#8: GLOW
#7: Land of the Lustrous
#6: The Good Place
#5: Big Little Lies
#4: The Shannara Chronicles
#3: Lady Dynamite
#2: Sense8
#1: Twin Peaks

Best Videogames of 2017

#10: Doki Doki Literature Club
#9: Night in the Woods
#8: Vroom in the Night Sky
#7: Post/Capitalism
#6: Middle-Earth: Shadow of War
#5: The Evil Within 2
#4: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
#3: Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
#2: NieR:Automata
#1: Everything is Going to be OK

Top Tens of 2017: #1s

Here are the best podcast, film, album, TV show, and videogame of 2017:

#1 Podcast: Beyond the Filter

Liz Ryerson's interview podcast only had a handful of episodes this year, but each one dove deep on a topic with someone from the internet art scene. The range of fields that covers, and the depths that the interviews go into make that relative lack feel less of an issue.

Exemplary episodes from 2017 include the interview with Lana Polansky on labor issues in videogames, the discussion with Joel Bocko on Twin Peaks season 3, and a discussion of local art scenes with Bandcamp Daily editor Jes Skolnik. The first two are unequivocally some of the best discussions on their topics from that year, said as someone who has pursued both of those conversations somewhat extensively. I'm much less tapped into music writing/podcasting, so I can't speak to that with the same approximation of authority, but the flip side is that the conversation with Skolnik is one of the only experiences of music conversation I could bring myself to care about.

I appreciate that breadth of topics a lot, not only because I am completely unable to focus on a single medium but because doing this kind of work is a way of creating connections and the conditions for solidarity across genre, style, and scene where labor conditions are already near-identical.

#1 Film: Get Out

I stand by the fact that the end sequence of Get Out is what cements it as a truly incredible movie. Not the bit in the road with his friend, but before that, when his escape both entails and justifies homicidal violence. Because up until that point, there's a perfectly liberal reading of the film; and obviously there is after it as well, because plenty of liberal critics were all up on Get Out. But there's a moment after the protagonist breaks free that feels like a genuine break; he's long past the point of just getting by in a situation, and past the point of trying to come to terms or reason with his captors. He's fully prepared to enact violence to ensure his survival, and he does. If A Taxi Driver is a representation of the political in a way I had appreciated, this is a prediction of it in a way that has come before, but is still no less energizing.

#1 Album: Rainbow by Kesha

I have been struggling for a while now to think of an album that has affected me more on a personal level than Rainbow. Historically, maybe, a Modest Mouse album that made me find a place in indie music and the social consequences of it, or Tupac's All Eyez On Me that kept rap in my life through that period; possibly Xiu Xiu's Remixed & Covered, which solidified my love for that band while also leading me on threads that took me to intense dead ends, like Sunset Rubdown, or years-long journeys, like Why? through anticon. through all kinds of weird rap to today. More recently, I was intensely into To Pimp A Butterfly and Carrie Rodriguez' Lola. But nearly all of those are influential more than they are emotional. And can I just say, for the hundred thousandth time: Rainbow fucks me up.

Like a lot of other things that ended up in the number one spot on these lists, Rainbow is fundamentally about trauma. It's an album released in the shadow of Kesha's struggle with the repugnant things subjected to her by Dr. Luke over the years, the least of which is her lack of recent work. Rainbow, maybe more than anything else I've ever experienced, takes this basis and uses it to explore not just pain and healing, but bitterness, joyous escape, dismay, play, sex, self worth, and love. The bitterness is what dragged me in; lines like
I hope you're somewhere praying
I hope your soul is changing
I hope you find your peace
Falling on your knees, praying
contain an absolutely earnest desire for a person who has done truly awful things to become better, and an absolutely scathing fuck you at the same time. Even more clearly: "some say, in life, you're gonna get what you give / But some things only God can forgive." Or how, just before the second instance of the prechorus which starts "You brought the flames and you put me through hell," she says "And I don't need you, I found a strength I've never known / I'll bring thunder, I'll bring rain, / When I'm finished, they won't even know your name." It's a very basic use of elements juxtaposed unassumingly, but goddamn if it still doesn't get me every time.

The fucked thing, of course, is that "Praying" is what made me fall in love with the album, and after a few dozen listens I barely consider it one of my favorite songs on there. The opening "Bastards" isn't a masterpiece in pop song terms, but it does so much to set the stage for the album. It's a simple refrain - "don't let the bastards get you down" - that speaks to the need to push through some hard shit. "Let 'Em Talk" and "Woman" show the side of this album that keeps working through trauma without letting it force you to become maudlin or disempowered, instead clawing some joy and terror out of a fucked world. "Hymn," probably the most powerful song on the record to me at this point, is a little gesture of solidarity in a terrifying place, a simple way to help empower each other when the only thing that seems possible is to slink away.

