Text-aware TV reboots (Watchmen & Hannibal)

Warning: casual disregard for spoilers, as usual πŸ˜›

For the last few months a close friend of mine has been showing me Hannibal, which he describes as his favorite TV series. I read the Thomas Harris books Hannibal, Silence of The Lambs and Hannibal Rising as a teenager and, in the second and third season, a very interesting relationship with the texts of those works is established.

It may also be helpful to mention that, when the first three seasons of Hannibal were shot, the creative team did not have access to the rights for Clarice Starling or much of the Silence of The Lambs material.

So, going into Hannibal, it has every appearance of being a prequel. After all, the story is before Will Graham’s capture of the title character. However, the writing of the show demonstrates an awareness of Clarice Starling as being a moral, logical opposite equal to Hannibal Lecter’s amorality and freedom from logic. This is present in Silence of The Lambs but it is at the center in the novel Hannibal. The novel is structured as a collision between the separate worlds of Clarice and Hannibal. And this alleged prequel show takes its name from that book.

Hannibal the TV show puts separation and conflict between subjectivity and objective reality in the foreground. In the first two seasons in particular, there are moments that seriously tempt you to wonder what is objectively going on and and what is an imaginative, non-literal construct.

Late in the first season, Will Graham has a drug-addled exchange with Abigail Hobbs and then there’s a slam cut to Will being somewhere else. What the cut was meant to imply was that Will blacked out and can’t remember what happened. What it at first looked like, though, is Will waking up from a dream. Then there’s a cut back to Abigail talking to Hannibal. At first, it looks like the show is cutting back to the dream Will just woke up from where stuff is still going on even though he’s awake.

In all fairness, what the cut is meant to signify (doubling back in the timeline before Will’s blackout) is not at all obvious. This might look like careless editing, but the dialogue and other sequences are so tightly written that I can’t get around thinking that the occasional blurred meanings are probably nothing short of deliberate. The line is especially easy to blur given the frequent usage of dreams and hallucinations.

Near the end of the second season, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the impression that Hannibal is a prequel. Mason and Margot Verger appear at this point, characters originally from the novel Hannibal who only enter the chronology of the books at the later stage.

The appearance of these characters, in and of itself, does not necessarily call anything into doubt. We’ve already met other characters from later in the chronology, like Frederick Chilton. But many of the events from the ending of the novel Hannibal happen, with dialogue from both the novel and the film.

Hannibal is taken to be fed to Mason’s pigs and he makes the same remark about how one of his handlers must smell “almost as bad” as his dead brother. Later, Will and Hannibal recreate a well-known exchange that he originally had with Clarice: “Given the chance, you’d deny me my life? Wouldn’t you?” “No, just your freedom.” Honestly, when Hannibal was rescued from the pigs, I was expecting Will to say “Do right and you’ll get out of this alive,” with Hannibal’s reply: “Spoken like a true Protestant.” They didn’t use that dialogue, but it would have worked.

So there is enough of Clarice’s transplanted dialogue in Will’s mouth, combined with the conversational cat and mouse with Hannibal, to make Will Graham look like a substitute for Clarice Starling. With the Clarice dialogue from the books and the movies, he seems almost like a literal gender flipped re-interpretation of Clarice like Freddie Lounds and Alana Bloom (both males in the source material).

This whole topic of which character is channeling Clarice Starling is exacerbated even more when we see Hannibal fleeing on a plane in the company of Dr. Du Maurier, which seriously mirrors Hannibal eloping with Clarice at the end of the book.

So. The broken sequence of events tells us that Hannibal the TV show is less of a prequel and more of a ground-up re-imagining of the whole story. Clarice Starling getting split in half between Will and Du Maurier goes smoothly with the idea of a radical re-telling as well. Another word commonly used recently for this kind of re-telling is a reboot.

Lately I have also been watching the new Watchmen adaptation from HBO. Although Damon Lindelof, the producer and writer, has insisted that his version of Watchmen is not a reboot, it beats a lot of reboots at their own game.

One way that both Watchmen and Hannibal achieve this is through writing that clearly reflects a thoughtful reading and exchange with the source material. In fact, you could almost argue for the possibility that both of those shows contain a version of the original text within themselves.

Lindelof’s Watchmen definitely does, but you could also make a case for the same thing occurring in Hannibal. Dialogue from the novels are constantly used and the re-arranged chronology reflects a careful awareness of those novels.

Many of the events of the show are re-organized content from the books; the main innovation that Hannibal brings is the frank discussion of subjectivity versus objectivity. It dwells on tension between perception and forensic analysis- if you wanted to go full lit-crit, you could say that it’s about seeing or, perhaps, reading.

The relationship with the source material in Lindelof’s Watchmen, though, is far more lucid. As someone who absolutely adores the original graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, this delighted me. Watchmen the graphic novel is all about language and how belief, popular wisdom and the idea of documented fact is explored. In other words, how language and perception shape reality.

There are multiple texts-within-texts, many of which are placed between chapters. There are excerpts from Hollis Mason’s memoir, psychiatric medical documents relating to Rorschach, in-world academic papers, in-world interviews and a whole other in-world comic. The intertextual nature of the world building is emphasized even more with how Rorschach is originally positioned as a narrator and how the reader comes to doubt his reliability. In fact, his narrations are nothing but excerpts from his journal, another in-world text.

One way that Damon Lindelof’s adaptation preserves this literary device- while simultaneously connecting that device to the show’s relationship with the graphic novel -is an in-world TV series called American Hero Story.

American Hero Story is, quite simply, a representation of the graphic novel within the TV show. For example, only very few people in the graphic novel knew about the romance between Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis, almost no one. In the new adaptation, it is frankly spelled out in American Hero Story. This strongly suggests that the average person in the world of the TV show knows about this. In another episode, a young FBI agent with a passion for the history of the Minutemen, casually relates the story of Laurie Juspeczyk’s parentage. The reveal of the identity of Laurie’s father was a huge dramatic event in the book but, like the relationship between Hooded Justice and Captain Metropolis, is common knowledge in the world of the TV show.

