Noiseless Chatter Spotlight: Rushmore (1998)

Pipe dreams, dad.
I’m a barber’s son.

When it came time for me to decide which film to spotlight for Wes Anderson month, I found it to be a pretty difficult decision. I could easily have turned to personal favorites The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and rattled for a few thousand words about why I think they’re great. Or I could have done a piece about why The Darjeeling Limited feels like Anderson catching himself off guard, with mixed — though ultimately excellent — results. And, of course, I could have written a piece about either Bottle Rocket or Fantastic Mr. Fox, giving myself an opportunity to explore critically my misgivings.

But all of that would have been almost too easy, especially when, all month long, Rushmore has been calling out to me, and attempting to instill itself in my mind as the perfect ambassador of Anderson’s form and methods. Eventually, I caved to its charm and confidence, and accepted what it told me wholesale. Rushmore positioned itself so effectively in my mind the same way Max Fischer positions himself so effectively in the film: by already believing itself to be right. That’s also how Anderson, at his best, manages not only to overcome contrived situations and wooden performances, but to harness their dormant energy and ultimately use them to his creative advantage. It’s a whole lot of charm, a larger amount of confidence, and a willingness to invest absolutely everything. Rushmore embodies all of that perfectly.

After all, Rushmore itself is a movie about manipulation, and I mean that in both the constructive and reductive senses of the word. Max Fischer is seemingly a 15-year-old omni-prodigy, though he doesn’t happen to be particularly good at anything. Or, perhaps, he’s not particularly good at anything other than manipulating people into thinking he’s good at things. It’s enormously telling — and appropriate — that the only thing that earns Max any genuine accolades throughout the course of the film is his work as a playwright.

Writing and directing plays allows him to work with his most effective resources: the tools of manipulation. Every line spoken, every step taken, every lighting decision and element of background animation are within his control, and that’s how he likes it. By default, Max is not easily shaken. Upon given notice that he’s being placed on sudden-death academic probation and may be kicked out The Rushmore Academy, he responds coolly and attempts to strike a reasonable bargain to remain enrolled. By contrast, when one of his actors fails to deliver a minor line in his stage adaptation of Serpico, Max becomes emotional, aggressive, and instigates physical violence.

Plays are where Max feels the most control, and they’re where he can rely on retaining that control. As evidence, it’s no coincidence that his assemblage of actors go under the name The Max Fischer Players. These are Max’s projects, in his hands and under his control, and if anything threatens his complete dominion over them he feels threatened, and he will lash out.

It’s also no coincidence that hands are a recurring motif in Rushmore. In fact, the film is largely — arguably entirely — about Max’s relentless manipulation of the world around him. Interestingly, the word “manipulate” itself derives from the Latin manus, which means hand. Manipulating means literally to position by hand. The word “manufacture” shares a similar original, meaning to create by hand, and both “manipulate” and “manufacture” feel like inextricable parts of Max’s daily routine. (The Latin connection is also a pleasant surprise when considering this within the context of the film.)

All of this goes to justify and explain the film’s compulsive interest in hands, and what one can do with them. Perhaps most overtly, Max lies about receiving a handjob from Mrs. Calloway, the mother of his chapel partner Dirk, which is an interestingly specific fabrication. Handjobs also factor into Dirk’s deliberately needling letter to Max later in the film, when Dirk claims he witnessed Miss Cross and Mr. Blume giving them to each other. The comedy comes from the fact that Dirk clearly doesn’t know what a handjob is — they’re rather necessarily one-sided in heterosexual relationships — but when Max believes it, he reveals that he doesn’t know either. It’s something that sounded appealing to Max, and its emphasis on handiwork — so to speak — fits in perfectly with his personal ethos, and lent itself to a thematically fitting lie.

Miss Cross also invokes the concept of a handjob when she asks Max what he’d tell his friends if they did sleep together. She also asks whether or not he’d claim that he fingered her…another clearly (and more accurately phrased) reference to his hands in a sexual sense.

Less obscenely, Max uses his hands to make statements that he cannot — or chooses to not — make through his words. He orders a construction crew to shut down by gesturing to them, he signals to a disc jockey to play a song he’s selected specially for the occasion, and he flashes Dr. Guggenheim the middle finger after starting a fire outside of his office window. For an artist, particularly one who engages regularly in strongly physical extra-curricular activities, the hand can be as expressive or more expressive than the voice. Even his handwriting is deliberately considered and executed, with a careful calligraphy employed even his least formal note taking.

Max’s hands serve as a clear symbol of who he is, and of what he does. That’s why when Dirk refuses to take his hand after a school-yard scuffle, it’s much more clearly a rejection of who Max is as a person than a simple — though loaded — refusal to help him up. Dirk eventually apologizes for not taking his hand, and Max, in the same conversation, apologizes for claiming that his mother gave him a handjob. A hand caused both insults, and an apology — pardon the phrasing — waves them away. Soon afterward Max overcomes his funk by taking the kite from Dirk and flying it himself…a physical engagement and act of control that immediately causes him to begin brainstorming a new endeavor: The Kite Flying Society, with a flood of names for potential members following close behind. It’s Max regaining control…however far removed from what he might have lost on his way down.

This unstoppable yearning for absolute control is endemic to Anderson as well, and the meticulous structuring of each of his films — starting, of course, with Rushmore — makes that clear. Like Max, there’s not a set detail that escapes his notice, or that could possibly receive too much of his consideration and attention. Like Max, he demands limitless artistic control over his actors, their wardrobes, and the soundtracks playing behind them. And, like Max, his critics would argue that in this search for clinical perfection, he misses the human element that makes these pieces of art worth creating.

The latter is a viewpoint I don’t particularly endorse, but it does mean that Anderson’s taking a sideways approach to humanity, which to some is one of his clearest hallmarks and to others is one of his most distracting tendencies. For Max, it was more a question of realizing that those around him — along with the world as it actually is, as opposed to how he wishes it to be — are beautiful in their own way, and worthy of his respect and appreciation for who they are. Max wants to see the world as a series of purposefully constructed moments marching toward a grand statement or triumph…which, it must be said, is exactly the environment Wes Anderson creates for him within the film. But, along the way, those moments reveal weakness, and a genuinely pained emotional core.

It’s not until the end of the film that Max can accept that, sometimes, we just need to take the world for what it is, and realize that while we can’t have everything we think we want, we can live a perfectly fulfilled life with what we have. His father may only be a barber, but that’s a disappointment only in the relative sense that he’s not a neurosurgeon…a fiction Max invented for the sole purpose of being taken more seriously, but which instead proves to be a painfully distinct schism between his fantasy and the real world around him.

And Margaret Yang, a classmate whom he remakes into something more attractive by removing her glasses, doing her hair and dolling her up with makeup, fails to capture his fancy even after all of his meddling. When he dances with her at the end of the film and is sweetly embarrassed by the possibility that she might now be his girlfriend, it’s the real Margret that he finally embraced…not the deliberately manufactured fiction that he put on display in front of everybody. (It’s also worth noting that the character of Margaret Yang was originally intended to have a missing finger — a concept that was latter reappropriated for use in The Royal Tenenbaums but would have even further advanced this film’s manual infatuation.)

Max Fischer’s world is less a place to live than it is a stage upon which he intends to will to life a carefully shaped destiny. He cultivates the world like a gardener, pruning what doesn’t work, attending to what does, and if there’s anything missing that he really wants, he’ll go out there and plant it himself. It’s precisely the opposite of Herman Blume’s worldview, which is more akin to being trapped in a Hell of careless accumulation. He ends up married to a woman he doesn’t love, with two brutish sons he never expected to have, and he’s envious of a 15-year old boy…not because he has everything together — he’s already heard from Dr. Guggenheim what a lousy student Max is — but because he seems to have everything together.

Max’s confidence is seductive. It doesn’t matter to Mr. Blume what Max’s situation actually is — from bad grades to being a simple barber’s son — it matters to him that Max has found a way to thrive within those circumstances, something Blume’s not been able to do. Of course, Max’s very act of thriving is confined to a rather thin and obvious bubble, but it’s more than Blume has, and it’s understandable that he would be seduced by that, just as fans of Wes Anderson’s are seduced by his own, just as clearly manufactured, bubble. It’s a worldview that certain people — Blume and ourselves — active want to buy into.

