The world, when it comes right down to it, is a large place. There are more than seven billion human beings covering the face of this planet, and as a result there are innumerable cultures and subcultures. We split ourselves along racial divides, economic classes, religious ideologies. If there’s one thing we’re good at as a species, it’s boxing each other into easily digestible packets. You want a quick snapshot of this phenomenon? Check out your nearest high school’s cafeteria at lunch time. I guarantee you, the kids there will be able to point out the nerds, the jocks, the band geeks, etc.
For a longer, perhaps more emotionally complex example, I urge you to check out the latest viral video that has swept the internet. In it, a concerned mother reads out the lyrics to Vince Staples’ rap song “Norf Norf” and becomes increasingly distressed and upset–to the point of tears. At the end of the video the unnamed mother declares, teary-eyed, that “that was on our Top Hits radio station.” Unable to continue, she pauses to cry for a moment. But she has already said enough.
I think I know who the “our” is in her sentence. I think I know which clique she’s referring to. See, most middle-class white children don’t have to deal with the kinds of horrors that Vince Staples describes in the song. So, in that moment, the lyrics became a window for this woman into the hard life of a young black male in modern America. In that moment, “Norf Norf” provided her with a glimpse of the kinds of lives that are led, daily, by Americans who are less privileged than she is. Now, I know that’s a weighty word in today’s discourse. I know it angers a lot of people. But privilege is exactly the term that is needed here. Because her life has been (thankfully) sheltered from the type of gangbanging experiences depicted in the song, Angry Christian Mom (as the internet has named her) immediately reacts negatively to the lyrics. Because she is privileged, she completely misunderstands the message of the song. Because she is privileged, she becomes outraged over the lyric “I ain’t never ran from nothin’ but the police” instead of becoming introspective about the kind of systemic fear that might make someone who boasts of never backing down flee from the police. Instead of lamenting that the very existence of the song means that someone’s children have gone through these things, she becomes enraged that her children might simply hear about them.
This is silencing at its finest, folks.
This woman would rather try to change the fact that the song is on the radio than change the realities it describes. Pay attention to the kinds of things she says in the video. It is clear that she’s upset that her children (or “our” children, as that pesky word returns) were exposed to a song like this. And that is totally fine. I am a parent, and as parents it is our responsibility to curate the kinds of media we allow our children to digest. Personally, when I hear a song that I deem too mature for my children, I turn the radio station and move on. This woman, instead, chose to make a video denouncing the evils of the songwriter.
I want to make this a quick post, but before I wrap up I must discuss one crucial thing. The issue with me here is not that Angry Christian Mom is emotional about her children. Heck, I get emotional about my children. All parents do. The issue is that she quickly vilifies Vince Staples for his art, ignorantly drawing the conclusion that the song glorifies these activities. The song is undeniably a lament. Staples is painting a picture that we should not be happy about. He is shining the light of his art on a dark reality of his life. The song is called Norf Norf because it is supposed to be a description of what someone from “Northside Long Beach” deals with. Just from reading the lyrics, ACM should have understood that Staples himself was upset at the prevalence of the pain he describes. In the first few bars, he declares “Just don’t move too fast; I’m too crazy.” The narrator is a psychological mess from the killing he has done in his gang wars. Listening to the song, Staples’ voice is clearly saddened. Add to this the music video (which I admit the mother in question probably did not watch), and there can be no doubt that Staples is not glorifying cop-killing or abortions or anything else she cried over. And even if he was singing about killing police officers, I have to say it: so what? It is music. It is art. One of my favorite groups, Run the Jewels, have a plethora of lyrics about killing policemen. Those lyrics are there not to encourage actual murder, but to make political and intellectual points about the system in general. You know, much the same way that Johnny Cash’s lyrics about a burning ring of fire were not actually about a literal ring of fire. Art is supposed to be provocative. Nevertheless, I maintain that “Norf Norf” is not a pro-gang-violence song. Staples is an artist painting a picture of what his life has been like, and the proper response is to be spurred to action to fix the system that breeds such lifestyles. The proper response is anger and sadness, but the Angry Christian Mom directed those feelings at the wrong object.
Vince Staples said it best when he tweeted: “No person needs to be attacked for their opinion on what they see to be appropriate for their children. They have a right to it.”
I just wish Angry Christian Mom’s opinion had been more thoughtful.
Imagine that we live in the future. We somehow have harnessed near-instantaneous interstellar travel, and—I don’t know—the economy has boomed so much from the expanded markets or whatever that each of us has a spaceship with which to take advantage of this miraculous technology. You—you, reader!—can at any point lift off and skip down to the nearest—or farthest—star to explore its planets and seek out intelligent life.
Imagine what that would ACTUALLY be like, the basically endless possibilities that this would present you with. From what we know of the universe, it would be incredibly boring in one sense. You would be unlikely to find anything other than rocky, dry, hostile terrain. Single-cell life would be considered a discovery of astronomical proportions. From what we know of the human psyche, however, it would be an unimaginably profound experience—one might even say a spiritual one, if one were inclined to that sort of thing. The infinity of the universe would overwhelm us, would reveal to us our incredible smallness, not even the size of minnows in the ocean of space.
This is what I went into No Man’s Sky seeking—the feeling of cutting-edge, lonely, somehow simultaneously soul-crushing and uplifting exploration on the fringes of the universe. No one would be near me, though theoretically the game was “multiplayer.” I would be the first to see new lifeforms, the first to set foot on new planets. That is what I wanted. I even boasted once to my father that this might be the last game I would ever need to buy. Happily, this sort of feeling is exactly what the head of Hello Games—Sean Murray—seemed to be pursuing. I remember distinctly that Mr. Murray told an interviewer he wasn’t interested in having players find actual alien civilizations—though, he said, the game would have some sentient beings—but, rather, he was trying to develop a game that would capture the aura of riskiness. As he put it, he was trying to make a game that had the same feel as early works of science fiction—when the genre was less about space opera and more “Western” in tone. In short, what Sean Murray wanted to make and what I wanted to play was a frontiersman’s game.
And for the first few hours of gameplay, No Man’s Sky delivered on that promise. Admittedly, I did well to shield myself from the game’s hype machine. After reading one preview article something like two years ago, I declined to read further or to watch trailers, fearing that doing so would spoil the feeling of newness that I so desired from the game. It should come as no surprise, then, that I did not experience the rank anger that many consumers (probably justly) felt after booting up the game for the first time. Let me try to discuss what I did experience, and to sift through what that means about the game itself.
Early hours of gameplay were incredible. I went around the planet I’d been randomly placed upon, steadily grinding to procure elements with which to fix my ship, exosuit, and mining tool. The planet on which I had spawned was basically devoid of life and toxic, so while I needed to hurry a bit, there weren’t any cool animals to distract me from the necessary business. Finally able to fix all the broken machines, I fled into space. The second planet I went to was terribly hot and devoid of any life. I left immediately, though I felt wrong for doing so. This game is about exploration! I told myself. You’ve got to explore stuff! And so I tried (and failed) to do that on the next few planets. I had yet to understand fully the cataloguing/scanning system with which the player tags flora and fauna, so I just kind of wandered around a planet or two looking at weird creatures. Then I followed the path that the game had drawn for me, heading toward the galaxy’s center.
