Category: Nostalgia

Tim and I agree about the late, great Len Lafofka

Further dispatch from the Brendan-Bait Gazetteer: one of my most extreme vices from the last couple of years is to partake of legal substances in the evening and then open up a random ancient issue of Dragon Magazine on my tablet to drowsily browse until I fall asleep. In addition to being beautifully devoid of news from the present, reading through old Dragon brings back a lot of memories of my cousin Bruce, who gave me boxes of his old gaming material when I was a lonely teenager. I loved Bruce, and I read his similarly random copies of Dragon until the covers divorced from their staples. I did not understand game design very well, but I thought the writers who contributed to the magazines must be top-tier experts and a font of ineffable wisdom.

Here in the future, I’m married to a magazine editor, and I can see how clearly most of those (nearly always) dudes were just chucking ideas out there without a clear understanding of how they would affect anyone’s actual experience of a game. Having that context does not sour the experience of reading the work, though; to me, at least, there is some charm to their apparent naivete, and I get to see the humble origins of ideas that would end up as billion-dollar IP in our weird, weird timeline.

A stack of old Dragons, image stolen from Tim's site.

It turns out I am not the only one who likes shuffling through old Dragons and thinking about their place in history! Recent Blogspot discovery and fellow Illinoisan Tim S. Brannan has been running a series on his blog called This Old Dragon for five years now, an archive which I am making myself read sparingly so I don’t catch up to the present too fast.

Back in the early 90s, I never played Dungeons and Dragons because there was no one around to play Dungeons and Dragons with except when I dragooned my patient brother into it. Here in the early 20s, I never play Dungeons and Dragons because it turns out I don’t actually like playing Dungeons and Dragons. But I still get a lot out of this kind of artifact because, back then, I acquired a taste for lonely fun that hasn’t quite left me, and which I should talk more about here, someday.

I started a tinyletter for recommending youtube channels two and a half years ago but then I was like, wait, I have a blog

If you are one of the six people who signed up for said tinyletter then I am sorry I never sent a second emission from it; I might still use it someday. (The same goes for my neglected dreamwidth account.) But I feel like I’ve got a little writing momentum here on NFD and I’d like to keep that up for a minute. So here’s a plug for an incomprehensibly deep dive into video games that I didn’t even really like that much when they were the only ones I had!

There are a lot of white dudes who like to talk about old nerd media in videos on the Internet, but mostly what they do is offer their own opinions, at best seasoned with a little intro lifted from Wikipedia. I find it hard to spend minutes of my one precious life absorbing those opinions. I have too many opinions already. What I value, instead, is the dudes who can explain and explore something I don’t understand in a way that makes me feel like I do understand it (although I very much still don’t).

This is why I subscribe to a channel with the mildly concering name of Displaced Gamers, which is not about gamers or being displaced. It’s a series of exegeses on the assembly code that composes old video games, mostly NES games, and the startling things that tiny changes in that code can bring about. I myself could not read assembly code if my life were at stake, but the channel creator’s steady, patient narration helps me feel like I can almost follow along in real time. I’m thinking in particular of these most recent two videos, about how and why one can glitch into unplanned memory areas in Super Mario Bros to find the apocryphal Minus World…

… And then discovering 256 completely new Minus Worlds in the Super Mario All-Stars iteration of the game, using only three Game Genie Codes. (!)

It’s that last bit that really gets me. I had a Game Genie for our Super Nintendo when I was young, and I made heavy use of it, which is to say that I never got to be good at video games. I never had a solid grasp on the device’s methods of operation or how to explore a game’s code with it. I was not, as noted above, an ardent Mario fan (I preferred Mario Kart and the RPG spinoffs) though I respect the ground the games broke and their own interesting design constraints. But this particular video essayist earns my attention not only because he’s doing original research in the history of software—a field which, I will keep shouting forever, is ahistorical to the ongoing detriment of the entire world—but because he keeps at the work until he can fit his proof of concept into the “you can do this with your own Game Genie” constraint. That’s powerful Brendan-bait.

It has been ten years almost to the DAY since I linked to one of Jeremy’s projects. This is neglectful and I apologize, Jeremy

I get pretty excited when someone whose creative work I have long admired puts out a nice long essay, these days, because I am—and I cannot emphasize this enough—forty. Jeremy Penner, who has been the kind of historian who actively makes more history ever since I came to know him, dropped a bombshell of such an essay into my Old Reader just this week.

“Quite frankly, nobody who wasn’t an absolute fanatical follower of webcomics discourse 20 years ago has any idea what the fuck this means.”

