Heavy Homes

What Remains of Edith Finch_20170428130402

(Lotta spoilers, so proceed with caution)

Death is dumb.

All death is dumb, it feels pointless and heartless, like somehow in some fashion life has gone out of its way to fuck you in the ass. Even when we expect it, when we know it’s coming, or what we logically and rationally know that it can’t be helped, that it might even be a good thing in the long run, it just feels like shit. My grandfather died a few years ago about this time of year and even though he lived a year over the time the doctors gave him, the last few months were torturous for him and I knew that when he finally did die, it was in a way an alleviation of the pain that I knew was racking his body along with the cancer and the constant discomfort of pissing himself and always having to lay in a hospice bed we had in the house.

It was still dumb and it still makes me sad and mad to think about it.

How people deal with death is another matter, in that coping varies so much we never really know how well people are feeling or if they can even figure out how to move on from something so shitty. The idea of coping, and the myriad of ways in which it can both help and harm someone, is the root of the video game What Remains of Edith Finch.

What Remains of Edith Finch (from developers Giant Sparrow) has been a game we’ve been anticipating for a while in this little household, so when it was available to preorder we jumped on it. A walking/exploring game (which is pretty popular these days for better or worse) where the titular character explores her weird old family house discovering the secrets of various family members, we see that the Finch house is rooted in sadness and denial and tragedy that has led varying members of the family to think they’re “cursed.” You’d think it’s true based on just how messed up the family appears, and by how many of them ended up meeting tragic ends. One poisons herself by accident as a child, while another witnesses his sister’s savage assault and murder, retreating to live in a bunker underneath the house unknown to other family members for years…for starters.

The title’s ultimately the biggest giveaway, because of the dual definitions of “remains”, in being a verb as well as a noun. As a noun, remains are a term for what’s left behind from a death. As a verb, it means to leave behind. Edith’s both left her remains somewhere (because she’s dead, as revealed at the end of the game) but also is looking at literally what she left behind in that house throughout the game via the extended flashback that is the gameplay.

Reliving the very history of your own lineage and seeing not horror, but depressing tragedy, in those stories as Edith does throughout the game gives you a real sense of why the family might think they’re cursed, and how it could feel tragic enough to actually influence people into putting a supernatural spin on it. The way that Edith actually experiences these moments throughout the book intersperses supernatural elements with reality, creating a difficult thing to interpret, with the implication of heavy subjective experiences. What really did happen? What really did cause it, and what does it mean that we don’t fully understand and get more clues and implications?

There’s a lot here in the game’s story that is left undiscovered and unsaid, employing a lot of what we’ve seen in other exploratory walking/narrative games to fill in background and story that we’re not allowed to fully know. What are the entirety of the secrets of the Finch house? What was the great-grandmother trying to tell young Edith the night they left? What’s the full story of the family’s need to identify themselves as “cursed,” which is a self-fulfilling prophecy but also a convenient excuse when it comes to not wanting to discuss uncomfortable family things like mental illness, unspoken feuds, and bottled-up feelings/aggression. While this can definitely be frustrating, at the same time it’s arguably more realistic in trying to mimic the fallibility of memory, of family memory, and of the limitations of someone’s personal patience, personal feelings, and (importantly, though another big dangling thread in this story) the limitations of being able to help someone who is suffering from mental health issues and you don’t understand why.

As I’ve mentioned before when talking about games like this, leaving some of that unspoken creates a definitely stronger line between short stories/novellas and these kinds of games and further emphasizing a game like Edith Finch’s primary role as an interactive story as opposed to a competition.

Sometimes, we don’t get over it. We just can’t. We’re scarred by death, scarred by our pasts, scarred by the burdens placed on us by other people that we’re unable to shake. We don’t always really acknowledge it, but sometimes, death wins in ways beyond just simply taking someone away. Sometimes it breaks, cracks, leaving nothing but remains. You can’t always put something back together from remains, no matter how hard you try. Edith Finch tried, and it didn’t work for her, thought it does make an interesting experience to play.

Sometimes unanswered questions are OK.

Mothers

areyoumom_01

So, I powered through Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel in a day. It was a slow work day, and I haven’t gone through a book like that in a while.

I didn’t know what to think going into it, mostly because despite the fact that I loved her previous memoir comic work Fun Home, that one’s a weird book that’s basically a critical and thematic literary analysis of not only her relationship with her father and his death, but also her own sexuality, lesbianism, and her father’s sexuality. This one was a lot of the same, but also different, in that the relationship Bechdel has/had with her mother (who died in 2013) wasn’t the entirely abstract thing that the one with her dad was.

A lot of the book deals with the history of psychoanalysis, the application of psychoanalysis and the great minds involved in it, as well as interweaving Virginia Woolf in there as well. But when you boil it down, the really important (or at least impactful to me, but more on that in a second)  elements are the ones where her intensely sloppy but passionate relationship with her mother is examined. It’s really clear that Bechdel, in trying to accurately depict her relationship with her mother, does the same thing that she did when describing what she had with her father;

Something complicated.

Still, and for reasons I haven’t fully gotten through and been able to articulate, the story of her and her mother didn’t have the same impact on me that the one with her father did. I feel, in a way, that the form in which she writes and draws about it is why, drawing as she does on a lot of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. Her intertwining her own growth (or at least mental unwinding) during therapy felt, at times, kind of draining. While I understand that in a narrative sense, her own mental well-being was tied into the growing and reinforcing of a positive relationship (as much as it could be) with her mom, I personally couldn’t really find any connection to that. However, that’s also in synch with the fact that her mother is alive through the story of this book and that Bechdel actively struggles to make a connection to her mother in a conventional child-mother way, a conventional daughter-mother way. While not all of her issues (and there are a lot of issues, many of which I can’t really understand) dealt with through the book and through her therapy relate to her mother, a lot of them seem to orbit around her, at the very least.

This of course makes me immediately jump to the conclusion that because it’s a book about therapy (in a stripped-down oversimplification), I don’t like it because therapy is boring. After all, it’s just people talking to each other back and forth,* and on a comic book page. Why would anyone want to read that?

