Lady Macbeth

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Lady Macbeth opens with one of the more unsettling instances of in medias res this year: a young woman in a white wedding veil, facing away from the camera, tentatively joins the congregation in Joachim Neander's hymn "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty". She soon halts, glancing up at her unseen groom with a look of quiet unease; audiences primed for a Masterpiece Theatre production might feel comfortable they know where this story leads. But then the film cuts to a pseudo-reverse shot and we directly face the bride, framed by what appear to be just two congregants in the sanctuary—this is far from a joyful ceremony full of loved ones and treasured guests. Her discomposure grows as she turns to look at them before resuming singing. But as the stanza finishes and she looks up from the hymnal, the faintest ghost of a smirk crosses her face; and expectations set for a teenager terrified at her own wedding are disconcertingly upended. Lady Macbeth may have the trappings of a costume drama, but beneath the petticoats and refined manners lies a harrowing examination of power, oppression, and revenge—an uprising too misanthropic to properly be called a feminist rejection of the patriarchy.  

The (nearly) unknown actress Florence Pugh is superb as Katherine, an intelligent 17-year-old girl in 1860s rural northern England who, on her wedding night, pushes back against her husband's (Paul Hilton) suggestion that she confine herself to the house. "I like the fresh air," she calmly tells him, but his response is a blunt, cold declaration of male authority: take off your nightgown. There's no sex to follow as her husband climbs into bed, leaving her naked and confused: just a setting of barriers for Katherine to remain within. A submissive wife in a loveless marriage is portrayed often enough to be a cliché, but director William Oldroyd is uninterested in repeating those themes; there will be a reckoning, and viewers' initial sympathies may turn out to have been misplaced.

There's great pleasure to be had in Lady Macbeth's formalist cinematography, with symmetrically framed composition and artful mise-en-scène. Fittingly, once Katherine is able to escape the confines of her manor after her husband leaves on a trip, the camera develops a more naturalistic view, loosening its grip as she explores the surrounding wilderness and tests her authority on the farmhands. One, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), catches her eye, and their resulting encounters resemble less a developing romance than a calculating predator toying with her prey. “I’d rather stop you breathing than have you doubt how I feel,” she tells him after an early rendezvous, and despite her casual delivery and physical affection the statement sends a shiver down the spine. Beneath her self-possession lies a personality both vicious and insistent.  

But the affair is not the only place where Katherine asserts her newly expressed dominance; her omnipresent maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) is initially a quiet witness to and later a object of Katherine's desire to control her environment. Anna utterly lacks structural power, and her desperation grows while observing lies, deception and coolly detached violence. Although the film's moral bedrock, she is little able to do more than look on with horrified disapproval—a muted chorus in this Shakespearean tragedy. Here it's little coincidence that her position falls as Katherine's rises; class is a far bigger barrier than any individual.  

Despite these strengths, it's unfortunate that Lady Macbeth's narrative falls short in serving its subject. Katherine herself is a bit of a cipher, and her transformation from a submissive bride to cold-blooded monster is undercut by the film's insistence on flattening her character arc: it's less of a tragic descent into darkness and more a journey of inevitability, one that telegraphs its intentions early and in doing so loses some of the potency of its revelations. But these issues little diminish the emotional impact of the cruelty that Katherine inflicts on those around her, and Lady Macbeth serves as a welcome (if disturbing) reminder that the formerly oppressed can sometimes turn into the most brutal oppressors.

mother!

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Matthew said, ‘Pray in the place where there is no woman,’ he tells us, meaning ‘Destroy the works of womanhood….’
— The Dialogue of the Savior

Darren Aronofsky's latest polarizing film mother! is difficult to recommend, though explaining why it will be poorly received by so many gives away much of the delight in seeing an idiosyncratic director at his most unorthodox. Divisive in ways few mainstream films aspire to be in both its maximalist content and claustrophobic direction, mother! shows its cards early in the first act and thereafter fully commits to its mythmaking, at times daring its audience to walk out from repulsion or ridicule. It's a darkly funny, grueling genre mashup that has some of the densest—and most obvious—allegorical imagery seen in a major theater, a Divine Comedy that excises Paradiso. That religiously literate viewers should be attuned most closely to its primary subtext (there are at least three layers of symbolism intertwined) is its greatest irony: getting on board is easier but surviving the journey is another matter entirely. mother! is a bizarre film to experience, at times thuddingly blunt but explosively unhinged in the second part of its diptych. (Even its title is a multi-layered joke for perceptive audiences). I alternately chuckled and grimaced throughout, and walking out of the theater my first remark to my wife was "Well, it certainly went there."

