Ee yo, ee yo, ee yo, yo, yo, yo, YO, the following article contains spoilers for Watchmen.
I’m all reggatta de blanc today because of this panel, from page 19 of chapter 3:
The radiation symbol appears on the cover of chapter 3, and reverberates throughout the issue, including this panel and the one immediately preceding it on the previous page:
However, where the preceding panel juxtaposes the symbol with the words from Tales Of The Black Freighter and the dubious sagacity of Bernard the news vendor, the quarantine panel brings in a different overlay. Web annotations, do your thing:
The symbol, this time being painted on their bedroom door. The singer’s rendition of “Walking on the Moon” by the Police foreshadows Dr. Manhattan’s trip to Mars.
The song’s first line, “Giant steps are what you take,” is an ironic preview of Dr. Manhattan’s imminent departure, first from New York and then from Earth.
And yeah, that’s pretty much how this is working on the surface level. It’s a clever and mildly contemporary pop culture reference — “Walking On The Moon” came out in 1979, seven years prior to this issue of Watchmen. Its lyric about giant steps connects with Jon’s teleportation, and its lunar imagery resonates nicely with the iconic final image of this issue — Dr. Manhattan sitting alone in a cratered landscape against a backdrop of stars. That image also fits in well with the mention of quarantine. Talk about your social distancing.
But here’s the thing about references in Watchmen. Paying close attention to one is like closing your eyes and listening to a song on repeat, through really good headphones. Suddenly all this detail appears, little effects buried deep enough that you didn’t notice them before.
If you listen to “Walking On The Moon” like that, you’ll hear weird sci-fi sonics sliding by in the deep background — some kind of analog synth, or maybe a guitar note filtered through one of Andy Summers’ many effects pedals. And with the images of space, you’ll also hear lots of… space. Nigel Gray, the co-producer of this song, explains it thus:
“Walking On The Moon” has two guitar parts, but there are long gaps in it where you’d expect an extra guitar to fill in — and there’s nothing, just the groove. They get the backing track, add the vocals and one or two overdubs, then have the faith to leave it. If anyone else had recorded “Walking On The Moon” it wouldn’t have been a hit — it’s what the Police do to it that makes it special.
The first thing you’ll notice is that the song doesn’t start cleanly. There’s a stray bass note suggesting that things have already happened, a bit like the in medias res opening of Watchmen. Then the ticking drums, three notes of bass, and what Andy Summers calls “a big shining D minor eleventh chord that acts like fanfare to the subsequent get-under-your-skin melody.” (One Train Later, pg. 208).
Listen on repeat and certain parts will establish themselves as dominant, foremost of which is the groove. “Walking On The Moon” is loping, distant, spacey. Sting’s bass gives it an anchored and calm feeling, a confidence that takes us through the empty spaces. It’s the same few bass notes, over and over, for the first minute and a half of the song.
Behind the vocals, the bass, guitar, and drums begin to braid together. There are only three players in The Police, but they are more than the sum of their parts. They interweave to form a strong tripartite structure, like the three parts of this chapter. The news vendor’s story, Dr. Manhattan’s story, Dan and Laurie’s story. Sting, Stewart, Andy. A triangle.
In his memoir Broken Music, Sting describes what he learned about working in a band with this configuration: “By playing as a trio I would learn the value of space and clarity between musical frequencies, which larger bands can’t help but fill.” (pg. 179) That’s that space we hear in “Walking On The Moon.” But there was a bigger triangle in Sting’s life.
Young Gordon Sumner’s mother Audrey was married to his father Ernest, but she was in love with another man, a man named Alan. Ernest owned a dairy, and Alan worked there for a time, enough time to entrance Audrey and himself into a bond that would last their lives. For decades, she would go out on Thursday nights, under the threadbare excuse of visiting Nancy, one of the assistants at the dairy. Ernest knew it was a lie, but couldn’t bear to leave her, and instead hurled sarcastic taunts as she left, then wept miserably while she was gone. The terrible tension of this triangle would thread all through Sting’s childhood, as his home life turned into “a series of squalid, ugly conflicts” (pg. 64).
Eventually, almost inevitably, he found himself repeating that tension in his own relationships, both as the victim and as the transgressor, his father’s role and his mother’s. It’s all over his music, too — for every giddy-in-love “Walking On The Moon”, there are plenty of “So Lonely”s and “Can’t Stand Losing You”s, lots of lonely messages in lots of bottles.
Triangles loom large in Watchmen too. As the symbol for Pyramid Deliveries, one appears on the very first page of the book, and they repeat themselves throughout. Adrian’s picture in Nova Express is credited to Triangle Inc. Joey badgers Bernard into hanging up a poster for the band Pink Triangle. There’s a triangle around the Buddha at the crime scene that detective Fine investigates in chapter 5. They are all over Adrian’s costume, and his fortress.
In fact, the very panel we’re examining today features triangles, albeit in a more subtle way. The top of the radiation symbol and its diagonally-jutting lower parts form a triangle, and the angled lines of each section leading toward the center suggest alternating black and yellow triangles. Those three black shapes around the central disc echo these trios. Sting, Stewart, Andy. Laurie, Jon, Dan.
The central romantic triangle of Watchmen began forming in issue #1, as Dan and Laurie dine together without Jon, but it takes shape much more clearly in this issue, as Laurie leaves Jon and shows up at Dan’s door. Like Sting’s mother Audrey, Laurie pushes away from her cold and distant provider to connect with someone more down-to-earth, setting up a tension that lasts all the way through to the final scenes, where Jon releases them both with another giant step away.
As I listened to “Walking On The Moon” over and over, seeking keys to its connections with Watchmen, my imagination began to superimpose the characters over the musical parts. The skittering, restless energy of the drums, trying to push the song open: Laurie. Spaced out bursts of guitar, perfectly timed, with quavering pulsar textures behind: Jon. Repetitive, broken-record bass, occasionally leaping into heartfelt melodicism: Dan.
And then there are the lyrics — powerful, vulnerable, joyous, detached, confident, nervous, all at once: all of them encompassed. The triangle itself. Giant steps are what Dr. Manhattan takes, but surely he’s not worried about broken legs. The vulnerable, human concern for injury belongs more to Dan and Laurie. Forever belongs to the godlike being, but together does not — he ends up alone, where it’s simpler, contemplating his own creations, while Dan and Laurie end up together, visiting Nepenthe Gardens.
Sting traces the inspiration for at least some of these lyrics back to his first love, Deborah. “[W]alking back from Deborah’s house in those early days would eventually become a song,” he writes, “for being in love is to be relieved of gravity” (pg. 96)
In Watchmen, only one character is ever relieved of gravity, the one to whom this panel refers. And even he keeps finding himself caught in the tangle of people’s lives, pulled back to Earth from his extraterrestrial retreat, until he finally leaves this galaxy for one less complicated.
Everyone else is resolutely Earthbound. Some, like Hollis Mason, Edward Blake, Walter Kovacs, and millions of New Yorkers on November 2nd, 1985, return to Earth in death. All the rest can do is hang on to each other, and try to keep it up.
I’ve created a new blog called >INVENTORY. It will (eventually) house everything I’ve ever written about interactive fiction. I’m planning to add to it every day for the next… couple hundred days at least? We’ll see. The first post explains why.
Larry Ferguson, who had been a member of my Geek Bowl team for all 10 years I’d participated in the event, was unable to join us in Chicago this year for medical reasons. This was hard news, and precipitated a whole lot of Mothra discussion about how to fill the gap. In the end, we were able to recruit one Jason Freng, who brings these qualities among others:
Serious dedication to trivia — dude has a plan where he focuses on a new topic each month for five years. Like, in March he’s learning one new pop music artist a day. Prior to that he watched a movie a day for two months.
24 years old, and dialed into the last 20 years of pop music, much more so than the rest of us.
Most of all, the ability to focus on fun rather than ego, which helped him mesh beautifully with our team — nary a squabble in sight. He’s a great teammate, which is the number one thing we were looking for, even above covering any missing pieces from our knowledge domains.
You can’t really replace someone on a trivia team. All you can do is occupy the void they left and hope that the new team approaches the synergy and skill of the last one. On that count, Jason was a fantastic addition, and was super fun to hang out with on the rest of the trip too. We ended up placing 13th out of 231 teams, which was amazing but not amazing enough to be in the money winners, since prizes only go to the top 5 teams. (I think it’s high time Geeks Who Drink spread that prize pool out a bit more, but more about that later.)
Also, by my count we scored 93 points, but the final tally showed us at 92. Hmmmm. It doesn’t really matter since that point wouldn’t have gotten us into the money, but it is confusing. In any case, we had a blast and placed very respectably, considering how stacked with talent Geek Bowl has become. For myself, Geek Bowl 14 contained both my happiest moment of any Geek Bowl and my most disappointing — details about both in the answers post. Dear readers, I give you the 2020 Mothra team, “When You’re Good To Mothra, Mothra’s Good To You”, wearing blue ribbons in honor of Larry:
Our shirts say, “Are You There Godzilla? It’s Me, Mothra” — possibly my favorite Mothra name ever but one we haven’t used yet at Geek Bowl because people keep thinking of brilliant city-themed ones.
There was plenty of fun to be had before Geek Bowl too. After our flights got in on Friday, we headed to an airbnb in Bronzeville where most of the team was staying. Teammate Brian set up Playshow Jeopardy via his Apple TV, which replays actual Jeopardy! episodes and lets players buzz in via their phones and speak the answers (uh, questions) into the phone itself. It was glitchy, crashy, and had some design flaws — felt very much like a beta — but also tons of fun when it was working.
After that, most of the team converged on a cool arcade bar called Headquarters, where an amazing listener of Brian’s podcasts not only bought appetizers for the whole gathering, but paid for our bar tabs too! WOW. On top of that, the whole place is stuffed with arcade games and pinball machines set to free play mode. And let me also throw some love to the very kind manager who took pity on me after I realized that I’d taken out my ID to show with my boarding pass at the airport, stuffed it into my luggage, and left it in Bronzeville, a 40 minute Lyft ride away. Whew.
After a while we found our way to the much quieter 25 Degrees, where we quizzed each other with old Trivial Pursuit cards. We’d been doing this all day, actually — it’s a warmup method that offers the added challenge of keeping in mind that every question really starts with “As of 1981…”
On Saturday, Jason and I had breakfast together while Don & Brian headed to Fadó to watch Don’s beloved Norwich City F.C. play Sheffield United. (They lost — “boo hiss” as Alex Trebek would say.) The full team converged on Pizzeria Due for a fantastic warmup game written by George, and then headed to dinner at Safehouse, an incredibly fun spy-themed restaurant. It was there that the annual reading of the rules took place.
Mothra’s Rules Of Pub Trivia
Our team has been playing together, in one configuration or another, for many years now, and in that time we’ve had lots of opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them. At Geek Bowl 9 in Albuquerque, George formally codified some rules we’d all been talking about, and ever since then we’ve made it an annual ritual to read these rules.
We also tend to modify them a bit every year, continuing to refine what we discover among the many pitfalls of team trivia. In the weeks leading up to Geek Bowl 14, we ran a team Discord server, which was a superb way to discuss strategy, coordinate practice meetups, and quiz each other. That process yielded a few changes to this year’s rules:
Read/listen to the damn question.
Read it again.
Pay attention to the category.
Don’t interrupt the question/audio; let it finish before guessing out loud.
If you know the answer with 100% certainty, you can indicate that silently while the question is still being read.
If you think of an answer, say it/write it.
Make sure at least two other teammates hear/see it.
If you heard a teammate suggest a good possible answer that’s not being discussed, throw it out there again.
Everyone look over each answer sheet before turning it in.
If the answer is a name and surnames are enough, we don’t need to write the first name.
If spelling doesn’t count, don’t sweat it. Likewise for punctuation.
