(1) Fri Dec 08 2017 07:06 November Film Roundup:
Howdy, pardner. Time to round up some cinematic cows! Them's good eating.
- This is Spinal Tap (1984): My third viewing, and possibly the most fun I'll have watching this movie because my second viewing was like ten years ago before I had a lot of practice at watching movies. I remember all the big-ticket set pieces, but I forgot that this thing is full of comedy at all levels, from subtle character conflict to stupid puns to dick jokes, and it's all funny. Like a Monty Python movie, Spinal Tap just tosses out one classic bit after another, not realizing that entire cults are going to grow up around individual gags.
- Hellzapoppin' (1941): I've been wanting to see this film ever since learning about it in The Amazing Colossal Episode Guide in the nineties, and short story research finally provided the excuse I need. This is... uneven. The first, let's say, nine minutes is some of the funniest footage I've ever seen. Then it turns into a dull slog of a young-lovers weekend-party movie, livened up only by the occasional hilarious joke. It's worse than a Marx Brothers movie in this regard.
Olsen and Johnson seem to know they're heading in to trouble here. They throw up framing devices and lampshades to make light of the fact that they're squeezing their round Broadway show into a Hollywood square, and that this movie is no good when they're not on screen. But lampshading a fact doesn't make it go away. It's so bad that I questioned whether the Broadway show was also a big bait-and-switch, but no, according to this 2007 attempt to reverse-engineer the show, Hellzapoppin' was basically all like those first nine minutes, and it was the longest-running Broadway show until Oklahoma!. So, I guess I recommend going back in time (if only to 2007) and seeing it live.
Not a lot of films last month, and there wasn't even going to be a Television Spotlight, but it turns out the show we were watching, "The Good Place", doesn't have as many episodes as I'd assumed. We generally only start watching a show once the hype builds to a certain point, which usually gives us two or three seasons to catch up on, but "The Good Place" is so great (and the episodes are only 22 minutes) that the hype started early, we blew through it and we're stuck in the season two mid-season break with everyone else. So now I'm going to use my soapbox to add to the hype. It's really good—the characters change over time, individual episodes burn huge chunks of plot, and every episode ends with a cliffhanger. It's like a Greg Egan novel turned into a sitcom.
For comparison I'm going to bring in a show we watched and loved in the pre-Film Roundup days, "The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin". In a sitcom every episode presents the same basic scenario, but "Perrin", along with "The Good Place" and "Arrested Development", create plot arcs by breaking the sitcom reset button and forcing the characters to deal with the consequences of previous revisions of the same basic joke. This also allows the writers to approach the premise of a given sitcom from all different angles. Sumana sums up these three shows as: "What if your karass were also your crab bucket?", which is the subtext of most sitcoms made explicit.
(5) Thu Nov 23 2017 12:58 How Game Titles Work: 2017 Update:
In 2009 as I was writing Constellation Games I researched how game titles work on a rhetorical level. I published my results as a six-part series of blog posts: 1 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. This post is a summary of that post and a bringing it up to date for 2017, based on a talk I gave at Penguicon in March. (Slides are here.)
In my 2009 research I discovered a basic tension: games are works of art, so there's a tendency to name them like movies, but in our society games are packaged and sold like laundry detergent, so there's a tendency to name games like detergents.
Different game-makers resolve this tension differently. In the early days, games were named after real-world activities, or about the very act of playing a game mediated through a computer; otherwise, it was difficult to get people to understand what was going on. You don't see that much anymore; nowadays it's common for games to have names that resemble (in formal terms) the names of 19th-century novels, laundry detergents, episodes of TV shows, or rock albums.
But all games have two things in common: the second person and the present tense. A movie can be the story of something that happened to someone else long ago, but a game is always the story of what you are doing right now to complete the feedback loop. So most games are named in the second person present tense, e.g. named after your character within the game.
I originally had to figure out How Game Titles Work because for my story "Mallory" I spent a long time making up titles for six fictional classic arcade games, and despite all the work I was unhappy with the results. The final draft of Constellation Games mentions thirty-three fictional human games, plus thirty-five games made by space aliens from various alien cultures. Since cultural artifacts are created and named by people embedded within that culture, I had to figure out the underlying rules for games so I could apply those rules to the various extraterrestrial cultures. I also worked this process in reverse: came up with a weird game and used it to figure out what kind of culture would create that game.
I decided to update the series because one of my conclusions in 2009 was that shareware games in the 1990s, and indie games generally, have better titles than contemporaneous big-budget games. Since 2009 the indie scene has exploded, so I decided it was time to take another look and see how naming techniques have evolved.
