Gettin’ There

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Forget interactive movies. We’ve entered the world of interactive Peak TV series.

In The Last of Us Part II, we get another of Naughty Dog’s unique cinematic adventures, laden with scripted events, lengthy cutscenes, and exaggerated set pieces. Its focus is a single-player, stealth/shooting campaign set in post-apocalyptic America.

So…what’s the big deal? This is nothing we haven’t seen before. Why all the gushing, why all the buzzing, why the hate, review bombs, and death threats?

Well, that’s the interesting part. For what I think is the first — though likely not the last — time, we are seeing backlash against a game not because of it has bad graphics or poor design (this game has some of the best of these ever seen in fact), but because its story and themes are simply too challenging for people to handle.

Warning, spoilers.

The original Last of Us had a powerful story of its own, about an infective outbreak that enveloped most of the world, turning people into violent and dangerous beasts. The federal response was an unsurprising clampdown, so smuggling rings were formed to get needed supplies across checkpoints. One such smuggler, Joel Miller, was tasked with an unusual bit of cargo: a little girl named Ellie, who was to be brought to a group of survivalists called the Fireflies.

Ellie was special in that she was immune to the monster-making disease, and in her biology lied the possibility of a cure. During the trip, Joel, who had lost a daughter years earlier, became attached to Ellie, and when the Fireflies revealed that their exploratory research would kill her, he wouldn’t have it. In a climax that was surprisingly powerful for a video game, Joel slaughtered the survivalists, murdered their lead surgeon, and effectively destroyed any chance at ending the pandemic. Ellie, who was unconscious at the time, had no clue about any of this, and the game ended with Joel lying to her face about the whole thing. It was a particularly impressive ending as it required players to remain Joel’s agent even as he did questionable things, forcing them to pull the trigger and see it through. Maybe said players didn’t agree with Joel’s decision (I did), but they had to go along with it, or else be trapped in narrative limbo.

In Part II, Ellie, now grown up, must face the continuing ripples of Joel’s actions, as must the players. The material here takes on a life of its own, examining its characters, expanding its world, and exploring the different manners of human adaptation. The infection is reduced to little more than a backdrop, but that’s okay, as the horror in this survival-horror game lies elsewhere.

Joel and Ellie have been living in Jackson, Wyoming, a small mountain community developed by Joel’s brother Tommy. It’s rustic, but they have electricity, food, and other leisures. The monster disease is still rampant, so Jackson’s citizens run regular patrols to clear out the infected where they roam. This relative peace has attracted folks from all across the country, and one of them is Dina, a bisexual Jew who is madly in love with Ellie.

Aaaaaand this the point where Naughty Dog invited trouble. Supplanting the former protagonist — a hulking, white, gun-toting Texan man — with a skinny lesbian was the perfect way to make right-wing reactionaries feel threatened, and the usual, scornful accusations flew. Obviously another game developer had been subsumed by the forces of woke-ness, and was using this game to push its evil agenda on us.

Agendas, for God’s fucking sake. Okay, listen, people: the only agenda the entertainment industry has, or has ever had, is to fucking make money. That means capitalizing on trends, shamelessly titillating, and deliberately pissing people off. They’re a troupe of entertainers, a traveling circus, the pushers of make-believe, the original attention whores. They’ll do anything to pull an audience. The more you bitch and moan about how they’re out to destroy your way of life, the more attention– and money — you end up drawing their way. So why don’t you just shrug it off instead of throwing a tantrum? The surest way to destroy a piece of entertainment, after all, is to ignore it. Maybe you should admit that the real reason you’re whining is that you want people to give their attention to you.

Besides, I also think there’s a bit of pandering going on here, but I can look past it, because there’s still a lot of good stuff happening beyond it.

See, what really bothers me about Ellie at this point isn’t her sexuality, it’s her transformation to a self-centered adolescent. Now that she’s securely on the base of Maslow’s pyramid, Ellie is free to linger on dopey teenaged concerns like “omg she kissed me what do I do” and “can’t wait to score some weed.” Her journal is full of angsty poetry, and her personal pastime is plucking out wistful 80s songs on her new guitar. Ugh.

An early scene shows Ellie and Dina discovering a sort of pot house during a patrol. Instead of moving on, they stop and help themselves to some of the crop. After that, they strip down and screw, because as Orange is the New Black, Counterpart, and Game of Thrones taught us, you can’t have a mature story without a little girl-on-girl happenin’. Of course, they’re doing all this when they’re supposed to be working, and I felt like I was watching a couple of Crystal Lake camp counselors tempting fate. After playing as the no-nonsense Joel in the first game, I was incredulous about how stupid Ellie was being — and not for the last time.

Now, despite the bad behavior and obvious titillation she brings about, I really don’t hate Dina. My only problem with her is that she’s too sweet; she cloys me with her little flirty jokes and adorable glances. I realize that she’s meant to symbolize love and hope, a chance for the drifting Ellie to do right, but as such, it’s plain that she’s doomed to a life of victimhood.

The catalyst for this doom is one Abby Anderson, the other horrible blight Naughty Dog unleashed upon the world. Abby just might be one of the most reviled fictional characters in recent history, for some of the most head-shaking reasons. Due to her impressive physique, idiots online assumed she was transgender, tossed in as a token to the woke crowd, and as another attempt to devastate the American way of life. It’s always the end of the west when a woman is strong and capable, after all.

Abby does not, in fact, owe her muscularity to a now-removed penis, but to a strict diet and disciplined workout regimen. Imagine that, huh? She is part of a military-like faction called the Washington Liberation Front that has occupied the CenturyLink Field in Seattle. They eat the meat that they raise on the gridiron and make good use of its gym.

Sadly, this still isn’t a sufficient explanation for those post-apocalypse PhDs you find online, who argue that “it wouldn’t be possible to look like that in this world!” Of course, it’s not possible to turn into a flesh-eating mushroom from the inside out either, but that never comes into question. Exploding fungus people? That’s fine. Women with muscles? Gimme a break!

The other reason people hate Abby is more understandable: early on, she and a crew of her WLF buddies seek out and murder Joel, right in front of Ellie’s eyes. It’s an uncomfortable, vicious scene, but even as I watched it, I knew that the man had it coming. No one could just walk away clean from a past like Joel’s.

It turns out that Abby is the daughter of the Firefly surgeon that Joel killed, the one who could have stopped the pandemic and saved the world. Abby, hurt and haunted, is merely exacting justice. She doesn’t explain this to Ellie, though, so all we know at this point is that she’s a bloodthirsty invader with bulging arms and bitchy eyes. I can understand why people would hate her.

