Late to the Party – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Rewarding Damages Fri, 10 Jul 2015 13:00:19 +0000 Damages on Netflix in our "Late to the Party" series.]]> Post by Jennifer Lynn Jones, Indiana University

I’m late to seeing everything these days. Sometimes I like it: I’m not jumping on the bandwagon so much as catching up to it in my own time. I don’t have the pressure to keep up with all the conversations. I get to savor the pleasure after everyone else has moved on.


Several friends had watched Damages on Netflix, but I was unsure because of the FX brand. Louie‘s one of my favorite shows, but I was skeptical of how such a male-oriented network would treat a story focused on two female leads. I ultimately started Damages on the recommendation of a friend: she and her family unintentionally stayed up all night one Christmas Eve marathoning it, so enthralled they danced around and pumped their arms whenever the theme music played. It was hard to ignore such a ringing endorsement, and to her credit, I was hooked from start to finish of the first season.

Damages focuses on the law firm of Hewes and Associates, headed by litigator Patty Hewes (Glenn Close). Hewes specializes in class action lawsuits, with the first season centered on a case against Art Frobisher (Ted Danson), a corporate playboy who destroyed his company and workers’ life savings by an alleged illegal stock sale. Frobisher’s former employees hire Hewes and Associates to try the exec in criminal court after a government trial finds him not guilty. New associate Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) enters the firm at pre-trial. Talented but naive, Parsons unknowingly has a special connection to the case that makes her indispensable to Hewes. Drawn too deeply into the case, caught in the machinations between Frobisher and Hewes, Parsons pays in unexpected ways that unfold over the course of the first season, starting right with the first episode.

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The structure is the best part of the season. The pilot begins with a grainy, frenetic flashforward to what results from Parsons’ role in the Frobisher case. These flashforwards pop up regularly but not consistently so even their appearance keeps you guessing. They reveal a bit more each time, sometimes moving forward but sometimes showing a different perspective of a previous scene. A few flashforward moments are repeated but get more chilling with each view, especially the pilot opener: the repeated sight of just an empty building lobby and closed elevator doors, reminiscent of The Shining‘s corridor scenes, started giving me chills as I understood more about the case and more about what might be happening in those spaces.

The cat-and-mouse game between Hewes and Frobisher also propels the narrative compellingly, not only in the moves they use against each other but also in the questions they create about who’s good and who’s bad. Arguably they’re both, but who’s really the worst? Frobisher is a sociopath, a charmer who will stop at nothing not only to get what he wants, but also to try being liked in spite of it. Hewes is a prototypical antiheroine, hard to like in any obvious way: frosty and spiteful, she uses everyone around her for what she believes to be a bigger, better result to her case. She might be on the right side of the law, but do all her cruel, destructive means justify her desired ends? That question is left open as the season one finale sets up a longer series investigation.


Relatedly, many have written about the gender politics of the show. There’s a lot to mine there, and I’ll catch up with more of those readings as I continue to watch. Of course, there’s not only the male-female battle between Frobisher and Hewes, but also the female-female conflicts between Hewes and Parsons, one of the most commonly discussed parts of the show. The complications in the female relationships can’t be ignored, nor can the similarities between Hewes and Close’s other infamous ballbuster roles, especially Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction. The connections are intriguing and compel further consideration. I will say that in the battle between Frobisher and Hewes, she eventually comes off as more sympathetic to me: some emotional outpourings and glimpses of a backstory reveal she might have some regrets, although the source of those regrets is left unresolved like other threads in the season one finale.

There are some other pros and a few cons to mention. I liked the pop soundtrack. It was eclectic and evocative, appearing rarely but all the more effectively for that. Donal Logue makes a particularly delightful but brief appearance as a red-pantsed Wall Street blowhard. Finally, it pays to rewatch, which is a big plus in my book. The initial meeting between Frobisher and employee “double-agent” Larry is especially chilling in retrospect.

In terms of cons, Zeljko Ivanek’s accent is atrocious. I’m from the South, and I had no idea what accent he was affecting here. My sense is that it’s meant to reflect on a later character revelation, but it’s not worth inflicting it on the entire series. Lastly, and this is admittedly minor, but there are a few character and actor changes from the pilot to the rest of the season, mostly in rather extraneous family relationships. The main reason I even noticed this (aside from the rewatch) is because Miriam Shor played Parsons’ sister in the pilot, and I’ve always like her so wanted to see more.

Lastly, it seems especially apropos to catch up on Damages during the summer of Mad Men’s finale, as the two premiered within the same mid-July week in 2007, launching what we now talk about as a revolution in basic cable programming. In fact, Mad Men beat Damages for the Best Dramatic Series Emmy for their first seasons. Anyone remember that? I love Mad Men–it’s one of the only shows I refused to time-shift–but having watched both series’ first seasons within the past year, I can honestly say I question that choice.