I don't want to go track by track, but the heart of this album is everything from "Hymn" through "Rainbow." It's such a beautiful suite of emotional hardship and resistance and coping and, above everything else, hope in oneself and in others. I adore it beyond measure and I'm so incredibly happy that it exists in the world.

#1 TV Show: Twin Peaks (season 3)

From one perspective - the one that I think I prefer, at this point - the third season of David Lynch & Mark Frost's Twin Peaks is a failure. I say that with the caveat that there is maybe no other piece of television I have enjoyed as much as this season, ever; that I think this season might not be as important to the future of dramatic TV as the first two, but that it might be one of the most important pieces of major art of the 2010s; and that it is a beautiful, serious, and involved rumination on trauma in a year that not only needed just that, but absolutely delivered on it in ways that might well be unparalleled in any prior.

That perspective is this: the third season of Twin Peaks is, as far as I'm concerned, an attempt to take the traumatic core of the first two seasons - the way that the show, and Fire Walk With Me in particular, centralize the very specific trauma of Laura Palmer and use it as a jumping off point and anchor to explore both a town and its denizens and broader mythological implications - and expand it out to postindustrial America. That, I think, is where it fails: the human story at the center of the show is not incapable of being at the center of settler colonial superpower, but it simply doesn't fit together as well as it needs to.

One way to point to this is the difference in the opening credits sequence. This time around, it opens with a shot of the fog with the famous picture of Laura Palmer superimposed, which both fade to reveal a helicopter/drone shot of trees. It then tracks over the falls, looking down, before dissolving into the curtains of the Red Room. In the previous two seasons we were treated to shots of industrial logging machinery, birds, and a long shot of those falls, facing directly on. That earlier sequence points to labor and nature, to human enterprise in the world and its perspective. The new one suggests something more akin to omniscience and interiority, of seeing beyond what humans can and diving deep within them. It's a sequence that looks good and gives the mood for what is to follow, but the absences are jarring.

Another way is to point to The Moment in part 8. I am among the crowd who thinks that that episode is one of the most beautiful and ambitious things put to film, especially given its being for a television show. I also think that when Judy vomits up the Bob orb, and the Fireman responds with Laura, the show is failing its central premise. Not because I don't think it can't be worked into a broader theory - the trauma of the atomic bomb, the moment when humanity can truly begin to imagine the world as a destructible target, is potentially just another cycle of the destructive potential of the Black Lodge rather than its birth, for instance - or because I'm an enemy of ambiguity (the thing I am about to say is something I have never argued for, really, and likely won't ever again), but because it simply pushes the viewer away from being able to understand the crucial importance of human suffering and response to the world. That sequence instead becomes something that must be compartmentalized.

My original Fan Theory at the conclusion of the show, which I am somewhat surprised not to have seen arise elsewhere (I probably didn't look very hard), is that this season constituted a hard temporal loop, ending a generation or two before the first season of the show. The fact that the residents of the Palmer household are the Trefonts/Chalmonds, coupled with Cooper/Richard's final words ("what year is this?") and Carrie Paige seeming to come into consciousness as Laura Palmer made me imagine that we were in Twin Peaks before the events of the first season, which themselves would somehow play out to manifest them, creating a time loop. The theory I've heard most is either that they are in a bubble universe meant to trap Judy, or that they somehow transcended into the real world. All of these - including mine - seem to me to be completely bogus. Which is, of course, to the show's credit; there's nothing that can ruin a work of Lynch's like a tidy explanation (see: Mulholland Drive's dream half). But the way the show spent this season diving into the mythological aspects, and its repetition of the key phrase "is it future or is it past?", seem to me at this point to do it no favors as long as you think of the core of it in the same way that I do.

If I seem to be focusing on this failure, let me assure you that it is only because it is the only way I can think of to talk about this show in any way other than a basically random assortment of glowing praise. The performances by Naomi Watts and Laura Dern and Kyle MacLachlan are unbelievable; the dynamic between Lynch's Gordon Cole and Miguel Ferrer's Albert Rosenfield is touching and funny; the duration of the Dougie storyline is basically perfect in how it gives us the real facets of MacLachlan's capabilities as a performer, Cooper as a real character who isn't boring as fuck, and a massive group of the most important characters of the show; Candie is maybe my favorite character on television ever, and her storyline boils down the show's central preoccupation with trauma and the human reaction to it in a beautiful, heartbreaking way; Hawk doesn't just remain the only fully-drawn, compelling character on the show not named Audrey or Benjamin Horne, he gets even better; Lynch's capacity to create an incredible visual landscape that linger is undiminished; Bobby Briggs is the biggest piece of shit and his arc so perfectly encapsulates that; nearly everything about it is so much better as a follow up to the show and as the first major piece of filmmaking from one of my favorite directors of all time in a decade. My focus on where it fails is only to say that I think it is a show not just worth praising, or recommending, but one worth taking seriously and lovingly and critically.

