51 HD

Well, I shouldn’t be all that surprised, really. After an irreverent video game series sends you blasting through gangsters, corporate goons, and all manner of psycho assassins, there’s really only one way to go.

Aliens.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Saints Row 4 might have done it first, but I think No More Heroes III wears it better. This is an absolute nut-job of a game, and that’s saying something, considering that its developer made Killer7. Reviewers have complained that it looks ugly, its edge has dulled, and that it leans too heavily on style, but I can’t help but love it. Here’s a game that just wants to be your buddy. “Hey, man,” it says, “come party with us.”

And party I did, three times over. I can’t get enough of it.

Like its numbered predecessors, NMH3 is an over-the-top slash-em-up set in the California town of Santa Destroy. You play as the dorky-but-lovable Travis Touchdown, professional assassin and proud japanophile. He may be pushing forty, and married with children, but nothing will stop him from rocking leather jackets, collecting gashapon, and playing film critic about the Miike oeuvre. Shacked up with his former rivals, Shinobu Jacobs and Charlotte “Bad Girl” Birkin, as well as his aged kitty Jeane, Travis is living the dream.

That is, until FU shows up.

Twenty years ago, a larval alien named Jess-Baptiste VI crash-landed on Earth, and was saved by a young Damon Ricotello. In gratitude for this kindness, Baptiste gifted Damon with great alien knowledge, which he used to help the alien return home. Before departing, Baptiste promised that he’d visit Earth again to see his good friend.

Now, Baptiste, a.k.a. Lord FU, has made good on his vow. Grown to his full measure, FU is strong, intelligent, and a total psychopath. He’s a conqueror of worlds with a court full of criminals, and now he wants Earth for his own. He drags a reluctant Damon into his plans, and wields Damon’s burgeoning media corporation to spread his influence.

FU decides to make the conflict sporting, so he commissions the United Assassins Association to set up a ranking system for Earthlings to challenge him. So, along comes Travis to take the alien bastards down one by one.

Now, I have to say that for all their wackiness, the villains in past No More Heroes games have never really made a lasting impact. They mostly came in strutting and went out bleeding, like the opponents in a Punch-Out!! game. FU, on the other hand, is something else. He’s a constant presence in this game, lording over the proceedings with an unpredictable menace. I love this guy. It’s hard to believe he’s voiced by Charles Smith from Red Dead Redemption II.

Before you can cross blades with the guy, you’ll need to rise in the rankings. You do this by exploring the various regions surrounding Santa Destroy, fighting rank-and-file members of the alien army, and making money off odd jobs. Once you have the cash and have won a few qualifying matches, it’s off to the boss fights for another spectacular battle.

These battles rarely go the way you expect them to, though the twists aren’t always surprising if you’ve played previous games in the series. There’s plenty of kill-stealing, returning champions, and other odd callbacks. At times it feels disjointed, like Suda and his team tossed together a big odd soup, but it’s refreshing to play a game that doesn’t take itself seriously.

In fact, the whole game has that odd-soup quality. Polygon’s review called it a “multimedia art project,” and I think that’s the best way to describe its presentation. The game is framed as a streaming anime series, with a repeating intro and outro, varying art styles and classic TV editing. You even get a Netflix-like next-episode countdown timer. The characters are all aware of their existence in a video game, and make snarky jokes about it constantly. Travis himself talks to the player like an old friend. Some folks might roll their eyes at at all this, but I dig it. It never comes off as hostile or resigned, but joyous in its revelry. During the game’s first action sequence, the character Sylvia advises the player to surrender to the gaming addiction, play for ten hours at a time, and “drink a shitload of soda.” And you know what? Part of me said, “why the hell not?”

The combat is what feeds that gaming fix, as it’s nice and tight. In fact, it’s far more technical than it was in its predecessors. Mashing buttons won’t get you far; you’ll have to time your strikes and limit your combos to survive. You’ll also need to make wise use of your Death Glove, which shoves and slows enemies, and causes damage over time. Dodging the aliens’ attacks and slashing their health away makes the game feel like a mixture of Diablo III and Breath of the Wild. The controls are different from previous games, but some mainstays remain, like the directional finishing moves, Dark Side death reels, and recharging your sword battery by treating your Joy-Con like a shake weight.

Yes, the game still has motion controls in it, but they’re very limited, and you don’t need to use them if you don’t want to. I like using them, though, as it’s quite satisfying to swing my arm and decapitate an irritating baddie.

I’m willing to admit that the fighting wouldn’t make this game on its own. The series has proven that too much of it can get tiresome. The rewards of a Grasshopper game are the things that happen outside of battle. Santa Destroy and its environs are full of humor, intentional or not. You have odd jobs that are easy and silly-looking, collectible scorpions and kittens, and visual novel sequences designed to look and sound like Apple II programs (did people really play games like these?).