Late to the Party: Band of Brothers Fri, 02 Dec 2011 15:00:22 +0000 I first became familiar with Band of Brothers (HBO, 2001) when I was apartment hunting prior to taking up graduate studies at the town’s university. It seemed as though the cable-equpped television in my room always featured some installment of the historical miniseries, no matter the hour of the day. Although I encountered only bits and pieces of the series’ ten episodes, I found myself to be drawn in by those disjointed fragments. These chaotic battle scenes, intimate exchanges in foxholes, and moments of quiet internal reflection suggested a profound and meditative depiction of war. While BOB sometimes trades in conventional depictions of courage and heroism, it renders these values concrete through its emphasis on a prevailing sense of duty born out of the strong bonds in this particularly intense fraternity of fighting men. I resolved to view BOB in its entirety once I settled into life here in Madison.

Fast forward two years and I finally got around to watching the series and my viewing happened to coincide with the program’s tenth anniversary. In the decade since its release, BOB has become a phenomenal success on DVD – it has generated upwards of $250M in DVD and Blue-ray sales – while drawing consistent audiences in rerun showings. So what is the key to the miniseries’ enduring appeal?

It is difficult to come up with a straightforward answer to this question. Certainly, the fact that this story is grounded in a concrete sequence of historical events featuring a group of visible characters lends the program a compelling degree of immediacy and authenticity. At a time when we are losing our last tangible connections to World War II, the story of “Easy Company”, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment assigned to the US’ army’s 101st Airborne Division resonates broadly. The story of this tight band of paratroopers is notable and somewhat familiar thanks to Stephen E. Ambrose’s popular history , Major Dick Winters memoirs, and the posthumously published war memoir of David Kenyon Webster. There is also We Stand Alone Together: The Men of Easy Company, a documentary that features surviving members of the company describing their experiences in the war in a somber manner (this was included on the DVD release of the miniseries). All of this material lends a certain heft to the dramatization of the battalion’s experiences, particularly given the way that each episode opens with relevant reflections from unidentified company veterans. This has the effect of establishing that this account has been sanctioned by those who suffered through the events depicted.

The program itself is beautiful in appearance and impeccable in its plotting and detail, albeit with a fair bit of poetic license and the odd inaccuracy. Executive Producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks evidently took a great deal of care in mapping out the story and the result is a taut, exceptionally well-paced series that manages to feature a variety of perspectives while maintaining its focus and momentum. The episodes trace Easy Company’s progression from its initial training period in Toccoa, Georgia to England and D-Day and the subsequent Market Garden and Bastogne campaigns. The final episodes, which see the company taking Hitler’s ‘Eagle’s Nest’ in the Bavarian alps and then functioning as an occupying force provide a welcome perspective on a seldom seen side of war.

Major Dick Winters is the ostensible center of this ensemble cast, but he is the narrative focal point of only three episodes (“Day of Days”, “Crossroads”, and “Points”). Other episodes focus on secondary characters in a manner that provides a well-rounded overview of life in the company over the course of these difficult campaigns. This is one of BOB’s major strengths as this technique provides multiple points of identification while highlighting the complexity of the events depicted. This variety of perspectives helps BOB to avoid the tendency to slip into a simplistic glorification of classic war tropes like courage, sacrifice, and duty. Depictions of soldiers dying through preventable accidents, attempting to avoid exposure to harm in the war’s later stages, and grappling with alcoholism undoubtedly contribute to BOB’s credibility in this regard.

One other quality of BOB bears mention: the camera has a way of stalking the soldiers whenever they are in a position where they might potentially encounter the enemy. The perspective provided by this practice ratchets up the tension in scenes where this is deployed. For example, Day of Days (Episode 9) sees a patrol head out to explore the woods surrounding the occupied German town of Landsberg am Lech. The camera moves through the trees around the small group of soldiers as an eerie quiet descends. Just when the viewer thinks that the group might be subject to ambush, the soldiers encounter a clearing wherein they see a Nazi concentration camp for the very first time. The viewer’s anxiety over a potential ambush gives way to a sense of horror at this discovery in a brief sequence that exemplifies the way that shot composition and plotting combine to produce moments of tremendous dramatic tension.

All of these these factors helped me to get past my skepticism and surrender to the narrative. Where I would normally be predisposed to a critique of the program’s overt nationalism and its depiction of historical events, I quickly became wrapped up in the trials and tribulations of Easy Company. This is a function of the factors outlined above, along with BOB’s superb production values and fine performances. Reflecting on the program, it occurs to me that perhaps the miniseries is the television format that best utilizes the medium’s strengths. The format allows sufficient space for a long-form narrative to unfold while its set length and budget shield it from the economic concerns so that so often come to structure television productions. In the case of BOB, it provided the means to create a perfectly contained storyworld that illuminates an aspect of the past in a manner that is often instructive and always entertaining. My experience with this program has motivated me to seek out other miniseries. While I think I will begin with The Pacific, HBO’s companion piece to BOB, I would welcome any suggestions readers might be willing to provide in the comments.


