Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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I’ll be honest, after watching The Lock In, I started to reconsider a few of my life choices. No, I didn’t stop masturbating. If anything, I’ve been masturbating far more frequently, just to spite it.

Specifically, I wondered if I made the right decision when I chose Christian horror as this year’s theme. Not that I was skeptical that I’d have anything to say — last week’s review made it quite clear that I would — but because…fuck. The Lock In was awful. Could I really make it through another two movies like that?

The answer, obviously, is no. No human being could. Which is why I’m glad to report that this week’s film, The Familiar, is far superior in every conceivable way. It’s still not a good movie, but it’s competent. Interesting. Periodically even intelligent. It does things I like. It features actors I like. It’s actually given me things to think about for weeks after watching it. I can’t say I recommend it, but I can say that I don’t feel like my time was wasted.

It was pretty okay!

I sat down to watch The Familiar with the expectation that I’d get through about 10 minutes, then get up and do something more fun, like eat a sack of broken glass. I’d return later for another dose and give up again. That’s how I had to watch The Lock In. (Here. I dare you to outlast me.)

It took me many sessions to make it through that hunk of crap, but The Familiar proved admirably watchable. Even through its worst moments, I never wanted to turn it off. I still could have been doing better things with my time, but I never felt that way, which is a genuine achievement.

I might not have liked the movie, but I liked watching it.

The Familiar actually does a decent job of preaching Christian value through popular media. What I mainly mean when I say this is that the film isn’t compromised by godliness. It has a strong spiritual bent and a number of clear spiritual messages, but the spirituality doesn’t get in the way of the film presenting realistically flawed characters.

The Lock In presented us with a group of kids (three…then four…then nevermind let’s just do the three) that we’re told deserve to be tormented by demons for some indeterminate amount of time. Yet none of their transgressions register to a secular audience. They don’t fight. They don’t steal. They don’t use profanity. They aren’t violent, rude, dishonest, or…anything bad, really. The worst they do is touch (literally just physically touch) a copy of Big ‘Uns. In fact, the kid with the video camera won’t even let the pornography drift into shot, so naturally virtuous is he. For crying out loud, their idea of a wild night is participating in a church lock-in.

They’re the most well-behaved little scamps in motion picture history, but director Rich Praytor thinks they deserve to have pitchforks driven into their heads all night for occupying the same space as photographic reproductions of women in various stages of undress. Forgive me if I don’t find that relatable.

But Sam, our equivalent flawed demon-bait here, is deeply relatable. He drinks. He curses. (A lot.) He’s slovenly. He’s a bit of a dick. He fucks. At one point, he seriously contemplates suicide.

The Lock In bent itself into a pretzel to ensure that it would be suitable for airing in a church basement. The Familiar doesn’t care. And the film is infinitely better for it.

What The Familiar understands is that you don’t communicate with people by speaking your own language. You communicate by speaking theirs. The Lock In was a movie by and for people who didn’t need it. The Familiar, at least relatively, understands the people who do.

Granted, Sam is the whitewashed, exaggerated sermon version of a sinner. But there’s humanity in his situation. In his struggle. In his fight against his inner demons that he needs to conquer before he can face his external one. And that’s good. Not unique, no…but serviceable. It functions. It makes this a real movie.

We meet Sam five years after the death of his wife, Katherine. He’s clearly distraught and unhappy. His life is an obvious wreck, and it’s a wreck of his own making. Later in the film we learn that he used to be a church leader of some kind, and that his father still is, but Sam has withdrawn. The fact that he never falls to his knees and blames God for taking his wife and ruining his world qualifies here as a kind of restraint, and it’s a welcome one. It’s obvious that Sam isn’t interested in dramatically blaming anyone…his response is the much more human retreat from the things that used to comfort him and bring him joy.

One day, without a clear explanation, Katherine’s little sister, Laura, shows up on his doorstep. The film is about the relationship they develop, Sam’s gradual emotional recovery, and a crazy pornography demon who chases them around.

You didn’t really think we were done with the pornography demons, did you?

