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.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Top Tens of 2017: #6s

Here are the sixth best podcast, film, album, TV show, and videogame of 2017 (there's spoilers):

#6 Podcast: The Giant Beastcast

There was a period, in late 2016, when I nearly gave up on The Beastcast. It was after Austin Walker had left, which was why I had started listening to begin with. They (Vinny Caravella, Alex Navarro, and Jeff Bakalar) had fallen into a rut of actually exclusively discussing the news and new releases of videogames. It was informative, and also deeply uninteresting. The joke I made at the time was that I would wait for Dan Ryckert to join, because I was interested in how he would switch up that dynamic. This year, he did join and did what I hoped, and they also exceeded my expectations.

Ryckert's gimmick is that he's someone who is ignorant of a lot, and is also more than happy to admit that and ask questions to attempt to rectify it. A lot of people find it grating, and I can too - especially when it seems like he's asking in bad faith. But when it does work, it does exactly the thing that was boring me at the end of the previous year: it derails everyone from acting like they are simply experts on the topic at hand, and starts them down a path that pushes them into an honest attempt to explain what they are actually trying to say.

Later in the year they also added Abby Russell, a new hire who has an improv background that has lead to being more explicitly playful in the discussions, which is surprisingly absent from most podcasts about, well, games. Plus she has become an advocate for smaller games like Dream Daddy and LOCALHOST, which is something the whole Giant Bomb team has needed for a while.

In a lot of ways, The Giant Beastcast is just my favorite example of the regular-ass videogame podcast format, which is something I spend a lot of time listening to. I'd probably appreciate it less without the sister podcast, The Giant Bombcast, which is much more interested in taking detours through games history, emulation updates, and other more niche interests that contextualize the current issues and releases. But choosing one, I have to go with the Beastcast for just having a cool year.

#6 Film: Anarchist from Colony

There's something about the way that South Korean cinema, in the last couple years at least, has been unrepentantly political that has had me incredibly excited. This comes, of course, with my acknowledgment that it is a cinema I am only familiar with by the accident of biography; that it is accessible to me only through particular channels of distribution that began just over a decade ago with Netflix (the DVD era); that it relies heavily on the whims and organization of translators both professional and amateur (primarily the former, though there does seem to be some of the latter lately, which is interesting in its own right); that also relies on my own parsing of that work to find those particular moments I am interested in. All of which could only precede a sweeping statement: between films like Dongju: Portrait of a Poet (by the same director) & Spirits' Homecoming from last year & this & A Taxi Driver from this, there seems to be a serious political reckoning occurring with the socialist past in Korea, at least if you assume the cinema at least subconsciously reflects the desire/ego of the country. I remain skeptical, no matter my Lacanian tendencies.

The reckoning itself I will get to later in these lists. What fascinates and infuriates me about this movie in particular is the way it seems perfectly positioned to be a reckoning through the first half or so, and the suddenly and thoroughly becomes what I can only describe as an apology. That is: the first half of the film is about a small group of Korean anarchists in Tokyo. They beat the shit out of reporters they don't like, plot to buy a bomb, and write literature. They're great. They're also joined by a Japanese woman who self-identifies as a nihilist, played by Choi Hee-seo incredibly. If there were acting awards, she should probably win one of them. This is the bulk of the film up until the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 hits, and a member of the government decides to rile up anti-Korean sentiment in Tokyo.

At this point, Park Yeol (the main character) and Kaneko Fumiko (Choi) are thrown in jail, with the government deciding to prosecute Park for treason in order to cover up the massacre of Koreans by Japanese nationalists in the aftermath of the earthquake, in part due to their being scapegoated. The rest of the film is then basically a courtroom drama, intermingled with shots of prison and a love affair. It is, in this way I suppose, realistic; all the kinetic energy of activism and revolutionary fervor is channeled by the state into the justice system in order to destroy lives, demotivate comrades, and intimidate or pacify the public. The problem is that watching the movie actually feels that way to the viewer as well, after a point.

