Subterranean Fallout Shelter Blues

1. Remember last week, when I was excited about getting new glasses and we weren’t living in a constant state of anxiety wondering if our President was gonna livetweet about Crooked Hillary in an attempt to distract us from the coming nuclear apocalypse with North Korea?  Well, my new specs still haven’t shown up, and at this point I’m actually kinda hoping everything goes to shit so that I don’t have to pay off my credit card debt.

Seriously, though, now might be a good time to reach out and say hello to people you haven’t talked to in a while.  Even if we aren’t about to die in a blaze of hellfire, you should touch base with people you might’ve lost contact with.  I’ve been trying to get back into lyric writing, and it occurs to me that an idea I’ve been toying with for years – songs as letters I never got around to sending – might be the key to finishing this goddamned thing sooner rather than later.

2. I’m not as up on current TV as everyone else, but I am happy to report that the wife and I were able to finish the new Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later thing.  And we loved the shit out of it.  It is weird and random and breaks the 4th wall all over the place and Chris Meloni is fucking AMAZING.

3. I’d love to be writing about Tacoma right now, but I appear to be one of the people affected by a nasty bug in which I can’t get past the “Press A to Start” screen.  So instead I’ll offer some very brief first impressions of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, which I can load properly.  I am intrigued by it, certainly; I’m a fan of Ninja Theory’s previous work and would give them the benefit of the doubt anyway, and at first glance the game’s presentation is outstanding – both visually and aurally.  The idea of exploring psychosis and mental illness through gameplay is novel, to be sure, and while I’m still only in the game’s opening hour I’ve already seen some subtle yet mind-bending things.  Tonight I hope to get to it while wearing headphones.

4. Hey, whaddya know, Spotify is now available on Xbox One, and it’s about goddamned time.  Now I can feel a little less sad about continuing to play Clicker Heroes, because I no longer have to play it in silence.

5. Kotaku says there is no longer a best time to play a video game, and I agree with most of the points in that link even if my primary concern (Fear of Missing Out / Fear of Being Out of the Loop on Twitter) is still valid.  In any event, ever since I finished Watch Dogs 2 I’ve been in an open-world state of mind, and I’ve been revisiting some older open-world games just to stay with that vibe.  GTA V continues to be the best open world I’ve ever seen, even as the story continues to be repellent and repugnant; Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate continues to be my 2nd or 3rd favorite game in the franchise (while also being a useful refresher for the upcoming Origins) and I’m also finally getting around to giving Mafia III more of a real look.  That game is pretty good, even if all the controls feel backwards.

6. I’ve also had a strange pull towards revisiting Headlander, of all things; I wrote about it briefly last year and while I haven’t gotten far enough to encounter those boss fights, I am still loving the hell out of that game.

7.  I finished Patti Smith’s “M Train”, although I should admit that I kinda skimmed through the back half, as it mostly seemed to be the same as the first half.  I’m happy to read about a real person’s idle hours, watching detective shows and drinking coffee and taking naps, but there wasn’t much more to it than that, and even though her prose remained gorgeous it just lingered on and and on and on, like a very slowly deflating balloon.  Not sure I would recommend it to anyone that isn’t a die-hard Patti Smith fan, though if you’ve got a library card you could do worse than read the first third of it or so.

the payoff

[EDIT:  I realize that, as I’d guessed in the first paragraph, I’d forgotten to talk about a bunch of things; those work-related interruptions did indeed screw up my train of thought.  Additional thoughts will be added below.]

I’m having one of those days where I’m not particularly busy, but I can guarantee that as soon as I start getting on a roll here, I’ll be given some work to do.  I’ve been wanting to write here all week, frankly, and the whole week has been in this same sort of vein; I’m terribly idle right up until the moment I decide to be personally productive, and then I’ll get handed a large project within the next 1-5 minutes of that decision.  If I’m stalling here in this introductory paragraph, it’s because I’m reluctant to suddenly lose my actual blog-worthy trains of thought.

As it happens from time to time, I’m starting to have trouble articulating this blog’s primary purpose.  I like having a blog, and I don’t plan on deleting this one; it’s just that I simply don’t have the time/inclination to do any serious criticism here.  I’ve noticed lately that to the extent I write anything even remotely critical at all, it’s mostly just “I like this, I don’t like that.”  Superficial, not particularly hard-hitting, shallow.  Again, it’s difficult for me to find time to write the way I’d like to, and I’m currently in this phase where I’m having trouble really getting into things the way I used to, which has a tendency to result in apathy.  I’m not sure if this is a side effect of my new head meds or not; one positive side effect of these head meds is that my ability to simply let things be what they are is a lot stronger.