As much as Max attempts to restructure the world around him through sheer force of will, Blume — far too late — now attempts the same thing with Max. After all, Ronnie and Donnie are the two sons he never thought he’d have. The unspoken sentiment here is that Max is the son he thought he’d have: an achiever, a charmer, and — seemingly — a self-assured young gentleman. That Max would probably also have preferred being born to this steel mogul is also unspoken, but equally clear, and the fact that they both settle upon Miss Cross in a romantic way that skews enormously toward the motherly on both sides is also quite telling. These are people attempting to build their worlds…Blume for the first time, and Max continually so.

They may be at different stages in their lives, but they yearn for the same things. Blume and Max may seem perfectly suited as father and son surrogates, but as Miss Cross — and many other aspects of the film, including the escalating prank war that nearly results in death — reminds us, they’re made for each other. They’re friends, whether they like it or not, and whether they know it or not. The love story would involve Miss Cross if Max had anything to say about it — his frustration here stems from the fact that, no, for once he doesn’t have anything to say about it — but, in reality, it’s Blume that’s his soul mate.

It’s a sweet movie with a clear and loving craftsmanship that keeps the tragedy from being too tragic and the comedy from removing it too far from reality. It takes place within a distinct bubble — presented literally as a play — but that’s as it should be. Rushmore is Max’s story, and Max’s story deserves to be told with as much charm and detail and structural obsession as possible.

It’s also Anderson’s story, and an exploration of the results of unchecked control. It makes for a beautiful portrait, but one that needs to be penetrated before you can see the actual human shape that’s being painted.

Noiseless Chatter Spotlight: The Long Goodbye (1953)

The law isn’t justice. It’s a very imperfect mechanism. If you press exactly the right buttons and are also lucky, justice may show up in the answer. A mechanism was all the law was ever intended to be.

NOTE: This article is spoiler-free, for those who care about that. How I managed to write over three thousand words about a mystery without spoiling anything is a case I’ll never be able to solve.

There’s something sad about a man losing everything. There’s something even sadder about a man who has nothing finally finding himself with something to lose. It won’t stick around…it can’t stay. The universe can’t let you get away with happiness for too long. At least, that’s the kind of thing Philip Marlowe might think. And by the time we join up with him — toward the very end of a long, cruel and dangerous career — we really can’t blame him.

After a few false starts with interchangeable detective figures known as Dalmas and Mallory and Carmady, Raymond Chandler stumbled upon the name Philip Marlowe, and from then forward that was the only name he used. And with a steady name came the benefit of cumulative characterization. World building was not only made easier, it became a sort of passive necessity. And as Chandler plumbed the depths of this character who originated as nothing more than a pawn to be manipulated by the conventions of the genre, he graduated from fictionist to author. Marlowe did that for him. And in return, Chandler allowed his creation to star in some of the most effectively literary experiments detective fiction is ever likely to have.

But while Chandler’s star was on the rise, Marlowe’s was on an eternal decline. The long-suffering private detective was regularly insulted, beaten, stabbed, shot, brained, double crossed, left for dead and rejected by the world around him. And yet, like Charlie Brown and the football, he never gave up. Something kept Marlowe moving forward. Something stopped him from turning in his license and going to work in a hardware store — an alternate existence he ponders here in The Long Goodbye. Something compelled him to press on with his thankless job that would no doubt, in time, get him killed. And that something was an unflagging sense of justice.

For Marlowe, justice and the law are two separate entities that occasionally overlap, but are no substitutes for one another. The quote that opens this article comes from Sewell Endicott, a well-meaning but easily manipulated lawyer, but his observation echoes Marlowe’s own philosophy. The laws are rules that only really work to keep people in line who don’t press against them — in other words, they are only really of use to those who wouldn’t break them. For everybody else, there needs to be a different kind of justice. There needs to be a super-legal vigilance that punishes and redresses “wrong,” as opposed to “illegality.” That vigilance is missing from this world. Marlowe figures — more or less correctly — that it will either come from himself, or from nowhere. And so he slips a gun into his pocket, dons a fedora, and hopes nobody will notice last night’s black eye. It will kill him, but justice is larger than he is. The world can live without Philip Marlowe, but it can’t — or shouldn’t — continue on without somebody keeping the cosmic moral compass in check.

The police, interestingly, are often portrayed as Marlow’s biggest adversary. While he goes up against gangsters and thieves and thugs and murderers nightly, he knows what to expect from them. They make no convincing overtures that they are anything but villains, and Marlowe simply has to keep himself from getting killed until he finds an opening to bring them down. The police, on the other hand, claim to want the same thing he wants; they just have a different method for achieving it. Their method has the force, their method has the reach, and their method has the power. They are a national, well-organized and infinitely funded resource. Marlowe is a quiet man standing sour-faced in the rain. The former sees success when they close out a case…regardless of the accuracy of its outcome. Marlowe’s success is a more difficult, less quantifiable result: justice. He doesn’t always know how he’ll get there, or what it means, but he knows he’ll recognize it when he finds it.

Sewell Endicott is a prime example of what frustrates Marlowe about the legal process. He’s a good person who genuinely wants to see a case closed correctly. He follows proper procedure and asks all of the questions he is supposed to ask. However when placed up against those who know how to respond to those questions in such a way that satisfies Endicott but leaves the truth buried, he’s helpless. Marlowe sees this. The case is closed. The murder is solved and the murderer has been brought to some kind of justice. Only Marlowe doesn’t buy it. Something doesn’t fit. Endicott asks all of the questions he is supposed to ask. Marlowe endangers his own life by asking everything else. That’s the difference.

Or, rather, a difference. Marlowe’s sense of right and wrong is his own…a hyper-personal arbitration by which we are all judged, separate from and alternately looser and stricter than the more tangible “law.” Philip Marlowe is Chandler’s Ozymandias. The ends for him always justify the means, as he withholds evidence, obstructs and often derails the judicial process in aid of some grander, more solvent statement that will have a wider-reaching and fairer outcome than a standard criminal investigation ever could. And as with Ozymandias, a lot of innocent people get hurt along the way.

When I started reading Chandler a few years back, I thought I knew what to expect. And, in a way, I did. Detective fiction is a comparatively rigid genre. It has its rules and it wears them on its sleeve. Very rarely does detective fiction aim to achieve anything beyond a satisfying mystery cleverly resolved. And, in fact, that’s what Chandler was providing throughout an enormous portion of his career. Writing stories of about fifty pages each gave him just about enough room for a setup, a twist, a gunfight and a resolution. Along the way he might have stumbled over interesting characters or dynamics, but there wasn’t any time to explore them. That’s part of why, beginning with The Big Sleep, his first novel, Chandler turned back to his old stories…combining and manipulating and deepening them. It’s not that he didn’t know how to flesh out a novel, it’s that he had already written novels that were confined to 50 pages each, and wanted now to give them some breathing space. Going from 50 pages to 300 gave him a lot more room to explore these situations and these characters and their motivations. And going from one novel to an entire series gave him exponentially more room to explore Marlowe, and to test his unwavering morality against temptations of all kinds: personal, financial, carnal…and, in The Long Goodbye, devotional.

The Long Goodbye is Chandler’s final major work starring Philip Marlowe. It’s also, without question, my favorite of Chandler’s writings. Coming as it does toward the end of Marlowe’s career, the accumulated impact of tragedies lends this book an intriguing sense of weariness. Marlowe’s compass is as accurate as ever, but his body is broken. His drive is slowing down. His world view is stained permanently by the blood of the past. All of this is to say that Marlowe, here, is weaker than he’s ever been. Which allows him to make his ultimate mistake: befriending another human being.

Yes, The Long Goodbye is a story of friendship, much like previous spotlights Double Indemnity and “AWESOM-O.” But in this case the friendship is much more to the forefront, and is, in fact, the driving force behind the entire novel. In fact, it may even be the driving force behind everything Marlowe says and does this time around. His characteristic — and highly personal — morality is still on display, but it sometimes takes a back seat to the devotion and loyalty he has for his friend, Terry Lennox.