That doesn’t justify, however, the death threats against Laura Bailey, the actor who voiced and motion captured for her. Yep, that’s right: just like with Anna Gunn, who played the similarly disliked Skyler White in Breaking Bad, a horde of “fans,” who apparently can’t distinguish fantasy from reality, hustled online after playing this game and felt completely okay with threatening another human being’s life over the happenings of a fictional story. It didn’t even matter that this human being had nothing to do with the writing of that story.

It seems unbelievable, and I guess it’s possible that Naughty Dog’s PR department overstated the situation to get the game some extra attention, but…I don’t know. People are pretty fuckin’ dumb.

I can’t say I’m surprised at the ever-lowering depths of human stupidity, but I am impressed that it could be riled by a video game. As depressing as they are, these death threats stand as a testament to the game’s effective storytelling. Naughty Dog clearly did something right in order to get these people to react so strongly. I just hope that they played through the rest of the game, and learned a little about what such blind hatred actually earns them.

Anyway, Ellie and Dina decide to ditch Jackson and hunt Abby down. They trail her to Seattle, where they’ll spend the worst three days of their lives. You, as the player, will get to see those days from two angles, as the game switches perspectives, goes back in time, and lets you spend those days as Abby. With any luck, this will help you to understand Abby’s motivations.

So what do you actually do in this game, besides watch the story? Well, mostly you walk around and try to find your way in and out of buildings. You’ll gather supplies, build traps and tools, upgrade your abilities, but really it’s an exploration game. There are lots of little crawl spaces and locked doors to maneuver around, and you’ll spend a lot of time figuring out how to get from here to there. The attention to detail is wondrous: every location has a story. Not all of these stories are unique — you’ll find plenty of suicide notes, for example — but it’s pretty amazing that Naughty Dog took the time to put a tale behind every family, every store, and every room.

It would be pretty boring if you didn’t experience some of the dangers that made this world, though. The real challenges of the game are the groups of creatures, soldiers, and guards that you’ll need to sneak or shoot your way past.

The game tries really hard to unnerve you in these situations, but certain things trip it up. You’ll kill lots of people, people whose friends will wail out their names upon discovering their bodies. You’ll murder folks who are subdued and no longer a threat to you. You’ll even have to kill a dog or two. Now, I know these details were added to make me feel guilty, but it didn’t really work. After hearing baddies cry out, “Oh no, they got Omar!” about a dozen times in one play-through, I found it more funny than sad. After getting my face ripped off by an angry German Shepherd a few times, I was more than happy to reenact Old Yeller. And when a tense and lengthy stealth section went south because some fucking guard randomly turned around just as I was about to pounce on him, I was glad — glad, I tell you! — to disintegrate the fool with an explosive arrow. God, that shit pisses me off.

It’s all very Peckinpah, and the gorgeous, lifelike graphics slam the carnage home with maximum detail, but the simple human desire to beat the game overrides any personal or spiritual misgivings that the imagery is meant to provoke. As the game’s final trophy says, you do what you have to do.

But is it really what Ellie had to do?

In my first play-through of this game, I counted at least three instances when Ellie crossed dangerous lines, and completely without need. At times, I wondered if she even cared about living anymore. Having been robbed, as she sees it, of her purpose, she’s come to lead an aimless existence. As compared to her peers, Ellie comes off as shiftless, irresponsible, even trashy. Although we’re stuck with her as our main protagonist, the sad truth is that Ellie is kind of a mess.

Consider Ellie’s qualities, especially in comparison to the (slightly) more respectable Abby. Abby is rigid. Ellie flows. Abby follows the rules. Ellie follows her thoughts. Abby embraces structure and schedule. Ellie forgets to change clothes. Abby’s body is a temple, and she sets goals to improve it. Ellie gets smashed and tokes up. I suspect that Ellie would abuse other substances, too, were they available.

I think that upon learning the truth about Joel’s encounter with the Fireflies, Ellie’s emotional development stalled. Her future was erased, stolen, so she became mired in the past. She tied her own destiny inextricably with Joel’s, and all her actions from that point on became about him as well as herself.

So Joel’s death begins a continuous spiral of destruction, repeated by recklessness and hate, as Abby and Ellie tear each other’s lives to pieces. People are tortured, pregnant women are killed, and in time it becomes plain that there’s just no saving these two: you’ll begin the game rooting for Ellie, and then switch to rooting for Abby, and then stop rooting altogether. There was a point in their first major clash when I had to hammer the Square button to make Abby choke Ellie. As Ellie’s eyes rolled back in her head, and she began to slide to the floor, I felt the urge to drop the controller and save her. I wanted them both to just stop. The game would have caused me to lose if I’d done that, though, so I hammered on, feeling a little defeated about it.

This clash seems to end on a merciful truce, and the game continues, apparently months later, in an idyllic scene suggesting that Ellie and Dina could actually live happily ever after. News of Abby’s resurfacing, however, opens the old wound, and Ellie, again, throws a good life away for the sake of revenge.

It turns out that Abby and her friend Lev, while searching for a rumored Firefly base in Santa Barbara, have been captured by a gang called the Rattlers. Now, up to this point, the game has been pretty even-handed about its characters. It’s been fair about showing both their flaws and virtues, but when it comes to the Rattlers, there’s nothing good to show. These are irredeemable bastards who keep slave labor and taunt the infected for fun.

So when Ellie discovers Abby tied to a pole and left to die, I couldn’t help but think of the climactic reunion of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman in “Felina.” In that instant, hate, history, sadness, and sympathy all intertwined in a low, pitiless place. It was an emotionally hefty scene that The Last of Us Part II succeeds in evoking.

Ellie cuts Abby free and leads her to a motorboat where salvation awaits, but then, she fucks it all up again, and demands another showdown. It’s a jaw-dropping moment. In spite of Abby’s miserable state, after all she has already suffered, Ellie refuses to let go. As a player, I felt betrayed — I now had to follow Ellie down this awful pit, all the way to the bottom. There is some hope to be grasped in Ellie’s sparing of Abby, even if it’s a symbolic gesture of forgiveness for Joel, but when she returns home after the encounter, she finds that the price of revenge was very high indeed. Almost everything she valued is now gone, but it feels appropriate and just. As Ellie trudges off for greener pastures, we can only hope that she has learned a lesson.

This whole Santa Barbara sequence is a pretty ballsy move on the part of the writers. Not only does it defy the game’s established plot structure, it unapologetically strips Ellie of all heroism, and reveals her as the lost soul that she is. After everything I’d already experienced in the game, I was tired of all the killing. I was disappointed in Ellie for pursuing further death, and the gameplay almost felt mechanical. When the fight on the beach began, I got the sense that Ellie was as exhausted as I was, and was only acting out of a desperate need to believe that her personal crusade still mattered.