Yes, I have to admit I laughed out loud when another Christian horror film (100% of the Christian horror films I’ve seen!) kicked off with kids looking at some porn they found. You know, come to think of it, are the kids really accountable for this? If they stole it from a convenience store or something, maybe…but if they’re just bumbling around somewhere and find it, as both sets of kids so far do, are they really to blame for anything?

The answer, obviously, is yes, and they should be tormented by supernatural gremlins for the rest of eternity.

To be honest, though, I’m not sure why this is here. It doesn’t set the stage for any of Sam’s later struggles — seeing this chance encounter blossom into a full-fledged pornography addiction could make it an effective cautionary tale — and it really only serves to introduce the presence of demons to the reality of this film.

Sam and his buddy Charlie — who will grow up to become the worst actor in The Familiar — find the pornography and are followed home by some sort of evil force. Many years later, the two of them must face and defeat that force. Why the force had to spring forth from a skin mag and not from something truly horrific — like a marijuana cigarette, or two men holding hands — is beyond me, but it’s all we get.

As an adult, Sam is some kind of gun dealer and/or repairman, and his friend Charlie is a fat cop. I don’t like using the word “fat” to describe a character, but we’d only have “cop” without it.

That’s the extent of his characterization, and roughly half of his scenes consist of him stepping aside to reveal Sam’s father. Sam’s father shows up about 50 times throughout the course of the film and each time it’s supposed to be a surprise. I kept expecting Sam to see Charlie at his door and roll his eyes, saying, “Hello, dad.”

The father’s role in this film is to repeatedly offer his help to Sam in fighting the pornography demon. Sam refuses his help in fighting the pornography demon 49 times. The 50th time, Sam accepts his help in fighting the pornography demon. Together, they fight the pornography demon.

So, yeah, The Familiar is pretty dumb. It’s the kind of movie that sounds like it has potential until you look past the synopsis. Nearly every decision is made poorly. It’s watchable, don’t get me wrong. And it has moments (and even stretches!) of genuine competence. But it’s not a good film, and it’s difficult to look at any aspect of it and not see room for improvement.

With one exception.

Laura Spencer plays Laura, and she’s…pretty great actually. To put it in spiritual terms, she redeems the film. She’s certainly what I’ll remember most about it, and she rises so far above the material she’s given it’s almost miraculous.

That’s not to say she’s good in this role. To be honest, she’s kind of not. But she exists on a plane of goodness entirely separate from the film. She may not be the right fit for the character, or what writer/director Miles Hanon calls on her to do, but she’s good on her own, independent of whatever other foolishness is going on.

There’s a disconnect between Laura and the rest of the film, which, as we’ll talk about it more, might seem to be an artful choice. But I honestly feel it’s a happy accident that came about simply because Laura Spencer is genuinely too good for it.

It didn’t take me long to pick her out as the brightest spot of the experience. She’s immediately sweet and warm. A welcome and uplifting presence, which works within the context of the film as a great counterpoint to the drab, dark life Sam is choosing to lead. But it goes further than that. It’s not a directorial choice; it’s a contrast entirely of casting.

Spencer is a natural. A delight. I found myself shocked that in the middle of this instantly-forgotten Christian horror film there was an actor who…I really liked. One I enjoyed spending time with. One I wanted to see more of. While I’ll never know for sure, I’d be willing to bet that Spencer herself is the reason I was able to watch this film in one sitting. She’s not in every scene, but there’s always the promise that she’ll be in the next.

Most of the actors in Christian cinema are ones that are either not talented enough to rise above the low standards of that particular audience, or ones that have fallen far enough professionally that they have no chance of rising again (such as Kirk Cameron or Kevin Sorbo). So my actual love for an actor here came as a surprise. And the more time I spent with her, the more time I refused to believe she belonged here. She should be doing better things. She’s capable of better things. She deserves better things.