It’s easy to see why Marlowe feels so drawn toward Terry Lennox. He first meets him outside of an expensive club, where Lennox is first rejected and then physically removed from his own vehicle by the woman he’s with. He’s drunk, he’s broke, and he’s abandoned. The woman, his ex-wife Sylvia, drives off without him, and the doorman leaves him to lie embarrassingly on the pavement. Marlowe sees him there, scarred up from an old war injury and left to rot on streets that will never care whether he lives or dies, and he lifts him up. He takes him home. He sees himself in Lennox…a hopeless case that will never learn, but one with a good heart. As the novel unfolds, we learn that the disfiguring injury was actually the result of a wartime sacrifice, as he allowed himself to be nearly killed by a detonating shell so that his squadron might live. Marlowe slowly begins to feel accountable for Lennox. Nobody else will so much as speak to him, but Marlowe takes him home, joins him regularly for drinks, and eventually even allows the man to take him into his confidence about his history…something Marlowe typically avoids specifically so that he won’t develop a human connection.

Friendship is new to Marlowe. In several novels, including this one, he has a mutually antagonistic relationship with Bernie Ohls, the only cop Marlowe consistently respects, but they clash over their methods and can’t entirely allow the other to be too satisfied with what they’re doing. This, one begins to feel, must be the only friendship Marlowe is comfortable with: one that simply will not come too close. Marlowe and Ohls are chained to separate posts. They might be able to pull themselves near enough to interact, but never will they share the same world. And that’s how Marlowe likes it, preferring to spend his nights alone in a rented room solving a book of chess problems than out with anybody who may eventually double cross him. As Bob Dylan would later observe, “When you ain’t got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.”

And Marlowe’s right to be so reticent, because everybody will double cross him. It’s what he’s learned…or, rather, it’s what the world has taught him. Nobody gets away with being happy for too long, and Marlowe, who has never allowed himself to be happy, seems to have skirted that tragedy with a loophole. By living in rented rooms and never allowing himself to indulge in human relationships, there is nothing for anybody — or anything — to take away from him. When he lets Terry Lennox in, he is opening the door to his own tragedy.

And sure enough, tragedy does strike. Lennox shows up at Marlowe’s home early one morning, and demands that he gets driven to Mexico. Marlowe takes him on the condition that Lennox doesn’t tell him why; if he knows a crime has been committed, he won’t morally be able to help him escape. While this is true to the technicality of Marlowe’s ethical bent, it’s a completely deliberate fudge; an intentional exploitation of a logistical blindspot. In short, it’s exactly what Marlowe dislikes about standard policework, and it’s our first clear indication that his devotion to Lennox has managed to supplant — or at least uproot — Marlowe’s guiding morality. We let it happen here in the real world, too…any time we allow our feelings toward our friends, or relatives, or spouses or children to take precedence over how we might otherwise behave without them. It’s what happens when we start to make decisions based on how other people might feel. For us, it’s a necessary and often rewarding part of adulthood. For Marlowe it’s a liability, and a failure on his part to sustain his integrity in a crime-laden universe.

Marlowe later learns that Sylvia is dead, bludgeoned horribly by a small bronze statuette, and almost completely unidentifiable. He goes to jail for several days where he is beaten and abused by his fellow agents of the law, but refuses to tell them anything about Lennox, or where he’s gone, or whether or not he might have been involved. He is released only when it is learned that Lennox has committed suicide in a hotel room in a small Mexican town. Case closed.

But for Marlowe, it isn’t over. The Long Goodbye uses the Lennox material as bookends. He may be dead, but the novel still has several hundred pages left to go, and as the title suggests, letting go of his old friend won’t be easy.

The first Philip Marlowe novel was The Big Sleep, whose title was a euphemism for death. It’s fitting then that the title of the final major work featuring Marlowe refers to the process of mourning. It also, though not by design, reflects the long goodbye we as readers are saying to Marlowe. The slight Playback is the only complete story he will feature in after this one, and that’s a much shorter goodbye, a brief and airy swansong that leaves little impact in the wake of the sprawling Long Goodbye that preceded it. Poodle Springs, the novel meant to follow that up, was never completed.

Letting go of his dead friend is further complicated by the letter Marlowe receives, which was mailed before the suicide and contains a note of appreciation and a $5,000 bill. Marlowe doesn’t spend it. He’s back to his old self, eschewing personal gain because he knows it will eventually lead to personal loss. He downplays the value of the bill by referring to it as a portrait of Madison.

But he’s a changed man. The impact of having had a friend — or, perhaps, the impact of having lost one — has left a different, more sentimental Marlowe in his place. In Lennox’s letter he asks Marlowe to remember him by preparing a cup of coffee and a cigarette…which is what they last shared before Marlowe brought him to Mexico. He also asks that Marlowe return to their favorite tavern and drink a gimlet on his behalf. Marlowe does the former almost immediately, but turns down many opportunities for the latter. He knows, after all, that once he does so, he will have finished his goodbye. He will have to come to grips with the fact that Terry Lennox is no more. He will have to come to grips, that is to say, with the fact that the one friendship we’ve ever known him to have no longer exists.

There’s a lot more in The Long Goodbye than what I’ve mentioned so far. There’s the long and difficult case of the Wades, of course, and there’s the gorgeous central chapter in which Marlowe, for once, narrates a simple day at the office. But it’s all a symptom of his fatigue. He refuses to become embroiled in the evolving tragedy of Roger and Eileen Wade, and his dour recitation of a dull workday’s worth of meaningless encounters just serves to underscore the hollowness he feels.

The Wade interlude — like the titular goodbye, it’s a long interlude — occurs between the two halves of the Lennox case. In fact, the structure of the novel is artfully chiasmatic: the Lennox setup, the Wade setup, the glorious middle section that features Marlowe being reflective (in more ways than one, natch), the Wade conclusion, and finally the Lennox conclusion. Such deliberate craftsmanship in a genre not famed for complex artistic flourishes comes, probably not coincidentally, in a novel that features an author character who questions his value to the literary world, when all he writes is easily-digestible pulp. Wade cannot escape the sense that he’s capable of more. Chandler reaches just a little further, and achieves it.

It’s also no coincidence that the woman Marlowe will eventually marry makes her first appearance in this book. This is the right time for him; he is at the crux of a major change, as Terry Lennox — the only and last pillar of humanity he believed in — is torn bloodily from his life. It’s not so much that Linda Loring comes along and Marlowe recognized his future in her, it’s that Marlowe needed direction and Linda Loring came along.

It is, however, a coincidence that Chandler died during the composition of Poodle Springs, the novel which would feature Marlowe as a married man, secure in a different kind of existence with a companionship and stability he never knew…and, indeed, as the novel was unfinished, would never get to know. Just another cosmic insult to the private eye, one last kick in the pants and assurance that, yes, it is your destiny to be abused and, yes, we will see to it that you never escape.

Knives and bullets and bats and fists never managed to break Philip Marlowe, but the friendship of another man did. And Marlowe, without having anything else in his past worth comparing it to, does not know how to cope. He keeps digging up dirt and second guessing details. The case is closed, Marlowe. Everything is over and people are happy. Please leave it alone.

But he doesn’t. Because something is missing. He may have had and lost an important friendship, but he wasn’t double crossed. He wasn’t used or abused or manipulated by the person that he foolishly let into his life. And for that reason, he knows it can’t be over. And he digs, and he fights, and he argues, all in the service of uncovering the truth of the betrayal of which he knows he must have been the victim.

It’s a bizarre and unsettling psychological subversion of the genre Marlowe once represented so cleanly. He is driven by the unscripted forces of right and wrong, compelled onward by a sense of justice nobody else on the planet seems to share or even understand. Typically this means he seeks to bring the bad guys down. In The Long Goodbye, however, he is fighting to become the victim himself. Everything is quiet, and everything worked out…and that’s impossible, because Philip Marlowe hasn’t been obviously betrayed. He hasn’t paid the price for violating his rule of human contact. And he won’t rest until he finds his wounds and rubs them raw. He will not stop until he’s forced himself to feel the pain he knows he must have earned. His compulsion toward justice has morphed gradually into a kind of self-abuse, a cycle of internal torment that Marlowe — in just about every way apart from the literal — won’t survive.

