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.

Blog Archive