That doesn’t mean, like I said, that it’s a bad book, because there are amazing elements that are right up there with Fun Home, which I really adore. The ending of the book has the same impact that the first did, a concise moment capturing an adult realization against a childhood visual, which creates an effective stamp of an ending, something literature in general can struggle with. It’s hard to stick a landing.

What I do think though is, what does it say about me that the elements of a book dedicated to relationships and interaction which talk about the roots of how those relationships work is what I like the least? Part of me wants to admit some anti-snobbery brutalist attitude, but at the same time, I know that’s not entirely true. Part of me also wants to express it as some kind of denial thing, like I dislike the psychoanalysis because I need it or connect to it more than I care to. Again though, not something I think is actually true.

The older I’ve gotten, the less self-introspective I’ve gotten, feeling more and more self-aware of knowing who I am, what I am, and how my brain and psyche probably work. Yeah, part of it is because I’m a simple kind of person (read: boring), but part of it is also in growing more and more certain with my own sense of self. On the other hand, in the book, Bechdel isn’t sure of herself, of her own identity (constantly feeling a need to not only be there for other people but also to push herself to the limits in terms of self-introspection and self-harm, metaphorically through self-criticism).

I am aware though, that in the end this isn’t a book meant for me. I mean, it is, it’s out there, and it’s not like it’s labeled “NOT FOR COSTA FUCK THAT GUY” on the cover. However, I’m a heterosexual white male who has a set of alligator-luggage privilege for getting through life and for building my sense of self, nevermind a relationship with my family that’s drastically different with what Bechdel has/had with hers in her work. It’s inevitable that my own lens will be skewed when reading this work and when I strain to make a connection, because my brain, so used to automatically and easily finding connections to art, is floundering here, making me work for what few tenuous connections I can find.

Basically, in this book I see the shadow of who I was and who I could have been, rather than the kind of person I feel like am now. Now, at 33, I’m more confident in my self, in my role in the world, in my own power, and in my own voice, which makes me appreciate Bechdel’s work, but not connect with it. I connect with Fun Home because it’s about coming to terms with self, in the end, as opposed to Are You My Mother‘s battle between an evolving sense of self and how that strains the limits of a difficult relationship. It’s a relationship, and a book, that I’m going to come back to over and over, that I know, but it’ll probably be a slow-going process to fully be able to empathize with it, if I ever do. And I’m OK with that.

*)Cheap shot, I know.

All These Variable States

virginia_gameplay_screenshot

So, everyone likes Twin Peaks, right? Well, not everyone, because I know how weird and how strange it can be, melding a lot of stuff that was either too insane to be true what what was kind of groundbreaking, especially for TV.

A lot of entertainment since then, from TV like The X-Files (which you could probably consider a spiritual successor to Twin Peaks in a way) to the current wave of weird fiction podcasts, like Tanis (from production company PNW, aka “Pacific North West”, get it?) that all happen to take place in the Pacific Northwest, all have some root tracing itself back to that show, which basically helped establish that modern concept in fiction of weird towns in remote locations full of forests, full of secrets, and full of strangeness that crosses lines between the supernatural and the sci-fi, the humane and the inhuman.

The real problem with a lot of this tends to be my primary criticism with most of the world drawing influence from earlier works, which is that the wrong things are being drawn from influence-wise. If you’re going to be influenced by say, The X-Files, then the thing that really should be the impact and influence on you is not just internal government conspiracies revolving around aliens, but also about growing relationships and trust while encountering the unexplainable of the wide world, especially parts of the world that don’t usually get seen or are passed off as too mundane. The X-Files is as much weird horror as sci-fi in that sense, which a lot of “inspired-by” work fails to capture, in my mind.

Twin Peaks is the same, in that the idea of small-town weirdness in an imposing setting is a surface inspiration that often gets used as a fairly cheap-and-easy “spooky” look and vibe. However, the other elements of soap opera-drama, intense personal relationships that can damage and crack at larger things like plans and investigations, as well as the overall larger concept that you CAN’T explain or fully explore these supernatural things…all that seems to be lost in the translation of “inspiration” onto more current work.

~

We played the first-person narrative game Virginia, from Variable State and 505 Games recently. I like weird video games, I like first-person exploring narrative-types, and claiming obvious references (mentioned above) is a cheap way to get me to check it out. The X-Files and Twin Peaks (rookie agent and disgraced veteran partner, small town surrounded by forests and a military base, supernatural elements, a missing child, secrets) are all over this game from the get-go, as you (the new agent) end up looking for a missing boy in Freedom, VA. The game’s minimalist to a T, almost to a fault, though not quite, which in a way is supposed to be part of its charm of nostalgia, being set in the 1992 as well. Hell, it works and sells, so why not? A lot of other video games these days in this vein seem to be on the same wavelength of near-past settings, which establish not only a plugging of story holes that a cell phone and interview could solve, but also establishing a visual aesthetic that is meant to deliberately evoke feelings and connections to other media (like TV and film) set in that area, albeit an evoking that only works so well with the minimal art style of the game.

I do like that you can actually see yourself in the mirror, though.

I guess if we’re talking about comparing to other similar games, Virginia is probably closest to Everyone’s Gone To The Rapture, where you literally move through the game simply to advance the literary narrative, with little to no actual “work” involved. It just plays out for you, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing (though Rapture was a game that I found boring and dragging personally) though it does require you to have something involved to make it stand out. Gone Home and Firewatch, the standards in this kind of game as far as I’m concerned, require a little bit of actual work on your part to figure out the narrative, solve some level of puzzles, and most importantly, they help you along in figuring out that narrative.

Virginia‘s main standout element, being entirely wordless with only minimal text, isn’t that big a deal for a video game, because ideally a video game is something where you interact and figure out through playing. You don’t need a lot of literary exposition, because the actions and interactions give that to you. However, Virginia‘s claim that there’s not much if any vocal/text communication but then still have some level of reading involved is where the flaws start to pile up.