And, well, there must be a God, because she indeed has had a pretty strong career post-The Familiar. I’d never seen her in anything before this, but it’s nice to know her star has been rising continuously. This film was one of three she appeared in during 2009, her first year acting professionally. After this she moved onto parts in far bigger projects, such as Criminal Minds, 2 Broke Girls, Bones, Sleepy Hollow, and, most significantly, a recurring role on The Big Bang Theory. In fact, that show has recently promoted her to series regular. That’s huge.

In short, the industry took notice of her, and it was for good reason. You can’t watch The Familiar and not enjoy the time you’ve spent with Laura Spencer. I’m glad she won’t be appearing in Christian horror any time in the future.

It’s amazing how just one excellent element of a film can elevate it, can cause you to open yourself up to it, can earn your attention enough for an otherwise undeserving project to hold it. I spent a good part of the movie not learning good Christian morals because I was trying to imagine what a perfect fit she’d be as Poison Ivy in a Batman film. Heck, it doesn’t even have to be a good Batman film. She’d make it worth watching on her own!

She’s also, it must be said, almost painfully cute.

This isn’t even a comment about her attractiveness…there’s just a natural, innate adorableness to her that simply can’t be overlooked. It’s part of who she is.

That’s a necessary comment, I think, because part of her character’s purpose is the temptation she poses to Sam. She’s supposed to be attractive. She’s supposed to be desirable. It’s fair to say Spencer is those things. But she’s also supposed to be sexy, as seen when Sam finds and is transfixed by a recording of a striptease she performed during an audition.

And…Spencer isn’t sexy. She comes across as too pure for that. As too likable. There’s nothing wrong with being sexy (unless you ask these films, natch) but there’s a difference between sexiness and cuteness, and I don’t mean any disrespect by saying Laura Spencer is in the latter camp.

I think we expect something specific of our sexy demons. A certain look. A certain behavior. A certain…something beneath the flesh, within, deeper, conniving, teasing, beating down our defenses…something irresistible.

Spencer is too cute to be a demon, because demons aren’t portrayed as cute. Angels are as cute. Demons are as sexy. I’m all for subverting expectations, but I don’t believe Hanon is doing that. I think he lucked into a solid actress, and then forced her into a role she doesn’t fit.

One doesn’t look at her and succumb to lustful urgency. One looks at her and wants to hug her. And adopt puppies with her. And beat up whatever guys broke her heart.

Spencer — and therefore Laura — triggers our urge to protect rather than our urge to protect against. She’s terribly cast for a demonic sexbeast, but perfect in her performance of a completely separate character the film doesn’t realize it has.

Because, yes, Laura becomes a demonic sexbeast. Or channels one. Or is manipulated by one. It’s not entirely clear, but I think that’s okay; ambiguity is probably a good thing when it comes to sexbeasts.

The main conflict of the film is that of the Madonna and the Whore. Laura, as you can easily enough guess, represents the latter, with her deceased sister easily filling the role of the former. This somehow manages to not be the most problematic thing about Laura’s treatment, but we’ll get to that.

Boiling females (characters or otherwise) down to those two roles is obviously a bit regressive, and looks even more quaint (and uncomfortable) with each passing year. If we were generous we could redefine these roles as Virtue and Vice, but Hanon’s intentions are clear.

Sam, for a long time, had the sobering influence of a Madonna in his life.

She was honest. She was loyal. She was godly in word in deed. This was Katherine, his wife. When she dies — when her influence is removed — Sam’s spiritual condition is tested by the intoxicating influence of a Whore.

This is emphasized by a genuinely artful moment in which Sam speaks with a hallucination (or spirit, or fantasy) of Katherine, during which the camera pans around to reveal Laura approaching from behind. She causes him to literally turn from his wife.

Sam should stand firm. Should rebuff Laura’s advances. Should bring her to penitence. That is his duty. Will he be strong, or will he lie with woman who is not his wife?

That’s not as much of a worry for a secular audience, and he ends up (relateably) sleeping with her. To a spiritual audience, this would represent a serious faltering. To a secular one, it just makes him human. It works either way, but it’s still a bit distressing that Laura is cast in a negative light for having — and wanting! — a sex life.