This is where things got strangely amazing and weird and kind of bad all at the same time, for me. Because what I found on the next planet were these awesome sentient organisms called the Korvax. I thought that possibly this was because I was venturing toward the galaxy’s center (as despite my restriction on hype and media reviews, I’d overheard a rumor that stuff got “more interesting” as you traveled along the designated path). I did all the things NMS players are utterly aware of—I talked to a Korvax entity, used one of the machines in their buildings to find other locations, found a wrecked Korvax ship, learned new words in the Korvax language. I was having an absolute blast. Sure, the non-sentient creatures on the planet looked a bit cartoony and flat, but this was just one planet. Sure, it was tedious to travel a long way on foot, get lost, and then have to trek back all that way to my ship while avoiding the smoldering heat of various planetary heat-storms, but that was strangely invigorating—I was, after all, hankering for a game in which I felt like I was truly on a foreign planet.
I’ll spare you any more of my own personal play-through details. It suffices to say that I have explored many more planets and encountered the other sentient species in the game. Which, that fact—that I know I’ve encountered all the sentient species—is part of what gripes me about the game itself.
Because it seems like Hello Games panicked. It seems like they wanted to make a different kind of game, got scared from the extreme hype their project was getting, and “dumbed down” the mechanics. Elsewhere on the internet you can find all the promised features that are not present in the game—and these are legion, reader. I was able to avoid disappointment in this, as I hadn’t read about many of the features or watched the trailers that showed a planet that had been pre-made and not procedurally generated (though this latter controversy doesn’t bother me all that much). What disappoints me is not that NMS is tedious, or lacks a strong narrative, or holds a universe in which many planets suck. I expected all of that—indeed, I wanted it. What disappoints me, personally, is that the game reads as a complex mishmash of ideas that—it feels to me—Hello Games was either scared to fully buy into or was told to alter by executives who should have kept their hands out of the game.
The fact that all the planets have the same three sentient species on them, within the same exact buildings, near the same exact monoliths, and with the same exact Sentinels protecting them… well, this fact certainly undercuts the frontiersman-feel that Sean Murray said he wanted to instill in his players. Once I caught on to the game’s pattern, I realized that I in no way was the first to explore the planets. There are ruins that speak of long-dead civilizations, which would have been super cool… if it weren’t for the fact that representatives of these civilizations are still there on the planet, in their little outposts, doing their proscribed tasks. Having a living civilization or sentient species on the occasional planet would have been amazing; it would have made me feel as if I were beating the odds as an explorer, having my exploratory journey across the cosmos somehow validated. Having a long dead civilization on the occasional planet would have felt equally cool; it would have made me feel as if I had stumbled into a history of which I was no real part, that I was a cog within the universe—in short, it would have made me feel that spiritual or mystical smallness that I was talking about earlier, the cosmic reminder that I am not the center of the universe… that I am not even a big or especially important part of it. Having the ruins of civilizations coexist with living members of those species (with no clear explanation as to what that means or why the societies seem to be gone, the monuments crumbling, etc. while there are apparently tons of those species still alive), and having this be the case on literally every single planet I land on, well that seems to me to be the worst of all possible worlds. The only reason I can think for this is that Hello Games’ vision was compromised—they felt that they needed to dumb down the gameplay, stack the odds, or whatever you want to call it, in order to keep the masses happy. Usually this is the case when these kinds of odd half-measures or seeming capitulations and compromises take place.
On top of this, it seems as if we consumers (and I readily include myself in this denouncement) misunderstood what the procedural generation meant. Personally, I heard about the 18 quintillion possible planets to explore and my imagination (maybe understandably) went wild. I dreamt of finding—I don’t know—flying whales and crazy land-octopuses and humanoids and all kinds of exotic species of life. But this is not the case, and I don’t think it’s Hello Games’ fault that this is not the case. What I “knew” but failed to understand about procedural generation is that really this means there are a limited number of elements that are then combined and recombined to make unique wholes. We all knew this. I knew this. But my imagination did not really grasp that until I saw—in game—that this was the case. All the animals are clearly of the same group—after maybe four or five planets, you can guess many of the combinations before you even see them. Therefore, when you do encounter new creatures on the next planet, that feeling of awe and discovery evades you. You feel more like you’ve confirmed the inevitable, which is very different from that frontier-like experience. Instead of feeling like even microbial life is a virtual miracle, you feel like you can guess the next animal. What I had been imagining was that a sort of kernel would be randomly chosen, and then some programmed evolutionary algorithm would take over and generate wildly unique and interesting lifeforms, when applicable, that would also interact in believable ways with their world’s unique properties (gravity—which is not really a changing factor in NMS—toxicity, heat, cold, amount of moisture, etc.). Sadly, I was mistaken.
Furthermore, the constant grinding, while cool at first in its necessity (hey, I’m on a hazardous planet and so therefore I would expect to have to continually replenish my oxygen or whatever), never really leads to anything. As someone else has said online, you get a bunch of elements to upgrade your stuff so you can get a bunch of elements to upgrade your stuff so you can get a bunch of… There seems to be no real “point,” as in no truly discernible necessity there. So, like, the game gets the necessity of survival pretty well, but then the upgrades don’t actually deliver any visceral advantage (after you upgrade your ship enough to win a space battle or two).
And of course a huge issue is that your death results in… you just starting in the same system in which you died, as the next iteration, and then travelling to your death-place to get any missing items back into your inventory. This negates the feeling of survivalism or frontiersmanship by removing any real stakes. On one hand, I’m glad. Because early space battles suck, and I would have been super pissed if I’d lost my items permanently. On the other, this mechanic literally makes those space battles pointless and just increases tedium. Stakes are important to engender the right stress-and-relief cycle in the players, but this game has no stakes.
The game has received enough hate in the past few weeks, so I’ll stop pointing out its faults. Instead I will say that despite all of this, there are still insanely cool moments. I landed on a planet with gigantic goofy buffalo creatures that stood on their hind legs, and the trees were interesting in a satisfying way, and so I named that planet after my deceased grandmother. And it elicited some serious emotions within me, as if I’d actually named a real planet after her. Somewhere in the universe within the NMS servers, that planet is there and it is hers. And I remember one time I landed on a toxic planet that housed some super rare elements. I happened to turn around and almost run into a strange giraffe-like creature with—I have to say it, reader—a head that kind of resembled a dog’s penis, or maybe like a weird slug, emerging from its neck. I freaked the hell out, as you might expect. But it was cool. It was exactly what I was looking for in this game—weird stuff that I wasn’t expecting. I still get that feeling, after hours of gameplay, when I land on a planet and see a flying pig-squirrel or something. There’s a neato-factor that is certainly present, though not optimized as much as I would have liked. Though flawed, there are moments that work well and that, in my opinion, are harbingers or interesting spinoff points for future games.
So let me tell you about the game I want, deep down—the game I see coming eventually, give or take a decade more of technological advancement.
No Man’s Sky demonstrates that we have the ability to procedurally generate a wide variety of worlds with a wide variety of creatures. Even though the diversity is not quite as deep as I would have liked, I imagine that this would not be the case in a bigger studio with more programmers (and thus the ability to handle many more variances in data). What I’m saying is that NMS is a game that promises interesting developments in the visual environment of future games.