Aside from the fourth-wall breaking I mentioned earlier, there are also references to pro wrestling, Zelda, Mario, Smash Bros., and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The atmosphere is ridiculous, but it’s also earnest, passionate, and true to its creator, Goichi Suda. Critics have said that Suda’s voice is no longer unique–that it’s been lost in the storm of nerd culture that now pervades the mainstream. Maybe we do see a lot more dragons and superheroes on our TVs than we once did, and maybe we do have a lot of geeky podcasts jabbering about them, but I don’t think that makes Suda any less relevant than before. Seeing his own personal goofs on games and movies is still enjoyable to me, especially because of his not-quite-in-the-club viewpoint.

Aside from complaints about over reliance on style, most folks have been bitching about NMH3‘s graphics. It’s true: the frame rate chugs badly when driving around the open world. Pop-in is rampant, and there’s something odd about the lighting too. This never really bothered me, though; this is a Grasshopper Manufacture game, after all. Suda and his crew don’t have the genius of Nintendo, or the resources of Rockstar on their side. They’ve always played rough and dirty, and I think that’s part of their appeal. I daresay that their failure to meet today’s AAA standards was intentional, to remain in keeping with their punk-band attitude.

Of course, this raises the question of whether Suda’s games are really “punk” or not, and even whether video games can be “punk” at all. I suppose that if one considers the money required to make NMH3, along with the heavy marketing Nintendo put behind it, one could call Suda a sell-out. If we’re honoring the original spirit of “punk,” I’d have to say that the real “video game bands” are the indie developers pounding out code in their garages. I don’t know. That’s a discussion for obsessive literary types who are far smarter than I am.

My primary complaint about this game is that it simply isn’t big enough. I really enjoyed just being in Travis’s world, and I wanted to see more of it. I was disappointed to see just how much of the map is sealed off as “forbidden zones.” I also would have liked to have some actual “levels” in the game to fight through, as opposed to simple arenas. I think the alien monsters are varied and unique enough that they could allow for some interesting level design.

Just keep the levels at a reasonable length, Mr. Suda. We can’t take too much of it at once.

Look at all that red 😦

What I’d really like to see is a No More Heroes game with an open structure, something like Super Mario Odyssey. It should ditch the Assassin rankings, and allow Travis to drive between mini-cities at will. He could run and climb and explore. He could go shopping, fight aliens, and complete challenges scattered across the map. The story could develop as each new region is unlocked, as opposed to the attainment of new ranks. Of course, there could be lots of separate arena challenges accessed via special locations. I think it could work!

I’m sure it’d end up on a smaller scale than Odyssey, and it would look a little scruffy here and there. I’d still be happy with it, though. No matter how much pop-up it has, I can’t help but adore this scrappy little underdog that keeps on partying, all the way to the end of the world.

Because the Light Went Out

About two months ago, for no real reason that I can think of, I went on a Norm MacDonald binge. From out of the stars, Norm’s “cliff-diving” joke shot into my head, and I wanted to see it again. So, I looked up his One Night Stand special on YouTube, and wound up sliding down a rabbit hole.

I actually saw that One Night Stand special back when it was new, and I never forgot it. Aside from cliff-diving, I never forgot Norm’s jokes about lottery tickets and the guy who killed his family because the devil told him to to do it. Norm’s style and attitude made him stand out to me — even in the time of Emo Phillips, Dennis Wolfberg, and The Amazing Jonathan, I knew this slightly befuddled dude with the nasally voice was something special.

Although I’d seen Norm doing Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live, and caught a few of his cameos in movies by his SNL buddies, I never really followed his career. Until this recent binge, I had no idea he’d written a book, and hosted multiple shows. As my YouTube adventures led me to tantalizing snippets of these shows, I decided to jump on Netflix and watch them in their totality.

That was when I realized that Norm wasn’t playing a character when he did his comedy sets, he was just being himself.

Many of the clips I saw of Norm were of jokes and shaggy-dog stories told on late-night talk shows. Few of these jokes were his own (even the beloved “moth” joke is just an old standard), but when hearing them in Norm’s voice, you’d never know it.

So I took in all this Norm stuff, had a great time, and felt glad that Norm was having a great time too. I looked forward to seeing what kind of trouble he’d get into next.

And then the dude died.

Like Richard Farnsworth, the sheriff from Misery who refused to inform people of his cancer, and then blew his own brains out, Norm kept his suffering to himself and went out on his own terms.

Every comedian he touched was shocked and horrified at the news, and an outpouring of love and memories came from the likes of Bob Saget, Conan O’Brien, and David Spade. The tales they told described a mischievous, idiosyncratic introvert who refused to drive, and who took days to respond to a text. They showed admiration for his bloodyminded adherence to OJ slander on Weekend Update, his “shocking” behavior on The View, and his time-gobbling jokes on The Tonight Show.

