TV: Star Wars Rebels (season one)
Other: Photographs (video game), Undertale (video game)
Best. Movie. Year. Ever. by Brian Raftery
This is the 2019 nonfiction book about the adventurous film world of 1999.
All your initial guesses about this book are right.
Yes, it's a listicle book, where individual chapters detail the production of individual movies, or small bundles of related movies. Yes, the very broad précis ("lots of interesting/good stuff happened in film in 1999") means the book doesn't really add up to much — you wouldn't lose much by shuffling the chapters into any order, and the book itself would have been almost as good as a series of disconnected articles. The only thing it gains from being a book is a sort of cumulative weight — "crap, *all* this stuff was happening in one year".
All that said, it's still a good read. The nostalgia is fun, and I enjoy the reassurance that, yes, my salad days had one of the great movie years for the ages. Mr. Raftery has done good work, interviewing many, many of the people involved in these productions — though obviously he can't land interviews with folks like George Lucas or the Wachowskis¹, he then falls back smoothly on others' work. And he tells good stories, often subtly reinforcing a shared theme of people outside the studio elites busting in and making powerful, influential cinema.
He's pretty good at sketching in characters, but leans a little too far towards "you already know these people" for my taste. The book seems to say: "Wes Anderson — you know him, right? I'll just list one or two physical traits and we'll move on." Even with somebody widely known like George Lucas, you'd like the book to have a take on what his personality is, and how that relates to the book's (wispy, but still there) themes.
I will say that the book's epilogue does a lot to bring the material into focus, pointing out that the wild experimentation he listicles in his book disappeared quickly as we moved into the 2000s, and film moved more towards pleasant, reliable reassurance. But it left me wondering: is that *really* true? Surely *every* year, all the film critics complain that the movie business has begun sacrificing creativity to the almighty dollar, unlike the creative achievements we had before. ("Why, when *I* was a young man, harumph harumph harumph...")
If the point is that this year of film experimentation was a unique high point, then just listing out all the experiments is just half of your thesis — you need some way of establishing that the periods before and after did *not* have that same ambition. It may well be true, but proving a negative is very, very difficult.
Still, this is a fun, breezy showbiz read that lets you be a fly on the wall for all the fondly-remembered productions of 1999. Don't expect more of it, and you'll have a good time.
Talking Back, Talking Black by John McWhorter (audiobook)
This is the popular linguist's 2016 book about African American Vernacular English.²
John McWhorter is a Columbia professor who has fascinating things to say about linguistics³ in his top-notch Teaching Company courses. This book is devoted to AAVE, arguing as effectively as he can that it is not just "English with mistakes". Like Sicilian or Schweizerdeutsch, it's a spoken version of the language that has its own rules of grammar and pronunciation. It has constructions that don't work in standard English, but if you misuse those unique constructions, you sound like a stroke victim.
This book is in an odd position. It is arguing the above point effectively and energetically. But who is it for? If you're a fan of Prof. McWhorter, you've heard much of this material before in his other courses. And if you're a fan of linguistics, you probably already know about (say) the extra tenses in AAVE (e.g., "habiutal be"). If you're a MAGA-hatted howler monkey who insists, "I'm not racist, but I think all those black people should just talk *good English*", then you're probably not reading books, right?
That said, it's still a great listen. McWhorter is as excellent and entertaining a speaker as ever. And the book *does* contain a lot of new material, especially in its second half — lots of fascinating details about code-switching, vocal shifts, and covering the history of the dialect back to its earliest recordings. In addition, the book organizes everything he's said before about the dialect — the bits and scraps discussed in passing while he's covering other subjects — and puts into one cohesive argument. It's definitely a fascinating read, but I don't know if it will achieve its stated purpose of converting people to the "AAVE is a valid English dialect".
Still, it's a must-read (or really, "must-listen") for any fan of Professor McWhorter's work. I never realized just how ignorant I was about AAVE, and learning more was a fascinating experience.
Star Wars Rebels
This is the 2014 Disney XD computer-animated action series about a streetwise orphan who falls in with a team of space pirates who antagonize the Empire.