Now, I haven’t played Dwarf Fortress, but I have been told that its game engine essentially simulates several millennia of history as backstory to the game itself. In other words, when you start a new game, the computer runs a program that fast-forwards the gameworld several thousand years—ensuring that there is a real sense of history, with meaningful ruins and cultures and power structures, etc. (Okay, maybe this isn’t as detailed as I am imagining, but I’m building toward the concept of my Dream Game, so bear with me). In my opinion, this ability to simulate a believable history for a gameworld is an important step forward in gaming.
The last piece to the puzzle of Mike’s Dream Game is not from the videogame industry at all. Instead, it deals with narrative. This is what is lacking in No Man’s Sky, when we come right down to the issue. There is lore, but no meaningful progression. Even one’s own “story”—the story a player creates by moving through the universe in his or her own unique way, finding new planets, choosing which systems to travel to, etc.—even this meta-narrative is made trivial by the absence of a change in game mechanics from planet to planet, and by the nonexistent stakes involved with dying/respawning. While I went into the NMS experience without expecting or particularly wanting a strong narrative, I’ve since realized that I did have an expectation for mini-narratives. I wanted to craft my own story as I traveled through the universe, imagining that I might stumble upon sentient species with their own cultures and problems that I might engage with. Even these little narratives are important for a game to feel dynamic and interesting.
I’ll give an example from an unlikely source, narratively speaking: sports games. I love playing the FIFA franchise. I also enjoy (though I am far less skilled at) the Madden franchise. My wife, however, does not understand how anyone could possibly have fun playing sports games, as every soccer match or football game is on some level exactly the same as the others. You kick the ball or you throw it. You make a tackle and score a goal or a touchdown. But what I’ve realized is that the joy from these kinds of games often comes from the meta-narrative that the player crafts for himself or herself. The story is the player’s managerial career: which players he or she brings into the club, trophies won or lost, whether or not the player-manager gets fired or decides to move to another club or league, etc. There is a story there, marked by progression season after season, and by the end of a career the player can look back on a unique timeline of clubs managed, players traded or developed through youth systems, yada yada yada. The “narrative” of the game is contained within individual seasons, and the individual games that make up those seasons, and the individual choices the player-as-manager makes throughout each game and season and career.
So what am I getting at? Well, I’ve noticed that there have been several recent studies done on the specific structures of narratives, similar to Kurt Vonnegut’s legendary thesis about the “shape” of stories. We have made headway in the realm of narrative analysis: we can classify and write out how narrative lines often shape up, which ones are the most resonant, reasons that humans connect with specific story types, etc. The logical leap in gaming, to me, would be to treat this information in much the same way that Hello Games treated visual information in No Man’s Sky. That is, I imagine a game in which the developers create a complex database of narrative elements, and from this vast cache of plotpoints and rising/falling actions and stakes and whatnot the game engine can generate a unique storyline. Now, combine this idea with the ability, seen in Dwarf Fortress, to simulate millennia of cultural history and architecture, etc., and with the ability of No Man’s Sky to generate a nearly infinite universe of planets.
The result of all this combining would be a game in which the player—a lone space explorer, or the captain of a spaceship—travels the universe, landing on unique planets with entirely unique cultures and lifeforms who have lived through unique histories that have resulted in unique art/architecture/political structures/religions, and discovering unique storylines with which the player can engage. Perhaps the player lands on a planet with warring tribes and must either broker a peace, join a side, or even just decide to leave the planet—and if these are spacefaring tribes, would these choices possibly factor into other encounters on other planets in the star system? Or perhaps the player lands on a planet and finds—I don’t know—division within a country’s political or religious power structures, or the outbreak of some kind of plague that needs remedying, or crop failures, or… And maybe the player’s specific choices result in interesting things like members of these species joining the player’s ship’s crew. All of these mini-narratives make up the meta-narrative—the player’s unique gaming experience as he or she chooses which star systems to travel to, which planets to land on, and which problems to solve on those planets—in the same way that individual soccer games make up FIFA seasons, which in turn make up the player’s FIFA career.
In discussing this Dream Game with friends, I have realized that what I want—and what I was hoping for in No Man’s Sky even while knowing that one of the points of NMS is to make you feel small, to make you feel as if sentient life is very rare (something at which I don’t think NMS ultimately succeeds)—what I have truly desired for a long time, is to be the captain of the starship Enterprise. What I’ve been describing is essentially a game that makes me feel as if I am living through seasons of Star Trek. Of course, I should have realized that this is what my subconscious has wanted all along. I keep talking about frontiersmanship and exploration, and that’s exactly how each episode of Star Trek starts. I want to play a game that makes me feel like space truly is the “final frontier,” that dangers and intrigue and knowledge lurk around every corner. But I don’t want to sacrifice a meaningful meta-narrative in order to feel this way—just like Star Trek didn’t have full episodes of barren planets with no story to engage the viewer.
The true disappointment of No Man’s Sky, and one that is perhaps a bit unfair to Hello Games given their stated goals, is that I will have to keep waiting.
Good science fiction—well, wait, hold on. I’m not going to start this review by wildly generalizing about an extraordinarily varied genre. So I’ll be a bit more specific: good creature-based, invasion-type science fiction plays up its own fantastical elements to discuss what it means to be human. Examples of this kind of story are Alien (which showcases, among other things, the indomitable human spirit), Avatar (which flips the script and discusses humans as the invaders in order to get at an underlying theme of corporate greed), and even John Carpenter’s The Thing (which, as I see it, pinpoints just how solipsistic our inner lives are—we don’t truly know each other). These stories have staying power with us—we engage with them and carry them with us, reflecting on them, for quite some time—because they hit on subtle truths that we all feel, even if we haven’t worked through them intellectually.
10 Cloverfield Lane fits comfortably (if such a word can be used for such an uncomfortable film) within this mold. It is exciting, visceral, thought-provoking science fiction backed by a delicately worked script in which each line seems to flow naturally from the last, peopled with characters played to an astounding level of professionalism, and lit with perfect imagery that somehow stays fresh and new while simultaneously reinforcing the starkness of the film’s world. For me, the film was a refreshing take on alien invasion if solely for the fact that the aliens are basically tangential. The story reminds us that there is already plenty to be afraid of here among just us humans. Moreover, I think it makes an as yet unstated point about apocalyptic-type disaster films: perhaps, in order to survive, one would need to “doomsday prep.” And yet the propensity to prepare for a forthcoming doomsday—the ability to obsess over problems that haven’t arisen just yet to the point of building an underground shelter complete with water and air filtration systems, multi-locked doors, and several years’ worth of food—might in itself signify a bit of a mental disconnect from “normal” humanity. I’m not saying all doomsday preppers are super weird, and I don’t think the film is saying that either. But I do think there is an interesting conversation to be had—that has been started by the film—about what kinds of pathological issues might coincide with such behavior. Seriously, it is an amazingly well-done film. I have nothing negative to say about the performances or the writing—though I think that, in other actors’ hands, some of the lines could have been disastrous.
So that’s it. If you want to avoid spoilers, stop here and know that the film is really good.
From this point on, I assume you’ve seen the film. Serious spoilers ahead.