Some folks called him a genius. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I can’t deny that Norm was an individual, steadfast and uncompromising. He was never offended, and he loved toying with those who were. People like that are hard to come by anymore, especially in show business. He broke rules and won laughs anyway. That takes courage. Now, whether Norm was truly being courageous or just crazy is up for debate. Still, he did things his own way, for better or worse, and I think that’s why people respect him.

I’d like to write more, but I really have to read that book now. I’m told that Norm gets his job at SNL by selling Lorne Michaels morphine in it.

Gilbert Gott-Socks

Here’s an anecdote that amused me, and apparently few others. I recently sent this video to family and co-workers, telling them it was one of the funniest things I ever heard, and none of them got it. In fact, most of them seemed to think I was strange for enjoying it.

Sorry for not embedding the damn thing, by the way. For some reason YouTube doesn’t feel like sharing.

Anyway, I’m not sure why I’m so isolated in my opinion. I mean, think about it: the good people of New York, still black-eyed from 9/11, gratefully donate essentials to the heroic fire fighters of Manhattan. The fire fighters don’t want or even need them, though. That’s pretty funny on its own, but here comes Gilbert Gottfried, probably the only comedian cheaper than Jack Benny, who, with no ounce of shame, says, “Hell, I’ll take ’em for ya!”

And off trots Gottfried with the kindness of so many 9/11 victims. These people essentially donated to Mr. Peabody. That’s pretty freakin’ hilarious. I just wish my friends felt the same way.

Maybe I’m being insensitive about the situation. Is it still too soon for jokes like this? I mean, I have co-workers who weren’t even alive in 2001; I figured the embargo on humor was lifted by now. Besides, the story doesn’t make light of the 9/11 attacks, but of misguided gifts and Gottfried’s tight wallet.

It could be that Gottfried himself is the problem here. Crazy as it sounds, the guy just doesn’t appeal to everyone! I think he’s hilarious. He’s cracked me up since I was a kid in the 80s. With a lengthy career like that, surely he has more fans than just myself. Sure would be nice to share videos with one someday!

The Same Old Schpeltiger

Holy crap; No More Heroes III is almost here. Where did the time go? I always enjoyed this series, with its goofy characters and Miike-inspired punk landscape. Well, I enjoyed the first game anyway, and part three looks to take its lead from that.

No More Heroes originally came out for the Nintendo Wii, and it was a fine marriage of game and console. It employed the Wii’s motion control in a sparing but satisfying way, and even used the controller speaker like a telephone at times. It might seem gimmicky, but that’s the spirit: out there, taking chances, running wild.

The game was an ultra-violent chop-em-up in the vein of God of War, but with focused swordplay and exaggerated characters. The point was to make the dorky Travis Touchdown into the world’s top ranked assassin by slaughtering all the others, one at a time. You’d cut down a whole bunch of hired goons as well. You did this with Travis’s impressive lightsaber skills, so there was plenty of dismemberment, decapitation, and other d-words in it. Lots of f-words too. It was pretty edgy for a Nintendo exclusive, but that’s what developer Grasshopper Manufacture does best.

The game played like a budget Grand Theft Auto, with a not-too-large city to drive around in between fights. You’d motorbike along the sunny streets of Santa Destroy, and basically run errands to prepare for your next ranked duel. You could work out to improve your health, rent tapes from the local video store, update your wardrobe, get work mowing lawns and pumping gas, and go dumpster diving for treasure and T-shirts. If you got punchy and started craving some fighting action, you could take minor assassination gigs to hack up bad guys and make some quick cash.

The city itself was sparsely populated, and didn’t have any police, firemen, or believable physics, but I liked it. Tearing around on Travis’s ridiculously oversized motorcycle, knocking out newspaper stands and jumping fences on the way to the local bar was a lot of fun to me. It gave the game dimension. What’s more, living out Travis’s routine made me feel close to him. It’s a special kind of connection that’s still seen in modern games like Death Stranding and Red Dead Redemption II. Taking showers, watching shows, and feeding pets with our protagonists might sound mundane, but I find it fascinating.

A lot of people didn’t find it fascinating, though, and the sequel did away with the whole exploration thing. I think No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle — a title that makes me suspect it was meant to be DS game — suffers for this. In NMH2, you don’t get to drive your badass cycle from location to location anymore. Instead, you choose a destination from a menu, and basically teleport there to complete your tasks. The idea was to cut away the fat and let players get right to business, but removing fat also removes flavor, and I feel like the game is rushing me along when I really want to take my time and savor it.

In fact, I think “rushed” is the best word to describe NMH2 as a whole. It feels like Grasshopper did some scurrying to get the damn thing out the door. Its story, while not necessarily important, starts on a flimsy premise and feels rehashed. You can’t take minor assassination gigs between duels anymore, so the only way to make money is by playing mini-games. These 8-bit styled job-games start out cute and charming, but quickly get tedious and frustrating. There really isn’t a whole lot to spend money on anyway, as most of the purchasable clothes look dopey, and the sword-maker only makes two swords.