I know that sounds grim, but I’m actually pretty pleased about it. I’ve played hundreds of violent video games, from Doom to Smash T.V. to Grand Theft Auto, so for Naughty Dog to make one that makes me feel something must be commended. They managed to sidestep the deadening effect of continuous video game violence by way of great writing and direction. The story could have been ripped straight from the pages of The Walking Dead, but as a video game, it’s presented in a way that makes it fresh. Since it’s lengthy and well-told, we get to know its people on an intimate level, and a slow-burn effect takes place, much as it does in today’s Peak TV series. After spending so much time with Ellie, I couldn’t help but feel sad as she descended, although I was, in essence, the one making her do it. There’s a peculiar sense of tragedy here.

Sure, there’s been some backlash about the story, and the decisions Ellie makes, but it’s not esoteric video game backlash, it’s a fundamental fan backlash, the sort usually reserved for pop culture phenomena like Lost, The Prisoner, and especially Star Wars.

“That’s not the way my favorite character would act! This is bad writing with poor character arcs! These people have ruined the franchise!”

Yeah yeah yeah. Well, sometimes artists have different things to say than what we might want to hear. Get used to it.

Now, I can’t say I’m not guilty of impugning a video game for taking its story in a direction I didn’t care for. I was appalled at Metroid Other M when I saw how it perceived the character of Samus Aran. In every Metroid game before it, Samus was a bounty-hunting badass, cool as a cucumber, all business and tough as nails. There were moments when rays of pain or empathy shone through her icy shell, but they were brief and restrained. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s good Terminators, or Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, Samus was a killing machine with a good heart, and I loved her for it.

But no, Yoshio Sakamoto had a different idea. He decided it was time to knock Samus down a peg, and present her as as typical anime heroine: self-absorbed, bratty, and due to be subjugated. Now, I know that it’s anime tradition that the tough female character must be brought low at some point, so when I heard that a story-heavy Metroid was being developed by Team Ninja (makers of Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball no less), I should have expected this. I also reminded myself that this was an origin story, meant to reveal how a distrustful war orphan became the alien-slayer I admired. It didn’t work, though. I just couldn’t stomach it. The treatment of the character was too off-putting, and to this day, I haven’t played a minute of Other M.

This isn’t fair to the game or its creators, of course. Why should my preconceptions about a fictional character enter into my judgment of the product? For all I know, the game might actually be a lot of fun. What I have to realize is that every great hero, fictional or not, is flawed, and has said or done things that would damage their mystique. That’s why we should never meet them, as they say.

So, if this is who Nintendo says Samus is, all I can do is grow up and accept it.

Yeah. Grow up. Right.

A coda: I actually really like it when my favorite characters do wild things. I’m totally serious. Whenever a Peak TV protagonist, following hours of rational, restrained behavior, just flips out and does something completely off-the-wall, I get a big smile on my face.

I smile because I see these moments as sober reminders that these are not statuesque idols holding the world together, but little human beings flailing to make sense of it. There’s more to them than the heroism that the story requires. Being the rock wears on them, just as it would anyone we know, and at some unexpected point, the death drive spills free, to the consternation of everyone who depends on them — their fans most of all. It’s provocative, thrilling, and it sounds a note that most of us, in our grasping, success-driven culture, are hesitant to acknowledge. To espy the Unspoken Desire is, I feel, the purpose of all drama.

And that’s the success of The Last of Us Part II, really: that it brought believable adult drama into the realm of video games. Its material may be derivative, but by banking on realism, it moved people, shocked people, and hurt people nonetheless. It also got them talking, though maybe not about the things Naughty Dog was expecting. Most impressively, the game revealed some of the ugliness we face in reality, an unpleasant but necessary deed that only the greatest entertainers can pull off. In accomplishing this, video games have truly turned a corner as a medium, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the next generation of hardware is due to bring. They have a hell of a standard to live up to.

Polite Society Strikes Back

What a great time to be alive! I don’t care what anyone says about surveillance, the nanny state, or the “cancel culture” — and just what the fuck is that, anyway? A culture that says, “You know, your behavior reflects poorly on the rest of us, so we don’t want you around?” Weren’t we always like that? I swear, these people only give names to stuff when it doesn’t help them — the ability to call out and shout down the assholes is exactly what’s been missing from life for centuries.

How long have decent people shoved their bile down while morons, douchebags, and jackoffs have thrown their weight around, acted like children, and expected everyone else to eat shit and like it? Unlike these walking scraps of semi-sentient garbage, the rest of us were taught that a civilization must remain civil to survive. We had parents who took us to the car and smacked us when we screamed in the store. We had people tell us “no” on occasion. We managed our emotions in positive ways, such as in the gym, or on the track. Most importantly, we learned that we couldn’t always get what we wanted, and that sometimes life sucks, and the reason that life sucks is that there are so many morons, douchebags, and jackoffs in it.

And by God, we can only turn the other cheek for so long.

I’ve come to realize that there are two major types of people: those who take responsibility for their own behavior, and those who blame everyone else for calling them out for it. Well, with the glorious new hashtags of #karensgonewild and #kevinsgonewild, the latter folks are finally starting to understand that it’s not just the people calling them out who have a problem with them, it’s the rest of the fucking world.

It amuses me that the Karens and Kevins of the world are so mad at the camera-holders. They don’t like being held responsible for their bullying. The way they see it, they’ve been allowed to shit on anyone they like all their lives, so why is everyone getting on their cases now? It’s not fair!

Now I know that the punishments we’re seeing, such as lost jobs and ruined reputations, might seem a little extreme. Let’s get real, though: how hard is it, seriously, to not make a selfish, racist tirade in public, especially when cameras are rolling? If these people had just kept their mouths shut and walked away, they could’ve gone right back to their high-paying jobs, their prefab homes, and their 1.5 children, all while maintaining their fitter, happier veneers.

But no: these spoiled filth need to yap. They need to remind us — and themselves — that they are the superior class of person. They need to feel that their particular position in life has earned them some unwritten privilege to step over and intimidate the peasantry.

So I can’t help but smile when I read about another Karen losing her job, or another Kevin issuing a public apology, because of some “But I’m special!” tantrum that he or she threw. I have no sympathy for these people. None whatsoever. They needed to learn a lesson, a lesson that they should have learned when the consequences for failure were not so dire as they are now. I can only hope that these trending hashtags will remain more than just trends; otherwise the assholes will come crawling back, and all opportunities for the growth of our species will be lost.