I want to talk about the plot for a moment. Okay, I won’t insult your intelligence by saying that I had no problems with the narrative. It does seem a bit strange (but not entirely impossible) that advanced alien technology wouldn’t be able to detect lifeforms bunkered underground (especially when we piece together that the “car” Michelle hears early on is actually the alien ship doing a pass over the area. But what bothered me the most is that Howard, a man who has been utterly meticulous about cleanliness/orderliness/preparation, somehow overlooked the scratched message of “HELP” and (more importantly) the brooch that his “daughter” left. I know it’s necessary to advance the plot, but I just don’t buy that Howard would neglect to clean that up. The only answer I can fathom is that he hadn’t gone into that area during the time since “Megan’s” death, but I don’t think someone like Howard would abstain from daily maintenance of a filtration system that, once the apocalypse he’s been preparing for comes, will be responsible for keeping him alive. I think the plot would have worked just fine with Michelle seeing the “HELP” carved into the window from the inside, talking to Emmett about it, and then having a separate moment in which the two flip open to “Megan’s” picture and Emmett realizes that she was the missing girl from his high school.
Regardless of one or two minor issues with the plot, what absolutely makes this film amazing is the strength of the actors’ performances. John Goodman plays the kind of creepoid character I love—epitomized in one of my favorite recent scary movies, Creep. Honestly, this performance is up there with my favorite Goodman roles of all time. Mary Elizabeth Winstead should have to swim in film opportunities after her stellar portrayal of Michelle. John Gallagher, Jr. had the unenviable job of being a third wheel both in central-film-relationship sense and in importance-to-the-plot, but he found a way to make Emmett both hilarious and deeply endearing (which, of course, is absolutely essential to the film “working”). I would hazard that, had a single one of this trio failed to perform, the entire film would have fallen apart. When you have such a small cast of characters, each and every one of them has to shine. And they did.
I think that’s probably all that needs to be said. The score is eerie and fitting, the décor is fantastic. I loved the movie, and I think most of you will too. Let me know your thoughts in the comments!
I’m on the record about demonology/possession-based horror films. They (usually) don’t do it for me. I’ve given positive reviews to The Babadook and Insidious and It Follows (which I guess is kind of a possession film), and there are others in the genre that I do like, but the thing about these films is that they don’t use the demon-possession angle as the sole point of the scare. The possession aspect is a metaphor for something else. This is the best way I can put it: if you make a horror film about possession, I want the movie to engender some kind of discussion about something deeper. Instead, films like The Conjuring are… just about demons possessing you. I find this too unreal to be scared of in the long run, and maybe I’m a masochist but I want my horror films to stick with me for a while.
Another way to make your possession-movie have staying power is to go the opposite route and make the film comic-book-like. I don’t necessarily mind straight narratives with little to no metaphorical sides to them if the film is billed as a sort of homage to the genre (The Cabin in the Woods), or if it’s billed as a kind of fantastical film that is aware of itself. Like, I’m not looking for some underlying thematic metaphors and conversation-engendering dialogue in a movie about Marvel superheroes. But those films know what they’re about, they get that there is a certain lack of seriousness even when the stakes are high in the narrative, and so I can watch them and enjoy the ride without having a gnawing sort of empty feeling about missing “punches” in the film. Here’s an example. I’m probably in the minority, but I remember enjoying Constantine (yeah, the one with Keanu Reeves) because, while it was about a demon-hunter like the Warrens of The Conjuring, the film was aware of its fantastical nature. It didn’t really try to take itself too seriously, even as the characters took the stakes seriously. The film itself didn’t try to puff itself up as more than it was. (Yeah, I understand this is easy to do when the film is based on a comic book, but whatever. You get my point).
In contrast, The Conjuring is about demons in the real world with no trace of comic-book-iness. It even tries to drive home the point by emphasizing that the narrative is based on the Warren’s account. It’s “based on a true story.” This repeated emphasis, both narratively and cinematically, has the opposite effect as intended—it draws me out of the movie. Sure, I get scared and jump in my seat when weird demon ladies pop up onto the screen out of nowhere, but at the end of the film I’m just left thinking “eh, that was okay.” When I watch horror, what I want is to be kept up at night thinking about what I just saw, still scared days later. That’s why I watch a horror film. I don’t want to turn off the movie and think “well, that’s silly.”
And yet that’s what continually informing me of the veracity of your film does. Instead of building a world into which I can submerse myself (like Constantine or Insidious do) or using the demon-possession as metaphors for other things (like The Babadook and It Follows), The Conjuring just sort of tries to get me to believe that the real world—my world, the world I live in everyday—is actually this other, scary way. I don’t buy it. If you’re going to scare me about things that could happen in the real world, give me a good home invasion movie (like The Strangers) or a film about eccentric, insane people (like Creep). Those are scenarios that actually do happen in the real world, and so seeing them on screen affects me strongly. Don’t try to change what I know about the real world in two hours of screen time, because what you’re attempting to do is convince someone of a new worldview in a ridiculously short time span. You’re trying to build up a worldview, which is a feat that takes a lifetime.
But anyway, the film was alright. The acting was good, the scenery was satisfyingly creepy (I mean, seriously, clean the freaking walls when you move into a house). The dialogue was often subpar, in my opinion but the narrative—while sometimes clunky and too insistent that I take the movie seriously—had some interesting twists. But would I watch it again? Probably not. Three stars.
I went absolutely ga-ga over Mad Max: Fury Road. I saw it twice in theaters, and immediately bought the Blu-ray Mad Max collection when it came out—all four films packaged together. For me, Fury Road was an incredible cinematic experience. It was the first Mad Max film I had ever seen in theaters, and indeed the first Mad Max film I had ever seen, period. So, to rectify that, I watched all of the previous movies in quick succession. This “review” isn’t going to be a discussion on what works and what doesn’t work in a Mad Max movie—the franchise is undeniably amazing and I won’t even entertain a thought to the contrary. Instead, I’m going to discuss my favored theory on how to make all the films work and co-exist as a whole given that George Miller has said, point-blank, that he doesn’t worry about a timeline or sensible connection between the films. Miller views each film as a separate story about this one guy, just sort of throwing Max into different narrative scenarios and seeing how he’ll cope. But, regardless, I’m going to venture down the path of fan-theory that, normally, I hate. I’m going to tell you about the theory I read online somewhere and instantly, wholly, believed.
Mad Max—the original film—is an origin story. As it is the most believable, least fantastical, film of the series, I tend to take it at face value. I think we, the viewers, are watching things as they unfold for Max. This is how he became “mad” in both senses of the word. He loses his wife and child to a crazy, lawless motorcycle-gang leader as the world is still falling apart from various unseen disasters. This is how he becomes the Road Warrior, how all of his personality is condensed into the single survival instinct. As he narrates in Fury Road, this is how he becomes the one who runs from both the living and the dead.
Here’s the fan theory that I subscribe to. The rest of the films in the series are not simply the viewer watching events as they unfold. They are legends being told to us (the viewers) as future humans who have gone through and survived the terrible Wasteland times. This is obviously the most evident in Road Warrior, which ends with the Feral Kid revealing himself as the narrator of the movie. The FK is an elder of the Northern Tribe now, telling the story to us (his children/younger tribesmen) of how the first Northern Tribe people came to inhabit whatever land they inhabit. So it is not only clear but explicit that the entire movie preceding that moment has been the retelling of a legend. Now, the theory is that both Fury Road and Beyond Thunderdome are, similarly, legends being retold to the audience.
