All posts by DanLevine

Akira (1982-1990): Reconciling the Atomic Bomb

There has been much written on the 1988 film version of Akira but very little written in or translated into English that I can find on the ~2200 page comic book version. This is a shame because the comic book is the superior work-wider in scope, more brilliantly realized in the drawing, with dozens of memorable and three dimensional characters. The plot is byzantine and intricate in ways that can’t be stuffed into a 2 hour movie. The manga also reads much more fluently. The film is a collection of exceptional images. The manga is a fully realized and developed piece of art. It doesn’t feel long because you want there to be more. It has the gritty, street level qualities of violent pulp or West Side Story and the operatic scale and reach of Tolstoy or Wagner. It reads as fluidly as any comic ever made. A person with some experience reading comics could finish this in 2-3 days, I’ve finished it in a single day more than once. Don’t let the big page count scare you.

It takes place in 2019. Which we all survived. Well sorta. Thankfully no one that I heard about developed telekinesis, but a lot of other things went poorly. We did a lot better than the people of 2019 in this book is what I’m saying.

What does it all mean?

(as you might imagine, there are spoilers ahead. If you’ve never read Akira, do some googling, get to reading, and come back.)

Akira is a story about the relationship between children and adults, the catastrophic end-times-y quality of the post-nuclear era, the trauma of the bomb, the scarily exciting parts of apocalyptic daydreams.

The comic and movie both begin and end with a single explosion destroying most of Tokyo. In the comic variations on this event happen several times. Neither one makes any direct written references to WWII but we can guess that Hiroshima and Nagasaki also happened in this universe because of the fact so much promotional material used the tagline “30 Years After WWIII” and the Americans are shown as having developed nuclear weapons towards the end of the series. Post-apocalyptic fiction wasn’t new at the time, but nothing before Akira painted the post-apocalyptic world order quite so vividly.

While it would be quite a stretch to call the series realistic, the overarching view of the world shown in the text doesn’t vary that wildly from what we’re seeing politically now. Neo-Tokyo is shown the catastrophic impacts that messing with natural order of things can cause. 30 years later and rebuilt, the society is shown to have learned little to nothing-the telekinetic power of Akira, the power that destroyed Tokyo and later destroys Neo-Tokyo, is treated as a political means to an end or without much concern whether it destroys the world or not. If you substitute “telekinetic power” with “climate change”…

What 15 years ago when I first read this looked like kinetically paced science fiction seems closer and closer to the present. There is a lot of random gun violence in the street. Motorcycles didn’t make quite the comeback that Katsuhiro Otomo imagined, but the sense of warring extremist political factions doing their thing in front of a looming catastrophe resonates pretty hard in the US right now.

The central metaphor of the series is “the power”-the psychic abilities emerging in random individuals, parceled out in wildly varying levels. The power doesn’t seem to have a type except that it doesn’t emerge later than the age of 20. The physical development of the person with the power halts once they manifest the power, but they continue to age and wrinkle. The power is something latent in people that was then magnified/accelerated by government testing. The test subjects that didn’t die or become vegetables became powerful psychics who could do everything from destroying buildings to teleporting to seeing the future. Although it’s played very differently here, it isn’t that different from something like X-Men with the mutant powers. In some ways this could be read as one of the darkest superhero narratives ever done (with the acknowledgement that that probably wasn’t Otomo’s intention.)

There’s no guarantee that person’s gifted with awesome powers will use them for the public good and in practice most don’t. It doesn’t take a lot of bad apples to make for serious problems in this case.

There are some interesting omissions in this book-we never see anyone’s parents or hear about any parents besides a throwaway line Kei says to Kaneda early in the book when he comes onto her-“I could never look my dear mother in the eye again if I did.” The only two people in the book who are actually related are Kay and her aunt Chiyoko. In all 2000+ pages, we get maybe 10 total pages of flashbacks; while the teenagers in the story have no parents, they have inherited the problems created by their elders; they nonetheless always look forwards. They default to praxis. There is very little overt discussion of ideology. The famous motorcycles (which in the manga only show up in 2/6ths of the story) were meant to evoke images of the Japanese youth protest movement that emerged after WWII, the same movement portrayed in Nagisa Oshima’s Night And Fog In Japan. That’s about as close to an explicit political parallel or source in the text beyond the clear evocation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the two page spreads of enormous dome shaped explosions at multiple points in the text.

What we get instead of the verbose philosophizing of a Ghost In The Shell is an ideology described in the terms of the actions of the characters; they see situations and respond to them according to their loose prerogatives or because it’s a vision they think is their destiny. This collection of motives makes them more fluid-they feel fleshed out because every element of their visual presence from their body language to their clothing to their surroundings are carefully considered and realized. His designs are striking. He lets those do a lot of the heavy lifting-compared to US comics, there are effectively no strictly narrative captions, few captions period, and exposition is kept to a bare minimum in favor of fast paced relentless forward motion.

The world of Akira is what I would call the hyper-Anthropocene. The only nature we see is the water surrounding the island of Tokyo. There are no trees or flowers or really…plants at all in this book. The only food specifically named is “synthetic fish”. We are often shown skyscrapers either lit up or contorted into rubble; people who like photos of liminal spaces should find plenty to love in Akira. This ensures that the technological destruction that riddles this text happens in the face of a man-made and man-destroyed environment. In some sense Tetsuo’s god-like powers to mold and destroy his environment with no real boundaries until his power to do so ultimately consumes him is humanity in the Anthropocene.

Since I put the spoiler warning, let’s go really hard on that and go directly to the end. This is a book that, while it’s rarely discussed, has 2 endings. To explain this, let’s go into the publication history of Akira. Akira first showed up in Young Magazine #24, released in 1983. The very first release of the manga was put out in chapters around 20 pages in length in Young Magazine in another 119 issues, making for 120 episodes total in the original publication. The serial ended in 1990. From 1989-1996 it was flipped, translated, and digitally colored by Steve Oliff for release in the US by Marvel, split over 38 issues instead the 120 of Young or the 6 volume split used in all subsequent releases. It is still being reissued in multiple languages up to the present day.

The ending in most collected forms of Akira is a 20 page epilogue following Akira’s absorbing Tetsuo inside of himself. In the Marvel version, this is issue 38. Foreign governments show up to Neo-Tokyo to render aid and the surviving members of the cast tell them off, and falsely imply Akira is still alive in order to maintain their sovereignty. The last page is a 2 page spread of giant buildings and the survivors riding motorcycles into the distance. It’s not a terrible ending, but in my mind I feel like the original ending is a more effective point to leave off. The 120th and final installment that was published in Young Magazine is usually collected as the 2nd to last chapter, issue 37 in the Marvel version. This ending leaves us on a splash page with no dialogue. Here are the original last two pages that were printed in Young Magazine (not scanned from a Young Magazine because I am not rich):

And here’s the actual last page in the Dark Horse edition:

I much prefer the first image. It leaves the future in the literal foreground; suddenly, finally freed of the threat of the psychokinetic children, Kei and Kaneda survey the ruins. It should also be noted that most of the series takes place at night or in dark indoor spaces-the colorized version’s one weakness is that sometimes the coloring is too dark and it obscures Otomo’s line work. The sun coming out finally and seeing the wreckage we’ve seen so often in darkness in the light of a beautiful day gets the point across succinctly and beautifully-the future is for the youth and theirs, if they should be so lucky as to snatch it from the hands of the mistakes of their elders. The epilogue chapter does a somewhat sloppy job of underlining that point. We don’t need to see the buildings reconstructed, or Tetsuo and Yamagata’s ghost heads above them as they ride off on motorcycles. In the original ending, their destiny is entirely, or at least as much as it ever has been, in their hands, not even influenced by the machinations of the author.

So the surviving Neo Tokyo residents, mostly the younger ones, get to write their own version of their environment, if only in the limited area of Neo-Tokyo, now renamed “The Great Akira Empire”. They reenact the Anthropocene in their own image. We are asked to hope that this society will turn out better.

Death and Vintage

In the past year I opened a used media store, which has, through various twists and turns, brought me back to this website. I probably boiled some of these down into some of the 300 Memos To Myself, so forgive me if I repeat myself. You can check that one out here: https://writerswithoutmoney.com/2023/04/05/300-memos-to-myself/

In running a second hand store a person is given insight and direct field research into two subjects that tend to be poorly understood by literary critics-why do people buy books (or records, or tapes, or whatever), why do people get rid of books (or records, etc.)? What is their relationship to these things?

A lot of the turnaround of my business, as is the case with my father’s business, revolves around death. People own stuff, people die, and one of the first things to be resolved upon their death is what to do with their stuff. Frequently they come to me.

The first step in many large book purchases is hearing when the owner of the books died. You rarely hear how they died, and it’s probably better that way. The caller shortly or, more often, at length memorializes the deceased and more specifically, their relationship to the books. Usually a hobby is the organizing locus of the collection. Some collections are less collections and more accumulations. If you go to the house to pick up the collection, you’re often the person to disassemble the living space of the dead person. If they’re older, the books are staged in a living space the dead person presumably occupied for some time. You see their interests, sometimes their fantasies, whether they went to college, what they did for work, books reflecting difficulties they had with their children or marriage or parents or health, books given to them by family and close acquaintances they may or may not have read.

I first reflected on the mess of an estate as a naturally emerging self-portraiture early in my book hunting, not too many months after I met Stan. I had a bicycle then and I would ride on it during the day picking up books off the street. I’d walk around at night as well. Blocks and blocks of almost mirrored windows and stoops. One of those nights I stumbled on a water damaged box with some paperbacks. On top were three or four books about how to parent a teenager-the titles were things like “How To Talk To Your Teenager” and “Mom You’re Such A Bitch, Why Can’t I Borrow The Car?”. The latter had either an actual or imitation Roz Chast drawing on the cover. At the bottom, more water damaged than the other books by some margin, was an orange book called “The Bereaved Parent”. I left them there, but the image of it remained with me. The sky was a deep blue slightly illuminated by street lamps. It all felt like how my dreams look.

Ever since then, when I encounter a large collection where I need to make an offer quickly, I rely on a sort of calculus of what other books are likely to be in the lot. Did this person read a lot of introductory books or did they delve deeply into one or two subjects? How did this person handle their objects? Did they see these things as important or disposable? How obsessive was their relationship to packaging? The most valuable collections often aren’t the product of healthy minds.