What if Aladdin, from the Disney animated movie, hadn't found a magic lamp, but instead had joined the crew of Firefly? I didn't realize I needed the answer to that question in my life, yet, here we are.
But Rebels was frustrating for me. They've got the most rock-solid concept for a Star Wars show I can imagine. You get, for free, a crew of interesting characters who go on adventures. You can put it on some far-flung planet, so you don't brush up against continuity any more than you want to. You can easily have a "big bad" arc set against "heist of the week" adventures. And you get a charismatic viewpoint character who is learning about the Resistance the same way that we are.
And yet, it's still a disappointing swing-and-a-miss of a series.
It's like they lifted the *structure* of Serenity, but didn't steal any of the deeper knowledge of how TV shows work that make the Mutant Enemy catalog great.
For instance: characterization. They do one thing well in Rebels: they create strong archetypes for each character. Zeb, for example, is the heavy. That informs his character design, his comically working-class-London accent, and his function in the storylines. Similarly, Kanan is the leader, Hero is a mothering figure, and Chopper is droid comic relief. (Sabine is the only one where you might not immediately recognize a type.) And Ezra, as the lead, is the street rat trying to make good.
But that reliance on tropes turns around to bite them in the ass. Because as far as I can tell, once they have enough in place for the audience to say, "ah yes I recognize that", they sort of figure they're done.
Consider, in Firefly, Wash. What archetype is Wash? It's hard to nail down. There are elements of a lot of things in there. And *that* means that every line they give him, every action he takes in every episode, has to narrow down our focus on precisely who he is. He always has to be doing a thing that only Wash would do, or his character will just dissolve completely. You never get a moment of relief — of "yeah, he's this type, so that's already taken care of".
In Rebels, instead, you get lots of interchangeable dialog — the interspersed "Karabast" notwithstanding, it's mostly lines that you could reassign to other crew members without seeming obviously odd. And it's all pitched at the sort of "blandly snide for no reason" setting that you see in most forgettable, journeyman TV writing.
Consider the most memorable exchange at the start of Serenity:
Wash: [...] this landing is gonna get pretty interesting.In Rebels, you'd get something more like:
Mal: Define "interesting".
Wash: "Oh god, oh god, we're all gonna die?"
Kanan: Things are about to get interesting.And suddenly you realize how many jobs that tiny stitch of Serenity dialog is doing. Wash gets a verbal inventiveness that's different from Mal. Mal is clearly in charge, but not in a hostile way.
Hera: No, not "interesting", more like "dangerous".
Bland, journeyman TV dialog doesn't do that. Instead, you get voices that are all the same. You get jokes that barely merit being called jokes. And worst of all, you sort of 'bland out' the relationships — you don't know how any person feels about any other, beyond this sort of constant level of ambient snide. After a few episodes you want to shout "Wait, *why* do you hate each other?" I'm sure the writers would protest that they don't hate each other, they're just a family, and families do good-natured ribbing, but I sorely pity the family that talks solely in sarcastic one-liners of vacuous exposition.
And you also start feeling annoyed that the show doesn't trust you. It's like "Hey, I know you can't sit through ten seconds of dialog. But don't worry — *our* exposition dump will have 𝕒 𝕥 𝕥 𝕚 𝕥 𝕦 𝕕 𝕖." Eventually you roll your eyes and think, "Christ, either learn to be funny or stop being dicks."
The storylines, too, continue at mostly a superficial level. Mutant Enemy, and genre television in general, is big on the contrast between "what it's about" and "what it's really about". For example, spoilers, "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" isn't *really* about an alien invasion. For a further example, every Buffy monster represented some traumatic aspect of being in high school. Here, you have the heists and the Jedi stuff, and it really represents... well, mostly heists and Jedi stuff.