Here’s why I like the theory. It allows for the weird/impossible timeline between the movies. It also allows for the insane things that happen—the things that seem too unbelievable to actually ever happen (unlike the stuff in the first film, which all seems plausible, given the circumstances). And, more importantly, I think the theory explains the recycled elements that are present in all the movies. It’s no secret that Fury Road is basically just Road Warrior on steroids, with Immortan Joe filling the role of a more fleshed-out Lord Humungus. But there are plenty of other re-used elements within the films. Not only that, but several of the actors are recycled as well. Hugh Keays-Byrne plays both Immortan Joe and Toecutter—both the original villain-boss who killed Max’s family and the highly elevated villain-boss whose captive wives Max helps escape and who Max eventually kills. Bruce Spence plays both the Gyro Captain from Road Warrior and Jedidiah the Pilot from Beyond Thunderdome. In both of these instances, the characters can clearly be seen as having some thematic connections between them that, I think, could be attributed to legends warping over time, becoming grander and grander in their retelling—and it’s the retellings that we see, or so the fan theory goes. There’s a clear reversal in the case of Toecutter and Joe (i.e. Toecutter takes Max’s wife from him forever; Max takes Joe’s wives from him) which I think could feasibly happen with a story being telephone-gamed over time. But in the instance of Gyro Captain/Jedidiah, I think the parallels are too clear and straightforward to ignore. In both movies, Spence’s character starts out attempting to steal from Max by means of his flying equipment, then sort of disappears for a while before eventually aiding and leaving with the group Max has befriended as Max stays behind. Could not both movies be the same story? Or, more likely and more preferable (to me), could they not be two different moments in the legend of the mysterious Road Warrior Max that have become, through retelling, blended and mixed? The same goes for Fury Road. All three sequel films have elements that mimic and echo those of another, but none is a clear retelling of the same exact story.
Now, some have said that Max from Fury Road is actually an older Feral Kid before he becomes the leader of the Northern Tribe. They’ve said this to explain the change in actor from Mel Gibson to Tom Hardy, to explain why Max acts a bit differently in this movie than he does in the previous ones (specifically the scene in which he gives Imperator Furiosa the rifle rather than shoot it himself), and to explain the strange way he finally announces to Furiosa his name: “I’m Max… That’s my name” (almost like he’s trying to convince himself). But this doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. The narration at the beginning makes it clear that this is supposed to be Max himself, and George Miller has revealed that he doesn’t bother with trying to make all the narrative details line up perfectly—he’s just trying to make a film that captures that Mad Max essence. I think the reason that Max acts differently in this instance is the same reason that Joe has the same face as Toecutter and the characters are able to stand/jump on racing vehicles without falling off—the film is a legend that has been warped and twisted while keeping its kernel of truth: there once was a man, named Max, who came into our lives, changed things for the better, and then left to fight his own demons across the damned Wasteland.
In a way, that makes the films more tragic, doesn’t it?
I saw The Force Awakens in theaters twice—and even though the second time was by using a Christmas giftcard, it should still tell you that I found the movie worthwhile enough to spend my money. That said, I have some mixed feelings. I’ll start with the bad(ish).
I think TFA is a bit disjointed at times, perhaps a little too sentimental over the original trilogy (or, at least, too on-the-nose… though it was always going to be super difficult to walk that tightrope between pandering to the audience’s wishes and promoting an intriguing nostalgia), and sometimes too funny. The original trilogy had some funny moments, but I feel like TFA has too many winks to the camera. Mostly this is through Finn. I didn’t care for the “I am with the Resistance” bit when he first meets Rey, because that scene, to me, didn’t need comic relief. I hadn’t really felt true tension yet before it was sliced through with a sort of slapstick bumbling through a line the audience knows is false. Plus, it makes Rey seem clueless in a way that we know she isn’t. This girl was (for lack of a better word) abandoned by her family on an alien planet run (I assume) by a thuggish brute who doles out meals based on how many scraps you can bring to him. I don’t think she’s clueless when it comes to people and their intentions. However, I will concede that one of the best moments in the film—one of the moments that puts Han Solo back into his frustrated/incredulous seasoned-gunslinger role—is when Finn tells him “Solo, we’ll use The Force” and Han responds “That’s not how The Force works!” But I also think that maybe this emphasis on humor has consequences that the filmmakers maybe didn’t intend. I’m thinking of the scene in which Kylo Ren discovers that Rey has escaped from her shackles. We see two Strom Troopers walking down the hallway, and they see sparks flying from a room in which Ren is screaming furiously, and they look at each other, turn around, and walk away. Now, everyone in the theater—including me—laughed at this moment, because, well, it’s funny. But I’m not sure we were supposed to think it was funny. In another film, a dark one with an equally powerful and dangerous villain, the scene would be used to show just how dangerous and violent the villain can get—even his own henchmen are terrified of him. Picture the Immortan Joe from Mad Max. If that dude is freaking out in a room and we see some War Boys turn around and scuttle away, our first reaction would be to sort of cover our mouths and think “man, that guy is someone we shouldn’t mess with.” But the film’s emphasis on humor makes us interpret the scene in a more comic way. And that’s a bit of a disservice to Kylo Ren, who I think is a really complex and interesting villain all the more dangerous for his lack of control.
The nods to the original trilogy are frequent and, most of the time, useful in getting the fanbase excited for a franchise that famously fell apart with the prequels. That opening Rey scene is absolutely fantastic—the slow reveal of old Imperial ships rotting away in this wasteland of a planet, being pillaged for parts. I read a tweet that said the scene was the perfect metaphor for what JJ Abrams and his buddies were doing with the franchise, but that’s way too harsh, in my opinion. I see TFA as breathing life into a series that lost many of its fans. But anyway, my point here is that the nostalgic nods often work. The reveal of the Millennium Falcon is another that really hits home. Perhaps my (slight) discomfort at the references, my vague feeling of being pandered to at the expense of what could have been a more cogent script, is due to the character reveals. When we see Han, Chewie, Leia, and Luke, each moment is sort of drawn out with the character either walking through a ship door as the music swells and pausing for a moment (like “look at me, here I am, remember me?”) or turning around and slowly pulling the hood down over his face, which amounts to the same thing. Plus the way Leia and Han don’t say their own son’s name until Han can reveal it by shouting “Ben!” at a retreating Kylo Ren. None of these moments is too much on its own, but collectively they feel a little too… ‘pandering’ is the only word I can really settle on. Spoon-fed, maybe. At the same time, we as viewers and fans can’t really complain after the huge stink we all gave George Lucas over the prequels not being what we wanted. Maybe, given that history, that’s why I feel weird about the nostalgia. It feels like “THIS IS WHAT YOU WANTED, RIGHT!?” Except not in all-caps, because it’s only a slight complaint, for me.
I’m going to retract what I said earlier about the plot feeling disjointed. I do think that the movie tends to move along at a pace that seems too convenient for the characters (not sure how else to put that). But I think that the original trilogy is also sometimes disjointed from scene to scene—and this is one of the reasons why we love that trilogy and hate the prequels. The prequels tried to delve into the specifics—how the Galactic government works, what causes The Force and Force-sensitivity, etc. The original trilogy just told us “such-and-such is how it is,” and left the rest to our imaginations. That’s a subtle trick to make you feel like you’re actually in this huge universe of stuff going on around you, and you’re not going to understand everything about it. It adds complexity. And so I think it might be fine that we’ve never heard of Maz Kanata even though she has a history with Han and has been alive for over a thousand years. There’s more going on here than we see. Ever.
