Some bite-sized thoughts and reflections on the items I’ve been reading, listening to, or watching this month.
Also: Did you read, watch, listen to, play something this month that you particularly enjoyed? Feel free to share in the comments! I’m always looking for recommendations.
Note: The following contains spoilers for Assassin’s Creed Unity, Cheer (Netflix series), Spider-Man: No Way Home, and the Spider-Man PS4 game.
What I’m reading for fun
What Made Buster Keaton’s Comedy So Modern?
by Adam Gopnik: I first learned about Buster Keaton in a course on American film history that I took as an undergraduate. In that class, we watched movies in chronological order, starting all the way back to the earliest movies from the late 1800s. Overall, the approach was really effective because watching movies in this order helps you better understand what was so innovative or interesting about a movie like, for example, Citizen Kane. But it could also be pretty boring, especially in the early going. I think we watched Battleship Potemkin three times in one class. Ugh. Then came our viewing of Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality and for whatever reason I fell in love. I even sought out DVDs of Keaton’s other movies in our campus library and ended up watching a completely silent version of The General because for some reason the DVD version my library owned didn’t have any sort of music track to go with the movie. Later, I read biographies of Keaton and watched documentaries about his life. The giant poster I have of him hanging in my office was one of the things I missed most during the time when we were all working from home. All of this to say that when I saw this article on the New Yorker’s website, which serves as both a review of two new books considering Keaton’s life and work and an examination of his legacy, I was really excited. Silent films and silent film stars from the 1920s are not an easy thing to sell anyone on these days but I feel like this article gives a good overview of what made Keaton so remarkable as a filmmaker and why what he achieved almost 100 years ago is in some ways even more mind-boggling than what directors and actors are doing today if for no other reason than that a lot of Keaton’s stunts/gags couldn’t be faked or enhanced by computers. He was brilliant. And also lucky that he didn’t get killed. This article made my day and I’m looking forward to reading both of the books it discusses.
What I’m playing for fun
Assassin’s Creed Unity on PS4:
I feel like I’ve always been aware of Assassin’s Creed games, even before I started playing video games a few years ago, but I’ve never actually played one. I picked this one up recently after hearing a lot of people praising (albeit in a relatively muted way) the newest addition to the universe, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. That one looked interesting but was too expensive. I wanted to see if I actually liked this type of game first before investing more money in it, so I found this one on sale for $10 in the Playstation Store. My feeling so far is that it’s…fine. The game takes place in France during Revolutionary times and the setting is beautiful. I also liked that this game has enough similarities to other games I’ve played (Spider-Man, Uncharted) that I basically felt like I knew what I was doing early on but there was still a lot to learn, especially when it came to pulling off the more elaborate missions. That said, the main character is a bit flat, especially after spending close to a year playing Deacon St. John in Days Gone. And I’m finding the mechanics of the game hugely frustrating. I like that the game keeps the map of the controls on screen as a reference throughout–other games show you how to do something once, then expect you to have it memorized and if you don’t you have to go digging through some inevitably buried guide within the game (or Google) to figure it out. But part of the reason you need that reference is because it takes, like, three buttons just to make the character jump. The character is always doing things I don’t understand. Or refusing to do things for no apparent reason. Occasionally, certain useful actions become unavailable or impossible to perform for, again, no apparent reason. It’s entirely possible that at least some (if not all) of this has more to do with what I’m doing wrong rather than what’s wrong with the game but it still has me grinding my teeth in frustration and outrage more often than I would like. I like the game well enough to keep going–I’m about 20% of the way through as of this writing–but admittedly I started playing this before realizing that Horizon Forbidden West (the sequel to Horizon Zero Dawn, which is maybe my favorite video game of all time and one that I definitely don’t mind paying a lot of money for) was about to be released so whether I keep going with this or switch over to that might depend on whether I start to like this game well enough to either forgive or figure out the aspects of it that are frustrating me right now. We’ll see what happens.(1)
What I’m watching for fun
