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Category Archives: Other Art and Culture
In the years since I first wrote about Roger Ebert’s disdain for video games, he’s been in the back of my mind each time I’ve picked up a controller. He believed, and argued quite strenuously, that video games could never be art. At the height of the firestorm of controversy he unleashed with this statement, Ebert went so far as to declare that no game could ever achieve the same level of artistic transcendence as the great films and novels and paintings from around the world, all of which stood head and shoulders above such a hopelessly shallow medium.
It’s a ludicrous, haughty, even arrogant proclamation. And yet, as I discussed with Robbie Dorman on the Serial Fanaticist Podcast, in the years since his death, I’ve tried to at least understand where Ebert was coming from. He is a giant in the world of criticism and a smart and generally open-minded critic at that, even if he has a particular view of what’s required to create “great art.” That makes his critiques, however frustrating, worth unpacking, even if they’re not necessarily worth accepting.
Many years ago, I made fun of a friend of mine when she recounted the panic she’d felt when she mistakenly thought that her wedding ring was lost. I admit now that it was terribly insensitive, and the only defense I can offer is that it was a product of the naive arrogance of youth, the supreme belief that you’ve figured out the inherent truths of the universe that most folks are too indoctrinated to see or otherwise don’t have the heart to confront. And so, cruelly, I laughed at her.
I laughed not simply to be mean, but because I was, and still am, an essentialist.* I’ve struggled to define that term, but at base I think it means being the kind of person who is concerned with what’s at the heart of a an experience or a goal or an idea. It comes down to the root word — essence. What is the essential point underlying what I’m doing or what I believe? Why is it important? What about it really matters? These are the questions at the core of the way an essentialist looks at the world.
And so I laughed because there is nothing essential about a wedding ring. I may be paraphrasing the exact words I used, but my haughty mockery of my friend’s legitimate anxieties over her misplaced ring took roughly the form of “Gee, I sure hope I didn’t lose my eternal commitment to my husband.”
Susan shifted uncomfortably in her new chair as she waited for Saint Nick to respond. Too many of Benton’s awards and photographs were still on the wall for her to feel comfortable doing business in this office. The near-empty mahogany desk stretched between her and the red-suited sprite on the other side of it like a still black sea. Santa looked back at her with a quizzical expression.
“Well I don’t know about that, Suzie. I don’t suppose we’re taking anything from you. You have just as many iPhones to sell as you did before.”
“Yes, but that’s not really the point.” Susan cleared her throat. “I know you’re not sneaking into our warehouses and filling up your sleigh with purloined phones.” She deliberately let the silence hang in the air for a moment. The company had done an extensive five-year study and could find no hiccups in their inventory beyond the usual shrinkage and minor employee infractions, but security had been increased nonetheless.
I’ll admit off the bat that this beer, which I received on tap at The Ginger Man in New York City, was just not my style. In short, the beer tasted like stale wine that had been left sitting on a radiator. No one at my table could stand more than a sip. My craft-loving friend was vehement that the bar’s keg had gone bad, and he was aghast when the waitress insisted it was supposed to taste like that.
I’ve come to understand that grape-y sewage may have been the flavor Lagunitas was going for when it brewed the Sonoma County Stout. If so, then I congratulate them on the achievement, and I can confirm that they have not only concocted a beverage suitable for anyone who enjoys the taste of skunky Guinness mixed with a jug of Welch’s that got left in the garage over the summer, but also potentially violated the Geneva convention.
The Room has quickly become one of my favorite movies. I cannot, and could not, begin to call it a good film, but it is enjoyably and transcendently inept. The movie’s premise is a love triangle between Johnny, a well-meaning banker, Lisa, his fiancée, and Mark, his best friend. But that basic description does not begin to capture all that is The Room.
The internet has exhaustively documented the film’s numerous flaws and the insanity going on behind the scenes, but in brief, Tommy Wiseau, the film’s writer, director, star, and overall creative visionary, produced the perfect storm of terrible movies. The writing is embarrassing; the acting is weak and wooden, and the dialogue is quotable for all the wrong reasons. Plots are picked up and dropped seemingly at random; characters emerge and disappear for no reason, and the film is so poorly directed and edited that it could be considered avant-garde if people believed it were a deliberate departure from the norm.
I’ve watched this unintentional masterpiece five times. I have shared it with my fiancée, with my parents, and with multiple groups of friends, because it’s one of the movies that just has to be seen to be believed. It’s the type of film that you would never expect to actually come to fruition. Its vision is too singular. Making a movie involves too much effort from too many people for one individual to be able to create something so unique and so awful. In short, The Room is a cinematic train wreck that is as breathtaking as it is bewildering.
But recently, a comment about the movie’s questionable notoriety gave me pause. Greg Sestero, one of the film’s “stars,” is writing a new book about the film. In an article about the book’s release, one online commenter complained about Sestero capitalizing on Wiseau and the movie’s infamy, arguing that,“at some point it feels like he’s exploiting a man who’s not all there.” It made me wonder if there’s something wrong about the joy I derive from The Room.
And I am okay with that. I’m scared. I can’t lie about that fact, but I’m okay. The fear in my heart swells, but then it fades. It invades my thoughts in the few quiet moments I have to myself, but dulls and winnows in the times that should be the most daunting.