But I am just such a one, and this filled some gaps in my understanding of the little sphere wherein I came of age. I value this kind of clear and well-founded writing so much. It’s the counterpoint to the Wesley Aptekar-Cassels quote I posted earlier today: archives may succumb, but archivists keep fighting.

In praise of the starship ceiling

The ceiling of the bridge on the Enterprise 1701-D has not, I feel, had sufficient love bestowed upon it. I am very fond of all the purplish-gray, padded-upholstery, conference-hotel interior design elements of TNG, but their relationship with the progress of aesthetic trends in this century has not been entirely amicable or graceful. But the ceiling I’m talking about doesn’t seem dated or even retro, perhaps because it started as retro: I’m no expert, but to me this design reads as pretty much straight Art Nouveau.

Perspective from the view screen of the Enterprise-D bridge

That’s actually from the rebuild they did for Generations (1994), but it’s the best view I can find from an actual photo. Most of what shows up in image searches now is from fan CGI recreations, but I think the quality of light and material you can see there are an important part of what I’m talking about. It’s of a piece with the rest of the set, but it also looks like something set apart. Here’s a partial perspective from an actual episode.

Side view of the rear portion of the Enterprise-D bridge.

I noticed this angle while watching “Descent” with Kat, whose enjoyment of TNG is mild and reserved largely for the characters of Lore and Hugh. It was the first time I’d realized that the center of the ceiling is actually a porthole with stars in it. There’s a helpful writeup about the origins of the design on Forgotten Trek, but it focuses more on the production history than on concept artist Andrew Probert’s thought process.

Charming marker-art concept sketch for the bridge

It doesn’t address this either, but I suspect that the production function of the ceiling as a stage light was pretty helpful. While it looks like at least in the first season, they did set up lights for each individual shot the way one normally does on a soundstage, the show’s primary set also had a built-in hemispherical softbox! The crew could bounce flattering light on multiple sides of an actor’s face without having to do anything special or worry about lamp stands getting in the shot. Meanwhile, the science station alcoves in the back are shielded from that soft light by the overhang and can be lit by monitors, from underneath, for increased drama whenever Geordi tells the captain that teching the tech tech is worth a shot.

I really wonder if Ron Moore was thinking about the soft light of that design, two shows later, when they came up with the layout of the Battlestar Galactica CIC.

I say this with love: it is an inferior design, at least in terms of pure spatial reference. I watched every single episode and webisode of BSG, and I never had any idea what the horizontal axes of this room were supposed to be, or what most of the people on screen were doing. The nice thing about having all the chairs turned in the same direction as Picard when he points at his big tv-windshield and says “go” is that, as an audience member, you don’t have to guess whether that’s the front of the spaceship. Sure, maybe it makes military sense that the CIC would be buried in the deepest and most armored part of a battlestar, rather than having a big round window on top of it. But in effect it often felt more like they were sitting around somewhere underground, not charging into the fray or leaping through the fracking galaxy.

As pieces of functional stage go, though, the CIC poetically inverts the bridge in a way that works well. Its ceiling is a pit of darkness; almost every light on set faces upward or bounces off the floor, casting faces into shadow. Maximum drama at all times! In Star Trek, the captain can always look around and see the face of someone who’s going to give him a suggestion for the problem at hand. But in BSG, everyone keeps their eyes down, because they all know none of their answers are going to be good ones.

“This, to me, is the definition of a desert island film: a foundational text, a perennial source of comfort, a go-to reference that lives, in the parlance of today’s youth and the adults who want to be like them, rent-free in one’s brain.”

“In a tree’s rings you can see the years of drought.”

Sumana’s been on a pretty amazing run of posts, and this one struck me right through:

“We come together every once in a while to refill on trust and camaraderie and a shared understanding of what we’re trying to do and who we’re trying to do it for; I assume that, for some folks, those wells have now run dry.”

Eight years ago, I was already feeling a kind of nostalgia for my own version of con season, even though I was right there in the thick of it. A long summer is one thing, but a drought is another. I feel the ache for my friends as if it’s a loss, even though, by impossible fortune, I don’t think I have lost anyone yet. But the time we could have spent together is life we won’t get back.