This all adds up to tell us that the average person, in the TV show’s fictional universe, knows everything that a real-life reader of the graphic novel would. So the events of American Hero Story function as a representative of the original graphic novel within the show…and that graphic novel had multiple in-world documents within itself. Yo dawg… πŸ˜›

There are other more understated, thematic bells and whistles, such as Hooded Justice being inspired, in part, by a Superman comic. Then there are more overt reminders of the present of the TV show being inspired by its past, the comic. There is a white supremacist terrorist network inspired by the words and example of Rorschach. They are not just inspired by his publicized actions- they actually quote from his journal, which itself constitutes text from the original comic.

Between the manifested legacy of Rorschach embodied by the Seventh Kalvary and the portrayal in the graphic novel, though, there are fascinating gray areas. For example, the character called Looking Glass. He wears a reflective mask which no other character equates with the Rorschach mask and he regularly pulls up the lower half to talk and eat, something readers of Watchmen the comic will instantly recognize as typical of Rorschach.

However, there is no reason why the characters in the TV show would know that. They have American Hero Story and Rorschach’s journal is circulated among white nationalists, but there is no reason why that particular mannerism of his would be known of.

Meaning that, while the world of the TV adaptation knows the general plot points of the original, we also see reflections of things they shouldn’t know about. Rorschach probably never wrote about his unshaven mouth and love of canned beans in his journal, after all. So there is one level of intertextual exchange- the popular wisdom of the TV show’s world -and something less meta, a connection that characters know nothing of, but the writers and viewers are.

There are more explicable examples of the gap between text and reader as well. We get a glimpse of a scene from American Hero Story where Hooded Justice is outed as queer and forced to remove his mask, revealing a white actor. Later, the viewer learns that Hooded Justice was originally a black man.

Then there is the use of the colors black and white as a thematic device. In the racial sense as well as the abstract sense. This immediately reminded me of the graphic novel’s chapter called Fearful Symmetry, which made frequent use of panels with alternating color patterns. The character Sister Night says, early on, that if any bit of yolk is allowed into egg whites, the whites are ruined. She even tells her son, Topher, that people like to fill the world with all kinds of fake colors but she and him both know that the only colors are black and white.

This kind of dialogue smacks of Rorschach, which I found ironic. When the first trailers dropped, we saw a brief glimpse of Sister Night in a police station saying she has a guy in her trunk. The casual police brutality, combined with what looked like a face paint domino mask, made me wonder if this was a re-imagining of The Comedian. Then in the TV show, we receive more visual cues equating her with Nite Owl. The riffs on Fearful Symmetry continue in the episode when we see the original Hooded Justice receive face paint around his eyes and nose bridge to make it look like he’s white under the hood.

I guess one question this begs is…what exactly does this kind of sensitivity to the text add? The biggest gain I can think of is more reverence for the source material and more freedom to explore one’s own interpretation of it. You can do more while acknowledging the authority of the originals than you can with a straightforward, note-for-note adaptation.

And by reverence I mean…acknowledgement of the influence while maintaining a respectful distance. The original ideas are present and influential, but still have a distinct degree of separation from the derivative product allowing for interpretive freedom. If the reader or the viewer can perceive the influence of the original while understanding that the current interpretation is not a literal,word-for-word recreation, more room for imagination opens up. You could almost call it a more frank display of the dialogue between the original text and its readers.

Earthworm Jim Special Edition!

Two days ago I played a Sega CD for the first time as well as the definitive version of one of my favorite games from my childhood: Earthworm Jim.

This is a game that I played so often that I basically have the progression route for a whole play through etched in the muscle memory of my hands. The only other games that I might have a similar intimacy with are Mega Man 3, Sonic 2 and maybe the first Tomb Raider game. That last one is a real maybe but I wouldn’t rule it out. Final Fantasy VII may be my favorite video game period but that came into my life at a much later time.

Even with that deep level of nostalgia and rote memorization, though, there is still so much to be delighted by. Not to say nostalgia still isn’t mixed up in it though 0.0

For one, consider the era it came out in. It was the early nineties and Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network were just ramping up. I remember Nickelodeon being turned on a lot in my home and my parents liked it more than I did. You see, I was probably around four years old, and almost everything on that channel terrified me. I remember an episode of Rugrats that had a freaky as hell dream sequence.

My mom was also a big fan of The Ren & Stimpy Show and the niche it carved out for itself. People these days seem to call it toilet humor. When I look back on things like the episode where Ren had cavities, I’m more tempted to call it comedic body horror.

Whatever it was, though, it caught on and we got things like Rocko’s Modern Life, Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, Eek The Cat, Cow and Chicken and Space Goofs. And Little Kid Ailix liked every single one of them more than Ren & Stimpy. Cow and Chicken was probably my favorite. Maybe you could lump in Ed Edd n Eddy if you cared to. That hooked me also.

Considering that Earthworm Jim dropped in the early nineties and its blend of juvenile humor and absurdity, I think it’s fair to say that it was part of the same general trend. Earthworm Jim also may have had more personality than all of them, though.

I mean, who else remembers Boogerman? Nonstop toilets, nonstop boogers, nonstop monsters made of literal crap, it just played out the whole toilet humor gimmick to death. I was in elementary school back then and that game was somehow really popular with my peers. But it was a lifeless golem made of pandering gimmicky bullshit. I mean I’m being way more articulate than Little Kid Ailix was, but Little Kid Ailix knew that Boogerman was built on two or three gags being cycled over and over again. It was a distillation of all of the laziest tendencies of the Ren & Stimpy derivatives.

Don’t get me wrong, Earthworm Jim was totally one of those derivatives as well, but it was more than that. In fact, the gross out jokes were kind of the smallest part of the whole equation. There were other gags to, but even those gags were just one part of the whole.

(Is it just me or do the loading screens in the special edition look like the title screens from shows that were part of the What A Cartoon block from Cartoon Network?)

I mean, the For Pete’s Sake level, for example. That clearly relies on a big versus small gag. Jim is big and Jim is protecting Pete who is small. If Pete get’s hurt, Pete turns into a giant red bulldog monster with throbbing veins, clutches Jim in his teeth and drags him back a few obstacles behind where he was. It’s a classic gag, sorta reminiscent of Looney Toons, really.

But look at all the other details that the game gets you to take for granted. What planet are you on and why can you see space? Why does this seem to be the only level that gives you a sense of having just come from the interstellar race with Psycrow that you do between every level?

The music also adds something. It adds something during every second of the game, because Tommy Tallarico is an angel sent to Earth to make beautiful beautiful music. But in For Pete’s Sake the music is restrained, which lets everything else go to the foreground. But still has this droning, rhythmic, science fiction quality.