  • Westworld:  I’ve started to notice (on Twitter, at least) that there are regular watchers of this show who are becoming angry and impatient at the show’s very slow doling out of information.  There are too many mysteries and not enough answers, they say, even though we’re only halfway through the first season.  There is now a struggle between the pleasure of anticipation and the need for instant gratification, and I can’t help but wonder if Netflix and the culture of binge-watching has ruined the ability for a television show’s cliffhanger to be effective.  Westworld reminds me a lot of Lost, in this way, but Lost suffered from a different problem; Lost’s mysteries overwhelmed the show itself to the point where there were no answers that could ever possibly be adequate.  I remain very optimistic that Westworld will not suffer this fate; each episode has been meticulous in its construction and I remain confident that the showrunners know exactly what they’re doing.  (The show’s only made one real blunder, as far as I’m concerned – the dopey and crude lab techs from this last week’s episode are gross and annoying, and their scenes aren’t nearly as well-written as everyone else’s.)  In any event, I’m just grateful to watch Anthony Hopkins kill it on a weekly basis.
  • Cubs:  I am no longer the die-hard sports fanatic that I used to be; among other things, I found my intense superstitious behaviors to be an impediment to the simple enjoyment of watching a game (i.e., if my team needed to score a run / goal / touchdown, I’d have to leave the room and pee; I could only listen to the Yankees on the radio, even when the radio broadcasting became abhorrent to listen to, etc.).  Also my wife and I cut the cable cord a few years ago and live sports, for the most part, became something I simply couldn’t watch, which made this transition into the non-sports-caring person I am today that much easier.  In any event, I’m still terribly superstitious, as it turns out, and so even though I was rooting for the Cubs, I was terribly afraid of saying or doing anything that might jinx them.  The most I could allow myself to do was to “Like” the various Cubs-related Facebook posts that my family and friends posted, and that was it.  I know it’s ridiculous, and this is why I’ve forcibly stopped myself from caring so much.  [EDIT:  So, anyway, GO CUBS!  Very happy for all my Cub friends and family.  I, of course, didn’t watch.  You’re welcome.]
  • Games:  It’s big-budget first-person-shooter season, and as such I’ve decided to give in and rent the big three.  I’m still in the first mission of Battlefield 1, and while it’s technically very impressive I’m not, like, craving it.  My rental copy of the new Call of Duty is en route, as is Titanfall 2; I ordinarily would be happy to ignore both of these games except that their single-player campaigns have been getting surprisingly great reviews, and that’s the only bit of those games that I tend to get involved with.  So be it.  [EDIT:  I also ended up giving up on XCOM 2I can tell it’s a good game, but I also know I’m far too intimidated by it to give it its proper due.  I may pick it up again during a release lull, but I wouldn’t expect myself to get much farther than I already did.]
  • Books:  Man, it’s been a while since I’ve talked about books here.  The last thing I mentioned was The Nix, which I adored.  Since then, I’ve read:
    KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money J.M.R. Higgs A-
    The Tresspasser Tana French A
    Death’s End Liu Cixin B+
    Pym Mat Johnson B-
    His Bloody Project Graeme MaCrae Burnet B

    I am now currently reading I.Q. by Joe Ide, and even though I’m in the early going I’m enjoying it quite a lot.

The Week In Review: Stranger Things Indeed

1. My buddy Sara returns serve with more Uncharted 4 correspondence over at Videodame.  I hope to volley back later next week.

2. I’m busting outta the ‘burbs and will be at the NYVCC summer shindig at Barcade this coming Monday, July 25.  If you’re in town, come on by!

3. I’ve been wanting to write about Stranger Things all week, but knew I should wait until I finished the season; my wife and I started on Sunday after the kid went to bed and pushed through 2 episodes per night, and so we finished it on Wednesday evening.  I woke up later that night at 3am and had one of those middle-of-the-night timeless intervals trying to figure out what I wanted to say about it.  Now it’s Friday and I’m still floating out to sea, somewhat.  (There’s a reason for that, though.*)

If you don’t know what Stranger Things is, here’s my very abbreviated elevator pitch: imagine Steven Spielberg directing a Stephen King novel, with a John Carpenter soundtrack, in 1983.

This essay from Paste goes into a bit more detail, especially in terms of what exactly it’s stealing from; here’s a TL:DR excerpt:

If you were a child of the ‘80s and ‘90s, chances are you’ve seen Stranger Things before. An eight-part sci-fi spectacle and shiny new Netflix original from filmmaking brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, Stranger Things is spooky supernatural entertainment unashamedly in the 1980s popcorn mould. It won’t be a problem for today’s kids less familiar with that period in film, but for those that recognize the influences—anyone who’s been paying attention to pop culture over the last 30 years, probably—there’s nothing surprising about Stranger Things. In fact, there’s barely an original idea across its six-and-a-half hours. Instead, it constantly recalls old stories.

There’s an argument to be made that this is in fact Stranger Things’ ‘original’ concept: arranging shopworn ideas in a new and interesting way. Collaging is considered an art, and it no doubt takes talent to make a worthwhile season of television almost entirely out of borrowed parts. Which isn’t to say Stranger Things is like some scrappy mish-mash; like Quentin Tarantino, the Duffers only cadge ideas from the best, but are more importantly talented enough as storytellers to use those ideas in effective ways.