Does an object carry a certain energy when you’re aware of its former lodgings? An old roommate and I would often riff on the idea of a Pixar musical called either “House Of Unwanted Objects” or “Land Of Fraught Objects”. It would take place in a pawn shop, and each of the glass case items would sing an introductory song about how they ended up in the pawn shop. Some would be bought, others recycled or disposed of.

Much later I bought a tub of books from a house abandoned by an infamous art dealer/suspected murderer. They aren’t anywhere close to the full collection. They’re mostly large art books. One on Giacommetti, one on folk art, one a collection of homoerotic ostensibly artistic nudes. What did they tell me about this man?

The dealer I bought the books from told me they’d found bizarre things in the house-small baggies of crystal meth, a bust by Renoir, old police reports, photos from family holidays. The pictures looked incredibly mundane-for such a frightful character, all the photo showed was man in a sweater reclined near a Christmas tree.

Why did I want to look for furtive clues of the sinister things I knew in the banal things set in front of me?

It passes time I guess?

———————–

NOTICE: This is jukebox week. Put what you want me to write about in the comments and I’ll write articles about the first three subjects you suggest. This should be a fun experiment.

300 Memos To Myself

  1. People like it when you take the time to learn their first name and use it when speaking to them.
  2. If the artist was popular at the time of an album’s release, the first pressing is probably the most common one.
  3. Only deal with what you know, but also try to know more every day.
  4. The easiest way to save money is to listen to what other people aren’t listening to. Per Robert Frost: “The good things are hidden so the wrong ones can’t find them.”
  5. If you’re selling online and the buyer has an issue with an item, never give partial refunds, always ask for returns.
  6. If all other sellers you meet think an entire genre is categorically not valuable, that is the genre you should research.
  7. The most costly part of haggling is emotional stress.
  8. The more expensive the restaurant is, the less food they serve you. This is because most of their clientele does not do physical labor during the day.
  9. Something being rare doesn’t inherently mean something is valuable.
  10. Something being valuable doesn’t inherently mean something is rare.
  11. Don’t ask “is this valuable?”, ask “(why) would someone want this?”
  12. Usually the people who argue the most vehemently over a few dollars are the ones who can most afford to spend those few dollars.
  13. A speculator’s market is ultimately only propped up by people who actually want to own the item. Pure speculation always ends in a market collapse.
  14. All sealed items are prints.
  15. The market logic of most media collectibles overlaps with that of prints.
  16. In my line of work, every original is also a copy.
  17. Prices people ask online are just things that haven’t sold yet. Sales records are the only things that matter in appraisal.
  18. Reselling is one of the few jobs where you are genuinely paid to learn new things every day.
  19. If you’re having a problem with a piece of electronics, somebody else has probably had the same problem and complained about it on the internet.
  20. Collecting things yourself is the only way to actually understand the intricacies of resale.
  21. There are always more objects.
  22. Looking for one thing and only one thing, particularly if it’s rare, is a recipe for disappointment. The joy of this discipline is the endless novelty.
  23. Most highly collectible objects were considered garbage at some point.
  24. Brick and mortar is about the sense of community. The internet cannot replicate that.
  25. The best way to always get your money’s worth with a book is to read it and enjoy it.
  26. Every signed object is a rabbit’s foot.
  27. This is the study of peoples’ relationships to objects as much or more than it is the study of the objects themselves.
  28. Your family will have to deal with anything you’ve hoarded when you die. 
  29. Beware of cultural necrophilia. Believing that people aren’t making good art anymore just betrays that you aren’t looking very hard. More importantly, it makes you sound old.
  30. All broken electronics have many useful components that can be reused in other repairs.
  31. The desire for recordings of human culture is a pursuit laced with superstitions. It is very easy to be possessed by the dead.
  32. The contents of a book or record are usually easily available. The container they came in gives their cultural context.
  33. Being picky is not inherently the same as being discerning.
  34. If you think a thing looks cool, somebody else probably also thinks it looks cool.
  35. Much of the desire for cultural objects comes from a sense of rootlessness; a desire for a tangible sense of history in ones surroundings.
  36. Any book you aren’t reading, any record you aren’t listening to, any game you aren’t playing, is decor.
  37. The best book ever written on retail is In Search Of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. Every object is someone’s madeliene cookie. Touch and smell trigger memory.
  38. A desire for the past should not be a solution for a perceived poverty of the present. 
  39. The search for a pristine copy of an object disregards why one should seek a physical object in the first place; don’t become the sort of vampire who can only suck the blood of virgins.
  40. Taking care of objects is important, but so is taking care of ones’ body -regardless, someday we’re all going to die.
  41. Nostalgia is only one reason to engage the past. 
  42. The culture of endless disposability and the culture of hoarding are two sides of the same coin.
  43. All right answers are situational. The desire for absolutes is the desire to stop thinking.
  44. In a capitalist system, people value objects by what other people have paid for them. I sold things on consignment once for a real estate broker; when I explained the most valuable book in his dead father’s house was an academic text on 16th century Italian peasants, he took it with him to read on a plane. He got nothing from it.
  45. Any great work of art is a moving target.
  46. Most of the world’s greatest works have been reproduced to the point of having little monetary value. This is a good thing.
  47. The best way to appreciate what is good in a field one doesn’t understand is to consume something in that field that is bad.
  48. If God created the universe, all media objects are graven images.
  49. Every retail store is also a museum. A grocery store is a museum of the present.
  50. There is no better negotiating tool than genuine enthusiasm. 
  51. Most people coming in to sell things fall into three broad categories: somebody died, somebody got married, somebody really loves going to yard sales.
  52. A compulsive behavior is only a bad thing if approached thoughtlessly.
  53. The object only changes when you do.
  54. I am a benign conspiracist-I believe it is all connected.
  55. CRT televisions are hazardous waste unless used. Give them a home.
  56. Love is a relationship to a thing in motion; anything else is taxidermy.
  57. The artist’s intent is only as important as the intent of the audience.
  58. Be gentle with those looking to learn, be ruthless with those looking to speculate.
  59. Something old isn’t something valuable if the people who wanted it are all dead.
  60. Peel slowly and see.
  61. Save some for later.
  62. You will only find what you are looking for. Anything else will find you.
  63. Everything happens for a reason, but not every reason is a good reason.
  64. The way a person tells a story tells you how they assess their surroundings.
  65. Most broken video game consoles can be fixed by cleaning the cartridge slot with isopropyl alcohol and a toothbrush.
  66. All the dead people who wrote books and recorded music were once living people with problems.
  67. Once you get the message, hang up.
  68. Are you more afraid of death or madness?
  69. The voices in your head telling you to do things aren’t you.
  70. The most difficult part of repairing something most of the time is putting it back together afterwards.
  71. Many things very popular in their time are nearly forgotten now. The canons we receive are what the generation after thought was important.
  72. Talk back to the television.
  73. Anything truly original will arrive without an audience to comprehend it.
  74. Meaning is only one use of language.
  75. There are more rare things than common things. There are just more copies of the common things.
  76. The most important archaeology is that of the present.
  77. Realism is just another aesthetic.
  78. The most dangerous propaganda tries to present itself as having no politics.
  79. Distinctions between high and low culture are primarily distinctions between the economic classes of their consumers.
  80. Most audio cassettes can be repaired by gluing the felt pad back in carefully.
  81. Art is not a discrete category.
  82. You are the only person living your life. Use that.
  83. Streaming is a nightmare for archivists.
  84. Are you building a collection or a youtube set?
  85. Use what’s there.
  86. Do the thing and stop whining.
  87. All small time crooks think they’re master criminals. Getting away with something gives them what they actually want: validation. That’s why they’ll tell you all about it.
  88. The amount of water you get from the river is dependent on the size of the bowl you bring.
  89. “The more you complain, the longer God lets you live.”-Russian proverb
  90. Second hand retail is very dependent on weather.
  91. Know what day of the week it is.
  92. A person’s collection is a record of their life and interests.
  93. Self-help books are rarely helpful.
  94. It’s a thin line that separates the dump and the antique store.
  95. A hipster is someone who isn’t actually enjoying this stuff.
  96. College is mostly useful as a way of delaying employment.
  97. The most valuable thing you can steal is time.
  98. When I worked in a bookstore, the owner was about to go on a vacation. I asked him if he was excited about it. He looked at his shoulder and said “If I had actually achieved zen in my own life, I wouldn’t need vacations.”
  99. Reselling is as much about supply and demand as anything else. Don’t overemphasize the importance of the supply.
  100. If the buyer doesn’t know why they want to buy the item, you need to know why they want to buy the item.
  101. Don’t just research prices.
  102. Fidelity isn’t the only measure of a playback device.
  103. The most useful tools in repairing electronics are a 72 in 1 hobbyist screwdriver set, isopropyl alcohol, and a used toothbrush.
  104. Most keyboards can be cleaned by prying off the keys with a flat head screwdriver and soaking them in soapy water.
  105. Read the manual.
  106. An NES will take nearly any barrel plug power supply 9 volts or over.
  107. “If your guidance counselor was so great at picking jobs, why did they become a guidance counselor?”-Matt Groening, School Is Hell
  108. In a comic book one can’t just show or tell, one must show and tell. What’s being told however doesn’t have to be the same as what is being shown.
  109. Art is about evoking feelings in a controlled setting so those feelings can be taken apart and put back together again.
  110. Haggling is something people only do to small businesses. Be careful not to punch down.
  111. Don’t ask me “What’s the best you can do on this?” I come in every day and do my best. That’s why I look so tired.
  112. One must eventually put their trust in strangers; this is what’s referred to as community.
  113. Know when to stop negotiating.
  114. You pay for everything eventually; be careful what you pay for it with.
  115. Your confidantes are as often as not determined by your sleep patterns.
  116. Your time is worth something, if only because you are going to die someday.
  117. There are many more certainties in life than death and taxes.
  118. Life is inherently repetitive, your readings of these repetitions determine everything.
  119. “I’m practicing how to say it right the first time”-Robert Ashley, Perfect Lives
  120. Meet your heroes in order to realize they are also just people who show up every day.
  121. We are all beholden to idols and graven images; their quantity is the only natural check and balance.
  122. Rough edges are what distinguish an accomplishment from an exercise.
  123. Consider the quantity and pace of production as much as other elements in evaluating a piece.
  124. Industrial society has produced far too many objects. Don’t buy new ones.
  125. If your true love is money, kill yourself.
  126. Don’t be too stupid. Don’t be too smart.
  127. What a practical joke pokes fun at is the idea that we perceive reality directly.
  128. Old ways of thinking fade away when the old people thinking them die.
  129. The value of your excitement in a moment is in that moment.