If an answer is used once in a quiz, nothing prevents that answer from being used later in the same quiz (the Quincy Jones Rule).
Avoid facetious answers (the Ernie Banks Rule – so named after we got a question wrong in a practice round when somebody jokingly said that Ernie Banks, aka “Mr. Cub”, was “obviously from the Mets,” and then our non-sporty scribe dutifully wrote down “Mets.” Heh.)
Put an answer for each question, even if the whole team believes it’s probably/certainly wrong. You can object to that bad answer, but be specific about why it’s wrong, and try to provide an alternative.
If you are 100% sure that your answer is right, say so.
For that matter, try to indicate your confidence level on all answers.
One team member with partial certainty about an answer, seconded by another team member, is as good as one team member with 100% certainty, barring objections.
Focus discussion on answers that aren’t “locked”.
After dinner, it was off to the main event. Geek Bowl this year was held at the Aon Grand Ballroom, which is part of a larger attraction called Navy Pier, basically a bunch of shopping and restaurants and rides and boat stuff. And a ballroom. The ballroom was a beautiful venue, and while 231 tables with six chairs each were pretty well jammed in there, it had the advantage of no fixed seating, unlike the arenas of the past few years, while retaining good sightlines and audio quality. Plus, the whole gaming area was circled by bars and concession vendors, which was cool. It wasn’t nearly as dark as Vegas had been, but even if it were, Brian found some awesome pens with built-in lights to help illuminate things.
The Geek Bowl Format
This is the part where I copy and paste (mostly) the same information from previous years about how Geek Bowl works. For those of you who already know why there would be 231 tables with six chairs each, feel free to skip to the Tiebreaker section. For those who don’t, read on.
As I’ve done in previous years, I’m going to recap the questions and answers here. A few caveats about this, though. First, the Geeks are pretty careful about their intellectual property, and the agreement we’ve worked out is that I won’t post these recaps until at least a week has elapsed since the Geek Bowl. (Though all things considered I’d have a hard time getting this together in less time anyway!)
Second, I consider these recaps a tribute to the excellent question writers of the Geek Bowl, and an advertisement for a really fun event, but I am in no way officially associated with Geeks Who Drink. However, thanks to Geeks editor-in-chief Christopher Short, I have been supplied with question material this year! Prior to Geek Bowl 12, these recaps were based off notes, memories, and photos of question slides, and in fact many of my descriptions will still suffer from this circumstance, but at least the wording of the questions will be correct. Huge thanks to Christopher for the help, and anything remaining that sucks is my fault, not the Geeks’.
The GWD question material leans heavy on pop culture and light (though not zero) on sports. In between, there is plenty of academic trivia: history, geography, science, and so forth. For years, their tone was what I called “self-consciously edgy”, but they’ve really left that behind. Instead, the questions are written in a freewheeling style, certainly not afraid of a little toilet humor or an f-bomb here and there, but no rounds of vintage porn or penis-themed rebuses wedged in there anymore. In my opinion, Geeks Who Drink now just writes their questions to be as fun as possible while covering a wide range of topics and retaining just the right amount of clueing and precision, and they do a damn fine job of it.
Here’s the format: each team has its own small table, with 6 chairs. Quizmasters read questions from the stage, and the questions are also projected onto large screens on either side of the stage. One round is all-video, meaning that rather than anyone reading questions, the whole round is encapsulated in a video presentation on the screens. Once all the questions in a round have been asked, a two minute (usually) timer starts, by the end of which you must have turned in your answer sheet to one of the roaming quizmasters.
The game consists of 8 rounds, each with its own theme. Each round contains 8 questions. Usually, each question is worth one point, so there’s a maximum possible score of 8 points for each round. However, some rounds offer extra points — for instance, Round 2 is traditionally a music round, with 8 songs played, and one point each awarded for naming the title and artist of the song. (Though this year our answer sheets were labeled “Song” and “City”. Hmmm.) In a regular GWD pub quiz, it’s usually only Round 2 and Round 8 (always the “Random Knowledge” round) that offer 16 possible points. However, in this year’s Geek Bowl, Round 4 also offered 16 possible points.
Finally, a team can choose one round to “joker”, meaning that it earns double points for that round. Obviously, you’d want that to be one of the 16-point rounds, unless you really believed you wouldn’t score above 8 in any of them, which is highly unlikely. We discussed our jokering strategy ahead of time, and decided on thresholds. Our threshold for the music round was 14, and our Round 4 threshold was 13. Failing either of those, we knew we’d have no choice but to joker Round 8.
7pm was showtime, and host Jenna Riedi took the stage, saying, “Hello, and welcome to America’s last public gathering!” (It was funny at the time, but now it’s just over a week later, and this line feels pretty much perfect.) An opening number ensued — Riedi parodying various songs from the musical Chicago, including her name in lights, a la Roxie. Riedi is an able and appealing host, as evidenced by the fact that she keeps doing it — this is her third Geek Bowl as host. And despite the joking self-adoration of her song, she’s clearly there to serve the event rather than the other way around.
After the opening number came the tiebreaker, read by the Geeks’ charity partner for the year, a group called Women Employed, a Chicago charity whose mission is to improve women’s economic status and remove barriers to economic equity. A couple of WE representatives got to read the Geek Bowl XIV tiebreaker question.
The format for this question is to take a few questions, all of which have numerical answers, and combine them into a formula. Some of these questions are nearly impossible to know exactly, so you have to approximate. The Geeks then use these answers to determine placement among teams whose overall scores are identical — the closer you get to the correct final number (on either side), the better.
As is often the case, this question was tied to the host city, and with it the question recap officially begins! As always, I’ll describe our team’s experiences inside [square brackets], and provide the answers in a separate post.
Take the number of regular-season games won by the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s. Subtract from that the current age of former First Lady Michelle Obama. Multiply that difference by the total number of airports you can fly to on United or United Express. Take that product and divide it by the number of Oscars won by the 2002 film Chicago. Or, expressed as a formula:
([B – M] x U) / C
Where B = Bulls regular season wins, M = Michelle Obama’s age, U = United/United Express airports served, and C = Academy Awards won by Chicago.
Chicago is known as the Second City. Some claim this is because it rose from the ashes after the 1871 fire, but the Chicago Reader seems to establish pretty definitively that the nickname, coined by New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling, meant “in second place to New York.” In any case, for this round, we were told, every answer would have the word “second” in it. This allowed us to invoke rule 10(b) 8 times in a row, saying “I second that answer,” which never stopped being funny.
1. According to the American Lung Association, 41,000 annual U.S. deaths can be attributed to what stuff that’s also known as “sidestream”?
2. Smokey Robinson showed a good working knowledge of love and parliamentary procedure, in what hit 1967 single?
3. Ask Natalia Makarova: What’s the name of the stance where your feet are pointed 180 degrees from each other, with a small step between them? [Jason was first to the gate on this one.]
4. A high schooler eventually won an Ig Nobel Prize, after confirming the scientific validity of what dropped-food guideline?
5. Smack-dab between “velocity” and “jerk,” acceleration is the most commonly cited real-world example of what calculus operator? [Thank you Jonathan for jumping on this one.]
6. Sweden, the Maldives, and Estonia are among the countries that have maintained actual embassies in what Linden Lab virtual world?
7. Garret Hobart’s wife Jennie may have been the first to use what title, also held by Ilo Wallace and Muriel Humphrey?
8. In the Disney movie, Peter Pan says you can get to Neverland by following what 10-word directions?
[A pretty easy round overall, and we aced it with 8 points.] See the answers
Round 2: Here Come The State Capitals!
Round 2 is always the music round, and in Geek Bowl, that means live music. They’ve had some great acts in the past, but they really outdid themselves this year by booking They Might Be Giants! Not a Chicago act, but certainly one beloved by geeks and Geeks. TMBG came out to raucous applause and delivered a round based on their “Here Come” series of children’s albums.
Here comes the concept: Each question takes a song and changes the lyrics. The new lyrics describe a state capital. The song itself is by an artist who comes from that state capital. Our mission: name the songs for one point each, and the capitals for another point each. Each song would be played only once, but the lyrics would appear on the big screens at either side of the stage.
I hope the Geeks post video of this round at some point, but until they do, it’s going to be pretty impossible to avoid giving away at least the song. So for now, I’ll list the lyrics, and indicate what the song was in spoiler text — if you want to try to recognize the song based on the cadence of the fake lyrics (and may the trivia gods bless you if you do), go for it. Otherwise, highlight the spoiler block to see the song name, and apologies to those using screen readers. The cities will appear in the answers.
1. (To the tune of “Hey Ya!” by OutKast)
Clark Gable don’t mess around when he sees Vivien Leigh up on that second floor.
He’s gotta go fight for Dixie, but when he comes back, they gonna do-si-do.
Real soon their daughter’s gonna try to jump her horse, and break her neck for sure.
Too bad that Scarlett figures out that she loves Rhett when Rhett just knows that he’s not happy here.
2. (To the tune of “School’s Out” by Alice Cooper)
Well, I got Trump’s pardon
For my felony
Election Day you’ll see
Civil rights ain’t free
I’ll lock up illegals, I’ll help build the fence
Round up reporters, and put ‘em in tents
I’m Joe Arpaio!
3. (To the tune of “That’s What I Like” by Bruno Mars)
Got Tom Selleck out the Navy
Beach bum on the daily
Moki serve Campari
Higgins, bring the Ferrari
‘Cause he’s solvin’ all the drama, solvin’ all that drama
Magnum solvin’ all the drama, it’s all orchids and mahalo now
Put on the Tigers hat
(Meet me at the Robin’s Nest)
Call up T.C.
(He’ll fly us out to Diamond Head)
You deserve it, baby, you deserve it all
And I’m on CBS Thursdays for you
4. (To the tune of “Do You Realize??” by The Flaming Lips) [And shining moment to George for both recognizing the song and immediately knowing the hometown.]
And instead of saying, “that’s a boring town,” let them know
There’s roses at Will Rogers Park
The Skydance Bridge glows in the dark
And if you still have your per diem
You can visit the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.
And there’s lots of cows.
5. (To the tune of “Girl Crush” by Little Big Town) [Don picked up on this song very quickly as the rest of us were just looking at each other.]
First, brine your chicken
Then take buttermilk and
Some hot sauce that’s kickin’
Coat it like so.
Then while that’s fryin’
Take butter and cayenne
Brown sugar and onion
Cook it real low
And here’s what you do next:
Rest your cooked chicken while
You take the sauce you made
And add in some frying oil.
Whisk it till it’s combined
Use it to coat that bird
Serve it with pickles, sliced
And maybe a piece of bread
You’ve got hot chicken
6. (To the tune of “Candy Girl” by New Edition) [Another big contribution from Don, who recognized New Edition right away, debated between two different songs, and then settled on the right one.]
My boy’s like Teddy, he rakes so hard
He knocks me out when he goes yard
He’s so productive as can be,
He was the 2018 MVP!
He’s the best it gets
You know he rules
With all five tools
But the very day
I wrote this down,
He just left town.
7. (To the tune of “Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill)
That girl thinks she created Portlandia
I’ve got news for you – she did!
She’s in a band with Corin Tucker
They’ve sold like a half a million albums!
Sleater-Kinney did not write this song
It bears repeating: This is not their song.
8. (To the tune of “On The Road Again” by Willie Nelson)
All this barbecue
Can’t stop eating all this barbecue
“Keep it weird” is something someone else can do;
We’re just eating all this barbecue.
All this barbecue—
Keep your Stetson hats and bats and Longhorns touchdowns
We’ll be crushin’ Shiners by the Whole Foods downtown
To wash down
All this barbecue.