A PS, since I came to it after writing the bulk of this and don't know how to interweave it, or don't want to: the podcast A Twin Peaks Podcast: A Podcast About Twin Peaks from Entertainment Weekly touches on the theory I had, making it clear that it was discussed. In their wrap-up episode ("One Last Cup of Coffee") the two hosts discuss the possibility that not only is the Red Room not the Black Lodge, but that the only time we see it is at the very end, in the form of the Palmer house when Richard and Carrie Paige return. The other host then suggests the possibility that the only other location we see in Twin Peaks in those final moments, the RR Diner, might be the White Lodge. For now, at least, I like this a lot, and think it ties in nicely with both everything that I adore about this season and everything that I think doesn't work about it. Because if that's right (at least as "right" as these sorts of things can be), then the mythological aspects of the show are functionally extensions of community. The metaphysical source of evil is the family, the household, the site of pain and trauma and the evil that men do; the communal space of food and drink and socializing (and commodity exchange) is it's inverse, the source of good in the world. Which is to say: these are real spaces in this world, and their magical capacities aren't supernatural but simple extrapolations on the lives of these people as we are invited into them through the show. Which works beautifully for the first two seasons, up to and including the way that Windom Earle fantasizes about "unspeakable power" (or whatever) to be drawn from the Black Lodge as an understanding of manipulation and abuse becoming mythologized as it's own source of power. But this third season's attempt to tackle not just this symbol of Americana but the whole - from the genocide of Native people to extreme wealth inequality with the Jones' and Vegas to the entertainment complex in New York to the drug crises/war in Twin Peaks' youth to the consolidation of empire with the atomic bomb - simply aren't supported by a show that does a phenomenal job of extracting symbolic and aesthetic meaning out of the particular space of Twin Peaks. Because as much as the franchising of the RR into Norma's RR 2 GO or the loss of the lumber mill can speak to neoliberalism, it doesn't really get there even with Dr. Jacoby's transformation into Dr. Amp. Bobby Briggs' journey from manipulated murderer & drug trafficker to clean cop when juxtaposed with Deputy Chad touches on the dream of policing versus its reality, but falls short. The things those symbols elide, from the centrality of race in the history of the US to the last half-century of neocolonialism to the persistence of Confederate ideology, the real history of working class revolt and its papering over with brutal repression and mythology, all make the season's boldest and most brilliant moments simultaneously an overextension. But then, that beauty and the power of those images doesn't exclusively rely on this reading, and goddamn this show is so important.

#1 Videogame: Everything is Going to be OK

I don't know that I have a ton to say about Everything is Going to be OK that wasn't said better by the developer in one of her statements or blog posts. I had the honor of showing this game at 2017's Playdate, and it has stuck with me through the whole year in a way that I thought might be the case but didn't honestly expect. It's a digital zine in which you explore a bunch of short vignettes about trauma. Nathalie Lawhead's statement points to the fact that it is a subversion of the idea of a power fantasy; instead of playing like an accumulation of physical strength, it imagines a world in which humor and cuteness are tools of survival, which is itself a mode of power.

Every bit of it I've played is so absolutely spot on in tone and execution. The writing is tight and funny, the images convey exactly the kind of cuteness that is tinged with violence and empathy that I adore, the structure itself feels like a beautiful way to make connections and find the particulars through aleatoric happenstance and personal preference. In a year filled with examinations of trauma, many of which have taken their respective top spots for their mediums, this is nothing short of a bafflingly beautiful and serious meditation on the same that moved me beyond words.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Top Tens of 2017: #2s

Here are the second best podcast, film, album, TV show, and videogame of 2017:

#2 Podcast: Trillbilly Worker's Party

The Trillbillies are a group of three leftists who live in east Kentucky and talk about stuff. It's a great combination of shooting the shit, lefty hot takes, and deeper dives into specific theoretical issues. They specifically talk about Appalachian culture and politics a lot, which is a nice differentiator from a lot of lefty political discourse.

More than anything, what sets this apart is the way that the trillbillies trust themselves to say interesting and insightful things in the middle of bullshitting without putting unnecessary pressure on themselves to be Right or Perfectly Communicative or whatever. It's not just a way to generate ideas, but a great example of how to practice leftist ideas in conversation.

#2 Film: Split

I've said before that Shyamalan can't come back since he never left, and Split is a pretty solid example of that. As a racialized director who chose and was forced into a Spielbergian mode, a lot of his work has been, in my opinion, a way of wrestling with that duality through metaphor. There's a reason Bright falls flat as fuck where After Earth succeeded in spades, is as succinct a way to put it as I'm going to manage.

Part of that metaphor has been Shyamalan's increasing usage of mental health to drive plots, which is almost always kind of a fucking mess. The Village might be the earliest example, but it intensified strongly in The Visit and now here, where it becomes the essential premise rather than the background. I don't know that taking it as a comic (which the surprise cameo at the end confirms it to literally be) ameliorates that at all, but I'm also not sure that I have much to say beyond calling it out.