He suffers for justice, justice of any kind, any where, for any one, please, just somewhere let justice shine, let the wrong be punished and let the right be relieved, just once, please, before I die…and yet, when he finds it, he must simply begin again, with a new case, resetting the counter, as though the previous events never happened…yet retaining the scars it took him to get there. Once that sense of justice is turned inward, there is nothing he can do but self-destruct.

It’s a lot darker and more emotionally complex than I ever expected detective fiction to be, and it comes at — more or less — the very end of Marlowe’s career both as a private detective and as a character. I thought I knew what to expect. I thought Chandler was just going to give me another volume of entertaining and distant tragedy, trimmed and packaged for my approval.

I wouldn’t say it’s one of my favorite books, but I will say it was one of my favorite experiences as a reader, and I’m still not sure I know what to do with it. To paraphrase one of Marlowe’s observations about cops, just when I thought I knew what to expect, one of them had to go and get human on me.

Noiseless Chatter Spotlight: “AWESOM-O,” South Park season 8, episode 5 (2004)

He’s metal and small and doesn’t judge me at all.
He’s a cyberwired bundle of joy.
My robot friend.

In 2004, a coworker of mine convinced me to start watching South Park again. I’m not really sure why I had stopped. I was one of the show’s early adopters — which isn’t saying much; there were many — and I was always happy to defend it as being more substantial than its mountains of violence and profanity led the easily insulted to believe. It was a great show, I thought, with clever writing and some genuinely intelligent insight into touchy subjects and controversial material. But at some point, probably around season five or so, it became less important for me to tune in regularly. I think, in a way, I didn’t want to watch it become a shadow of itself. I never saw the quality slip, but my turning away was a preemptive measure. It’s what would keep me from having to see it devolve and degrade itself before me, becoming less of an artistic statement and more of a way of keeping Comedy Central swimming in merchandising profits as the years went on.

But my coworker assured me that that hadn’t happened. That South Park was just as good as it ever was, or probably even better. So I tuned in for the first time after a long absence, and watched each new episode of season eight as it premiered. And though the kids were all the same age and the adults were no wiser, South Park as a show revealed to me just how much it managed to grow up.

The self-imposed tight turnaround on South Park episodes sounds like a living nightmare when you hear creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone talk about it in interviews, and often that fatigue shows in their responses to the interviewers’ questions. They sound careless and dismissive. They don’t seem particularly invested or enthusiastic. But it works wonders in terms of keeping the show fresh — note I’m saying nothing about topicality — and I think that’s the reason it glides so smoothly along to this day, periodically achieving greatness sixteen seasons on.

Why do I think this brutal tightness of schedule might be a facilitator of quality? Well, because of “AWESOM-O.” And because of many, many other things that this episode leads me to think about.

In the week leading up to the premiere of “AWESOM-O,” Comedy Central ran promos promising the return of Lemmiwinks. Lemmiwinks was the gerbil from the deservedly popular “The Death Camp of Tolerance” episode from two seasons prior, and while I could understand why they’d think fans would appreciate a callback to that episode, I wasn’t quite sure why I was supposed to be getting excited about another episode centering around the sexual insertion of rodents. But then the night came, and there was no Lemmiwinks. Instead we got a title card, explaining that due to the recent tragedy in Hawaii, that episode would not be aired, and we would get something else instead. That something else was “AWESOM-O.”

“AWESOM-O” is easily one of my favorite episodes of South Park, and I could fill another post by simply listing the reasons for that. It’s also, apparently, the episode with the fastest turnaround time in the show’s history: three days from conception to air. That means that when the Lemmiwinks episode vanished, they didn’t just air a rerun, or slap up something else that was ready to go. They built something from the ground up, a ramshackle creation of whatever they could get their hands on quickly, much in the same way Cartman must have constructed his robot costume. There was no tragedy in Hawaii. They just made it most of the way through the process of producing an episode that it turned out they didn’t believe in. And rather than just finishing it and shipping it off to air and be forgotten, they stopped. They had the courage to throw it away, and to begin again. With a deadline looming and nothing to show for the work they’d already invested, it was up to them not only to replace an episode in the lineup, but qualitatively justify the fact that they had thrown a different one away.

That’s something that few shows have the luxury of doing, and it’s why South Park is able to continue to feel fresh: in a very literal way, it always is.

A show like The Simpsons — which was beginning to show its age not long after South Park shuffled into view, and was well past its prime by the time South Park gave us “AWESOM-O” — has a turnaround time of around six months per episode. That means that by the time all the pieces are put together, it’s too late to do much corrective work. Even if the entire creative staff is unsatisfied with the way the pieces fit, little more than polish can be applied. The episode, as it is, six months after the final script was written and recorded, is airing whether you like it or not. South Park, fortunately, never had anywhere near that turnaround. Parker and Stone started off with Comedy Central working at a frantic pace and never stopping to catch their breath, and that’s the way it remains today. It means the two of them don’t get much sleep and often feel as though their creation is eating them alive, but it also means that if they produce an episode that they don’t like, they can destroy it and start fresh. They are in the habit of doing so, they have a production style that was built to sustain such changes in trajectory, and there isn’t half a year and several million dollars invested. Ironically, the tighter time frame and smaller budget allow the South Park crew to do more than shows with more bountiful resources.

As a last-minute substitute, “AWESOM-O” makes perfect sense. The germ of the idea (Cartman dresses like a robot to play a prank on Butters) is simple. It doesn’t require much thought to flesh it out; it’s an episode where kids behave like kids, making it a good fit for the characters, and also an easy night in the writers’ room. There’s no need for topical jokes or complicated inversions of established tropes; this is a chance for two of the show’s most popular characters — and, arguably, the show’s single most fruitful dynamic — to take center stage and entertain us.

It’s also, however, a brilliant little character piece, offering both Cartman and Butters the chance to display emotions they don’t often get to tap into. It’s a small story that could have taken place entirely in Butters’s bedroom, but its themes are powerful and universal. “AWESOM-O” is a story of friendship, like Double Indemnity before it. And like Double Indemnity, it’s a story of underhanded dealings, dubious motives, and the climactic disappointment of the piece’s only innocent man.

Cartman decides — off camera, for reasons we never hear — to play a prank on Butters, and it’s his most cutting and personal one yet: by pretending to be a robot, he’s going to let Butters believe that he has a friend for life, and then take that friendship away from him.

For comparison’s sake, two of Cartman’s previous pranks on Butters are recounted in this episode: he once locked him in a bomb shelter for several days, and he imitated Butters on the phone so that his father would come home and beat him. Either of those pranks sounds significantly crueler than the helpful robot persona Cartman adopts here, but a step back reveals that that’s not the case; either of the other two pranks would have worked just as well on any of the other children. There’s nothing about either of them that target Butters as an individual…he’s simply a victim, and might as well be anonymous. Here, however, Cartman is preying on something he knows Butters — and only Butters — will respond to in the necessary tragic way: a friend. For any other child, friends come and go. Betrayal is unfortunate, but not uncommon. In order for someone to be betrayed, however, there must be a relationship to betray, and Cartman knows that Butters has never had that. He will befriend the boy for the sole purpose of breaking his heart. It’s the most hurtful thing Cartman can do to Butters, and so of course he can’t resist.

Of course Cartman’s plot falls apart the moment he finds out Butters has blackmail material on him: a videotape of him dressed as Britney Spears and dancing with a cardboard cutout of Justin Timberlake. Butters doesn’t intend to blackmail him, and in fact doesn’t even remember where the videotape is, but once Cartman learns of it existence he’s unable to reveal himself, and is therefore unable to break Butters’s heart. He is, instead, forced to become and remain the actual friend that he was going to make Butters look foolish for believing in.