Ah, Back to Normal

There, now; isn’t this more like it? I sure was getting tired of all that peace and quiet we had during the lockdown. Decreased pollution, family togetherness, resurgent wildlife — I just couldn’t stand it, man. Thankfully, I’m not the only one who felt that way. Thousands of Americans, in defiance of the tyrannical order of “Let’s just try not get each other sick, people,” have burst from their oppressive living rooms to get back to what they do best: good old-fashioned violence.

Okay, seriously. What the hell, man? Can’t you morons do anything right? Can’t you go a week without fucking with someone? Come on, look at some of this bullshit, will you?

Loser in Love Throws a Fit: So twenty-year-old Armando Hernandez Jr. couldn’t get a date, so instead of getting a job, joining a gym, and making new friends, he decided to shoot up a mall with an assault rifle. Makes sense. Even better, he decided to livestream the whole thing because nothing on Earth is worth doing unless it has an audience, or else can be used as evidence. Good man. Surely the chicks will come running now.

Apparently this kid spent his life in online “incel” groups, where young men bitch and whine about how superficial women are, how phony relationships are, how stupid society is, and generally blame everyone but themselves for their continuing virginity.

Well, you know what, Lonely Boy? Maybe it’s time you took some advice from a former “hopeless romantic.” Relationships are a game. Society is a game, and you can’t win a game if you don’t play by the rules. Now, if you want to win the relationship game, one of the first rules you need to follow is: GET OFF THE FUCKING INTERNET. There’s a reason the rest of the world has to be told what an incel even is. It’s that they go outside once in a while, and do positive things with their lives.

Idiot Cop Forgets Sixty Years of Riots: Remember Michael Griffith? Eleanor Bumpurs? Rodney King? Trayvon freaking Martin? Well, here’s a guy who doesn’t. Yep, police killing unarmed black people is just another motif in the American symphony, and even the coronavirus couldn’t stop it from cropping up again.

On May 25, 2020, Minneapolis police arrested Bouncer George Floyd for using a fake twenty to buy some cigarettes. That all seemed to go okay, but when the cops tried to get him into their vehicle, Floyd said he felt claustrophobic and resisted. In response, former officer Derek Chauvin decided to take charge of the situation and pulled him to the ground. We all saw what happened next.

I know, I’m simplifying things. Maybe things happened differently from this. Maybe they didn’t. People still argue about whether the aforementioned killings of black people by police officers are justified or not. No matter how vague the stories are, however, the deaths are crystal-clear, and they tend to piss a lot of people off. Burning and pillaging are never far behind.

I don’t know what Chauvin was thinking as he choked the life out of Floyd. Maybe he was got a manly thrill out of making someone his bitch. Maybe he felt proud about putting a piece of “criminal scum” to bed. Maybe he felt excited about putting his training to what he felt was “good use.” Or maybe he really believed that he was doing the right thing, and that his badged brothers at the MPD would hail his actions as heroic and proper. But he should have known better. He should have realized that he was repeating an inflammatory event. He should have known that he would be hated for it. And, more than anything, he should have known that, instead of standing beside him, his image-conscious superiors would turn on him, brand him a rogue, and wash their hands of him.

And so the wheel has turned. Once again, a man’s desire to look like a badass has only made him look like a dope. Hell, I guess I shouldn’t expect a higher virtue, like, say, wisdom or compassion, from a guy like Chauvin. At the very least, though, I expect self-preservation: that he might stop and ask himself how this whole thing is going to look. Because from where I stand, it looks pretty bad.

Rioters Misdirect Anger, Alienate Rest of Country: Look, protesters, I know. “Motherfuck a window; Radio Raheem is dead.” My problem here has nothing to do with the value of a black man’s life as compared to the value of white property. My problem is about showing how stupid you look in punishing the wrong people. How the hell is burning some random stranger’s business or car going to teach the police anything? It only reinforces the idea — to onlookers as well — that you’re a horde of errant children what needs a good thumpin’ in order to behave.

Besides, if you’re going to make any kind of difference in this world, you need as many people on your side as possible. Now, I can guarantee to you that the person whose livelihood you just destroyed is not going to aid you in furthering a political cause. You might as well try to take revenge on the bully who broke your arm by going to your friend’s house and breaking his arm. Wouldn’t it make more sense to enlist your friend to help stop the bully?

If nothing else, can’t you at least show more sense than Mr. Chauvin up there by stopping and thinking about how this all might look? I don’t know. Call me an idealist.

President Reassures a Troubled Nation, “Don’t Worry, I Feel Fine!”: With disease, mass shootings, police brutality, and riots weighing on their minds, citizens turned to their good president for guidance, understanding, and just maybe, a little uplift. In return, our fearless leader found the strength to remind us about what’s really important: his own safety.

Great job last night at the White House by the U.S. @SecretService. They were not only totally professional, but very cool. I was inside, watched every move, and couldn’t have felt more safe. They let the “protesters” scream & rant as much as they wanted, but whenever someone got too frisky or out of line, they would quickly come down on them, hard – didn’t know what hit them. The front line was replaced with fresh agents, like magic. Big crowd, professionally organized, but nobody came close to breaching the fence. If they had they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen. That’s when people would have been really badly hurt, at least. Many Secret Service agents just waiting for action. “We put the young ones on the front line, sir, they love it, and good practice.” As you saw last night, they were very cool & very professional. Never let it get out of hand. Thank you! On the bad side, the D.C. Mayor, @MurielBowser, who is always looking for money & help, wouldn’t let the D.C. Police get involved. “Not their job.” Nice!

Donald Trump

Thank goodness! The system works.

Facebook Friends Vie for Moral Superiority: I understand the need to feel like a voice in the struggle. That’s why I have this blog, after all. The question is: what’s your struggle?

To a lot people on Facebook, any struggle is good enough to be a part of, even if they have nothing to do with it. It makes them feel important and involved, even if it’s in a minor, tenuous way that doesn’t require a real commitment.

So now you have indignant teenagers shrieking about issues they don’t understand, and friends fighting each other because over issues they think they understand, but don’t. In fact, unless you’ve been mistreated by police because of the color of your skin, you can’t understand that issue. But that doesn’t stop people from taking sides on it, and waving that side’s flag proudly, unapologetically, and unshakably. And on social media, nobody knows when to shut up, so now, everyday, a different person rants to me about how they’ve lost respect for another friend on Facebook, and how they have to snooze everyone they know.

I don’t know what people expect. Hell, I don’t know what I expect. We’re all just dopey little creatures who want to have a good time, and who don’t really know what they’re doing. The events we’re dealing with are nothing new. They were only delayed because we had to stay inside for a while, which kept us from causing trouble. I like think that we learn from our mistakes, but history is not a line shooting heavenward, it’s a circle that loops from the dark to the light and back, for all eternity. The same lessons must be learned over and over by each generation. I suppose that’s why Hindu historians emphasize events over names and dates: names and dates are interchangeable; the events are all basically the same.