So now the good. I’ll only spend a paragraph here, but that shouldn’t make you think the movie has more negatives than positives. I saw the film twice for a reason—it is enjoyable and hints at really interesting stuff to come in the next two movies. First things first: the characters are the pieces that make this film good. I love the relationship between Finn and Rey (she says they’ll meet again, “friend,” at the end of the movie—and so from her end it seems like a mutual friendship forged in the fires of hardship instead of a love-story). What makes that relationship work is that both characters go through their own arcs and make us like them—individually. The old-guard characters are brilliant as well, and I think I’m going to love Mark Hamill more as old-Luke than as that scruffy-looking nerfherder from the original trilogy. Kylo Ren was a brave choice for the filmmakers to make, as they stuck with a similarly whiny/emotionally frustrated/complex villain as in the prequels (obviously this makes sense thematically, as Ren seems to be bent on the same path as Anakin, and he seems to be trying to match his grandfather’s steps out of some misguided desire to live up to his lineage). But it is pulled off very well. I liked the character of Kylo Ren. As a human being with flaws that sometimes supersede my better judgment, Kylo Ren’s exaggeration of that trait makes him a relatable villain. So anyway, the characters are good. Equally as important, the movie is cool. I never doubted that JJ Abrams would make a visually awesome film, but nonetheless the sets are great. We see rathtars, for goodness’ sake. We see slick lightsaber battles, and a Deathstar the size of a freaking planet. We see an imposing and terrifying Supreme Leader Snoke. It’s just cool, man. And that point leads into my last: this movie emphasizes what made the original trilogy really cool and the prequels fall flat. In the prequels, Lucas tried to put a heavy emphasis on the politics and goings-on in the government (which makes sense, because for the most part these movies are about the start of the Empire, so the action is only just beginning, and I think the politics-aspect could have been really cool and Lucas perhaps gets too much shit from fans, but that’s a story for another time). TFA realizes that these are Star Wars. It’s primarily about the action—the fighting. It’s about the explosions and the attacks and the good guys figuring out how to destroy the bad guys’ massive weaponry. In that sense, and in the entirely non-negative sense that TFA is super close to just being a rehash of A New Hope (that’s really not a complaint from me), The Force Awakens represents, for me, a return to the form of the original trilogy. It represents a creative team that grew up watching Star Wars and who know what makes a Star Wars film good for the fans.
So now that I’ve spoiled everything, go watch the movie and let’s talk about the possible ancestry of Rey, what that stare between her and Luke might mean, and what’s the deal with Snoke. (Or should I say “Darth Jar Jar?” No. No, I shouldn’t.)
The sky is black; the roads are empty; and I’m driving five hours across my home state, riding west toward Charlotte—the Queen City—to see my first-ever live NFL game. I’ve taken my wallet out of my back pocket, which is something I do on long car rides—otherwise the wallet’s bulk cuts into my bony butt and makes me sit at a slightly tilted angle, which isn’t necessarily noticeable in everyday life, but which can cause extreme discomfort after five hours. Every thirty minutes or so, I change up the music: it’s all Big Boi and Run The Jewels and FKA Twigs tonight, with a bit of NPR thrown in and, much later when the talk shows have gone off-air, classical music. There’s some quality about long car trips taken by yourself at night—it’s a bittersweet feeling. Alone and sometimes lonely, yet not totally isolated from everything. Maybe it’s just that you get some time to yourself without it being so long that it wears on you. When I drive, I do this weird thing where I clench my teeth whenever the front of my car touches that dotted white line in the middle of the highway. So I’m just doing that, listening to the controlled sounds of my car, and trying to find that comfortable speeding zone in which you drive fast enough to feel like you’re shaving time off your trip, but slow enough to escape the cops’ interest.
My plan is to meet with my good friends who live in Charlotte. They’re housing me for the night so that I can go to the game tomorrow by my lonesome. They just recently bought—and started remodeling—a house in Charlotte, and I’m pretty keen on seeing it for the first time. I’m at that age where my friends are buying houses. This is something new for me. Though I was the first to get married amongst my friends, my wife and I have two children and my degree is in English—Creative Writing. So we’re not exactly at the house-buying phase yet.
About halfway through the trip, I get a text from my friend saying that he and his wife are going to their local game store to play Dungeons and Dragons, and I should meet them there. If you’ve never played D&D, rest assured that it isn’t demon worship like you’ve heard. This is D&D: a bunch of nerds (and I use that term as one of them, endearingly) sit around a table with paperwork that describes each of the characters they’ve created while one of them (the Dungeon Master / DM) gives them all a scenario. It’s a roleplaying game in which you imagine that you’re this other character and you try to do cool things. Battles happen, mysteries get solved. It’s basically just a form of group story-telling, and it can be incredibly fun.
When I arrive at the store—which is named Your Local Game Store, and I find this somewhat funny and yet also somewhat pandering to the current “ironic” temperament of my generation—the clock tells me it’s slightly after midnight. I made decent enough time, given that I stopped for gas and for food. My friend is outside. He’s been on the phone with me for the past mile or so, directing me. I’m notoriously terrible with directions. Probably the only reason I’m able to make trips like this at all is because some genius invented smartphones and decided to give them GPS capabilities. Inside, my friend’s wife is DMing the one-off campaign in the far corner of the store. There are like six players altogether. I’m invited to join up—the store clerks apparently have some character templates at the ready for anyone who wants to play—but I’ve been driving for five+ hours and I just need some mental rest.
Perhaps it’s a bit rude, but I spend some time alternately sitting at the table and walking around the store, browsing the aisles. They have some cool boardgames here—some that I’ve been eyeing for a while now—but Christmas is coming up and I’m not supposed to be spending too much money on myself. So I just look. At one point it becomes apparent that we’re going to leave the store and head back to my friends’ house to play some games for several hours, and so I’m going to need some energy. I purchase a small can of Coke—like one of those half-can things—and since I’m paying with my card and there’s a four-dollar limit for card purchases, I use this to justify buying the Batman version of a card game called Fluxx. When I return to the table, the gentleman to my right is wearing a rubber horse mask and a beanie. So things are going well. I will later learn that his name is Aaron and he’s one of my friends’ Charlotte friends. He knows a lot about boardgames. He’s kind of a connoisseur.
I have several games in my car, but we decide (when the D&D session ends around one in the morning) that we’re going to take advantage of the store’s new boardgame rental system to play some new and exciting games. It takes a while to fill out the necessary paperwork, and then I have to get some gas and we need to do a beer run—because if there’s one thing I know about late-night/early-morning gaming sessions, it’s that you need at least a little bit of alcohol. Charlotte at one a.m. is a lot quieter than I have imagined. Charlotte’s a city, and since I come from a small town, cities in my mind are alive and thriving at night—there should be crazy neon lights and hobos walking around or something. We see none of that coming back from our Walmart beer escapade, but perhaps we’re just in a residential part of the city. (Although we do see, a few blocks from my friends’ house, a car that obviously has taken a curve a bit too quickly and is lodged—upside down—in the center of a church building. It has taken out a big chunk of wall, and the area has about eight cops and firetrucks surrounding it. The yellow tape is already out.)