Why wouldn’t she? She’s young. She’s attractive. She has a good personality, behaves selflessly, and seems like an all-around decent human being. Would a sex drive automatically damn her? Would it be just if it did?

There are a number of strange aspects at play. It would be one thing if Katherine were still alive, as fornicating with her younger sister would pretty clearly be a jerky thing to do. But the fact that she’s dead — and has been for half a decade by the start of the film — makes it impossible to see the issue as black and white. It’s a very grey area from the outside, and it’s up to the participants only whether or not this is okay.

Are they consenting? Are they comfortable with the fact that they share a relationship to the deceased? Do they see this as being disrespectful to her or her memory?

I’m not here to judge. Personally, no, I don’t think I’d romantically pursue my dead wife’s sister. But I also can’t judge somebody else for the direction their life takes them. What’s more, much ado is made of the fact that Sam and Laura hadn’t seen each other for many years. (The last time was well before Katherine died, and Laura didn’t come to the funeral.) It’s not as though this retroactively makes previous interactions seem like flirtation; there was no connection. If there now is…is that inherently a bad thing?

The Familiar thinks so. I don’t know that I do. I think it’s a topic worthy of discussion, and exploration by an intelligent piece of art.

Intrafamily romances of varying degrees run through works of art from The Royal Tenenbaums to Arrested Development to The Hotel New Hampshire, and each of those works has something unique to say about the subject. In those situations I also wouldn’t behave the way the characters do, but, by the end, I don’t end up judging them, which is why it’s a little disappointing that The Familiar is only interested in judging them.

There’s something to say about this. There’s a valid question. He was happy with Katherine, but he isn’t the one who’s dead. Characters keep telling him to move on, and, yes, he does need to move on. If entering into a new romance is the way in which he chooses to do so, is that a bad thing? What if he and Laura are actually a better match? What if they end up loving each other more deeply? What if that relationship is better for them than his relationship with Katherine was for either of them?

It’s not enough to say, “No, it’s wrong,” and shut the door on discussion. Many, many kinds of sexual interactions are inherently wrong. Forming a relationship with an ex’s sibling is not.

Especially when the possibility is only raised for the purpose of dismissing one of those siblings as a Whore, which Hanon does here.

The contrast is clear and intentional, with the sisters each characterized by their opposition to each other. It’s also strongly suggested that the state of Sam’s soul is at play. He can follow the influence of his dead wife to Heaven — where, in the reality of this film, she certainly has gone — or the influence of her sister to Hell.

The end of the film makes clear that Laura is not beyond salvation, but her gravity certainly pulls Sam down rather than up. After all, the demon was released (or summoned, or awakened, or interested…it’s not clear) when the boys found the pornography. Laura not only attempts (successfully) to seduce Sam into actual, extramarital fornication, but she ultimately serves as a vessel for the forces of Hell themselves.

…man, we’re drifting really close to the despicable thing at the heart of this film that I really don’t want to talk about. Let’s yak for a bit about those forces instead. Or rather, that force, as Hell’s emissary (missionary?) here is Rallo.

Who’s Rallo? It’s not explained.

Why is he called Rallo? It’s not explained.

What is actually happening here? It’s not explained.

“Rallo” is such an uncommon and oddly specific name that I have to assume it means something, but unless The Familiar was hoping to do some cross-promotion with The Cleveland Show I’ve got nothing.*

Wherever the name comes from, Rallo is the demon Sam and Charlie face at the beginning and end of the film. Between those two confrontations, Rallo torments Laura, seemingly because something about her makes her a viable channel for him and his objectives. More on that to come…

Laura at one point is aware of some kind of presence in Sam’s home, and becomes very worried. It even attacks her at one point. She goes to Sam for help and he talks to her about spirits. Specifically, Sam tells her how to tell the difference between good and bad spirits: bad spirits hate the name Jesus.

Personally, I’d get Laura and myself the hell out of my house if we were being savaged by demons, but I guess his response is good, too.