[As usual for Geek Bowl, we had 2 minutes to turn in our answers. The unusual part was that TMBG played loud during those two minutes, which made discussion extremely difficult. I hope this was a mistake — Geek Bowl has never had loud music during answer periods before, and it kinda sucked. In any case, we felt very confident about 7 of our 8 state capitals and 7 of our 8 songs. This met our jokering threshold, so we jokered. As it turned out, we got the capital right (there were really only a couple of choices we were debating between) and the song wrong (since we didn’t have a clue about it), for a total of 15 points for this round. Doubled that makes 30, so our new point total was 30 + 8 = 38.] See the answers
Round 3: Crossing Jordan
For years, Round 3 at Geek Bowl was 50/50 questions, sometimes combined with a speed round or, God help us, that one time we all had to sniff horribly scented dick-shaped candles. Last year the Geeks upped the ante with a very clever blackjack-themed round, but this year they truly outdid themselves, for one of the most memorable Geek Bowl rounds ever.
The quizmaster took the stage and announced that taped to the underside of one team member’s chair, we’d find a bag of Scrabble tiles. This obviously set off a bunch of scrabbling under chairs to find these bags and empty them onto the tables. The tiles themselves were gorgeously made, with a Geek Bowl logo on the back and everything. The quizmaster explained that for this round, we would use all of those tiles to form our answers, and that each answer would add up to 23 Scrabble points in honor of #23 Michael Jordan. Consequently, for this round only, spelling counts.
In addition, there would be one blank tile, which would be used just like a blank tile in Scrabble — as a wild card to stand in for any letter. On our answer sheets, we were to put an empty square where we’d used the blank tile. This was a fantastic concept for a round, but I do have one criticism of it, which is that this rule about the empty square was a) needlessly picky (would putting a square around some letter really have indicated the meaning any less?), and b) announced while everybody was grabbing tiles from under chairs and clattering them onto tables. If you want to enforce a brand-new and unusual convention, it needs to be followed up on multiple times, and reinforced in big text beside the end-of-round timer countdown.
That’s a minor gripe overall though, and I don’t mean to take anything away from how fantastically fun this round was to play. Now, if you like to play along with these recaps, this round is a bit more challenging to recreate than most other Geek Bowl rounds this side of scented candles. If you really want to do it, I suggest you print out the image below of all the tiles we were given, cut them out, then set your kitchen timer for like 12 minutes — after the questions were read, we had an 8-minute countdown to turn in our answer sheets.
1. Who played sudden numerology enthusiast Walter Sparrow in The Number 23?
2. In 1966, young activist Maulana Karenga created what weeklong end-of-year celebration? [I jumped in first on this one.]
3. More than 180 feet tall and 1,000 feet long, what haunted-ass Cunard Line ship now lies moored as a hotel in Long Beach?
4. The title roles in Ma and the upcoming Madam C.J. Walker are both played by what Oscar-winner from The Help?
5. Naturally, there’s no epitaph on the Vermont grave of what quiet U.S. president who died in 1933?
6. Also the host of many U.S.-Mexico games, Mapfre Stadium is the home pitch of what Midwest MLS charter team? [Thank you Don for knowing soccer.]
7. In Roman numerals, Master Archie Mountbatten-Windsor was born in what year?
8. According to country musician Greg Bates, “We could [conspicuous pause] with each other on the river bank. I’ll leave it up to you, baby.” What’s the title of that song?
[We aced this round — more details in the answers post. Our total now stood at 38 + 8 = 46 points.] See the answers
After this round came a scoring break and some more TMBG numbers, including a scorching trumpet/trombone performance by Curt Ramm on “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”. There was also a comedy bit with Riedi putting ketchup on a Chicago Dog, to the horror of locals.
Finally, the scoring was done and the rankings rolled — we were in 9th place. On to more questions!
Round 4: Welcome to Midway
This was the other 16-point round. The concept: the Geeks would provide the midway point in a list, and we needed to give the first and last entries in that list, for one point each. So, for example, if the clue was “The Lord Of The Rings trilogy: The Two Towers”, our two answers would be “The Fellowship Of The Ring” and “The Return Of The King”.
1. Official languages of Belgium, by number of Belgian speakers: French.
2. Members of Migos, alphabetically: Quavo. [Thank you Jason for knowing the Migoses!]
3. The original Seven Sisters colleges, listed alphabetically: Radcliffe. [Jonathan really saved us on this one.]
4. Major sections of the small intestine, starting at the stomach end: Jejunum.
5. Words in the body text of 1984, not counting chapter headings and “The End”: Only.
6. Queer Eye’s current Fab Five, alphabetically by first name: Jonathan. [Oh dear. This was a knowledge gap for us.]
7. U.S. Olympic gold-medal gymnasts in the Women’s Individual All-Around, chronologically: Nastia Liukin.
8. Big-screen Shafts, oldest to youngest: Samuel L. Jackson.
[We thought we had 13 on this round, but a last-minute shift (detailed in the answers post) took a point away, so we ended up with 12. Our new point total, 46 + 12 = 58.] See the answers
Round 5: Take The “L” Train
As usual, Round 5 was a wonderfully clever video round, this time with a wordplay angle along with its Chicago theme. And lucky for me, the Geeks have posted the video.
Fair warning: answers are included in this video, though thankfully not interspersed as they’ve been in previous years. The answers start at 5:49, so pause there and give yourself two minutes if you want to recreate the Geek Bowl conditions.
[This round was almost easy, but we slipped up a bit on one question, for a total of 7 points. New point total: 58 + 7 = 65.] See the answers
Round 6: Deviled In The White Cities
Erik Larson’s book The Devil in the White City looked at the serial killer who attacked the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Geek Bowl round 6 took a little lighter approach, focusing on egg recipes and, uh, white cities.
1. Tart up a hollandaise with vinegar, shallots, tarragon, and chervil, and you’ve got what traditional steak sauce?
2. Brandon Teena was born in Lincoln, Nebraska – as was what actress who won an Oscar for portraying him?
3. Which came first, the Egg McMuffin or Moons Over My Hammy? [This sparked an entertaining debate, with significant contribution from George, who worked at McDonald’s in 1977-78. 🙂 ]
4. Lexington, Kentucky native Thomas Hunt Morgan was known for his genetics work with the melanogaster species of what fruit fly genus? [Jonathan slam-dunked this science question.]
5. Popularized by Filipinos, what fertilized egg snack takes its name from the Tagalog word for “wrapped”?
6. She never wanted anyone like this: Set and shot in Spokane, the 1985 film Vision Quest was renamed in some markets for what Madonna song? [Brian was all over this.]
7. If Miley Cyrus were salsa roja, Liam Hemsworth were salsa verde, and their respective fried eggs were separated by some beans, they’d be what variation on huevos rancheros?
8. Madison, Wisconsin-born Stacey Abrams served as student government president at what all-female HBCU in her current home state?
[Another 7 for us on this one, giving us a total of 65 + 7 = 72.] See the answers
At this point it was time for another scoring break, more They Might Be Giants, and more Riedi comedy at the expense of Chicago foods. They also showed the traditional “In Memoriam” video including both real-life icons and fictional characters. TMBG played “The End Of The Tour” behind this video, which was surprisingly touching.
The Geeks usually post this video, but they haven’t done so yet. I’ll be sure to include it when they do.
At the end of the scoring break, we stood in 16th place.
Round 7: Fuck It, We’ll Do It Live
Something I love about Geek Bowl is that they are always experimenting. Every year they try new ideas, from a youth dance troupe re-enacting movie scenes to street performers, uh, re-enacting movie scenes. This year in the re-enacting movie scenes category, they leaned into Chicago’s improv tradition, with a round wherein improv performers had taken suggestions from the audience via Twitter and performed fresh scenes around them. The twist is that each of these scenes would have inserted three verbatim quotes from a movie. We had to name the movies.
As an additional level of clueing and Chicago-ing, the 8 movies were themed around the 8 groups that see Ferris Bueller as a righteous dude, according to Edie McClurg: sportos, motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, and dickheads. Lucky for me, the Geeks have put this up on video too, because I couldn’t possibly recap those scenes — I was too busy focusing on the quotes, which also appeared on the screens as the scenes played out. This highlights the weakness of this particular experiment — I think the improv parts were largely ignored by teams who saw them as basically distraction in the way of the actual question. But like I said, respect to the Geeks for experimenting — they can’t all be home runs.
Round 8 of Geeks Who Drink is always, always just “Random Knowledge.” In a regular pub quiz, 16 points are spread out irregularly through the questions, but in Geek Bowl they’re pretty much always two points each. This year, there was just a little extra twist, as will become apparent in the answers post.
1. a) Since around 1960, what seven-letter plural has referred to a type of rubber rain boot? b) Since around 1980, what seven-letter plural has referred to an everyday plastic shoe?
2. a) Dribble was a pet turtle swallowed by Farley Hatcher, that literary character known by what nickname? b) Ghost gal Kayako Saeki made Americans dribble out pee for the first time in what 2004 film?
3. a) A Game Boy sequel subtitled “Six Golden Coins” was the first appearance of what sometimes-villain? [Brian had this almost immediately.] b) The online game Simraceway was co-developed by Ashley Judd’s then-husband, a four-time IndyCar champ. What’s his first name?
4. a) What American figure skater was 15 when she won Olympic gold at Nagano? b) What Russian founder of abstract painting didn’t even start art school until age 30? [I’ve been working on art as a category, and was proud to know this, but it turns out I didn’t even need to, because Don got there first.]
5. a) Traditionally, what type of bread do Jews eat at the beginning of Shabbat? b) What ceremony marks the end of Shabbat? [We were only Jewish-adjacent enough to know one of these, sadly.]
6. a) In 1981, slavery was finally officially outlawed in what Atlantic-huggin’ country that’s spooned by Mali? b) What Baltic-caressin’ country launched a 2018 tourist campaign touting its capital as “The G Spot of Europe”?
7. a) An L Word bathroom makeout sesh was inspired by hotly discussing what Autobiography of Red author? b) Sexuality and race are themes in what Harlem Renaissance author’s Passing?
8. a) Politicians are always fighting over the taxation of what term for profits made by liquidating an investment? b) “All production is for the purpose of ultimately satisfying a consumer.” So said what influential British economist?
[13 points for us on this round, for a final score of 80 + 13 = 93. Like I said at the top, the Geeks’ final score tally had us at 92. I’m very curious where that discrepancy happened, but likely will never know, and in any case it doesn’t affect anything but pride of placement.] See the answers
Once the final score tallies were displayed, we were in 13th. Which was great, but not great enough to get us up on stage with the money winners. The final prize ceremony was also handled a bit weirdly. In past years, all five teams got up on stage and their placements were announced one-by-one, though of course announcing second place pretty much implies first place, so one would rapidly follow the other. This year, for whatever reason, they brought the teams up on stage one by one, so when second and first were announced, both teams were still offstage, where they were grouchily told, “Stop hugging and get up here!” This didn’t work. Geeks, please go back to having all teams on stage for the placement announcements — watching people experience joy is vicarious fun!
And as long as I’m throwing out unsolicited recommendations for Geek Bowl adjustments, let’s talk about that prize pool. Geek Bowl prizes have grown year over year. When we won Geek Bowl 5, I think the prize was around $3,000. For Geek Bowl 8, it was $6,666. This year’s top prize was $14,000. Second place got $7,000, third place $3,000, fourth $1,500, and fifth $600. So that’s just over $26,000 in prizes. I think there was also an amateur prize, and maybe some cash associated with that one.
I think the amateur prize is a great idea, but beyond that I feel like the prizes have grown and grown but stayed concentrated among the same number of winners. Would it be so bad to offer, say, $12,000 and $6,000 (which by the way splits way easier among six people) to the top, then give the top ten winning teams at least enough to cover their entry fees? And yeah, I acknowledge that this is often Mothra’s finishing place, so I can’t claim to be unbiased. Still, the event is lots of fun and very successful, and I’d love to see it become just a little more rewarding for say the top 5% rather than the top 2%. End of speech.
