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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Sunday (1/3/16) 5:48pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  Ready Player One
Movies:  The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo (1996)
TV:  <none>

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
This is a book about a virtual-reality puzzle-hunt set up by an eccentric billionaire who was obsessed with 80s nerd culture.

You wouldn't think that something as specific as "YA dystopian near-future life-and-death game show" would become a thriving, culture-dominating subgenre, yet here we are.  You can practically mad-lib them out: "Meet young <x>, who is troubled by <y>, and volunteers for a reality-show-esque contest because of <z>.  But when <a> enters the picture, it quickly becomes a matter of life and death, and our contestant has to use their preternatural skills at <b> to succeed -- will they beat the game and, in so doing, take down their evil dystopian <c> overlords?  Find out in this exciting story!"  Thus goeth The Hunger Games, and The Maze Runner, and Battle Royale, and now, Ready Player One.

It makes sense that this form constantly recurs, because it's a solid storytelling structure.  Simple sports-style games are the solid-est stories there are -- there's a clear physical action, and some number of competitors trying to do it.  Instantly, that tells the audience what the stakes are, what the objective is, and what adversity is getting thrown in the protagonist's way.[1]  Set your contest in a world of dystopian corporate-ocracy and add a layer of reality-show voyeurism to the mix, and the story instantly feels like relevant commentary on modern times.  Ready Player One is no exception -- it's a hell of a page-turner, and it feels absolutely relevant to the 2010s.

That said, it's not particularly deep.  In the Buffy writers' room, they were fond of determining, early on, "what an episode is about" versus "what an episode is really about".  (e.g., it's about "an invisible girl tormenting the school", but it's really about "feeling invisible among your peers".)  In this case, the story is *about* "a kid solving an elaborate 80s-themed puzzle", but it's *really* about... er, no, that's pretty much it.  Pretty much just about the puzzle hunt.  Oh, sure, the story feints a few times towards "it's about Wade growing up" or "it's about Wade learning to appreciate the real world", but that's only a smattering of sententious moments.  Really, it's about the game.

And it's fine that it's about the game.  The game is fun.  They set up a hell of a villain -- the Big Bad is basically Time Warner Cable run amok, which is about as evil as it gets, and set up an appropriately douchey corporate overlord that we can focus our hatred on.  And the game is all focused on 1980s nerd culture -- as one friend put it, this is the shallow pleasure of hearing a band shouting "It's awesome to rock out in <your town name here>!", but it's still delightful to see, say, an elaborate re-staging of Monty Python and the Holy Grail or an entire planet devoted to a live-action re-creation of Zork.  And there's a certain level of wish-fulfillment to imagining that, say, one's ability to recite long stretches of Blackadder from memory might someday serve some practical purpose.  (Just as a random example.)

You do have to turn off your brain a bit, though.  If you have any familiarity with, say, the MIT Mystery Hunt, you know how smart, determined players can make absolute mincemeat of seemingly-impenetrable clues very, very quickly.  So when you see a clue in this story, untangle it in five seconds, and then watch the entire fictional world be baffled by it for months and/or years, you just have to accept that, okay, this is fiction, and often it is going to strain disbelief.

Still, there are aspects of the novel that feel smart.  The story's world-building feels wonderfully detailed and convincing -- all the near-future aspects of the story, from the VR immersive technologies to the energy crisis to the shantytown stacks of mobile homes, feel just out-there enough to be exciting and different, but close enough to modern times to feel like sensible extrapolations.  Little details, like this world's security measures or gun-control regulations, help fill out the world nicely.  And it also at least has a go at exploring virtual-reality issues.  It was nice to finally see a scene where somebody awkwardly meets someone in real life that they've known for years online, or to depict how people delight in playing characters very different from themselves.  It's kind of analogous to all the 80s references -- it doesn't have much to say *about* that material, but you still get that pleasant frisson of recognition.

Finally, I cannot say enough good things about Wil Wheaton's performance of the audiobook.  His sharp characters, smooth delivery, and clear enthusiasm for the material raises this storytelling to another level, and (I suspect) makes this book several times more fun than it is on the page.

So: it's a fun yarn in a fun world.  Don't expect more than that, and you won't be at all disappointed.