There are a couple of mysteries within the overall story of the game, and the big problem is that with no one talking, you have to snatch at bits of text when they appear and devour them as soon and as quickly as you can. Because the game sometimes makes jumps on its own (even though you’re being prompted to act to move forward) you can’t read what’s available, and not catching every little thing all of a sudden creates massive gaps in your understanding. I spent a good 1/3 of the game assuming a character’s mother was in fact her wife/life partner, because I wasn’t allowed to look at a text document (provided for information) long enough to read it, and I couldn’t go back once the scene moved on. Didn’t see the dates related to the related character, lost the narrative thread. The screen changes, I’m forced to close the file folder, or the character looks away and the scene changes.

Oops.

That this happened a few times, all at what I later on realized were fairly crucial moments in the story (in terms of actually learning what’s going on) was probably my major complaint here. Things just moved on with little to no space to understand, to learn, to even move on your own. So much of the criticism of these types of video games is that they’re basically short stories or movies that you’re just along for the ride, and that criticism actually feels pretty apt when applied to Virginia.

If you’re going to include elements in your storytelling that require some level of independent thought and analysis, you still need to include some level of “jump-starting” to fill in the blanks that would start the reader/player down that road, and ultimately if you can’t take the minute or two it requires to grab that information you need to be able to continue forward with a story and then make your decisions and interpretations of the story, then what’s the point of giving someone that interpretative freedom?

When I teach literature, I semi-jokingly tell my students that in literary studies there are “no wrong answers,” which is a really simple way to introduce them to the idea of informed subjective analysis of material. Too often students are scared to give their own opinions when they start out doing this kind of reading and writing (college-level lit classes) so I encourage them to just throw interpretations out there, see what sticks. However, as the class eventually moves on, I introduce more basic concepts to help round out the “but”‘s of “there are no wrong answers,” which include the concept of context.

Context is king. Context is key.

Without even basic context of a story, or the story’s background, you can have all sorts of great connections and some real deep influences going on connecting your work to other works, and you have have a setting that’s rich with emotional punches, but it can feel like it’s too scattered across the board, which is what kind of happens to this game.

~

I don’t hate Virginia. The more I think about it, the more I kinda like it quite a bit, especially in certain areas. I think the concept is really bold honestly, and mechanics-wise this could have been really great if a few things were fixed, because those few things really skewed (not ruined, not quite) the game away from being really great. Also, as I mentioned a bit when I wrote about my frustrations with prestige TV’s obsession with attaching homework as a level of even basic understanding of the story, having to almost immediately jump into external reading and analysis to not just understand the thematic elements but the very basic linear narrative of a work, then I start to feel like maybe we as creators have kind of forgotten the point of there being different storytelling mediums. Yes, good stories are universal, and Virginia is, when you put the work in, a really good story. However, is it best told as a game like this? I don’t know. It could work well in a bunch of other settings (which I sort of suspected might have been the origin here, but that’s another story for another time) and it’s not a bad game, but it’s not what it could be.

Ultimately it left me more frustrated than satisfied, though that frustration is a little tempered knowing that I can go back and try to re-understand better with another play-through. I guess it just depends if I feel like the work is worth it whenever I get around to it. I don’t know, it might be.

Style

too-late

I’m watching Too Late on Netflix as I write this, January 29th in the year of our Lord, 2017. I started writing about 4pm, EST.

It’s highly-stylized, it’s intensely-dialogue-driven, it’s very much a passion project-looking work, right at the edge of ostentatious and focused/personal. The movie’s a series of long single-shot scenes with little-to-no cuts/edits, told in a non-linear order. I came up with the idea to start writing this as I watch the second of the vignettes, figuring whatever comes to me will go into the keyboard.

~

I’m on vignette 3 of this film now, and I’m getting the sense of what’s going on here. This is, in a literary sense, a modern novella in film, nonlinear, framework but not that much flesh, just a hint of the things that could be. John Hawkes is a great actor, seeing him in this film creates a really great sense of someone who’s there when he’s active, unnoticed when he’s not active. I think you know what I mean, a character who rolls in, who’s invisible until he’s active, but not in a way that implies some level of superhuman blending-in. He’s not Jason Bourne, but maybe more like a sensitive version of The Continental Op and Mike Hammer, which could possible make a connection to Marlowe, though Marlow is a character that’s hard to try to reach towards.

Hawkes is playing the guitar in this scene, and now, we’re at a classic movie theater. Man, this is definitely one of those “spirit of (a particular place in) LA” movies, which isn’t necessarily that bad. It’s something I think of as a shadow of Chinatown, not the movies and the glamor, but not necessarily the “working-class” element either, at least not a surface-honest one either. It’s a barely-above-the-surface hustler class, which can make for interesting work to appreciate and really are in.

~

I’m starting to get the full scope of the narrative, but at this point, I kind of like it enough to not really need it, and just appreciate the film itself. The whole one-long-shot-per-scene thing is growing on me.

~

That’s a good twist. I’ll admit, I didn’t see that coming, but I can be dense like that, I guess.

~

This is the bit that I write after I watched the movie.

I mentioned this above, and it’s a comparison that I don’t really like to do in any serious sense because A) books and movies are two completely separate forms of art and B) in this case, I feel like not enough people know what a novella actually is these days for the comparison to be actually workable in a consistent setting, but I liked the novella atmosphere of this film. It reminded me, in particular, of a less-focused and less-linear version of Comfort To The Enemy and Other Carl Webster Stories, an Elmore Leonard book (who I mention almost pathologically when talking about noir/crime/mystery in film) that combines a short novella, the titular one, with some short stories within that “universe” of the character.

Fun fact, I basically tried to rip off Leonard and Comfort… when I wrote Running The Train…and Other Stories, which is basically the same thing (one longer short story and a few short minis, flash fiction almost, in the same world). I even did the same thing of making the longer work in the collection the title of the book, “Running The Train.”

Sorry, digression.

It fits though, because novellas, with their micro-version of full novels that push beyond the simplicity of the short story but don’t entirely flesh out a narrative, which focus more on building something out of clever scenes (if they’re good), and which work best when they can loosely tie a collection of work together into something that might be a narrative, are good. Even if it doesn’t become a fuller narrative though, it’s OK, because modern literature works just as well in what it started from, the idea that we can simply write about life, and all the out-of-order nonsense that we encounter ever single day. The day is snippets, it your to-do-list done out of order, it’s incomplete and the resolution at the end is just getting things done, getting to the end without a reward.