#6 Album: Freedom Highway by Rhiannon Giddens

Heavily gospel-influenced, wheels around through the black history of the USA from slavery to police murder. It's an album that demands to be listened to through multiple times, and rewards doing just that. Plus, the banjo playing is just incredible. Some really gorgeous lines just sneak in or are highlighted here and there, as though it just makes sense that that instrument should sound like the prettiest one in the world.

#6 TV Show: The Good Place (season 2)

I was pretty skeptical of this show going into it, and I still am not entirely sold on the humor. Which is, I think, the real reason people like this. But I'm that dork that is mostly invested in the worldbuilding.

Because of that, I think the first half of the second season (second half to be released in 2018) is a pretty phenomenal half a season of a show. It does a good job of pivoting from the plot twist at the end of the first season (they're in hell, not heaven) to prioritize not that twist, but the way it can be used to develop the characters. Especially for Janet, the Siri figure who becomes maybe the best character in the show to this point.

#6 Videogame: Middle-Earth: Shadow of War

Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is a fucking complicated mess that I spent a ton of time with and enjoyed nearly all of. It's a big systemsy clusterfuck, an enjoyable action game, and a parable about fascist tendencies that is definitely not told in the smartest way imaginable. It's also a weird patient zero in the political debate around lootboxes that spawned this year, which on one hand is good and on the other is some weak ass Consumer Rights bullshit.

I've been trying for months to articulate something about this game, and unfortunately it's not going to happen in this venue. But there's something to be said about how it takes the last game's central mechanic - mind-controlling/enslaving orcs to fight for you - and puts that in service of a broader loot grind. It's almost like this sequel to Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor sees its predecessor as primitive accumulation, and it is the full on capitalist experience. Juxtaposing that with the outright fascism of the elf ghost inhabiting your protagonist is a weird thing that I think says more than many people are giving it credit for, but I don't know that I'm quite willing to parse it out at this point without a paycheck.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Top Tens of 2017: #7s

Here are the seventh best podcast, film, album, TV show, and videogame of 2017 (there's spoilers):

#7 Podcast: Revolutionary Left Radio

In the year that gave us the Channel Zero Network, it seems like the question of a left-wing counterpart to AM radio - in the form of podcasts - was a central point of some organizing. For my money, Revolutionary Left Radio is the closest thing to that goal that exists. The host, Brett, conducts interviews with folks who tend toward an academic background on topics that are often focused on creating talking points for various leftist tendencies in order to bring them together. His role is generally to ask (clearly pre-written, which isn't a bad thing) questions and then follow up with something not unlike a soundbite.

I say all of this trying not to sound like I'm passing judgment; it's very much a podcast that I enjoy a lot, and one that I know a number of friends would probably dislike quite a bit. There are times where I'm not entirely sure why I enjoy it; I'm not in the organizing world, most of my actively political friends are anarchists who I rarely get into these kinds of discussions with (and even if I did, I wouldn't want to use talking points), and the kind of focus it presents is something I can appreciate but generally don't love. My podcast preferences tend toward long, rambly discussions that I can listen to in the background while I walk, commute, play video games, or work, rather than tight hours with specific takeaways.

The thing I generally come back to, of course, is that the podcast just leads to interesting discussions about leftism that take seriously historical background and theoretical developments. Which is the shit.

#7 Film: Raw

This cannibal/vampire/zombie horror film (I mean that in a good way I promise, I would also hate that description, it is meant as ambiguity not nerdish conflation) feels like a 2017 followup to Cursed or The Craft more than anything. It combines a story about family, featuring the love and conflict between sisters and the dissembling of parents, with a coming of age story about going full party girl, with a horror film about appetites, all set in a veterinary school. I described it at one point as "if Thirst was good" and I stand by that, even if I think Thirst is a pretty good movie on its own. It's just probably Park's weakest.

There's a scene in which our protagonist gets introduced at a party: the camera does a long, slow zoom through a red-tinted group of people dancing and making out and socializing. About a third of the way through the zoom we can see her sitting on some sort of table feeling herself. It's probably the best single scene in a movie this year.

#7 Album: The Autobiography by Vic Mensa

Mensa might be the best rapper out right now who doesn't have punchlines. "Mentally ill, fuck Dr. Phil / All these pills ain't Benadryl (Chiraq) / No oil but it's been a drill" is about the level, which isn't to say bad but, like, man. He makes up for it by telling politically-engaged and honest-feeling stories with a fascinating structure and a total lack of pretense.