  130. Don’t talk like you’re being interviewed by The History Channel unless you’re being interviewed by The History Channel.
  131. I’m not the reason your adult children don’t return your phone calls.
  132. Be careful when challenging the state monopoly on violence. A collapsed monopoly of violence is a free market of violence.
  133. Not all aspirations are legitimate.
  134. Have you ever met a black libertarian?
  135. Power and money naturally tend towards accumulation.
  136. The difference between the Kanye West who thought George Bush hated black people and the Kanye West who wants to go deth con 3 on the jews is roughly $500 million dollars.
  137. Racists want to be racist until it substantially disadvantages them. Their comfort and safety is our peril.
  138. No death cult has ever called itself a death cult.
  139. Don’t produce industrial objects without a clear idea where to put them.
  140. If you build it they will come. But who are they?
  141. Any system of psychological analysis that doesn’t confront the death urge is worthless or worse.
  142. Appeasement begins at home.
  143. Fantasies in US culture revolve around three primary themes- committing extralegal violence, owning people by conforming them to the dimensions of fantasy objects, and unambiguously becoming an adult.
  144. Money is translated into unlike objects, unlike objects are then translated back into money or waste.
  145. If you find crackly sounds physically painful why are you collecting records?
  146. Curate your complaints.
  147. Libertarianism is mostly a movement about defending the right to not pay people fair prices for labor.
  148. Being transgressive isn’t enough.
  149. Loving the things you loved as a child isn’t inherently a good thing.
  150. Victim status implies a certain social capital; choose your poor wisely.
  151. If the existence of god can’t be determined either way, both the theists and the atheists are making empty assertions.
  152. Don’t put much stock in individual incidents.
  153. Are you making a conclusion based on an experience because it’s a logical conclusion to make or because you were looking for an excuse to make that conclusion?
  154. Are you grasping your experiences tightly or loosely?
  155. Are you practicing religion or tribalism?
  156. The most valuable part of Marx’s ideas is his rejection of nature, not as a concept but as an inherent good.
  157. It is very often a good thing that people don’t achieve their goals.
  158. Don’t confuse a person talking to themselves with a person talking to you.
  159. The difficult part isn’t killing the king but installing a better successor.
  160. All experiences are ephemeral, time only goes forwards.
  161. Don’t privilege your childhood in your memories if you can help it.
  162. There are far worse qualities a person can embody than insignificance.
  163. Think in terms of actions.
  164. Act thoughtfully.
  165. Free will is a thing you earn, not a thing you’re given.
  166. The nicest car in the world without brakes or steering is just a more expensive way to crash into a tree.
  167. I once asked a therapist why so many intelligent and successful people were miserable. He responded “The crazy is like a goldfish; it grows to the size of the container it’s in.”
  168. A moment doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be specific.
  169. A story that doesn’t go anywhere, or a story that doesn’t need to go anywhere?
  170. Home is a set of repetitions.
  171. Nothing has to be this way.
  172. A sense of history is a sense of impermanence.
  173. Life is repetitive; appreciate small variations.
  174. Folklore lasts longer than whatever happened.
  175. Most folksy phrases about adulthood revolve around themes of disappointment.
  176. Try to seem more wise than old.
  177. Many of life’s most important decisions can only be resolved by gambling.
  178. How far back do you stand in order to see what is important?
  179. Have a holy book.
  180. Knowledge is like clothing; try knowing things until you find the ones that fit.
  181. Don’t fetishize minimalism, don’t fetishize efficiency.
  182. A beginning, middle and end may as well be chosen by way of magical chairs.
  183. Don’t strive to be original, strive to be better.
  184. Don’t commodify banality.
  185. The syntax and phrasing and spelling are the message.
  186. Be polytheistic in your influences.
  187. Don’t read this in order.
  188. “The purpose of art is to plow the soul, to harrow it, to make it possible it might turn to good.”-Andrei Tarkovsky
  189. Relating to a piece of art isn’t an inherent good.
  190. The value of philosophy is not the soundness of points but the shape of thoughts.
  191. Your front sign is a billboard telling people who need to get rid of things quickly what you’re looking for.
  192. Shorthand is a means of highlighting the most important bits.
  193. A friend with weed is a friend indeed.
  194. 420 is the most largely embraced act of collective civil disobedience.
  195. All Holocaust films are either Purim stories or Passover stories. In the story of Purim an outsider is lobbied to save the Jews from mass extermination. In the story of Passover God intervenes to not only save the Jews from enslavement. 
  196. Use index cards to take notes for books you find challenging.
  197. Every event and object has a historical context.
  198. Talk back to the television.
  199. Greatest hits compilations are usually worth less than original albums.
  200. A good idea had under the influence should still seem like a good idea when no longer under the influence.
  201. The more specific the subject of a book, the more likely it is to be worth something.
  202. Items with many varying versions-think any Beatles album etc.-take longer to research.
  203. Pitch a big tent.
  204. Know the history of the area.
  205. Pick and choose the holidays that mean something to you.
  206. Das Kapital has important lessons in how economics work useful to adherents of any school of economics.
  207. Have a broader frame of reference than nostalgia.
  208. The way to have a lot of successful friends is to help your friends be successful.
  209. Consider multiple readings, not just the one the author intended.
  210. Criticism is the act of creatively describing objects.
  211. This is all mandatory.
  212. In good circumstances, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do, within limits.
  213. Read books about the history of books.
  214. If you put the creamer in before the coffee you don’t need to stir the coffee and it’s easier to eye the amount.
  215. According to William James, extreme versions of things give a magnified view of a tendency in the normal version of the thing.
  216. Stop selling once you’ve sold it.
  217. Take breaks.
  218. The most widely read material before the internet was usually placed next to toilets or inside doctors’ offices.
  219. Mistakes and distortions are the colorings that create the character of an illustration.
  220. Act like you’re supposed to be here.
  221. Does anyone care?
  222. Fortune favors the bold is something I saw on a Flaming Carrot comic book once.
  223. What makes something iconic? What objects best channel that iconography?
  224. Older markets are more predictable markets in terms of reselling. This is a major advantage of working with books.
  225. How long has a subject held public retail attention? When do major trends settle down?
  226. If an item is very expensive online, put in what you’re willing to pay in every current auction for a while. If it’s a mass produced object, you will probably win one of them. An initial high bid also scares off other bidders.
  227. Don’t just curate, diversify.
  228. If you stack two pairs of identical box speakers with the top one upside down, they’ll sound much better than they will as a normal pair.
  229. Buying large collections is the easiest way to grow inventory value, not just because of the bulk pricing but because a large record collection means the owner didn’t have time to use everything to the point it’s worn.
  230. Signatures don’t always add a substantial amount of value to an object.
  231. The strangeness of wear can add to the appeal of an item.
  232. The world is very big. It may even be bigger than our problems.
  233. Be wary of any ideology that is enslaved to axioms.
  234. Per Richard Feynman, you don’t truly understand a subject until you can explain it to a stranger in under 5 minutes.
  235. If you can see the road, don’t turn on your brights. You will blind the driver in the opposite lane.
  236. Find what you love but don’t let it kill you until you’re ready to go.
  237. When assessing a hobby or activity as a potential career, put equal weight on your enjoyment of it and your ability to do it for many consecutive hours.
  238. The heavy trade of “graded” comic books and video games in impenetrable plastic slabs is one of the ultimate affirmations that Marx was correct in his narrative of capitalism as the gradual transformation of a society concerned with the use-value of objects into a society entranced by the exchange values of objects to the exclusion of any other considerations. Money buys objects as a means to reproducing itself.
  239. A man is given a small book that contains the place and time he is going to die. He sends it out to get it graded and slabbed. It only gets an 8.5.
  240. Tell people what you’re looking for. They might know where it is.
  241. If you’re good at one thing and not another, get somebody who’s good at the other thing to do the other thing.
  242. Every new project also serves as advertising for all your old projects.
  243. Resale is akin to an ongoing game of poker. Be the house.
  244. God is an answering machine.
  245. Whatever it takes.
  246. When making plans, remember the initial goal.
  247. Get it done, put it out there.
  248. Invest in yourself but also monitor your investment.
  249. The artist reaches maturity when their influences start to look human to them.
  250. “I’ll talk to strangers if I want to because I’m a stranger too.”
  251. Your early work will probably suck. If it doesn’t, you may not have long to live.
  252. A market of pure speculation is a market that will collapse sooner than later.
  253. Trust your taste over the amount of money someone else paid for a thing.
  254. If someone is arguing with you in bad faith, be ruthless.
  255. Image Comics has offered every creator who has worked for them the same rights deal the founders got and they’re doing just fine.
  256. “If the audience knew what they wanted, they wouldn’t be the audience.”
  257. Try to recognize magic when you see it.
  258. Faking it is part of figuring out how to make it.
  259. Beautiful things are often sad.
  260. It’s easiest to say things when you mean them.
  261. Have a posse.
  262. Choose the things you put up in your home based on the things you want to think about while looking at them.
  263. Be yourself but don’t just be one of them.
  264.  Love is giving someone the power to hurt you because you are convinced they won’t
  265. Caring about things is frequently scary.
  266. Love is like a pair of glasses. It’s always right in front of your eyes.
  267. Love is a fine tuned and unique dynamic.
  268. Do you feel, deep down, like this is where you are supposed to be?
  269. If you want people to show up somewhere, make it somewhere where they’d want to show up.
  270. The deepest connections are founded in a dynamic. Those are the people you can not see for a long time and then pick up where you left off.
  271. If you wanted to do it badly enough, you’d be doing it.
  272. If the revolution isn’t compelling, we lose.
  273. The distance of memory is not linear.
  274. For W., who taught me how to write like this without knowing it.
  275. Sadness is when you have emotions that can’t reach a point of action.
  276. “Knowledge before you wisdom or understanding is fucked.” – AZ
  277. I did a gig with Professor Irwin Corey when he was 96. I asked him if he had any advice for living. He replied “Any money you owe when you die is profit,” and then fell asleep. 
  278. You might not ever get over something but you still have to keep moving.
  279. “I never sleep because sleep is the cousin of death.”
  280. Figure out what you’re good at and do that.
  281. “It took eternity to get to my destination.”*
  282. The thing that actually anticipated memes was the New Yorker cartoon caption contest.
  283. Are you prepared for when the moment happens?
  284. Did you change over time or did you adjust?
  285. Is it enough? It has to be enough.
  286. Consider the mobility of your employment.
  287. A person’s voice is the part of their presentation they have the most control over.
  288. Blow up but don’t go pop.
  289. Speech doesn’t need to be anything other than sound.
  290. Sometimes love doesn’t have to be fully reciprocated.
  291. What is aging?
  292. What is an adult?
  293. What is love?
  294. Baby don’t hurt me.
  295. Why not get excited about things?
  296. What makes you accept the authority of another person?
  297. Which thing is the treasure map?
  298. Where am I supposed to be?
  299. Where did I put my keys?
  300. Stick a fork in it.