Maybe a cold beer is your reward at the end of the day, or maybe making things better for someone else, even yourself.

Some days you can’t make anything better though, you can make things right. Which, ultimately, seems to be the goal of Too Late. It might be too late, but maybe, just maybe, you can make it right, even if it doesn’t make sense to anyone else.

It’s probably the most noir of noir sentiments and I appreciate an honesty about that. Noir is harsh, crime and mystery stories are hard and cruel, because they reflect a world where cruelty and hardness happen in random fits and bursts. It’s also full of unfulfilling moments, where we try to get something in, one last hit, even though it’s futile. That last hit though, it can feel good for a second, a second that sometimes human beings need.

~

This is the end of the essay but it was written before I get to the rest of the scenes, written because the idea for the end has come before I finish watching the movie itself. Not done writing the whole essay before I got this ending in, either. I don’t know if I liked this, because I don’t know what to make of work that has large and non-satisfying but ultimately, nourish endings almost immediately at the beginning. Not RIGHT at the beginning though, which somewhat lessons that ending’s impact.

In terms of stylized noir, nu-noir, non-nu noir in that weird area of between the years of 1980 and 2012 though, Too Late captures a weird crossover sub-sect of America, not the noir of Chandler, which is tragic, ultimately. It’s the noir of Leonard, which I appreciate in its daily-life patter.

I think sometimes, appreciation of a thing is a lot better than outright loving something.

Stranger In Fiction

sddefault

We tried. I really tried, I did.

While I’m sure the Netflix series The OA appeals to some, a weird mixture of science fiction, fantasy, and some kind of semi-spiritual journey, after three episodes, I have to admit I lost interest. It’s spacey, it’s sparse, it’s highly-reliant on mood and atmosphere and what I’m guessing is supposed to me dramatic pauses and dramatic interludes in general that just draws a lot of it out.

I don’t really like it, and I feel that not liking it (or feeling particularly interested in the vast majority of “Netflix Originals” or “Amazon Prime Original Series”) has a lot to do with some kind of TV burnout.

Overall, TV these days feels burdensome, to be honest, though when we finished watching WESTWORLD, I’d felt like I’d been exposed to something really amazing. That was a great show, an interesting ride I went on, just letting the story happen and seeing some great acting and great visuals. I really enjoyed WESTWORLD a lot more than I thought I would, in an inversely-proportional way that I didn’t care for The OA as much as I thought I might.

I remember when Netflix first launched. It was such a weird idea, an online version of Blockbuster’s, where I spent a lot of time as a teenager. At first, they had almost nothing, lots of shitty movies, Japanese anime, no real TV shows. It was early on in releasing TV for home media at the rate that it comes out these days. Because no one knew who the hell Netflix was, or what it was, no one gave them the time of day. The stuff they had the rights to rent was insanely bad, b-movies, foreign stuff, things like that. It coincided with an uptick in my taste in film, right as the local video store that sold the good stuff was closing down. The idea of a movie rental service being some kind of place for critically-acclaimed TV shows to exist on (or the great potential that I don’t think Netflix is capitalizing on as much as Hulu does in my experience, having troves of B-movies), was ridiculous and non-existent.

I loved the access, suddenly, to this trove of weird stuff, stuff that I’d never been able to find, much less conceive. It was early on in my exposure to regular cable TV (which meant I mostly just watched horror movies and scifi shows), so the idea of stuff like obscure channels and corners of public access on basic cable for old movies, weirdo documentaries and special, or bad cult stuff to watch for kicks wasn’t fully fermented in my head just yet.

We talk a lot about the “golden age of TV” (hell, even I have) in a post-BREAKING BAD, post-THE SOPRANOS world, where television is getting treated like somehow it’s this magic new and strangely-legitimate venue for artistic work. Which isn’t to say that it used to not be, but it was also very much a thing that for a long time wasn’t respected as good (even when it was very, very good). A huge part of this “golden age of TV” too is the ability for TV shows that want to be serious, dramatic, and “deep” now to have a wide range of possible outlets to be seen on. Regular TV, cable TV, HBO, streaming services like Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime, not to mention web-based TV channels that are on the far-left (edge of the dial) end of the cable channel options, popping up available on specific providers or through devices like a Roku or Amazon Fire or whatever Google decides to do to get in the game, which you know they will. Semi-related, I’m a little surprised that there’s no Apple TV network of shows, though Apple’s desire to stay in the hardware game is a much better cash flow, so…yeah, that probably answers my own question.

The issue here though is that, in the same way that you can’t pre-emptively create a true “cult” hit (which defeats the purpose of it being cult), you can’t expect something to be considered “serious” and dramatic if you try to aim for those as targets to hit rather than as after-effects of something that’s simply good.

And that’s the thing. Not a lot of what’s out there, what’s pushed at us, is actually good. But the desire to try to get the next actually-good thing kills what made me initially like and actively use a service like Hulu or Netflix (weirdly enough, I also remember when Hulu initially sold itself as a place JUST to watch broadcast TV online to catch up).

I’d rather watch movies, to be honest. I’d rather be able to watch a couple of movies a week instead of “marathoning” a TV series (being one of those young modern households that watches TV through the Internet rather than broadcast or cable), one of the dozens that seem to pop up weekly ,half of which are just knock-offs of other shows, or just suck, or are just repackaged British and Norwegian or whatever TV, not an original new show just for that outlet as they claim half the time. It can be an overwhelming selection, and getting burned over and over again looking for good storytelling fucking sucks. Movies are, to me, a better option for trying this out because even thought you might fall into something shitty, the investment of time, something I find myself much more conservative with wasting these days, is less. Sure, I can lose two hours or so, but better that compared to eight to twelve hours that I have to slug through over two to three nights to get to the goddamn point.