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America Needs Historical Comedies Now Fri, 04 Feb 2011 14:32:38 +0000 One day this January, ABC picked up four new TV pilots: a crime procedural set in the nineteenth century with Edgar Allan Poe as detective-protagonist; a “sexy soap” set at iconic airline Pan Am in the 1960s; and two multicamera comedies. The post reporting the pick-ups on Deadline Hollywood said that one of the comedies, Work It, had a “Bosom Buddies vibe to it.” The description of the other, Lost and Found, said it was about a party girl whose life is “turned upside down when the conservative 18 year old son she gave up for adoption shows up on her doorstep,” suggesting another early-80s sitcom icon, Alex Keaton. In both cases, the comedies intertextually reference the TV past, but they don’t go so far as actually setting themselves in it. While I am all for multicamera comedies, the juxtaposition of the period dramas and contemporary comedies is worth thinking about.

Why don’t we have more period comedies on American television? True, there was That 70s Show, and Freaks and Geeks was a period show, but it was really a drama with lots of funny moments. I first started wondering about this after spending a week in bed with the flu, a stint I survived with help from the first season of Blackadder, the BBC historical sitcom starring Rowan Atkinson. I did this at the behest of an Antenna call to watch something canonic we hadn’t ever seen. Blackadder was laugh-outloud, silly-funny. Its most lasting effect on me, though, was wondering why Americans haven’t mined their history as a comic setting as effectively as the British. Granted the UK has got a thousand-year or so start on us (I was an English major, not an English history major, so I can’t be sure, exactly.). I also wonder if this lack of depth works in combination with our tendency to label any comedy that references the world outside of TV “satire,” and thus socially meaningful. In other words, we can’t set a comedy far enough in the past that it not be considered comic commentary on the present. Maybe I’m missing some veiled jabs, but Blackadder didn’t seem preoccupied with commenting upon Margaret Thatcher or the House of Windsor circa 1983.

I suspect that the execs at ABC picking up pilots in 2011 believe that the TV audience is primed for period dramas. Pan Am sounds pretty much like Mad Men on a plane, after all. The program is from Sony Pictures TV and ER veteran Jack Orman. I suppose this means we can expect more edge-of-your-couch moments than Mad Men, mini-skirted stewardesses racing to serve scotch and sodas in the nick of time before customers decide to switch to Braniff. Poe seems a savvy pick up on the heels of the success of Seth Grahame-Smith’s recent literary/horror novels Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (coming to theatres in June 2012!) and you can be sure a reference to House made its way into the pitch as well. Programs featuring brooding, damaged-but-brilliant protagonists demand one-word eponymous titles, after all. Still, those zombie/literary novels are all about comic juxtaposition.

Of course, getting back to TV, I’m really talking about two different kinds of programs here: those simply set in a period and those with historical subject matter. Recently, cable network after cable network chickened out on airing The Kennedys, a historical drama about the family often described as the closest thing to a royal family America has ever had. Personally, I think that whatever behind-the-scenes Shriver/Kennedy arm-twisting went on to stop the show from airing only underscored gut-feelings of programming execs that the Kennedys have already received their TV-soap-due a hundred times over.

Now, a sitcom about the Kennedys, that’s something America could go nuts over. The liberals could laugh with the Kennedys and the conservatives could laugh at them, an inversion of All in the Family, with much more appealing mise-en-scene. Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis…the scripts would write themselves. And imagine the stunt-casting possibilities! I think Paul Giamatti would make a hilarious Fidel Castro. And Marilyn Monroe, anyone? If Quentin Tarantino can rewrite WW2 with a spectacular murder of Adolph Hitler, surely the producers could put off the JFK assassination to 1965 at least.

Maybe America is too uptight when it comes to the Kennedys. Trey Parker and Matt Stone did a pretty good job with a first family sitcom in 2000’s That’s My Bush!, and since ten years have passed, it now feels like a historical comedy. Still, there’s no need to venture from the 1960s of Mad Men and Pan Am for a new show. How about a historical comedy about the Lyndon B. Johnson administration? Lyndon Baines, Lady Bird, Lynda Bird, Luci Baines—sounds like a sitcom family to me. Hell, Jim Belushi even looks like LBJ.


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Late to the Party: Dirty Dancing Tue, 25 Jan 2011 17:21:32 +0000 “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.”  For years people have been quoting that line at me, so the only thing I knew about Dirty Dancing was that at some point someone would express defiance.  Actually, I had sort of confused Dirty Dancing with another movie I’d never seen, Footloose, so I expected it to be about an uptight moralist preventing kids from dancing to the devil’s music.  Oops.  I was pleasantly surprised when it was more Karate Kid in the Catskills than another defense of the Twist.

So what was it like to watch Dirty Dancing two decades after most everyone I know?  Well, with a title like that, it was bound to either be more dirty or less dirty than I expected–turns out it was slightly more dirty, which is to say that I hadn’t quite anticipated the pelvic grinding of the titular dancing nor the constant beefcake of a shirtless Patrick Swayze. For what it’s worth, I now understand the outpouring of affection at Swayze’s death, the strangely sexualized nostalgia for someone I had always dismissed as an inoffensive B-lister.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the explicit class struggle that saturated the film, and it made me realize again how much of 1980s cinema overtly thematized class conflict and/or class mobility.  Was it that, in the early days of neoliberal ascendancy, Hollywood still had the stomach to talk frankly about class? I won’t provide the whole long list of ’80s movies in this category, from 9 to 5 to Trading Places to Pretty Woman, but is it cultural near-sightedness to think that the film industry has mostly dropped the Reagan-era class consciousness?