The First 100 Records That Popped Into My Head With Capsule Reviews Pt. 2: 11-20

11: Dionne Warwick – Just Being Myself (1973)

The usually tasteful lounge pop and Bacharach interpretations of Warwick take a left turn here. There’s no Bacharach on here, all the songs come from Motown geniuses Holland/Dozier/Holland. There’s a crack soul band behind her. And she proves she could belt on the same level as the Martha Reeves’s and Diana Ross’s of the world. While she’d shown her soul chops earlier on the aptly titled Soulful (1969) (check out the incredible version of “You’re All I Need to Get By” on that one) this is her with the benefit of experience, at the top of her game. This album has unfortunately been sampled more than it’s been listened to. Or maybe that’s fortunate since you can come to it fresh. It’s uneven like any other Warwick album, but “You’re Gonna Need Me”, “I Think You Need Love” and the title track are slow burn gold.

12: Mellow Candle – Swaddling Songs (1972)

Don’t hear much about this one much. Unlike much UK folk rock of the time, they could do the rock just as well as the folk. The harmony arrangements are inventive and psychedelic. Mellow Candle can be mellow in a moody way at times. The overall vibe is very witchy. Cover almost has a Moebius feel. Songs are all the length they need to be. I go back to this one a lot. Not available on a lot of streaming services, there’s a decent playlist of the whole album on the Youtube. Good luck finding a physical copy of this.

13 – Digable Planets – Blowout Comb (1994)

Even with the absurd number of hip hop gems that dropped in 1994 this album stands out. The production is not the DJ Premier/Pete Rock style soul samples that dominated the east coast at that time. The closest thing is maybe De La Soul – Buhloone Mindstate but approached with the ambitious scope of prog rock. The rapping is distinctive and concerned with subjects that weren’t very common at the time. Doodlebug might be my favorite female MC of all time (sorry Lauryn Hill). Both MCs are outspoken Marxists but it never seems confrontational. The grooves are infectious and complex enough to seem closer to actual jazz than just your run of the mill rap that happened to be sampling jazz records.
15: De La Soul – Buhloone Mindstate (1993)

Prince Paul’s masterpiece and unfortunately his last album with the group. The Native Tongues collective was falling apart and that weariness shows through here in places though it wouldn’t fully spill out into the rhymes until De La’s next album Stakes Is High. “Ego Trippin Pt. 2” is a vicious takedown of the gangstas of excess that were ascendant at the time (and the music video is hilarious). “I Am I Be” has the epic pop feel of a “Good Vibrations” but with much better lyrics. This is the last hurrah of their vision for hippie rap. Depending on the day of the week, I would consider either this or Stakes Is High to be the group’s greatest statement. There aren’t a lot of guest spots but Shortie No Mass contributes a few excellent verses and I wish we’d heard more from her after this besides her excellent single “Like This/U Like My Style”.

16: Sandy Bull – Demolition Derby (1972)

Takes the acoustic guitar improvisation style pioneered by Basho, Fahey, and a younger Sandy Bull and puts a handlebar mustache on it. This is some spaced out swamp rock. Bull isn’t a loose player but knows where to leave space. More relaxed and funky than most solo guitar records of this era. Altered enough, you might even start dancing. Patti Smith likes it. I like it. You should like it too.

17: Robert Ashley – Perfect Lives (1980)

I wrote a 15 page paper on this in college and probably could have gone longer. I’ll try to keep this short. Ashley combines opera, television, boogie woogie, metaphysics and John Cage into an epic statement laying out an idiosyncratic but wise view of the world. What is the place of sound? What is the difference between tourettes and speaking in tongues? What is the self and how does it change over the plane of time? Was “Blue” Gene Tyranny the greatest improvisational piano player of all time? All this and more on the next episode of Perfect Lives.

18: Mike O’Neill & Devon Sproule – Colours (2013)

Really nice low key indie pop. Excellent vocal harmonies and song writing with hooks galore. The vibe is more middle-aged but in a good way. Sproule’s voice is in top form here. “Walking In the Folly” should have been a huge hit. While both have had solo careers, I would definitely get excited for a sequel. Many lyrical quotables. The Madvillain of indie pop.

Check out “You Can’t Help It” and “Talk To You” first.

19: The Innocence Mission – Glow (1995)

One of the high points of 90s soft rock. Karen Peris takes lyrical influence from Emily Dickinson, a pretty unusual influence in the music world. The production and guitar tones are on point. “Bright As Yellow” makes rather delicate sounds seem enormous. “Happy, The End” is a menacing side A closer with a great instrumental coda. Catchy melodies everywhere that feel earned. One of few albums I own multiple copies of.

20. The Bats – Daddy’s Highway (1987)

Jangly melodic pop with harmonies from New Zealand. This one has some very subtley odd production-sort of like fellow NZers The Clean, they figure out how to make acoustic guitars come across as being punk. The songwriting is top notch. The sound is firmly planted in the 80s jangle scene but it holds up.

The First 100 Records That Popped Into My Head With Capsule Reviews Pt. 1: 1-10

Long time no see everybody. Life’s been busy but I can finally get back to my true calling in life: having very strong opinions about records. So here are some of those.

1. Mayo Thompson – Corky’s Debt To His Father (1970)

Most people, if they know of Mayo Thompson at all, know him from his work with The Red Krayola. But the crown jewel of his very unusual career was released under his own name. This is a hard one to describe; Thompson’s voice is very unpolished. The band is loose but in a good way. There are some vibes shared with the early Grateful Dead but Thompson is, for lack of a better word, much hornier. The melodies worm their way into your brain, the lyrics give a lot to chew on, and the band can rock the $&#@ out when they want to-see “Nice Brisk Blues” and “Worried Worried” towards the album’s conclusion. There is not a weak song on here and no one else has ever quite made another LP like it, including Mayo Thompson. Essential but also criminally underrated due to its initial mail-order-only distribution.

2. Big Star – Radio City (1974)

The best rock guitar production ever put down on reel to reel tape, bar none. This is what The Beatles probably wanted the guitars on Rubber Soul to sound like, but didn’t quite achieve. Alex Chilton’s masterpiece. He captures what rock n roll is really about-youthful exuberance, heartbreak and the paranoia implied in those. He does a Beatles knock off better than anything The Beatles ever recorded in “She’s A Mover”. He tosses off a Rolling Stones knock off better than anything the Stones ever recorded in “Mod Lang” and even has the chutzpah to make the first line “I can’t be satisfied.” Opener “O My Soul” never fails to put a smile on my face. Jody Stephens’ drumming throughout is just ever so slightly off, giving the record the dynamism of a soul or funk crew while still being pure rock n roll through and through. If this record had been distributed properly…

3. Mobb Deep – The Infamous (1995)

Is this the hardest rap album ever made? It’s definitely up there. I think back to what I was doing when I was 19 and then hear Prodigy and Havoc rap and it’s clear we lived in very different worlds. But when this album plays, this alien world becomes horrifyingly vivid, because they could also write a lot better than I could when I was 19. The fallout of Ronald Reagan flooding the black community with crack cocaine in order to fund the Nicaraguan Contras (RIP Gary Webb) is the order of the day here. Death is obsessed over; sex and dating is mostly portrayed as a way to get yourself murdered by rival gangs (“Trife Life”). Havoc’s production matches the nightmarish stories told to a t. There are so many classic tracks on here that if I tried to highlight standouts I would just type out the tracklist, but I have to point out that the immortal “Shook Ones Pt. II” is a strong contender for best rap song ever recorded.

And on top of all that it’ll probably scare your parents, which is always fun.

4. John Fahey – Days Have Gone By (1967)

It’s weird to think this was released within months of Sgt. Pepper and VU and Nico; it seems as removed from either as you could get. Most of this record, as was the case with most of Fahey’s albums, is just the man and his guitar, playing it like a piano and merging disparate elements of delta blues and 20th century classical music into something wholly his own. While later “American primitive” style pickers may have been more technically proficient, none of them had Fahey’s singular ability to convey concrete feelings through what is inherently a pretty abstract medium. Leo Kottke is playing the guitar at me, John Fahey is telling me stories. Some of these stories are sad, some of them are angry, some are nostalgic, but they’re all beautiful. One of very few 60s “folk revival” albums that could hold its own with the 78s that inspired it. Of course America chose Peter, Paul and Mary.

5. Pere Ubu – The Modern Dance (1978)

While London and NYC got all the attention when punk rock exploded in the late 1970s, a lot of the best stuff was coming from places like Cleveland, Ohio. London sounded angry, NYC often sounded pretentious, but Cleveland, at least here, comes out unhinged. And god bless em for it. Starting with more than 15 seconds of just ear piercing feedback, the band goes into one of the best garage rock songs ever (“Non-Alignment Pact”) and never loses steam for the next 40 minutes. Elements of Ascension era Coltrane, Bowie’s glam period, Captain Beefheart, and Sam the Sham walk through a hall of funhouse mirrors. Dave Thomas screams like a man possessed. They can play their instruments when they want to but it’s just as fun when they don’t want to. And any shoutout to Alfred Jarry is a good one.