The TV I like to consistently watch (on repeat, in the background) is so far from what would actually be considered popular or modern (science cooking shows and old true-life mystery and crime stuff like old episodes of Mythbusters or Forensic Files, or the latest season of Top Chef and episodes of Chopped), stuff I can watch and not pay too much attention to, something that doesn’t present itself as a puzzle to be solved, just entertainment to be enjoyed. TV shouldn’t be a fight, it shouldn’t be a chore (no entertainment should, ultimately, be a chore, but that’s a broader thing). It should be some dumb mindless downtime to unwind you at the end of the day, it should be some background noise while you putter around the house and can’t find something good on the radio or in your music collection.

Maybe I’m just hard to please, but less and less, I don’t care about TV. I don’t care about TV we all claim to love, or adaptations of other medium, or TV on some new interesting platform. I just want something actually good and interesting that speaks to me, that entertains me, not something that demands respect or fucking homework.

Olly Olly

maxresdefault

One of the games I really liked playing last year was OXENFREE, from Night School Studio. A group of kids gathering to have an all-night party/hangout on an old semi-abandoned island off the coast of their town, exploring a place that has a lot of weird mysterious history. The story continues to grow from the simple relationship interactions of the start to a much more in-depth mystery/horror/sci-fi thread that I ended up loving a lot for a variety of reasons. It was probably one of my favorite video games of 2016 (of the few I played admittedly) and is one I look forward to going back and playing again, something you can do thanks to the multiple paths and potential endings.

The mystery and story of the game unfolded really well and I ended up loving it because, like any good story, it starts small and builds. That whole idea of not starting with vast big concepts, but building layer upon layer is a difficult one in storytelling, honestly, because I see it screwed up in storytelling a lot. I think part of it has roots in childhood and teenage imaginations, when you think about it. Basic small concepts that build into larger things are the roots of most childhood play. We’re explorers. OK, what are we exploring? Uhh, this old house, because it’s got something in it we want…and so on, and so on.

Anyway, like a lot of first-person/POV games that exploded last year, it’s both travel-driven (walking through the environment to specific locations) and dialogue-driven (depending on how you respond to speech prompts, the story alters), but it looks more like a side-scrolling/traveling/whatever game, so it’s a little more old-fashioned in traveling around the world of the story, videogame-wise. It’s described as having a “2.5D perspective”, which is a good way of describing it.

The game’s major flaws is the weird viewpoints that can make looking at the action on screen, the movement, and the dialogue bubbles/boxes difficult at times. The background art is so beautiful in the usage of pastels and shadows, and the light or lack thereof works really well naturally  (as time progresses from dusk to dawn), that it sorta sucks to feel it’s all wasted pushed far back into a zoomed-out background. The story of trying to unravel the mystery of the odd signals that seem to be saturating the very air around the island, which was a research facility for odd radio wave-related technology in WW2. There’s something that may or may not be an extradimensional alien force that seems supernatural driving the weirdness of the island, tied to a horrific tragedy

What I really thought about when this game was on the TV in front of me, honestly, was the basic idea that it’s a group of kids left alone to explore the remnants of war, paranoia, and Cold War infrastructure, as they wander the island in search of their friends and answers. It struck a weird chord with me, not just in the nostalgia factor (in that a lot of the game relies on the usage of radios) but in the exploration factor.

As a kid, I’d be left alone a lot when shipped off to visit family in Greece, out on the island(s) alone for hours at a time. My Greek was pretty poor, I couldn’t sit inside and read all day unfortunately, I’d get restless and want to go out. The valley villages and beachfront towns I stayed in with relatives were nothing like I’d ever see before, places where abandoned  but seemingly-new houses stood alongside near-wrecks that people still lived in. Construction would sit dormant for years, paths cut across fields and all over the sun beats down, mercilessly.

Mostly, I just walked around.

I walked through people’s yards, never knowing if they were inside napping in the daytime heat or if the house was abandoned. I have a memory of fleeing in terror from someone’s weird front yard I was exploring because the house had some strange 80’s semi-“Golden Girls” look to it and I was fascinated, thinking the levels of dirt everywhere was a sign the inhabitants weren’t there. They were, and when I heard the door unlocking from the inside I ran in a blind stupid panic down to the beach, in full view of whoever came out.

A lot of the houses had been abandoned either before or during WW2, when Greeks fled en masse and became refugees in Asia Minor, in Egypt, in Ethiopia (like my grandparents). When the war was over, some only came back to the islands to gather what they could and contact relatives in Canada, America, and the UK to go live there, the country ravaged by famine and occupation. After that, those empty houses would be reused and repurposed by whoever was left in those villages in the 70s. Houses and taverns now turned into what I assumed was storage for church stuff. The old abandoned school that only went to 10th grade. The building made out of cinder blocks in the early 1990’s that’s become the mini-market, walls and shelves stocked to the ceiling with stuff now, constantly humming from the three freezers in there. I’d walk all over and marvel and old and semi-abandoned places, thinking about adventures that could be happening there, about who lived in these buildings and what was going to happen to these half-built and half-abandoned structures littering these tiny villages.

OXENFREE feels like that, in a way, listening in on weird half-forgotten stations in the airwaves and wandering through the ruins of former lives and former inhabitants, from the spookiness of the old mines and military bases to the empty storefront windows of the waterfront “tourist” part of town. The things that your brain does when places are abandoned is kind of fascinating, the leaps that it can make, be they correct or incorrect, are so cool. I thought that construction sites were abandoned military posts because I knew there were supposedly some old forts and stuff around, someone told me someone had told them. When I was really young and out there left to my own devices (those nostalgia-tinged halcyon days of being left alone all day during summers as a kid regardless of where you were), I’d play alone in these ruins, pretending I was a gunslinger or a pilot of an explorer or whatever, only the goats and the lizards and the half-done cinderblock walls hearing me.