Nothing here hits quite as hard as "16 Shots," but "Rollin Like A Stoner" still goes in. And the structure itself is reminiscent of To Pimp a Butterfly, albeit not quite as accomplished. The Autobiography focuses more on pulling out a single line or moment from one song and expanding it into a full narrative of its own in the subsequent, though, which works surprisingly well.

#7 TV Show: Land of the Lustrous (season 1)

Land of the Lustrous is, in many ways, the inverse of last year's Flip Flappers. Where that was a journey through psychoanalysis, this is the most straightforward single character arc of a season; where that was full of queerbaiting and fanservice, this is a straightforward story of a nonbinary society. Which is to say, in both good and bad ways. Ultimately, I had more problems with Flip Flappers but enjoyed what it did more; but I'd definitely recommend Land of the Lustrous more readily to anyone.

The big stumbling block is the animation. Land of the Lustrous is fully CGI, in a way that kind of ends up working but never isn't kind of unfortunate to watch. My suspicion is that the choice was made - if it was at all aesthetic, which I doubt - because of the ability of CG to render liquid dynamics better and easier than traditional animation. The problem, of course, is that CG liquid looks like shit.

If there's another parallel between this and another anime, it's Neon Genesis Evangelion. The monster of the week in both is celestial - here Lunarians, there Angels; the unsteady, vaguely queer-coded youth is called on against their will to serve; and more than anything else, both are shows that are fundamentally about loss. Both also pivot that from loss of an other to loss of self, and how that impacts a person. Neither are the most profound statements on it, but Eva at least has the benefit of being done, so it's easier to say that it tells its story well, given what it is going for, and experimentally in a way that reinforces it. Land of the Lustrous, on the other hand, may or may not go anywhere.

The strangest thing, I think, is that I can't imagine this season being appealing to anyone who isn't already invested in anime as a form - it won't convert anyone, I don't think - while simultaneously feeling more like American television than most anime I've seen. Primarily in that anime is often released in short form, while American TV is almost uniformly expected to run for multiple seasons, if not indefinitely. It's a strange thing that I'm interested in seeing more of.

#7 Videogame: Post/Capitalism

Post/Capitalism is a pretty good use of videogames as straight up propaganda. It looks a little like a citybuilder, plays like a puzzle box. In short: you have a capitalist city. Clicking repeatedly on a piece of it transforms it from something predatory into something less so. Certain transformations trigger others to revert. Connecting them together reveals the underlying issue that causes this reversion; clicking the revelation changes it to allow them to coexist.

Ultimately, you connect these underlying issues together to reveal what causes them to come into conflict, resulting in four ultimate issues that can be dealt with. Once these are dealt with, the miniature city isn't exactly utopic, but it is a world that prioritizes things like the "collective ownership of the means of production," "labour [being] given from each according to their ability," "value [being] determined democratically," and "production being directed to satisfying human need."

Most games that get understood as propaganda are primarily literary; newsgames and the like that exist primarily to cause you to interact to look at some current event or data points. What Post/Capitalism does different is to primarily propagandize through systems. Obviously the meat of it is in the words that are associated with the systems, which is where this seems like it could be improved upon, but linking systemic abstractions together in a medium which is literally a collection of systemic abstractions is a good step forward.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Top Tens of 2017: #8s

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

#8 Podcast: The Adventure Zone

The Adventure Zone feels like it has to be on this list, although I kind of honestly think that calendar 2017 was the show's weakest year so far. Unfortunately I also started listening to it in that time, and completed two listens through the entire back catalog, so it's hard to separate in my mind. This year was largely the conclusion of their first "season," in which DM Griffin McElroy lead his two brothers and their father through a series of short arcs that lead to a big Final Fantasy-ass conclusion.

The final arc saw Griffin create a new ruleset based on the Powered by the Apocalypse engine to show the three heroes' prequel journey, and, to be entirely frank, I don't think his mod worked particularly well. Since the conclusion they have switched over to a series of "experimental arcs" where different members of the family run a short campaign in a different system. It has not been the most compelling thing in the world so far.