“My baby says if the devil comes, shoot him with a gun”

6: Karen Dalton – In My Own Time (1971)

Karen Dalton was maybe the best English language vocal interpreter of songs of the 20th century, but was so forgotten people can’t even agree on the exact time she died. She takes a number of famous songs here and makes them her own to the point they don’t even seem like the same song. Percy Sledge sings “When A Man Loves A Woman” and it’s a great record. Karen Dalton sings “When A Man Loves A Woman” and she seems to be channeling whatever version of unrequited love exists in Plato’s world of forms. She conveys heartbreak so effectively I have to schedule when I listen to this LP to be sure I don’t act weird afterwards. It’s not melodramatic but rather weary and resigned. It is still capable of a certain sweetness. Life isn’t fair, and she’s come to some sort of zen peace with that fact. While her banjo playing is also quite distinctive, I think the more full production and arrangements on display here highlight her vocals better than on her first (and only other) album. I recommend both highly though.

7. Sly and the Family Stone – There’s A Riot Goin On (1971)

The birth of hard funk coinciding with the beginning of the end of the US postwar boom and whatever genuine optimism fueled the hippie movement. While The Family Stone is credited, most of this album was recorded by Sly alone in his addicted seclusion. And Sly isolating himself mirrors the shift in perspective here. The original Family Stone was supposed to be a utopian multi-racial view of what America could be. But by the time of their greatest statement, it reflected what America really was-excessive, isolated, paranoid, nostalgic in ways that weren’t helpful. Stone seems to possess precognition of his later complete descent into full time addict and manages to articulate with a painful clarity one last time before completely losing his way. References to this are everywhere starting with the opening track “Luv n Haight”: “Feels so good, don’t wanna move”. The grooves are reflective of this but still dancey in their own scruffy way. The best English language LP of the 1970s.

8. Randy Newman – 12 Songs (1970)

While many know Randy Newman now as the guy who wrote the Toy Story theme song or as a Family Guy joke, his first 4 albums are some of the most twisted statements to come from the California singer-songwriter movement. 12 Songs, his 2nd LP, is the best of the bunch by a narrow margin. Newman, usually a tasteful arbiter of string arrangements, decides to stick to a 3 piece band here with excellent results. It also doesn’t hurt that either this or Good Old Boys constituted the best batch of songs he ever clumped on a single LP (more on that album later in the series.) His melodies are simple but infectious, his lyrics are equal parts funny, scary, and profound. He plays the piano and sings like if Fats Domino were perpetually drunk. Contains my favorite verse in a song…ever?

“I say please don’t talk to strangers baby,
But she always do,
She say I’ll talk to strangers if I want,
Cuz I’m a stranger too”

What’s not to love on a record with lines like “Let’s burn down the cornfield and I’ll make love to you while it burns”?

9. Camp Lo – Uptown Saturday Night (1997)

Recorded concurrently with Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt and featuring production primarily from Reasonable Doubt mastermind Ski, this is an entirely different beast. I’m not going to pretend Reasonable Doubt is a bad album, it’s probably the best album length thing Jay-Z ever did. But USN is an album I feel much closer to. Sonny Cheeba and Geechi Suede rap in dense opaque thickets of frequently outdated slang and cultural references to rival Thomas Pynchon. The fact that two rappers so similar to each other but so removed from anything else at the time found each other boggles the mind. The production is uniformly excellent but interestingly not very similar to Reasonable Doubt. It’s not gangsta, it’s not underground, it’s not Native Tongues, it’s not pop, it just…is. The first four tracks are a murderers row of bangers and if you want to introduce yourself to the singular pleasures of Camp Lo, you can’t really go wrong with any of them.

10. The Exploding Hearts – Guitar Romantic (2003)

Primarily known now for most of their members dying in a van accident shortly after the release of their only album, The Exploding Hearts deserved much more than they got. This is the best album of the entire early 00s garage rock revival. It’s youthful, bratty, pulsing with energy and hooks. The lead guitar is deceptively simple but catchy and hits that goldilocks sweet spot-not too much, not too little. There is no pretense here, just a few young guys possessed by the geist of rock n roll. I never got to see them live but they give that vibe that once you saw them you probably were convinced they were the greatest rock n roll band in the world for at least 24 hours. There are no bad songs on here but my personal favorites are Modern Kicks, Thorns In Roses, and Still Crazy.

Reading Video Games

VIDEO GAMES AND JUNK CULTURE

Having largely ignored them for most of my existence, I finally came around to video games a few years ago and have since been exploring the canon, mostly with an emphasis on things made before the year 2000. My interest was initially academic-I’ve been writing a long manuscript on the history of TV for some time and it seemed like any manifesto on the nature of TV that didn’t acknowledge video games was going to be woefully incomplete.

The attention paid to video games is odd in comparison to other 20th century mediums-whereas everything from cinema to broadcast TV to comic books eventually found a community of people willing to discuss them intellectually, not much on that front has been done with video games. And while this is pretty common in what’s still a fairly early time for a medium considered to be disposable or low culture, this doesn’t help somebody trying to write about them. Or rather, its fun and exciting in the sense that there’s so much to cover, but that nagging insecurity is still there that any salient points I get to will just work as forgotten stepping stones toward a more developed or advanced theory.

Video games differ substantially from prior mass media forms in numerous ways. Unlike other media, you by and large are not in control of the level of engagement you need to have to get something out of it. I can put an old movie on in the background and the movie will play whether I’m paying attention or not. Presuming the mixing was done competently, the only buttons I need to hit are to turn on the TV and DVD player and then hit play.

This need for engagement stemming from the initial distribution model of quarters for play time makes the medium both more and less mentally stimulating. On the one hand, every game that can be beaten is, on some level, a puzzle game-even something like Super Mario Bros mixes large amounts of strategy with hand-eye coordination. And even a game that can be beaten without strategizing much can always be beaten better in some way. In this sense, games require more active thought than most things. On the other hand, this thought is confined to the arbitrary parameters of something designed entirely for immersion-video games as a medium have been more resistant to a “realism” movement than any other medium I can think of. Obstacles are simple and unlike in real life, one is assured they can be overcome with the right answers, answers that relate heavily to other video games but don’t interact much with the world outside video games. Like Euclidian geometry they are a set of rules that are internally consistent but untouched by nature.

Another appeal is the simulacra of unfettered movement and unimaginable power without consequence-the appeal of a dream where one is flying. The body is both immobilized and immersed-the eyes, ears and hands are all actively engaged in an activity that punishes you for letting your mind wander. Tellingly, my girlfriend who has little experience playing games always describes her frustrations with their difficulty thus: “It feels like one of those dreams where I can’t get my body parts to do what I want them to.” At the same time, this flying dream appeal is necessarily limited by the complications needed to establish an effective psychological rewards system to encourage people to keep playing. I can run as fast as I want to, but if I touch the wrong thing I die and am reborn. The world of speed running then becomes one of layered dreams; the fantasy of escaping better, of a zen merger of the inherent you-game duality.

The need for near-constant interaction also limits the extent to which games can function in a didactic role the way films and literature and even comic books frequently do. It’s far more obvious and feels far more ridiculous when a video game is telling me about saving the environment than when I’m watching a documentary that’s literally just talking at me about the same things. No one has ever made a successful “game polemic” and understandably, no one really wants one. A polemic implies a person speaking (or writing or whatnot) and a person or persons listening and the polemic’s power comes from the speakers position as not being the listener. A video game works on a collapse of that dynamic. Unlike any prior mass media form, a video game implies a breakdown of the consumer/producer dynamic, as is evident from the enormous competitive gaming and streaming scenes.

What is especially fascinating about the breakdown in this dynamic is that suddenly enormous numbers of people who would balk at say an art film making them work to get anything out of it will staunchly defend the difficulty of a video game, and people who’ve spent their time learning to read other forms of mass media in depth will frequently avoid the medium altogether for the same reasons in reverse.

Like the other major artistic mediums to come out of the 20th century going back to jazz, its early development being shielded from academic consideration may have been for the best, allowing it breathing room to go in its own direction. Thankfully, relative to other 20th century media, most of the early history has been preserved in some form, usually a form that’s pretty easily accessible, especially if you’re willing to spend a few dollars on a console and a flash cartridge (a thing that looks and acts like a video game cartridge but reads its data from an SD card instead of a flashed rom chip or optical drive). While I’m sure there are games that are lost (a few SNES Sattel, and prototype games on unlabeled cartridges from the 80s and 90s seem to pop up every few months, that’s not a bad track record compared to the 90% of silent film and probably 98% of early TV (and 99% of the early internet?) that are completely lost barring the introduction of a time machine. This spirit of preservation in the retro gaming community is one of the things that sets it apart. The fact that the vast majority of games were home releases and not broadcasts or performances helps matters greatly. Software can also be preserved in 1:1 copies and with advances in FPGA hardware emulation it seems likely that the hardware itself can live on in a similar fashion, the soul of the machine transmigrating every few years to a different system on a chip. The rapid advance of flash cartridges and FPGA based clone consoles represent one of the most important advances in cultural preservation in recent memory, given the highly ephemeral nature of computing hardware.

However, in preserving the experience, these also change the experience. Being able to pay $40 and have every Sega Genesis game at my fingertips is not the experience people who owned a Genesis when it was current would’ve had-games were very expensive, and having bought out peoples’ collections, on average the most intense fan of any given console still would only have 40-50 games at most unless they went on a buying spree when the stuff went on clearance. Games that seem to be difficult now were probably seen as having a good consumer value at the time since you didn’t want to pay $60 for a game then finish it in a day. This also added to the emotional attachment-to finish a difficult game brings that adrenaline drip of having accomplished something. You have to become familiar with each nook and cranny intimately or else you’re not allowed to move forward; in film you’re pushed forward in time regardless. It’s not that strange to attempt a video game level 15-20 times but its considered fairly strange to have seen any single film 15-20 times.