What makes Split work, though, and also makes it a genuine departure from much of Shyamalan's earlier work, is that the central relationship is between young women. They are painted with fairly broad strokes, but their dynamic creates a sense of a real group of people at odds with each other in genuine ways.

There's also, of course, McAvoy's impressive performance, and the creation of a genuinely compelling villain that promises to give Shyamalan a chance to revisit the world of Unbreakable at a moment when comic book films seem in need of a look at an angle.

#2 Album: Chill, Dummy by POS

Despite some slightly more forgettable tracks in the middle of the album - none of which are anything less than very good - the opening and closing of Chill, Dummy are the standouts. It closes with what I called the best 8+ minute rap song of 2016 (and what is probably the best song of that year period).

I could probably say a lot about it, or at least quote it at length, but I really do think everyone should just listen to it. It's a sprawling invective against police and the state, an honest reflection on shittiness in past relationships and life, a sweeping collaboration that doesn't take the focus off the personal, and a song that has the lines:
That bright black with a sharp tongue and the beats crack
and he bites back with shark teeth and he eats that.
That black bloc'er that can't stop when the coppers creep
and I don't show up, I'm trash talk and I'm fuck peace
I'm Chris Dorner, I'm Doberman dirty, off leash.
I'm Mike Brown, I'm Eric Garner, I can't breathe.
The opening salvo of "Born a Snake" and "Wearing a Bear" are the other moments of the album where POS' lyrics are coupled with his anger and passion to create something fucking incredible.

#2 TV Show: Sense8 (season 2)

If the first season of Sense8 was an admirable experiment with some interesting results, the second is made in the same lab, with the same beakers, and entirely different chemicals. Or, to use a metaphor more in my wheelhouse, it's a show that has been affected by the agent of history, its inherent contradictions heightened.

Those contradictions: Sense8 is a show that wants to have profound things to say about community while subscribing to a fundamentally technocratic worldview. It wants a sort of soft socialism but can only see it through a strict division of labor and an evolutionary path rather than a social one.

This season kind of drops the ball on Wolfgang and Kala. But it does go hard with Sun and Capheus in ways I really appreciated. More generally, it just goes in a way that I very much appreciated. Like all of the best of the Wachowskis' work, it is very much a collection of excuses for setpieces that end up dominating the memory of the piece, and, it turns out, it is quite good at that.

It also might just come down to the fact that Nomi's speech at her sister's wedding made me cry in a way nothing really does. Fuck I really loved that moment.

#2 Videogame: NieR:Automata

There are an absurd number of positive things to say about NieR:Automata. The way it plays with and integrates disparate genres in a cohesive way speaks to its insistence on integrating difference. How enjoyable it is to just run around and mash through simple fights. Its beautiful look that isn't afraid to craft big, annoying environments to let you discover a particular metaphor. It is an incredible thing. Instead of trying to turn this into a holistic essay, though, I think I'd be better able to just list off a few points here that illustrate why this game meant so much to me.

The moment that hooked me on the game in my first playthrough came early. After the first handful of hours, you take a quest that leads you into the desert. You're tasked with taking out some groups of machines who have been acting up. The desert itself is a huge circle of sand dunes and jack shit otherwise. Early on in cleaning up these groups, I stumbled across a pod. These are effectively your ranged weapon, with some characterization. The one you start with is basically a machine gun; the one you find here locks onto enemies and launches a barrage of missiles at them in intervals. This fundamentally changes your interactions within this space: instead of running up on enemies and comboing them while shooting, you can hang back on top of a dune and rain death from a distance. I was struck that I had perhaps never been put in the position of the American War Machine in such a potent way before. Especially as my companion harped on the fact that the machines' speech was just gibberish, that their protestations and terror were nonsense, and that they were simple tools of great evil forces.

The game itself is largely about these machines and their disparate attempts to learn to be human. The side quests, genre-specific as they tend to be, are where this is fleshed out. There are the obvious, well-written ones, like the androids in the Resistance camp who go crazy when they realize they've killed their friends, or who are actively and non-consensually reformatting their partners to make them stronger. It's also in the boss design, like when you fight a machine in an amusement park named Simone (du Beauvior) who is obsessed with winning the love of another (Jean-Paul (Sartre)) despite not knowing what that "love" actuallys is, and so she becomes cannibalistically obsessed with the practice of gaining personal beauty. But the ones that work best are the ones that are literally nothing more than tropes of the genre. A robot named Father Servo spars with you a half dozen or so times; you run shitty races in a series called Speed Tests. These machines are little gameplay challenges and fetch quests and ways to ask you to keep playing. But they're also bizarre little stubs of development for characters that shed light on the broader world. They're specializations, in a way that emulates human society. Except that they end in evolutionary dead ends when they can't be the best.