You know what? If that’s the case, then maybe I’ve been looking at American life in the wrong way. Since it’s clear that Americans can’t handle the serious issues that are bound to recur in a revolving history, then maybe it’s better that they not think about those issues.

I often complain about all the stupid bullshit floating around our culture, but I’m starting to realize that bullshit is what keeps the knots loose around here. What’s needed right now is a pointless distraction that’s proven to soothe the savage American in the face of fearful times. Let’s see…what kinds of activities can do that? Hey, professional sports leap to mind! So, come on, Mr. Goodell! I appeal to you now: forget the pandemic and get broadcasting again! Who cares if it isn’t the right season? Our great nation needs the NFL’s special brand of opiates to get it back in the headspace it works best in: drunken frivolity!

Hmm…well, maybe not. I’ll get back to you on that.

What Literally Grinds My Gears

lit·er·al
/ˈlidərəl,ˈlitrəl/
adjective
1. taking words in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or allegory. “dreadful in its literal sense, full of dread”
2. (of a translation) representing the exact words of the original text.

Any freaking dictionary

Okay, this is getting out of control, people. Everywhere you (figuratively) turn, there’s a thousand (figurative) morons misusing the word “literally,” and it’s (figuratively) making my head explode. I’d say we’re due for a refresher course, but don’t (figuratively) come at me for being pompous: I didn’t make these rules, you know.

The first problem we face lies in the mistaking of the word “literally” for a means of emphasis. People are using it as a denial of exaggeration or embellishment, the way they once used the words “really,” or “truly,” or “seriously.”

“Seriously, brah, I totally banged my sister’s ass in my dad’s bed last night” would be a correct (or least acceptable) use of these terms

Of course, using “literally” as a way to communicate that “I’m totes not joking, guys” is almost right, but still completely wrong. Please direct your attention to the most important phrase in the above definition of the word “literal,” which is, “without metaphor or allegory.” This phrase is key to the correct function of the word “literally,” which is to mark that whatever is being said is not, in fact, a figure of speech.

For example: if you become attracted to the gal in the house beside yours, then you are right to say that you have “literally fallen in love with the girl next door.” “Girl next door” being an age-old metaphor, the word “literally” correctly points out that, in this particular case, the metaphor isn’t necessary. The words of the sentence express its meaning without approximation.

Here’s another one: Say you’re doing some work in the yard, and you tear one of your gluteal muscles while reaching for the hedge trimmers. In this case, you’d be correct in saying, “I’m literally busting my ass out here!”

Next: suppose you get in an argument, and the other guy gets so angry that he swings a sledgehammer at you and crushes both of your testicles. Even the most anal diction-nazi couldn’t stand up to you if you said, “He’s literally breaking my balls over this!”

Finally, say you’ve just been in a firefight, and you discover that your car won’t start because there’s a bullet in the engine. You can feel safe in knowing that you now have full rights to say,

“The alternator’s shot. Literally.”

Leave it to Mike to show us the way. I hope what I’m saying is (figuratively) sinking in, because there’s still more to talk about.

You see, the other big “literal” problem arises when people use the word for its opposite purpose, i.e., to enhance a figure of speech instead of to neutralize it. You should never, ever do this, unless your aim is to sound like a character from Idiocracy. Observe:

  • Unless you live in the slums of Ethiopia, odds are you’re not “literally starving to death.”
  • The phrase “he literally said that with his eyes” sounds like something out of a Clive Barker novel.
  • If you “literally never spend time at home,” then you are, in effect, homeless.
  • It is impossible to say that you’re “literally dying of laughter” because you’d be gasping too hard to speak.
  • For your head to be “literally killing” you, it would have to have separated from your body, taken hold of a weapon, and then found the leverage to wield it so as to perform a lethal blow. Of course, by this point, the separation would have already killed both you and the head.

So come on, folks: the next time you want to tell the story of how your online waifu literally broke your heart, think a little before you speak. Otherwise, your friends might mistake you for a zombie with a hole in its chest, and blow your brains out with a .32 special. The only good news there is that you’d then be correct in saying that your friends literally ghosted you.

A Dead Whale of a Tale

Hey guys, guess what? Yeah, it’s my turn to talk about this thing.

After playing Death Stranding on the PlayStation 4, I’m convinced that the gulf between American and Japanese cultures, as well as that between video games and movies, are still vast, and might not be crossed for several generations. I’m not sure if Hideo Kojima was trying to bridge those gaps in writing and designing this game, but if he was, I’m sorry to say that he failed.

The reason I’m sorry about that is because Death Stranding is an uncompromised venture. I can see that it was made with a sincere and unquestioned enthusiasm, but I think that a little questioning might have done it some good. I find its gameplay engrossing, but it’s not for everyone, and its cinematics and backstory — impressive though they are — are certainly not for most gaming audiences.

Death Stranding is a game about delivering things, not just hiking or walking as some folks like to complain. It’s about plotting routes, packing materials, and maintaining equipment (artificial and natural). It’s about setting up signs and services to facilitate trips for oneself as well as for others. It’s about making a plan and watching it come together. It’s also highly physical: balance and momentum are always at odds in this game, so one must consider each step carefully to avoid damaging tumbles.

What I’m saying is that Death Stranding is the sequel to Solar Jetman that I’ve been waiting for.

I’ve always loved games like Solar Jetman and The Oregon Trail, in which the details and decisions of travel actually matter. It bugs me when the challenges of roughing it are abstracted down to random monster encounters. I don’t want to just slide my characters around a world map; I want to experience it. I want to decide how to deal with a fallen tree, how to cross a rocky gorge, or how to scale a cliff. I want to see my characters heft themselves over logs, trudge through muddy fields, and fall over in the dirt. We’ve recently seen some rugged, outdoorsy adventures like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Red Dead Redemption II, and I think Death Stranding took a lot of inspiration from them. Still, Stranding, with its harsh, ghost-ridden world, leaves them far behind.

Death Stranding asks me to do all those things I talked about, from finding ways up mountains to finding ways around pirate camps. It gives me a big map, some basic tools, and a whole mountain of deliveries, and says, “Get to it.” It lets me explore, it lets me experiment. It lets me fall over, and then figure out the best way to avoid falling again. Some players jeer at this, saying that the protagonist’s flailing and flopping makes him look pathetic. I say, as I make Sam trundle across a barren, seemingly endless plain, bowed under hundreds of pounds of cargo, that feeling pathetic is part of the point. This game is as much about isolation as it is about delivering. It’s about trying to make a difference in an indifferent world.