For example, there's an episode that is (like most of the episodes) based around an extended heist sequence. A central plot point is that the team has three "miracles" — Sabine's nickname for high-powered explosive grenades — to get them through dicey situations. With that setup, you might think there's something thematic going on, right? The use of "miracles" makes you think that maybe it's *really* about the team's faith in fate, or religion, or each other. Or maybe it's a structural thing — they use their last bomb, and then face a fourth situation, and they discover, I dunno, that the real miracle was friendship all along.
Okay, that particular idea is terrible, but it's *something*. What we get instead: they face three difficult situations. They handle each of them by throwing a bomb at it. And then they escape. What it's really about doesn't go an inch beyond what it's literally about.
The villain matches the show's overall level of "inoffensive competence". They get Jason Isaacs, of all people, to play "The Inquisitor", and he has a good time chewing the scenery. But again, there's no real "why this villain now?" to it. There's nothing *about* the Inquisitor that makes him precisely the right villain for *this* group of heroes and nobody else. They have good design work, and Mr. Isaacs turns in a lovely performance, but it's all in service of a sort of bland, opaque, generalized evil.
And so it goes, with this ordinary villain looming in the background. The season competently mines character backstories for current-day adventures. It makes neat little self-contained stories as they slowly go up against the Inquisitor. And they do a fine-enough job of planting plot points in earlier episodes to pay off in later ones. It's surprising, though, that they never make Lothal feel a strong sense of place, even though almost all the action centers on it.
There are a few ways the show does shine. I give it full marks for taking advantage of its medium, and doing things that would be hard-to-impossible even in big-budget films. For example, about half an hour into the season they have a full-on zero-gravity mêlée. As the show continues, we have impossibly fast lightsaber battles, massive and complicated space-dogfights, and incalculable damage to buildings and facilities.
It's also pleasant to see more women and POC in among the white dudes and aliens, both in the characters and the voice casting, than one sees in earlier Star Wars properties.
And finally, the design work is lovely. The characters may not get the best writing on TV, but they *look* like distinct characters. And Lothal may not have the strongest cohesive identity, but the individual scenes *look* wonderful.
In the end, I can't recommend this one, but I'm glad it's out there. I'm sure there are kids that love Star Wars, who want whatever content they can get, and who aren't old men who hold kids' TV up to impossible, Dragon Prince-level standards. For the rest of us, Rebels isn't bad, but in this era of Infinite Amazing Television, who has time for 'not bad'?
Photographs (video game)
This is the 2019 puzzle game from Eighty-Eight Games, best known for addictive and whimsical "match-three RPGs" 1000000 and You Must Build a Boat.
Photographs might be the saddest video game I've ever played.
The story has five chapters. Each chapter follows a different person. Each person has an independent story. You progress their story by solving puzzles, alternating between taking photographs of some detail in a static scene (based on some simple hint like "houseplants" or "good morning") and solving some board-game puzzle.
When I say "board-game puzzle", I mean something like a chess puzzle: you have a board, you have pieces on the board, you have rules governing their movement, and you have a clear objective. And each chapter has its own board-game mechanic — the chapter about a diver, for example, has a little physics simulator based around shooting an object into a tub of water.
Another good reference point here is The Witness, in that each chapter introduces a very simple puzzle mechanic, and then gradually introduces complications and complexity until you have something brain-bending and nigh-insolvable. The game really shines in creating this wide variety of puzzle mechanics, and finding clever and fascinating ways to up the difficulty. On top of that, the changes reflect the progression of the story.
But, like, I mentioned, this may be the saddest game I've ever played. The first story includes a housecat that gets subjected to medical experiments and then dies miserably. And that's a thing happening in the *background* of a story that is itself far sadder. Another chapter is about slavery and genocide. The tales are so bleak, by the time chapter five rolls around, you wonder, okay, how is *this* one going to end with some combination of death, suicide, and losing everything worth living for?
Honestly, the game rides the edge of turning into comedy — your brain is always a moment away from just sitting back and laughing at it all, as you watch one miserable downward spiral after another. And it's followed by an endgame that *reminds* you how awful all of these people feel.