On the other hand, I did listen to three-ish years of biweekly content twice through, and some of it was very good. Plus, where the conclusion was often sappy or less interested in play than in wrap-up, it didn't do a bad job at the latter. And for the aspects of the experiments that I'm not quite gelling with, it's a genuinely exciting thing for them to do, and I found myself looking forward to the future of the show at the end of the year far more than I was at the beginning. That counts for something, I think.

#8 Film: Okja

Bong Joon-ho has, in my mind at least, long been a Korean director who makes films that are beautiful, engaging enough, and always worth seeing. They also happen to be, mostly, not super interesting in the long term. The only time I have had a good experience revisiting one of his movies is The Host, which mostly still works because it was his transitional film into Auteurdom. Especially because, for once, his broken character is a revolutionary rather than a detective. I suspect I'd find the same thing about Snowpiercer, though I haven't had a strong desire to revisit it just yet.

I expect to feel the same about Okja. It is a Netflix Original Feature that has a genetically engineered superpig for a title character (the CGI is very good). It's also a Jungle-esque critique of factory farming and a high school-esque explication of veganism. The ALF shows up in a decidedly liberal incarnation. On top of that, it has an embarrassing Jake Gyllenhaal performance, a pretty good Tilda Swinton performance, and a frankly wild performance by child actor Seo-hyun Ahn as the main character. All of which is to say, it's pretty enjoyable to watch.

#8 Album: All American Made by Margo Price

All American Made does a lot of good work with short songs that get in and out with a thought, and that show off Price's country range.

It also manages to present a fairly cohesive vision of a fragmented country, which sounds more grandiose than it plays. Songs reference the effects of neoliberalism in a critical way, including the fairly straightforward "Pay Gap" and a shoutout to the Iran-Contra scandal and the demonization of people on welfare on "All American Made," a truly strange and impressive closer to the record.

#8 TV Show: GLOW (season 1)

This dramatized version of the founding of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling takes forever to get going. The character work they do at the top of the show is largely gratuitous and sometimes outright boring. But after a handful of episodes, they actually get to the wrestling part. And then, it turns out, it gets kind of great. Who would have guessed that professional wrestling is a good vehicle for storytelling?

#8 Videogame: Vroom in the Night Sky

This Switch game is the best thing. It's a small group of low-res levels that you fly around on a motorcycle. You're a witch. You collect Stardust and go through circles and then you finish the level. You can shoot? Another witch shows up after a certain amount of time. I have no idea what she does other than have poorly-translated antagonistic/sweet conversations with you.

It might be the most solo-developer-ass game I played this year, and I played a lot for Playdate & the Podcast. It's a hassle to handle, its scoring is obscure as fuck, and you can unlock everything super easily. But the handful of hours I put in on my friend's system were always pleasant in a way that I really appreciated.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Top Tens of 2017: #9s

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

#9 Podcast: Switchblade Sisters

Switchblade Sisters is the first time I heard one of those terrible ads on the Maximum Fun Network and actually went ahead and checked out the podcast. It took me a few weeks, honestly, to stop regretting that I had done so; and even more to really feel like the show was getting into the swing of things. None of which is to say that the host, April Wolfe (formerly of LA Weekly (RIP)) or any of the guests were bad or uninteresting; the show has had a real professionalism from the jump, and with small exceptions there haven't been major changes in the format over time. Part of what's endeared me to it is accepting the self-imposed limitations; the rest is growing to enjoy what is there.

I've had the argument about the length of podcasts a number of times throughout this year; a few times with my co-host on the Playdate Podcast, and a few times in discussions with friends where I asked what they preferred. I appear to be one of the only people I know who doesn't give a fuck about the length, and might even prefer them to be longer. That comes partially out of the fact that I started listening to them when I had about three hours of commuting a day. But it's also, I think, because I have no qualms pausing and picking back up, whereas other people seem to.