Unfortunately, this sort of thing just isn’t all that popular. People don’t want to pretend that they’re small, or that they’re part of something greater than themselves. They want to feel powerful, important, better than what they already are. Of course, “better” is a subjective term, and only indicates what a person values, not the value of that person.

I admit that Death Stranding is simply not the sort of game that most gamers want to play, and I can’t say I blame them for their sniggering. This is a AAA, big-budget release, brought to us by the guy who made Metal Gear Solid, so expectations for the next big thing in action games were high. A ponderous meditation on loneliness and logistics was not what these people were looking for. I’d like to say that this was an intentional, large-scale joke committed by one of gaming’s best-known pranksters, but I’ve given up on analyzing Kojima’s motivations.

What I do know is that Hideo Kojima loves to spin stories. Big stories. Big, anime, sci-fi stories about world-ending catastrophes, the dangers of technology, and all manner of other social issues. He tends to be a little overzealous about it, though. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s the Ed Wood of video games, as he’s actually pretty damn talented, but I do fear that he shares some of Wood’s delusional verve.

You see, Kojima tries really, really hard to ape his favorite Hollywood movies, but oftentimes his efforts are misplaced. In Snatcher, one of his first games, there’s an early scene in which a character separates from his wife in a flying car. As the car ascends, the character says something, but the engine roar drowns it out. The wife says that she can’t hear him, but then he flies off, and we never know what was said. I take it that this was meant to be some sort of tearful parting, not unlike the Train-Station Goodbye of Since You Went Away, but this is not the last time the two characters ever see each other. In fact, since this scene occurs right at the beginning of the game, the two are bound to interact quite often. The mystery of the drowned-out line is never brought up again. It feels like Kojima just put it there to put it there. Without a fitting subtext, the drama falls on its face.

In Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, a game Kojima made many years into his career, there’s a love scene between two awkward scientists. The man’s an anime nerd who’s falls in love with any pretty girl he sees, and the woman’s a treacherous reptile who injects people with grey goo. There’s so little to like about these characters that the tender, heartfelt music that plays as they surrender to ardor only made me shake my head. Later, the woman commits suicide, while her new lover, witnessing the act through a computer screen, bawls likes a baby. I’m not even a fan of Shakespeare, and I was embarrassed at this overblown attempt to emulate him.

To put it simply, Kojima is very much in love with being a director, although I don’t think he knows what being a director really means.

Sadly, this lesson continues to elude him in Death Stranding, whose delightful kernel of gameplay is surrounded by an absurd, Lynchian melodrama. Although I just spoke about the profound melancholy that I feel when playing this game, I can’t say that’s what was intended, because the tone is all over the place.

The apocalyptic setting for the game is lovingly crafted, but its explanation is so complicated that it employs a whole glossary of jargon. There’s some dark symbolism with frightening implications, but there’s also a whole lot of ham-fisted silliness about ropes, knots, and strands that gets tiresome quickly. There’s also that unique preoccupation with marine life that could only have sprung from a culture of islanders. It’s striking, but it feels out of place in a story that won’t stop reminding us of how American it is.

I’d say the biggest problem, though, is in the game’s characters. They’re all modeled after real actors (and comedians and film directors), and they look amazing. Seriously, Death Stranding in action makes even non-gamers turn their heads with its up-to-the-minute cast and presentation. But then these fabulously rendered beings start talking, and we find that they’re given names that sound like Mega Man villains, and dialogue worse than anything Anakin Skywalker ever said.

“It’s all the truth, except for the lies.”
“We run together…like Mario and Princess ‘Beach.'”
“Take the first step, Sam, and deliver the president’s body to the incinerator.”

They say these things with tremendous gravity, and I’m left wondering how I’m supposed to react. I suppose this is the fault of poor translation. For all I know, the original Japanese script could have sounded downright poetic. National differences, however, can’t explain the indulgent visuals. When you play this game, expect lots of long, lingering shots on Lea Seydoux’s pouty face and panty-model’s butt.

I’m sure there are a lot of apologists who’ll say that I’m not supposed to take Kojima’s games very seriously. In fact, the first song that plays in Death Stranding — and there are a lot of songs — is titled “Don’t Be So Serious.” That would fall in line with the idea that Kojima is really a master troll, but I suspect it’s more of a copout, and a coverup for the man’s wanting skill as a storyteller.

I can get past this, though, because I love playing the game so much. It’s gotten to the point where I’m even thinking about it when I’m at work, or getting out of bed in the morning. I keep thinking about how I want to thread my route so as to complete the most deliveries in one swoop. I keep thinking about how I need to truck some metals from the distro center so I can finally finish that highway I’ve been working on. I keep thinking about the new bola gun I just got, and which MULE outpost I should try it out at. I keep thinking about BB, and how difficult being a parent really must be. In these manifold regards, the game really has its hooks in me.

My concern is that most others won’t agree with me, and as a result, we may never see another Death Stranding again. It was too much risk for too many eye-rolls. The thing is: I respect the risks that Kojima took with this game. I like that he left his fingerprints all over it. Any creative person should look to this game and be inspired by it. To the end of my days, I will gladly argue that big-budget entertainment is in sore need of that wondrous, childlike love of creation that Kojima is in touch with, cringeworthy or not.

Concerning Creepshow: The Series

Well, I’m glad it’s back, anyway.

The internet adores Shudder’s new Creepshow series. It seems to have set new ratings records for AMC’s horror streaming service, and its success has seen it renewed for a second season. I’m oh-so-glad for this, because I’ve loved Creepshow, the movie, for most of my life. To see it rise from the grave to warm adulation just jolts my jaded little heart.

So why do I feel that it’s lacking somewhere? What’s wrong with me? I want to enjoy it, and there are parts of it that I truly do, but when I watch it, I can’t help but pick it apart.

Part of it is in the direction. The show makes many missteps, even in its very first episode. Gray Matter, the short story by Stephen King, is a small-town suspense tale on the lines of Weeds, and it’s extremely simple. There are some terrific actors in it, including Breaking Bad‘s Giancarlo Esposito, but they don’t have much to work with. They have no time to develop as characters, and so they feel wasted. In The Crate and The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill, there are some actual dynamics going on. Henry Northrup changes from milquetoast to confident killer. Jordy turns from happy hick to suicidal alien food. There’s a change of some kind happening in Gray Matter, but it’s really just a jerk becoming a different kind of jerk.

Gray Matter also suffers from a poor ending. Where the short story ends on a note of uneasy dread, the show goes for exaggerated panic, and it doesn’t work very well.