In a similar vein, the radio kind of tied into this as well for me then (just as the radios carried by characters in the game), especially in such a weird isolated place. I had no idea what I was hearing, stuff that’d never come back after the first time I’d find it, odd signals and sounds that came from who knows what (maybe military stuff nearby? The many boats that traveled the waters of the Aegean?), snippets of Western pop music both old and new, voices in languages (Turkish mostly, as well as heavily-accented Greek beyond my ability to translate) that I didn’t understand. I’d turn the dials on AM and FM back and forth every night sometimes, or during quiet afternoons when it was too hot to be out, just trying to see who was out there talking, and what it would be like to intercept some kind of secret message, a crude understanding of numbers stations somehow half-forming in my brain.

It was, in hindsight, kind of dangerous. Not the radio stuff, that just fueled my overactive imagination. The exploring, I mean. I admitted about some of my exploratory ventures from those summers to my mom once and she basically said she’d beat exploration out of me, mostly because the older abandoned houses we’d go into in those desolate corners of those villages were full of rotted walls and floors, with half-hidden wells and septic tanks underneath them, traps waiting to catch and drown us like they actually had quite a lot of people through the years. There’s even a ghost story from those little Greek villages of naiads luring drunk single young men off the roads at night from the tavern, out into the fields to lay in the grass with them. You step off the well-worn road, into the grass, following this ghostly beautiful young woman, and step over a half-covered old well, falling in and breaking your neck.

Oh well.

That sense of exploratory uncertainty is probably the best part of the whole thing, moreso than the story, which is still excellent. I liked the blurring of the lines between the horror and the science fiction elements, something I don’t see a lot of (at least not well), it ties a lot into an idea of embracing the uncertainty of unknown enemies and not worrying too much about “explaining” them. Unknown voices and time glitches/reality manipulations that come from some weird tear in the world around us? Enough explanation for me.

There’s a bunch of criticisms of OXENFREE that I completely understand, from the dialogue (everyone’s sorta relaxed considering the danger they claim to find themselves in) and puzzle-wise it’s sorta light, though as something coming out in the visual/walk-through narrative “era” of video games that seems to be happening nowadays, it fits. I’m kinda excited to see what else Night School do.

I’m curious what other buttons from my weird exploratory childhoods they’ll end up pushing, because when done well, it’s less cashing in on nostalgic experiences or mining them for material, and more expanding on the origins of imaginations that began during periods of time we tend to look at nostalgically.

Pretty Pretty Rotting Things

trailer-for-netflix-s-i-am-the-pretty-thing-that-lives-in-the-house-is-creepy-as-hell-i-1164510

On Halloween, we watched I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House on Netflix, starring  Ruth Wilson. It’s written and directed by Oz Perkins, about a hospice care nurse who moves into a famous crime/horror author’s home to care for the ailing bed-bound old woman. The nurse, Lily, and the author, Iris Blum, are alone in the home, though Lily begins to suspect that the house itself is haunted, and that one of Blum’s books about a murdered woman shut up in a wall by her husband might be both true and connected to the house.

The thing that sticks out to me is how much Iris Blum feels like a stand-in for Shirley Jackson, the author of works like the story “The Lottery,” the novels We Have Always Lived In the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House, and others. The fact that Ruth Franklin’s biography of Jackson, A Rather Haunted Life, came out this year, is a nice little bonus to connect to Jackson’s impact and influence. To be fair, there are a few key differences here between the real Jackson and the fictional Blum, such as the fact that Blum is depicted as having no family and Jackson having been married and a mother. However, the idea of a woman who wrote prolifically about horrific things (Lily is open about being a complete coward in the film, which creates a slightly hilarious back-and-forth in the minimalistic sense of the film’s aesthetic overall.

I Am the Pretty Thing… follows the (arguably excellent) trend of modern horror drawing on arthouse and minimalist film styles to use mood, silence, and (alternately) intense volume/sound building to create intense anxiety, and using (what I thought was brilliant) background visual tricks to give you serious “WHAT THE FUCK” moments. There’s an upside-down chair hanging in the kitchen in this film that no one discusses or acknowledges and until I figured out that the chair is being hung from a peg on the wall, it seemed like a Poltergeist moment of shifted furniture that genuinely confused and frightened me. The main character pacing the kitchen as the sound and tension swells and then the simple but oh-my-god visual of the phone cord being lifted…and lifted…and lifted…

It was horrifying.

~

I’ve taught Jackson’s story “The Lottery” every chance I’ve gotten throughout the years, having fallen in love with it in high school. It’s a wonderful work for teaching symbolism, for discussing simple horror, and for introducing the concept of modern American literature’s attempts to come to terms with the bloody bones the nation is built on.

Older students tend to catch on quick, though they’re still horrified by the whole thing (a current student introduced the idea of corruption being a part of the life of “The Lottery”, which is fascinating and not something I’d through about before). Younger students are confused until you get the ball rolling about the whole thing and what the various elements CAN really mean (because Jackson was notorious about refusing to elaborate on her work, which I find delightful). Shirley Jackson as a woman who wrote in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, and in particular wrote what we’d commonly consider horror fiction, is such a fascinating figure. She’s one of my favorite authors period, and it’s because of her voice in horror that I say that. Her voice gives us something that we see and take for granted in anything horrific or supernatural. We wouldn’t have Twin Peaks without her, something seen as almost the “beginning” of the whole small-town-hiding-horrors trope.

Her voice is the voice that I saw visualized in I Am the Pretty Thing… on the screen, where bucolic Americana is a prison, bright sunlight streaming through windows a painful and hot bar in a window that keeps you penned inside. There are a lot of elements implied here as well in terms of women who are trying to write with what are seen as masculine framing, as well as how women who don’t like that are supposed to respond to it. More than that though was how Lily tries to justify the house to herself before suspecting that there might be more there. The lack of ghosts for the most part, relying instead of the fears that many of us definitely have about empty houses, paranoia, and the dark when we turns our backs. I think it’s in this that the film is most immediately relatable to Jackson, in seizing upon real human fears and hatreds, with a sense of a possible supernatural twist in there.

That ultimately is what makes Jackson’s work so great, and it’s what makes really good horror work. Real fear is in the mutation of what we genuinely can’t wait to get away from fast enough, what we couldn’t shake off no matter how much we try.