It’s Still June Somewhere, Part 1

  • The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006): Second in a series of “bittersweet, moving anime movies about adolescent feelings as crystallized through a speculative fiction device which I watched with Kat and her friends Courtney and Kailey, which activity has delivered some of my favorite moments in the last few months.” Not quite the technical or emotional haymaker of Your Name. (2016), but why only compare it to the first movie in the series of “bittersweet, moving anime movies about adolescent feelings as crystallized through a speculative fiction device which I watched with Kat and her friends Courtney and Kailey, which activity has delivered some of my favorite moments in the last few months?” I wish I’d known about this movie a decade ago, when it became clear that the entire genre of Teen Movies had given way to the juggernaut of Young Adult Adaptations—two ways of telling a story with the same target audience but very different ways of getting there. I think this story draws a bridge between those approaches pretty well. The animation style is interesting: I’d bet it made heavy use of rotoscoping, there’s some frame-stretching every time they go to slow-mo, and the lighting on most of the characters is quite flat, all of which are ways to save money in production. But assuming that was a budget decision, I think it was a smart one, because it looks more stylized than cheap.
  • A Whisker Away (2020): See this is what I was talking about with “a particular wistful, hazy-gold anime-style aesthetic” back in my review of Your Name. Third in a series of “bittersweet, moving anime movies about adolescent feelings as crystallized through a speculative fiction device which I watched with Kat and her friends Courtney and Kailey, which activity has delivered some of my favorite moments in the last few months” but also the one that skews youngest—more a middle grade story than a YA story, if that makes sense. It didn’t get me quite as much as the others, and I had some difficulty tracking the pace of events, but the plot threw me some good curveballs! I wish it had been distributed under a direct translation of its Japanese title, Wanting to Cry, I Pretend to Be a Cat.
  • Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001): Same animation-watching crew, same country of origin, but quite different otherwise. Kat led me through the entirety of Cowboy Bebop: The Series back in the spring, a formative influence on her and on many of my friends which I’d never glanced at before. I liked it very much and I wish I’d watched it sooner, and yes, yes, Lisa et al, you were right to pester me about it. That said, I’m glad I got to watch this outside the context of its original release in September of 2001.

    The movie amounts to an extra-long episode of the series with more money involved, and since it came out after the series ended—and was set partway through its chronology—it’s quite episodic. I was glad of the chance to hang out with all the characters again after the series conclusion, but that separation flattened its emotional impact. My least favorite TV trope is when the writers introduce their new OC, demand that we get emotionally involved in their story by having the whole recurring cast just react to them, and then heap pathos on whatever happens to them, from which we learn nothing about the main cast, and after which the guest is never mentioned again. It’s not exactly a Mary Sue—just a boring device that is invariably going to happen when you’re a writers’ room working on an episodic show. (This also happens a lot when you’re playing a tabletop RPG with the kind of DM who’s more interested in telling their own story than hearing yours.)

    Anyway, this movie isn’t that, but its place in the canon means it can’t quite avoid touching the trope with one toe. But I had a great time watching it! The fight animation looks great, the backgrounds have a beautiful depth, and I got to hear Kat clap and cackle when Spike says “I love the kind of woman that can kick my ass.”

  • To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995): Mmmaybe the first film focused on queer characters that I watched? Much like Paris is Burning (1990)—from which I’d bet it directly lifted its opening scene—it now seems clear that there is a missed opportunity here; RuPaul is the only actual drag queen with a (brief) speaking role. But I was glad to learn from this touching retrospective on how the film got made that its creation included and involved gay people, at least. And because of that I think it holds up pretty well. Mitch Kohn writes “the film itself may not have sparked much if any social change,” and indeed I don’t know about “sparked.” But it’s in part because of this movie that I grew up in small-town Kentucky perceiving drag as something fun and attractive, not menacing. I’m grateful for that, and fond of this.
  • Notting Hill (1999): Caroline Siede’s AV Club series on romantic comedies, one per year, has been reliably great and insightful; after reading the linked article about Notting Hill I found myself nostalgic and talked Kat into watching it with me. She had never seen it; I remembered it fondly, but unlike To Wong Foo, the surface sheen is gone for me here.

    During my most intense phase of teenage longing for heartache fiction, I was ready to project a lot of subtlety onto work that didn’t actually have much to offer. Even a few years later, I had figured out that ridiculous movies like In Love and War (1996) or Bed of Roses (1996) were not worth the feelings I had assigned to them—though While You Were Sleeping (1995) is still one for the ages. I don’t think WYWS is shot remarkably better than Notting Hill—though it does have a better score—and I don’t think Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts lack for chemistry and charm.

    But one of a few things that has happened between my initial viewing of Notting Hill and the present day is that its writer, Richard Curtis, directed Love Actually (2003), which I have been made to watch several times and which I dislike more with each repetition. The similarities in stagy dialogue and artificial stakes are obvious now, and are more than enough to sink this movie for me. Its bravura long take introduced me to Bill Withers, though, once upon a time, and it is one bit that’s still worth watching.