That’s what bothers me. They sell it you as this straight line. They tell you that everything in you will rise and rise and rise until the big moment. That you’ll just keep going up and up and up. But it doesn’t, and you don’t. It rises and falls, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, never so focused or so direct, even when it feels like you’re headed in the right direction.
But I will be a martyr.
My cat Jasper loved Twinkies. Well…he sort of loved them. His favorite pastime was figuring out how to break into the box, wrestle out the individually wrapped twinkies, and bite at them through the plastic. At some point, my Mom had had enough. She took one out of the packaging and just gave it to Jasper. He took a few sniffs of the rounded pastry, looked at it quizzically, and went on his merry way. For Jasper, Twinkies were a chew toy, not a snack.
Maybe he was onto something. I shudder to think about the assorted sugary treats that I was shamelessly tantalized into buying as a kid. I consumed everything from Ghostbusters “Ectoplasm” Hi-C, to a dizzying assortment of candy-coated cereals, to fruit snacks that looked like my favorite cartoon characters and tasted like a cross between erasers and air fresheners. But Twinkies, if you’ll pardon the expression, took the cake.
When I was a kid I used to “root” for storms.
It seems kind of crazy now, but I distinctly remember watching the crawl at the bottom of the T.V. screen anytime a storm was coming, hoping it would head my way. Growing up in Tornado Alley, this happened frequently enough to make it a regular event. I would sit there watching T.G.I.F., hear the familiar alarm clock-esque warning screech, and quickly scan the list of affected areas. Somehow, when our county was included in the latest Flash Flood Alert or “T-Storm Warning,” it was a badge of honor
It’s hard to explain why I was so excited by this. I think part of it has to do with the idea that I liked the feeling of being safe amidst the chaos. That impulse says a great deal about some of the inherent perversity that comes with privilege. I grew up with an unquestioned assumption of security. Storms were little more than exciting shows that I could watch through the back window in complete safety. Natural disasters were a terror I was aware of, but also immune from. Scenes of flooding and damage on the local news were only narrowly distinguished from thrilling clips from a disaster movie. It’s one of those early mindsets born from the ignorance of your own advantages that makes you look back and shudder.
“Video games can never be art.” – Roger Ebert
I spent a long time trying to figure out how to judge art. I came to the conclusion, admittedly a bit of a cop out, that judging art is an individual, subjective process. Certainly critics, laymen, and others can reach a general consensus about what does or does not qualify as quality, but in the end, each person has to judge for themselves.
That said, Roger Ebert is dead wrong.
It takes a certain amount of bravado, even for a celebrated film critic, to declare that an entire medium can never reach the pinnacle of artistic merit. It’s easy to point to Ebert’s age and believe that he mistakes the old days of fun if story-bare games like Pacman and Donkey Kong for the immersive, in depth, and often narrative world of video games that exists today. But I think that lets Ebert off too easily. At base, anything that tells a story can not only be art; it can be high art, and Ebert ought to know that.
Anything that uses carefully crafted visuals to evoke a particular sense or emotion can be high art. Anything that envelops the audience in a character, in a world, and transposes their experiences into a grand fictional adventure can be high art. In the same way that a great novel crafts a compelling narrative, in the same way that great visual art compels with color and composition, in the same way that a celebrated film brings the viewer into another world, a great video game can reach those same artistic heights. In fact, video games are uniquely positioned to do all three.
Which brings us to Braid, the 2009 game from Jonathan Blow. Blow is the yin to Ebert’s yang, a man who believes wholeheartedly that video games can be art, but who is relentless in his critiques of the industry as it stands today for failing to live up to its potential. Braid is Blow’s biggest salvo in this fight, and his example to the world of what a video game can be.
There was an ant, of no particular renown or distinction. He lived in an ant colony with his thousands of brothers and sisters. He, like many, spent most of the day venturing out into the world to retrieve food and building supplies for his colony. Early one morning, he came across an item so large, he couldn’t carry it alone. It was peculiar and unfamiliar. But something about it told him that it was extraordinary and would be useful to the colony.
The object was massive, and it was heavy, even for the strength of an ant. The ant called some of his siblings to help him lug it back to the colony. He couldn’t quite figure out what it was. Part of it was hard and molded. Part of it was shiny and gleamed in the sunlight above his head. Part of it was rubbery with little pads sticking out of it.
He and the others carried it back to the colony and laid it in front of his brothers and sisters. They all puzzled over what it could be. Various packs of ants were investigating the strange pieces and parts of the object. A group of the ants stood on top of a large circular pad at the top of the item. Suddenly, the entire colony floor was bathed in light, and a loud melody erupted from a collection of holes in the plastic.
The colony hummed with excitement. The ants swarmed all around the object as it showed an ever changing display of lights. They danced on its smooth silvery surface that reflected a million shades of a kaleidoscope. It captivated them, as they squirmed and shuffled from one mysterious surface to another. Then, as if by accident, the object began to rumble and roar. It shifted from one side of the colony floor to the other. In the tumult, it knocked a pile of ants onto a green pad near the mouth of the object that stopped the rumbling. In its place was a booming noise that the ants did not understand except to fear. But it was loud and clear in the small cavern of the colony.