Oh, and this tonal balance that happens between the normal gag stuff, cuteness and eerie atmosphere? It shifts dramatically in the second to last level, Intestinal Distress. The level is weirdly minimal, save for the appearance of being inside of someone’s digestive tract. And the music is…well…horror movie music. I can’t think of any other way to describe it. Sure enough, the last level is called Buttville.

During one of my early play throughs, I remember the growing realization that the final boss and villain of the game, Queen Slug For A Butt, is bodily connected to Buttville. As in, you are actually inside her and your progression to the exit- AKA her asshole -triggers the final boss fight. Little Kid Ailix was like “is this…seriously what it looks like????”

That, needless to say, goes beyond “toilet humor” and is truly weird. And the music in this level. The track commonly known as Falling, in a different context, could actually create a feeling of vertigo and dread. I almost wanna say it reminds me of falling into Hell. Certain puns come to mind, like “the belly of the beast”.

Actually, at the age I was when I first played this, it hooked my imagination. I’ve always written stories, almost compulsively, and Little Kid Ailix was set on a kick of designing stories set inside of bodies.

Anyway, on the special edition for the Sega CD, one of the first things you’ll notice is that the soundtrack is so crisp and perfect that the music alone could fully justify it. It’s just that good. If you’ve played the SNES or Gameboy Advance ports and thought they were markedly inferior to the Sega original, then the Sega CD sound quality makes them absolute garbage by comparison. Maybe it was re-recorded- I don’t know just now. I do know that the Sega CD was capable of CD quality sound so it wouldn’t surprise me.

And while I love how smooth the muscle memory of my endless play throughs can make things, my heart was instantly warmed to find out how many of the levels are expanded. In the part of New Junk City where Jim is suddenly without his suit, he announces “I’m nude!” with a Southern drawl.

Did Jim have a Southern accent in the WB cartoon series? I don’t think he did. But the “Ahm noood” combined with his “woah Nelly!” from the original makes me think he was meant to be Southern in the game. Could that be why there’s a loading screen with him *snickers* loading stuff into a truck bed? It also seems consistent with the banjo music that plays when you race against Psycrow. And yes, banjos are a commonly recognized hallmark of Earthworm Jim music. Banjos, science fictiony electronic beats, parodies of music from nineteen-thirties Disney cartoons and industrial rock. And it all fits into the same atmospheric whole. Did I mention the composer, Tommy Tallarico, is a freaking gift?

So I was wrapping up the Psycrow race after What The Heck? when this shit happened

I blink and I’m like “What the fuck is this shit??”

This shit wasn’t in the original game. After tooling around for a minute, I notice the music for this new level has creepy, empty wind sounds and dry wooden creaks, like a plank dangling from its nail off of a crappy cobbled-together fort. And what is that pink thing? It’s kind of like…a dinosaur? I guess? Are those nostrils or its eye sockets? They’re empty so I wanna go with nostrils. Please let them be nostrils.

So you inch up to it, it starts to stalk you, it speeds up and…and…what the fuck are those sounds it’s making? It sounds crazed and hungry, but what are the actual noises? Hoots? Grunts? Gibbers? All of the above?

Whatever this nightmare fuel is, you gotta deal with it throughout the whole level. In fact there are a few puzzles built around getting the pink, sightless, hooting crazy fucker to crash into things to remove barriers or step on levers to launch you into the air.

What delighted me more than all that, though, was that this new level, called Big Bruty, required me to use all of the same problem solving strategies I used as a seven year old. It re-connected me with Little Kid Ailix’s feeling of having solved a few puzzles, got a game over but still eager to press on in spite of the frustration. This bizarre little curve ball of a level actually made me feel a lot of things that I haven’t felt for a long, long time.

It was a very pleasant night of gaming with my amazing girlfriend, in other words. And a lovely way to get re-acquainted with a gleeful part of my childhood. Now I kinda wanna see if that graphic novel the original devs are working on is in any way obtainable

(Eat your heart out, Doug Funnie, someone did the black and white pencil intro better then you! πŸ˜€ )

El Camino!

The Breaking Bad movie El Camino debuted last night and it was refreshing to see more of what Jesse Pinkman alone brought to the Vince Gilligan mythos.

In my “reading” (and according to many other people) Jesse was the emotional and pro-social point of empathy in a defensive and calculating fictional world. After Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, moving to a more humane protagonist is a good decision.

This is given dimension by how a plot is typically set up to guide or provoke a character arc. One way to do this is through opposition. Walter White and Saul Goodman have important connections with other people that put them at odds with their negative character arcs….which paradoxically send them on their negative arcs.

Walter starts to cook meth for the benefit of his family and later becomes “the one who knocks”. Saul Goodman / Jimmy McGill turns his life around and gets a law degree to win the approval of his brother and later reconciles his reinvented self with his previous knack for petty crime. Vince Gilligan characters tend to start out enmeshed with others and end being isolated from them. Jesse Pinkman in El Camino experiences this formula from the opposite end.

Jesse is deeply connected to his friends, lovers and mentors and is on a path toward personal freedom while growing more deeply enmeshed with the world around him. I’m pretty sure me and most of the people watching the movie on launch day kept thinking that Jesse should run his ass off and never go back to any place where anyone would find him.

Instead he seeks out the few old connections he could go back to. He even touches base with his parents and the story’s final confrontation involves a welder that was hired by Jesse’s captors. Speaking of Jesse’s captivity, memories of Todd, possibly the member of the Neo-Nazi gang that Jesse despised the most, provide a pivotal plot point. In fact, two of his most important connections whom we know to be dead, Jane Margolis and Walter White, make appearances in rather emotional flashbacks near the end.

Jesse’s film ending with him both alone and more connected also opens the door for the first happy ending I ever saw in a Vince Gilligan story and it’s nicely convincing.

Also, as usual, the Breaking Bad creative team is great at creating a sense of place. Two of my favorite movies (which I still find difficult to watch at times) are Mysterious Skin and Boys Don’t Cry and, as someone who grew up in a low-income area in the early nineties, I was pleasantly surprised by how much those two films would get right with their set design or shooting locations. El Camino doesn’t tug on my nostalgia to the same degree but the Breaking Bad team nonetheless has delicious attention to detail, especially in the end at Kandy’s Welding.