The flip side of these highly humanistically developed machines are the philosophical ones. The highest example is the aforementioned Jean-Paul, who proclaims basic tenets of 20th century French existentialism. He is a prick, but more than that he is a product of his environment. Pascal's village is a little oasis in a world that's ravaged by endless war, so of course the ideas it would produce aren't exactly hopeful. It is premised on Pascal's own pacifism, as well, meaning it isn't exactly fertile ground for revolutionary thought. But there are also the robots in the amusement park who have an ideology entirely centered around joy; the forest kingdom which has an eternally-infantile king (machines don't grow up) that privileges loyalty and protection over everything. Every thought these machines have stems from their material conditions. Including the ones who hover over the edges of tall structures, only able to be interacted with by hacking, who have nascent questions about the meaning of life, which ends in their self-destruction.

The second time I beat NieR:Automata (endings A-E), I teared up at the end credits. The game ends with you playing a shmup with the credits, which eventually escalates in difficulty to the point where it either is impossible or is nearly so. Eventually, as you die, you get asked questions about whether you want to give up. Behind those questions are bits of encouragement from other players. My first time through I thought that was effective and cute; my second I nearly lost it. I have no reason here, or takeaway really, other than that for a game that is so "spoilable" the actual experience is consistently stranger and more beautiful than knowing could possibly interrupt.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Top Tens of 2017: #3s

Here are the third best podcast, film, album, TV show, and videogame of 2017:

#3 Podcast: Friends at the Table

I'm using Friends at the Table, here, in the broadest sense. 2017 has been a huge year for this scrappy, emotional, radio drama of an actual play podcast. The main feed is more or less the same as it has been since it started in 2014; Austin Walker, host and GM, tells collaborative stories with two groups of players. The year began with a holiday special set in Marielda, a town that was set up in the previous partial season, Marielda. Then there was the remainder of Winter in Hieron, the third season and a direct sequel to the show's first season, Autumn in Hieron. Once that wrapped up in late June, they have moved on to Twilight Mirage, a season set in the same world as the second (COUNTER/Weight) but far in the future. I establish all this to say that, like COUNTER/Weight, I'm not completely sold on Twilight Mirage just yet. I think both seasons have really fantastic premises, and do interesting work, but there's something that just doesn't quite click.

The reason I say in the broadest sense is because this year, they opened a Patreon and spun up a few new podcasts. A $5 pledge gives you access to:
  • Bluff City: A monthly game using different roleplaying systems, all set in a shared city.
  • Tips At The Table: A write-in heavy advice podcast responding to reader questions about playing or GMing tabletop roleplaying games.
  • Live At The Table: A monthly one-shot with a different system every time, and no shared theme.
  • The Clapcast: A short monthly outtakes podcast.
All of which are interesting in their own ways. Tips at the Table is my personal favorite, as an always simultaneously erstwhile & aspiring GM. Not just because it exists, but because the discussions often function as ways of saying: enjoy yourself and make hard decisions if you have to, and here is how that might happen. I'm also in love with Bluff City as a concept and often enjoy it quite a bit in practice, though I haven't dedicated enough mental energy to it to put it up there with, say, the Hieron seasons so far.

All of these nitpicks and particularities aside, listening to this group of people play tabletop roleplaying games is an edifying and instructive and exciting experience more often than not. Everything from the tiny, world-changing off the cuff decisions that players make to the exciting rules uses that Walker both makes and sells work for me.

#3 Film: A Taxi Driver

Another example of the political cinema coming from South Korea, this movie focuses on a titular taxi driver (Kong Sang-Ho) who, down on his luck, tricks his way into a fare for a German journalist attempting to bypass a blockade and document the Gwangju Uprising as it happens. He succeeds and, despite his opposition to any politics of resistance, becomes something of a minor hero among the students opposing - by direct action and insurrection - an incoming regime.

I don't know that I have a ton to say beyond that. It is the kind of movie that has compelling shots but not anything that necessarily lingers or changes your perception of cinema. It is slightly overlong, and the character development is often telegraphed in a way that lessens its impact. Bits and pieces border on emotionally manipulative, and others simply fall flat. But it's also a compelling document about insurrection, and a story that fundamentally revolves around the transformative politics of taking and being in space. For those reasons alone I adored it politically more than any other film this year, and that means a lot to me, so here it is.

#3 Album: Forgotten Gears by RoughSketch

I wish I had heard this album earlier, because while there is no way it could have taken the number one spot, it's likely that with some time I'll be able to articulate my feelings on it with more clarity. It's been a few years since I got super into J-Core for a minute, and RoughSketch's "Funky Neet (side note: I just got the NEET pun/relationship to lyrics like "no money, no job, worker is loser" and "I am parasite," nice) is still in many ways the song that I think best encapsulates what I loved about it at the time. The bulk of Forgotten Gears doesn't quite do the same thing as that song does - it is much more interested in building out little music-box phrases interpolated by the crunchy fucked drums than using those kicks around weird spinny truncated synths and anti-work lyrics - but it does still kick fucking ass.

