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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Carnation, Zone, Wonder (Three Shorts)

Carnation, Zone, Wonder (Three Shorts)

Or, First World Problems: The Article.

Yes, yet again it's a Thursday night, my article is at least a day overdue, and I'm tired and lacking in inspiration. I have another article I'm working on, but it's not falling into place the way I want it to.

This seems like a great time, therefore, to throw together three much shorter essays at the last minute. Excuse their banality.


Valentine's Day was quiet for me this year. The love of my life is, sadly, at enough of a distance that meeting during the week would be difficult at best. For the most part, the holiday went unobserved. Still, there was one minor event on the day that stuck with me, and I've been rolling it around in my mind since. I was in a meeting of the campus feminist club (I'm the only guy that shows up regularly). Another group on campus, a club that includes the word "boys" in the name (I'm not sure what they actually do, honestly) was giving out carnations, and one of the members--a friend and ally of the feminist club--came in to give carnations to all the members of the club.

Well... all the girl members, anyway. Apparently they had a rule for this event that they were only to give flowers to girls, not guys. Hm. Part of me wants to analyze that from a gender/sexuality perspective and pick apart just what that choice signifies.

But really I would be dodging around the true issue here.

I wanted a flower, too.

Those of you who have been following me for a while know that I consider myself to be genderqueer, and sometimes I do quite like feeling like a more sterotypical girl. And for whatever irrational, dumb reason, at that moment I really, really wanted to be a girl. I can understand if this sounds totally ridiculous and narcissistic. I can even envision some of the arguments for why I'm being a prat. But at the same time, I can't deny that it felt bad to be excluded from the whole thing.

At that moment, I wanted to be made to feel special. I wanted to be the girl getting a flower on Valentine's Day. I'm not sure I quite know what that means for my gender politics or my gender orientation or any of those broader, conscious, politically oriented concerns. This runs deeper than that, on a level of instant reaction that I'm not completely comfortable grappling with intellectually. I can only relate this little narcissistic, privileged, totally First World Problem-level anecdote and offer the experience as, perhaps, an example of the strange drives that I don't even realize exist until I am suddenly confronted with them.

Apologies for all the navel gazing


I recently watched, due to a Film Crit Hulk recommendation, the late Soviet-era science fiction film Stalker (1979). It absolutely blew me away.

Which is strange, because buggerall happens in the film.

Hell, a popular description that apparently has floated around the blogoblag for a while, and culture at large before that, runs: "A film about three men walking through the wooded territory, two of which are mostly calm, and the third is constantly afraid of something." It's a film about next to nothing.

Well, actually, as with most of my dramatic statements, that's not really true. The film is about three men--Stalker, Writer, and Professor--who sign on together to go on an expedition into the mysterious physics-defying wasteland known as The Zone. Because, you see, at the center of The Zone is a room that grants your deepest desire.

What I find fascinating about the film is how understated so many of its effects are. It's a film that, to appreciate the strangeness of The Zone, demands both full attention and full imagination. Perhaps one of the most stunning moments of the film is a simple moment when Writer, trapped in the middle of an enclosed dune room called The Meat Grinder, casually drops a stone down a metal well. If we count the seconds it takes for the stone to hit something, we find that the shaft is over 1000 meters deep. And, in a wonderful Mines of Moria moment, there is a strange subterranean clanking of machinery after the stone hits.

Most incredibly, this is used only to build a sense of mood for Writer's impending monologue where he bares his soul to what is implied to be The Zone itself. The alienness of the environment is ultimately understated in favor of the personal drama of the characters. To understand The Zone we have to both pay attention to the subtle ways in which it is unlike our world, and its nature as an entity that reacts to the psyches of the characters navigating it.

The moment that I found most deeply affecting was a single, unexplained moment where Professor, attracted by the black (and apparently totally unsymbolic) hound that has been dogging (aha. Ha. Ha. Sorry.) their steps throughout the film, observes a niche where two skeletons lie embracing one another. A plant grows between them, and the light on the scene shifts as somewhere out of sight a metal shutter sweeps open and closed.

The movie is full of these stunning, individual, inexplicable moments of power. I can't fully explain just what makes them so intriguing, and I'm not even sure anyone else but me would be able to put up with the achingly slow pace of the narrative. I recommend checking the film out, though. You can find it here, along with a number of the director's other films. Check it out and see what you make of the strange, understated strangeness of The Zone.

The Meat Grinder


We don't do wonder very well in our society. I'll even go a step further than that and say that we don't do credulity very well in our society. Or, and I can already hear the pitchforks being sharpened and the torches being lit, a kind of faith. No, we are a society that seems ever more wedded to the omnipresence and ultimate dilution of the concept of Irony.