Be that as it may, in this iteration, the cultural work of the film is to disarticulate working-class masculinity from the threat of moral subversion.  Baby may be the protagonist, but Johnny Castle is the hero, and his achievement is to convince the bourgeoisie that he’s no less moral than the Ivy League kid.  This lesson both never goes out of style and yet has curiously waned, such that Johnny as a character–the blue-collar man of gritty integrity and perfect pectorals–now looks and feels as dated as the Springsteen of Born in the USA.  (I love Castle’s name, by the way: evoking both the dancing legends Vernon and Irene Castle and the markers of aristocracy that Johnny will never enjoy.)

When the famous line finally appeared, I was disappointed that Johnny, not Baby, actually delivered it; he, not she, ensures that Baby will remain uncornered when all is said and done.  After everything she had gone through to claim her own destiny, validate her own judgment, and pursue her own pleasures in the film, it felt wrong that she didn’t get to formally declare her own independence. Thus the one moment I had been anticipating was a bit of a letdown.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the scenes (implausible, but so what?) of Baby turning into a passable dancer in less than a week.  And though it doesn’t take much to make me cry in movies, I teared up when she nailed the lift at the end.  Another highlight: Jerry Orbach’s subtle performance as a basically good-hearted dad trying to make sense of a-changin’ times.  Overall the movie holds up as an emotionally satisfying experience.

What doesn’t hold up is the atrocious decision to adulterate that wonderful early ’60s soundtrack with the lamest of ’80s pop. Why the hell is Eric Carmen, an artist unfit to mop up Otis Redding’s flop sweat, imposing himself on my Camelot-era resort?  And I don’t care that  “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” won, appallingly, both an Oscar and a Grammy–it’s a boring song that has no business being in the same multiplex, much less the same film, as the Ronettes (and I say that as a Jennifer Warnes fan).

Cringeworthy musical cues aside, the film retains its ability to please, and Jennifer Grey holds her own against the star power–I see it now–of Swayze.  And at a time when even the so-called liberals in power refuse to launch a serious critique of class privilege–and the prospects for the Johnny Castles of the world have only continued to decline–the film’s blunt treatment of social inequality was refreshing. Finally, I hope there will always be a place in our culture for films that celebrate dancing: as something joyful, as something liberating, and as something always at least a little bit dirty.


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Late to the Party: Let’s Get Small and A Wild and Crazy Guy Thu, 20 Jan 2011 15:00:47 +0000 When Steve Martin arrived on Twitter last year, I raised an eyebrow—not because I am particularly interested in following celebrities, but because it represented his possible return to a presentational, gag-driven comic mode. Martin ended his stand-up comedy career in the early 1980s, but as Glen Weldon recently suggested, “Twitter is for jokes.” While Martin’s Twitter feed proved not as funny as those of Peter Serafinowicz, Julie Klausner, and Patton Oswalt, his return to joke-telling set me thinking about his rise to fame as a stand-up in the late 1970s. Although my interests in stand-up and the early years of Saturday Night Live should have exposed me to the albums by now, I use “Late to the Party” as an excuse to familiarize myself with Martin’s two Grammy-winning, platinum-certified LPs, 1977’s Let’s Get Small and 1978’s A Wild and Crazy Guy. I have been content to ignore most of his recent work in literature, film, and music, but I was eager to get acquainted with his work at its most comedic.

Recorded at the now-defunct Boarding House in San Francisco, Let’s Get Small comprises a meandering collection of gags, one-liners, non-sequiturs and noises that coalesce into a generally endearing portrait of a performer experimenting with his craft. The recording is alternately manic and laid back, moving quickly and capriciously among impressions, physical humor, and nonsense—all punctuated by Martin’s trademark banjo. For the most part, the album is harmless, silly fun, and when Martin lists the extravagances he recently bought himself (an electric dog polisher, a fur sink, and a gasoline-powered turtleneck sweater), part of the joy comes in listening to the comic combine words with such surrealist illogic.

When his act approaches offensive or blue material, it usually doubles back onto an indictment of such comedic crutches. On the fifteen-minute title track, for example, Martin tells the crowd that he does not want to offend anyone in the audience by doing “any of those ‘fag’ jokes.” Then, after discovering that there are only a couple of “fags” in the audience, Martin yells, “These two fruits are walkin’ down the street…!” with an affected and exaggerated sneer. This gag plays with the traditional form of the joke (here, the setup is the punch line, and indeed Martin never finishes the joke) and, more importantly, treads the line between a homophobic joke and a joke about homophobic jokes. This is a tricky move, and as with any such gag, the joke’s butt likely relies on individual interpretation. Still, it exemplifies Martin’s interrogation of comic form and highlights the assumptions audiences and performers make regarding appropriate targets of ridicule. As in the titular gag about using drugs to “get small,” Martin filters zeitgeisty comedy through an absurdist lens, which depending on one’s view either offers an original take on such material or saps it of its urgency and importance.