I was watching this with my SO and during the shootout she told me that the welder has a holster that’s not meant to be drawn from quickly. It would have been a lil cooler if they took advantage of that but I liked the ending anyway. Like I said, the happy ending is a very welcome change in the Breaking Bad fictional universe. And it has a cool closing credits song ^^

Halloween Quiz re: Thinking Moon!

1. What is your favourite Halloween Movie?

Thaaat….is a toughie. Both my dad and one of my best friends like to watch Interview With The Vampire on most Halloweens so that instantly earns points. Hellraiser 2 is also a contender.

WAIT WAIT WAIT- there is only one acceptable answer at this point in my life- Over The Garden Wall!!!!!!!!!!!

2. How much do you enjoy Halloween on a scale of 1-10?

10!

3. What is your fondest Halloween memory?

Being in a haunted house for two years in a row with my best friend from high school. During the first year, I was a disemboweled corpse on an operating table and I had to lay in cold wetness all night to keep my organs looking realistically gory. The second year I was Jason and my best friend was Norman Bates in his mother’s dress.

Soooo….I was a mother whose serial killer alter ego was her son and my best friend was a son whose serial killer alter ego was his mother. Some kind of minds think alike, anyway ^^

4. Have you always been a Halloween lover?

Sure have πŸ˜€

5. How do you get into the Halloween spirit?

Just feeling the warmth of the sun combined with some cool breeze really does it for me. I also might drink some pumpkin spice deliciousness and play Silent Hill 2. Or maybe Strawberry Cubes! ❀️

6. What are your favourite Halloween decorations?

Fake body parts!

They also used to high key scare the shit out of me as a kid 0_0

7. What are your favourite Halloween / fall scents?

Petrichor! 😊

I also had this boyfriend a long time ago who smoked and briefly got me into smoking. I quit a long time ago, though. And it was around October. Soo I also associate the smell of menthol cigarettes with Halloween and I rather like it. Call me crazy πŸ˜›

8. Vampires or Zombies?

Vampires, easily

9. What is your weird/odd fear?

The undead have always freaked me out. Which is weird because I’ve been a total vampire fan girl since I was a preteen. But yeah, in media, ghosts and zombies can freak me out.

In real life…hm….the feeling of being watched.

10. What are you going as this Halloween?

Hmm…..either Jenova from Final Fantasy VII or a gender-flipped Riddler πŸ˜ƒ

11. Do you believe in ghosts?

Short answer is yes

Little Samson

Today I was treated to a chance to play a special NES rarity called Little Samson. Why this game didn’t blow up into a franchise is beyond me since it has got to be one of the most well-designed NES games I’ve ever played.

I feel like I should qualify this a little: by “well-designed” I mean neatly designed. Neatness is not the only measure of good design. The early Mega Man games, for example, do not take the time to carefully and systematically flesh-out concepts in a way that lets you easily build on one after another. Sequential concept elaboration is simply a design convention and there are other possible approaches.

As I was playing Little Samson with my significant other (whose video game library is gloriously encyclopedic) I had a thought that captured the nature of this distinction: if you want something with teeth right now, put in Mega Man 3 and start with either the Shadow Man or the Gemini Man stage. And yes, while most Mega Man games have a “rock paper scissors” affinity pattern that usually leaves a rather sequential path to quick victory, you have the choice of starting in one of several different levels.

Most people my age though, who didn’t have the benefit of guides back in the early nineties, relied heavily on trial and error. Which meant you would deduce things in a stage you were in no way prepared for and apply them to the platforming in other stages. Eventually these deductions would get you acclimated enough to the platforming and general level design that the easiest possible stage to beat through platforming alone would become apparent.

A less clunky way of putting this is that Mega Man games typically have non-linear design, which places a greater emphasis on trial and error and deduction. Little Samson, meanwhile, has a linear design.

The teeth come eventually, though. The opening stages are little more than obstacle courses that teach you the rudiments of handling the four player characters. These basically function as a tutorial that shows you the basic uses for each playable character’s specialized abilities.

So rather than confronting you directly with multiple layers of difficulty, like Mega Man, the ways to approach different obstacles are broken down for you in the beginning. It is up to you to determine where and how to use these strategies. Later, when the “real campaign” starts, you will normally find that the following stages will accommodate one of the player characters more than the others. This is the period bracketed between the first and second boss fights.

While the second fight is pretty hard, you may begin to be a little dismayed at what appears to be a flaw in the neatness of the design: the dragon pc will get you most of the way through the first two bosses. Which could tempt you to think that the dragon might be the all-purpose boss-killer.

Boss number three will immediately disabuse you of this, to say nothing of the third stage levels requiring more pc rotation than anything beforehand, with the dragon and the mouse being the most useful for the platforming and the golem being useful for some annoyingly persistent enemies. And for nothing else: the golem can barely platform at all. Then you fight a boss that’s unapproachable for any pc except the mouse with two hit points.

The third stage and the third boss are also a great opportunity to address how original this game looks. In fact, I don’t know of any other NES game that looks quite like it. Your main pc, Little Samson himself, reminds me of the child version of Son Goku from Dragon Ball. The sorcerer in the opening cut-scene also reminded me of Dalton from Chrono Trigger. What do Chrono Trigger and Dragon Ball have in common? Akira Toriyama!

(Now I’m kinda torn…does he look more like Dalton or Piccolo…?)

Turns out, the art was done by someone named Yuko Nakamura, for whom I can find no other credits. Which is unfortunate because there are some delightfully wild style variations.

The figures in the palace at the beginning, with their robes and headdresses, look almost Babylonian. Rather like your Toriyama-esque main character, there are some sprites that have a cutesy chibi vibe, like the bubble-breathing diosaurs. The pink dragon pc also reminds me of Icarus, the dragon Gohan adopted in Dragon Ball Z: The Tree Of Might and the different villainous sorcerers all sort of look like Piccolo. The second boss looks like a cross between a dinosaur and a Giger-style xenomorph. A later boss on transforms into a huge dragon that takes up most of the screen. Later levels have large purple cartoon hands reaching out of the ground along with stone corridors with Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Against any expectation the prior levels and creatures may have furnished, the third stage either looks like an alien planet or some sort of cutesy Mordor. Big’ol starscape in the background with vanishing platforms that either look like chemicals or energy with glowing heads that shoot projectiles. And when the long vertical wall platforms become more common you really tend to rely on the mouse pc.