#3 TV Show: Lady Dynamite (season 2)

Maria Bamford had a hell of a year. Old Baby, her standup special for Netflix, is almost certainly her best, is one of the best of the year (in a year where I watched a surprising amount of standup specials), and might well be an all timer. The second season of Lady Dynamite also aired and, despite it not being at all what I had hoped from the show initially, it turned out to be much better than I anticipated, and even than the first season.

There are missteps, of course. This season introduces a flash-forward storyline, and its first occurrence might have been the single funniest moment on television in 2017. Unfortunately that aspect also tends to contain the aspects of the show that fall flat most often.

#3 Videogame: Wolfenstein: The New Colossus

You can probably look to just about any games site to find out what is interesting about Wolfenstein: The New Colossus. It's a game where you cause the sparks that might set the revolution in a Nazi-occupied America. It handles tone-transitions in a way that games simply don't anymore. It has weird difficulty spikes, even for someone who plays a lot of games, that are kind of a bummer. It is, in other words, good in a way that games aren't supposed to be, with exactly the flaws that always make them insular.

If there's a thing to take away, though, it's that this game is targeted at Gamers. Not just in the sense that it was developed and marketed in such a way as to exclusively appeal to them; that would make it no more than most of this list. It is also targeted at gamers, in the sense that people who base their identity on this particular type of consumption are exactly the sort of people who will mindlessly struggle through dull challenge in order to prove themselves adept at their craft. The difference, and I promise that this is a big one, is that this game tells the opposite story. Instead of that grinding mediocrity being praised as hypercompetence, as it is everywhere else, The New Colossus recognizes it as part of a larger whole, which it then goes on to thematize and write around in a brilliant way.

B.J. Blaskowicz' father is one of the most important characters in videogames for this reason: shown at the top of the game as abusive, prone to domestic violence, racism and antisemitism, and being incompetent at business in a way that isn't flashy, he is ultimately a villain because these politics he holds allow him a comfortable mediocrity that only requires him to sell out his wife and child to the Nazi party. He is the image of mediocrity that gets sold as competence by games, and he is also a fucking Nazi.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Top Tens of 2017: #4s

Here are the fourth best podcast, film, album, TV show, and videogame of 2017:

#4 Podcast: The Solecast

I've been listening to Sole's podcast, on and off, for the last couple of years. In the beginning it was, I'll be honest, out of a mixture of lurid interest and solidarity; I do consider him a comrade and a friend (he also came on my podcast this year, full disclosure I guess?) but the early bits were fairly rough. This year in particular has seen him take what he's doing with the podcast and take it to the next level.

As far as leftist podcasts go, he is hitting a sweet spot that a lot of others that I've listened to absolutely don't. I straight up have no interest in the pure comedy stylings of a Chapo, and while I appreciate the interview-heavy, soundbite-producing style of Revolutionary Left Radio, it can be kind of exhausting. Sole also focuses on interviews, but is significantly more invested in a conversational style that stays on track with (what I assume are) prepared questions.

I appreciate the tack Sole takes with getting guests, sort of alternating between "bigger name" guests like Mackenzie Wark or Sage Francis with folks doing art or on the ground organizing, which provides for an interesting experience of hearing stories and theories in a sort of holistic way. Plus he talks to folks who are into permaculture and shit, which I super don't care about but he clearly does, and that's what makes it interesting.

Among my favorites are his interview with rapper Mic Crenshaw who was involved in creating the anti-racist action network and rapper POS who doesn't do much political organizing, with rapper & disabled rights activist Kalyn Heffernan, and the episode with a J20 defendant. Making that list genuinely surprised me with how many musicians there are on it, since I tend to not think of this podcast that way at all, but hey, what do you know.

#4 Film: mother!

I don't think mother! is necessarily a hard movie to talk about, but I am fairly certain I am not going to do a good job of it. It might be a movie that portrays a horrifying empathy for the abuser. It also might be a secret sequel to The Others that doesn't want to commit. It also might be (and, if you've read me in the past, you'll probably figure out that this is my preferred reading whether or not it is the most supported) a story of a man in love with the embodiment of his house.

The first 45 minutes or so of this movie look like Stoker shot on a GoPro. Jennifer Lawrence is constantly framed dead center in close up, with the camera movements primarily following her and occasionally swinging around from front to back or vice versa. It's a very weird choice that gives a lot of weight to the very early scene in which she walks to her front door and then encircles the foyer by walking through each of the rooms in a tight circle. If she's the house, that sequence is also in some sense her as the camera. The technique in general recalls specific sequences from Requiem For a Dream, or the shot of Becky (Amanda Seyfreid) in season 3 of Twin Peaks being high in her husband's thunderbird.

Because of this, the movie itself is able to be signposted by the only two exterior shots in the whole thing. The first happens at about that 45 minute mark, and signals a slight release of the camera from Lawrence's character. It still tracks her closely, but sometimes is allowed to come to rest at an entryway, allowing her to wander around a room. It also marks the introduction of the first outsiders, a man played by Ed Harris and, later, his wife, Michelle Pfeiffer. Their kids show up, an altercation occurs, and the beating heart of the house is made more material when some of the resultant blood cannot be mopped up. The blood or the house show Lawrence's character to a secret room in the house in a scene that is somewhat similar to certain moments in Silent House, which I still maintain is pretty good, okay.

