When Criticism Sticks to Critics (and what we criticize) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

When Criticism Sticks to Critics (and what we criticize)

Depression Expression #15

Previous entry: You make it sound like you were raped

I feel like a spaghetti string psychological stereotype today, as best explained by the first college course I took in English after switching my major over from Chemistry. We spent about three weeks on psychoanalytic criticism from Freud, Lacan, Zizek, and the like with my professor giving us what he called a silly summary.  Performing a psychoanalytic reading of someone terrified of Subway sandwiches might reveal that they're really afraid of the association with aquatic submarines and that they're scared of being under water because of a swimming accident they had as a child. Now I'm going to be reading myself and how I got from publicly documenting the year I was abused to internet leftist critical funnyman Hbomberguy's deconstruction of the legacy of Dragon's Lair and why failure needs to be remembered.

This is as good a place as any to remind myself my most supportive readers don't read me for my tonal consistency. They read me for my emotional honesty and greater density compared to other reviewers. So on I go, doing something I haven't done often, and am set to criticize another critic's piece of criticism because of how much it's come to mean to me.

Hbomberguy (which I'll be using because that's the way internet identification rolls these days), released a video called Halcyon Dreams: The Legacy of Dragon's Lair (just Halcyon Dreams moving forward) in 2017 just a shade before Thanksgiving. I was at my parents' place, not feeling especially social and hanging out in the guest room by myself, when I watched it. My mind had been gripped with the consequences of failure because my writing wasn't generating a lot of income and Hbomberguy's video felt uniquely timed to my mental state. Toss in how I had started reviewing video games in earnest and some shared background being film geeks and subscribed goons to arrive at an overall experience that was uniquely affective.

It will sound ridiculous, but watching Halcyon Dreams was like when I sincerely responded to the "You gotta hear this one song" scene from Garden State. I used to love that film, recognize extremely troubling aspects and can't stand to watch it now, but I've reconciled who I was when it affected me.  The same thing occurred to me with Halcyon Dreams.  There was a distinct before and after with some sense that a neglected part of my emotional state was being addressed.  I went from being terrified of failure to thinking that I would be able to take my year of savings and support then, if things didn't work out, there was dignity in failure.

The affect remains the same when I rewatch Halcyon Dreams. One of the most smashing transitions between subject Rick Dyer's dream and difficult reality comes when the synth score drops for the whir of machines while Dyer describes his goal. Even amid the sounds of reality you can see Dyer's tuned out, focusing only on what could be, and Hbomberguy's editing between synth-backed discussion and whirring reality shows how we sometimes need to effectively insulate ourselves from reality to even try for our dreams.

So when Hbomberguy says of Dyer, "I feel kind of sorry for Rick Dyer. The poor guy kept trying and it kept just not quite working out," I feel like I'm being seen. Thanks to a series of medical crises that started last year, affecting first my wife and now myself, we've used our savings while trying to stay above water. This is similarly echoed when a newscaster discusses Dyer's Halcyon game system, and how this is the dream, "Rick and Jan Dyer have gambled everything on." It's upsetting but continues to be reassuring that somewhere out there people may remember my failures in some kind of positive light as Hbomberguy does with Dyer.

Plus, as someone who doesn't even like The Secret of NIMH that much and has been bored by Don Bluth's other films, I appreciate the steps Hbomberguy takes to take the piss out of Bluth's legacy. It's subtle, but comparing the way Bluth has been remembered to a historian accounting for monuments by way of wizardry, is a great "the emperor has no clothes" moment for both the historian and the ostensible wizard. The former isn't digging enough, the latter doesn't exist, and the people who did do the work are completely forgotten. In my druthers, about 90% of Bluth's legacy would be focused on Ralph Bakshi, but that's a subject for another time.

I've both watched and shared Halcyon Dreams many times. Whenever I felt down about my lack of success and was trying to push forward I'd rewatch it while thinking that someone would remember me. If a friend or fellow artist also felt little confidence in their ability to succeed I'd share the video. Halcyon Dreams acts like a salve in consumption, cooling fears with humor and great moments, and ending on a note that asks for dignity toward those who have failed.My problem now is how I'm getting a growing feeling that, like Garden State, all Halcyon Dreams does is reopen wounds while the tears I cry make the illusion of a salve. After all, tears are salty, and pouring salt on open wounds is a bad idea if the goal is to feel better. The former was just giving me an excuse to hold on to my immature ideas of growth and the latter aiming me toward failure instead of success.

This is not Hbomberguy's fault. I've written before about how I tend to self-destruct right when I've been on the cusp of any kind of success. At the same time, I'm learning to be sensitive to art that's putting me into a poor state while leaving me to dwell in fictional characters' genuine well of pain. So what's been the net effect in my year and a half relationship with Halcyon Dreams? Not so positive.