  • Shaolin and Wu Tang (1983): Man, it has been a very long time since I wrote about movies! One thing I started doing back in May is subscribing to a series of live-streamed movies through 36 Cinema, which is a spinoff from 36 Chambers, which as you might guess is a Wu-Tang production—specifically, one created by RZA and a startup marketing dude named Mustafa Shaikh. A link to the livestream costs ten bucks, but you’re not just watching the movie, you’re listening to live commentary from a couple of charming experts. For the first few, that was RZA himself, accompanied by Dan Halsted! You probably don’t know who that is, but he has made cameos in movie roundups of days past, because he’s the guy with the huge celluloid collection who programs and presents Kung Fu Movie Night at the Hollywood Theater in Portland.

    I found this combination irresistible: two nerds who not only have decades of history with the genre, but have done a lot of work in their respective ways to honor it and introduce it to new audiences. They named appearances by veteran actors and talked about production history; Dan told stories about finding stacks of film reels in disused auditoriums and RZA pointed out different styles of kung fu in action. I learned a lot! Despite that, my full notes on the film read as follows: “this movie rules.”

  • Shogun Assassin (1980): Same situation as above, except this time my notes read, in toto, “this movie rules so hard.” It actually comprises the opening of one Lone Wolf And Cub movie and the remainder of another in the same series, but it works really well! (And it was originally distributed by Roger Corman!) Because it’s a samurai movie, of course, not a kung fu movie, there’s lots of standing still while blood fountains out of people rather than intricately matching choreography. I never got into Lone Wolf or any of its various adaptations—I have a hard time with impassive, impenetrable protagonists, inasmuch as Ogami functions as a protagonist at all. But the use of film as a medium—composition, color grading, bold editing, even vignetting—is superb.

Notes from the New Normish

Hi, we’re alive and fine. My privilege is as evident as ever, as my daily routine of isolation with Kat resembles what Maria called “an extended snow day,” mostly but not entirely without snow. I hurt for the sick and grieving; I worry for the essential and vulnerable; I watch Bon Appetit and experiment with vegan baking; I do my internet job and I watch out my window and wait. Here are some things that have held my interest in the last little while.

  1. As mentioned in asides, I read too much about menswear online and off these days. My favorite habit is to bargain-hunt for clothes from Japan on eBay, prance around the living room in them to aggravate Kat, and then secret them away so I can buy more. But the emergent result is that I’ve learned a lot about things I might have disdained ten years ago. I don’t have any special interest in James Bond, for instance, but Matt Spaiser’s blog about the tailoring of the films has taught me a ton about men’s fashion in the last sixty years. His post on how Cary Grant’s suit in North by Northwest (1959) went on to influence Bond’s costuming is a great example of the dry clarity of his writing.
  2. It seems like I’ve never written about Porpentine Charity Heartscape here before, which is strange, as her work has loomed large in my view and admiration for… seven years? Eight? Her work in writing and game design blends the sweet, the filthy, the transgender and transhuman, the pure and the skin-crawlingly cute in a way I find singular in every sense. If that sentence doesn’t hint at some content warnings, then I hope this one does. But that boundary is very much worth braving if you are so emotionally equipped. Her recent story “Dirty Wi-Fi” on Strange Horizons is a good introduction to her prose and perspective.
  3. Despite my limited dabbling in microelectronics, I can’t follow many of the technical specifics in this review of process and call for aid on a final, perfect Super Nintendo emulator. But the SNES was a system that still informs my design and aesthetic sensibilities, twenty-seven years later, and I respect the author’s work very much. The most striking quote to me:

    “I can tell you why this is important to me: it’s my life’s work, and I don’t want to have to say I came this close to finishing without getting the last piece of it right. I’m getting older, and I won’t be around forever. I want this final piece solved.”

    What an extraordinary thing it seems, to me, to know what your life’s work is. I hope one day I do.

General Clap

Hey, I finally discovered that back in May I placed in the 2018 Lyttle Lytton contest! Specifically I placed with an entry in the Found division—just scroll down to where my name is spelled wrong. I am proud even though it’s not like I wrote anything for it. But the reason the biggest category on this old blog is called “connections” is that I still delight in plugging one thing (a bad sentence I read) into another thing (a web site I love).

And there are a lot of connections that really worked for me in this year’s list! It’s good company to be in. Not only did another Found winner pull an egregious bit from my most hated episode of one of my all-time favorite shows, but there’s an entry under the Perennials that recalls my first entry. There are bullet journal and Engagement Chicken jokes too (hi Kat). But the thing that really rang my bell was seeing a semi-vanished webcomic writer—someone I still admire—pop in with a brilliant entry, and Adam Cadre give her a wink and a nod. I don’t chase the Internet as hard as I used to, but I’m glad the cool-kid serendipity of a decade ago isn’t all gone.