Games have a tendency to wander into what would be considered the extreme avant-garde in the film world. Making a film without content, a “pure film”, an obsession of the 60s structuralism movement, was achieved quite early in video games and with none of the attached friction. In the cinema, asking people to emotionally engage with geometric shapes devoid of context is seen as a challenge to the viewer and the norms of artistic consumption and production; in video games its just called Tetris.

And even in games that could considered to be at least somewhat closer to a traditional narrative, something like say Super Mario Bros, we’re still treated to a funhouse mirror version of the world ruled by what pleases the principles of industrial design. The introduction of consequences and a simple punishment/reward system makes it quite simple to suspend disbelief at a short plumber fighting over a girl with a deformed half-turtle half-dinosaur through a world of mushroom shaped things that either kill you on contact or make you grow to twice your size.

Like many former “low culture” media, there is a freedom that comes with a public’s inability or unwillingness to engage critically, and like prior “low culture” media, that capacity can be used for good or bad.

This makes games incredibly difficult to translate into film-the demands of each medium are diametrically opposed. The things that might make an interesting film tend to make a terrible game and vice versa.

Would I love to see a movie of Mario finally defeating Bowser and getting to be with Princess Peach only to discover getting the girl is the easy part-the true challenge is sustaining a marriage-that his true love was the pursuit and not Peach? Yes! Of course I would. There’s so much there. Mario seems like someone perpetually thrilled by conquest with no sense of the domestic beyond the pipes beneath a double decker ranch home.

Nintendo, if you’re reading this and looking to lose another $40 million dollars on a second Mario Bros movie, I would make that in a heartbeat.

But would I want to play a game based on that premise? No, I wouldn’t (though I suppose some of the more cynical among us might presume that’s the backstory to at least part of Super Smash Bros.). The video game understands that Peach is a MacGuffin.

THE ROOTS OF VIDEO GAMES

In trying to find what defines a medium in opposition to other mediums, its generally useful to go back to the maxims set out by Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media. Particularly salient here is his assertion that “the content of the new media is always the old media”-the content of early cinema mimics the stage play and the point where cinema comes into its own is almost always defined as the point when it breaks off from those roots.

So what is the “old media” that provided the basis for the first video games? The most obvious answer would be childrens’ games and casinos. The “?” boxes in Super Mario have that randomized reward thing going on like a slot machine. The other mechanics of the game resemble tag, much like Pacman and the hundreds of clones of Pacman out there like Devil’s World. Even a game as story and narrative heavy as Metal Gear Solid takes its basic mechanics from tag and tag’s weird nephew paintball, and the narrative, while skillfully constructed and quite thoughtful by game standards, still has to act primarily as a laundry line between situations where you’re playing tag with an imaginary gun; any substance to the narrative outside the experience of game play itself is gravy.

And then of course, the first 5 or 6 years of home consoles were dominated by what are called “dedicated consoles”, i.e. consoles with the games built in and no tech included to run other software-similar to contemporary “plug-n-play” devices like the SNES of NES classic editions that came out a few years ago. These consoles invariably contained simplified simulacras of tennis, ping pong, and other popular sports like hockey or basketball. Sometimes these weren’t even separate games but the same game with different transparent overlays you’d put over your TV to make it look more like ice hockey even when the gameplay is still identical to Pong. The earliest games then were defined by a combination of what was considered athletic leisure at the time and the severe limits of what early computers could do.

In the next generation beginning in the 80s, the lightgun game becomes very popular to the point many consoles included one as a pack-in. The most famous example is Duck Hunt-you take a plastic “gun” that shoots infrared light and it detects by the light bouncing back whether you shot at the TV in the right place. One wonders how the vibe in Graceland’s basement would’ve changed had Elvis lived to buy an NES console, being that he was probably the first person to pioneer using firearms in conjunction with CRTs. Maybe we would’ve gotten a hot pink Zapper.

Duck Hunt’s simplicity makes it a good one to analyze, though most of what I’m saying here could apply equally well to other early light gun games like Hogan’s Alley or Bill Barker’s Trick Shooting. Despite the more direct antecedent to the light gun game being mechanical pre-video game arcade machines that used guns that shot light (these date back to the 1920s), the gameplay of Duck Hunt is still centered around 19th and early 20th century ideas of bourgeoisie leisure-you go out with your faithful basset hound and shoot ducks or clay targets in the woods. The others take pains to resemble carnival shooting galleries. That the light gun was so integral to the normalizing of game consoles in the home is even more interesting when considering the first prototype ever made of a TV remote had the form factor of a pistol.

What is it exactly about TV that makes one want a gun so badly? Why did the inventor of the TV remote, forced to respond to the novelty of his discovery like it was a Rorschach blot,  immediately think “pistol”? Perhaps the threatening qualities of the new technology might be mitigated in the minds of viewers by the repeated ritual of their staring down their sets at gunpoint-what could better reinforce that the TV is your subordinate? Like Joe Pesci, you point and say “dance”-it dances and doesn’t ask questions. You are authority-you bring law and order to the living room. He who has the remote becomes the sheriff of the home.

The lightgun is also the simplest of all video game controllers. The relative simplicity of even the normal NES controller required 8 input buttons-the lightgun only has one. Even the classic Atari 2600 joystick still theoretically has a whopping 5 inputs by comparison (up-down-left-right-fire). While this accessibility factor doesn’t help me too much in my theorizing, it should be acknowledged. Sometimes a cigar is a cigar, and sometimes something is just fun and accessible for reasons of mechanics that transcend cultural context. The relative failure of consoles with far more complicated controllers like the Mattel Intellivision would support this.

The Intellivision controller also highlights how important understanding McLuhan’s maxim was in the dog-eat-dog world of early gaming. For those who’ve never seen one, the Intellivision controller most closely resembles a very very early mobile phone like you’d see built into the back of a limo in an old time movie. It’s a Rembrandt-brown rectangle with a 9 digit number pad. This number pad has weird mushy membrane buttons sort of like some electronic cash registers or a debit card reader/ATM. The directional control is a circular cardboard wafer you spin around with your thumb sort of like how you’d dial a rotary phone. But the old media the new media was feeding off of wasn’t the telephone. Nintendo understood that, Mattel presumably thought making the thing look old and muted would appeal to the largely untapped market of adults because it looked so little like something a kid could give a crap about. They were mistaken, and it died a slow lingering death. Furthermore, Nintendo knew the way to the adults was through their children, not by making them feel like they were running an errand at the bank. The woodgrain finish almost made the Intellivision look too serious and dignified-it looked as if it had a full time job and no time to have fun with the user.

And while I would argue the roots in sports and leisure activities of the past was the primary “old media” games cannibalized for their vessel, the urge to include or adapt aspects of narrative commercial cinema arose as soon hardware was capable of doing so. I’m not talking about game spin-offs of films, but rather cut scenes (which at their pinnacle are usually described in the game press as “cinematic”) and point and click adventure games which would usually contain the plot of something that could’ve been a movie, wrapped in sprites with token bits of movement. While most of these were released for PCs and not consoles, they were still an enormous part of the mid-80s game market and mark a departure from earlier forms of gaming; these represent games shedding the necessity of their being defined in the negative-i.e. “it’s a game (at least in part) because I can lose.” Playing something like Snatcher for the Sega CD or Treasure of Monkey Island or the dozens of other games done in that style, you’re forced to solve a few puzzles but there’s no real threat of dying, just the threat of stalling progress within the game. You’re mostly just pushed through the plotline as if a DVD had merged with its menu. The limited motion in the images also suggests early 20th century comic strips before the universal adoption of speech balloons, Choose-Your-Adventure books marketed at young adults and their early digital counterpart: text adventures which developed contemporaneously with the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. Both owe much of their structure to early tabletop roleplaying games like Alan Calhamer’s 1954 game Diplomacy and of course the various revisions of Dungeons and Dragons which even resembles computer processing through its use of unusually configured dice to add a mathematical element of chance and spontaneity to the game.

 

TOYS VS FURNITURE VS APPLIANCES

The earliest TVs most resembled vanity cabinets and were meant to be integrated into the home as attractive pieces of furniture. This was due to the fact that you needed a large volume of electronics to run a fairly small screen and needed to put them somewhere, but also due to the fact they rose to prominence at the same time as US home ownership skyrocketed due to the GI Bill and the post-war boom. But as time and tech advanced toward using smaller or integrated components, and TV ownership became a given of the home as opposed to a status object, the aesthetics of TVs drifted from display piece to functional object meant to be as invisible as possible. The ideal TV of the present moment would be all screen with no chassis; the power trip of the remote control no longer registers as such and feels more like another technological hurdle before doing something in a world overrun with such hurdles. With some power comes some responsibility, and who wants that when you’re trying to watch TV?

Game consoles however, didn’t quite have a furniture phase, having emerged too far past the home ownership boom. Some manufacturers thought they were toys and marketed them as such-Nintendo famously sold people on the NES console after the great video game market crash of 1984 by selling it through the giant plastic Trojan horse of ROB the Robot which made it look like a toy more than the video game consoles everyone was pissed at after ET for the Atari 2600 came out (along with a lot of other unplayably bad 2600 games.) The US version of the console, the famous “toaster” model, was redesigned from the Japanese version to more closely resemble a VCR.

Further emphasizing their unusual hybrid nature, while every other appliance made in the period of the game industry establishing itself and its norms would strive over time for fewer and fewer buttons, culminating in the eventual complete elimination of buttons from the Apple Iphone, game consoles trended towards more and more buttons and joystick components until the most recent generation where I think most of the companies realized that people are confused and frustrated by anything with more buttons than a PS2 Dualshock controller.

Game consoles, due to their general parameters not having been defined yet through repeated practice, also serve as a fascinating study in the economy of stuff vs. space, which has been one of the defining cultural issues of our time. In less than a generation, the indication of status moved from having stuff to having space, and notions of physical size or volume of an object correlating on a scale with perceived consumer value flatlined. Being  rich “the right way” went from Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu of boxed random stuff to Steve Jobs and his famously empty apartment, empty except for, of course, an incredibly expensive Tiffany lamp. In their time of flux, game console design went after both approaches with varied success-the NEC Turbografx 16 was so small that when a reissued “mini” version of it was released last year, they couldn’t get it much smaller than the original model. Toward the other extreme, the Atari 5200 infamously takes up more space than a full sized surround sound home theater amplifier despite containing not much more in terms of hardware than the 2600 did.