So you’re doing precise platforming while you’re dodging energy projectiles with a mouse with a standard HP limit of two hits. With the same mouse, you also have to win a boss fight with a sorcerer made of floating demonic skulls with lil bombs like the kind Samus Aran drops with her morph ball. On an alien planet. I did say the teeth come eventually.

Which is another interesting gameplay elaboration. All pcs have different max HP limits. My SO and I were utilizing a quick-save feature that wasn’t in the original game (don’t ask ’cause I ain’t telling :p ). So the quick save may have made this seem like more of a feature than it was meant to be, but I noticed that I was trying to anticipate future pc rotations.

If I noticed that I was relying a lot on the mouse with two HP, for example, I would collect as many HP buffing power-ups as I could so my mouse wouldn’t be a one hit kill. I really started hoarding the HP buffs in stage two when I realized the blue bastard boss fight is best approached with the dragon and therefore needed that pc to have a higher max HP than is standard.

This feature also holds true for other power-ups as well. Every pc has its own unique health bar which means they all need to be healed individually. This calculation is deepened by the fact that you don’t simply lose the pc and keep playing with others when they hit zero: you die if you reach zero in any form. So you need to be thinking of which pc will receive what power-up when you find it.

The music also changes based on what pc you’re using which, at times, can be a lil bit annoying. Which is too bad since the music is pretty good in general.

From the opening tutorials, you learn that the golem, mouse and dragon are the most specialized playable characters with Little Samson being “a jack of all trades, master of nothing”. It’s normal to use Samson early in a stage while you’re assessing which specialization(s) will suit the stage best. Which means you spend a lot of time listening to Samson’s music, and that can be pretty grating. I really prefer a full immersion experience with music and sound and everything happening when it’s supposed to, but while I was playing the third stage I actually muted the game.

That was kind of a disappointing time for that to set in since so many design choices really come together beautifully in the third stage. Not that it’s anything more than an annoyance. If it gets to you that much you can just switch characters. And anyway the final level has its own music regardless of which pc you choose.

Speaking of the last level, Little Samson has a final boss fight that will make you hopelessly dependent on your ability to memorize jumping patterns with the character with the least HP because they happen to deal the most damage (unless you’ve collected buffs). In a few different puzzles and situations you can rotate transformations for alternate dodging and attacking but not this time.

(THIS fucker X_X)

On the other hand. It is also possible to use different characters as meat shields and adroitly switch back to the mouse in time to spam with your morph ball bombs. That’s what my SO did after I spent several minutes fixating on jumping, which actually worked like a dream.

(Then we got a nice lil cliffhanger going on post-credits with this guy flashing on his throne after the four sorcerers wink out of existence)

After we beat the game, my partner showed me a bunch of images to use in this blog as well as some footage of our play through. On one recording we could hear my voice saying “this is simultaneously one of the cutest, weirdest and hardest things I’ve ever played.”

Which is an assessment that I stand by. The difficulty is pitch perfect, it plays fair and it combines a handful of influences from Mega Man to Mario while having a character that’s all it’s own. I remember, when I played the third Mario game, I was in disbelief that it was actually available for the NES- it looked like it should be a SNES game. Little Samson‘s graphics are nearly at the same level of sophistication, especially with cool little gimmicks here and there like rotating sprites. I’m gonna be jonesing on how cool this is for awhile and I’m still surprised that this game didn’t pick up the momentum that it should have (yeah I know it was released just as the SNES was getting off the ground but it’s not fair D: )

It Chapter Two review

Over the weekend I saw It Chapter Two with my significant other and I couldn’t have been more satisfied. Like many of us, I remember the made-for-TV movie starring Tim Curry very fondly but there’s no getting around the fact that it mishandled the novel’s ending. In all fairness, the novel does have famously challenging ending, but the dialogue and animatronics in the early adaptation are just terrible.

While Tim Curry’s performance was truly creepy and convincing and was an undeniable strength, I don’t think Curry could carry the whole weight of the film himself. So as a fan of the book (my favorite King story after The Dark Tower novels) I’m just very happy that there is now an adaptation that treats the source material with reverence while maintaining its own strength as a film.

I realize that not everyone perceives this balance. Negative reviews typically state that the film was too long and packed with too much meandering minutia. I, however, was very pleasantly surprised with the streamlined pacing and editing.

It is a book that regularly moves back and fourth between the events of 1957 and 1984 so, since the two recent films cover the events chronologically in separate halves, a lot of structural re-interpretation is necessary.

One thing that might strike a fan of the novel as odd is that the beginning of the second film feels very much like the earlier chapters of the book with Mike Hanlon making his phone calls to the other Losers.

All of these chapters have somewhat long digressions that paint vivid pictures of the Losers as adults before getting to the phone call and it’s consequences. In It Chapter Two, each one moves very quickly and we find ourselves at the meeting at the Chinese Restaurant in short order. At this point I was actually starting to worry that the film might be awkwardly short, which luckily isn’t true.

A necessary part of these structural changes is that the scenes must serve different structural functions than they did in the novel. In the book, we don’t get the restaurant scene until the middle after we’ve had several very long and dramatic 1957 flashbacks. As a middle chapter featuring the reunion of the main characters, it does the job of tying together several plot lines and giving the reader a sense of overall perspective over the sprawling events that have happened so far.

In It Chapter Two, the restaurant is continuing the introduction of the adult Losers, giving the audience time to get to know them before proceeding with the story proper. As far as the audience is concerned, the adult Losers are new characters they need to be acclimated to.

While we’re on the subject of the restaurant scene, the fortune cookie apparitions were vastly improved over how they were presented in the original novel (this film actually improves on a few different things that King handled awkwardly which we’ll definitely be getting to).

Each cookie has a separate part of a message that the surviving male Losers are struggling to put together while Beverly is becoming frantic listening to them argue. Beverly is actually our affective anchor in this scene- pretty much the viewpoint character. The tension of the hysterical arguing builds quickly and then stops to breathe before the monsters in the broken cookie shells hatch. Absolutely delicious pacing.

This is also our first glimpse of another way in which It Chapter Two improves in its source material: Beverly as an adult is handled far better than in King’s novel.

The uneven way that Beverly is written in the book is particularly annoying to me since she starts off on such a strongly sympathetic and memorable note. Her vulnerability is expressed differently from the other male characters for both overt and understated reasons. Beverly’s personality contrasts with the rest of the Losers in the role her father plays in her fears and anxieties. Most of the Losers’ have fears that are deeply impacted by their parents except, perhaps, Richie (and his dad still seems frazzled from his energy level).