I used the MobyGames API to get the names of all games published since 2009, and went through them looking for interesting names. Although AAA titles still have boring names, indie games have dramatically expanded into more artistic naming spaces. It's now fairly common for a game to have a title that's not in second person ("Papers, Please", "This War of Mine"). More frequent than in 2009, but still not common, is a game whose name is not in the present tense ("Gone Home", "Thomas Was Alone"). The games themselves are still second-person-present-tense, but their titles play with tense and person to zoom in or out emotionally.
Even more common, though, are games whose names transcend synecdoche to convey the mood of the game rather than referencing specific elements: "The Flame in the Flood", "No Man's Sky", "Sir, You Are Being Hunted". An older example of this is "Grim Fandango" and I think this quote from a Tim Schafer interview provides some insight into the naming process as well as the function of a game's name:
"The original title, when I was pitching it, was Deeds of the Dead.. The Last Siesta was one [working title]. Dirt Nap I think was in there somewhere..."
"And then I finally came up with the name and was like, 'I'm so smart! This is the best name ever!' I remember I ran out of my office and I told someone... [a]nd they were like 'That's terrible. You'll never sell a game called Grim Fandango. What does that even mean?' But I've always loved it... I mean Grim Fandango just as a metaphor for what? For life or death depending on how you're looking at it."
Schaefer starts off with punny titles, like you would see in the title of a TV episode, and genre references, like you would see in the title of a film, but he settles on something evocative, like the title of a modern novel. "Deeds of the Dead" sounds kind of goofy, "Dirt Nap" sounds more hard-boiled. "Grim Fandango" evokes grandeur, tragedy, and inevitability.
In my talk I performed some close readings of really good game names, and if you post your favorites in comments I'll do the same here, as I did in the comments to part 5. I want to close with an example from 2009: "Just Dance". This is different from every other title I've encountered, because its job is to convey to a game-averse audience that this isn't "really" a game at all! Other game titles make you play a character or perform a job, but here you just dance! C'mon, give it a try! A very friendly title.
(5) Sun Nov 12 2017 21:49 Behold, mortal, the origins of robotfindskitten...:
I wrote a thirty-minute talk for the Roguelike Celebration about good old robotfindskitten. Then I saw that I only had a fifteen-minute timeslot to deliver my talk, and I cut it way, way down. As you might expect, that made the talk a lot better; what had started out as a kinda rambling history was boiled down into an exploration of what it means for a game to be good.
Here's my transcript of the talk as prepared for delivery: Behold, mortal, the origins of robotfindskitten...
I went through a lot of archival material to write this talk and I was planning on putting a bunch of the stuff I cut in this blog post, but... I'm pretty happy with the talk as is and there's only a couple pieces of extra material I feel a strong need to share with you.
First, I put up the original DOS binaries and all the source code I could find for the very first version of robotfindskitten, from 1997. I also included the C++ source code for a student project I did a couple months before rfk, which really looks like a dry run for rfk, both in terms of the subject matter and the code.
Second, I just wanted to highlight the message I wrote in the docs for the 1999 Linux release of rfk: "I like this program a lot. It's fun without being violent."
Third, this sequence of Nethack-related files I had on my BBS (which I ran from 1993 to 1996). This was useful for establishing when I obtained Nethack 3.1.1, a factoid which itself turned out not to be very interesting.
SPOILER.ZIP Size: 22,125 | A complete walkthrough of Nethack! Very
Date: 01/31/94 DL's: 1 | handy!
HACK311.ZIP Size: 749,285 | Nethack! The biggest, most feature-packed
Date: 03/01/94 DL's: 14 | Rogue clone ever!
NETSPOIL.ZIP Size: 129,059 | New versions of the Nethack Spoilers!
Date: 10/27/95 DL's: 7 | Everything you need to know.
NHDECODE.ZIP Size: 4,294 | A handy thing that translates the rumor &
Date: 11/09/95 DL's: 1 | oracle files for Nethack.
I called roguelikes "Rogue clones" back then. (A bit later, I uploaded a copy of Angband and described it as a "Nethack clone".)
Bizarrely, the description file inside SPOILER.ZIP says "A complete walkthrough of Netrunner! Very handy!" They are Nethack spoilers, though. Maybe my co-sysop Andy wrote that description and had Cyberpunk 2020 on his mind.