The follow-up act, House of the Head, shares this problem. It’s a neat little story about a dollhouse that becomes the site of a figurine murder mystery. The premise is intriguing, and Cailey Fleming, who plays the little girl watching the weirdness unfold, gives an endearing performance. The suspense builds beautifully, setting us up for a shocking surprise ending…and then it just stops. Boo. Boo, I say!

Many times, it feels like the makers tried to cram too much story into too little space. The worst offender here is Times is Tough in Musky Holler, which really needed a whole forty minutes to itself. It’s basically one long execution scene, with its setup told in comic-book flashbacks. We’re supposed to relish the suffering of the assholes being condemned to death, but it’s not all that satisfying when we only have glimpses of their crimes.

It’s also very predictable. Most horror fans are familiar with the EC formula by now, so nothing Creepshow throws at us is capable of surprising. We know that someone innocent will suffer. We know that the asshole responsible will be punished for it, and we know that the creature/supernatural element is going to do the job. What we’re waiting to see is how it happens. The sad thing is that it often plays out exactly as we expected it to (The Silver Water of Lake Champlain), or else the show is frustratingly vague about it (Bad Wolf Down). Then there are times when the ending doesn’t make any sense at all! I’m looking at you, Night of the Paw.

What’s more, we don’t get a whole lot of that Creepshow feel. The vibrant, comic-book styling of the movie is rare, though sometimes it’s used to cover up sequences where actual visual effects would have been too expensive. It sure would have been nice to see those werewolf transformations, instead of a cheap flip book effect!

The music is weak, too. Where the score in the movie was haunting and thematic, the music in in the series is painful in its mediocrity. None of the stories has a theme of its own, and there’s no synth! What the hell, man?

Then there’s something else that bothers me. Now, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I feel like the series doesn’t take itself seriously enough. Heh, crazy, right? I’ve been of the mind that modern television is far too grim these days, and needed some lightening up, and now I’m turning on myself. Maybe that’s why people love this series so much: they, too, are tired of all the self-serious bullshit on the tube, and are ready for something mature, but irreverent.

I can dig that, but I don’t think that pure irreverence works for Creepshow. It was great for the Tales of the Crypt series, which this new Creepshow seems nearer to than anything else. The movie, though, for all its silliness, still had an edge. It picked up on primal human frights, and forced us to look at them. Creepshow had people buried to their necks, struggling to keep their breath as relentless ocean waves battered their faces. Tales from the Crypt usually had people getting hit in the head with axes.

The two standout episodes of the series, The Finger and Skincrawlers, don’t lean on simple shock imagery. They present situations that are freaky, and yet relatable. What would you do if you discovered that your beloved pet started doing horrible things? What would you do if you had the opportunity to shed the body you’ve always hated, and become skinny in an instant?

I should note that these two stories also work so well because they feature run-down shlubs who hate their lives. These characters don’t need a lot of time, or deep, rich performances to make us feel for them. Not that DJ Qualls or Dana Gould do a poor job; they’re both great. There are wells of real emotion in them, and we want them to make it out of their situations alive. Still, they’re no match for the late Fritz Weaver and Hal Holbrook. Those two guys took a crazy story like The Crate and made magic out of it, simply by playing it straight. Most of the lesser actors in the Creepshow series don’t have the skill or experience to provide such effortless depth, and the whole show suffers for it.

Creepshow, the movie, succeeded because it found the spirit of the old EC comics: it slugged us in the gut before it gave us a hug. It hurt us because it loved us, and we couldn’t help but love it back, even though it left a bruise. Creepshow, the series, never quite hits that chord. It’s a little too playful, and it meanders around too much. It comes close, though, and I’m glad it’s going to be around to keep trying.

Final: John Goodman as Roland Turner

“Why is nothing going right for me? My life is a big bowl of shit.”

Here’s another certainty for you: If John Goodman is in a Coen brothers movie, he’s going to be a monster.

No exceptions. Consider Gale Snoats in Raising Arizona. Consider Karl Mundt in Barton Fink. Consider Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski. Consider Big Dan Teague in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and then consider this: Roland Turner, the junkie jazzman of Inside Llewyn Davis. It’s Goodman’s best role yet, in the best Coen brothers movie yet.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a masterpiece of all things film. It reminds me of Barton Fink, in that it’s about an idealistic New York artist whose life enters progressive collapse, but its ambition is restrained. Llewyn’s purpose is small and specific: it means only to explain how its title character winds up beaten in a back alley. It walks to that line and then stops, and this frustrates people, because the story leading to the event is so captivating.

Llewyn Davis is an aspiring folk singer in the 60s, and a mess of contradictions. He has an image in his mind of what a musician should be, and he feels that uncompromising adherence to this image should be enough for him to find financial success. Of course, this attitude gets him nowhere: he surfs couches, eludes pregnancies, judges his peers, and generally bums off everyone he knows.

When a fellow musician offers a car seat for a trip to Chicago, Llewyn sees a real opportunity to break into the business and turn his life around. Maybe, once he gets there, Llewyn can get face-time with club owner Bud Grossman, and land himself a serious gig. It’s during this surreal sojourn that he becomes trapped with the grumbling beatnik Johnny Five, and the ultra-hip Turner.

Turner reminds me of Barton Fink’s W.P. Mayhew, in that he’s also an older, more successful version of his film’s protagonist, but who is also broken down, washed up, and chemically dependent. Worst of all, Turner is unlikeable in the worst possible way: he’s a complete and irredeemable egotist. Like the know-it-all at your office, Turner has an opinion on everything, and he’s happy to let you know about it. To him, folk songs are a joke, and only jazz counts as true music. He considers himself a master pool player, and a worldly connoisseur of food, though some of it makes him shit himself.

Turner occasionally shows interest in Llewyn’s life, but it’s only so he can find a platform to spring into stories about himself. Aside from that, Turner peppers Llewyn with insults, jabs him with his cane, and requires frequent stops for “bathroom breaks.” The only peace Llewyn gets on the trip are during the long periods when Turner’s zonked out on smack.

In time, Turner waddles into dangerous territory when he asks about Llewyn’s former singing partner, who committed suicide. This is a subject that, for Llewyn, is still fresh and painful, and even touching on it causes him to lash out in anger. Of course, Turner doesn’t touch on it, but stomps on it like a child on an anthill, and so Llewyn quietly threatens him.

In response, Turner explains that he’s a practitioner of Santeria and other strange arts. He tells Llewyn that he’s above the folderol of fist fighting; he has the power to curse people. At first, this bluster sounds like the “Real mature, guys” thing that nerds use on bullies, but one must wonder, in light of the events that follow, whether there’s something to it after all.