Having also never heard Martin’s follow-up album, 1978’s A Wild and Crazy Guy, I was surprised by its abrupt midpoint shift. The front half of the album continues the easygoing nightclub act of Let’s Get Small, but the back half presents an explicit record of Martin’s transition from shambling goofball to comedy superstar. Specifically, the title track segues from performances at The Boarding House to a performance at Red Rocks Amphitheater in front of a massive crowd full of Beatlemania-level energy. While the Red Rocks half is not devoid of funny material, the presence of the stadium-sized audience is somewhat alienating. For example, there is something distinctly creepy about listening to a massive crowd of women screaming in faux-orgiastic delight as Martin, playing his SNL character Yortuk Festrunk, compares his lovemaking capabilities to animals going to the bathroom. Entertaining and confident as it often is, A Wild and Crazy Guy is a deeply ambivalent document. While its split between well-known-Martin and celebrity-Martin is conceptually daring, much of the second half feels like those middling Dana Carvey specials where he performs out-of-context SNL bits. Nevertheless, the two albums highlight Martin’s adeptness at accessing comic forms from the past and pointing the way toward further play with the syntax of humor.

Historical accounts of American comedy often posit stand-up and sketch from the 1960s and 1970s as anti-establishment (whether the “establishment” in question represents earlier Borscht Belt/Friars Club comedians or the broader social/political milieu). However, Martin’s albums are at once entirely unique and part of a loose collection of comedic practices that resist such characterizations. Often using Saturday Night Live as a home base, comics such as Martin, Andy Kaufman, and Michael O’Donoghue proposed alternative methods of comedic performance that often eschewed direct political satire or traditional gags for absurdist play, experimental performance, and confrontational aggression, respectively. Martin’s act was not as politically urgent or important as those of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, or George Carlin, but it raises the question of where such silliness fits among the often-weighty linchpins of media histories.

With its mundane and amateurish visual/aural design, monologic address, and fourth-wall demolition, stand-up comedy seems to exist at odds with many of the traditional criteria of entertainment media. However, considering the commercial success of Jeff Dunham, Dane Cook, and Chris Rock as well as the critical acclaim of Louis C.K., Hannibal Buress, Eddie Izzard, and Margaret Cho, stand-up remains a significant yet underexplored dimension of media culture. Spreadable, transmedial, and often political, stand-up has much to contribute to our current conversations about media, and it may well point toward future discussions. While I began this brief project curious about Martin’s work and followed it through with considerable enjoyment, I am left with more difficult questions regarding how these recordings and others like them fit into historical narratives and contemporary discussions of media genres, practices, formats, and modes of address.


Late to the Party: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) Wed, 15 Dec 2010 18:51:56 +0000 As a games studies scholar, I risk my gamer credibility to admit that I have never played a single Zelda title. Until I acquired a Wii, my Nintendo consoles were dedicated Mario and Metroid machines. This wouldn’t be a significant gap in my gaming resume if The Legend of Zelda series, particularly Ocarina of Time, was not universally heralded as the best game ever.

I am frequently reminded of the canonical status of the Zelda franchise whenever another “best videogames of all time” list is published, which coincidentally happened last week as I was playing through Ocarina. The local weekly paper, The Boston Phoenix, created a top-50 list on which Ocarina was #11 and A Link to the Past was #3 (Half-Life 2 was the #1 game of all time).

Of all the Zelda titles, I chose to play Ocarina for this Late to the Party post because last March when the Penny Arcade Expo came to Boston for the first time, I was reminded once again of the gaping hole in my personal gaming history. I attended a very entertaining PAX East panel lead by videogame critic N’Gai Croal and Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo. As described by the panelists, Croal and Totilo created a game out of ranking the ten best videogames of all time. They started with the aggregate review scores from, on which Ocarina is listed #1. Prior to the convention, they presented this starter list to thirteen videogame developers, and offered two moves: swap the position of two games on the list, or replace a game on the list with one not represented, adding it to the vacated spot. As Croal and Totilo reported the process to PAX East attendees, the audience cheered or booed each move. While the final list is unsurprising and reflects a certain videogame purist perspective – the extremely popular Madden and Pokemon games are not represented – I couldn’t help but notice the only title I had not played was a Zelda game.

Ocarina, the fifth title in the Zelda series, was released in November 1998 for the Nintendo 64, seven years after A Link to the Past. Nintendo fans were anxious to play a new console Zelda game, especially after witnessing the three-dimensional transformation of Mario in Super Mario 64. Ocarina is a canonical videogame, in part, because of its innovative game mechanics. The game was the first to use a target lock attack system and to incorporate context-sensitive actions, both of which are now staples of game play. The introduction of context-sensitive actions increased how the 10-button Nintendo 64 controller could be mapped, and thus how Link, the beloved protagonist of Zelda, could interact in the 3D world of Hyrule. While not the first example of a videogame using diegetic music to solve puzzles and unlock levels, Ocarina was novel for its integration of music into a classic role-playing, dungeon exploration experience. Throughout the game players collect songs that must be performed correctly on the ocarina in order to summon friends and open time portals (see Zach Whalen’s treatment of in-game music, which includes an analysis of Ocarina).