The second exterior shot happens somewhat later, and marks the point at which the husband (Javier Bardem, who is a poet afflicted by writer's block until Harris & Pfeiffer's characters show up) begins to invite into the house a whole society of people. Just before that, though, Lawrence's character has a vision of renewal in a wide overhead pan out, showing the home and the woods blooming with life. She is also pregnant. It should be said: this is a movie which doesn't do subtlety, in the same way that Aronofsky never has. As she's in the last stages of pregnancy, the house is overrun with Bardem's character's fans who eventually go from admirer's to an entire society that progresses from riots to religious societies to cults and full a brief, full-scale war film. That last bit is maybe the only part of the movie that super didn't work for me.

So yeah! I did, as expected, a bad job of talking about that. Sorry about my book report? It's a really interestingly-shot thing that wears its allegory on its sleeve in a way that is more fun to watch than to reminisce on. Aronofsky made a weird movie about a woman who is a house and I fuck with that pretty hard okay.

#4 Album: T-Wayne by T-Pain & Lil Wayne

Any other year this would have been my favorite thing ever. And in a lot of ways it still is. It's the long-held collaboration between the two titans who completely altered the musical landscape just about a decade ago, and it is kind of clear why it was held back. There's a ton of joy and play in it, but hardly any memorable hooks or exciting production. But that play alone makes it lovely and delightful.

#4 TV Show: The Shannara Chronicles (season 2)

The first season of MTV's (now Spike's) The Shannara Chronicles was one of my favorite experiences of watching something in 2016. It was a delightful little thing that got a surprising amount right, even if it failed in many other ways. That is, in many ways, the story of this second season as well, if slightly more muted. The big change (aside from the channel) is that it leans a little more into the Diversity aspect and doesn't do quite as good a job with the source material.

A big pet peeve: it is made clear in the novels that the Sword of Shannara is capable of being wielded by a Shannara not because of something inherent in the bloodline, but because of a mistaken belief among the public that that is the case. This season explicitly goes back on that, which is kind of a major bummer.

Otherwise, it is a lovely little thing, a genuinely enjoyable experience that has a number of flaws and falls apart at the end.

#4 Videogame: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

I never quite got out of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild what many others did. I'm barely interested in open worlds and I have very little patience for emergent gameplay. I do love weird systems clashing, but in the actual act of play I'm significantly more likely to wander to the invisible edge of the world and run alongside than try to combine inventory items and environmental hazards to form a unique way of dispatching an enemy. Despite the fact that it is very much not my playstyle, enjoyed my time with the game a ton. Which is to say that it was a chill time that I appreciated in 2017.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Top Tens of 2017: #5s

Here are the fifth best podcast, film, album, TV show, and videogame of 2017:

#5 Podcast: Fave This

Fave This is a new podcast from Kotaku's Gita Jackson and Patricia Hernandez, which touches on videogame culture, but also does deep dives on things like fandom, general internet culture and more. Even this early in its run, it has improved significantly; the first episodes felt stilted, with Hernandez often sounding like she was quoting at length from an article she had written. By the third or fourth episode, though, her more rigorous style opened up a little, and Jackson's more free-flowing conversational style have molded a little more to fit each other, making this a really enjoyable thing to listen to.

The big sell here is that, while this is a videogame podcast hosted by a videogame site, it breaks the mold a little by often focusing on fan works, interpretations of updates, and generally stuff that might be sort of discarded as ephemera. More than anything else, I think, that's what keeps me coming back: it feels like a genuinely different approach to a fairly homogeneous genre of podcasts, and that's exciting.

#5 Film: Lu Over the Wall

Lu Over the Wall is Masaaki Yuasa's second film of 2017, and is generally the better of the two. On the other hand, the titular Lu is designed like, identically to Ponyo, which is maybe my least favorite Ghibli movie (and is now a decade old?) and that was kind of a stumbling block. On the other hand, however, Lu Over the Wall is an excuse for Yuasa to structure a movie around musical interludes and a high school punk band, which is worth everything. Plus, that resemblance to Ghibli means that I could see it being easily his most accessible work - excluding maybe his Adventure Time episode - so far, which is a nice thing to have. It's certainly no Mind Game, but the possibility of having a movie to introduce someone to his work that doesn't water it down is a heartening one.

#5 Album: Dear by Boris

Dear might be the most spacious Boris album I've ever heard. It might also not be, of course; it's hard to compete with something like Flood there. But goddamn if it doesn't just build and release, but give every individual sound the clarity of a fucking concert hall. The sound itself seems to pull from a ton of the threads that the band has been individually developing over the course of their career; the driving rock of Heavy Rocks, the noisy textures of their collaborations with Merzbow or Vein, the spaciousness of Flood, and even some of the poppier sensibilities of Pink. It's a culmination of a quarter century of music in many ways, and I can't quite tell if it feels a little like resting on laurels or moving forward. Either way, it's pretty incredible metal.