After all the offstage hugging was over and the prizes had been distributed, there was one more thing: the now-traditional video announcing next year’s location. There were some shots of buildings I didn’t recognize, but which caused excited cheering from a few tables. Then we heard a new version of “All This Barbecue,” (with extra lyrics!), sung by Geeks EIC and esteemed author Christopher Short. So I’ll see you next year at the answer to Round 2, question 8!
[This review is indebted to the transcribers and annotators of Genius.]
It’s been a very good decade for exploring the African-American experience via genre metaphors. We’ve got Janelle Monáe and her stories of Cindi Mayweather the android. N.K. Jemisin won three consecutive Hugo awards for her extraordinary Broken Earth trilogy. In movies, Jordan Peele uses horror tropes to incredible effect in the brilliantly written Get Out and Us, while Black Panther proved that not only is there room in the Marvel Cinematic Universe for an Afrofuturistic superhero, there is an incredible hunger for it. In another corner of the superhero world, the HBO Watchmen series pulled off a succession of astonishing narrative feats by putting race at the center of the Watchmen universe and rebooting the ways we can think about it.
Then there’s clipping., the experimental hip-hop group from Los Angeles, with a period at the end of their name. They’re fronted by Daveed Diggs, who’s best known for playing Jefferson and Lafayette in the original cast of Hamilton. While not as high-profile as the examples above, they too have been twice nominated for Hugo awards, in a category usually reserved for television episodes and long-form music videos. This album, Splendor And Misery, was the first of those nominations, and it absolutely belongs in the conversation with every example from my first paragraph.
Splendor & Misery starts with a low, spacey drone and scattered static. (Static recurs throughout the album — more about that in a bit.) A distorted voice (guest vocalist Paul Outlaw) sings a thesis verse:
I’ll follow the stars when the sun goes to bed
Til everything I’ve ever known is long dead
I can’t go back home ’cause I want to be free
Someone tell the others what’s become of me
Then in comes Diggs, rapping at a furious pace in a calm voice. He’s a ship’s computer, narrating the fact that “a member of the cargo” has woken up. A member of the cargo? Yeah, this is a slave ship. Before a sedative can be pumped through the vents, the “cargo” has found an access panel and is taking control of the ship. (“Remember that these beings were selected for their strength”, chides the computer.)
That leads into the bedrock story song, “All Black”. It begins, “Warning: mothership reporting / Cargo number 2331 has commandeered the vessel / Warning: mothership reporting / Cargo number 2331 is armed and he is dangerous”. It goes on from there, still in the computer’s voice, to tell the story of that seizure, returning over and over to the phrase “all black everything”. Those three words are an incredibly rich centerpiece for the song. They hearken back to a verse on Jay-Z’s “Run This Town”, which was then expanded upon by Lupe Fiasco in an alternate history song that imagines a world where slavery never existed. In the Splendor & Misery context, they variously mean the emptiness of the ship, the defiant war cry of the rebelling slave, the endless reaches of space, the darkness of artificial night, and the consciousness of the ship itself.
Within that consciousness, a surprising turn happens in the course of the song. In watching the psychological torment of Cargo #2331, as it sees him experience “the gift of freedom wrapped in days of rapping to himself / until his vocal cords collapse”, the ship begins to fall in love with him. It sees his loneliness and recognizes its own, saying “If only he realized this ship is more than metal / There’s friendship in the wiring”. By the end, the ship has reversed its initial message:
Warning: mothership reporting
This will be the last report, turn back, everything is fine
Warning: mothership reporting
Cargo number 2331 is not a danger, let him be
Warning: mothership reporting
If you continue to pursue there will be no choice but to destroy you
Warning: mothership reporting
This love will be defended at all costs, do not fuck with it
Thus begins a strange relationship that lasts through the album. The story becomes a little harder to follow after this. 2331 (who never gets any other name) appears in several interludes, rapping freestyle behind heavy static. That static, a bit like the Black Keys’ distortion, creates distance. It’s an audio cue that the signal is far away, barely strong enough to reach us.
In “Wake”, 2331 seems to decide not to try to return home, opting instead for travel via hypersleep. That song ends with that same verse that opened the album, which leads immediately into “Long Way Away”, which adds another verse with that same melody, ending each with “It’s a long way away / It’s a long way away / And I’m all alone / Along, along a long way”.
So here we have the premise. The machinery of slavery uproots innocents from their lives, but when the slave rises up, the machinery becomes infatuated with him and what he produces. For the slave himself, the price of his freedom is total isolation, except for the complicated relationship he has with his (former?) oppressor. No matter what, he is forever severed from the home and life he knew, and rage, depression and violence must ensue. But there is hope at the end — “A Better Place” once again brings in the “long way away” melody and motif, but sees 2331 and the ship setting a course for that better place, with a spark of belief that they can find it.
There’s more going on here than a self-contained story. For one thing, the album very consciously engages with a science fiction literary tradition, and particularly a black SF tradition. In a freestyle rap, 2331 references Orwell’s 1984. In another, he says “got a pocket full of stars”, referencing Samuel Delaney’s Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand. “Air ‘Em Out” references Delaney, Octavia Butler, M. John Harrison, and Ursula K. LeGuin. “True Believer” name-checks a character from Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy. The title of the album itself appears in “A Better Place” as the computer muses that 2331 is “missing the splendor and misery / Of bodies, of cities, of being missed” — The Splendor And Misery Of Bodies, Of Cities is the planned but never finished sequel to Stars In My Pocket.
That intellectual engagement is wonderful and thrilling, but there are other, more mysterious levels at work here. Take “Story 5” for instance. This track seems totally out of place on the album, in multiple ways — not only does it seemingly have nothing to do with the 2331 story, it’s also a pure gospel tune. It tells the story of a woman named Grace who fought in a war, uncovered some shady information, and was subsequently run down by a taxi and killed. What? Also, “Story 5”? What happened to the other 4?
Well, it turns out that there’s a song called “story” on clipping.’s debut album midcity, which tells the story of the taxi crash from the viewpoint of an onlooker named Randy. “Story 2”, about a former criminal, appears on their next album. Story 3 is missing, but Story 4 appears, for some reason, on a remix album by alt-J, featuring different characters but images that echo the other Story songs.
So apparently “Story 5” is part of a thread running through various clipping. albums, more than an organic part of Splendor & Misery. But there are layers upon layers here, because in the middle of “True Believer”, the static comes in staccato sequence, which turns out to be Morse code. (Which code gets referenced in “Air ‘Em Out” as well.) The coded message says: GRACEISRANDYSSISTER. Grace is Randy’s sister.
Even more mysterious, the song “Interlude 02 (Numbers)” imitates the style of a numbers station with a long string of NATO alphabet letters: “Foxtrot, Uniform, Whiskey, Romeo, Whiskey, Charlie, Oscar, X-Ray”, and so on. Gibberish? Not on a clipping. album. As the incredibly dedicated Genius user TheRingshifter figured out, this is a code too, a Vigenère cipher which requires a keyword. “Air ‘Em Out” yields the secret in its verse:
Come up off your smooth talk, playa this raspy (ahem)
You stuck on Morse code, playa, this is ASCII
Your birthright make you scared to get nasty
The keyword is Kemmer, that’s what yo’ ass need
Plugging the keyword “kemmer” (itself a LeGuin reference) into the cipher yields the text “THETARGETISAMYCLARK”. The target is Amy Clark. Who is Amy Clark? We don’t know… yet. Though there is a “Doc Clark” referenced in “Story 2”. There’s a clipping. album subsequent to Splendor & Misery, and while its “Story 7” (again skipping the multiples of 3) tells us more about Randy and a character from “Story 4”, there’s no Amy Clark.
To unravel this puzzle, we’ll just have to wait for more clues. With clipping., the deeper you dive the more you find — there’s so much more to discover in this all black everything.
Attention, people of Earth! This article contains spoilers for Watchmen. In addition, there are spoilers for the novel and movie This Island Earth, and very minor spoilers for the HBO Watchmen series.
In Chapter 3 of Watchmen, Dan Dreiberg and Laurie Juspeczyk walk over to Hollis Mason’s apartment together. As so often happens in the book, Moore and Gibbons intercut this scene with another scene, in this case Dr. Manhattan preparing for his TV interview with Benny Anger. Juxtaposition abounds — on the top of page 11, panel one shows a receptionist overcome with existential nausea at Dr. Manhattan’s sudden materialization. “They’re not paying me enough for this…” she says. Then panel two:
Watchmen, up to its usual tricks, superimposes the dialogue from the previous panel onto this one and emphasizes two parts of the image to tie it to that dialogue: the Institute for Extraspatial Studies and the movie posters for This Island Earth. Both parts evoke “monsters from outta space” in a different way. The Institute for Extraspatial Studies operates more as foreshadowing for the final chapter (as well as an explicit reference to “outta space”), but the movie poster on the left serves up a great big monster on its face. The posters advertise a movie playing at the Utopia Cinema — we can tell that’s the name because the left-hand poster gives us the “PIA” while the right-hand poster has the “UTO”. This theater is apparently some kind of sci-fi revival house — as the web annotations helpfully point out:
The Utopia Cinema, which is showing “This Island Earth,” reappears later.
Indeed, we find it in Chapter 5 playing the movie Things To Come, and from Chapter 8 onwards playing The Day The Earth Stood Still (at least until the epilogue, in which it has become the “New Utopia” and shows a Russian cinema double feature.) Subjects for future posts, no doubt. For now, though, let’s focus on This Island Earth.
By 1955, Universal Pictures (named Universal-International at the time) was finding its successes in some odd places — Ma and Pa Kettle, Abbott and Costello, Francis the Talking Mule… and science fiction. The studio already had a stable of classic and beloved horror icons — Lugosi’s Dracula, Karloff’s Frankenstein, Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man — and was working to capitalize on a new sci-fi/monster craze kicked off in 1950 by Destination Moon.
Producer William Alland and director Jack Arnold had turned in a couple of big black-and-white hits: It Came From Outer Space and The Creature From The Black Lagoon. Arnold had also directed Revenge Of The Creature (a Black Lagoon sequel) and Tarantula, both of which did reasonably well. The studio felt it was time to make a “prestige” science fiction picture, and saw its chance in the novel This Island Earth by Raymond F. Jones, the rights to which had been purchased by director Joseph M. Newman. Newman had commissioned Edward G. O’Callaghan to write a shooting script from the novel, but had failed to raise the necessary money to make his movie independently. Nevertheless, when Universal-International decided to buy the rights and engage Alland as the producer, those rights came attached to Newman as director and O’Callaghan as screenwriter.
U-I made some big investments in this movie. For one thing, they decided to shoot it in Technicolor, which was significantly more expensive than black-and-white stock but brought with it a “wow” factor, especially for sci-fi spectacle. They also brought in Franklin Coen to rewrite O’Callaghan’s script. Coen was not a science fiction writer, but knew how to focus on character and theme. His revisions brought some weight and depth to O’Callaghan’s original treatment. U-I may have also recruited Arnold to reshoot some of Newman’s work in the last act, though sources differ as to the extent of Arnold’s involvement, or indeed whether he was truly involved at all. Finally, the studio devoted quite a budget to visual effects, creating elaborate miniatures, matte paintings, fire, explosions, and (to Coen’s chagrin) a monster.