And I have no idea if I like it, but I certainly admire its audacity.

There is a straightforward line of mirrored duality running throughout Aronofsky's oeuvre—artists and their art, selfishness and love, creation and destruction, light and darkness—and in this, mother! proceeds nicely from his previous work. A narcissistic poet (Javier Bardem) and his longsuffering, emotionally put upon wife (Jennifer Lawrence) are both believable and archetypal. Living in an old, isolated house while Bardem tries to pass his writer's block and Lawrence renovates and restores the home's interior, the couple is interrupted by a doctor (Ed Harris) who mistakes their house for a hotel. He's promptly invited to spend the night and the next morning marks the late arrival of his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), who is oddly intrusive and antagonistic towards the homeowners. Throughout, Aronofsky keeps Lawrence framed in disconcertingly tight focus, leaving the audience unsettled as a fairly ordinary situation becomes much less so.

It's hard to overstate just how bonkers this film gets, although there is considerable pleasure to be found in unlocking its narrative early and anticipating where Aronofsky's feverish vision travels. Even then there is quite a bit of room for the unexpected, in the gnostic version of the story being told and the kitchen sink's worth of mythology scattered throughout, including the kitchen sink itself. Aronofsky is in full control of his material here; a closing laugh in the end credits is a Pilgrim's Progress worth of extras listed, each identified by a morality play role: Penitent, Fool, Defiler. As the plot pieces move and the players' roles come into focus, unease turns into anxiety and then dread. But the film's escalation in the second half does little to prepare its audience for its resolution, which is both jaw-dropping and—perhaps—nearly cathartic in its necessity. If you're going to commit, then you had better go all of the way.

Spectemur Agendo

Every time Trump utters another outrageous statement, attacks another marginalized group or praises the most vile segments of humanity, I wonder just how far this disgrace of a president has to go for his supporters to renounce their ties to him. What bright line must be crossed for others to have the moral courage to stand up and declare that this is not the America we want to live in--and then to not only give voice to their repudiation but to act on it. It's easy to claim to be on the sidelines, but that is willful capitulation to the racists and hatemongers and white supremacists who claim the President as one of their own--and who, in return, openly voices his support and approval.

Since the election I have heard many excuses from his supporters justifying their actions. "It's about the Supreme Court!" "Hillary was worse!" "He'll moderate his tone when he's in the White House!" And these past months have shown just how utterly wrong you were. You elected an ignorant, narcissistic buffoon who stoked racial grievances and religious prejudice during the campaign, who was an early supporter of birtherism, who revealed his misogyny and hatred of immigrants throughout this past year, who bluffs and blusters his way through any question to avoid exposing just how unfit he is to be this nation's leader. He has done nothing but double down on the worst elements of our culture. And standing on the sidelines gives silent approval to this behavior.

It's telling that rank-and-file Republicans are receiving kudos for making anti-racist statements, for this shows just how little we've come since the Civil War, or Reconstruction, or Jim Crow, or urban redlining, or the Civil Rights movement, or the drug war, or Black Lives Matter. Racism is not limited to those who fly a Confederate flag in their yard. It's found in the person who crosses the street to avoid a black man or watches videos of police brutality and thinks "What did they do to deserve it?" or is more angry about Kaepernick taking a knee than a collection of neo-Nazis and white supremacists and angry young white men joining together to protest the removal of a statue of someone who fought to preserve America's original sin. Racism is insidious, and subtle, and deeply embedded throughout all levels of American society.

We see your silence. We see how often your sputtering answer begins with "What about...?" We see your moral rot and decay, your false equivalences and your utter inability to denounce the person at the highest position of authority because you turn away from the cries of the oppressed.

How much does it take?

Sixty Seconds

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1.

Sixty seconds is how long it took for Kentou to leave us last night—to go from a relaxed cat-presence on the living room couch to utterly still and glassy-eyed as I yelled for my wife and frantically searched for something lodged in her throat or wrapped around her tongue. Anything to explain her lack of breathing and give reassurance that I was somehow helping this little cat to get well instead of watching her slip away. But the blood clot that had patiently lain in wait until now had already finished its task, and all I could do was gently run my fingers down her chest and cry out in shock. It was so quick and yet so slow.