Switchblade Sisters, I imagine you'll find it gratifying to learn, is about an hour long; less because it has the normal intro, outro, and ad breaks. For my money, that's the show's biggest weakness, but I can also accept that I'm the outlier here. Every time, though, I want there to be more; on the older movie under discussion; on the guest artist's process; or just in allowing the rapport to be developed a little more naturally. It's enough of a problem that I nearly dismissed the show a couple episodes in. An hour for a comedy show makes sense; an hour to juggle a critical appreciation of a film, an artist interview, and a shitload of bumpers is kind of a crime. The inverse suggestion, of course, would be to focus on one of the first two at the expense of the third, but that would make this a much worse show.

The real turning point for me was the discussion of Rosemary's Baby, in which Wolfe and guest Jessie Nickson-Lopez got into a discussion of why this movie so affects them without shrinking away from Polanski's shittiness as a human being. It leads to an interesting conversation about art, in the abstract and in particular, and to good responses from Nickson-Lopez that might otherwise have been very abstract or entirely missing. It's a cool thing, and I hope the show finds more ways to thread its particular needle as it develops.

#9 Film: Better Watch Out

I saw this, primarily, because it stars Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould, the kids who starred in M. Night Shyamalan's second to most recent film, The Visit. In that, they were brother and sister; here, she is a babysitter to Oxenbould's friend on a night when things go awry. If nothing else, this is worth watching after The Visit to see that Oxenbould isn't exclusively capable of playing a deeply annoying character, and to enjoy their chemistry again. There is else, of course, but not a whole ton of it.

If I can say another thing that might oversell this movie: it's a bit like a slightly watered-down version of You're Next. That movie is significantly better, of course, but both do interesting, often funny things while undermining the home invasion genre. Not just in the mechanics of the invasion, but even down to the final image, in a certain way. So if you're looking for something a little less fun than that with a couple of interesting aspects it doesn't hit, this is a cool little thing to enjoy.

#9 Album: Dedication 6 by Lil Wayne

Despite weak Nicki and Drake verses and a general lack of the kind of difficult joy he's been spitting for the last few years, there are still lines like "do I look like I'm playing? Kaepernick" that continue to solidify the fact that Wayne is, was, and remains the best at this shit. The chorus that goes "When I bust I yell Eureka!" is a pretty perfect example: it flows well, he sells the fuck out of it, and the repetition only gets funnier every time. These are his comfort zones and they are illustrated beautifully.

Otherwise, honestly, Dedication 6 is in many ways my least favorite Weezy release in a minute. Which is okay. I suspect it's been better-received than most of what I actually fuck with. It feels like another step in the saga, and I'm still following along close.

None of which is to say, of course, that it's anything other than a very good listen. I don't genuinely consider Wayne the greatest of all time for no reason. Even when he misses, I value that over most artist's hits. Because he's extraordinarily enthusiastic about rapping, and very good at it, and willing to try things that alienate one aspect of his fanbase on one song and then the opposite aspect on the very next. And that doesn't just lead to him being all over the place, but to changing the game on a regular basis.

#9 TV Show: Slasher (season 2)

Someone who watched enough TV to actually fill out one of these lists would almost certainly not include this, but hey, here I am. It's the first Netflix original season of a show that originated on Canadian TV, which was turned into an anthology series during that transition. Or maybe that was the initial plan. I don't know; I watched the bulk of the first season before skipping over to the second, which is the one that came out in 2017.

This time around is the story of a group of camp counselors who return to their old stomping grounds five years after they sorta accidentally killed another counselor. They've heard that the land is being sold and are worried people will find the body they haphazardly hid. Since those events, an intentional community has sprouted in the area with a small handful of members. Once they get to the site (in the middle of winter), some masked & en-snowsuited entity starts taking them out one by one. The whole thing is kind of a mess, with characters that get a lot more screentime than they have development opportunity and a story to tell that isn't strong enough to support the runtime. This is somewhat helped by the fact that the setting itself is conceptually cool and prep work was done to make it feel interesting, although it too goes mostly uninterrogated because it's easier to just blanket it with snow and get mildly interesting shots.

Probably the most interesting thing is the way the season is structured; that whole plot is intercut with scenes from five years prior, developing the characters during the period in which the murder happened, and some in the interim. It more or less works out that whoever's backstory is being developed ultimately dies, which works especially well in the first episode. The person in question seems to be being set up as the final girl real hard. On the other hand, that kind of subversion definitely undermines the possibility of making a stronger story or developing characters to a great enough extent that they can draw you through the weak central mystery.