Prestige picture or no, This Island Earth was science fiction, and in Universal-International’s eyes, they’d never hook the teen and preteen audience they needed for it without a creature. As actor Jeff Morrow, who played the sympathetic alien Exeter in the film, later recalled, “the Studio felt that a Sci-Fi film had to have a monster”. (Universal Filmscripts Classic Science Fiction, Volume 1, pg. 15)
This monster from outer space was the Metaluna mutant, whose image we see on the Utopia Cinema’s poster in Watchmen. The mutant was invented wholly for the film — it doesn’t exist in the novel at all. And even in the movie, it feels pretty tacked-on. Nevertheless, the mutant is today the most famous and enduring aspect of This Island Earth (well, aside from the fact that this movie was somewhat unfairly chosen as the object of ridicule in the theatrical version of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but that hadn’t happened yet in 1985) and it may be the primary reason why Moore and/or Gibbons chose the film to feature in the “monsters from outta space” panel. Certainly the mutant is one of the all-time iconic 1950s Hollywood space creatures.
Reassembling The Components
There’s more resonance here than appears in that panel, though, and to understand it we need to explore This Island Earth a little further. The book and the movie share a premise, but diverge radically about halfway through their stories. At the beginning of both, though, is Cal Meacham. He’s the kind of omnicompetent man common to 1950s sci-fi, a Scientist who does Science but who is also no stranger to action and fighting, plus he’s pretty good with the ladies. He receives a mysterious replacement part from a supply warehouse: a capacitor much smaller than he was expecting and with much greater capacity.
This leads to a catalog full of these mysterious parts, from which he orders the pieces for something called an “interociter.” Using his Science smarts, he builds the interociter, which turns out to have been his unsolicited audition for a mysterious outfit whose stated goal is to “put an end to war.” They fly him in a pilotless plane to their remote compound, where they’ve gathered other scientists like him, including PhD Ruth Adams (psychiatrist in the book, physicist in the movie), and entice him into working for them.
Something doesn’t feel quite right, though, and the same curiosity that drove Cal to build the interociter spurs him to investigate his benefactors. Before long, he discovers the truth: they’re aliens! Their purpose on Earth is to recruit humans to help them build tools and weapons for a war they’re waging against an implacable enemy.
From this point, the book and the movie diverge completely. In the book, the interociter turns out to facilitate telepathy, and it allows Meacham first to read his alien mentor’s mind, then to absorb the full context of a war between an affiliation of planets called the Llannan Council (i.e. the good guys) and another affiliation called the Guarra (bad guys.) Intrigue ensues, including a scary encounter with lizardlike Guarra agents.
Earth is destined to become a battleground between the Llannans and the Guarra, and the Llannas have decided to let it be overrun, until Cal goes before the council and argues that they’ve been executing the same plans (determined by a computer) for decades, and that their predictability has been their undoing. He persuades the Llannans to defend Earth, and ends the book looking forward to returning home with Ruth (to whom he’s become engaged in the course of the story.)
The movie, on the other hand, follows Cal’s discovery with an action sequence in which he and Ruth flee the compound with another scientist, played by Russell Johnson of Gilligan’s Island fame. Johnson’s character gets vaporized by some kind of space ray, and Meacham and Adams try to escape via plane, only to have their plane sucked into a flying saucer commanded by Exeter, leader of the alien compound. Exeter and company turn out to be from a planet called Metaluna, which is under relentless assault by another race called the Zahgons, whom we never see apart from their ships.
Exeter wants to bring Meacham and Adams to Metaluna to help create machines to power its defenses, and in the process of bringing them there we get to see a lot of those fancy visual effects that Universal-International paid for, including one in which Meacham and Adams step into tubes that put them through a mysterious process meant to help their bodies cope with the greater atmospheric pressure on Metaluna. What this looks like is some crazy lighting, and then the consecutive appearance of various anatomical systems — nervous, circulatory, skeletal, muscular.
For readers of Watchmen, it’s a familiar set of images:
Given that This Island Earth gets name-checked in chapter 3 of Watchmen and Dr. Manhattan’s system-by-system reconstruction of himself appears in chapter 4, it’s not beyond reason to wonder if the movie’s visuals influenced Moore and Gibbons’ portrayal of Osterman’s process. Certainly both sequences suggest bodies deconstructed and then reconstructed into something greater than they were before.
In any case, by the time Exeter and the humans reach Metaluna, they find they are too late to save it. They encounter the mutant, who inadvertently and unsuccessfully impedes their escape a couple of times, and then they are back on Earth — Cal and Ruth in their airplane, and the mortally wounded Exeter plunging his saucer into the sea.
We Have Met The Enemy
The plots of these stories differ — largely because the latter half of Jones’s book wasn’t visual enough for the movie producers, and introduced too much complexity to fit into a film. But they do have a metaphorical underpinning in common. In each of them, the people of Earth find themselves part of a greater galactic context than they’d imagined, and are exploited by extraterrestrials who are themselves at war.
1955 was a mere decade past the end of World War II, a war in which the Allied and Axis forces battled on many fronts, including islands in the Pacific whose indigenous people had no idea of the greater context of war around them. Those indigenous people were often recruited to build airstrips or help in the manufacture of military supplies. The novel’s version of Exeter calls out this parallel explicitly, in a line of reasoning that explains the title:
These primitive peoples… had no comprehension of the vast purpose to which they were contributing a meager part, but they helped in a conflict which was ultimately resolved in their favor.
“Earth is an island,” he says, “which can be by-passed completely, or temporarily occupied if need be.” (pg. 98) Similarly, film historian Robert Skotak, in the DVD commentary for the movie version, explains Joseph Newman’s intention with the film:
One of the themes that the director had in mind was to show the love of our planet and how valuable our planet is and how it is just a mere island in the vast infinity of space. And, if we aren’t careful, we could destroy ourselves — using Metaluna as… a metaphor for what could be us. This was made not too many years after the bombing of Hiroshima, the detonation of the hydrogen bomb, the Soviets getting the hydrogen bomb, the Cold War. So fears of the end of the world were on the minds of many artists, many people, and that was one of Joe Newman’s main themes.
Now, these readings are a little bit different from each other — one emphasizes Earth’s unawareness of the larger universe, and the other emphasizes its fragility and irreplacability. But in both of them, the story’s aliens stand in for humans. At the metaphorical level, we are both the exploitative aliens and the humans they exploit, two groups separated by facts of geography, culture, and technology.
Watchmen literalizes this metaphor further, by having a seeming alien invasion that is in fact a front for one human exploiting other humans for what he sees as the greater good. That’s the thread that ties This Island Earth to the Institute for Extraspatial Studies, more than just “monsters from outta space”. Here’s Joseph Newman one more time, explaining his first impressions upon reading the novel:
I think the overwhelming thing that came into my mind when I purchased Jones’ novel was to illustrate, as the title of the book suggests, that this planet is in reality a small island in an extremely vast and unknown universe, and that it is to the welfare of all the inhabitants of this island, Earth, to eliminate and submerge their petty hatreds of any of the many groups of human dwellers on this tiny island of matter. Our concerns might be, in the not-too-distant future, I thought, forces and elements beyond the present-known universe…
(Universal Filmscripts, pg. 19)
This is exactly the point that Adrian Veidt hopes to make as well, submerging the mutual hatred of the USA and USSR in the face of forces and elements beyond their present knowledge. It’s just that where Jones and Newman make their point through art alone, Adrian writes his fiction into the world as an enormous alien invasion hoax. As I mentioned in the Revelation post, Veidt authors his own apocalypse to resolve the unbearable tension between what he sees and what he desires. In doing so, he reframes Earth as an island subject to occupation, hoping that this new perspective brings all the natives into line.
Stories, Masks, and Trauma
Just as Veidt’s hoax is a kind of authorship, so I would argue are the masks and identities of Watchmen‘s costumed adventurers. In HBO’s excellent Watchmen series, Laurie Juspeczyk says this:
People who wear masks are driven by trauma. They’re obsessed with justice because of some injustice they suffered, usually when they were kids. Ergo, the mask. It hides the pain.
But hiding the pain isn’t all that masks do. They also tell a story, a new story, about the traumatized people behind them — rearranging their faces and giving them all other names. In this new story, the masked people aren’t powerless, but powerful. They exist to carry out their own agendas, rather than having their agency taken away from them. The new story told by the mask exists as an attempt to help mask-wearers process and relieve their trauma.
Well, isn’t this the function of art? Through the things that we create, we seek to understand our world and its inhabitants. At an individual level, it’s well-documented that the creation of art can channel grief, trauma, and heartbreak into some new form, transforming it via creative alchemy into something that briefly assuages those emotions both for the artist and the audience. That’s the catharsis that Aristotle describes in his Poetics.
But grief, trauma, and heartbreak don’t just exist at the individual level. There are larger versions of trauma that transcend the personal. Granted, using the term “trauma” becomes more metaphorical beyond the individual level, but I believe that a family can be traumatized, a school or workplace can be traumatized, a town can be traumatized, and a culture can be traumatized. And if we accept that trauma can exist at a cultural level, I think it becomes very clear that the art it produces functions in part to help process that cultural trauma.
This Island Earth, and 1950s science fiction movies in general, are an example of this. World War II, and in particular the enormity of the atomic bomb, was a massive cultural trauma. The rapid escalation of both calamitous bomb technology and tensions between the superpowers quickly brought us face to face with our ability to destroy ourselves. Hitler’s concentration camps made plain humanity’s capacity for barbarism. Not only that, the process of the war itself and its aftermath changed America radically — women had new roles after stepping into professions vacated by men, racial politics mutated after Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948, and the 1944 G.I. Bill introduced a tremendous amount of new class mobility into society.
75 years on, we can see these changes as unalloyed benefits, but at the time they were just as frightening to some as the bomb and the Nazis. 50s B movies told stories of invasions, of incomprehensible malevolence, of science and technology run amok, of venturing into the unknown, of humanity’s warlike nature, and so forth. It’s not hard to see cultural anxieties projected onto those aliens, giant insects, and monsters from the deep. It’s a genre obsessed with unexpected consequences.
So if 1950s sci-fi movies were processing the cultural trauma of World War II, what set of cultural traumas does Watchmen meet? Well, some of this isn’t really subtext. 1985 was peak Nuclear Anxiety time, and Watchmen obviously means to grapple with that. In this way, it’s a direct descendant of stories like This Island Earth.
But there are other, more festering wounds at work in Watchmen too. The clash of political Left and Right, so strident and polarized now, had been climbing since the days of Goldwater vs. the counterculture, but hit a new level during the Reagan years, and found its Watchmen expression via Nova Express vs. The New Frontiersman. Even more than those two competing media sources, the superheroes themselves in Watchmen interrogate the competing values of individual action vs. social action. American culture reveres the lone principled individual, but in Watchmen the two individuals who best fit that description are Rorschach and Ozymandias. Though politically they are opposites, temperamentally they embody the same extremist impulses, and Watchmen shows both as deeply problematic.
This isn’t the Cold War. It’s closer to the Civil War — an ongoing series of battles in an America deeply divided against itself, with good and bad actors on both sides, plus a whole lot of grey in between. It’s part of why Watchmen remains relevant and powerful today, powerful enough to inspire the whole new story that appeared on HBO last fall.
I’ve called Before Watchmen and Doomsday Clock“fan fiction” — meant gently — and in a way Damon Lindelof’s HBO Watchmen is no different. It’s an extension of intellectual property that has been taken rather than granted. The only ones who could really “officially” continue Moore and Gibbons’ story are Moore and Gibbons, or successors anointed by them, regardless of what corporation owns the rights. But what made Lindelof’s work so compelling, so true to the spirit of Watchmen, was its singular vision and its engagement with the cultural trauma of our time. In the HBO series’ case, that trauma is race in America rather than the Cold War, but its medicine is just as strong.
Okay, since I will apparently be spending at least part of this review in “cranky old man” mode, let’s just jump right in: What is up with the freaky typography on this album? The album title, at least on any streaming service, is in ALL CAPS LIKE IT’S SHOUTING AT YOU. But the songs are totally bereft of any capitalization at all, like teeny tiny whispers.