20. 

"Look out!" said my wife on a dark Independence Day evening five years ago. I thought I'd just missed a squirrel darting across the road, but she swore it was a kitten. We stopped the car and searched the bushes, and pulled out a tiny four-week-old scraggly bundle of fur, dirt, diseases and lice. Lindsey wanted to give her to the humane society after the holiday weekend was over, but Kentou (Japanese: "to be found") never made it there.

30.

Kentou always greeted me at the door after work in the same way: she made sure she had my attention, then flopped onto her back with all four legs outstretched to receive a belly rub. It was never a tentative action, but purposeful—she commanded affection, yet melted under a furry massage.

35.

Dice.
Hair ties.
Rubber bands.
Board game boxes.
Hidden nests of toys.
Perching on top of open doors.
Proudly knocking over Christmas trees.
Disappearing when strangers visited the house.
Always meowing for food but rarely eating more than a few bites.
Crawling under the covers to snuggle when someone was sick in bed.
Standing in front of her humans when unknown dogs were in the room.
Never putting up with the bullshit that her brother Kaiju tried to perform.

Love.

45.

It's an odd thing to be responsible for another being's welfare, to know that their continued existence is predicated on your ability to give them food and shelter. Our pets give us their trust, and yet we are ultimately helpless.

50. 

We sat with her for a long time, letting Kilala and Kaiju come over to cautiously walk around her body, sniffing and poking in a stark dichotomy of "I know this/I do not know this". I tried to gently close her eyes but they stayed open. She was soft.

55.

I hope that I don't remember her dying as clearly as I do now. I want a few hours of yesterday evening to be a blur, for her to have been an active part of our lives and then gone with no in-between. The shock will fade, and the emotional turmoil recede; and I will stop tearing up in my office. But not today.

60.

I miss you.

The 25 Best Films of the 21st Century

Only a few ground rules: like the NYT list that kicked this off, I'm limiting my selections to one per director (my apologies to the Coens, PTA, Malick, et. al). Also, pace almost everyone else who put together this list, 2000 is not a part of the 21st century and as such is not represented here. Below are the films that have left the greatest impression on me, unranked and grouped into five loosely thematic pentaptychs:

  • The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)
  • There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
  • No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)
  • Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
  • Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)
     
  • Calvary (John Michael McDonagh, 2014)
  • Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong, 2007)
  • The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2016)
  • Ida (Paweł Pawlikowski, 2013)
  • In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, 2008)
     
  • In The Mood For Love (Wong Kar-Wai, 2001)
  • La Grande Bellezza (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)
  • A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
  • Still Walking (Hirokazu Koreeda, 2008)
  • Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010)
     
  • Paprika (Satoshi Kon, 2006)
  • The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)
  • Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
  • Mother (Bong Joon-Ho, 2009)
  • Pride and Prejudice (Joe Wright, 2005)
     
  • The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky, 2006)
  • The New World (Terence Malick, 2005)
  • Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
  • Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)
  • Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)

Design, Part Two (or Just What Am I Trying to Do Here?)

I've sat on this board game idea for nearly five years now, for two reasons. First, inspiration had struck when I was mulling over what I wanted to see in a board game using an IP (which shall remain nameless, at least for now). I started with a theme and a specific game mechanic, and built a supportive, although rickety, framework of other gameplay elements and goals. But I don't want to design an IP-first board game for obvious reasons, and it isn't until recently that I considered stripping out the main mechanics and seeing if I could make them work on their own as a coherent game. It's the opposite of what I usually look for in board game designs, but there is an alternative, more-generic theme that I believe could work just as well. Cart, horse, etc. Game first.

Secondly, one of the mechanics I felt was essential for this board game turned out not to be as innovative as I thought when I played Twilight Struggle for the first time five years after its release--the push/pull fight for influence over regions and countries mirrored what I wanted to do in my game. In fact, some pieces of Twilight Struggle were so similar to what I envisioned I had to double-check to verify I hadn't played the game before. And finding out that your game idea is similar to the top-rated board game of all time* is an extremely effective way of shutting down future development. I certainly didn't think I could design a game half as good as that one. Throw in the towel.