An analysis of the size of game consoles should also take into account hybrid abilities-while the first model Playstation 2 is enormous, it also played CDs and DVDs, so for non-audiophile consumers, despite its large size, the console actually saved space by sparing the person from buying a separate DVD and/or CD player. This integration of the home media center from a division of labor through things like component hi-fi systems to the current standard of “a TV with the cable box, internet and sometimes even gaming capabilities built right in” would seem to be a positive thing. Less physical volume of industrial production means less waste. But at the same time, it greatly increases hardware failure and makes it increasingly more and more complex to repair and salvage these pieces of hardware, increasing the quantity of eventual e-waste. Every Iphone X produced right now will eventually be unsalvageable e-waste because they’re designed to be completely proofed against user servicing down to putting in booby traps that will brick the phone if you make the slightest error try to do something as simple as changing the battery. This should be illegal and a massive issue, but doesn’t seem to be outside of right-to-repair circles.

Video games are also odd in that they thrive on constant format wars that would hobble most other industries. If there was an HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray war every 5-7 years, would people still be purchasing home videos or would consumer confidence be shaken to the point they’d take a tech downgrade in favor of market stability? This is a rhetorical question of course, as that was what happened when VHS and Beta went at it. Similarly, it should be noted that the cliche that pornography determines the outcome of format wars is less true than the rephrasing game console integrated components determine the outcome of format wars. DVD rose to prominence because of its inclusion as a feature in the Playstation 2, and like many people, my first and only DVD player until I got to college was my PS2 slim. Blu-Ray probably vanquished HD-DVD because Sony sided with Blu-Ray when they designed the PS3. Sometimes these integrated components were good enough to eclipse the systems themselves. I have a PS1 that I exclusively use to play music CDs because it sounds substantially better than my other more high end CD playback devices. My only tablet computer is my Wii U gamepad.

Moving forward, it seems more and more likely the game console as a separate device meant specifically to play games will probably phase out. This however puts console manufacturers in a good place, as it gives them the opportunity to expand and seize market share from other large sectors of the home entertainment industry. The tendency towards people living in smaller and smaller spaces on less and less money makes the obviousness of the appeal unbeatable. There will still probably be a few guys like me with hanging-garden-of-babylon level cord tangling behind their media centers, but we’re a dying a breed.

 

CONCLUDING STATEMENTS (FOR NOW) :

Video games, at least older ones, are less dangerous as propaganda vehicles than the commercial cinema since they require your conscious input; the subconscious elements in a film that reify ideology and norms aren’t rendered especially legible. You aren’t supposed to forget your social impotence through abstract identification with a figure of power the way Wilhelm Reich described the psychological appeal of fascism and, inadvertently, the appeal of cookie cutter Joseph Campbell style action/adventure narratives in the commercial cinema. Their consideration is necessary for any comprehensive exploration of TV as a vehicle or medium; the way they work creates incompatibilities and bugs with existing methods of criticism for more established media formats that will need to be patched in a later update.

They’re an enormous part of the culture that isn’t going away, and the longer theorists of pop culture ignore them in favor of a narrow focus on the things that more closely resemble prose literature in their construction, the further said critics will slip into niche irrelevance. The hardware gives a palimpsest history of the most important private space of the 21st century-the living room, and present fantasy and escape in novel modes that will further illuminate just how those tendencies work.

Undone Season 1 Review

The team behind the scenes of the instant classic Bojack Horseman have introduced their new show, an experimental series using rotoscoped animation to explore the line between magic and mental illness. There’s a lot to like here, though much like Bojack, it takes a while to get going and fully reveal its direction.

First, a summing up of the plot: A woman named Alma is in a car accident and her father, a theoretical physicist who died in a mysterious car accident in 2002, starts appearing to her in visions. In these visions he tells her that she has been gifted with incredible powers to not only travel through time, but to change it. He claims that his car accident was a murder and tasks her with solving the murder and going back in time to stop it from occurring. Over the course of the series we are also introduced to her sister, her mother, and her boyfriend, all of whom become increasingly worried by her behavior, which resembles the symptoms of schizophrenia.

The first and most obviously challenging decision the show makes is to never resolve whether or not Alma is in fact mentally ill. This ambiguity isn’t a new thing for TV and movies and in fact it resembles the repeated themes of another ascendant TV auteur-Bryan Fuller, creator of Wonderfalls and Hannibal, two other shows where individuals are possessed by visions that problematize their sanity and lead them places they otherwise would never go. In particular Wonderfalls seems like a clear earlier reference point-a woman who works in a gift shop at Niagra Falls starts to see and hear inanimate objects talking to her and telling her to do things. They lead her on adventures and ultimately she does good things by listening to the objects despite the fact we’re never told whether she’s ill or clairvoyant.

Another obvious reference point is the Twin Peaks miniseries that aired a few years ago, particularly the final episode (spoilers ahead.) In the finale, Agent Dale Cooper somehow goes back in time thinking he can save Laura Palmer from being killed by her father but finds himself in a timeline with no Laura Palmer; his attempts to redeem the past by changing it does nothing; the chronology of time as experienced by the mind is non-linear. What happens in the future changes the past, or at least the imagined history-after all, history is, as it has famously been said, a lie agreed upon. But a lie must contain inconsistencies-a lie wants to live its own truth, and wants to do so in the present, where history must exist because no other moment can exist as anything besides recollection or projection.

Common to all these shows and many others, probably because of the frightening ambiguity faced by the US right now, is ultimately exploring our own uneasy feelings of being unsure whether we’re at the edge of a cliff or the top of a mountain and our lack of ideas what to do in either case. Alma’s trips into the past, slowly revealing details of her father’s own struggle with schizophrenia, don’t stabilize her or trigger catharsis. She just escalates the eccentricity of her behavior. The fact we open on the car accident also seems to suggest the two traumas-her car accident and the sudden loss of her father-are intertwined and that in fact she may be revisiting the familiar trauma of her parental loss to escape the unresolved trauma of her accident. At the same time, when she does travel into the past then references what she sees in the future, the accuracy of the details are confirmed.

The essence of trauma as a psychological phenomena is the confusion of the mind between the desire to “become whole” again, i.e. to revert before the moment of destabilization, and to move forward and grow, your only actual path that involves motion. In some sense, the experience of trauma and the repetitive quality that marks it could be rephrased as “the inability to accept the necessity of the present.” And in some sense, this inability to accept the necessity of the present implies the desire for non-existence, given that in order for things to be, that which has been must have been. Dale Cooper makes Laura Palmer not exist paradoxically by saving her; in the season 1 finale of Undone, Alma sits waiting for her (possibly imagined) father to emerge from Mexican ruins. In Undone, Alma’s sister tells her her problems and Alma simply replies that once she brings their father back from the dead, those problems and most of the things that mark her day to day life in the present will be erased. Alma looks excited at the prospect. Her symbolic act to access the truth of the moment of their father’s death is tossing her body at a mirror, breaking it-destruction of the image as symbolic suicide. Like many in the US right now, she’s not sure exactly what she wants but she knows it isn’t this.

The animation is well done but pretty textbook rotoscoping-people who’ve seen either of Richard Linklater’s two adventures into the form, Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, will know what to expect here. At the same time, I think the dreaminess it adds to the proceedings justify the decision and make it seem at least like a progression more than strictly a reimagining of Fuller’s preoccupations. I don’t think Fuller is up to anything right now, maybe they should add him to the writers room. Him, Bob-Waksberg and Katy Purdy could form a TV super group and travel through time together exploring the nature of trauma.

The acting is uniformly strong. Bob Odenkirk turns in strong work here as the dead father which…there’re only so many ways you can say the guy’s a genius. The guy’s a genius. Rosa Salazar, who I don’t remember seeing in anything before this, does an exceptional job portraying Alma’s slow transformation into either a shaman or dangerously unstable individual, and does a particularly exceptional job conveying the unease that comes with those closest to you betraying your trust for fear you might hurt yourself. These situations are never portrayed as obvious-both sides are acting rationally given what they know.

The development of the plot makes it unclear where they could go from here; I look forward to the second season but when I try to think about what it could consist of once the season ending cliffhanger is resolved, I come up with a blank. But I guess that’s why they’re writing the show and I’m not.

Well worth checking out.

Garry Shandling: Where Does TV End and Where Does Reality Start

Garry Shandling is probably the most hidden major player in the history of TV. No other person could claim equal amounts of influence on both Seinfeld and The Sopranos. The (post)modern age of TV begins when Showtime debuted It’s Garry Shandling’s Show in 1985.

The time was very different. IGSS was only the second original sitcom ever produced by a premium cable network after Showtime’s Brothers, a show that’s currently impossible to find but was the first sitcom centered around a gay protagonist. Both shows need to be pressed in decent numbers on DVD but haven’t (an amazing looking complete series box set of IGSS was released several years ago, but unless someone with $400 lying around wants to buy me a copy, I’m hanging onto my off-the-air copies from the original airings.) The effect on future shows of IGSS is incalculable-the only analogy I can think of is the impact of the 80s British invasion on superhero comics.

The central conceit of IGSS is that it’s about a guy named Garry Shandling. He’s a comedian. He has a sitcom on TV. He knows he has a sitcom on TV. He even talks directly to the studio audience. When he leaves his “apartment” sometimes he invites them up to hang out in his living room while he’s “gone” (re: walked over to the next set on the soundstage while we see the soundstage.) In a series of elaborate parodies, Shandling takes us through the history of scripted TV up to that point, with a short but hilarious detour into a parody of The Graduate. Nothing is sacred. There are no rules. Characters frequently discuss their own shortcomings or expectations as sitcom characters, not with any pretense they’re real people.

The direct addresses to the audience are the obvious precedent to the standup comedy bits peppered throughout Seinfeld. The anarchic tone and kid-who-just-got-a-bunch-of-toys-and-is-having-the-time-of-his-life feel is second only to Ernie Kovacs. The tone is generally cheerful and light. You get that infectious feeling of a person who doesn’t think they’ll necessarily get another chance to make something on TV-we’re just sort of following whatever thing Shandling thinks they might not let him do later.