I guess it’s fitting, though, because Billie Eilish herself never actually seems to put her lungs behind her singing voice. The vast majority of the album is whispered, spoken, mumbled, or sung in the quietest itty bitty tones. It’s like she recorded the entirety of the vocals late at night in her house, trying not to wake anybody. On the occasion her vocals have any power at all, it’s because they were multi-tracked or layered in with instruments. Most of the time, though, she just sounds heavily tranquilized, or maybe just resigned and indifferent. Or possibly super depressed. Hell, on “listen before i go” she seriously sounds like she’s in the middle of suicide via barbiturate overdose.
I have to say, this vocal style really did not work for me. I mostly found it frustrating where I didn’t find it annoying. In the most irritating moment on the album, the beginning of “8” takes the usual Eilish whisper, pitch-shifts it higher (I guess so she’ll sound like she’s actually 8?), and accompanies it with a frickin’ ukulele. I can only speculate that it is a sinister experiment to find out if people can actually die from an overdose of twee. I’m no enemy of spoken vocals — I’m a huge Lou Reed fan, for example — and the occasional whisper or sotto voce moment in a song can be very powerful, but stretched out to the length of an entire album, to the total exclusion of any full-throated singing, it feels to me like both a pretentious affectation and an intentional retreat from power.
And yet, I am apparently out of step, because the world has gone bananas for Billie Eilish. This album went platinum, debuted at #1, topped the Billboard year-end chart for 2019, and spawned six top 40 singles. It won the Album of the Year Grammy, “bad guy” got both Song and Record of the Year, and Eilish herself won Best New Artist. “bad guy” was a #1 song, dethroning the record-breaking “Old Town Road”. Eilish herself has broken tons of records — the youngest artist to do a whole bunch of things, the first artist born in the 2000s to have a #1 album, 15 billion (not a made-up number) streams on Spotify. Et cetera.
So while I find that her performance on this album is mostly not my cup of tea, I can definitely applaud Eilish for some things. First, I love that she defies the sex-kitten mold for young female pop stars. I look at some other big female artists from 2019 — Halsey, Ariana Grande, Cardi B — and have to laugh imagining them in Eilish’s baggy wardrobe, sans makeup. Even Taylor Swift and Lizzo, both of whom manage a subversive approach to their sexualization, aren’t avoiding it entirely. Eilish takes the focus off her body and puts it on her music.
Second, she writes her own songs — well, in collaboration with her brother, Finneas O’Connell. (Eilish’s last name is technically also O’Connell, but for clarity I’m calling her Eilish and him O’Connell, or Finneas.) That’s not just a rarity for current female pop stars, it’s a rarity for all current pop stars. Most of the biggest songs of 2019 were written by songwriting teams. Even when the artist is included in the team, they’re usually buttressed by a squad of professional writers behind the scenes. Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode” (#9 overall for 2019) has no less than thirty credited songwriters. In contrast, every song but two on WHEN WE ALL credits the O’Connell siblings as songwriters, and the remaining two were written by just Finneas.
In addition, Finneas does the production, which is the best part of this album. As I said above, sometimes the production steps in to buttress Eilish’s vocal performance, which helps a lot. Consistently, O’Connell provides slinky beats, clean synths, and a powerful bottom end that compensates for Eilish’s feather-light vocals, and can even sometimes make them sound menacing. In the record’s best moments, they even manage to leaven the teen angst with some humor, as in the goofy “!!!!!!!” or the Office sound clips interspersed through “my strange addiction.” Of course, there are some missteps too — how many times can Eilish’s voice be processed to make it sound like she’s singing through a box fan? (Answer: way more than one, and even one is verging on too many.) Overall, though, I don’t think I’m a Billie Eilish fan, but this record may have made me a Finneas O’Connell fan.
It’s not exactly novel to make it big in the music business as a teenager. There’s a tradition going back to Elvis, winding its way through Stevie Wonder, Kate Bush, Fiona Apple, Taylor Swift, Lorde, and lots of others. (I’m deliberately omitting teeny-bopper fare like boy bands, Tiffany, etc. — Eilish isn’t part of that trend-line.) To my ears, Billie Eilish mostly suffers by comparison to these other artists. But like them, she has plenty of time in front of her to grow, and I hope she grows into an artist who lets herself use her full vocal range. Still, after listening to WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?, I confess I find myself more interested in what Finneas O’Connell is going to do next.
Happy New Year, and welcome to another year-end music list. Just to review, this is a year-end mix I make for some friends — full explanation on the first one I posted in 2010. It’s not all music from 2019 (in fact, my backlog of music to listen to pretty much guarantees that nothing on here is timely.) It’s just songs I listened to this year that meant something to me.
1. Elvis Costello & The Attractions – (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?
My Elvis Costello/Watchmen project of a couple years ago, combined with my long listening queue, meant that some Elvis Costello albums were still kicking around in that queue this year. This song felt like a great burst of energy to kick off a mix, and also pretty appropriate to the current moment. Its currency has never gone away, really, but there’s another layer available now, when our world keeps evaluating its news in the frame of entertainment. Impeachment hearings started recently, and some of the coverage has focused on whether they have enough “pizzazz.” I keep seeing headlines like “Adam Schiff’s ‘Trump Show’: Was it a hit with the undecideds?” Because what’s real doesn’t matter anymore nearly so much as how it looks and feels on TV. We’re not just a nation of pundits, we’re a nation of drama and comedy critics — just not very good ones. Which is how we got an insult comic reality TV president whose decisions are driven more by ratings (on a few different levels) than reason. What’s so funny, indeed?
2. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band – Badlands Darkness On The Edge Of Town was one of my album assignments this year, and “Badlands” was a standout from that listen. It’s got a similar energy to “What’s So Funny”, but with more hope. This song is about pushing through darkness, finding the faith to keep going, and recognizing that no matter how shitty things feel, “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.” I can always use a little of that.
3. The Hooters – And We Danced
This song always made me feel glad to be alive. I was a big fan of the Hooters’ first two albums, and I gave their debut a re-listen this year. It didn’t hold up as well as I’d hoped — some of those lyrics seem REALLY dopey to me now — but musically there’s still a lot of magic there, and this song has the most of it.
4. Vampire Weekend – Unbelievers Vampire Weekend’s third album was another assignment this year, and I really wanted to include a track from it. I tried “Ya Hey” first, but although I like the song plenty it just wasn’t meshing with the mix. This one, on the other hand, dropped perfectly into its slot. It feels like it continues the spark from “And We Danced”, but transforms the sentiment from simple romantic lust to a kind of bubbly ambivalence. We’re all unbelievers over here, though we have our ways of reaching outside empiricism. I relate to the feeling of wanting just a drop of holy water.
5. Frightened Rabbit – Head Rolls Off
Frightened Rabbit picks up on this theme at the beginning of “Head Rolls Off”, affirming that “Jesus is just a Spanish boy’s name”. But despite his disconnection from traditional religion, he finds a way to see himself as part of something larger, looking beyond death — “when it’s all gone, something carries on” — but not in the self. It’s in the others we leave behind, and the “tiny changes to earth” we make while we’re here. Frightened Rabbit was a huge find for me this year, and I love the whole Midnight Organ Fight album, but this song is the absolute top for me. As I wrote in the Vampire Weekend post, I’m a long way from feeling any peace about mortality, but I find a lot of comfort in the thought of someone else’s blood flowing forward after I’m gone, in an earth that’s changed just a tiny bit for my having been here.
6. Richard and Linda Thompson – Wall Of Death
Richard Thompson has been on my “to-listen” list for a while. I know his stuff on a basic level — in fact, I saw him open for Joan Armatrading years ago, and enjoyed his set a lot — but I always felt like it would be rewarding to go deeper. Julie Covington’s “(I Want To See The) Bright Lights” pushed me even further in that direction. So this year I listened to Shoot Out The Lights, and I was right: it’s good stuff. This song particularly appealed to me, because I already knew it a bit from R.E.M.’s cover for a Thompson tribute album. Its defiant embrace (in metaphor) of joy in the face of mortality felt like a good companion for “Head Rolls Off”.
7. Roxy Music – Take A Chance With Me
I got to see Bryan Ferry in concert this year. I’d seen him once before (front row at CU’s Macky Auditorium, in fact), and I liked that a lot, but it was a tour for his album of standards, and that’s pretty much all he sang, aside from some deep DEEP Roxy Music cuts rendered in crooner style. This year his tour was focused on Avalon and Boys And Girls, which made it the perfect tour for me, since those are the albums I imprinted upon as a Ferry/Roxy fan. This song in particular is a fond memory for me, because I put it on the first mixtape I ever made for Laura. I was absolutely thrilled to hear it live at last.
8. Bryan Ferry – Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues (live in London 2007)
This song was another great standout from that concert. I knew Ferry had covered a lot of Dylan over the years, going so far as to release a full album of Dylan covers in 2007, but I’d never heard his version of this song before. Seeing him wail on the harmonica was a wonderful surprise, and I highly recommend the video I pulled this song from. [And because it came from that video, it doesn’t appear on the Spotify playlist for this mix. I substituted the studio version.] I absolutely love his vocals, through his whole career, and their breathy quality has let him age gracefully into performances like this one, and the one I saw. Also, Highway 61 Revisited was an assigned album for me this year, so this was a great way to work it in.
9. World Party – You’re A Hurricane, I’m A Caravan
There are times when Karl Wallinger just nails a lyric, and this is one of them. I’m a huge fan of oblique, metaphor-laden poetry — that’s a major part of what draws me to Stevie Nicks and Emily Dickinson — and this song is right in that wheelhouse. For me, it powerfully evokes a theme I’ve been wrestling with lately: abdication of personal power. My default is to be a peacemaker, and that has allowed me to get victimized by people who have no compunction about wielding their own power. I don’t want to fight, I don’t like to fight, but there is a lot of fight in me, and more bubbles up every time I decide not to fight back, or feel unable to. So when Karl sings: “You don’t own me / but I see you do / You don’t own me / I, I think you do”, I know exactly what he means.
10. Aimee Mann – Good For Me
Here’s another great poet, but there’s a funny story attached to this one. I saw Aimee in concert a couple of years ago, with Jonathan Coulton opening. She was touring on the album this song comes from, Mental Illness, and Coulton has a co-writing credit on some of those songs, so he performed a few of them with her. Before she sang this one, she told us that lots of critics had singled out the first lines of this song — “What a waste of a smoke machine / Took the taste of the dopamine / And left me high and dry” — as quintessential Mann. The problem is, Coulton wrote them. So she was a little comically miffed at his writing getting the biggest praise of the album. Then when she sang it, those opening lines got big applause, and she stopped the song, deadpanning, “How dare you applaud those lines?!”
11. Neko Case – The Next Time You Say Forever
I assigned Middle Cyclone this year because it is my favorite Neko Case album, and I wanted to write about her hypnotic hold on me. This song is a typical example of her spellbinding voice, set off by a wonderful arrangement, singing poetry that hits me at the gut level. (Not the face, though.) Plus, it’s under two minutes, which really helped it fit on the CD.
12. The Call – I Don’t Wanna
Okay, in my writeup of Into The Woods, I spent like 6 paragraphs breaking this song down, and quoted its lyrics in their entirety, so I don’t have much more to say here. There was no way this song wasn’t going to appear on this end-of-year collection — it’s one of my favorite songs of all time, and this was the year I took the time to write about why.
13. Janis Joplin – Buried Alive In The Blues Another album assignment, and possibly a weird choice to include a Janis Joplin song that doesn’t actually include any Janis Joplin vocals. But when I was writing about Pearl, this song felt so emblematic to me of that album’s whole story. There’s a hole in the middle of it, left empty by Joplin’s death. She died the night before she was to record her vocals for this track, and the band left it on the album as a symbol of a life unfinished. The title sums up her life’s end, and the emptiness inside it speaks eloquently of what we lost.