#9 Videogame: Night in the Woods

I'll be completely honest here: I originally wanted Universal Paperclips on this list, and up until the last moment it was. I think that game is very interesting, but I also couldn't put together a strong case for it in the way that I thought I could. It's a cool thing, though. Probably. On some level, I'd much rather Oikospiel, Book One be on here, but I also just couldn't get the words together for that. Or even Everything, which just didn't click with me at all. Hey: play Oikospiel. While I'm here: Moloch (Zero), The Tearoom, and LOCALHOST are all really cool small things that came out this year that I wish I had been able to figure out how to put on this list. Also Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp was a weirdly compelling thing that I nearly figured out how to talk about.

And, I'll be honest, the main reason I cut Night in the Woods initially was because I couldn't think of anything to say about it. It's a game about a young girl who drops out of college to return to her small postindustrial town and figure some shit out. She then spends time hanging out with her old friends and uncovering a mystery that begins with a severed arm and ends with some town cultists sacrificing precarious youth to the god of industrialism. Along the way, Mae (the aforementioned girl) comes to some soft conclusions about her own mental health, her attitude toward her hometown, and her relationship with her friends and parents.

My experience with Night in the Woods was basically cut in half. I played the first half (or so) around when I first got it; I enjoyed it enough, but I honestly spent more time in the 2D soulslike Demontower inside of Mae's laptop than in the game itself. I picked it up a bunch of months later and finally finished it when I was considering doing these lists, and what they might look like. That's when I initially cut this from the proceedings. The problem was basically that I enjoyed my time with it, and think it a pretty impressive thing, but that it never really hit me.

On the other hand, though, it has pretty incredible writing which hovers between being tumblr-esque while maintaining a naturalistic quality that shows up in both the dialogue and the characterization. One person who you meet with regularly (if you choose to) reads you cutesy poems; another hangs out on a roof and just wants to talk about horror movies. Both of them manage to ride those tropes while also suggesting a sense of interiority beneath. It's honestly impressive, although (for me) it often didn't extend beyond that.

It's also a game that says 'fuck cops' early and - well, not often enough. That has really pleasant minigames, like Demontower or the Guitar Hero-lite that you play while Mae is at band practice. That takes seriously episodes of dissociation as both personal and political problem. And that tells an interesting story of someone who got stuck in a dead-end family business instead of going to college (I didn't go Gregg's route. He seemed super annoying). But more than anything, it's a game that does a ton of work to tell a story of the economic destruction of a small, midwestern town, and how that plays out in individual lives. Which I appreciate a lot.

This is why I cut it, though. I think what it does is cool. But I also just spent a lot of words saying just that. And I can't just say it, because I don't feel like that does it any justice. It's a weird thing that I also found pretty frustrating. Play it, or a bunch of the stuff I listed at the top. That's just my opinion though.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Top Tens of 2017: #10s

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

#10 Podcast: Don't Zap the Geek

There are some things about Don't Zap the Geek that are a bit rough: the audio quality can take Skype-induced dips, the hosts' familiarity with each other can sometimes obfuscate what's actually going on in an episode, that familiarity can lead to tangents that are often great but also can take away from discussions of other aspects of a particular episode, and the lack of a wrap-up episode is kind of a bummer. Despite all that, it's my favorite of the podcasts dedicated to recapping & discussing the third season of Twin Peaks (honorable mentions to Idle Thumbs' Twin Peaks Rewatch (which I appreciate for the discussion of cinematography especially) & Entertainment Weekly's A Twin Peaks Podcast, which has the opposite problems of this).

An example of why: at one point, the hosts talk about how David Lynch is a director who doesn't do antiheroes. He doesn't ask you to root for someone who is fundamentally doing bad. This is meant positively, and is contrasted with nearly all contemporary prestige television. As someone who is super not sold on Dale Cooper as the sweetheart of the century, it's something I don't know that I fully agree with. But it's also a strong theory of the work and the show that influenced my understanding of it in a way that more straightforward recap shows didn't manage.