(Side note: I found it delightful that the book's eccentric billionaire had re-created his childhood home inside of a video game.  I mean, that's just crazy.)

The Hudsucker Proxy
This is the 1994 Coen Brothers screwball comedy about a naïve, fledgling business executive who gets put in charge of a massive company by a sinister board of directors with greedy plans of their own.

I'm rarely baffled when a movie flops.  Even with movies I really love -- say, Inside Llewyn Davis -- I recognize that those films are for a niche audience: if you're fascinated by the 60s New York folk scene and you don't mind plot-light storytelling, then sure, Inside Llewyn Davis is for you.  In music, sometimes, I'll stumble across a pop gem and see no good reason it never broke big.  But movies?  The ones that are great, the ones that are accessible, those movies nearly always break big.  Right?

So The Hudsucker Proxy confuses me -- it's joyous and big-hearted and fun and well-acted and well-constructed, and... it was a flop.  Commercially and critically, it was an absolute bomb.  Nobody saw it, and nobody liked it.  And I just can't figure that out.  Okay, sure, the title is terrible -- it's up there with Terriers in the pantheon of "titles designed to keep audiences away".  And, while the film is absolutely delightful if you know your way around 1950s cinema, maybe this obsessive fixation on it makes the film inaccessible?  But that doesn't seem quite right -- recall that this movie came out over 20 years ago, and as far as I can tell, if you can understand a Warner Brothers cartoon, you can 'get' The Hudsucker Proxy.

The only thing I can figure is that it was the wrong movie for its time.  Come gather round, kiddos, and let Uncle Peter tell you about the 1990s.  The mid-90s were the heyday of a sort of protective, defensive irony, where everyone affected to be too smart to really feel anything besides a blasé, jaded resentment of how phony everything was.  And if "yeah, whatever" is your take on the world, then The Hudsucker Proxy, which all but quotes It's a Wonderful Life right out of the gate, will stay out of reach.  I could see confused gen-X-ers asking, "Wait, is this, like, a parody of those cheesy, stupid movies my parents like?"  No, my disaffected, underemployed, flannel-clad, time-traveling friend.  No it is not.  It is the thing itself.

Maybe I wouldn't have understood The Hudsucker Proxy as a teenager, when it came out.  And in that case, I'm glad I've lived long enough to watch it now.

The movie plays earnest, and plays broad, and it loves every second of it.  You liked crazy Fritz-Lang-style dystopian buildings?  Get ready for a pneumatic-tube system that sits on the border between that and Terry Gilliam in full Brazil mode.  You like the old "fast-talking girl reporter" trope, à la Katharine Hepburn?  Jennifer Jason Leigh plays this to a T, with the added joy of Bruce Campbell (!) as her competition.  This is the world of big, broad, operatic emotions, the world of Capra or Sirk or Preston Sturges.  Half of the delight of this film is that the movie knows exactly what tone it's going for, and everyone involved clearly loves going 'all in' for it.

And many writers have pointed out that this film can, in some ways, out-'50 the '50s.  They can do special effects and camerawork that was unavailable to their inspirations, and go whirling through the guts of the Hudsucker building in a way that Lang could have only dreamed of.  And I suspect that a screwball comedy in the '90s can move even faster than its source material from the '40s and '50s -- if the cinema audience is anything like the TV audience, then they were trained over the decades to take in storytelling audiovisuals faster.  It's everything it draws from, only even more so.

I feel like I'm not really discussing the movie at all.  I've said hardly anything as to what it's about.  But then, maybe a movie like this isn't really about what it's about -- there's a plot, sure, and there are characters, of course, and the plot is well-constructed and the characters are distinctive, but this flick is about tone and feeling.  It's about that moment where the hard-nosed lady reporter admits that gosh darn it, falling in love with the fella she had the scoop on wasn't part of the plan.  It's about the bright art-deco sets with angular sculptures and wide-open spaces.  It's about briefly including Steve Buscemi as a beatnik, juice-bar bartender, BECAUSE HOW IS THAT NOT FUN.

I rarely implore people to watch the movies I see, but this one deserves your time and attention.  Give The Hudsucker Proxy a shot.

Fargo (1996)
This is the 1996 Coen Brothers film about a botched kidnapping in Minneapolis, and the subsequent investigation.  It's widely regarded as the Coen Brothers' best film.

