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10Jan/190

Bandersnatch (2018)

The Black Mirror shatters, and aspiring game developer Stefan struggles to make sense of the pieces. As he celebrates the opportunity of a lifetime his world becomes tinged with deja vu, and the world he lives in may be one of many where happiness is a long shot. Charlie Brooker writes Bandersnatch, directed by David Slade, and stars Fionn Whitehead and Will Poulter.

Calling Bandersnatch experimental is a generous stretch of the term I'm not inclined to grant. It's not even experimental for Netflix as they released a choose-your-own-adventure edit of Telltale's Minecraft: Story Mode game as an interactive film. While Minecraft: Story Mode ended up highlighting the shortcomings of Telltale's offering as a videogame by showing just how little player interaction mattered, Bandersnatch takes things into a further pit of by not even having the courage of adhering to its own conceit.

I played the part of Bartleby the Scrivener and called Bandersnatch's bluff about its choose-your-own-adventure structure by refusing to choose. It took only two minutes for the heavily advertised choice to mean nothing. In the first of multiple bludgeoning explanations about choosing, the narrator explained that I needed to click on an option. I declined, and the narrator once again told me to click. When the timer ran out Bandersnatch had its first and only chance to let me know it meant business by closing itself. After all, if I didn't want to play along there's no reason they needed to cater to me. Instead Bandersnatch began and about two boring hours later it finally came to a limp close.

Filed under: 2018, Dislike Continue reading
1Jan/190

2018 in review: how do we leave the shimmer?

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Much of 2018 challenged how I consume art and whether criticism matters a lick of damn. It started because of Annihilation, a film that so thoroughly represented my depression that it felt all other experiences I could have in the theater would have to compare to Natalie Portman's face against the shimmer. That ended up being prophetic as other films came and went but I felt the same drag back toward the abyss that takes human shape in Annihilation's penultimate chapter. Enjoyment was sparse and, aside from the working class joy of Logan Lucky and the bizarre Proud Mary, I accepted no other film would measure up.

Then came the defining struggle of 2018 that challenged one of my positions in my Annihilation review - the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court of the United States. It was a brutal affair over a monster's choice for a monster who gets to serve the rest of his life on the only branch of government that seems to be able to make any change anymore. The confirmation hearings sparked conversation and confrontation among those who doubt the testimonies of women while granting leeway to powerful men. What shocked me, and immediately rebuked my previously held experience that my mental health never needed to be explained to women, was how many white women rushed forward to Kavanaugh's defense. I found myself angry with women who did not understand, or more accurately did not care to understand, how victims of abuse and sexual assault are pressured into silence.

What good does it do if I can see something touching and painfully true about trauma in Annihilation but fail to communicate the same about my reality to people who doubt it? I touched on some of this helplessness during my conversation with Tevis Thompson about Night in the Woods. I foolishly thought that collaboration, as rich and rewarding as it turned out to be, would be the trigger to get me out of this depression and back toward being productive. In the words of Rob Thomas during his time with Matchbox 20, "It's me, and I can't get myself to go away." There is no one project or piece that is going to make everything snap together and, with barely a week to go in 2018, I identified my complacency in writing as one major source of depression. The work is the work and I have been lazy in the work.

So I must challenge the work and my perceptions of the work. That led me to a phenomenal criticism of Nanette, which I still rank among the greater experiences of 2018, that scaffolds artistic and political points so effectively that Yasmin Nair revitalized my faith in criticism. The same also led me to continue exploring why I loathed Black Panther, a film where the common reaction among white liberals was to pat themselves on the back for patronizingly helping a black superhero "arrive".  Better to read criticisms by Chris LeBron ("Why should I accept the idea of black American disposability from a man in a suit, whose name is synonymous with radical uplift but whose actions question the very notion that black lives matter?"), Kimberle Crenshaw ("Like remembering a drunken night thru a hangover haze, I kept wondering how I'd come to dance on the table for the CIA?"), and Armond White ("Rather than any account of that hopeful, aggrieved, inspiring, yet violent and always controversial social-activist group, we get the story of a monarchy.")

Before Black Panther was the considerably more interesting Proud Mary, and afterward Ava DuVernay's A Wrinkle in Time. Those two films barely made a dent compared to Black Panther's box office while all three have been largely abandoned in immediate cultural conversation. Maybe it's time to have those conversations about why white liberals congratulated themselves on buying tickets to Black Panther while ignoring the others when the CIA proudly coopts what feeble criticism Black Panther mustered, American imperialism gets reduced to a punchline, and the pastiest of pasty white boys gets to model a "Wakanda Forever" sweater. I need to direct my rage against this self-congratulatory commodification of urgent problems instead of self-destructing.

Easier written than done but this gives me a plan of how to escape the shimmer that began overtaking me early 2018. As I continue to work, here's a breakdown with links (when applicable) to the artistic experiences that shaped my year:

The Best

Great

Good

Zone of Indifference

Bad

 

Wretched

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22Dec/180

Rocky and Bullwinkle (and Friends): Bullseye Bullwinkle and Invitation to the Trance

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Jet Fuel Formula Part 3: Bullseye Bullwinkle or Destination Moose

In which a (literally) unseen third player in the cake baking rocket fuel saga emerges to threaten our heroes with scrooching.