I spent one Halloween night going to see a big-screen showing of Kubrick’s The Shining. It was great, and at that size the film’s overall atmosphere really works. It worked to the point that my paranoia about empty rooms made me turn on all the lights and check every room and closet through my house, opting to stay awake and order pizza instead of going to sleep.

It was the stupidest thing to be fearful of or feel scared about, honestly. I was 27, I lived with someone else with a dog and a baseball bat, but the paranoia of dark open doorways and what was there when I turned my back was so great that it affected how I spent my night. This film seizes on that in the same way that Jackson seized on those for her writing, seizing on paranoias and fears we didn’t realize had such deep and dark holds on us, and slowly reeling them up from the depths into the light and exposing us to their true horror.

The awful root of “The Lottery” isn’t the violence, it’s the corruption of community, especially when the other side of the “close-knit community” coin is “isolated from escape and privacy.” There’s no escaping the lottery in Jackson’s story, because it’s a very real and unavoidable horror, one that like empty doorways full of dark in a house when the sun has gone down, you just don’t want to turn your back on no matter how often you tell yourself it’s not going to come for you. In the same fashion, the real horror of I Am The Pretty Thing… isn’t that the house is haunted, it’s that the ghost was killed for being beautiful, that Iris Blum’s mind has gone as she sits alone with a ghost trying to reach out to her to talk, and that Lily is caught between it all, surrounded by empty doorways.

~

Ultimately the film’s not perfect, mostly because the last fifteen minutes tend to meander a bit, though you could also compare that to a more literal vs. filmatic ending, with the cliche of the last scare visual being thrown in there to emphasize the subtle horror aspects of the film (if that makes sense).

It’s very much a horror movie not just WITH women in it, but ABOUT the women in it, in a very visual/abstract sense. And I’m pretty cool with it.

Lo-Fi VHS Dreams

coconuts-music-movies-76452224When I was in high school we had a chain of stores in New York called Coconut’s. It was a pretty typical chain of the model of Virgin records, with bright-eyed young people in polo t-shirts with the company logo and an ID tag on a lanyard around their necks, asking you if you were looking for something in particular. They sold CDs, they sold cassettes and posters, did giveaways and pre-sales of concert tickets, and of course, they sold DVDs. It was a good place to stop in for a bit as a high schooler with twenty bucks to burn, or just browse until one of the managers would ask you if you were actually going to buy something. For the most part the employees were completely fine with teenagers wandering and browsing for an hour straight, then buying ONE used CD a cassette or some disc cleaners to justify  being in there for so long looking like a thief.

For some absolutely bizarre but magical reason, the Coconut’s in my old neighborhood in Queens would have, hidden in random slots alongside with all the “radio rock” and pop music, the most absolutely amazing punk and metal records, just squirreled away. Black Flag. The Bad Brains. Minutemen. The Descendents. A ton of then-obscure thrash and heavy metal like Stormtroopers of Death and the first few Mastodon records. For a young kid whose punk tastes were slowly burgeoning out from just the same three or four skatepunk/obnoxious three-piece acts that littered independent music in the 1990s and had a bit of awareness now of not just the older acts but also the more obscure ones, that place was Heaven.

Even better? They had awesome fucking movies.

Besides the obvious semi-hidden porno display at the very back, and the even-less hidden display of the cartoon pornography (“You know, that anime ‘hentai’ tentacle stuff, man!”), there was a whole one side of the long room that was nothing but movies, just rows upon rows of DVDs, by both genre and alphabetically.

College and a job in a cubicle (with access to the Internet almost all day), combined with an unhealthy obsession with horror movies and trashy pulp led me of course to Hammer, to Troma, and to all the offshoots of those infamous names that were re-packaging and redistributing old grindhouse and bad horror knockoff films. This was the early days of Netflix and after I’d exhausted most of the truly weird and good stuff at the local Blockbuster, which a few years later withered and died into…whatever it is now. When Netflix (and later on the very early version of Hulu) were snatching up the rental/distirbution rights to almost anything they could get their hands on, from obscure anime to old horror movies and stuff that was basically light/fake snuff and softcore pornography disguised as horror and cult/arthouse, it was a boon to someone like me.

This was also right after we got cable for the first time after the 9/11/01 attacks in New York City, and my parents decided we needed Internet and cable to be able to escape the horrific drone of nothing on TV but the news. Hence…TV channels like IFC and later on, horror-exclusive stuff like Chiller, which would spew forth even more names and titles for me to look for and, later on, straight-up hunt for.

Coconut’s had so many movies, at one point (partially through being in collusion with one of the employees there) I got my hands on a non-American version of the Hammer film The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (released in the US as The Seven Brothers and their One Sister Meet Dracula, for some reason). Eventually because I couldn’t keep everything at home due to space, I was buying DVDs and returning them for cash at the buyback counter with something like a 25% loss, resulting in what I look back on in a stupid-but-fond way as a “fucked up rental fee.”

The week that the store was closing (an inevitability as music/movie downloading and cheap movie rentals online started to put huge dents in  with insane deals to just get rid of stuff, I went in with half a paycheck in cash and just went nuts, with everything half-off. Obscure Japanese movies, a few Hammer titles I didn’t have but really wanted to fill in my Dracula collection, and a box set proclaiming itself as “The 30 (or was it 50?) Greatest Lost Classics Of Horror In One Place!”, a box of slim DVDs that was $20 for what turned out to be ten straight hours of awful, two hours of 70’s smut masquerading as slapstick horror, and the rest was maybe salvageable.

I think that box set is still in my parents’ basement.

Most of those movies are gone, as are a lot of other things that got sold/donated later on or lost in a shuffle of several moves after then. I couldn’t tell you the plots to most of the movies I watched in that “era” of my life outside of the big name titles/critically-acclaimed titles, because now with the hindsight of age, I can tell you how awful most of them were. All those remastered and re-released “grindhouse classics” and “spotlights of foreign horror mastery” were, for very good reasons, forgettable.

No one outside of New York (and sometimes New Jersey) really remembers Coconut’s, and I still think about it every time I think about my early weird film education, in those really formative years when I started college and threw myself into pulp and Korean horror and old films that I managed to find as box sets or rereleases in the shelves and sales bins of this store that’s now a bank, one I still walk by and look at every time I’m in the area visiting family.