There are sequences where you can play as characters other than Travis, but there’s only one for each of them. The first one is too long and the second is too brief. Meanwhile, the difficulty is all over the place, swinging from way-too-hard to way-too-easy from one level to the next.

I admit that its combat is more interesting than the first game’s, though. There’s a bit more strategy and better differentiation between the enemy types than there is in the first game. I only wish that Grasshopper had taken this tweaking-and-building route with the open world as well. They didn’t have to just drop it.

Thankfully, No More Heroes III brings Santa Destroy back. We can drive around again, explore, meet folks, go shopping, and and take missions in an efficient, streamlined manner. The game looks to take a Saint’s Row turn by including aliens, but I’m sure it’ll be a ton of fun despite the derivative nature.

As long as I get to stop by Beef Head Video and grab a movie or two between melees, I’ll be good. Can’t wait.

On the Page

A few nights ago, my online friend PacBilly hosted a stream on YouTube. The poor guy had been laid up due to what sounds like severe tendinitis, so he grabbed his MacBook and said, “What the hell; I’ll go online and draw a picture.” What resulted was an amazing expression of community talent.

PacBilly started out drawing a cartoon in Paintbrush, the MacOS equivalent of Microsoft Paint, using only the trackpad on his laptop. I tell you, I wish I had this guy’s right brain, because his ideas are out there, man. He wound up drawing a picture of a mad duck, a sniffing banker, and a bumblebee with the head of J.R. “Bob” Dobbs. Listening to his creative process as he constructs this crazy drawing is as much fun as looking at the drawing itself.

He didn’t stop there, though. As folks gathered to watch, PacBilly decided to turn his bedridden impulse into an art showcase. He asked his viewers to draw and send in their own pictures, which he would then share on the stream. The only rules were that the drawings had to be done in Paint or a Paint-like program (no layers), using a mouse or a trackpad (no tablets).

Drawings poured in from everywhere. As PacBilly revealed them, I felt as though some peculiar curtain was lifted. The sight of these spontaneous sketches suddenly gave faces to these screen names, and put me in touch with something real, something true. I realize that’s the whole point of art, but when I go to DeviantArt and look at something like this:

Well…I just don’t feel it. There’s expert craftsmanship on display for sure, but I don’t get anything honest from it. On the contrary, I get the sense that the artist is hiding from me.

Looking at this stuff, however, I felt like I was seeing the souls of real people, shyly bared. Sure, the pictures are rough due to the limitations set by the rules, but that adds to their purity, I think.

Many viewers expressed apprehension about submitting a drawing, because they didn’t think their efforts would be worth sharing. PacBilly wouldn’t hear these objections. He told them that this activity was not about impressing anybody, but about the simple joy of creating.

Then he meticulously pored over each drawing, and gave them all due attention. He expressed curiosity on their inspiration. He saw personality in their details. He recognized the qualities of their designs, and mulled on where he would place them as printed copies.

He didn’t stop there, though. As conversation continued, it was discovered that two of the stream’s viewers lived near each other, another was a skilled ukulele player, and yet another was about to celebrate his wedding anniversary.

That’s right, the morning PacBilly chose to host his stream was also the morning of this fellow’s anniversary. His screen name was The Highlander, and he was up late while his wife was sleeping. In PacBilly, this inspired a new mission: he was determined to get Mrs. Highlander to draw a picture for the stream.

More ideas followed. Hey, let’s hear some fond memories of The Highlander’s marriage, and get the viewers to draw pictures of them! Then, when Mrs. Highlander arrives, we’ll show them off to her! Better yet, let’s commission LogrusUKE, our resident ukulele player, to perform a cover of The Highlanders’ wedding song, and play it for her to hear!

The memory drawings didn’t happen, but thankfully, everything else did. The Highlander managed to get his wife out of bed, and she did draw a picture. She named it “Fowler,” and it touched PacBilly profoundly. He described it as “minimalist, but evocative,” and he believed that it would make a fine album cover. I have to agree.

Meanwhile, LogrusUKE quickly recorded a cover of “Just the Two of Us” by Bill Withers, the song of the Highlanders’ first dance. As soon as he was done, he shot an .mp3 to PacBilly, who then played it on stream for the couple. It was truly remarkable.

But that’s PacBilly. He knows how to pierce the fog. He has a deconstructive humor, and he embraces the imperfect. He has a playlist of videos called “Analog Anecdotes,” which are stories told on old-school, 4-track cassettes, and mixed over footage recorded on VHS. The videos are wracked with tape hiss and tracking lines, but that only makes them feel precious and human. I really admire that.