Ben’s mother dismisses his emotional needs by playing to his emotional eating, Eddie’s mother has MΓΌnchausen syndrome and has convinced him that he has imaginary illnesses, Bill’s parents blame him implicitly for the death of his brother and Mike is dogged by his father’s feud with Butch Bowers.

Beverly, meanwhile, has an alcoholic father that works long hours and sexual abuse is implied. She comes and goes from home as she will since her father is often either absent or indisposed.

In modern terms, she’s a latch key kid. So while she lives in fear of her father and his unpredictable violent outbursts, she has nonetheless experienced more independence than the rest of the Losers and is better at spur of the moment decision making.

Perhaps for those two reasons, she has natural chemistry with another Loser of contrasting influences: Richie Tozier. Richie is impulsive to the point of being socially obtuse but is also a compulsive attention seeker. Both Beverly and Richie also seem to have a kind of easy access to solitary autonomy which may come from their respective alienation. This rapport between them is one of the strong, early indications that Richie’s manic sense of humor protects a serious vulnerability of his own.

This shared alienation between Beverly and Richie (largely during the theater scene) is one of the original novel’s most successful moments of subtlety. It’s an exchange that perfectly exemplifies showing and not telling.

Perhaps, since King pulled that off so well early on, he felt compelled to avoid explanations with Beverly as an adult to the point of making her obtusely blank- nearly featureless at times. For whatever reason, King could only write one chapter with adult Beverly doing interesting things on her own initiative and it was her first appearance.

While we’re on this subject, I think It the novel had two big experiments with characterization: Beverly Marsh and Henry Bowers. At least, the characterization of Beverly and Henry is executed differently than nearly all other characters in the book.

I’ve already outlined a few reasons why Beverly stands out from the other Losers during the childhood segments. As an adult, King seems allergic to lucidly pinning down character mechanics with Beverly. Like I said earlier, it’s possible that, since he succeeded so well at showing instead of telling with Richie, Beverly and Ben at the theater, that he became anxious about being too frank. The memory that Beverly has of orgasming at the sight of birds on a power line is particularly obtuse. At the risk of sounding misandrist, it almost seems like something a man would think who believes that female sexuality is fundamentally mysterious and therefore portrays it as a series of non-sequiturs.

Granted, lots of things seem very mysterious on a subjective level, but no other character gets the same explicit attention paid to their budding sexuality that Beverly does (a possible exception being Patrick Hockstetter). When Beverly is an adult, it’s as if Stephen King wanted very badly to get into her head but couldn’t quite pull it off. To me, it looks obtuse, but it’s also very possible that every single nuance is intentional, which is why I singled Beverly out as a glaringly experimental character.

It Chapter Two got rid of the unnecessary ambiguity along with a narratively distracting love triangle between Beverly, Bill and Ben. With a film this plot-heavy, anything that can be streamlined should be and the straightforward romance between Beverly and Ben really worked for the best. A shadow of the love triangle was maintained through Beverly’s mistaken belief that Bill wrote the “January Embers” poem and the kiss at the end of the first movie, but in general Beverly and Ben are the only two members of the romance.

Jessica Chastain also brought a personal magnetism that made her portrayal of Beverly an intuitive point of empathy for the audience along with Bill, Mike and Richie. The script for It Chapter Two also allowed Beverly to maintain her lucid apprehension and independence from childhood.

Streamlining the romance between Beverly and Ben is desirable not just for keeping stray plot threads to a minimum but also because the meandering, unclear portrayal of her sexuality and romantic pulls in the book is weirdly sexist. Or at least weirdly sexualized. Once or twice, novel Beverly will say things like “you were all my boyfriends back then” or something equivalent that is unclear enough to not be taken literally but romantic enough for the possibility to be real.

This seems to allude to the sewer scene at the end- an explanation that barely makes it any less weird than if it had none at all. I also don’t feel like I need to spell out why hyper-sexualizing the one female protagonist is regrettable and slovenly. And then there’s a sexual encounter between Bev and Bill whose plot or character function has never been clear to me. Given how visual the scene was, though, I can only assume it was important to King himself. Not to mention, Beverly’s easy relaxation into the romantic and sexual sharing between the male Losers (*giggle* male Losers) has no consistency with her childhood characterization. All of this is blessedly absent from It Chapter Two.

While Beverly in the novel is an experimental character, she’s an experimental character with rather few risks (to say nothing of that memorable little scene in the sewer). From a trope / narrative standpoint, she has no inherent tendency to rock the boat, but the experiment fails in spite of that.

Henry Bowers, meanwhile, comes with a handful of glaring narrative risks. The first and most obvious of these are his flirtations with becoming a one-dimensional spooky villain. The last time I read It, I remember thinking that he was on thin narrative ice in the scene with the rock fight. Especially when King tries to highlight his growing instability by describing him, as he hangs from a fence he’s climbing, as a “baleful spider”.

In the childhood segments, any sympathy Henry elicits is purely by implication. One may conjecture that he was unlucky and tormented by virtue of having a physically and psychologically dangerous parent, not unlike some of the Losers, but we scarcely see much of that from Henry’s own point of view. As an adult though, we get to see behind Henry’s eyes for the first time.

So far from the bristling menace of the childhood Losers, adult Henry is a terrified, vulnerable patient at the Juniper Hill mental hospital outside of Derry. From Henry’s perspective, we are given an interesting kind of characterization. Henry does not have the same kind of internal dialogues the other characters do: every word formed in the privacy of his own mind is clothed in the voices of others.

At its most abstract and generalized, this happens through the voice of the moon (Pennywise, obviously, but Pennywise can only work with what a mind is ready to offer her). Henry’s self-torturing thoughts happen in the imaginary voices of the Losers. Later, with the magic of Pennywise, Henry encounters an undead version of a childhood friend, Belch Huggins, that was constructed from his imagination.

And none of these imaginary vehicles for his thoughts have a two-way exchange with him: they either berate Henry or give him orders. While he is in a car with Pennywise, disguised as Belch, he starts to wonder if Belch holds him responsible for being left to die as a child. Henry attempts to apologize and the apparition simply turns its head and says “Just drive the fucking car.” This is as close as Henry ever comes to succeeding to “talk” to one or his mental mouth pieces.