Plus it has good jokes about John Justice Wheeler and serious reckonings with the show's violence and a totally baffling appreciation of Bobby Briggs that I absolutely can't get behind.

#10 Film: The Night is Short, Walk on Girl

I have what you might call a general rule. It is a bad one, but it is formed in reaction to many things, and it often serves me well (shouts out to Grant). Boiled down, it amounts to: the end of a movie (or narrative generally) is worthless. Endings suck. They pander or they tie together or they introduce useless obfuscation. They moralize or they idealize. There is no good or useful message to take from them, except that they turn the strange into the comprehensible, and render a product.

Given that criteria, The Night is Short, Walk on Girl might have been one of my favorite films of the year. It is, basically, a film pseudo-sequel to the 2010 anime series The Tatami Galaxy. They share a staff, and the same director - Masaaki Yuasa, who is almost certainly my favorite anime director - directed it. That series followed a high school boy as he attempted to choose a club that would suit him. Each episode, roughly speaking, saw him choose a club, live through it, fail, and revert back to the beginning. Yuasa is also the director of one of my favorite films of all time, also animated: Mind Game. In the past I've highly recommended it with the caveat that it opens with an upsetting scene of sexual assault.

The thing is that the bulk of The Night is Short does everything I love in his movies and shows. It combines the beautiful animation of Ping Pong with the delirious asides of Mind Game, the externalized politics of Kaiba, and the respect for spectacle of Kick-Heart. And, of course, the serious and ludicrous focus on character that defined The Tatami Galaxy. It tells the story of an endless night in which The Girl With Black Hair drinks, performs in a play, shops for a used book, visits ill friends, and diverts multiple kinds of divine judgment. There is also a dude who is convinced he's in love with her, despite the fact that all he has done is literally stalk her.

Which, I suppose, brings us to the issue. Our ostensible protagonist - literally Senpai - is some asshole who is real broken up about his inability to talk to this girl who he likes. And again, there is a lot there that, in the watching, seems fruitful; he is friends with a weirdly fascistic school events coordinator who is super queer coded; he is himself basically an MRA in waiting ready to be told off by this pretty great woman who should clearly be the lead of this film; there is a villain established early that is clearly paralleled to the dude in a way that seems like it is leading to a reckoning; and so on. You may have guessed that it isn't just the ending that disappoints, by now.

The movie takes a turn when The Girl With The Black Hair confronts Ri Haku, the capitalist, and lets him know that he is Connected with everyone, and is in some sense responsible for the brilliant night she has had. This is true in the most saccharine way possible. It is also a clear betrayal of any exciting possibility, a capitulation to capital, and a boring fucking story. From then it only gets worse.

Here's the thing: it's much harder to simply ignore the ending when it turns into what more or less (more) amounts to MRA propaganda. Because there are versions of this movie that last another minute, or a minute less, that are entirely different in meaning. It's fucking frustrating. These versions leave it unclear whether a relationship begins, or cut to a month into it when things fall apart. They, in other words, give context to the ways in which this movie tells the story of a dude who is shitty in ways that aren't necessarily his fault, but which he does nothing to effect.

Is it clear that my frustration with this movie has made me incapable of talking about it in a coherent way? Because that's more or less how I feel. It comes so close to being something unbelievable, and fails in ways that it sets itself up to avoid. And those failures resonate back through to color everything else, and fill this wonderful thing with poison.

#10 Album: I Believe In You by Dolly Parton

Last year, Dolly Parton released an album that was genuinely challenging, exciting, and playful all in the same measure. I can't overstate how good Pure & Simple is. This year, she released another album.

I Believe In You is her first children's album, and that's a weird thing to say. There are so many awkward moments throughout it, and so many exciting ones as well. The main problem, though, is that it is very slight. Which isn't to say in a way that kids might find appealing. Though that could be true. In the end, it's just not the kind of album that makes a huge impression, whether melodically or thematically.

#10 TV Show: American Gods (season 1)

American Gods is a show obsessed with its style that desperately wants to have something to say. It doesn't. Sometimes the style works, though.

#10 Videogame: Doki Doki Literature Club

I came into Doki Doki Literature Club expecting to hate it. The particular virality reminded me a lot of a muted version of Undertale, particularly in how it was made clear that there was a spoilable turn and a metafictional element. Consider those warnings for this free game you may want to play.