14. Pretenders – The English Roses
This album assignment track is about a different kind of loss. Really, I could have picked pretty much any song from Pretenders II, an album I absolutely adore, but this one felt like it fit the mood for this part of the mix. Hynde’s portrait of the character in this song is both sympathetic and unsparing, and the music is a wonderful blend of gritty and lyrical.
15. Joe Jackson – Rain (live in New York 2019)
I always see Joe when he tours, and this was one of those years. He was touring on his album Fool, but decided to highlight four other albums in his set, each representing a decade: Look Sharp (70s), Night and Day (80s), Laughter and Lust (90s), and Rain (00s). Rain, has he explained, doesn’t have a title track, so he decided to borrow one “from an impeccable source”, albeit with the chords changed around a bit. [This one also didn’t make the Spotify playlist, as there is no version of it on Spotify. I pulled it from a fantastic video of his full 2019 concert in NYC.]
16. Fleetwood Mac – Hold Me
Fleetwood Mac also visited this year (a couple of times), and without Lindsey in the mix there was room for Stevie and Christine to open up some of the songs that don’t get played EVERY SINGLE TIME. This was one of those, and I was so happy to hear it. I got a wonderful remaster of the Mirage album for my birthday, with lots of fun extra tracks (that will likely show up in a future mix), but for now it’s just a sonically great way to revisit this Christine song, to which I’ve always been partial.
17. Crowded House – Don’t Dream It’s Over
Also in those Fleetwood Mac concerts, Lindsey’s parts were played by Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers (mostly the guitar) and Neil Finn (mostly the vocals). That meant we got to hear tunes from their careers as well — “Free Fallin'” (sung by Stevie) for Campbell, and “Don’t Dream It’s Over” from Finn. I’ve always enjoyed this song, but I found a new appreciation for it in those performances. It also feels pretty appropriate to the current moment, the hopeful flip side of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?”
18. Janelle Monáe – I Like That
Dante belongs to a school club called SAGA — Sexuality And Gender Alliance — and at the beginning of this school year he created some lists of books and games that are inclusive of LGBTQ+ identities. Because his taste in music tends to focus on classical tunes and instrumental game soundtracks, I offered to make him a playlist of music that fit this theme. I made it, and had a wonderful time doing so. Having recently delved into Monáe’s album Dirty Computer, I knew this song had to be on that mix. “I’m always left of center / And that’s right where I belong / I’m the random minor note you hear in major songs / And I like that / I don’t really give a fuck if I’m the only one who likes that” is a brilliant way to evoke her theme, and the rap at the end is so affirming, in a way that feels like it perfectly fits that group.
19. Emily Saliers – Long Haul
Emily came out with a good solo album in 2017, and my listening queue being what it is, I listened to it this year. She took a lot of musical risks on that album, with many songs emerging much more beat-driven and electronic than most Indigo Girls stuff. But it was this song that captivated me the most, and it’s the most Indigo-esque tune on the whole record, albeit with Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland singing the Amy parts. Guess I know what I like. It’s also a great theme for anybody in a long-term committed relationship. That’s also relevant to my interests.
20. Dan Wilson – Love Without Fear
This song felt like it paired well with “Long Haul”, making love the central goal of life. Wilson is one of those artists who just speaks to me, even though he’s much better known as a songwriter than as a performer. This song is the title track of an album I listened to this year, and of all the good songs on that album, this is the one that belongs at this point in the mix.
21. Cameron McGill and What Army – My Demons Are Organized
You can probably tell from reading these notes that I put a lot of thought into what goes with what on these mixes, grouping songs and artists together so that they feel like they flow smoothly into each other and carve out a journey. So this felt like the right way to close the set, ackowledging that while these mixes are meant as gifts, and try to bring together something of what I listened to and loved each year, they are also a bit of an exercise in organizing personal demons (and angels.) This song came to me in an odd, roundabout way. I watched a documentary called Old Man, because its subject was Andy Schneidkraut, a friend from the trivia world and the owner of a record store in Boulder called Albums On The Hill. His son is a filmmaker, and made that documentary. I found it a moving experience, and this was the song that played over the credits. I sought it out, and I’m glad I did — it’s a good way to close the door on 2019. I’ll be over here again next year, organizing my demons.
When In The Wee Small Hours was released in 1955, 12-inch LPs had only been around for a few years. Frank Sinatra, a restless innovator, had the notion of creating an LP whose songs had a thematic unity — songs of loneliness, heartbreak, and lovelorn disappointment. This theme was no doubt abetted by Sinatra’s own recent heartbreak, the dissolution of his relationship with Ava Gardner. In fact, Sinatra called this collection his “Ava songs,” and in collecting them he’s credited with creating one of the first concept albums.
It’s a little different, though, from what the words “concept album” evoke today. That term now brings up thoughts of, say, The Wall, or American Idiot, or Tommy — a collection of songs that tells a story and expresses the singular vision of a songwriter. But Sinatra wasn’t a songwriter — he was an interpreter. He gets a rare co-writing credit on “This Love Of Mine” (with two other people), but the rest of the songs on Small Hours come from the Great American Songbook produced by writers such as Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Rogers and Hart, and Duke Ellington. Sinatra deserves an innovator’s credit, but I’d say this album is closer to the angst-filled mixtapes I referenced in my previous post.
As a mix, Sinatra’s chosen songs reflect his theme from a variety of angles. “Can’t We Be Friends?” finds him cursing his own naiveté, as the girl he thought would be “The One” relegates him to the friend zone. He takes full responsibility for fooling himself though — compare his “I can’t excuse it on the grounds of youth / I was no babe in the wild, wild wood” to Sinéad O’Connor’s “How could I possibly know what I want when I was only 21?” On the other side of that, “Last Night When We Were Young” portrays a lover left behind after a night of passion, feeling impossibly aged by the disappointment, prefiguring Adele’s “When We Were Young” by 60 years.
Some of the songs are drenched in irony, like “I Get Along Without You Very Well”, which finds its narrator boasting of how just fine and dandy he is after the breakup… except when it rains, or when he hears her name, or a laugh that reminds him of her, or “perhaps in Spring / But I should never think of Spring / For that would surely break my heart in two.” Similarly, in “Dancing On The Ceiling”, the lyrics proclaim that “the world is lyrical / because a miracle / has brought my lover to me”. But it turns out that “miracle” is just the narrator lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, imagining his departed lover is dancing there.
This juxtaposition of tough and hurt gives many of Sinatra’s songs a kind of wounded bravado, which would have felt familiar to fans of Humphrey Bogart, Raymond Chandler, and noir stories in general. But gathering all these songs together, only a few of which have a tough-guy veneer, paints a picture that’s much more wounded than brave. Sinatra’s choice to do this arguably expanded the emotional palette of 1950s masculinity, allowing men a model within which they could fall deeply into hurt feelings without having to accompany them with anger, violence, or externalization. Many of the songs on Wee Small Hours find Sinatra’s narrators ruefully acknowledging their culpability in their own heartbreak, such as “Can’t We Be Friends?” and the “you told me so” of “It Never Entered My Mind.”
However, a downside of this concentrated collection is that it can get a little samey. Sinatra’s style has a few different modes, but he only displays one on this album: melancholy. As I said, he’s an interpreter, and puts himself in service to the song. Because all the songs come from pretty much the same place emotionally, so does he — over and over. The concept on this album is strong, but it can get a little oppressive too.
It’s telling that none of the songs in this collection were hits for Sinatra. The same year as this album, he had three Top Ten hits: “Learnin’ The Blues”, “Love And Marriage”, and “(Love Is) The Tender Trap”, all of which were sung more in Sinatra’s sprightly mode than his melancholy one. That’s partly down to the era — there was a pretty strong distinction between singles and albums at this time, and unlike most of the albums I’ve discussed, this one wasn’t recorded to be a platform for hit songs. But unlike songs from later concept albums, such as “You Make Me Feel So Young” from Songs For Swingin’ Lovers! and “One For My Baby (and One More For The Road)” from Only The Lonely, you won’t find many Wee Small Hours tunes on contemporary hit collections either.
The exception to this is the title track, which distinguishes itself from the rest of the album despite (or perhaps because of) its status as the thesis statement for the entire thing.
In the wee small hours of the morning
When the whole wide world is fast asleep
You lie awake and think about the girl
And never ever think of counting sheep
That verse encapsulates the mood of the whole album. Similarly, the cover does an amazing job of conveying mood, showing Sinatra all alone in an abstracted city, smoking a lonely cigarette in the blue, blue streetlight glow.
But of course, it’s Sinatra’s voice that does the greatest and best work of communicating loneliness and pain. Just three minutes of “I’ll Never Be The Same” gives us long, fading, vulnerable notes; surging dynamics at powerful moments; quiet syllables of regret; and repeating motifs in escalating notes, ascending higher even as they reach deeper. Nobody could touch him in this style, then or now, and In The Wee Small Hours finds him at the peak of his powers.
In 2019, Steph Cherrywell became only the second person in the 25-year history of the Interactive Fiction (IF) Competition to win it twice. The other person to have done so is writing this post. So I was inspired to check out Cherrywell’s work, and managed to find some time over the holiday break to revisit my old IF-reviewing ways.
Now, I should make clear that I’m no longer keeping up with the IF world overall, so I haven’t been reading other reviews of her work, or of anybody’s work for that matter. I’ve played very few games from the last 15 years, so something that seems new and exciting to me might be old hat to people who’ve kept up. My perspective is basically that of a former expert who’s done little more than toe-dipping since 2005. With those disclaimers out of the way, let’s jump in!
Brain Guzzlers was Cherrywell’s first comp winner, from 2015, so it seemed like a reasonable place to start. Plus, for my next Watchmen essay I’m researching a bunch of background on 1950s sci-fi movies, and Brain Guzzlers looked like an affectionate parody of ’50s sci-fi, so I was predisposed to dig it.
And dig it I did, though I quickly learned that the game wasn’t exactly parodying ’50s sci-fi movies, which generally involve earnest scientists and square-jawed military types grappling with monsters, aliens, giant bugs, or giant alien bug monsters. This game’s tone is closer to Firesign Theater’s “High School Madness” sketch — a broad exaggeration of ’50s teenage tropes as seen in Leave It To Beaver and Archie comics. (Malt Shop Archie, that is. Not Sex Archie.) Cherrywell crashes the ’50s teen universe into the ’50s sci-fi universe, and comedy ensues, with a subversive edge provided by details like mixed-race NPCs, homoerotic undertones, and the ’50s-defying female action lead.
That comedic tone is Brain Guzzlers From Beyond‘s greatest strength — you can’t go three sentences without running into some delightful turn of phrase, well-crafted joke, or witty perspective. Take, for example, this description of a “Modernist Living Room”: “This circular room is ultramodern, like something from twenty years in the future. The sleek, smart-looking furniture is a symphony in avocado, orange, and mustard-yellow.” Or this description of the Drive-In: “You’re standing in the drive-in on the edge of town, where all the coolest teens come to ignore movies. To the north is Make-Out Mountain, and flanking it are a number of less controversial mountains.” Those mountains? “There’s Propriety Peak, and Constance Crag, and Mount Homework.”
The whole thing is a great deal of fun to read, and pretty fun to play too, thanks in part to Cherrywell’s smooth fusion of parser and choice structures. The game follows a familiar pattern of using the parser for exploration and multiple choice for conversations, and that works well, especially with Cherrywell’s charming illustrations of each character to flavor the dialogue. But she takes the structure a little further by rendering the action scenes via choices too.
Action scenes, though they can be done quite well, are rather difficult in parser IF, because there’s always the chance that some confused response or failure to understand input will deflate the pace and tension. Cherrywell makes sure this doesn’t happen by flipping her action sequences into a structure where input is limited and can’t be misunderstood, but still preserves a sensation of choice with options like:
1) Swing around and punch that monster square in the snoot!
2) Scream for help and try to pull away.