So what's changed? The first is that I've made a conscious choice to take the IP out of the design and look at the game from strictly a mechanical perspective. I probably should have done such a thing some time ago, but I've also desired to write again--frequently and publicly--and having a design diary is an easy way to achieve both of my goals at the same time. I also no longer feel limited by the presence of Twilight Struggle; I'm aiming for something broader, and area influence is only a part of the game--a significant part, to be sure, but I also have no idea where I'll end up. As with most game designs, the finish line is a long distance from the idea.

One of the most important elements of a good rulebook is describing a player's goals and victory conditions as the very first step in learning the game. This provides a framework for the rules to follow, and allows players to mentally assemble a decision tree: how do the choices I make affect my ultimate outcome? Trying to piece together mechanics and decisions without knowing the destination unnecessarily taxes players and inhibits learning comprehension. The same goes for the design process: without a firm (yet flexible) set of goals I'll end up with an unholy hodgepodge of ideas that fit together as well as a Chrysler 200. Here are ten that I want to focus on:

  1. Information ambiguity as a primary source of tension

  2. Bounded rationality in short-term decision making

  3. Imperfect information driving Pareto inefficiency

  4. Player choices subject to non-zero-sum options

  5. Push/pull political maneuvering

  6. No victory points

  7. Unique, defined objectives for each player

  8. Success and failure without dice

  9. Board-based bonuses and conditions

  10. Increasing marginal costs of control

You'll notice that the last five are mechanically descriptive, while the first five are broader principles I want to highlight in this game. There's some overlap in these but I think they're a good starting point. I'll spend some time going through my reasons for each and what I hope to accomplish in future posts.

*As determined by rankings on BoardGameGeek; the usual caveats apply.

Design, Part One (or This is a Bad Idea)

Like so many other people who self-assign the title of "board gamer", you've had an idea for a game flitting around for a number of years. And also like them, you've deluded yourself into thinking that not only is this wisp of an idea interesting, it's worth attempting to flesh out into a full prototype--one that can be carted around to various game conventions and publisher meetups. Then you can join the long, long line of would-be Game Designers eager to show off their hot take on whatever the board game design category du jour might be that year. But no, really! Your cooperative/worker placement/app-required/deckbuilding/victory point salad game is unique and awesome and your parents and friends and pets all agree! 

And then, if you're so smart as to curate beforehand your list of desired publishers who might--might--see a fit between your design and their publishing philosophy, existing catalog and target market, you'll get perhaps one follow-up after drowning in a sea of fumbling, failed five-minute pitches. You ship off a full prototype to that intelligent, perceptive publisher (obviously), and nine months later you receive a brusque email letting you know that your game isn't quite the right fit for their catalog. 

Rinse and repeat for a few years.

And one day, your well-worn game meets a well-worn (or desperate) publisher, and you have a contract in your grubby hands. Sure, there's no advance, the royalty rate surely transposed two digits and you forgot to include a rights reversion clause, but you are now a professional Game Designer. With a day job, friends who no longer want to look at your game and five grand owed to the local Kinko's, but still.

Three years later your game, which by now little resembles (theme, gameplay, enjoyment) the version you had when you signed that cursed contract, survives a half-assed Kickstarter campaign and meets its funding goal with mere hours to spare. Eighteen months after your original shipping estimate, backers (who have by now completely forgotten that your game even exists) receive a box with a poorly edited rulebook, slapdash graphic design and missing components. But some random gamer with no understanding of sunk costs gathers her friends and sits down to consume the only meaningful thing you've done in the past five years.

And they promptly discover a fatal flaw in the game that somehow made its way past the hordes of gamers (six people) who playtested the final design. Your game has now been given the dreaded label "broken" and nobody will ever play it again. Time to start working on your next design; with any luck people won't remember your name.

And I am about to embark on this journey. To be fair, the above isn't representative of most designers' experience. I'm friends with published game designers, and do rulebook work for a number of publishers who are passionate about making games that are thoroughly tested, well-produced, thematic and fun (Plaid Hat, I'm looking at you). But this is my first proper stab at game design, and as a way of self-immolation I'll be publishing all of my design work here--the process, the frustration, the breakthroughs, and the (perhaps eventually) submissions. If nothing else, it'll be something to laugh about/cry over in two years. Next up: design goals.