Those elements are, in my opinion at least, the weakest parts of this game. What's more, they actively undermine the strongest elements, which is the part that takes the dating sim genre very seriously in a way that interrogates its tropes. They're also, of course, what gained this game its virality, and are entirely at fault for things like my own awareness of its existence. I'm somewhat plugged in to the Smash community, but certainly not enough to hear about a new free game that a creator of the 20XX Tournament mod or "one of the best Melee Links in Jersey" had created.

The basic pitch is that you play a guy who joins a literature club in high school, only to find out it is entirely attended by a variety of attractive girls. They are each drawn in broad strokes, and your player character is internally fairly straightforward with the fact that he's mostly trying to get laid by becoming a member. The central mechanical interaction (aside from clicking to advance text) is fairly neat: every night you are tasked with writing a poem, which you can (and are advised to) game towards the tastes of a particular club member. You do this by picking a word from a list; the cute young girl, Natsuki, enjoys words like "marshmallow" and "fluffy;" the more mature, literary girl, Yuri, prefers lengthy, uncommon, or imagistic words like "aura," "anxiety," or "raindrops;" and your long-suffering friend and people-pleaser, Sayori, prefers more emotional descriptions like "tears" or "sad." It manages to break up the flow of the game while simultaneously developing these girls' characters and testing your own knowledge and assumptions about who they are supposed to be. Plus, it leaves you with the possibility of a poem, rather than awkwardly trying to force you into generatively writing one, which is super smart.

Saying that the horror/metafictional elements detract is not as clean as all that. Without them I wouldn't have just missed the game entirely; it is incredibly unlikely that some of the choices that work so well wouldn't have been made at all. For instance: part of the dawning horror is the drip feed of (which isn't to say particularly nuanced) information that you get which indicates that each of these datable girls has very specific trauma or mental illness. I'm not qualified to speak on the specifics of anything particular about that in terms of representation, but it is all written in a way that feels intentional and sensitive. Which isn't to say unproblematic. (Speaking of which: the thing that kept me playing as I was flagging early on was the fact that the game's discussion of literature is actually pretty solid. It largely consists of fairly basic craft discussions and questions around the purpose or embededness of style, but done in a way that feels not dismissive and useful for the presumed ages of the characters.)

The problems that these characters are dealing with are the basis for its horror, but they're also genuinely interesting critiques of the tropes of the dating sim genre. Your bubbly, people-pleasing best friend, for instance, confesses her depression to you. She is fairly straightforward in saying that her ability to bring people together is related to how much self-loathing drives her away from close relationships and how much it simultaneously brings her joy to help bring other people together because she can then fade into the background. Like I said, I can't say, but it doesn't feel wrong.

All of which is to say: while I came in expecting to feel negative, what I'm left with is mostly a sort of ambivalence that leans positive. Because the metafictional elements don't work in an especially literary way, despite the game's relative intelligence in those matters. Briefly(ish): the fourth girl in the club, Monika, is the president. She doesn't have a route. She ends up manipulating the game files. In the ordinary ending, she reveals that she has tried to subtly enhance the issues present in the other girls. After this goes bad, she ultimately deletes them and brings you to a room in a liminal space where she declares her love, happy that you - the player, not the player character - can exist together with her, alone and in love, forever. She does this because she has become self-aware as an entity within a game.

I say it doesn't work because it uses the metafiction as another kind of narrative abstraction, rather than a real break. The kindly friend being someone who suffers makes sense, and actively makes the player rethink the assumptions of the genre; the ignored character who undermines the game does the same thing, except with significantly less impact. In context, it kind of just doesn't work.

Some of my feelings about this game would be different if I didn't know games like We Know The Devil existed. Or Anatomy or Dust City, both by Kitty Horrorshow, which do the strategic restarts and 'local files' better, respectively. Or even Liz Ryerson's Problem Attic, which shares very little with this game except the way in which it integrates the horror of play into an interrogation of traumas much more holistically. But even without those, there's something deeply compelling about Doki Doki Literature Club, and there's also so many ways in which it doesn't quite get there.

Blog Archive