I don’t know if I would count it among the greatest seasons of capital-T Television I’ve ever seen, but it was incredibly fun, and I guess the thing I appreciated the most is how, while it’s obviously borrowing heavily from a lot of 1980s tropes, it’s also incorporating a lot of today’s story-telling methods.  Let’s be honest – if you go back and revisit a classic 80s movie that you haven’t seen in a number of years, a lot of them haven’t aged particularly well; they are better in your memory of them than how they actually are.

A few key examples of this:  the first Tim Burton Batman movie, from 1989.  I saw this movie in the theater as a kid and LOVED it, but hadn’t watched it again until a few years ago.  And for all its stylistic Tim Burton-ness, there’s just a whole bunch of nonsense that 14-year-old me just didn’t notice at the time.  There’s a scene in the back half of the movie where Jack Nicholson’s Joker pays Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale a menacing visit.  But there’s literally no reason for him to show up there.  The scene doesn’t accomplish anything.  It’s a fabricated excuse to give Jack and Kim a scene together, and when you watch this with the benefit of watching 20+ years of movies in the interim, suddenly it sticks out.

Or, alternately, Big Trouble in Little China, which I loved to death back in the day.  It’s still fun, and it’s visually interesting, but the movie itself barely hangs together.

Anyway, back to Stranger Things.  Here is a bullet-pointed collection of thoughts, which I am currently too distracted to properly formulate into an actual essay.  (See the above-referenced footnote below.)  It’s hard to be specific without getting into what are technically spoilers, but I should also note that this isn’t the sort of show where you’re being knocked over by plot twists; there’s a tremendous amount of forward momentum here and so anything spoiler-y is less about a BIG REVEAL and more about a moment of character development.  Still, be warned.

  • This story could certainly have been told in a 2-hour movie.  But by stretching it out to 8 episodes, we’re able to have these characters actually talk to each other.  And, in what feels like a genuine first, we’re having characters have conversations where they actually say all the things I wish that characters would say.  I don’t know if that’s a testament to the writing, or the acting, or if it’s simply that I am the target audience for this show and so I related to every single goddamned pixel on my television screen.  But, like – it’s great to be able to follow Winona Ryder into what for all intents and purposes looks like a psychotic break, and to have her fully acknowledge to anyone who asks that yes, she is very much aware that she knows what she looks like, but for us to know that she isn’t.
  • How great is the casting?  This is some of the best work Winona Ryder’s done in her whole career – and while casting her is no accident, she knocked it out of the park.  The kids are great: the girl who plays Eleven looks an awful lot like young Wil Wheaton, wouldn’t you say?  And of course the older brother looks a lot like young River Phoenix.
  • OH GOD THE MUSIC.  Obviously one of the things that makes this show so great is how it mixes lots of 80s things together, but especially how it takes a Spielberg-ian look at childhood in the 80s but eschews the John Williams orchestra and instead goes for the John Carpenter minimal-synthesizer thing.  I only wish they could’ve gone a little bit further and added some David Lynch/Twin Peaks weirdness, though I suppose having this story take place in an unusually strange town might’ve been pushing it a bit too much.
  • As noted above, I am the target demo for this show – a child of the 80s, thoroughly steeped in 80s movies and music and clothes and Trapper Keepers and D&D (well, in my case, piano lessons), and so I of course related to both the junior-high AV Club kids and the high school hormonal teenagers.  (And on behalf of all the teenaged girls I knew when I was a teenager:  I’m so, so, so sorry.)  But I am also currently a 40-year-old parent, and I also thoroughly related to the adults on the show, especially with regards to how those parents care about their children.  Like the scene between Nancy and her mother where the mother knows what just happened to Nancy and her boyfriend and desperately wants to reach out to her daughter because she’s been there and wants to be cool about it, and how heartbreaking it is for her to have the door shut in her face.  Or the deep sorrow that Chief Hopper carries around with him in losing his very young daughter; I don’t know what that feels like first-hand and I hope I never do, but I can certainly imagine what it would like to lose my son, and jesus I have to move on because I can’t finish this sentence.  Point being, I related to everyone, in intensely different ways.
  • BIGGEST SPOILER, SINCE IT’S ABOUT THE LAST TWO EPISODES:  In the last two episodes, how great was it to have all the good guys, who’d previously been in their own groups, finally come together?  And to also appear in completely different pairings than they’d been in for the rest of the season?  It’s so nice when people don’t have to keep secrets from each other.  The sense of relief the little kids must’ve felt when not only did Chief Hopper rescue them from the bus, but that he believes them.

I loved the show; you should watch it.


* This week’s been a shitshow – work has been busy, and the RNC is a waking nightmare, but on the lighter side of things I’ve also been pleasantly obsessing over music, which carries its own set of distractions.  I know I’ve talked numerous times about how impressed I am at whatever algorithmic alchemy Spotify manages to achieve for the weekly Discovery playlist; the hit-to-miss ratio is more than acceptable, especially considering that the songs that qualify as “hits” more often than not end up becoming profoundly affecting.  Part of the reason why I couldn’t write anything yesterday is because I spent, like, 5 hours just listening to the bridge in Moses Sumney’s “Everlasting Sigh”.

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