In its second full episode and third part of "Jet Fuel Formula", Rocky and Bullwinkle hits a low then high point with its ramshackle animation. The dialogue jumps straight to the action even when the figures are doing little as we hear our heroes talk but there is no mouth movement. It's distracting, even with the Narrator doing his best wrangle some wry fun out of the surroundings with amusing and accurate summations like, "Well Rocky and Bullwinkle really started something just by trying to make a cake." Rocky and Bullwinkle's long-term reputation includes it being seen as little more than a radio play with some images and the opening of part three reinforces the notion.

Then the limited animation gets two characters who will make great use of the volatile quality. Gidney and Cloyd are two little green moon men ("They must be Congressmen," Bullwinkle muses) with a shaky grasp on their ability to turn invisible. Their appearance is both a bit unsettling and hilarious as their furrowed expressions become visible before the rest of their bodies do with their figures moving in and out of view according to some floaty animated logic we're not privy to. It's a fun effect, letting the Rocky and Bullwinkle team lean into the cheap production creatively by introducing two characters that don't need to be consistently animated at all - give or take the bushy mustache and gun capable of "scrooching" (what that is still to come).

Gidney and Cloyd also lean into Rocky and Bullwinkle's amused annoyance with then-modern life, which still resembles the now-modern life (which as of this writing is December 2018). Their training involved listening to loud music, dodging traffic, and having to inhale smog. These days we could just go outside in a major metropolitan city to get the same experience as being locked in with airborne pollutants. It's not crushingly insightful stuff, but their annoyed and beleaguered expressions enduring the annoyances of post-industrial life are well felt.

20Dec/180

Rocky and Bullwinkle (and Friends): Introduction, Jet Fuel Formula, and Goodbye Dollink

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Flashback: 1992, Universal Studios, Orlando Florida, and an 8-year old me has the honor of sitting next to a living legend. The legend is one Dudley Do-Right of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who climbed all the way to the top to greet me and my mother while enjoying a live-action version of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show together. Dudley Do-Right deftly answers lightly teasing questions from my mom about where Horse and Nell are while my attention is split between a living cartoon sitting next to me and the one playing out on stage. It all ends with a bang, Boris Badenov gets shot out of a cannon meant for Rocky and Bullwinkle, and I turn to see a smoky Boris stuck in an adjacent building while the show wraps up and Dudley gives me a salute before he goes off into the credits.

Dear readers, it was at that moment I learned magic exists and my adult mind remains steadfast that Dudley Do-Right is real, and strong, and my friend. A quick trip to the gift shop and a small plush facsimile of Rocky came home with me to be my companion as I wore down the multiple VHS copies of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show we owned. Sometimes I'd get up early enough to catch a syndicated glimpse of the stories that didn't make it to VHS, such as "Metal-Munching Mice" or "Bullwinkle's Testimonial Dinner".

Put differently, and why I'm going to be spending the next couple of months writing about The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, there is no "me" without the moose and squirrel. It introduced me to serialized storytelling, metafictional fourth-wall breaking, snappy dialogue, animation that made the most of a limited budget, and an unyielding reservoir of positivity with an excellent feel for puns. 2018's been a difficult year and trying to keep up with art that hasn't excited my senses, combined with a litany of horrible things that just kept happening, and the cumulative affect of the last few months has left me adrift in my depression.

After re-watching a few episodes to determine if this is a good way of spending my time I can safely say there is nothing like The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. I'm not planning on watching or writing about the new series that launched but with enough time and distance into this project, maybe I'll give it a shot.

For now, as Bullwinkle put it, there's always room for one more! So please join me on this episode-to-episode breakdown of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.

29Nov/180

Legendary Gary (2018)

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If this is your first time reading Pixels in Praxis or are averse to spoilers, check out our FAQ before proceeding.

I love that first glimpse of the titular Gary on the title screen of Legendary Gary. Gary's eyes peek out over the start bar with intelligence, a bit of bemusement, and surprise. "A game about me?", I can hear him asking while I hover over the New Game option. Yes Gary, a game about you, and by extension a game about the forces at work to keep our motivation down while recognizing the role escapist art plays in our day-to-day existence.

Escapism through art is not inherently good nor bad, though recently I've been more annoyed by the concept or tired of seeing pop culture brought out as an attempt to rouse us from our collective depression. You see this every time someone posts a meme about Harry Potter, usually accompanied by text urging the various houses to come together so that we can get through our political moment. What that use of pop culture gets wrong is in its failure to diagnose the problem. Few want to discuss the evils of capitalism after getting a smile from their favorite wizard house acknowledging their existence. Evan Rogers understands the need to be seen through our escapism and to not only be roused but also direct our attention toward the problem that needs fixing.