I regret to say that I missed this amazing stream, but I’m glad it’s uploaded to YouTube for posterity. For the hell of it, I took a stab at the MS Paint challenge while I listened to the video, but I don’t think my drawings really fit the spirit of the situation. It was a fine exercise, though, and I think it helped me get past the creative constipation I’ve been dealing with lately. Bless ya, Billy, you’re a hell of a guy.

Top Non-Cartoons: Brazil

As a former member of Monty Python, Terry Gilliam has a vision and mindset that differs from most filmmakers. He is outlandish, inventive, and ferociously ambitious, and Brazil, his biggest and best film, stands as the ultimate map of his mind. I can’t say that it’s absolutely perfect, but I also don’t think it should be changed. Gilliam’s cut is so dense with symbolism, imagery, and ideas that to shave even a frame would be to kill something magical.

Brazil is an homage to George Orwell’s 1984, in that it involves a dystopian society in Europe that’s at odds at a nebulous “terrorist” threat. The difference is that instead of telescreens and thought police, this dystopia employs an encroaching state swollen with bureaucracy. Its most prominent fixture is the Ministry of Information, where an army of white-collars shuffles papers, ostensibly to keep terrorism in check.

The cause and identity of the terrorists are never explained. The only evidence of their presence is the occasional Gilliam-esque explosion, which the characters typically brush off as an irritation. Just as in modern life, the Enemy is cloudy and faceless, a threat that exists so the government can exist.

Sam Lowry, played by Jonathan Pryce, is a low-level worker at the MOI. He keeps a seat at the Department of Records, a nightmare of an office where young men in suits sweep documents about in an endless hurricane. It looks like hell, but Sam is quite happy there. He’s skilled at his job, and his boss, Mr. Kurtzmann (a terrific Ian Holm), leans on him to solve all his problems. Kurtzmann is so grateful for Sam’s aid that he’s fine with letting Sam kick up his feet and coast.

Sam’s mother, an aging socialite played by Gilliam mainstay Katherine Helmond, wants more for Sam. She pushes him to aim high and accept promotion to the department of Information Retrieval, but Sam wants none of it. The only thing that motivates him is the appearance of Jill Layton, a woman that he’s repeatedly seen in his dreams, and with whom he’s madly in love.

Jill (Kim Greist) only shows up at the Ministry to report the wrongful arrest of her neighbor, Archibald Buttle. Thanks to a random malfunction at the Ministry, Security went to capture Buttle when they meant to go after Archibald Tuttle (Robert freaking De Niro), who is suspected of terrorism. What’s more, this mistake has led to Buttle’s death due to, well, enhanced interrogation.

This questioning, and the potential exposure of a Ministry error, has put a target on Jill’s back, and soon she is considered a terrorist as well.

Tuttle and Jill are, in fact, not terrorists, but working class individuals who are sick of the Ministry’s bullshit. Tuttle is a rogue heating engineer who sneaks into people’s homes to fix their air conditioners. Jill works in a factory and only wants justice for the traumatized Buttle family. When Sam gets involved with both of them, the Ministry decides that Sam must have caused the Buttle/Tuttle mixup in order to defame the state and aid the terrorist cause. This being a sendup of Orwell, you can guess where this all goes.

I know I’m making this all sound very serious, but somehow, that’s not how Brazil comes across. It has its dark moments, but most of the time it plays with a distinct, professional absurdity.

Unlike Winston Smith, Sam is a childlike fellow who has no interest in the whys of his life. He oversleeps and rarely gets a good meal. When he’s not behind a desk, he’s nervous and awkward, and says the strangest things. His painting as a revolutionary is only done out of convenience: he has no interest in bringing the Ministry down, only in getting Jill out of its iron sights.

Information Retrieval, the euphemistically named wing where suspected terrorists are tortured, is home to two of my favorite characters: Mr. Warrenn (Ian Richardson) and Harvey Lime (Charles McKeown). Warrenn is a cheerful chap who strides the department halls with no real destination, while a whirling entourage clamors for his decisions. Lime is a whimpering weirdo who literally shares Sam’s desk, a situation that sets up a couple of very funny gags.

You also have Sam’s old buddy Jack (Michael Palin), a genial man who’s found success at the Ministry, but only because his smile is a simper, and his hands bloody. He can never remember which of his kids is which, and when his boss calls his wife the wrong name, Jack chooses to adopt the name instead of correcting him.

Then there’s Tuttle, a man who really is fighting the power, but only in a private, mischievous way. The idea of a roof-swinging repairman is so silly that it could be basis of a Python sketch. Still, the state-run department, Central Services, doesn’t like anyone doing its work for it. After Tuttle fixes Sam’s ducts, CS sends two goofballs to tear up Sam’s apartment. The way Tuttle deals with them is disgusting, but also hilarious.