You’ll notice that there’s nothing about Stan, Kyle or Kenny in the above discussion, and that’s because they’re relegated to cameos here. They show up to wonder why Cartman is still keeping his robot ruse going, but, technically, that scene didn’t even need to be there. They serve no purpose as characters, and the script doesn’t try to force them in where they don’t belong.

I noticed this when I watched it new, way back in 2004, and it’s just a broader reflection of why the tight schedule works so well for this show: with no time to lose, Parker and Stone are used to throwing away ideas that don’t work, and shifting directions at a moment’s notice. It’s an approach borne of utility, but in a larger sense it works in the show’s favor, as it’s conditioned them not to hold fast to what no longer interests them for the sake of maintaining status quo.

If you think I’m going to bring up The Simpsons again as a point of comparison, you’re right. After all, there’s no better reference point for either of the two shows than each other, and whereas The Simpsons has been recycling plots and echoing itself in gradually deteriorating whispers for the sake of remaining familiar to whatever small audience still chooses to follow it, South Park has been ditching characters and ideas since season two, scrambling up core dynamics and introducing new regular characters in order to explore avenues that they previously couldn’t reach without stretching characters beyond their scope of believability.

Compared to the early seasons of South Park, “AWESOM-O” seems like an almost completely different show. It looks and sounds the same, but so many staple features have been abandoned in the meantime. Chef doesn’t sing an inappropriate song, Kenny doesn’t die, Kyle doesn’t learn something today, Stan has been ousted as the central figure by a previously unnamed background character we now know as Butters, the town doesn’t riot, and no grand observations are made about politics, religion or society. Officer Barbrady and the Mayor don’t exist anymore, Mr. Garrison no longer speaks through Mr. Hat, Ike doesn’t show up for a round of Kick the Baby and Randy Marsh has gone from “Stan’s dad” to breakout character. Things have changed, and the show let them change.

This is a simple story of a boy and his robot friend, and it’s a thousand miles removed from anything the show laid the groundwork for in its early years. The reason? That groundwork proved limiting and was growing tiresome, and so the creators chose to evolve rather than to stagnate. It was a wise decision. After all, despite what any network executives might think, it’s not the familiarity that keeps people tuning in…it’s the quality. Lose familiar elements and an audience might stick around, but lose the quality and you’re finished for good.

The promotion of Butters to main character status is probably one of the most fruitful changes the show ever made. It was a sacrifice of familiar elements made in favor of maintaining quality, and it allowed them to write the kinds of stories that were previously off-limits. After all, Butters is a different type of child…one that was not represented within the main group. Stan was logical and well-centered, Kyle was the moralist, Cartman was the asshole, and Kenny was…well, Kenny was several things, but outside of a few grand exceptions (like his Mysterion arc) he was simply crude. They were all distinct characters, as you can see, but none of them were at all fragile. In fact, that’s what won over audiences — and infuriated parents — when the show premiered: these kids didn’t take any shit. The cursed, they fought back, and they were perfectly capable of resorting to things we never thought we’d see children do on primetime television.

Butters, however, does none of that. He is fragility incarnate. Easy to hurt, and yet always willing to get back up and let you hurt him again. He doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body, and he is endlessly selfless and caring. He’s neither rude nor profane (he blurts out “Oh hamburgers,” when he’s particularly upset), and he just wants everyone around him to be happy. This makes him an excellent foil for the boys in general, but especially, of course, for Cartman in particular.

Cartman doesn’t just get annoyed by Butters as the other boys do…he actively wishes to harm him. In Cartman’s world, there is no room for a Butters. It is impossible to co-exist…the fact that Butters is fragile and helpless is a clear-cut reason that he must be destroyed.

Butters, on the other hand, sees the boys — and, again, particularly Cartman — as his friends. He must; without ever having had actual friends to compare them to, he assumes that these boys who talk to him must qualify. It doesn’t matter how badly they mistreat him, or how callously they abuse him…Butters sees them as friends. Which is why “AWESOM-O” is interesting. Cartman assumes that Butters has never experienced friendship…despite the fact that he himself is often on the receiving end of Butters’s declarations of loyalty.

But he’s right. What Butters has with AWESOM-O is different, and even Butters must feel that on some level. At first, he’s just another friend. But once he listens to what Butters has to say, helps him with his chores and engages in social activities with him in public — all things his other “friends” never did — Butters knows that this is really what friendship is supposed to be, and he falls for it. Hard. Listen to the wistful way he sings the word “friend” in the song quoted above; there’s an enormous gravity hanging from that tiny word…a large investment of emotion that, previously, had nowhere to go. And when AWESOM-O asserts himself and expresses desires contrary to what Butters now expects of his friend, there’s a telling moment during which Butters scolds him, and even resorts to physical violence: a spanking. He has a friend now…and he’s not going to let him get away.

I don’t know precisely what it was about “AWESOM-O” that made me like it so much at first, and what still causes it to resonate with me today. Maybe it’s the writing-workshop approach to the script, the alchemy of pressing deadline pain into gold. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s a small, human story instead of some grander, topical plot. Or maybe it’s just something simple: the small satisfaction of seeing Cartman on the losing end for a change, and watching him struggle to reverse that, as his prank backfires and he’s stuck in an endless premise with no conclusion. The plan was to give Butters a taste of friendship and then take it away, but he’s unable to progress past step one, and the joke’s on him: like or not, he really did become Butters’s friend. As the scientist observes at the end of the episode, it doesn’t matter if AWESOM-O is a robot; what matters is the very human spirit of friendship it brought to the boy who loved him. Of course the scientist believes Cartman to actually be a robot when he says that, but it rings true for the eight-year-old boy inside the cardboard suit as well: whatever Cartman’s motives, it felt sincere to Butters. And that made it real.

“AWESOM-O” might not be what you’d think of when defining a South Park plot, but it’s a perfect fit for the universe created by Parker and Stone. After all, at its best, South Park has always been about the characters rather than the situations. That’s why most viewers, when asked about their favorite episodes or highlights, will tend to point toward smaller scenes or moments or interactions than any broad celebrity caricature or townwide apocalypse. And the show is still, another eight seasons after “AWESOM-O” premiered, finding new and impressive ways to let those characters be themselves, and find their voices, and live their lives. The Simpsons, at its best, was also about its characters, but that show is no longer anywhere near as interested in letting them be themselves. What made The Simpsons so brilliant is that they started with a palette of stereotypes, and layered and explored those characters until they felt like real human beings. What unmade The Simpsons was that, at some point, they destructively stereotyped them again, and left them there.

I don’t know what the Lemmiwinks episode was supposed to be about. Perhaps I would have loved it. That doesn’t matter.

What matters is that the creators weren’t pleased with it. They took a long hard look at what they accomplished, and they made a difficult decision: to throw it away, and to try harder.

It’s an interesting coincidence to me that this episode was part of South Park‘s eighth season, as I’d say that the eighth was the last truly great season of The Simpsons. From season nine on, it was a slope that got more slippery all the time, and now, I’d argue, it’s no longer even interested in climbing back up again. South Park was poised at that precise point three days before “AWESOM-O” aired. Would they take the easy way out and just air some mediocrity, and hope that the show would fix itself in the future? Or would they keep working until they had something worthy of carrying the reputation that they’d built?

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and South Park could not travel both. It took the road less traveled by.

It chose not to follow the path to ruin and creative bankruptcy. After all…Simpsons did it.

Noiseless Chatter Spotlight: The Binding of Isaac (2011)

Goodbye, cruel world.
xoxo Isaac

I had something else in mind for my second Noiseless Chatter Spotlight, but the fact that it’s getting pre-empted at the last minute is pretty appropriate considering its own pedigree, so I don’t have too much regret that I’m instead spotlighting a computer game from last year called The Binding of Isaac.

The Binding of Isaac has been the subject of some conversation today, as Team Meat, the game’s developers, have announced that Nintendo has declined to sell the game through its downloadable software services. That should come neither as a surprise nor as an announcement worthy of much discussion at all, and yet an awful lot of otherwise quiet people sure have a lot to say. NintendoLife’s news article on the announcement has over one hundred comments already, as of this writing, and it’s rare that anything but the most controversial news items get anywhere near that much discussion. And that’s not taking into account the forum post on the same topic that spans several pages.