Assuming that we often talk to ourselves in ways we are used to being spoken to, this clearly comments on the relationship between Henry’s internal life and how it’s been shaped by others.

While adult Beverly came out better in It Chapter Two than she did in the book, adult Henry rather lost out. Which is unfortunate considering how well-acted he was as a preteen in the first Muschietti It movie. The actor did just fine but the direction and editing just didn’t seem to have a lot of room for him. To the film’s credit, I was truly freaked out when Henry tracked down Eddie. I knew that Eddie survived the encounter in the book but Game Of Thrones has tempered my expectations of the willingness for on-screen adaptations to kill characters who don’t die in the source material.

Luckily, though, good pacing was the only reason to be startled by that scene. Henry Bowers’ involvement in the plot ends shortly afterward when Bill Hader’s Richie Tozier plants an axe in the back of his head as he attacks Mike Hanlon.

Which brings us to another noteworthy point of departure from the book. Like many stories in the haunted village sub genre (Silent Hill, Twin Peaks, ‘Salem’s Lot, etc.) the town itself constitutes a character of sorts.

In It, this was largely conveyed by the Interlude chapters that were written as journal entries and research documents done by Hanlon, with coverage of past visits Pennywise made to Derry. These Interludes gave us the story of the fire at The Black Spot, a World War II era bar for black military personnel. Mike’s father was a private stationed in Derry at the time and was present for it, and fans of The Shining may recognize a younger Dick Hallorann among the survivors. The Interludes also contain a retelling of a shootout prompted by the arrival of the Bradley Gang in the twenties and the explosion of the Kitchener Iron Works decades later.

Essentially, we get to know Mike as a narrator before we see him as a child become the seventh and final Loser. It Chapter Two attempts an inversion of his leader-scholar status by having him appear slightly unbalanced and maybe even dishonest. One narrative function this provides is that Pennywise is able to use Mike’s omission of the dangers of the Ritual Of Chud to drive a wedge between the Losers near the end and add a bit more drama to the final battle.

The way in which Mike learns about the Ritual itself helps streamline the plot somewhat, even if it partook of the wise visionary Native trope. Mike was able to see the arrival of the creature separate from the other Losers and relayed it back to the rest of them as adults. Specifically, to Bill, who later clues everyone else in. This enables the introduction and explanation of this concept to be an exchange between characters rather than just straight explication.

The Ritual itself was also portrayed very effectively: the Losers are separated into different, specialized temporal nightmares that they need to overcome in order to face Pennywise together. This is very good visual language that pins down something from the book that’s would have been nearly impossible to film otherwise.

I would almost go as far as to say that the visual unfolding of the final confrontation with Pennywise does more than supply images for the film to hang its hat on: it is potentially more compelling than what the novel describes. At least, it is more lucid and more accessible. Since the plot revolves around how Pennywise manipulates the fears of the Losers, the approach of desperate personal nightmares puts each character arc and it’s resolution on full display.

Speaking of character arcs, this might be a good time to mention the re-imagining of Richie Tozier.

Speaking purely as a fan of the book, I felt very validated by him being portrayed as gay. And his homosexuality is more than just hinted at in the film.  When we see Richie revisiting the heart he carved at the kissing bridge, it contains R+E, and there’s only one person that E could credibly be referring to.

As a fourteen year old reading the novel for the first time, I gravitated toward that interpretation simply because every character had conventionally heterosexual yearnings except Richie. I began to wonder more about it later since Stephen King seemed to struggle with fleshing out the specific nuts and bolts of the fears within Richie that leave him open to Pennywise.

When five of the Losers speak about Pennywise for the first time in the Barrens, they all share a story except Richie.  In a later flashback, we hear about the Paul Bunyan experience, which seems almost startlingly pedestrian after Eddie’s leper, Mike’s giant bird, Beverly’s bloody sink or Bill’s bloody photo album.  Even Ben’s recollection of the mummy is more interesting than the Paul Bunyan statue.  And it took until nearly half of the book to get to it, as if King knew it was something different but couldn’t quite pin down what.  If there is a commentary track on the DVD of It Chapter Two with Stephen King, I’d be interested to hear about anything he says about the process of creating Richie, although the plainness with which his homosexuality is made clear was probably a decision made by the screenwriter.

So it appears as if Stephen King wrote Richie knowing the way that Pennywise would exploit his fears would be different from the other Losers but wasn’t sure how exactly.  Richie’s mysterious but exceptional qualities continue to be apparent when the final confrontation starts and Richie’s onslaught was the attack that really turned the fight in the Loser’s favor.  Then there’s the easy access to independence as a child that seems to lead to a platonic bond with Beverly on top of the fact that he’s the only male Loser that doesn’t seem to have ordinary heterosexual desires or fantasies.  I’m not saying that homosexuality is the only thing that ties all of these traits together but you gotta admit it would fit the bill.

While I definitely have to cop to being happy over my adolescent fan theory being validated, I can see how this might not be totally welcome, especially since they chose to follow the book with Eddie’s death rather than going all the way with the romance.  And since many of the events of the book were switched around to serve new functions in this film, the murder of Adrian Mellon at the very beginning could prompt some viewers to look for a deeper LGBT thread in the film.  One of the Losers turning out to be LGBT could predictably satisfy that instinct. This was less of an intuitive prompting in the novel since it’s placement there was clearly intended to bookend the timelines with Pennywise’s first appearance in each: it begins with Georgie in 1957 and with Adrian Mellon in 1984.

In the end, this second half of Andre Muschietti’s film adaptation surprised me with how closely it followed the plot of the original book, stood on its own as a film and even improved upon the narrative weaknesses of the source material.  With so many book-to-film adaptations falling flat, something like It Chapter Two is a refreshing reminder of what could be done with the right creative team.

Death & Flamingos by Sopor Aeternus

Last October, I became a huge fan of Sopor Aeternus and The Ensemble of Shadows when a close friend linked me to Sopor Fratrem Mortis Est on YouTube and the playlist continued with A Strange Thing To Say.  So I couldn’t help but be super hyped when Anna Varney-Cantodea released another Sopor album last February.  I read about it some weeks before it was due to be released and I instantly coughed up the fifty-odd dollars for a hardcopy to shipped to me from Germany as soon as it was available.  A lot happened between then and now, though, both with my living situation and (apparently) with the package itself.  After getting forwarded from another place, I finally got my hands on my beautiful, textured hard copy of Death & Flamingos.