Sat Nov 11 2017 09:29 October Film Roundup:
Sorry for the delay -- I've got a lot of other stuff to work on and was in fact working on it. Only now finding the time to procrastinate and talk about a couple movies I saw last month.
- Good Time (2017): Y'know, when I see a movie like Dog Day Afternoon, part of the fun is reveling in the problems of a bygone era and not thinking about the problems of my own. In 40 years, if mankind is still alive, Good Time may be that type of movie but now I feel the despair of someone who watched Dog Day Afternoon in 1975. Everything's falling apart and there's no hope. So... a good modern noir, I guess?
- Underworld U.S.A. (1961): By contrast, this noir is nothing special. The bold move of putting a chart on the movie poster made me think this film would have the hard-core attitude that there's no moral difference between organized crime and "legitimate" business, but the attitude was more of a scandal that organized crime was ramping up by taking on the management structure of big business.
You could really sense the boundaries of the Hays code in this film. Having a hoodlum as a "hero" was pushing the envelope, so they spent a lot of time rehabilitating him and farming off unpleasant hoodlum duties to other characters, to the point where I don't think we actually see him take any morally questionable action. Which, y'know, fish or cut bait, noir movie. Also, I don't think I can trust a chart in which "vice" is one of the things being measured. The chart format implies a level of precision which is not present.
- Portrait of Jennie (1948): Gets credit for being a very early paranormal romance, but the romance starts with an atmosphere of ickiness, and even without the ickiness the IMDB summary of this movie is "A mysterious girl inspires a struggling artist" and who needs another one of those? I would rather just watch the scenes with the supporting cast; they're fun.
- Love and Taxes (2015): Sumana is a Josh Kornbluth fan so we watched this film adaptation of his monologue, which took an Adaptation-like twist and started becoming about the film adaptation of one of his earlier monologues. It was a pretty fun time. I'd like to call out the character of Bob for being a rare example in narrative drama (not sure if this is "fiction" or what) of a really supportive boss.
- I saw a series of horror movie trailers at Metrograph, and am excited to some day see The Manitou (1977), Wicked Wicked (1973), and Lady in a Cage (1964). Most of the rest of the trailers were kinda meh, but it was fun to see a big-screen trailer for The Giant Gila Monster (1959). If you think about it, the gila monster really does become giant when footage from the movie is projected onto a screen.
I never knew that Joan Crawford was in so many genre films. (She's not in any of the ones I just mentioned, that's just a general observation.)
This month's Television Spotlight focuses on Terry Jones' Great Map Mystery (2008), a documentary miniseries that seems to have been funded to provide local content for BBC Wales. It was eager to present Welshness and Welsh things in a way that's familiar to me from Canada. There's a lot of interesting stuff in there, most of it more or less irrelevant to the Big Question of the documentary, which is fine because the Big Question turns out not to be all that big. It's definitely a cut above what we find on most of our lazy "see what's free on Amazon" trawls.
(1) Mon Oct 02 2017 16:57 September Film Roundup:
Here we go. I'm sick right now so who knows what kind of weird opinions I'm going to have. Blaaah! Roll camera!
- Baby Driver (2017): This film serves as the counterpoint to Paul (2012): it shows the downsides of letting Edgar Wright direct a film without having Simon Pegg and Nick Frost to weigh it down with likeable characters. It's formally impressive but I didn't care about any of the characters. If you don't like Scott Pilgrim you could say the same thing about that movie, but... I do like Scott Pilgrim.
I caught a lot of hype for this movie and I always expect a lot of Wright, so I was psyched up, but it falls into the familiar territory of popcorn noir. It was fun to watch, but its "innocent pulled in life of crime" plot is right out of the black-and-white era and hasn't been spruced up much.
- The Teacher (2016): A.k.a. Ucitelka. An effective horror movie where nobody dies. By horror movie standards, the things that happen aren't even that bad. But it's creepy as hell. I would compare this to Get Out in the way it exploits an underused fuel source for its horror.
IMDB classifies this as "Comedy, Drama" but based on the poster and the final scene I'm comfortable with my opinion that it's intended to read as a horror movie.
- Run Lola Run (1998): A lot of fun, lots of eyeball kicks. I thought there were going to be four runthroughs, but three works better. I'm always pleasantly surprised when a movie is shorter than I predicted. Has some of the same problems as Baby Driver but I'll cut it more slack because it was made twenty years earlier and it's a half-hour shorter. Come to think of it, my favorite part of Baby Driver was the scene where he had to get out of the car and run.