Cheer Season 2 on Netflix: I really wasn’t planning on watching the second season of Cheer even though I basically liked the first one. I just didn’t feel the need for it, especially after everything that happened with Jerry Harris, who (allegedly) used his fame and friendly image from the first season to solicit sex from minors and is now in prison awaiting trial. But the reviews I was seeing online seemed to indicate that the season was worth watching, so I gave it a chance. (Also I read a spoiler about the results at the Daytona competition and was intrigued to see how this actually played out on the show.) Admittedly, I kind of miss the show’s focus on what goes into the sport of cheerleading from the first season. Here, the focus is less on what cheerleaders and their coaches do and how they do it and why they love it and more on how fame affects people. It’s interesting that the documentary goes there, especially since this approach is not particularly flattering to any of the returning “cast members” from the first season. But even when things aren’t actively ugly, it still feels pretty sour. Like the fact that returning cheerleads like Gabi Butler aren’t necessarily there because they love it so much but instead to prolong whatever new or additional fame they might have gotten by being associated with the show in the first place. In our current culture, the desire to capitalize on one’s fifteen minutes of fame and build a “brand,” especially for young and talented people, has just gotten so pervasive and even though I understand the impulse, I also find it deeply icky. I got so, so turned off every time one of cheerleaders is shown doing a Cameo or giving advice to a rookie cheerleader about how to build their own following. That said, the show is compelling even as something closer to a hate watch than what it was for me before and I do think it deserves credit for addressing the Jerry Harris issue head-on in a way that prioritizes the experiences and the voices of his accusers. But there’s a moment that shows that even from prison Harris is thinking about his “brand,” telling his former coach in a letter that he hopes to use what he’s going through now to one day become a motivational speaker, a fact which she finds heartbreakingly delusional given the seriousness of what he’s accused of doing. And then there’s the COVID-19 of it all and, well, the season makes for a much more depressing watch than the first one did but I’m not sorry to have spent time on it.(2)
Spider-Man: No Way Home: As far as MCU movies go, I wouldn’t say the Spider-Man movies have been my favorite. Generally speaking, I like them just fine and I think Tom Holland is excellent in the role but…I tend to forget these movies even exist. I mean, I know I’ve seen the first two Tom Holland Spider-Man movies (the first one twice, even) but I could not tell you a damn thing that happens in any of them. That will not be true for this movie, which I finally managed to get to a theater to see now that COVID numbers have started falling again in my area (knock on wood). I knew all the major spoilers ahead of time but it was still strangely thrilling when Andrew Garfield first walked on screen about two-thirds of the way through, followed shortly after by Tobey Maguire. As a big fan of Andrew Garfield in general (though not his Spider-Man movies), I’m so glad that he got a second chance to show what he can do as an actor with a character he so clearly loves. I was also surprised by how touched I felt by Tobey Maguire’s performance and seeing him again in this particular role (or any role, since he seems to have largely retired from acting these days). Seeing the three actors together gave me strong Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special feelings and it was a lot of fun. So much so that, at least in the moment, I didn’t mind how dumb and painfully contrived the overall plot was or the fact that they felt the need to shoehorn in the “great power/great responsibility” line in a scene where it wasn’t needed and didn’t really make sense.(3) Whatever. I think we all know this stuff isn’t supposed to be Citizen Kane and that’s fine. The movie made me happy and it helped me remember why seeing a movie in an actual movie theater from time to time (even with a chatty toddler sitting a few rows behind me) can be such a worthwhile experience.
(1) The other option is to play both games at the same time, switching back and forth. There may be people out there who are talented enough gamers to do that but I’m not one of them. It seems like no two games uses the controls exactly the same way and it’s hard enough adjusting from one game I’ve been playing for a long time (but have finished) to a new one because of the muscle memory from the time spent on the familiar game. Like, in Assassin’s Creed, I keep accidentally throwing smoke bombs when I mean to shoot something because the controls work differently here than in the last game I played. This is still true even after almost a month of playing Assassin’s Creed (and closer to two months since finishing that other game).
(2) I wrote most of this summary/reaction before watching the full season and now that I have, I wanted to add: it really bugged the shit out of me that they never showed the full routine of either of the featured teams, even during the final competition. They kept cutting away to show reaction shots! Or showing only one section of an entire stage full of choreography! I have to think there was some copyright issue involved that prevented them from showing more. I also assume you can watch the full routines on YouTube or maybe some official channel related to the competition but that’s an extra step I don’t have the motivation to take. I wish they’d been able to show it as part of the series.
(3) RIP Aunt May. She dies in the Spider-Man PS4 game too, in similarly tragic F.E.A.S.T.-related circumstances. Actually, there were a lot of similarities between the general story of the game and the general story of the movie, at least in the sense of many villains having to be defeated at once and the whole thing ending in at least some tragedy for Peter. I don’t know how much of that might have been intentional and how much of it is just the way Spider-Man stories tend to work but either way it actually enhanced my enjoyment of the movie to see locations, characters, and plot points I associated with the game on the movie screen.