Keep in mind, I'm deeply entertained and affected in the process of watching Halcyon Dreams, but I'm also troubled by how he (and others) celebrate failure. It's not that failures should not be remembered, or that they should be afforded dignity. God knows at this point I could do with a sense of being empowered in my failure. But we don't live in the kind of system where aiming for the stars and plummeting toward the earth means you can eat, keep a roof over your head, go to the doctor (at least here in the States), and the other things that make material necessities override whatever meaning is being attached to failure.

This comes to mind when comparing the arc he presents of Dyer with his use of Johannes Vermeer's The Lacemaker toward the end of Halcyon Dreams. The Lacemaker is meant to be illustrative of the dignity we should afford regular work, the kind that Dyer and other pioneers before him put in, without considering the economic realities surrounding their respective productions. Vermeer ultimately died in debt and Dyer faded into obscurity (though I do appreciate finding out from some independent searching he had a hand in developing the cowboy hologram game because of course he did).

Praising failures for existing is only something useful to the already successful. I don't write this as a total negative. The documentary filmmaker Errol Morris has made a successful and artistically fulfilling career out of documenting failures. Plus Halcyon Dreams is still deeply affective when I rewatch it. But celebrating history's failures cannot be healthy when also cutting out what happened to them after they failed. It ultimately puts all the artistry of the successful analyst in service of praising their own ability to recognize and valorise failure over the failing artist. It's hard not to feel as though this is some kind of convoluted display of bootstrapping, that the analyst (be it Morris or Hbomberguy) is showing off their own success by focusing so much on failures.

I'm already deeply sensitive to the lack of sincerity when it comes to internet interactions and realizing that makes some aspects of Halcyon Dreams land poorly. A big one is when Hbomberguy utilizes onscreen text and a sarcastically quizzical tone to piece together Dyer's game Thayer's Quest. It reeks of South Park's culturally massive takedown of Scientology. I hate South Park's libertarian slant of the last decade or so, but in this case the South Park team directed their gaze at a powerful religious body that earned that kind of satirical condemnation. When Hbomberguy says of Thayer's Quest, "Like everything else about this game it's weird and esoteric for seemingly no reason," I'm not questioning the accuracy of his criticism. I'm questioning whether it's a worthy target when Dyer was trying to get out from under Bluth's shadow and was not afforded a fraction of the praise for his own work while Bluth got the "Disney renegade for life" label.

Despite Hbomberguy's attempts at empathizing with Dyer's situation Hbomberguy can't help but make it seem like he's kicking down too often. He says he can't make fun of the CD-i or 3DO game consoles because, in context with the failed Halcyon, those massive failures didn't fail hard enough to be on the same level with the Halcyon. This is an unnecessary refrain of, "See how hard this failed those big silly failures." So when he says, "The poor guy" line it doesn't sound as if he's coming from a place of empathy. It sounds like he's doing what too much of the internet already does - maintaining a snarky distance away from the sincere expressions of others and building his own success on their failure.I know this isn't his intent, both from watching him come up from the Something Awful forums and his own question about why he made Halcyon Dreams to begin with. But it also wasn't my intent in embracing Halcyon Dreams to convince myself and those I sent it to that even subconsciously aiming for failure will be fine because successful people can find dignity in the failure of others. My intent and his doesn't change the dividing line between my deeply affective first viewing of Halcyon Dreams and my current depressive low-point where I feel he's punching down.

I don't feel dignity in my failure. All I've seen is how terrified I was after Trump took office and how desperately I wanted to create something for myself outside the insurance job that caused me to have multiple nervous breakdowns - all urged on by a plethora of loved ones that turned out to be more encouraging and less supportive when it's mattered. As I check in on the person who loved my writing and messaged my then-partner Danny that my words inspired them to up their game, I only wonder how it is I could inspire others to success when I couldn't even feed or keep myself healthy on the writing I need to make what little sense I can of myself to this world.

Dyer, near as I can tell from searching, is still alive. What did he think of his life being turned into the entertaining yet deeply flawed Halcyon Dreams? I can't find an answer and Halcyon Dreams doesn't provide one. Hbomberguy can only end by pivoting away from Dyer's life to an ultimately ineffective comparison to another work of art by another artist that died partially from the failure of his art to continue providing for himself and family. There's no comfort in the conclusions for people like me who are still struggling. But I can still see what I loved and continue to love about Halcyon Dreams.

This is the painful contradiction for those of us who choose criticism as our artistic expression. We can become so informed on the technical know-how affective and effective results of what we are criticizing but can't answer the questions of failure and success about ourselves. Or, to make this less generalizing, it's a question I pose to myself and can't answer.

For all my mixed feelings for Halcyon Dreams I still revisit it because I think part of the answer is in there somewhere. If not, maybe it will take me to the path that will give me comfort if not an answer. In the end, criticism is a process and not a destination, and this is still the only path where I find value for myself in myself. I just need to figure out how to adapt that to a world that doesn't seem to feel the same.

All pictures are screenshot from Halcyon Dreams with text captions by myself.

Please help me if you can:

Posted by Andrew

Filed under: 2019 Leave a comment
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