#5 TV Show: Big Little Lies (season 1)

Big Little Lies is basically a seven-hour adaptation of the video for "Paparazzi" by Lady Gaga with significantly less style. It's a show that bites off more than it can narratively chew, sometimes veering into slightly awkward sanctimony that is only saved by its incredible main cast. I had absolutely forgotten how good Reese Witherspoon is, and of course Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern are powerhouses. It's also a show that tries to intelligently deal with domestic violence and sexual assault and their immediate and long term effects, on both victims and children. It does so better than a good chunk of things I've seen, although it is of course not without flaws.

All of this was largely something I was impressed with but kind of bored by, up until the ending. I still don't know that I loved it, but I very much respect the wild utopianism. In the end not only is the abusive husband and rapist killed; not only do the feuding moms become friends; they organize a defense of the black woman (Zoe Kravitz who is also amazing, though she has way less to work with) who would be facing severe repercussions from the criminal justice system for delivering that utopian ending. Three rich white moms (and one white mom who can afford to live in Monterey on a part-time bookkeeping salary?), in other words, show solidarity with a non-white, only kinda rich woman in the face of the police. It is, I think, the most utopian thing I have ever seen on television.

Also it shits on San Luis Obispo a little which hell yeah.

#5 Videogame: The Evil Within 2

There is a moment about 2/3rds of the way through The Evil Within 2 where Sebastian Castellanos, our playable character and ostensible protagonist, where his character develops. It is the one and only time this happens during the course of the narrative, and is pretty beautiful. Up to this point, he is a man consumed by his trauma. His reaction to nearly every occurrence in the Matrix-like fantastical world that he has found himself in is to spiral back into blaming himself. He is searching for his daughter, who he only recently learned has not passed away in a house fire that he was unable to save her from. In fact, she was abducted prior to the blaze to become a "core" in the Mobius organization's STEM system.

What this boils down to is that Sebastian is transferred into a virtual world of the mind, which is crumbling. The game itself is a largely linear exploration of this space, dotted with open world segments. The first half or so is dedicated to a search for an artist. It has overtones of Edogawa Rampo's Moju: The Blind Beast. The second half switches antagonists to a charismatic preacher/ex-motivational speaker, who utilizes the space to prey on Sebastian's fears and self-doubts to try to convince him to join up, with the ultimate goal of reuniting Sebastian with his daughter and assuming her power to control the town and, ultimately, the Illuminati-esque corporation that has created it.

It is just prior to the sequence that begins the climactic encounter with this second villain that the turn happens. One of the ways he - Father Theodore - has been tormenting Sebastian is by conjuring images of Sebastian's daughter, Lily. In these visions she accuses Sebastian of the things he himself feels - of abandoning her and failing to save her - coupled by imagery of herself on fire. This is a little odd, given that Sebastian knows, or at least has been told, that she never died in that fire, which is precisely why he is here now, hunting for her. But that is also some of the best character work: the man we are playing is so entrapped by self-loathing, so defined by it, that even as he takes concrete steps that require him to understand his previous belief was untrue, he himself is incapable of moving beyond them. It is one picture of guilt and trauma.

Ultimately, though, he is required to overcome this guilt in order to defeat Theodore. And the way he does so is some hard-to-define mixture of hilarious, unsettling, and brilliant. A late-game character basically sacrifices herself for his quest. Her death is annoying. Just prior to it, however, she finally gets through to Sebastian with this message. Theodore is weaponizing your guilt, and you must learn to defuse it or else you will never win. The lesson he takes from this is the opposite of a healthy response. Instead of acknowledging that his failure simply did not happen, and that he has been acting on that assumption the entire time and can finally internalize it, he simply externalizes again. This is all Theodore's fault, he is to blame, and he will pay. It's the most dad move ever.

Which, ultimately, makes sense. In the end, it becomes clear that Sebastian is not the hero of this story. He's just a kind of shitty dad looking to drown himself in devotion to his child. His wife, Mara, is the one who takes down the evil corporation at the cost of her own life; she does this with the help of Kidman, an agent of Mobius who I think probably betrayed Sebastian in the first game. Sebastian is there primarily to act as a catalyst for these things to happen, and to see some cool spooky shit along the way. And then also to provide an exit for Lily at the end of things. Which is part of the reason that turn prior to the Theodore fight is the center of this game, in my eyes. It's an indicator of how things go from here, but also a nail in the coffin if you were wondering about the man himself. Any chance he had at taking a real lesson away from his experiences is in the ground; from this point forward, his only real utility is in being used as a pawn by the people around him, especially his wife, and taking his daughter to a place where she can hopefully learn to resent his lack of understanding of the world and better herself because of it. It is a horror game, after all.