- Jaws (1975): I absolutely loved the first two acts of this movie about a society so focused on short-term economic gain that it jumps through hoops to rationalize away an ecological threat. Then act three was a couple guys on a boat and I fell asleep. If I were this film's hotshot young director, I would have spent about ten minutes on that boat and then come back to shore to focus on the mayor's ass-covering, trying to hang the fiasco around the necks of the people who noticed the problem and did something about it.
Overall this is a fine film and I recommend it, but with one big asterisk: I believe Jaws is the movie that caused Hollywood execs to say "we found it!" and pull the lever that eventually stopped all that lovely 1970s experimentation. (c.f. my Die Hard review) So watch it with a pretentious tear in your eye.
Old-computer watch: includes an outdoor arcade that features the Sega mechanical arcade game "Killer Shark" and, more relevantly, a Computer Space cabinet. You can see the arcade in the trailer. Tragically no Shark JAWS.
D'you suppose that Computer Space cabinet was there at the beach where they filmed, or did they bring it in as a prop? They were so expensive, it's hard to imagine sticking one outside to get salt-crusted.
- Logan Lucky (2017): This film is the king of fridge logic but it's really, really fun. I try to tell stories about people who are more or less ordinary, no special societal status, so I'll always be there for a movie about NASCAR fans over a movie about NASCAR drivers. There are little bits of this movie where you see Talladega Nights sort of happening in the background, and although both movies are really funny, Logan Lucky's focus on its characters' real concerns puts Talladega Nights to shame, the way the second half of Sullivan's Travels shames the first half.
Basically, this movie over Baby Driver any time. For me, a super-complicated heist with a normal drive home will always beat a smash-and-grab that ends in a car chase.
- I Am Big Bird: The Carroll Spinney Story (2014): A surprise tear-jerker, and I say that as someone who isn't moved by Spinney in costume singing "It's Not Easy Being Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service. (I'm sure it's what he wanted.) There's a couple stories in here that hit me right in the gut. Definitely the most depressing documentary I've ever seen about a happy, successful person. The Norman Lear doc wasn't like this. Recommended??
This month the Television Spotlight completes its examination of Angels in America (2003). Overall this was a fine production but the Mormon stuff was really a mess. I think I can trace the problem back to the event described in this IMDB trivia item:
In a 2008 interview, Tony Kushner said that the idea to entwine Mormonism into the plot of "Angels in America" started when he saw some young, ignored Mormon missionaries near his home in Brooklyn: "There were these Mormon missionaries that I used to see at my subway stop, in Carroll Gardens, around 1983. One of them was, I thought, kind of hot. They were always there in the morning, in front of a bunch of people who could have cared less about the Book of Mormon. And I was kind of touched by that."
Not touched enough to talk to any Mormons, apparently, because the Mormon characters' dialogue doesn't ring true and all the imagery looks like it was taken from a book that didn't have diagrams. The angels aren't Mormon angels, they've got a Gnostic thing going on, which is cool, but Gnostic angels shouldn't be giving out golden plates. It feels like someone tried to put Mormonism into their preexisting D&D campaign to make the new player feel welcome.
The casting of Patrick Wilson as Joe Pitt is spot-on, and he does have the Mormon body language down pat. But when you show a Mormon character in 1985 drinking a Coke and I have to wonder "Is this a shocking, subtle piece of foreshadowing, or did someone not do their homework?", I'm going to err on the side of undone homework.
On the plus side, Emma Thompson's barely-keeping-it-together angel is great, and captures the "this is no way to run a railroad!" attitude I associate with Gnosticism. I'm aware that my knowledge of Gnosticism is approximately on the level of Tony Kushner's knowledge of Mormonism, but ever since I saw those hot Gnostic angels at the subway stop I've wanted to watch a play about them.
As a bonus, let's also Spotlight The Bronson Pinchot Project (2012-2013): I don't know if I'd recommend this, but it is the most interesting home improvement show I've ever seen. Actor Bronson Pinchot has bought a bunch of properties in a small Pennsylvania town and he spends his time restoring them according to his vision. Said vision is charming when it comes to designing relaxing spaces to chill out and hang with friends or read, but vague and handwavy when it comes to taking a shower, or storing dry pasta or more than twenty books.
When Pinchot revealed that he uses the properties he's not currently renovating to store antiques and reclaimed materials for the renovations, Sumana uttered the line that summed it up: "He's running a Ponzi scheme on himself!" This turned out truer than I knew; in 2015 Pinchot filed bankruptcy and all the properties seen in the show were reposessed by creditors. Seems like he's still making good money as an audiobook narrator, though.