But what’s controversial about Nintendo choosing to pass on hosting a game in its marketplace? Games — and developers — are declined all the time. Granted, we usually don’t hear about it, but there’s something unique here. There’s something about The Binding of Isaac that commenters, gamers, people feel the need to chime in about. It’s not a topic that can be allowed to pass without remark. This is a game that everybody has an opinion about, even those who haven’t played it, and believe me, brother, if somebody mentions the game in any context, you’re going to hear everyone else’s opinion, too.

The comments on the article linked above are fairly evenly split between “this game is art and Nintendo has no right to deny gamers access” and “this game is filth and Nintendo was right to decline.” My opinion is somewhere in the middle: this game is indeed art, and Nintendo was also right (or at least had a right) to decline.

There are three separate, but related, identities that we need to consider when we discuss this game: firstly, The Binding of Isaac as a piece of entertainment, followed by The Binding of Isaac as art, and finally The Binding of Isaac as a product.

We’ll start with looking at it as a piece of entertainment…or, even more simply, as a game.

The Binding of Isaac is a Flash-based game of survival and exploration, with a heavier emphasis on the former than the latter. Its obvious reference point is the original Legend of Zelda for the NES, which it references visually throughout the game, and from which it takes many of its gameplay features, such as the finding and using of items, the treasure boxes, and the periodic boss battles. It’s a love letter to that video game classic in the same way that Team Meat’s earlier Super Meat Boy paid homage to other such early masterworks as Super Mario Bros., Mega Man and Castlevania. Team Meat knows their medium’s history, and they are quite content to package affectionate — and lovingly monstrous — reactions and responses to them as new games.

While many gamers (and, indeed, people) see such grotesque subversion as a cheap method of getting attention for a game that might not otherwise have seen a large audience, the fact is that neither Super Meat Boy nor The Binding of Isaac stop there. While shock for shock’s sake is instantly wearisome, the over-the-top bloody nightmare of Super Meat Boy revealed itself to be a brilliant and well-designed journey through clever stages and creative boss encounters. And The Binding of Isaac transcends its scatological obsession with the grotesque and hideous to become a game about games, a game that isn’t so much about survival as it is about what it means to survive. It doesn’t just push boundaries…it questions deeply the experiences we have between the boundaries we already know. It raises questions we never thought to ask, and it answers them exceedingly well. It’s designed to look like The Legend of Zelda, but its intention is to remind you of other, very different, things from your childhood: trauma, confusion, loneliness, frustration, and that feeling we’ve all had at least once — and which we all can remember so vividly if we conjure up the memory again, or have it conjured up for us — that the world is a cruel place that never wanted us here to begin with.

As you can see, we’re already drifting into a discussion of The Binding of Isaac as art, so allow me to just get the following out of my system: many times I’ve seen people shrug and say something to the effect of, “Art is in the eye of the audience.” This is their way of saying that, hey, maybe they don’t understand something, but somebody else might, and to that hypothetical somebody else, it might be art. In other words, art is subjective. Not as an experience, but as a classification. That, my friends, is bunk.

I think it’s pretty clear in the case of most works of art that they are, in fact, works of art. What it communicates to you might be entirely different from what it communicates to me, and it may not communicate anything to either of us, but art as a classification is pretty easily sniffed out by anybody who makes a legitimate attempt to engage the material.

The strawman in this argument is always something along the lines of, “Oh, they could smear excrement all over the wall and call it art, but I wouldn’t.” In reality, very few examples of actual art would be anywhere near that obtuse. Somebody indeed might call some poop on a wall art, but they could also call a cow a vegetable. There’s no law stopping them from doing so…it’s just up to us as individuals to know that they’re incorrect, whether deliberately so or innocently confused. Either way, they’re wrong, and the cow doesn’t become a vegetable to one person and not another, simply because that’s what somebody said it was.

Art is recognizable because it has notable conflagration of themes. The components of the work of art, whatever the medium, mean something. The absence of other components also means something. The fact that they’re arranged in whatever way they’re arranged means something. Art, in other words, has meaning. We can argue all day about what that meaning is, but we shouldn’t be arguing over whether or not a meaning can be experienced.

The Binding of Isaac is obviously a deliberately crafted piece of art that is not only consistent unto itself (and therefore free of the nonsensical “shit on a wall” brush-off) but its themes are plentiful and overt. There’s no question that The Binding of Isaac has meaning. You may interpret it to be something other than I interpret it to be, but the foundation for interpretation has been laid, and sturdily.

Isaac, as a character, is a little boy who lives with his highly religious mother. The plot of the game sees poor Isaac fleeing through the basement to escape his mother, who believes she’s been called by God to re-enact the biblical account of Isaac and Abraham. Isaac fights monsters and his own psyche (often both at the same time) and uses his tears as projectiles. His sadness manifests itself as the pitiful creatures that he attacks, his mother-inherited disgust for his own physical form is reflected in the piles of dung and hideous representations of human body parts scattered around the dungeons. Between levels Isaac is haunted by a randomly summoned memory of himself being humiliated by his mother or his peers. Isaac is a damaged soul, and so is his mother. The difference is that Isaac is on the receiving end. He is powerless. He has no weapons, and he has no clothes. He seems doomed to fail. Due to the random nature of the game, he often is. There’s enough in that brief synopsis to unpack for weeks. This game has something to say. It may not always be sure what it wants to say at any given time, but that’s okay…we’re not always sure about what we’re hearing.

The strongest corollary for me here is Pink Floyd’s masterpiece concept album The Wall. The overbearing mother and the feeling of isolation and worldly entrapment are parallel themes between the two works, and just as Pink Floyd hooks unsuspecting listeners with the familiar rocking satisfaction of “Young Lust” or the anthemic sadness of “Comfortably Numb,” only to bombard them with far more complicated, despondent and often impenetrably central songs and cycles once they’re too far in to escape, The Binding of Isaac seduces that area of our brain that loved The Legend of Zelda and would love to play a gross parody of it…only to strip, disarm and humiliate us, and then force us to fight our way back toward the light…any light.

A work featuring such a questionable representation of God should certainly cause us to question the nature of God ourselves. No, not necessarily in real life, but within the universe of the piece of art. Does God exist there? Isaac’s mother thinks so…but Isaac, in the situation from which we are trying to free him, probably shouldn’t. What kind of God would really command this? Or is there no God? Or is there a God who was misinterpreted? Or perhaps a God who doesn’t even realize any of this is happening to one of His creatures.

The game seems to suggest, I’d argue, an absence of God. After all, one of the first differences Legend of Zelda fans will notice is the lack of a definite map. Every time the game begins, the levels are generated randomly. Bosses are mixed up, items are scrambled or missing, and sometimes a good portion of the areas will be inaccessible, because the game didn’t provide you with the key you needed before you found the door. The Legend of Zelda had a God. (Or, actually, three goddesses.) Things were reliable; Hyrule was a fixed commodity with an unseen force holding it all together. One room always led to another, and with enough time and practice, you could come to know what to expect. There was a heavenly constant that maybe couldn’t help you out of every jam, but could at least prevent the universe from reknitting itself beneath your feet, and leaving you in a completely different place from what you were logically led to expect.

The Binding of Isaac has no such presence. Every step is fraught with danger, and while you may stumble blindly into the next room to find a helpful upgrade, you’re just as likely — or, probably, more likely — to find a powerful foe you’re ill-equipped to conquer. You can’t rely on your memory, and Isaac can’t count on your familiarity with his predicament. Every time you play the game, the poor kid is cast into an entirely different world of entirely different chaos. And it’s brilliant.