Playing a free-roaming 3D game from 1998 was a bit frustrating. After spending hours in open-world environments like the Grand Theft Auto franchise, I wanted Link to move faster, and I kept misusing the right analog stick on the Wii Classic Controller in a futile attempt to rotate the camera (I’ve been playing a lot of Call of Duty on my PS3 lately). Usually after switching platforms or game genres I need just a few minutes to adjust to the controls. I think I struggled more with Ocarina because the 3D environment was so familiar, even though the game is twelve years old.

My first several minutes with Zelda’s 64-bit music and graphics evoked memories of favorite childhood videogames, particularly the hours I spent with my siblings playing through King’s Quest and Wizardry games. Despite this nostalgia however, my late to the Zelda party experiment hasn’t inspired me to play other past titles in the series, and I probably won’t finish Ocarina. Unlike arcade-style games that I play again and again – Yar’s Revenge on my Atari 2600 and classic Donkey Kong and Mario games on the Wii Vritual Console – I think the Hyrule zeitgeist has passed by me.

Dear defenders of the videogame canon, please don’t eviscerate me for my lack of Link love. I genuinely appreciate Ocarina for the innovations it brought to gaming, and I bow to creator Shigeru Miyamoto’s influence on my favorite third-person perspective games, like Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, Beyond Good and Evil, and American McGee’s Alice. Unfortunately, the dungeon exploration, item hunts and quests feel slow and tired because a dozen years of game development has passed since Link imprisoned Ganondorf.

The next game in the Zelda series, Skyward Sword, is due in 2011. Sword fighting is a central component of game play, featuring the Wii Remote and Wii MotionPlus controller. I will watch (and likely play) Skyward Sword with interest, particularly for how creatively the game exploits motion-sensing technology. After a buggy demo at the E3 2010 Nintendo press conference, there is concern that MotionPlus technology isn’t ready for the action-heavy game play promised in Skyward Sword. Despite these early rumors, Miyamoto has high-hopes that the first Wii native Zelda title of a quarter-century old franchise will attract a new generation of players, and once again innovate game play mechanics.


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Late to the Party: It’s a Wonderful Life Wed, 08 Dec 2010 12:00:32 +0000 It’s not so much that I’m late to the party; I’ve always been at the party—I just didn’t want to be there until recently. For my entire life, I have avoided seeing It’s a Wonderful Life. For me, this was a particularly difficult task. I found the film nauseating, despite having never seen it. To understand my feelings about this classic film and my need to avoid it at all costs, we have to go back to my childhood.

I was born and raised in Indiana, Pennsylvania—the hometown of Jimmy Stewart. My childhood home was just five blocks from Stewart’s childhood home. I never knew who Jimmy Stewart was until my Cub Scout troop marched in a parade honoring the actor. The first image I saw of him was on my Jimmy Stewart Parade badge. During the parade, we marched past the site of the hardware store that Stewart’s father once owned. There, Stewart himself sat on a podium and watched the event. I never took Cub Scouts seriously, but I was moved when Stewart gave us the Cub Scout salute. When the event ended, however, I was much more delighted to have another badge on my uniform than to have seen a Hollywood actor in person.

As I got older, I grew to know the schmaltzy It’s a Wonderful Life image my town celebrated every holiday season: every Christmas, a “You Are Now in Bedford Falls” sign stood where the Stewart hardware store used to be. A holiday light show featured George lassoing the moon. Indiana presented It’s a Wonderful Life as a film celebrating simplistic, traditional values. Stewart symbolized the typical nice, small-town guy.

As the steel and coal industries crumbled in Western Pennsylvania during the 1980s, my town embraced its view of Stewart for commercial purposes. People tried their hands at entrepreneurship by exploiting Stewart. We had Jimmy’s Restaurant and It’s a Wonderful Cup. About the same time, my town honored Stewart more and more, naming a street and airport after him. We erected a statue of Stewart on the lawn of the courthouse, created a museum for him, and posted a sign letting people know the exact place of his birth. My hometown celebrated Stewart for all of the good things that small-town life had to offer in an effort to fix its cracked economic base.

For me, Jimmy Stewart and my hometown became one. As a teenager, I hated my hometown and small-town life in general. I thought it lacked urban sophistication, and the cliquey atmosphere was stifling. Stewart dominated the visual iconography of the town. His face on the courthouse lawn came to symbolize everything I hated. Why on earth would I watch the film on which my town based its image?

