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

Sunday (3/5/17) 6:18pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue
Movies:  The Lego Batman Movie
TV:  <none>
Other:  The Beginner's Guide [video game]

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter
This is pop-linguist John McWhorter's 2009 book that outlines his controversial theories about the influence of Celts and Vikings on the development of the English language.

At this point, I'll read pretty much anything McWhorter puts out.[1] He's one of the clearest and funniest science writers out there, and he happens to focus on linguistics, one of my favorite scientific fields. So of course I enjoyed this book. It expands on two topic he's touched on elsewhere: the way Viking conquests sort of 'sanded down' English, removing lots of fiddly complexities; and the way living alongside the Celtic languages of the British Isles introduced some truly bizarre fiddly complexities into the language.[2]

On those two subjects, the book is fascinating, foregrounding the oddest idiosyncrasies of English, drilling down into them, and then providing lengthy and compelling evidence that these cultural interactions -- with the Celts and with the Vikings -- made these quirks happen. With this material, the book is at its strongest.

When it wanders from those topics, it weakens. It feels like it's lost its focus -- it's still entertaining writing, but I'm never sure why it belongs in the book. He goes on a long screed against the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, for example. And, while he does provide strong arguments against it, and a few tantalizing summaries of the research neo-Whorfians are doing in that department, it feels like a random digression.

And besides, Mr. McWhorter has since written The Language Hoax, which focuses exclusively (and exhaustively) on Sapir-Whorf to far better effect.

But when this book sticks to its proverbial knitting, it's a much more engaging read. The waves of influence, from the Celts to the Vikings to (in what he admits is his riskiest leap) even possibly the Phoenecians, he pieces together compelling arguments for cultural collisions making English really damn weird.

I would read other books by Professor McWhorter first. I'd likely start with Words on the Move, move on to his linguistics course for The Teaching Company, and then dive into The Language Hoax. But after all of those, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is a fine way to delve deeper into some of the linguist's favorite theories about English.

The Lego Batman Movie
This is the spin-off of The Lego Movie that focuses squarely on Will Arnett's take on Batman, as the self-absorbed vigilante has to learn teamwork to spoil the Joker's most nefarious plan yet.

Remember watching The Lego Movie and discovering it to be much more affecting and emotional than you thought it would be? You probably expected something light, and silly, and inconsequential, but still very fun, and then pow, there's a third act twist and NO, *YOU'RE* CRYING, DON'T JUDGE ME. Ahem. Anyway, the slight confection of a movie you expectied The Lego Movie to be? That's what The Lego Batman Movie delivers.

And that's fine -- but it means that I don't have much to say about it.

Yes, it's funny, and yes, the jokes work. When it comes to playing a blustering fool who tries to pass off his self-absorbed ignorance as suave bravado, nobody is in Will Arnett's league except... who? Trump, maybe? But Arnett is funnier. And the movie deploys him perfectly, kicking off with Batman talking up the opening credits of the film and just flying from there.

Adorably, the movie tries to have a storyline, something about learning to work together or something. Predictably, it falls into the same hole The Lego Movie fell into by partnering its bro hero with a lady heroine who seems like the levelheaded one who *should* be in charge, but isn't, because, well, patriarchy. Anyway, you watch the story try to muster an emotional arc, and you give it a thumbs-up for trying real hard.

With the storyline more-or-less a dud, the movie lives and dies on the strength of its jokes. Fortunately, the jokes are frequent and impressive. We're more than halfway through the picture and the flick still has "an embarrassed Godzilla backing away into the water" up its sleeve. They even deploy some deep-nerd jokes (yes, the Condiment King is a thing) for the Batman aficionados.[3]

There are action sequences, but I was kind of jaded to them, beyond the usual "oh, they did something neat with lots of CGI bricks -- *golf clap* -- good show". None of it's really edge-of-your-seat, nail-biting action, both because it's just a bunch of minifigs, and because it's all CGI, and because this is the sort of movie where all the gunfire sounds are literally the shooters saying "pew! pew! pew!" over and over again. (And also because we've seen the whole "CGI legos" trick before, with The Lego Movie.)

So it's fine. It probably doesn't merit its lengthy running time. It'll have a sequel, I'm sure, that'll be another pile of sketches with another murderer's row of comic voice actors. And that'll be fine, too. Watch it while you're folding laundry, have a laugh, carry on with your life.

The Beginner's Guide [video game]
This is the 2015 production in which a game designer presents a curated collection of experimental minigames from "Coda", a friend of his.

I'm glad I played this after playing The Witness through from start to quasi-finish. Mr. Blow's effort was coy, and cold, and distant, and playing it all but compelled you to build a "crazy murder wall" to try to piece together what it all "meant". After those twenty-odd hours of gameplay, the mental gears that try to find the Deep Hidden Meanings of video games were all spun out.

That meant I was able to take The Beginner's Guide on its own terms. I played through its levels. I didn't really veer from the present moment, diving away from the story to think of, ooh, what is this designer *really* saying, and what is real and what is imagined, and what are its implications about the relationship between the designer and the audience, and and and.... Instead, I was just listening to the story, learning about Coda, and learning about the narrator as well along the way.

And I feel good about that. I'm sure the crazy-murder-wall approach is one way to appreciate The Beginner's Guide, but I'm content that, for me, it was more like seeing a mountain, and appreciating that it was there, without needing to know what it 'really meant'. It was an affecting story about two game designers, told via narration and mini-games. If it made me think, it made me think about relationships rather than any inside-baseball game-building stuff.

And it was refreshing to come back to this game after being out of the gaming loop for decades. It's nice to see this level of experimentation at play -- The Beginner's Guide sits in the hazy border between "game" and "art installation" -- when all I'd heard about from gaming for so many years was another variation on a shooter, or another variation on a MMORPG, or another EA sportsing title.

It's a quick playthrough -- maybe the length of a movie -- but it's a fascinating piece of work, and well worth your time.

For next week: I'm now listening to an audiocourse about neurology-based life hacks. Meanwhile, I'm still reading that book about the chemistry of cooking and I'm still watching season one of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.  While exercising, I'm on season 11 of Good Eats and season 3 of Last Week Tonight.

[1] Apparently his next book is about African-American vernacular English -- eagerly awaiting that one.
[2] Most notably, 'meaningless do', as in "I didn't sleep." The "did" accomplishes absolutely nothing in that sentence, but only an awkward Renn Faire attendee would say "I slept not."
[3] Side note: it is always so damn heartwarming to see Bill Finger credited on Batman properties these days.

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