Or, it would be, but his advice was pretty vague. Laura goes back to her room and feels the presence there again. She says Jesus’ name, and it seems to me like the demon gets upset. We don’t see the demon physically, but it’s clearly there, and it exhales in a kind of huff that blows her hair around. Seems pretty clearly like a negative response to me, but she takes it as confirmation that the demon is a good spirit, and that’s that.

Friends, if you’re staying in a house haunted by any spirit, go find a motel.

I’m tempted to see Sam’s advice as artfully useless. I want Hanon to be using this to illustrate Sam’s spiritual rustiness. Had he not been a drinking, cursing, fucking fool, he could have given Laura some much more actionable (or at least specific) advice. He explains that good and bad spirits can be told apart, but not in a way that helps her to reach the right conclusion. Especially since Laura has been physically assaulted by it, with the scars to prove it.

This should be a gimme. If Sam’s advice can’t help her see that the spirit that already attacked her is sort of bad, he’s genuinely useless.

I’m not really sure if we’re meant to see it that way, though. We can read it that way, but it doesn’t play that way in the film. Usually when attention is drawn to Sam’s shortcomings, it’s drawn clearly and without potential for misunderstanding. This is hugely important in a didactic film; if you leave any room whatsoever for your audience to admire the wrong traits, some of them will. Therefore you can’t leave these things to interpretation.

As a related example, at one point in the film, after Rallo is riled up and on the offensive, Sam and Laura both panic. Rightly so. Sam sees an opportunity to flee the house, but doing so would leave Laura behind, at Rallo’s mercy.

And he indeed leaves her behind.

The film doesn’t treat this as a positive thing. I’d certainly agree that it isn’t. We could debate the ethics on either side (is guaranteed survival for one party better than a reduced possibility of survival for both parties?) but I actually like the way the film plays this moment. It’s a human response, and it’s a flawed human response.

It’s a plot point and characterization at once. And, of course, it both sets the stage for and makes it more rewarding when Sam actively stands up to Rallo to save Laura at the end. The plot has progressed, but so has Sam. He’s grown. It works.

But — and this is my main point here — all of that happens very clearly. We don’t see Sam leave Laura to Rallo’s attack and believe he made the right choice. The film won’t let us see it that way. Ditto the amount of time he spends watching Laura’s ostensibly sexy audition tape; we know he’s wrong to keep watching it, and every second his decision grows wronger. There’s no opportunity to read it in any other way.

So when he gives lousy advice to Laura about telling demons apart, I’m not convinced it’s deliberate evidence of his flawed spiritual state. I think it’s just clumsy writing. Laura’s told what to do, she does it, and she comes to the wrong conclusion.

If this were a better film, perhaps Laura would have had her own wrong ideas about how to tell spirits apart. Perhaps they could have been based on…let’s say…her personal spiritual leanings, which aren’t in line with Sam’s correct ones.

Hey, actually, now that I mention it…

Okay. Deep breath. Here we go.

Laura is a good person. Possibly even a great person. She’s human, so she makes mistakes and acts in her best interests at times whether or not it’s the “right” thing to do. But as a member of the viewing audience and not a member of the production team, I’m confident in saying that Laura’s a good human being. I’d get along with her. I think most people would. She deserves good things and I’d look forward to seeing what she does with her life as she grows and matures.

Hanon clearly disagrees. And he disagrees because he’s viewing her through a different lens than we would (and should) in reality.

This is part of the inherent problem with religious media. When you wish to promote particular values, characters who don’t share those values are automatically wrong. And while you probably realize this, I’ll say it anyway: I’m not referring to large, ethical, relatively universal values. I’m not referring to “don’t kill.” I’m not referring to “help the needy.” I’m not referring to “don’t torture animals.”

I’m referring to…well, in this case, Christianity.

And while Christianity at its core can be said to be a religion of love, ethics, and honesty, many rules (formal and informal) have built up around it, so that being a good person is no longer enough. You also have to do a, b, and c, as well as avoid x, y, and z. There are expected behaviors, habits, and mindsets that — from a social standpoint at the very least — inform what it means to be a good Christian.