Even the setting is funny, in its own off-putting way. Brazil’s set design has been described as “retro-tech,” as nothing looks as modern as it should. The purpose, says Gilliam, is to give the film a timeless quality, and I have to say that it works. None of the technology in this film seems right, and yet it all fits. Every screen in the movie is monochromatic and tiny, requiring magnification by massive lenses. Computer terminals lack casings, so their clacking, teletype guts are always exposed. Roads are encased in propaganda to hide the withering landscape, and folks chug down them in cramped Messerschmitts. Restaurants serve hideous space food. Telephones buzz like beetles.

Most notably, every building seems infested with ductwork, as though this civilization has grown so rapidly that its infrastructure couldn’t keep up, and utilities had to be thrown on top of it at the last second. Whatever nation the people of Brazil inhabit, it looks like an awful place to be.

Oddly, I find the world of Brazil to be more interesting than its plot. I have so many questions about just how things got this way that the movie never answers for me. Who’s really in charge of the country now? Are there any modern movies being made anymore? Why would anyone use acid for cosmetic surgery? And for Heaven’s sake, where can I get one of those executive decision-makers?!

It’s all so strange, yet all so familiar, that I want to learn more about it. When Sam takes action in this movie, it pulls attention away from these details, and I start to get bored.

Oh man — I haven’t even mentioned the other world in this movie yet, where Sam’s dreams unfold. Yes, there’s a parallel narrative in which Sam becomes a winged hero, fighting for the freedom of his lost love. He encounters barriers that burst from the earth, shuffling trolls with horrifying baby masks, and a massive, armored samurai. Each dream sequence relates to a conflict that’s keeping Sam and Jill apart, and the final one is so lengthy and bizarre that it left me unsettled and confused the first time around.

So there’s a lot going on in this movie. Were it not for the constant humor, it would probably be pretty tough to digest. As it is, I still don’t really understand its message. Does Sam deserve his fate? Should a man be punished for his romantic dreams? Are the nails that stick up really doomed to be hammered down? For all its kookiness, Brazil is really kind of a downer.

Sid Sheinberg certainly thought so. He was president of Universal Pictures at the time of Brazil’s creation, and he wanted the film simplified and retold as a love story. The resultant “Sheinberg cut” was a travesty that infuriated Gilliam. This turned into a whole big thing between the two men that’s been exhaustively documented, but it’s worth reading about if the endless battle between art and business interests you.

That Brazil made it to us in its intended form is a minor miracle. The film is long, mystifying, and ends bleakly, but it’s still enjoyable. Gilliam’s directorial skill ensures that its vacillation between mirth and misery never jars. It presents a fascinating, completely unique setting that I enjoy getting lost in again and again. In fact, I kinda had to get lost in it again and again in order to catch all its details and make sense of its plot threads. There’s just so much to this comedy/horror/fantasy/sci-fi epic that it’s nigh-impossible to nail down. I don’t much care for its action sequences, and I wish it had done more to explain its world, but as it is, I can appreciate it as a thrilling and mysterious place that’s never been seen before or since.

Now, for some strange reason, if Brazil was to be animated, I can see the studio Nelvana doing the honors. Of course, it doesn’t need to be a cartoon, but there’s a distinctive quality to Canadian animation that I think would lend itself well to Gilliam’s material. Rock & Rule had only come out a couple of years prior to Brazil. Maybe there’s something about the era that seems to connect the two.

My Turn, Murakami

Seven years ago, I went through a tough time. Work stressed me out to the point that I felt very unfulfilled and depressed. I stopped exercising, ate nothing but Little Caesar’s pizzas, and shaved my head like Britney Spears on extra-fruitcake mode. It kinda sucked.

Something I found that helped, however, was walking. There was a bike trail near my apartment complex that stretched halfway across town. I would go there on weekends and just walk that trail back and forth for hours. Sometimes I would read while I went, other times I would listen to music, and still other times I would do nothing else at all but feel my body move. I had always hated exercise, but I was beginning to understand why people did it, aside from trying to prolong their lives and look nice.

“God, Kathy, your ass looks so good! How do you do it?”

One of the many things Alan Watts taught me was the concept of “walking meditation.” Apparently it’s a big thing among monks throughout the ages. Before Watts mentioned it in his lecture, I had thought of meditation as sitting, lotus-style, on a mountaintop with one’s elbows on the knees. That, of course, is one manner of meditating, but walking is apparently just as good. The point of meditation has nothing to do with what one does with the body, but what one does with the mind. Or, rather, what one’s not doing with the mind.

Of course, this isn’t news to those who take walks to relieve stress. To me, a person who has serious trouble controlling his thoughts, it’s quite a revelation. Unfortunately, I’ve found that it still takes some serious practice to get right.