I think people question games like The Binding of Isaac as art because they’re obscene. (It explains their shit-stained-wall fall-back, too.) There’s some bizarre sort of reluctance to allow obscenity and art — as classifications — to intermingle, and I’m not sure why that is. Something might be obscene, they feel, or something might be art, but it certainly can’t be both. It’s an almost — ahem — puritanical outlook, and it’s dreadfully incorrect. We’ll touch on each of these pieces again in the future, I’m sure, but take a look at the Holy Trinity of Obscenity as Art: Ulysses, Lolita and Gravity’s Rainbow. From masturbating in public to pedophilia to the sexual consumption of human excrement, these books can often be utterly repugnant. And yet there’s a beauty in that repugnance. It’s not the stories they tell, it’s how they’re told. It’s not the content, it’s the context. It’s not the detail, it’s the meaning. They represent masterful artists painting repulsive portraits in language we can’t help but feel moved by. The Binding of Isaac is moving in its helplessness, in its despair, and in its ruthless, relentless tragedy. It’s an unpleasant experience, but it’s beautifully executed.

It’s also, however — getting to our third point about The Binding of Isaac as a product — unsellable. At least that’s how Nintendo feels, and, as much as I respect the game, I have to agree with their decision. They are, after all, a business first and foremost. Publishers were reluctant to touch the novels listed above, and while it might seem fun to point at the obscenity trials that plagued the comparatively-tame Ulysses, they had a point, and that point was to accurately reflect the opinions of the other human beings who occupied the world around James Joyce. Yes, many of them found Ulysses to be gorgeous and important, but others found it to be disgusting and downright criminal.

Again, I’d argue that no matter what they felt about the book, they had no right to claim it wasn’t “art.” They did, however, have every right to boycott the publisher, and Joyce, and anyone else associated with the book. After all, as consumers, their strongest vote is always in their wallet. They could stonewall publication, protest shops that carried it, and burn extant copies in the street. That much was their right. They had no right to claim it wasn’t art, but they had every right to decide they’d rather not share a world with it.

The Binding of Isaac is a difficult to stomach game that both subverts and perverts one of the best known stories of the Bible. It skewers blind faith, it punishes a naked child, and it repulsively de-sanctifies the human body. It’s mean-spirited and cruel, determinedly evil and unapologetically crass.

But it’s art. And while art has every right to a spotlight at an exhibition for those who wish to see it, it does not have an inherent right to be offered as a digital download beside the classic NES games that inspired it. Nintendo has decided that it would rather not place The Binding of Isaac in a shop next to Super Mario Bros., and I can’t say I disagree with that decision, or that I’d have made it differently.

I think it’s a great game. I think that a lot of gamers will be missing out on it because of Nintendo’s decision. But I can’t begrudge them, because as a product, it’s a bonfire and a public relations nightmare waiting to happen. Ulysses found a distributor, and so has The Binding of Isaac. The distributors who turned them down turned them down for a reason, and I respect them for that. In neither case did the reason have anything to do with withholding a work of art from those who might want to experience it; it had to do with staying in business. And, as businesses, that wasn’t a totally ridiculous decision.

Nintendo just said they’d rather not sell it. They never said it wasn’t art.

Noiseless Chatter Spotlight: Double Indemnity (1944)

WALTER: Know why you couldn’t figure this one, Keyes? I’ll tell you.
Because the guy you were looking for was too close.
Right across the desk from you.
KEYES: Closer than that, Walter.

Double Indemnity is, quite simply, one of my all-time favorite films. It’s also, for whatever reason, the very first thing that came to mind when I sat down to write my first Noiseless Chatter spotlight. I hope this will become a regular feature of this blog, and I’ll devote these posts to discussing great films, songs, video games, television programs, or…well, anything, and I want to provide some actual, useful commentary rather than mere summaries or celebrations. I don’t know what to expect, and that’s probably for the best. Learning the lesson that Walter Neff never survived to put into practice, I won’t try to shape the future to suit me better. It can only end in heartache.

Double Indemnity is Walter’s story…quite literally, as he spends almost the entire film dictating it into a recording device. Walter’s narration is crucial to our understanding of what happened, as he’s the only character present for every important scene, but it’s also a reflection of the dissonance between what he believes about himself, and the reality of his situation.

Walter is an insurance salesman, or was, until he met Phyllis Deitrichson and decided he’d use his inside knowledge to help her take out a fraudulent life insurance policy on her husband, murder him, and then abscond with the money and the girl. If you can read that sentence without guessing how this ends up for him, and without imagining a thousand different details that could possibly go wrong along the way, then you are truly one of God’s special creatures.

Double Indemnity, though, isn’t about the suspense of whether Walter gets away with it. It opens, after all, with Walter stumbling gutshot through the deserted insurance office, letting us know before he even finds the recording device that his will not be a story of triumph. No, Double Indemnity is about something very different. It’s about a punishment we expect, it’s about the universe slapping those back into place who seek to escape their station, and it’s about a man who never realized how easy he was to manipulate.

From the moment Phyllis appears in Walter’s life, wearing nothing but a towel and a souvenier wig from Colonial Williamsburg, the leagues of difference between Walter’s self-assured narrative bravado and the immediate ease with which a dark presence manipulates him becomes apparent, and the film never lets us forget it.

Walter believes he is manipulating Phyllis, or, at least, that he is equally manipulative. But what plays out on screen is quite different, as she sounds his depths, finds his weakness, and appeals to it in such a way that he thinks the power balance is weighed the other way. She senses his loneliness — a loneliness I’m not sure he even senses — and makes herself available to him. If there’s anything Barbara Stanwyck brings to the role that very few other actresses could, it’s how easily she reshapes herself to suit her surroundings. She became what she needed for her husband, and as soon as he starts tightening his purse strings she becomes what Walter needs instead. Another man, another wig.

From the outside, it’s easy to sense her evil. And yet it’s also so very easy to place yourself in Walter’s hopeless shoes, and feel her eyes staring so openly into yours, and deciding on some level to believe her over everything the universe might be telling you to the contrary. Haven’t we all been there before? She’s a despicable human being, but for Walter she’s an escape: an escape from solitude, an escape from justice, and, ultimately, an escape from life.

For an illustration of this, just take a look at the few times we see her husband alive. It’s always in Walter’s presence, and it’s a grotesque delight to watch her try to rile him up in order to “prove” to her patsy of an insurance agent how horrible he is. Mr. Deitrichson comes across as a bit of a grump, but neither time does he rise to her challenges. In fact, the more I’ve watched this film the more I feel for him. Not only was he bumped off for an insurance policy he didn’t know he had, but this is the sort of thing he had to put up with day in and day out: a deceitful woman constantly prodding him and bleeding him dry. This, ladies in gentlemen, is the life Walter is so quick to pursue.

But we’ve made it this far, over 700 words according to WordPress, without mentioning the greatest evidence of Walter’s conflicting narration of all: Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes.

In his recorded confession, Walter addresses Keyes in two ways at different points: as an equal, and as an adversary. (He — equally incorrectly — discusses Phyllis in the same ways.) Sometimes, I suppose, he’s actually addressing him as both…an opponent on the other side of the chess board. (Closer than that, Walter.) A fencing partner who can mirror and anticipate his every move, but who is far from unbeatable. That’s Walter’s perception. In the footage that we see, however, Keyes comes off as far more competent and commanding a presence than Walter ever gives him credit for. In fact, it’s he that Walter probably sees when he looks in the mirror, because from the evidence on display, Keyes isn’t so much Walter’s worthy adversary as he is the wizened expert to Walter’s thick-headed upstart. It’s not a fair fight, and only Walter, delusional Walter, could see it as one.

Keyes is a master of his trade: as claims manager, it is his job to investigate suspicious claims so that the company won’t have to pay out on fraudulent ones. From Walter’s perspective, this makes Keyes the villain of the piece. From the audience’s perspective, Keyes is our most sympathetic character, and the one we keep our eyes on most closely, as we wait for him to prove himself.

It’s important to note that Keyes’s role here is not that of company hardass. He’s not a starched-shirt sourpuss who places hurdle after hurdle in front of those who come in seeking payment on their policies. No, Keyes has a more righteous aim: Keyes is fighting for justice. When the payout is genuine, he is happy to provide it. It is only fraudulence that upsets him, and once it upsets him he can’t eat or sleep until he brings the thieves to justice. After all, fraudsters inflate the premiums for honest folk. Keyes is fighting, indirectly, for the little man (a turn of phrase it would do you well to remember). By toppling conniving giants, he is also speaking up for the unspoken and anonymous honesty in the world around him, somewhere. It comforts him just to know its there, and that he’s doing his part to keep it safe.