I tell you all of this now, reader, because I want to emphasize that it’s late. I have kids. I get up early to take my four-year-old to Pre-K every day. I’m not used to staying up super late anymore. Those days are almost over for me. But my friends and I—and my new friend, Aaron (he of the horse mask)—stay awake until the sun starts coming up around seven a.m. We play several sessions each of superb games called Cosmic Encounter and Coup. I contemplate just staying awake all night, but I know that I have a five hour drive awaiting me after the three-ish hour football game, so I should at least get some sleep. Reluctantly, we put the game boxes away, Aaron decides just to drive home since it’s already seven-freaking-o’clock, and I cozy up on the couch for four hours.
When I wake, I have about fifteen minutes to take a shower and get ready. Absentmindedly, I pull from my backpack—which is all the luggage I’ve taken for this one-day trip—some bluejeans and a black V-neck. This will later be a source of unease for me—even though I’m a native of NC, my wife’s family first sparked my interest in football, and sort of adopted me into Redskins fandom. The game I’m attending is the Panthers (my hometeam) versus the Redskins (the team I support), and oddly enough—through no strategic planning—I’m wearing Panthers colors. But I don’t think about that at the moment. I just grab my clothes in the painful haze of a four-hour sleep and head to the shower. I’ve forgotten some of my toiletries, so I surreptitiously use my friends’ shampoo and toothpaste. I figure they’d rather I did that than have stinky hair and breath when I have to wake them up. They’re driving me to the game so that I don’t have to pay for parking. There’s an added bonus to this setup, because as we’re cruising down the highway minutes later (having been freshly groomed), I learn that Charlotte has some of the worst traffic in the country. Literally. They’ve done studies on it. Even so, the streets have the gameday air of royalty. The Panthers are currently 10-0, one of only two teams who are left undefeated this season—the other being the reigning Super Bowl champions, the New England Patriots. I think about this as we pass street signs that have little crowns painted on them. Charlotte is the Queen City, but today the crowns are for the Panthers.
The crowd around a sporting event is amoebic and imposing. I don’t like crowds anyway, so it is possible that my distaste for moving en masse colors my view of the proceedings. My friend has dropped me off next to an art gallery downtown. His parting words are something akin to “just walk toward the big stadium.” I follow the crowd, getting absorbed by it, and strange tidbits of conversation assault me. I hear stuff about ticket scalpers, broken relationships, the outrageous price of beer and food in the stadium—normal discussions for people who have been pregaming for a while and are already quite buzzed before they hit the stadium’s doors. I try to check my wallet without looking like I’m checking my wallet. I’ve heard that touching the pocket in which you hold your valuables is a dangerous move in a crowd, because pickpockets will spot you checking and then they know exactly where the goods are. So I try to be careful.
At one point—when I’ve found the stadium but am looking for the will-call booth so I can present them with my information and get my ticket—the crowd thins and parts and I see several street musicians spaced out along the middle of the street. There’s no traffic here other than foot traffic, of course, so the performers have set up in the turning lane. The first guy seems the most professional—he’s got a sound system set up playing some accompaniment while he croons on his saxophone. Most of the folks around here are clad in Panthers colors (other than the occasional burgundy and gold of a ‘Skins jersey) but this gentleman is decked out in a nice black overcoat. It’s cold out, but I can’t see my breath or anything. Some of the women are wearing sheer leggings that seem to me to be far too cold for this weather, but then again many of the folks out here are already warmed by alcohol. The second two street musicians are drummers whose sets consist of various buckets and household items. Drummer #1 is blaring on a whistle as he swivels from bucket to bucket. I can smell marijuana in the air, which I find interesting because there are plenty of cops around here. They seem not to care.
The ticketing process is a bit of a hassle, but a lot of that is probably my fault. Though there are plenty of yellow-jacketed stadium attendants with whom I could converse about what I’m supposed to do, I am reluctant to engage. I feel dumb for not knowing where to go or what exactly to do, and being within a crowd amplifies that emotion. So I walk around three-fourths of the stadium before I work up the nerve to ask a man about my ticket. “I’ve got confirmation on my phone,” I say, “but I don’t know where to go to pick up the ticket.” He’s helpful but brusque, the man, and he directs me back through the shambling crowd toward the will-call booth—where, after standing in line for a few minutes, I’m told that since my tickets are through ticketmaster, I have to go over to Customer Service. In other venues, I’d feel upset about this sort of thing. My time is being wasted (though, sure, I should have arrived earlier). I can hear the roar of the crowd inside the stadium as someone scores the first touchdown—the game has already begun. And yet I’m not upset at all. I feel like I’m getting The Real Experience here, which is going to be just great for my essay. I stand in the Customer Service line next to a couple who are loudly discussing the pros and cons of buying light-up Panthers decals for their car, or something along those lines. I tune them out after a while. The woman has to repeat herself about a dozen times, because the man is drunk and doesn’t understand. He blames it on her “whispering,” which is funny because she’s speaking at a normal volume, but we can still hear the weed-drenched-whistle/drum-guy from here, so I give the man the benefit of the doubt.
Now it’s time to head inside the enormous Bank of America stadium—that’s something you don’t really understand until you’ve been to a game, how incredibly large these sports arenas are. I walk as briskly as I can through the turnstiles; I get wanded with a metal detector by a skinny white woman who looks as if she’s seen some shit. She’s a very no-nonsense sort of woman, I can tell. My seat is in the nosebleeds around the bend, so I try to book it up the escalator and down toward my section without seeming too eager (more of that crowd-induced anxiety). It’s creeping toward 130 p.m. at this point, so I decide to stop at a Bojangles counter to get some grub. I order my usual chicken supremes (like chicken tenders, but spicier, I guess is the difference), thinking that the $7.50 pricetag is a bit more than the combo usually costs. And then I find out that that money is only for the chicken itself. This is no combo. I’m paying more for some chicken by itself than I normally pay for that same chicken, fries, and a drink. Suddenly all that crowdtalk about ridiculous prices seems less like drunk-speak and more like rational griping. I skip the fries and order a sweet tea. And then I have to make the dreaded trek up the coliseum-like stairs to my seat, holding my food and drink, trying not to make eye contact with any of the thousands of people around me who I know are watching the game and yet I can’t fully believe they’re watching anything other than me. I wilt beneath the stares and find my spot right in the middle of a group of fellow Redskins supporters (who, oddly enough, did not come to the game together… I guess we just got lucky).
Games are much more theatrical in person. It feels different and somehow closer to see the real-life Cam Newton down there on the ground, doing his dab thing or his Superman shirt rip, than to see him doing the same thing on TV. This is a bit of a shock to me, because the players are very far away. I can only make out which player is which by their shirt numbers and where they line up. Don’t get me wrong. I went to college and have attended plenty of football games. Heck, I used to be in the drumline in both high school and college, so it was mandatory to go to those games. But this is simply another scale.
For a while, I contemplate how fun this is—how much fun we’re all having in here, in this stadium, watching two groups of grown men hit each other for millions of dollars. It’s not logical in a world that is combating ISIS. It’s a bit surreal to be reminded that it isn’t wrong to have a bit of fun even when the world is falling apart. But more on this in a minute.