I felt nervous about this album at first because this was to be Anna’s first frank step into rock.  Black metal, specifically.  She’s definitely did loud music before.  I mentioned A Strange Thing To Say and I found some more rhythmic, electronica-infused material that was originally supplemental to La Chambre d’Echo (currently available in the huge anthology called Like A Corpse Standing In Desperation).  I’ve also found that I really enjoy drawing while listening to her debut album, Ich Tote Mich, which has the original version of Do You Know My Name, which you might, arguably, compare to lo-fi industrial.  Might.  I also went through a phase of really enjoying Les Fleurs Du Mal, which was a stark departure from most of Sopor’s MO for a few reasons.  It’s definitely a loud album and her lyrics are way more light-hearted, snarky and raunchy than usual.  At the time that I heard it, I would have called it the Sopor album with the most “drag” or camp influence.

I suppose….it still might.  If Les Fleurs Du Mal hasn’t lost that title to Death & Flamingos, then the two albums are closely sharing it.

Not only does Death & Flamingos whole-heartedly embrace electric guitars and rock drumming, but it’s also very snarky and very conversational.  In the liner notes, Anna writes “This album is based on an interview.”  And it definitely shows.  Being the tactile weirdy that I am, as soon as I received this album in the mail I immediately took it out of the shipping box and carefully inspected the booklet, which is itself the CD case (thick card-stock cover, backing and spine, with a disc sleave at the end).  At first glance, the lyrics don’t even read like song lyrics so much as snatches of conversation.

The song Spellbound starts with the words “Ideally…well, obviously” and Kinder Des Teufels starts with “I never had my  tonsils removed”.  One of my favorite points of contrast here is one of the songs that I find particularly re-listenable, Coffin Break.  Opening lines: “I do take offense / I won’t excuse this point today / it’s such a hurtful thing to say”.  It’s instantly (well…almost?) obvious that this is framed as a response to something that was said by someone else earlier.  But it actually flows really well.  The Boy Must Die also has a few lines that sound “stream of consciousness” that actually turn out to flow quite naturally once Anna starts singing.

And I’ll get to the other songs soon enough, but for now, Coffin Break: the subject matter is, in a strict sense, a simple topic that I think a lot of queer people could relate to.  This being the lifelong messaging, both overt and understated, that we are diseased and insane and the lifelong struggle many of us have with it.  Speaking personally, I’ve lived with suicidal ideation as a regular fact of life starting from age thirteen or so until maybe about two years ago.  When a thought pattern sticks with you that long, it wears deep paths in your head and it’s influence can be felt long after the problem goes down in its intensity.  A certain kind of combative self-talk can be tempting for this reason, and sometimes, in the right circumstances, can even be helpful: if the whole natural world is against you and needs you to die, then why not stand your ground and kill everything else?

It’s not the least understandable thing to think if you’re trying to resist a lifetime of conditioning with little to no resources.  And the song Coffin Break is pretty much about that, exactly.  The use of camp is really successful in these lyrics as well.  As with most of the album, there are some really blunt rhymes.  Intentionally blunt, probably, and intentionally contrasting with Anna’s more expected poetric lyric construction: “Why should I put a bullet / in my beautiful head? / why not get rid of the vermin / and kill everyone else instead?!”.  Talking about putting a bullet in her “beautiful head” makes the subject matter approachable through a little bit of camp while also personalizing it: an idiosyncratic word choice that sounds unique to a person lends credence to the “I” in “why should I”.

Anna fleshes out the thought with:

If I had the power,

I would create the quiet earth

I would erase all human life

From this and every other universe.

 

On any given day

I’d push that button most happily…

Then Anna drops her singing voice and says, conversationally: ” ’cause I’m a homosexual.”  I’m sure this could be read very differently, but stuff like this really sells the blunt, memoir-like format of the album to me.  The snarkiness of that tone shift does what many other singers couldn’t do with a guttural metal roar.  The song (to say nothing of the album) is definitely a blood-letting, but this kind of humor enables her to show ownership (or mastery) of her pain while at the same time bluntly validating the whole reason for the internal dialogue.

This effect is also achieved in the first song with singing in it, Kinder Des Teufels, which is a pretty direct telling of a story many fans have heard Anna tell in one context or another: a traumatic and possibly dissociative out of body experience she had as a child while being anaesthetized.

In order to achieve the honesty that quality memoiring demands, one needs to be absolutely at peace with their vulnerability.  It’s best to lead with, not only the most painful thing, but potentially the most discrediting thing.  And the two tend to go together.  Often our most powerful experiences, both agonizing and ecstatic, are things we have a very hard time describing to other people.  And if you pull off the godlike task of describing it, then you’re faced with the more horrifyingly gigantic prospect of legitimizing it.  I hope you weren’t burnt out from all that self-interrogation you did just to be able to open your mouth about this, because we’re only just getting started.

The words that precede our first taste of the chorus seem to address this very anxiety.  After an outline of the surgical out of body experience, she says “I’ll tell you something far more interesting / childhood is a fleeting thing, / but trauma stays”.  She expects not to be taken seriously and uses this as an opportunity to emphasize why it is serious.

While this album is abundantly snarky, it’s not without earnestness.  The song Van Dem Tode Traumen Wir has some superficial sonic resemblances to a few different moments from Mitternacht, which has got to be the perfect opposite-equal to Death & Flamingos, being open and earnest in exact proportion to the combativeness of Death & Flamingos.  Tode Traumen Wir is a simple meditation on how your internal validation of yourself is more real than any outside validation, which moves on to album’s final songs, Death Waltz, Charnel House and Mors Ultima Ratio (to only name the songs that have lyrics).  All of which deal with the more angsty side of cosmic and social indifference.  Death Waltz and Mors Ultima Ratio are particularly tongue-in-cheek and campy about it, though, which is consistent with the album’s use of humor to take ownership of pain and anger.  I also just love that I now own an album that has the line “worms will eat your face” πŸ˜€

All in all, I’m very happy with this album, both on its own and as an elaboration in Anna Varney-Cantodea’s body of work.  Before I got this CD I was regularly listening to POETICA- All Beauty Sleeps, which sets the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe to music, while writing.  POETICA is also a very earnest album, so the difference of this new release hit me particularly hard.  Luckily, though, in a good way πŸ˜‰