Another ingenious use of choice comes right at the outset of the game, in which the player is asked a series of questions. The game’s conceit is that you’re taking a quiz from a teen magazine, but in fact what you’re doing is defining the PC. Those choices affect gameplay in both superficial and substantial ways — everything from altering the “X ME” description to bypassing a puzzle entirely.
The tone and writing were my favorite parts of playing Brain Guzzlers From Beyond, but they weren’t flawless. There were a surprising number of typos right in the beginning, which gave me an uneasy feeling: “corresponding your choice” rather than “corresponding to your choice”; “absense of stars”; “your were practically almost sort of his girlfriend”. But either the game got better as it went along, or I just stopped noticing because the experience was so absorbing. Either way, it’s laudable, and in fact may have even been more fun for exceeding my wary expectations.
Brain Guzzlers combines fun writing with clever structures, but I can’t leave out its puzzles. Time after time, this game made me feel smart by presenting puzzles with just the right amount of clueing and lateral thinking, always perfectly in tune with the light and breezy feel of the story and setting. It rewards thorough exploration and leads players right up to the gap that they need to jump across, without building a paved bridge there.
My favorite puzzle of the game was the RPS cannon, and I was pleased to see that it also won the 2015 Best Individual Puzzle XYZZY Award. I confess that I didn’t solve this puzzle on my own, but seeing the solution made me wish I had. All the clues were there, I just didn’t put them together.
All in all, playing Brain Guzzlers From Beyond made it easy to see why the game won the 2015 IF Competition, and made me eager to play the follow-up. So that’s what I did.
Zozzled was Cherrywell’s 2019 IF Comp winner, and where Brain Guzzlers was a funny pastiche of 1950s tropes, Zozzled is a hilarious pastiche of 1920s tropes. It becomes clear when playing these two games consecutively that Cherrywell is in fact a master of pastiche. She scoops up a whole bunch of slang, stereotypes, and style, stringing them together in rat-a-tat fashion for a wonderfully enjoyable ride. The best comparison I can make for Zozzled‘s style is to Alan Moore’s pieces in the voice of Hildy Johnson at the end of some of the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen books. In other words, excellent.
Sure, she hits a bum note once in a while — using the term “sheba” for a woman is great once, cloying many times in a row — but overall, at pretty much every level, the writing in Zozzled is sharper than that of Brain Guzzlers, which is high praise. It’s quite a bit funnier, for one thing. Where Guzzlers frequently made me smile or chuckle, Zozzled had me laughing out loud. Some of my favorite examples:
The response to EXAMINE GLAD RAGS (because this game would never call a dress a dress if it could instead call the dress “glad rags.”):
If the right dress makes you feel like a million bucks, this little black number makes you feel like Rockefeller’s bank account. And much like Rockefeller’s bank account, it generates plenty of interest.
This description of a refrigerator:
This refrigerator, much like the old lady that time she chaperoned your senior year homecoming dance, is sitting in the corner, humming quietly and radiating bitter cold.
And finally, a great easter egg for Zork fans, in the description of some locked-away valuables:
Just a few odds and ends that guests have deposited – brass baubles, golden eggs, platinum bars, ivory torches, sapphire bracelets, that sort of thing.
It’s not just turns of phrase either — there’s a character who is described as “constitutionally incapable of telling the truth”, which the game then plays out literally to great comic effect. Not only is the wit superb, the story is more sophisticated too. Where Brain Guzzlers was pretty much “fight the sudden arbitrary menace by solving puzzles”, Zozzled sets up story beats in the beginning that pay off in the end, giving the puzzles a reason to exist that transcends “something bad and inexplicable happened here”, replacing it with an unexpected love story to which the PC is a witness.
So, if Cherrywell upped her writing game in Zozzled, how about her… game game? I’m sorry to say that the game aspects of Zozzled were a little weaker than those of Brain Guzzlers. Now, that doesn’t mean it was a weak game overall. I’m about to dive into criticizing a couple of its flaws, so I want to make clear that generally speaking, Zozzled is well-crafted — solid implementation, intriguing design, and reasonable puzzles. It takes the same approach as Brain Guzzlers, which is to say “breezy puzzle romp fusing parser and choice mechanics”, albeit without the illustrations. Its concept is equally solid, maybe even a little less checklisty, but it does stumble in a couple of places mechanically.
The first of these is the transition from introducing the ghost conceit to turning the player loose on the puzzly middle game. In a long choice-based sequence, Zozzled stages a conversation between the PC and an elevator operator named Kipper Fanucci (another Zorky reference, methinks.) That conversation does a lot of expository work, explaining that the hotel setting is haunted, and that Hazel the PC has the rare ability to see ghosts, at least once she’s wearing a pair of magical “cheaters”. Then it transitions from a conversation to a choice-based action sequence, except unlike in Brain Guzzlers, where the possible actions were rendered in prose, Zozzled phrases them in parserese, like so:
1) >ASK KIPPER ABOUT GHOST.
2) >KILL GHOST.
3) >TALK TO GHOST.
Eventually, this sequence reveals the way in which Hazel can exorcise ghostly presences, a command which nicely ties together her carefree flapper persona with her ghostbusting abilities. Moreover, once you exit the Kipper sequence, wearing the cheaters allows you to see ghostly presences in various places, with the spectral stuff rendered in bold, a cool and effective choice.
Except… now that you can see the ghosts, you can’t interact with them anymore! Try to EXAMINE GHOST and you’ll get tersely rebuffed: “(That’s not something you need to fiddle with.)” The entire ghost concept gets introduced via specific IF commands allowing the PC to interact with and contain a ghost. Then, immediately afterwards, there are a bunch of ghostly encounters in which the ghosts aren’t even implemented as game objects. Pretty unsatisfying.
Eventually, I figured out that you have to first solve the puzzle with which the ghost is associated before you can interact with it, which makes perfect sense but could be much better explained. If the answer to X GHOST had given a description indicating that the ghost was deeply embedded in its container and would have to be driven out before I could deal with it, that would have felt much less jarring and buggy.
Similarly, some solution-adjacent feedback would have also helped with the game’s most frustrating puzzle, the fruit bowl. Without spoiling anything, this puzzle has a solution which is logically sound and emotionally satisfying, but which requires quite an intuitive leap. Moreover, the solution requires the destruction of game objects, which goes pretty heavily against the grain of experienced IF players. As with the RPS cannon in Brain Guzzlers, I found myself turning to the hints, but unlike with the RPS cannon, I didn’t feel dumb for failing to solve it myself.
On the contrary, I saw that I came extremely close in a couple of different ways, but the game didn’t give me the feedback I needed to make that final leap. In fact, I would argue that the puzzle should be more tolerant of solutions that fit the spirit if not the letter of the intended answer. Luckily, this puzzle was an outlier. Others, such as the seance and the oyster, brought together actions that made perfect sense in context and worked beautifully with the tone.
Playing Zozzled right after Brain Guzzlers made it impossible not to compare the two, and what I found was that each game was very strong on its own, but each also had its strengths over the other — Zozzled its (even more) masterful writing, and Guzzlers its silky-smooth structure and puzzles. It turns out that Cherrywell has written one other Inform 7 game besides those two, so it was my third choice for this survey.
Chlorophyll came out in 2015, the same year (amazingly) as Brain Guzzlers. Where Brain Guzzlers was Cherrywell’s entry into the main IFComp, Chlorophyll was for a Spring competition called ParserComp, a themed long-form game jam focused on traditional text adventure format, i.e. excluding choice-based mechanics. Consequently, Chlorophyll is pure parser, unlike Zozzled and Guzzlers.
And you know what? It turns out Cherrywell is still a hell of a writer, even when she’s not penning snappy dialogue for branching-path conversations. Chlorophyll really has no conversations — it hews closer to old-school IF by ensuring that the PC is on her own, navigating through a seemingly abandoned outpost, albeit one that bears unsettling evidence of violent disruption. Until the third act, her only encounters are with minimal-personality robots. Structurally, the game is deeply reminiscent of Planetfall, albeit without Floyd.
Except, instead of Planetfall, a more apt title might be… (I’m so sorry, I can’t seem to stop myself) Plantfall? See, in Chlorophyll, the PC is a sentient, walking plant, a la Groot, but with a better vocabulary. (Or, in the specific case of the PC, Teen Groot I guess.) She and her species depend on sunlight to produce nutrients (hence the title), and without it they slip quickly into unconscious torpor. In the first act of the game, this works out to a tight hunger timer, keeping the PC tethered closely to sunny areas and requiring her to find ways to light up more and more of the outpost with artificial sunlight. In these explorations, she also figures out that her goal is to power up the outpost so that it can restore sunlight to the whole planet — which happens to align perfectly with the 2015 ParserComp’s theme of “sunrise”.
Now normally, hunger timers are one of my major pet peeves in IF, but the one in Chlorophyll worked, for two reasons. First, rather than being an arbitrary limit imposed in the name of “realism”, this game’s hunger timer was a crucial character detail, one that drives the PC’s initial problem and that lends lots of tension to the first several sequences. Second, about a third of the way into the game the PC finds an object which obviates the timer altogether, so that it goes away permanently. Not only that, the mechanism that eliminates the hunger timer also has strong emotional resonance, lent further weight by the player’s relief at removing the constraint. More about that a bit later.
Unlike Zozzled and Guzzlers, there’s very little humor in Chlorophyll. Instead, Cherrywell creates a strong atmosphere of eeriness and foreboding. After playing those first two games, I was all the more impressed that Cherrywell has a whole other register, and is equally great at it. The SF concept was intriguing and logical, the setting evocatively described and sensibly constructed, and the mood of the whole game was just terrific, all the more so for not being another wacky pastiche of a bygone era.
The story was well-structured too, with sudden action at the beginning leading to a series of increasingly compelling discoveries. There are powerful, stomach-dropping moments as the PC discovers more and more effects of the antagonist’s presence, and a sensational climax and denouement.
The puzzles for the most part are solid, with a particularly expansive middle game, in which two entirely different different chains of puzzles (one for good behavior, one for bad) can be pursued, either of which unlocks the climax. I quibble a bit with one solution on the “good” track, as it involves the breaking of an object described as “unbreakable”, with no clear rationale that I can see for how that breaking makes sense. But no matter — that’s a pretty minor objection to what is overall an accomplished piece of craftsmanship.
I think my favorite part of Chlorophyll is its strong emotional core. Neither Zozzled nor Brain Guzzlers prepared me for this. While there’s a love story in Zozzled, Hazel (the PC) is just a bystander to it, really, with no particular emotional investment in anything. Bonnie, from Brain Guzzlers, witnesses a close friendship but is herself mainly either a cipher or a punchline. But Zo, the PC of Chlorophyll, begins the game enmeshed in an instantly familiar and warm mother-daughter relationship, so when her mother gets incapacitated, I found myself drawn in immediately.
Zo is an adolescent, who feels like she’s grown out of childish things but that her mother doesn’t recognize her abilities. Then she’s thrown into the adult role without that mother’s support, and must become the caretaker herself. That makes it all the more moving when Zo discovers evidence that her mother really does recognize Zo’s growth, emblematized in the new solar vest that deactivates the light-hunger timer. This is a wonderful example of using IF constructs to serve and strengthen the story — as we remove a game constraint, we also remove a mental constraint from the PC, allowing both more access to the world and more understanding of her place in it.
Similarly, when Zo finds her unconscious mother, and realizes the jeopardy that they are in from the antagonist, the moment lands harder than anything in Zozzled or Brain Guzzlers. Granted, nothing in those other two games was meant to land that hard, as a sudden emotional jolt would have really wrecked the mood, but having played those two games first, I was all the more surprised and transported by the weightiness of this one.
With these three games, Cherrywell has become one of my all-time favorite IF authors. I’m grateful to have spent my time on them, and I greatly look forward to whatever she releases next.