I wound up going to undergraduate school in my hometown at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. As an English major, my goal was to study hard and go to graduate school as far away as possible. I took “The Art of the Film” my last semester. Slowly the class started to mean more to me than my literature courses, and as I was deciding which graduate program to attend, the direction of my life changed when my film professor showed Vertigo. Stewart mesmerized me as he transformed from his small-town, nice-guy image to a monster on screen. So much about the film moved me, but mostly I remember thinking Hitchcock uncovered a truth about small-town America: beneath the façade of friendliness rests some really horrific, sick stuff. I enrolled in Georgetown’s graduate English program because of the film studies faculty there.

Since seeing Vertigo, I’ve grown to love Jimmy Stewart, but I still actively avoided It’s a Wonderful Life. I’m taken by the subtle darkness Stewart can portray, but after watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in graduate school, I was reminded of Stewart’s good-guy image. Being that Mr. Smith was a Capra-Stewart film, it confirmed my conviction not to watch It’s a Wonderful Life.

I decided to give the film a try for Antenna’s Late to the Party feature. The first 90 minutes pleasantly surprised me. Sure, Stewart is a nice guy willing to stand up against corruption, but the movie also exposes the physical, emotional, economic, and career sacrifices one has to make to stay in a small town. This was not the schmaltzy film about the blessings of small-town life that my hometown had presented to me. The last 45 minutes certainly delivered the cheese I feared, but I wasn’t offended by the rosy portraits celebrating small-town life. Rather, they easily resolved complex tensions of small-town life. George represses so much to stay in this town, but he releases his anger only because of the loss of $8,000. From there, everything becomes rushed—George’s anger at his family, his suicidal thoughts, his economic despair, and his redemption.

I was also struck by how odd it is that Indiana, PA, chooses to remember Stewart through a film that basically says life in a small town is crap, and you can only be saved from its traps through divine intervention. I should have watched the film as a teen because it confirmed my feelings at the time. As an adult who has an interest in cultural geography and has embraced his rural Western PA roots, I’m more concerned with how It’s a Wonderful Life participates in a larger cultural process that simplifies the complexities of small-town life to a few traits in order to offer an equally simplistic notion that life would be better elsewhere, particularly in a city.

When I travel to see my parents over the holidays, I plan to visit the Jimmy Stewart Museum. Since I haven’t been there in years, I’m interested to reexamine how that site remembers Stewart. But no matter how my town remembers Jimmy Stewart, I am now, as an adult, quite proud to be from his hometown.


Late to the Party: Myst and Why You Can Never Go Home Again Wed, 01 Dec 2010 17:52:30 +0000 Despite being an avid player of computer games as a child, somehow I had managed to miss Myst. I vaguely recall seeing my father play it once but had dismissed it as less entertaining than the speed of Sonic the Hedgehog or the preview of high school I got in McKenzie & Co. As an adult who studies games I have begun to regret that decision. Myst is frequently located as a sign post for a large number of sometimes contradictory moments in game history. It has been alternately located as a crucial example of: a move to high quality graphics, the interactive fiction discussed by narratologists, the layered game play and rule structures favored by ludologists, casual games, infamously difficult games, and games targeted at adults. With such an impressive, and sometimes confusing, pedigree I was eager to go back in time and try to recapture what I had missed when I chose not to play it.

What I discovered was that after the many changes in technology, when it comes to some video games you truly can never recapture them as they originally existed. It is over 16 years since Myst’s original release, and it is having a revival. In the last three years, it has been re-released on the Nintendo DS, the PSP, and, most recently, the iPhone/iPad OS. Having difficulty locating a copy for my computer, I ended up playing the iPhone OS version on my iPad. I was surprised by how easily the game had been adapted to the iPad’s input methods. Myst had always been notorious for its visual beauty, and it was deeply pleasurable to find myself traveling its luscious landscape. The system of touching where I wanted to go, what I wanted open, etc. was surprisingly seamless and intuitive; but I couldn’t shake the feeling that by giving up the mouse and keyboard, I had somehow radically changed the experience of the game.

This experience only increased when, after exploring an underground chamber, I had to run off to a meeting. The game saved at the exact point that I had finished playing, and it was all too easy to pull the game out as I was waiting for my student to arrive and quickly finish off the puzzle I had been doing. In the early 90s when the game was released, it required reasonably powerful computing power and a game play experience was bound by these technological limitations to particular spaces and, generally, dedicated play time. By choosing a version of the game that I could easily pick up and put down at a moment’s notice anywhere at all, I had changed it drastically. Now, instead of being a dedicated journey, it had become a world to explore and puzzles to do in the dull moments that are part of everyone’s life.

Perhaps the change that had most drastically altered my experience of Myst was the rapid and extensive growth of the internet. After about an hour and a half of play, I found myself stuck. This is not an unusual experience in Myst. Friends who had finished the game, and most hadn’t, had told me about creating huge bulletin boards and walls full of maps and post-it notes in order to keep track of the information necessary to finish. Most had eventually just given up. I had a choice that wasn’t available to them, a choice that as I played became increasingly difficult to resist. As the internet has grown, it has been a repository for what Pierre Lévy has called collective intelligence. Some of this collective intelligence has gathered around games. The internet is replete with detailed walk-throughs, explaining how to beat a game step by step. While many consider this cheating, something Mia Consolvo has effectively explored, others consider it a productive use of shared knowledge that makes video games accessible to more players. That was the logic that I used when I took my first peek at a Myst walk-through, quickly gathered the information that I needed to get the code for the next step of the game (all in less than five minutes), and returned to playing.