Going over this, I’m not really sure why I find Roland Turner so fascinating. Maybe it’s because I feel for his rap, as it were. He’s a terrific asshole, forever in the process of salving his own ego. He is proud to be so many miles above the rest of the world, and yet he’s bitter that the world doesn’t understand his greatness. His character is a sad warning to Llewyn, who is similarly deluded. The fact is that Llewyn may not be suited for the life of a professional musician, but to him, anything else is mere “existence.” He doesn’t see that living in his own head and craving superiority over others only results in hateful isolation.

John Goodman, for all his charm, has always had a bit of menace about him: there’s a well of rage beneath his skin that you don’t want to poke into. He doesn’t unleash that beast in this movie, though. Instead, he affects a distant haughtiness that’s perfect for the role. Some viewers might be confused at his inclusion in the story, as it seems ornamental, but the performance is too tremendous to leave out. I also think that his presence facilitates a certain decision for Llewyn, one that will devastate most audiences. God bless Mr. Goodman for making it unforgettable, and God bless the Coens for bringing us one of the best movies ever made.

John Mahoney as W.P. Mayhew

“The truth, my honey, is a tart that does not bear scrutiny.”

There are many Johns in the Coen brothers’ weird thriller Barton Fink (Turturro, Goodman, Polito), but the chameleonic Mahoney, playing a tragic caricature of William Faulkner, always stood out to me. An ostensible gentleman with a pleasing Southern accent, Mayhew is a lot like the movie’s protagonist: a celebrated writer who’s sold himself to Hollywood, he’s a bit haughty, a bit selfish, and completely incapable of listening. He’s also a raging drunk and a woman-beater, a man we’d easily hate if he didn’t seem so sad, so lost, and so lonely.

You know what? Maybe I should just stop here. As much as I love Mayhew’s character, there’s little I can say about him that could provide any unseen insights. I think you’d do better to read this little celebration of Mahoney’s great work, and assume that its views mirror my own.

Jeff Bridges as The Dude

“Oh man, lodged WHERE?”

The Big Lebowski is not my favorite Coen brothers movie. I feel like many of its comic scenes miss their marks by miles. Combine that with irritating and unpleasant characters, like the pompous Maude Lebowski and the repulsive Jesus Quintana, and you have a movie that’s hard to take at times. Still, there are also many great comic scenes, and many lovable characters, not the least of which is the legend himself, Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski.

The Dude is the only protagonist on this list of faves, and that’s because he’s the ultimate Coen everyman: easygoing, put-upon, and unimpressed. His friends? A gun-flashing vet and an empty-headed surfer. His enemies? A wheelchair-bound mogul and a pack of German nihilists. His acquaintances? A milquetoast landlord and a mysterious cowpoke called The Stranger. It’s crazy-ness, but that’s L.A., and these are the 90s. The counter-culture is dead, Vietnam forgotten, and deregulation all but embraced. The Dude’s a burned-out hippie in a sold-out city, living in a soulless time.

That’s okay, though, because like most of us, all The Dude wants is a smooth cocktail and a bowling lane. Oh, and a new rug, too.

The Dude’s mission to replace his urine-stained rug sends him from the ‘burbs of West Hollywood to the beaches of Malibu, encountering all manner of mixed nuts along the way. It’s notable that The Dude also happens into an eclectic symphony of music, one including lounge, hula, experimental vocalization, and techno-pop. Despite all this, though, The Dude never strays from home for long. At day’s close, he always comes shambling back to his buddies: Walter, Donny, Creedence, and Bob.

As The Stranger explains, it’s this simple constancy that turns The Dude into The Man For His Time and Place. Even as a parade of jackasses aims to make his life hell — his car and apartment are repeatedly ravaged until, by the end of the film, they’re unrecognizable — Duder chugs along, donning his sunglasses, shaking his head, and uttering a “Fuck it.” I suppose it’s also what makes his adventure such a huge cult favorite: nothing about The Dude’s life seems probable, and yet, we’ve all lived it.

Alan Mandell as Rabbi Marshak

“Be a good boy.”

A common question asked when the credits roll on a Coen brothers movie is, “That’s it?” This is because their films are often mysterious, ambiguous, and just plain confusing. I wouldn’t place them beside the masturbatory ciphers of David Lynch or Jim Jarmusch, as Coen brothers movies are actually enjoyable and funny. However, this makes them all the more frustrating when they invariably yank the rug out from under us. A Serious Man is one of their most mystifying films. It begins with a short story that has no connection to the main one, and ends with several plot threads just waving in the air.

Probably the heaviest of these is the growing desire of its hapless protagonist, Larry Gopnik, to make some sense out of the worst two weeks of his life. With a divorce, bratty children, pushy neighbors, fender benders, student bribes, and felony charges all growling at his door, Larry is sinking in tsuris. He receives mounting advice from friends and acquaintances, alive and dead, to seek the counsel of his local rabbis. The most renowned of these is Rabbi Marshak, an ancient man who may well have the answers to Larry’s questions about Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Unfortunately, the man is quite difficult to get a hold of. In fact, Larry never actually gets to meet Marshak. To Larry, the rabbi is but a tiny face at the end of a dark hallway, a hall he may not enter out of concern for Marshak’s thinking time.

This precious privilege goes instead to Larry’s son Danny, as a post-bar mitzvah blessing. Having suffered through the ceremony while heroically stoned, Danny finds Marshak’s chamber to be an eclectic laboratory. Inside are stacks of what could only be described as “tomes,” grave paintings of Isaac and Abraham, and biological samples suspended in jars. Then, at last, Danny takes his seat before this bearded font of wisdom, to receive the pearls we’ve waited the whole film to hear.

And they’re paraphrased lyrics from a Jefferson Airplane song.

See, this is why Marshak is so great: he’s a pure example of the Coen brothers’ inimitable talent for making the profound seem absurd, and the absurd seem profound. Even after Marshak gives the emptiest blessing one can imagine, we, as an audience, can’t help but feel that we’ve experienced something soul-changing.

The plot’s buildup, Mandell’s enigmatic performance, and our own collective respect for our elders are masterfully harnessed to fashion a joke that doesn’t feel like a joke at all. Is Marshak messing with Danny? It doesn’t seem that way: the reference to Danny’s favorite band instantly connects the two. Is Marshak senile? It doesn’t seem that way: he knows who Danny is, and returns a precious MacGuffin to him. Is Marshak, maybe, not quite as wise as we’ve been led to believe? It doesn’t seem that way, either: there’s a playfulness about him, one found only in the greatest of gurus, that says he knows better.

I don’t know if any of this is what the Coens intended their viewers to feel, but all great art allows for interpretation. I believe that Marshak, and the terrific galaxy of storytelling at which he is centered, prove the Coens to be great artists after all.