Keyes is Edward G. Robinson at his absolute best. He’s more loyal to the truth than to his employer, as evidenced by one of my favorite monologues in all of film, when he stands up to the company president and recites the categorizations and subcategorizations of types of suicide, simply to let his self-important desk jockey of a boss know how much there is to consider before leaping to a single conclusion. It’s a speech consisting of hollow classifications and little more, and yet it’s also a stirring and impassioned plea for the common man, who is all too often the faceless victim of blind conclusions arrived at by rich men in corner offices. It’s delivered in the flat, technical parlance of a man who isn’t comfortable speaking any words that don’t relate directly to his job, but the heart comes through, and his words mean more than they actually say.

Raymond Chandler worked on the screenplay for Double Indemnity, but it’s based on a story by James M. Cain. Had Chandler written the story, Keyes, being a detective figure, would no doubt have been the central figure, and though I love Chandler this alone makes me genuinely glad that he did not write the story. Keyes is a far more imposing presence from the sidelines, and the fleeting moments that we spend with him allow his ghost to drift naturally through scenes in which he is not present, as we search for the clues that he might find, and side ourselves with him as we attempt to unravel the tangles of Walter’s doomed plot.

Keyes describes his sense of justice as being a “little man” inside of him who won’t let him so much as swallow his food as long as there’s a stone left unturned. Pinocchio knew him as a cricket. We know him as a conscience. The Little Man hears of Deitrichson’s claim, and he knows something’s not right. Walter anticipated this. He’s worked closely with Keyes, and he considers himself to have insider knowledge about Keyes’s investigations. He thinks he can outwit him. As things transpire, though, the only one Walter outwits is himself.

When Double Indemnity was released, there was some concern that it would be illustrating for movie-goers how to literally get away with murder. Obviously it ended up getting released anyway, and perhaps that’s because the film board realized that if anyone has to be giving advice on how to murder people, it should be the dimwit Walter Neff.

The more I watch this film, the more obvious the flaws in Walter’s plan become. It’s a passively comic way to view the film; pick apart every instance that Walter’s carefully orchestrated crime actually turns out to succeed not because of his meticulous planning, but because of chance and dumb luck.

I won’t go into it here as there’s already plenty more to say and it wouldn’t be much fun to rob you of these discoveries yourself, but one particularly ridiculous suggestion of Walter’s has to do with his communications with Phyllis.

Obviously they don’t want to be seen together, and they shouldn’t be driving back and forth to each other’s homes if they wish to avoid suspicion, but they do need to remain in communication somehow. Walter suggest meeting regularly in a drug store, which, in theory, isn’t such a bad thing. In practice, though, stock boys are constantly reaching over them to shelve items and shoppers are asking them to pass them the products that they’re standing in front of. They’re the most visible presence in the store, and they serve as an easily identifiable obstacle for those around them. Anyone who was to interview these shoppers or employees would find that these shadowy figures were far from anonymous, and could easily be described and identified on sight. They’re always there, exchanging shifty glances and panicked mumbles in front of the display of baby food. It’s a brilliant illustration of Walter’s terrible planning, and it’s never commented upon during the film. Double Indemnity gives the audience credit. It pays off in spades.

The closest the film comes to acknowledging the foolishness of Walter’s scheme is when we hear a message Keyes recorded on the same device Walter is using now, in which Keyes, who is investigating the claim, tells his boys explicitly not to follow up on their suspicions about Walter. Keyes can vouch for him as a human being (or is that friend?), and that friendship trumps even Keyes’s hard-wired lust for justice. It’s a decision Keyes would, of course, come to regret, and it makes that moment that much sadder; Keyes, for perhaps the only time in his life, allows himself to make a human decision based upon emotion rather than facts…and Walter is going to punish him for it.

Walter’s meticulous planning also gives us our clearest insight into the hollowness of his life, and why he would so quickly trade it for a paper-thin promise of excitement with Phyllis: when taking great pains to establish alibis for the night of the murder, he contacts colleagues and work associates. He does not contact friends. The reason? Walter has none.

Walter’s life is his work. Ditto Keyes. The difference is that Walter is not satisfied with his work, whereas Keyes views it as a noble calling. Having seen this film long after I saw The Man Who Wasn’t There, the noir-ish film by the noir-obsessed Cohen brothers, it’s hard not to see parallels between Walter and that film’s central character: a barber who dreams of becoming a dry cleaner. In both cases a life (literally and metaphorically) is thrown away in favor of pursuing a dream that could never make them happy anyway. Walter doesn’t dream of something bigger…he dreams of something different. Phyllis is another human being, and, in his sad state, that qualifies as something different.

Interestingly, Keyes himself offers Walter something different about halfway through the film: a job as his assistant. Walter declines, because it would require a pay cut, something that Keyes is quick to be honest about. This scene makes two things very clear: Keyes respects Walter so much that he’s offering him the highest praise he can possibly offer anybody by asking him to work closely beside him on the most important thing in his life, and that Keyes is perhaps the one person in Walter’s life who is not trying to manipulate him. If you want Walter on your side, you need to at least pretend to flatter him. Keyes approaches him with honesty, and with honesty Walter is able to decline. Had Phyllis been honest, Walter would have declined that, too. Perhaps Keyes should have worn a more seductive anklet.

There’s one thing I’ve been dancing around here, and it’s the one thing I wrote this post to discuss. It’s been difficult to keep from discussing it: Double Indemnity, in spite of everything I’ve said above or could ever say more, is a film about friendship. Unfortunately for Walter, he doesn’t realize it’s a film about friendship until after he’s switched off his microphone. Poor Walter thought he was in a crime thriller. He thought he was Humphrey Bogart, Dean Martin and Matt Damon. In reality he’s Fred MacMurray, collapsed and bleeding beside a potted plant, while Keyes looks on, disappointed and despondent. Keyes knew exactly what film he was in. He thought Walter did, too.

The quote beneath the film still that opened this article is what ends the film. Walter is still laboring under the misapprehension that he accomplished anything at all, still believing he led Keyes on some kind of wild goose chase that almost — so close — succeeded in letting him get away with murder. Keyes responds with the pained rejoinder that they were never adversaries at all. They were friends.

Walter’s reply, not included above, is the final line in the film: “I love you, too.” But it’s too late. Keyes had his heart broken. He sided with Walter over The Little Man, because that’s what human beings do. They let their emotions guide them and shape their decisions. They push logic to the side and they try not pick at things that they think might hurt them or the people they love. They have hearts that are so much easier to follow than their minds. And, sometimes, they make the wrong choice, and their closest friend ends up dying on the carpet before them. It’s the same choice Walter made earlier, and Walter died. Keyes did not die…but his faith in humanity just might have.

Walter was the last and only person Keyes thought he could trust. He was willing to make him a personal assistant. He was the only one other than Phyllis who dropped by Walter’s apartment, ever, in the course of the entire film. Walter knew, on some level, that he was friendless, but Phyllis wasn’t the escape he needed. It was Keyes who was already there, Keyes who could unlock a new and brighter future. He was a friend, a confidant, a colleague, a mentor and a fan all in one, and, what’s more, Walter already had him.

The twist at the end of Double Indemnity isn’t that Walter gets killed; we already knew that as soon as the film began, and so did Walter. The twist, that we learn along with him, is the central relationship of the film, one that’s always been in the background for Walter, but was always at the forefront for Keyes. That’s another reason it’s best that Keyes was not our main character…we need to discover this too late for it to do any good, just like Walter did.

Double Indemnity is a film about the murder of an innocent man, and the fallout and bloodshed that follows, and yet it’s also one of the most elegant, gorgeously explored illustrations of male friendship in cinema, and it sits right alongside such disparate genre films as Casablanca and Shaun of the Dead as another movie that withholds the secret of that friendship until it’s over. These are not films about insurance fraud or rekindled romance or zombie invasions…these are films about who we are to each other, and what our presence means to the person sitting across the room.

Closer than that, Walter.