I work really hard to not allow myself to be so entirely nostalgic, but I will totally be nostalgic for a place like Coconut’s. In its own unmeaning way, a place like that can be a real oasis for a brain like mine that was craving more and more weirdness to keep up with it, which it did, in leaps and bounds limited pretty much only by work, school, sleep, and my wallet. If there was any time and place I’d go back to to, honestly, it’d be then.

Mostly because now that I’m older I’d know better what to get and what to look for.

Body Talk

Robert E Howard's CONAN THE BARBARIAN by Ezra Tucker
Robert E Howard’s CONAN THE BARBARIAN by Ezra Tucker

A quick Twitter exchange got me thinking about (well, continuing to think about) horror genres, and body horror in particular. I’d been listening to an audio horror podcast, and as soon as one of the stories started to turn into body horror, I tuned out.

Clive Barker and the Hellraiser franchise are, as far as I’m concerned, a gold standard in a  genre of horror that’s fairly popular, and for good reason. However, I can’t really bring myself to appreciate and enjoy what we’d call modern “body horror” anymore, primarily because the focus is almost entirely on the “ick factor” elements, rather than the deeper reasons for those feeling of uncomfortableness that gross visuals bring up.*

In comparison, I’ve found myself drawn more and more to the unexplained, not necessarily horror in a conventionally-paranormal ghost sense, but rather abstract existential horror (“Lovecraftian” for a lack of a better term, though Machen is arguably almost superior). What terrifies me, rather than grosses me out, is a sense of realization of the grander chain of things, that I’m not only not at the top of the food chain, but I’m not even at the top of the intelligence chain. Also, the chance that it’s not even a chain or a ladder with a semblance of order, but a wild and ever-changing, unknowable web, makes me fear in a deep part of my gut. I can’t come to a conclusion, I can’t learn anything about it beyond what I experience, and what I experience is so beyond my comprehension at the time I can only hope to survive, or at best, be ignored by it.

~

Sean T. Collins touched on some of the really interesting bits here how this is applicable to the religion of the Iron Islands in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice And Fire books (the Game of Thrones series)

Because Martin is not just the child of Tolkien. […] 

Martin is the child of Howard.

This is Howard’s world. A world of so many bizarre and terrifying ruins that they can’t possibly be reconciled, a world where there are as many mind-warping remnants of impossible architectures as there are stars in the sky. 

And this is, in many ways as it turns out, the World of Ice and Fire. The world of the Basilisk Isles, of Sothoryos, of Yeen, of Hyrkoon, of Yi Ti, of Leng, of Asshai. As with Howard, the point is not aligning all phenomena in an intelligible system, but in suggesting that the system is beyond intelligence. (It’s not for nothing that Howard and Lovecraft were close friends and correspondents, often riffing on one another’s science-fantasy-horror concepts within their own work.) The world through which Conan wanders, or about which Maester Yandel writes, is in a very important way just a series of trapdoors that drop you directly into nightmare after nightmare. The drop is the point, not the floor that connects them.

The idea of Howard being a major influence (as much as Lovecraft) in the early creation myths of Westerns (moreso than Lovecraft arguably) is such a fascinating idea, and it certainly ties into this idea of something truly horrifying being that which we can’t be codified in any sort of large-scale creation myth or pantheon. Howard, as Collins is touching on, created a world (the world of “Conan the Barbarian”) where dueling creation myths, unexplainable phenomena, and remands of former inhabitants and civilizations exist in some sort of paradoxical state of the world as it is for the character(s). There is no real overlapping reason, Collins argues, because there doesn’t need to be one. That lack of codification of the world for Conan the Barbarian is what makes Howard’s world so intensely dangerous and horrifying.

This is, to Collins, the appeal of the “magical” elements of the world of Westerns in Martin’s books, because while the danger of diving too deep into history and expository work to explain the history and mechanics is that it ultimately strips the story down to explanation. It’s why so many of Howard’s elemental world of barbarians and monsters work. They’re meant to be reminders of

~

from 1987's "Hellraiser"
from 1987’s “Hellraiser”

Now, this brings us to the ultimate flaw of modern body horror, which is that its focus on exquisite and intensely-intrinsic (physiologically) mutilation and mutation of the form, the root of body horror (the fear of an unknown invasion of the familiar and personal) is changed into something else (the horror of grossness), ultimately turning what I’d consider an interesting subgenre into just another hack-fest.

However, this does lead into something interesting, which is just why I can’t keep up. It’s not that I don’t like gory grossness (I mean, the fact that I advocate for 1980’s trash-bag gloriousness Motel Hell constantly should be evidence of it). However, it’s interesting that I just don’t find it scary. It’s fun and cool and schlocky, it’s just not scary. What’s scary to me is far different. What’s scary to me is what I genuinely don’t know.

I don’t know what’s out there beyond my field of view. I find myself genuinely concerned when I can’t track or predict a story, or when I find stories that deal with that same level of non-understanding. Howard’s Conan fights beasts on instinct, from forgotten folds of history that he can’t think of, because if he does it could destroy his mind. Lovecraft’s fear of the unknown (arguably the intense root of his xenophobia and racism) is in the idea that, at the dawn of a new century, exploration by bolder souls will show us a horrific truth, that we’re not at the top of the food chain.

I’m scared of finding out that no matter what, all of what I know is pointless, especially against the larger strength and knowledge of the void. Some things just happen and I can’t understand them.

Fuck, I hate the void.

*) Of course, there are obvious clashes with this thesis, in particular and idea that came to me while I was doing some deep thinking (scrambling some eggs for lunch). A major one (that I’d hope to eventually be able to dedicate some serious brainpower to) is the idea that are my own feelings about abstract Lovecraftian horror rooted in my male cisgendered heterosexuality, considering the intensely feminist leanings and implications of good body horror, which is more aptly-describable as “body/invasion horror,” which is rooted so deeply in the ultimate threat against women, the violation of space…but that’s another rambling I’ll get to.