The Hudsucker Proxy was great, but their next effort, Fargo is even greater.  Simply put, it deserves all the hype.  I was worried it wouldn't hold up -- it's been at least a decade since I've seen it -- but I think I liked it even more this time around.

What struck me most this time is (1) how complex the movie is, and (2) how simple it seems.  That is like a goddamn magic trick.  Fargo isn't quite as byzantine as, say, Miller's Crossing -- but if you're reaching for that as the nearest comparison, that tells you something.  It's far twistier than Blood Simple, which means it's more complicated than nearly every film out there.  There are a half-dozen double-crosses in the botched kidnapping of Jean Lundegaard, and the wikipedia entry's "Plot" section needs about 700 words to run it all down.

But it plays absolutely clearly.  It plays like they didn't bother constructing a plot -- they just had Jerry Lundegaard plan the worst possible crime, and let everything that would naturally go wrong with it happen.  Every time somebody sends the crime spinning into a new, chaotic direction, they're just doing what you expect them to.  Of course Gustafson wants to handle the drop himself.  Of course Showalter asks for more money.  Of course they screw everything up, interlopers get in the way, and Grimsrud patiently kills all of them.  In the moment it all makes sense.  But I can say from experience, when somebody asks you right afterwards, "What happened in that movie?", your brain ties itself in a knot trying to recall all the twists and turns.

And best of all, none of these developments feel like Brownian motion -- it's not the plot darting in this random direction, then that one, à la Burn After Reading.  The whole story is a tale of things getting worse, and worse, and worse for Jerry Lundegaard.  Every double-cross, every mischance, every complication, every single one is something that gets Jerry in even deeper trouble.  Everything follows that through-line so consistently that you can almost hear the man sigh when his car pulls up to Gustafson's corpse, sits there a moment, and then pops open its trunk.  One more thing.

And obviously I can't say enough good things about police chief Marge Gunderson, easily the best role in Frances McDormand's amazing career.  It's wonderful to see her show up to the first crime scene, note all the relevant pieces of evidence, and casually reconstruct the entire series of events we saw ten minutes before.  And there's a sense that, in the real world, this is how a smart person would actually do that.  So often a film tries to tell us "this is a smart detective" by (1) saying, outright, in dialog, "this person is a genius!", and (2) basically giving the detective magic powers.  Oh, the criminal left a particular kind of tobacco on the scene that's only available in Borneo, and you see from the spatter pattern that it was dropped by a six-foot-tall left-handed person?  That's not solving a crime.  That's a screenwriter giving you a cheat code so you can move on to the next level.

Meanwhile, the Coen Brothers do the opposite of that.  Nobody tells us Gunderson is a genius.  She just shows up, unassuming, a paragon of affable politeness, makes a lot of brilliant conclusions, and patiently follows the trail of clues.

And it's awesome to see this crime disaster play out against the relentless (some would say exaggerated) "Minnesota Nice" of the Coen Brothers' Minneapolis upbringing.  It's not just that Jerry is enraged and desperate and miserable -- it's that he's enraged and desperate and miserable and can't reveal even a scintilla of that to anyone.  There are, I think, two moments where Jerry is completely alone, and snaps, breaking into flailing, ineffectual violence.  But in both shots, the outburst is short-lived.  Jerry polices himself so relentlessly that, even when he's completely alone, after a few seconds he stops himself, breathes, and looks around to make sure nobody was watching.

In a way, this feels like a synthesis of the work that they've done to this point.  Fargo has the heightened world and heightened characters that would, if taken to a further extreme, characterize something like Raising Arizona or The Hudsucker Proxy.  Hell, I've said nothing to how funny this movie is, even with something as simple as persistently describing Steve Buscemi's character as just "funny-looking".  But at its center, Fargo has a punishing crime plot that's every bit as bleak as Blood Simple or Miller's Crossing.

This is an amazing piece of cinema.

For next week: I'm watching season 3 of Good Eats and season 2 of Last Week Tonight while exercising.  I've also been watching Fullmetal Alchemist.  And I'm sure I'll write about more Coen Brothers movies, a self-help book, and more Conan stories in due time.

[1] And yet I'm a complete snob towards sports.  This is because I'm a total hypocrite.

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