I don’t live by that bike trail anymore, and walking my dog is usually more stressful than anything else, so I have to make do with my treadmill. You see, when my life crashed in 2014, I gained a lot of weight. I went from one-hundred and thirty-nine pounds to one-hundred and ninety-seven. My belly protruded, my thighs rubbed, and my neck swelled until it was as wide as my jawline. I told myself that I might be a loser, but I’m not going to be a fat loser, and I started making changes.

So now I run thirty minutes a day on the treadmill, sweating my ass — and hopefully my paunch — off in gushing streams. It’s hard sometimes, and I still have days when I’m tempted to skip it.

I know I can’t though. Not only do I feel guilty and worried about gaining weight back, I get physically tense. I’ve been working the mill for so long now that my body has gotten used to it, and complains to me when it can’t get its fix. I had heard of people getting addicted to exercise, but I never thought that I’d experience it myself. I’d always thought of exercise as a miserable chore. I know that exercise helps me to feel better: it relieves my anxiety and makes me feel accomplished. Still, I have that feeling that it’s a just a dumb necessity that I have to force myself through each day.

I’m searching for ways to change that idea as I run. The method that seems to work best is to stop thinking of myself as a pilot, sitting in the skull and operating a pair of legs, but as a pair of legs working on their own. No joke: I close my eyes, and try to “push” my consciousness down into my legs and feet. I try to let them take charge for a while. It sounds weird, I know, but it actually helps.

And why not? My legs are me, after all. They have just as much right to be called me as my mind does. Who says my mind is the boss, anyway? The heart is pretty damn important. If it goes, everything goes. The stomach has a lot of sway, I’d say. Even the spleen has its own say-so. This ain’t a solo, it’s a harmony.

Believing that my mind runs the show creates all kinds of tension. All my mind wants to do is bounce around from one artificial worry to another. It thinks on how much time I have left before work, how tired I am, how sweaty I’m getting, how many calories I’m burning, oh God how much longer do I have to keep doing this, and so on. It drapes a filter of definitions over the experience and separates from it completely. No wonder it gets exhausting.

Thinking of myself as legs removes all that. As legs, I’m doing what I was made for. I’m moving, I’m gliding, I’m shining onstage. I’m a stallion on the plains, galloping, grunting, sweating, and loving every minute of it. The rhythm of my breathing, the stretch of my muscles, the push off the earth beneath me — they’re all glorious sensations to relish, to soak up, to be glad for.

I can’t say if this is the legendary “runner’s high” that I’ve heard tales about, but it might be close. I can say that it’s a kind of meditation, though. It gets me out of my head and in touch with reality, which can’t be broken down into alphanumerics, no matter how hard we wish that it could.

All Too Soon Will Downward Sink

This sucks!

A little while back (like a year now), an online friend asked me if I’d like to animate a cartoon that he’d written called “The Great Burrito Mouth Get-In.” I was so flattered that I agreed. The cartoon is about six minutes long, takes place in a single scene, and is dialogue-centric. It should have been easy.

So why am I less than halfway through it?

A model sheet that my friend wasn’t too thrilled with.

I know that animation is a time-intensive process, but I’m a notoriously slow artist. I sit down to work, and then I lose focus, I get impatient, I get angry because I’m not getting the results I want, and boom, I’m playing The Sims again. Either that, or I’m back to reading Bag of Bones. Unfortunately, I get the same frustration when I read, because my mind wanders, I forget what I read, and have to run over the same paragraphs over and over to ensure that they stick.

I first conceptualized No-Luck Nora in October of 2010.

How do I explain this to my friend? When we started the project, he told me that he was hoping to enter it in an animation festival that November. Well, November’s come and gone, and I’m struggling with the damn thing. He has to be disappointed in me. Can I really even say I’m a cartoonist at this point?

The bright side of this situation is that I can see my skill improving. I’m challenging myself to make motions and poses that I haven’t done before. They’re not all turning out the way I was hoping they would, but the principles are working.

I’m trying to do at least a few frames everyday, but I just don’t have the fire to work constantly. I could never work for a studio, where I’m sure the productivity demands are a bit harsher than that. But then, the work I’ve been doing has been for free, so perhaps we’re all getting what we paid for.

Foam Rubber Lover

The other day, my brother asked me about the power of puppets. He had recently watched the old music video for the Genesis song “Land of Confusion,” and he remembered how big a role puppets played in our childhoods. I hadn’t really thought about it, but he’s right.

I must have watched every Muppet movie a thousand times over. I loved The Dark Crystal and kinda liked Labyrinth. I was a fan of Sesame Street until I was way too old for it. I owned at least three stuffed ALFs. I even watched Spitting Image when it briefly aired on NBC, despite the fact I didn’t understand a word of it.

Perhaps most telling: my all-time favorite television show remains Mystery Science Theater 3000 (the original one). Breaking Bad is a distant second.

