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.

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