The strongest seasons are the first two, predominantly because of this kid in a candy store vibe. The third season is the weakest as it indulges Shandling’s love of pre-Lenny Bruce comedians for a dire 3 episode sprawl toward the end, but the 4th makes a decent comeback and marries Garry off. Fascinatingly this is the only really or fake wedding ceremony Shandling would ever be a groom at. His true love was television and even that marriage was a rocky one.

Shandling is best known now for the HBO sitcom The Larry Sanders Show, which debuted pretty soon after IGSS ended. The two sitcoms seem about as unlike in construction as one can imagine, at least at first glance. The complete embrace of artifice in IGSS gives way to realism in the acting and cinematography. There’s no laugh track. The stationary 3 camera set up gives way to possibly the first ever single camera sitcom ever made. The cameraman is frequently going backwards on roller skates so as to capture people conversing up and down a hallway in a more naturalistic manner-in fact, any “walk and talk” shot you’ve ever seen on a workplace sitcom owes its genesis to Larry Sanders. The acting strives for realism. There’s a comedy of awkwardness, characters and moments that rejects the “we’re going to shove jokes into a chamber play” style of sitcoms that were…all the sitcoms until then. Give or take.

Shandling reveals himself to be a triple threat-he can write, he can direct, and he can act well enough to hold his own with Jeffrey Tambor and Rip Torn, no easy feat. Yet his romance with TV seems to sour over the show’s run. We start seeing moments of drama and discomfort as Shandling realizes he’s one of the few comedy writers who can convincingly write those sorts of moments. He follows characters and trusts they will be funny; he never sacrifices the truth of the character for a laugh. All of this is unheard of in a US sitcom to that point.

Yet, in the construction of The Larry Sanders Show, it’s clear Shandling’s preoccupations didn’t change, just his methods. The show, which follows the behind the scenes drama of a fictional late night talk show called The Larry Sanders Show, uses a combination of low quality broadcast tape and grainy 16mm film, making the scenes when Larry is on TV look vastly more polished than any of the shots of Larry in the office or outside world. In some sense, Larry Sanders is the closest thing you could have to a real life version of the Garry Shandling of IGSS-a man who lives on and for TV, whose life bleeds in and out of TV, a man who knows he’s on TV. Larry can’t seem to have sex without watching himself on TV during the proceedings. Strangely fictionalized versions of celebrities make frequent guest appearances for the first time on a sitcom even though this has since become a trope and was used by shows all the way from Curb Your Enthusiasm to Bojack Horseman.

Yet over the course of 6 seasons, the tone of the show sours and becomes increasingly dark and cynical. Shandling was probably getting worn down. Starring on, writing, and running a TV program for 10 years straight would get to anybody. He broke up with his real life girlfriend, the woman playing Hank’s secretary, around season 3. I’m imagining it wasn’t a smooth break up given that she’s replaced in the next season as Hank’s secretary with Scott Thompson from Kids In the Hall. The show nonetheless barrels on.

In making Larry vain and not particularly likeable and being powerful enough to be a dick, by having him get addicted to pain pills, etc etc etc, Shandling lays the groundwork for the HBO anti-hero 9 years before The Sopranos aired. And more importantly, Shandling lays out clearly the potential inherent in subscription TV-one has to remember the bulk of HBO programming at that point was stuff like Taxicab Confessions, boxing matches, 3rd run movies, and softcore porn. The idea that it was the place to make “prestige” TV would’ve been considered insane before then.

But when Larry Sanders ended, Shandling went into semi-retirement. He’d make talk show appearances occasionally, wrote and appeared in a middling movie about an extra terrestrial who starts dating, but didn’t do any TV writing for the rest of his life that I’m aware of. His last filmed project was a series of lengthy face to face interviews with the cast of The Larry Sanders Show for its DVD release.

In most peoples’ bodies of work, I wouldn’t bother talking about DVD bonus features, but these interviews resemble the DVD bonus feature genre in general as much as any of Shandling’s shows represented TV up to that point. There’s a lot of crying. There’s a lot of awkwardness. It gets deep. We see Shandling’s John Cassavetes streak that was hidden in plain sight all along. And he got to show the value only he could see in a seemingly disposable form one last time.

The Sopranos Finale Now

Note: if you’ve never watched through The Sopranos, I’m gonna be majorly spoiling the ending here, as per the title of the article. So go do that then come back.

There were two creators who essentially put HBO on the map as a place to get things besides boxing matches, second run movies and softcore porn. They’re Garry Shandling and David Chase. Both brought wholly new things to the TV medium but couldn’t have come from more different perspectives on it. Shandling took TV seriously as a place to create deep intricate work long before anybody else did and he did so out of a reverence for the medium, even if that reverence seemed to curdle over time.

Chase created great TV in order to spite the medium. Chase was getting even for not being afforded the opportunity to work in film. Ironically, in doing so he set the stage for TV to rise in social prominence beyond the feature film. He showed where TV was actually a more dynamic medium that had distinct formal strengths feature film didn’t. And in the time since The Sopranos aired, I can’t think of a year where more interesting things were going on in the feature film world than on TV.

The Sopranos, for being the supposed original epicenter of “binge TV”, isn’t actually that bingeable. This is one of its strengths. It meanders. It’s savoring the freedom afforded by premium cable because that freedom wasn’t a given at the time. Even though there’s a decent amount of “action”, it moves more slowly than any major show in the US TV canon besides maybe the original run of Star Trek. The “grand themes” that arise feel natural because they arose, like the “grand themes” in any work, as a continuity in the preoccupations of its creator.

I don’t envy him and his writer’s room however when it came time to wrap things up.

There’s a certain joy that comes in seeing a grand plan executed with intent and intricacy. But at the same time, this can lead to a show that feels like examining the insides of a watch-you’re impressed by how many purposeful little things can harmoniously share a small space, but whatever emotional impact is going to be blunted by the image of the perfect distancing you from the impacts of the real. A loose end makes a world seem larger and more mysterious, a Chekhov’s gun reminds me I’m in a theater.

The Sopranos is not an intricately designed show, just an emotionally honest one. Like a therapy session, it confronts things because they’re unresolved. It doesn’t force resolution as an orgasm substitute. If something doesn’t seem to want to resolve, they just…don’t resolve it. Where’s the Czech guy in the woods at the end of the episode “Pine Barrens”? Who knows. Who cares.

This comfort with a lack of resolution led to what I’m here to talk about today-the finale. It’s probably the most iconic TV finale ever aired. But it’s confusing. It doesn’t give you what you’ve been trained to want from an ending, and seems ambivalent about the idea of endings in general.

I’ll try to summarize it here. After a bloody turf war that seems poised to bring down the Soprano crime organization, we cut ahead to some unspecified time in the future. We watch the Soprano family members gather to meet in a cheesy diner. This takes quite a while. We’re watching Meadow attempt to park her car for longer than I’ve seen anyone park a car on TV without it crashing into something or exploding. Once they’re in the restaurant, an interior set we’ve never seen before, Tony tells us the onion rings there are great. “Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey comes on. In perhaps the single most Godardian moment ever shown on US TV, Steve Perry sings “Don’t stop–” and the show stops. Literally. There’s just black leader and silence.

Many people watching at home reported thinking their TV had died. Most presumed the ending was a bluff or a petering out-an admission that tying the whole thing up in a neat little bow was in fact impossible. Maybe it was.

I don’t think it was though. I think if we analyze the Sopranos ending the way we’d analyze a European art movie from the 70s, it all comes together pretty neatly for something as sprawling and filled with nooks and crannies as The Sopranos.

As Stan mentioned in his piece on the show, the primary conflict/theme is inter-generational differences. Tony can’t escape the overbearing shadow of his mother and father, his children can’t escape the fact their prosperous childhood was built on blood money. The thing that allows them all to continue on as they have forever is simultaneously what keeps them from breaking through to some sort of happiness.

In the final season we are repeatedly faced with changes of the guard; things moving forward regardless of characters’ wishes. In some sense, overcoming trauma is an act of positive forgetting. You don’t have memories, you clutch them. At a certain point that little voice in your head that sounds like Marie Kondo is telling you to let them go. But this isn’t as easy as it might seem; your identity is often tied up in your resentments. Sometimes you need a push.

In the case of Tony Soprano, the memory of his trauma is one and the same as his identity and personal code; in spite of his performances of power, he is entirely a product of his environment. As it is for many of us, his “big other” in Lacanian terms, the invisible imagined voice pestering him about what is and isn’t acceptable, are his dead father and mother. They’re the memory of the old country, heritage, the extent to which we are disallowed from self-invention from the outset.

Artie the chef, Tony’s comic foil, is allowed to come to actual peace with this-the last time we see him, even with his bandaged hand, he seems fine and is perusing the book of recipes he inherited. He’s allowed to take from the old world while living in the new one.

When Tony’s mother dies, Tony’s resentment is passed to his sister and Uncle Junior. When times get lean, Tony realizes on some level his commitment to the old ways is holding him back. When Tony sees Uncle Junior has lost all his memories and doesn’t remember who Tony even is, Tony suddenly feels fine selling the old egg store to Jambha Juice. Seeing Uncle Junior has gone completely senile is Tony cutting his ties to the past, killing Christopher is him cutting ties to its continuance-the past’s future if you will. And the meetings with Jambha Juice underscore just how little relevance the way of life we’ve followed throughout the entire series had. A new set of kingpins, with vastly more money and the power to just take more money legally, will make the Italian mob irrelevant. The new lieutenants and capos are lawyers and executives. The new world will reign regardless of what Tony does. The criminal syndicates to beat now aren’t a bunch of elderly Italian guys in New Jersey, but the politicians waging an illegal war in Iraq-the irony of AJ being gung ho to join the military. He’d still be killing people so crooks could collect money, he’d just be doing it outside the family, for an organization that values snitches.

Throughout the show, we see all the horrific ways the sausage gets made so that this family can sit in average-ness at a generic diner. The mob family is no longer around, only the immediate nuclear family. The cycle of horror will continue, but the way of life of the old country is dead.

Maybe on some level Tony even realizes that if his kids succeed in the way he wants them to, the old country will be lost anyway. Meadow’s taking about as whitebread a third generation immigrant path as you can take in the finale. They were Italians but they’re Italian-Americans now.

Might as well enjoy some onion rings…