If I had to pinpoint an exact point where Irony started to go wrong, it would be somewhere around September 11th, 2001. Art Spiegelman talks about this, actually, in his In The Shadow Of No Towers, with respect to the pundit claim that "irony is dead." In a way, it turns out that they were somewhat right, as "tragedy turns to travesty" and original meanings and truths are subverted. I don't think it would be hyperbole to say that the Bush era of post-9/11 jingoistic empire building ushered in a new age of irony, misdirection, disinformation, and illusion.

At the same time as this Age of Mistrust slowly developed politically, socially Irony was just beginning to see use and--ultimately--overuse in the emerging indy and hipster cultures. I find it interesting that the last episode of the TV show Futurama with its recurring joke about the strict definition of "ironic" came out at roughly the time that the thousand copiers of the Napoleon Dynamite model hit the definitely-not-mainstream.

And now, Irony rules the day, albeit in a castrated form. You can see it in the people who assume that Bronies are only into My Little Pony ironically. You can see it when people respond to philosophically complex song lyrics with, "Well, this is probably a parody of pretentious music." (Keep an eye out--I've noticed these sorts of comments quite a bit lately.) And, of course, it's present anytime anyone DOES watch or read or listen to something "ironically"--a weird proposition to begin with.

To some extent, I understand where this attitude comes from. When all your life you have been lied to by politicians, the media, and popular culture, when all your life you've feared that maybe there's a joke that you're not getting, and you're becoming a joke yourself, you're going to react to new information with skepticism and an air of detached, ironic worldliness. But embracing that attitude means that you're numbing your experience. Irony is the double condom of artistic engagement: you're feeling a really weakened version of the real thing, and it's actually less reliable than other alternatives. This is why I talk about finding the good in works. It's why something like the attempt to restore "Manos" The Hands of Fate to its intended condition excites me so much. If you're just looking at "Manos" ironically, restoring the film makes no sense. But if you're interested in seeing what the somewhat naive director really was going for... well, then the project is absolutely amazing.

I said earlier that one thing we don't do well is express faith. What I mean is really pretty simple and limited in its scope: we are bad at having faith in specialness, and appreciating the special when it comes to us. We are also bad at appreciating the importance of special moments or gestures to others. Whether we are losing ourselves in the strange landscape of The Zone or simply receiving a special flower on a special day from a perfect stranger, there is a sense of the individually meaningful that transcends cynicism and skepticism.

I came up with the idea for these three essays while walking across campus to my room roughly around midnight, surrounded by fog and the glimmering of lights. Due to my lack of sleep, everything seemed strangely unreal, suffused with an ambient magic I tend to find only in solitude. I think if there's one quality essential to human experience it is probably this sense of the special. We chase it out, seek after it, and out of fear cloak ourselves in protection from it, constantly aware of the siren call of Wonder.

 Sorry again for the banality and First World Problems. Tune in Saturday for PONIES.


  1. If I had to read the first two to get to the third (I did anyway), it would have made everything worthwhile. Wonder was... well, it just made SENSE. In a chilling sort of way. Irony is indeed far too prevalent. I wonder about other cultures...

    Speaking of media, have you heard Faux News is shifting more Centrist?

  2. "The use of words expressing something other than their literal intention! Now that. Is. Irony!"
    Alternate reference: "What is this world filled with so many wonders? Casting its spell which I am now under."

    For a thrown-together article, not bad. And I can't blame you for the flower thing. Everyone likes flowers.

  3. 1) The Zone looks so cool! Definitely looks like my kind of movie, which means it's going to be slow and subtle and I won't get half of it :p But I'll love it anyway!

    3) Definitely agree with you on the Wonder thing. The allure of the mysterious and the unknown has been replaced by a kind of cold detached and calculating skepticism which is both great (see, Science) but also not (see, irony. Also, we're humans not vedalken). Our generation is definitely more cynical and less visionary than the last few generations, unfortunately, though I hope that can be addressed in some way.

    2) And as TimeBaum said, you can't be blamed or criticized for wanting a flower. I refuse to believe that it is narcissistic to want to be included or to want to break down gender stereotypes. Hell, I'd want a flower.

  4. Just saw your blog. Cool post :) I liked it very much.

    Two things:
    1) wanting to be a stereotypical girl - being the stereotypical girl, I can unpack the explanation for the sudden flowery yearning: it's not the flower, it's the desire to be affirmed as someone special. Everyone needs that, whichever gender they are and no matter how tough they try to look. And our modern, cynical, unemotional society doesn't do personal affirmation and acceptance very well (as badly as it does 'wonder')

    2) about 'wonder' - that caught my attention coz I just read a lovely kid's book with the same title; about an 'elephant boy' with severe deformities whose parents put him in a normal school. you're so right about the need for wonder; and it reminds me that sometimes, the 'special' kids or adults are the ones who exist so that we do remember. Have you seen the smile of a Down's child? There is wonder and simplicity for you. And for him, every day of his life is that simple. No complications, no impression management, no sarcasm or cynicism, just open-hearted affection (and occasionally straightforward anger, but life for them is so simple...)

    Here's GK Chesterton on wonder:

    “We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.”


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