Puppets are indeed curious. Though they might seem like shields to hide behind, they actually yank down our guards and free us in a strange way.

Consider an audience’s reaction to puppets. When the puppeteer brings out his little friend, an audience immediately defines the two as separate performers. They respond to the puppet as though it actually has a self. In Sesame Street segments, you’ll see children hugging and patting puppets like people, even though the puppeteer must in be plain view to them. Alice Cooper said that performing on The Muppet Show was a wonderfully surreal experience. He said that even when the camera was off, he found himself in conversations with Miss Piggy and Rowlf the Dog, whose puppeteers remained in character. While interviewing Kermit the Frog on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart chided himself for looking in the frog’s eyes as he spoke to it.

But it’s not just audiences that puppets can charm; the puppeteers also come under their sway. I’ve seen shy people play with puppets and suddenly come alive. They giggle when they get caught, though. I suppose it’s not much different from the rush of acting, only without the need to memorize lines and place oneself before the critical eyes of others. When you play with a puppet, you can be as silly as you want and fear no judgment, because the puppet isn’t you.

One might say that this satisfies a need to play God, to breathe life into the lifeless, but I don’t think that’s the appeal here. I think what’s really going on is the very human practice of creating egos. We may not realize it, but the social game we play everyday is not a series of exchanges between living beings, but a dance of ghosts. It’s a system of roles and perceived personae, whose rules and rhythms are so forceful and complicated that they often stress us out. Playing with puppets gives us the opportunity to create a role voluntarily, and defy the currents that shove us hither and yon. Puppets can do all the outrageous things that we’re afraid to. They’re free from the bullshit we’re always worrying about.

My brother also asked if I thought puppets would have the same effect on today’s generation as it did on ours. I realize that puppets have a lot of competition these days, but I don’t think they’ll ever really go away; they’ll just get more computerized.

Look at Apple’s memojis: they may use high-resolution cameras and advanced face-recognition, but they’re basically just puppets to play with. Universal Studios has an animatronic Donkey, operated by a live puppeteer, that jokes around with the park guests. Charles Martinet has voiced a digital Mario at the Nintendo World store, and the kids eat it up.

Even so, you don’t need anything fancy to tap into the appeal of puppets. Puppetry abides by no rule. That’s probably another reason why they resonate with us: there are no real gates to pass. You could shake a sock around and people would love it, provided you made it lovable.

I think it’s all about the easy, pressure-free creation of egos — using our natural social instincts to weave a character from thin air. Playing with a puppet, you don’t have to be you for a little while, and you can be loved just the same. You know, this might be why we find artificial intelligence so compelling: Siri and Alexa seem like beings from another world, armed with all the knowledge of mankind and aiding us like alien butlers. We’re always trying to bring out the human in them, though, right down to making them fart.

A Simple Way

Okay, folks, take your seats. It appears that many of you don’t understand a couple of things about image macros, so I’m afraid it’s classroom time again.

First: who can tell me what the above is?

“Duh, is it a meme?”

Absolutely wrong. The picture with the cute little puppy head is an “image macro.” Image macros are just what they look like: images with text superimposed on them. We call them “macros” because they were originally created using forum software. You’d enter a bit of text and a special command into your forum post, and the software would apply a macro that would generate an image with that text slapped on top of it.

Now here’s the important thing: an image macro is not a “meme,” but an expression of a meme, typically an internet meme.

A meme is an idea, a concept, a measurable unit of culture, that spreads from person to person like a virus. All the chunks of “common knowledge” that we share are actually memes, from the Golden Arches to thick glasses to tramp stamps to men wearing turbans. We think of these things and all sorts of associations come pouring in with them. That’s what memes are, and that’s how memes work.

You can express memes in many ways, but image macros seem to be the preferred method these days, and most people just can’t get them right.

Like any good picture, an image macro must get at least one point across succinctly, even to those unfamiliar with its context. There’s a particular — and apparently rare — kind of artistry required to accomplish this. Let’s take a look at a classic to see how it’s done:

This old Courage Wolf macro asks nothing of you. It’s all right there. You see it, you read it, you get it. You instantly know what Courage Wolf is all about, and the meme has propagated.

Now, here’s a bad one:

This (younger) Courage Wolf macro was obviously written by someone with a message, but who chose the wrong medium to share that message. The text is not only so voluminous that it buries the image, but it’s so personal that it defies the collectivist nature of the meme. At this point, you can hardly say there’s a meme present at all.

Here’s a good rule of thumb for making image macros: If your text is pushing three lines, you have too much to say. You’d do well to bite the bullet and just write a freaking post about it. There might have been a way for me to teach this using an image macro, but I’m not that talented. That’s why I did a blog entry instead. But you see what I’m saying, don’t you?

All right, you’ve suffered enough. Study this entry and have your comments and reflections to me by Sunday.