About halfway through the second quarter—when the Redskins are getting thoroughly spanked—one of my seatmates gets up and walks silently down the stairs. I figure he is going to the restroom, so I pay it no mind. The guy has a fake moustache on his upper lip to make him look like a certain old football coach, which I find pretty funny. When the half ends, my other seatmate also skedaddles, but I’ve been talking with him intermittently about how my family are ‘Skins fans and so he tells me he’s going to get something to eat. (Note: it’s going to be difficult for me to distinguish the two of these dudes in this essay because there is a sort of tenuous comradery among fans at a football stadium and names are not important. I never got these men’s names. I just talked to them and shook their hands after the game, and we went our separate ways.) When ECU’s marching band is done performing their halftime show for us, the second guy—the one I’ve been actually talking to this whole time—returns. He hands me a Bud Light, which normally I don’t drink. But what the hell, the guy’s being super generous here (I know how much these beers cost at this stadium) and I’m probably too tired from last night to tell the difference between a good beer and garbage. So I take it and we sip and talk for a while.
We start to get a bit worried about our mustachioed friend in the third quarter. By this point, the Redskins have never recovered from a bad “pile-on tackle” call made in the second quarter, and it seems like every time Kirk Cousins steps up the line of scrimmage, he gets sacked and fumbles the ball. So we’re just relaxing at this point. We know the Panthers are about to go 11-0. But Mustache Guy isn’t back yet. Did he get mugged or something? Did he decide to leave the game in disgust? That seems a bit harsh, since tickets aren’t cheap and he drove from Virginia to be here. This question is in the back of my mind in a weird way through the third quarter. I don’t know why I care so much about answering it. Like I said earlier, there are so many terrible things going on in the world. But here I am genuinely worrying about some guy I never met before. Like he’s my friend, when really all that I know about him is that he likes the Redskins and makes strange costume choices.
Remember when I said “more on this in a minute?” We’re to that point now. See, Mustache Guy comes back after a long absence, and my worry subsides. We don’t ask where he’s been. All we talk about are all the terrible plays by the Redskins that have transpired while he has been gone. I look out over the lip of the stadium’s bowl and all I see is blue sky and a few wispy clouds. I can see no other buildings, no landmarks. See, it’s not that we forget everything else in the world when we go to sporting events—it’s not that we don’t still grieve for the ongoing tragedies. It’s just that, for those brief three-ish hours in that isolated stadium, you feel like nothing else exists. You see nothing but the game; you hear nothing but the game. It becomes your world. And now I have a confession to make to you all: I used to sell timeshare for a few months in my life. I got out when I realized just how twisted that business is. But one thing I took away with me is that there are a few industries that thrive when the economy goes into recession. One of these industries, paradoxically, seems to be the vacation industry. It’s like people need an escape when times are hard, even though they know ultimately they’re just throwing their money away. I wonder if, during times of tragic news, sporting event attendance rises. To see the screaming fans, joy and spittle plastered on their faces… it’s almost a balm to the numbness that sometimes takes hold of you in troubled times. It’s vibrant and tactile and real and alive.
Toward the end of the game, the Panthers’ mascot—Sir Purr—travels up to the section a few rows behind me. He has a sign that proclaims “Happy Birthday, Myles,” which he holds aloft for all to see. Then, when we have all engaged in a mangled version of the Happy Birthday song, Sir Purr takes a few bottles of Silly String and unloads on the laughing kid, who I assume is Myles. It’s a moment that fills me with happiness, because that kid seems genuinely fulfilled in that moment. I don’t know what else to say about it, so I’m just going to move on. But at the time it seems somehow important and significant in a way that, after the game, I am unable to articulate.
Just before the final whistle, the cameramen seem to get bored with the game’s outrageous scoreline. The Jumbotron alternates between quick snippets of gameplay and crowd shots in which middle-aged people flash peace signs and other outdated “cool” hand signals to the rest of us. When one young lady is shown on the screen smiling, I hear an obviously much older man behind me say something along the lines of “Unf, she’s a cutie,” out loud to anyone who cares to listen. So I can tell that the game is wearing off and we’re back to our messed up little world again. The three-ish hours of Just Football are winding down, and the people are starting to filter out of the stadium. The guy’s gross outburst reminds me that I’ve had my fun, but the real world beckons. Or maybe it’s just that my Bud Light is wearing off and I’m starting to dread a drive home that will be longer than the time I have slept today. It could be that.
It’s something like 415 p.m. when the game ends, and I start the long, slow trek down the stadium’s ramps with thousands of other spectators. Many of the people must have spent fortunes here, because they’re stumbling drunk, held up only by partners’ gentle hands. Most of these are men, for some statistical reason I don’t understand. The one interesting thing I see is a couple in front of me, hands locked together, wearing red and gold jerseys that are just off enough for me to suspect that they aren’t actual licensed Redskins jerseys. Then I read the names and numbers on the back, and my suspicion is confirmed. His says “King,” hers says “Queen,” and both of their numbers are 69. So, like, I don’t know if they’re really parading around what I think they’re parading around, but it weirds me out a bit. Like I said: I don’t like crowds. I surely wouldn’t want to advertise my sexual prowess to a crowd. To each his own, I guess. Other than that, though, the walk out from the stadium is quite boring. The same musicians are out there playing—I wonder if they ever stopped. Did they have tickets? Probably not, right?
The smartphone saves me again, as I coordinate with my friend who picks me up in the middle of the road downtown. Traffic is at a standstill. I tell him a bit about the game, who won, etc. He tells me that the Panthers’ undefeated streak is really good for the city. There is a sense of cohesion among the people who live in Charlotte that hasn’t been there in previous years. Everyone seems to be a Panthers fan—and while “bandwagon-ing” is frowned upon, it’s still neat to see an entire city bond over a team. As he says this, he yells at some car that is holding traffic up, which I think is another one of those funny juxtapositions that sports brings. You bond, but that bond is kind of severed after the game. Will the win streak have any lasting effect in the city, I wonder. Who knows? We sit in traffic for a long time.
The sky is black; the road is stuffed bumper-to-bumper with cars—many of which have Virginia license plates or Panthers decals; and I am silently raging to my smartphone. I’m notoriously bad with directions, and so I wanted to stay on the I-85 to I-40 route I took to get to Charlotte, figuring that retracing my steps would be a lot easier for me than navigating some new route on little sleep. My smartphone had assured me that though my route was longer than the alternatives, the traffic situation only resulted in a fifteen minute difference. And now that I’m stuck in traffic, literally not moving for minutes at a time, the phone is telling me in red letters that the route I am on is three hours longer, then two hours longer, then fifteen minutes longer, then an hour and half longer. It seems just as confused as me, my phone. So I call my wife and tell her that I will be super late, and I call my mom to arrange for her to take my son to pre-K in the morning (since that’s usually my job). And then I plug in my iPod and listen to some Nerd Poker—a podcast about a group of comedians who play Dungeons and Dragons. Weird, I think, that my football trip is bookended by something so other than America’s most popular sport. Then again, we all need that escape from reality sometimes. Maybe my beloved nerdy games are my own version of football. Or maybe—for the people in the stalled out cars around me—maybe football is their D&D.