My attempt to discover Myst as it was discovered by so many others almost a decade ago was an enjoyable and exciting one. I finally understood why its graphics were considered so newsworthy and was impressed that even today the aesthetics of its world held up. While it was inescapable that I experienced this in the context of the many games that built on it and the tremendous evolution in graphics that followed it, it is notable that over fifteen years later its visuals hold up well. I was fascinated by the game’s incorporation of live action video, something that has not been taken up by other games on a large scale, and found it very effective. While in the time I had, even with cheating, I was not able to find my way off the island (which reminds me of the next important thing that I missed), I did feel that I had begun to see what had made the game so powerful at the time and appealing enough to continue into the new millennium. But even more distinctly, I realized that I, and the many others who were playing for the first time on PSPs and iPhones, had not really had the Myst experience and that, when technology had changed so drastically , I probably never would.


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Late to the Party: Twin Peaks (1990-91) Wed, 17 Nov 2010 16:06:50 +0000 Twin Peaks.]]> I am no stranger to catching up on television that I missed the first time around, but there is something particularly ominous about Twin Peaks.

It is surprisingly ominous, at first glance. Generally speaking, a two-season run is not a substantial time commitment, and the series is now readily available on DVD (and all but the two-hour pilot is streaming on and Fancast). Compared to the six seasons of The Sopranos or the seven seasons of The Shield sitting on my bookshelf, Twin Peaks should be easy.

And yet it’s not. There is a mystique surrounding Twin Peaks, both in terms of its cult status (fueled by Lynch’s cultural cache) and in terms of the oft-discussed mystery of who, precisely, killed Laura Palmer. While I may not necessarily be hugely familiar with Lynch’s work, I know enough to be comfortable with his perspective, and I am thus far unspoiled regarding Laura Palmer’s fate. My problem is not that I do not understand this mystique, but rather that some part of me feels I know it too well.

Some part of me is convinced that I know what Twin Peaks is about. I know it features a particularly esoteric performance from Kyle MacLachlan, I know it features vivid dream sequences, and I know that it takes place in a small town. This knowledge comes not from trailers, Wikipedia or IMDB; it comes from hearing people talk about it in passing, seeing references to it on other television shows (The Simpsons’ “Who Shot Mr. Burns” is particularly influential in this area, and Psych is doing an homage in December), and by seeing it used as a reference by networks when they want their small town mystery show to spark fond memories of the series (ABC’s Happy Town being the most recent example).

One could argue that I should have had similar problems with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but since Buffy ran for seven seasons I felt comfortable it would have sufficient time to define itself independent of the hype. With Twin Peaks, I presumed that the mystery is the show, and because that mystery has become such a pillar within modern discussions of serialized television its influence seems almost too strong. I imagine it’s how the next generation will feel about The Wire, although I’ll likely admonish them for hesitating much as you are all admonishing me as you read this.

Of course, as you already knew, the second I sat down with the Twin Peaks pilot I was transfixed. Its haunting credits are an immediate palate cleanser, an establishment of tone so distinctive that it erased the majority of my preconceptions.

The credits create mysteries with no connection to my previous knowledge of the series. The images, which prove central to the series’ broader mystery, were completely abstract: the saw mill has no meaning (especially when the title doesn’t appear for forty seconds), the waterfall has little significance, and the still water of the river has even less. And what do we make of the bird who opens the credit sequence? These may seem like small questions, some of them likely revealed to be fairly insignificant to the mystery of Laura Palmer’s death in subsequent episodes, but Twin Peaks is mysterious, not a mystery. Knowing that it is Laura Palmer on that beach before the show tells us does not change the fact that her death is just one part of a larger whole.

Twin Peaks is a messed-up town, filled with elements I think comfortably qualify as melodrama: numerous abusive relationships emerge, and there are enough illicit affairs (spread equally among both young and old) to make one suspect there is something in the water. And yet Lynch stages it all in what I’d (perhaps naively) consider Lynchian style, with the same kind of abstraction that defines the credits. Laura’s parents learn of her death on separate ends of a telephone; we linger on various objects, body parts, at times when it seems unnecessary; the flickering lights in the hospital are echoed at the Town meeting. The atmosphere, so fundamental in the credits and so paramount throughout the pilot, puts familiar elements into an entirely new context, regardless of what decade we’re watching in.

I have yet to get to the dream sequences so prominent in the series’ cultural image, nor have I been able to witness the series’ supposed inconsistencies (although that seems to be a matter of opinion). It’ll be some time before I have the free time to truly dig into the series, but often that first step is the most challenging. It provides a new reference point, rewriting the paratextual and intertextual constructions of the series with personal experience.

Rewriting Twin Peaks into my very own mystery.


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