And... on some level, I have to respect all of this. After a zillion playthroughs of "find the magical whatsit to stop the evil Lord Whoozat", or "explore a space and discover the melancholy, indie-rock-soundtracked thing that happened there", I appreciate a game that's just "watch this character spiral and spiral into a fate far worse than death". It's not *fun*, exactly, but it is affecting, engaging, and differetn.
I'm glad I played this game, and I can, with reservations, recommend it. The puzzles are wonderful to sit with and figure out — I'd urge you to ignore the dynamic hint system and just accept that some of these will take a long time to solve, and you might do well, with some puzzles, to take a walk and come back to it. The stories are miserable, but engaging. And the whole thing is done in the same 8-bit, NES-esque style as Eighty-Eight's other games.
It's unique, it doesn't take long to play, and it is, in its way, rewarding.
Undertale [partially played]
This is the 2015 indie game from Toby Fox. It's an 8-bit-style adventure game about a kid that gets stranded in an underworld of monsters.
I won't spend long discussing this — I played it for a couple of hours and then gave up — but the discussion has to include spoilers, so: be warned.
I think this is the first time I've played a game that is widely renowned to be one of the best indie games ever made and just felt... nothing. I felt nothing towards it besides shrugging indifference. I know. I know. Even Zero Punctuation loves this game.
I guess the main problem was that I had it... not exactly spoiled for me, but I found out *exactly* the wrong piece of information. Specifically, I found out that it, under some circumstances, had characters remember actions you had taken on previous abandoned saves, and that influenced how things went later on. "Ah," I thought. "This is some sort of morality-based thing."
So I tried not attacking the monsters. And I discovered that I could just walk away from fight after fight after fight. There was a big confrontation with the first boss — an over-the-top motherly figure who is intent on keeping you in level one, and I puzzled for a while over how to not fight her. I finally cheated, checked on-line, and realized you had to choose "don't fight", like, thirty-six times in a row while the dialog seemingly looped. Well ok then.
(This relates to another aspect of the game, where certain game elements are intentionally tedious — long, long hallways, for example, or one-track dialog trees that take ages to get through.)
And so I was spending my precious time on a game where I was (1) repeatedly walking away from random combat, and (2) occasionally solving childish little puzzles. And I was encountering fantasy characters who seemed to be written by a middle-schooler who was Intensely Feeling Things.
And mind you, all that's fine, and can lead to perfectly-okay storytelling, but I was faced with a game mechanic that was somehow more walking-simulator than any walking simulator I've yet played.
I suspect I would have connected to it more if I'd been more into 8- and 16-bit RPGs back in the day. If I'd seen the original Zelda as a story instead of a series of twitch-reflex tests and patience-straining puzzles. If I'd played Earthbound. If I could remember *anything* about Chrono Trigger. As it is, I can see it's subverting the tropes of that style of game, but it's... singularly peculiar to watch something subvert a genre you're mostly unaware of. It's like there's an implied "wink" every few minutes for no discernible reason.
So halfway through Snowdin, I gave up. Playing this game was, for me, interchangeable with watching a playthrough of the game. Plus, the game has specific save points — I tend to play games in 10-minute lulls between work, so if I can't shut a game down at any arbitrary point, it doesn't really work for me.
I'm willing to accept that I'm wrong about disliking this game. I don't begrudge anyone their enjoyment of it. I do see that there's a massive amount of depth to how they've written it, and a huge amount of replay value. But games are what I do for fun, and if it's just boring me, I can't stick with it.
For next week: watching Barry on DVD; watching the first season of Club de Cuervos and the second season of The Tick on streaming, reading Storm in a Teacup and Because Internet, and listening to an audiocourse about evolution.
¹ ... and his American Beauty discussion stays almost comically clear of discussing Kevin Spacey.
² In the book itself, Professor McWhorter prefers "Black English", not least because we've had significant immigration directly from Africa in recent decades. If your name is Hans and you're from South Africa and you just moved to New York, you're definitely African-American, and you're definitely *not* speaking AAVE.
³ ... and rather less-fascinating things to say when he swerves out of his lane to deliver op-eds on politics.