Those change — in nature, number, and degree — between denominations, but there’s always** more to it than belief. There’s a world of functional difference between the Silent Worship of Quakers and the testimony-based, door-knocking approach of Mormons, even if the roots of their beliefs are quite similar.

I wasn’t able to identify the specific denomination that The Familiar endorses, but it certainly endorses something. It’s not enough to be a good person or even to be Christ-like; you need to do and believe very specific things, lest you become a conduit for evil.

Case in point: poor Laura.

Laura gets dragged through the mud, both by the film and by the characters within the film. And at no point does she deserve it. While we can point at decisions she’s made and disagree with them, we can (and are encouraged to) do that with Sam, as well. It’s not a matter of someone getting everything right and someone else getting everything wrong; it’s a matter of only one character getting things right in the right way. (She even says, in the spirit of tolerance, “To each his own,” regarding the fact that Charlie and Sam have different values than she does. They look at her as though she slapped them.)

Laura’s crime is that she gets things right in the wrong way. She’s not whatever specific kind of Christian The Familiar thinks she should be. She’s a Light Seeker.

I’ve found some people online who call themselves by the same name, but I get the sense Hanon invented the concept for his film as a kind of catchall. (For what? We’ll get to that.) I think any actual relation to real-life Light Seekers is coincidental. Hanon didn’t make The Familiar to tear real-world Light Seekers down. He made The Familiar to caution against following anything other than The One True Path.

And so when Laura shows up at Sam’s door, she’s not a negative influence in any kind of secular sense; she’s only a negative influence through a very specific (and very narrow) spiritual lens. She believes something other than what Sam believes, which means she has the potential to pull him further away from the truth.

That’s it.

That’s what makes her a vessel for evil.

Here are just some of her nefarious deeds. She cleans up Sam’s house for him, so that he is no longer living in the Christian horror film equivalent of squalor. She performs much needed maintenance around his house, such as clearing gutters and taking care of the yard. She speaks to him about his problems and fears, encouraging him to work to overcome the emotional hurdles that have destroyed his life.

Oh, and she literally prevents him from committing suicide. It’s her ring of the doorbell that keeps him from pulling the trigger.

Laura’s first action in the film is to save the life of our protagonist, and she’s still made out to be a negative influence.

The Familiar cares a lot about the Bible, but doesn’t seem all that interested in the “by their fruits, ye shall know them” bits. Despite that passage in Matthew making it clear that “good fruit” cannot come from a corrupt tree, Laura provides only good fruit, and yet is also explicitly made out to be a corrupt tree. That’s bad theology and bad characterization at the same time. (The Bible literally laid out the rules for your characters!)

In fact, I’d argue that Laura’s production of good fruits happens far more frequently than Sam’s. Early in the film they have a discussion about their respective faiths. Oh, actually, wait, my mistake. Early in the film, Sam chews her out for believing something other than what he believes.

The confrontation occurs over a framed Light Seeker prayer Laura displays. It’s so similar in content to the various framed prayers I’ve seen in my life that I can’t imagine Sam having an issue with it. But he does.

When he brings it up, Laura demonstrates an openness to the faiths of others that Sam makes it clear he doesn’t share. Laura is willing to listen, to learn, and to accept. Sam is willing to do nothing but shut down those who don’t already believe in him. She’s open to Sam’s personal views of Christianity, whereas Sam is not open to hers.

Specifically, when she discusses her beliefs, sharing with him something that’s deeply personal to her, he replies, “Are you an idiot or something?”

This clearly hurts her. She stands up and leaves the room so that he won’t see her cry.

Which is the good fruit? Who is the better person?

It ultimately comes down not to the roots of their beliefs (neither of which, tellingly, are ever mentioned) but to the labels, to the rituals, to the symbology of each. We’re both right, but I’m right in the right way.

And, of course, this mindset manifests itself in our world not just theologically, but politically.

The democratic divide is significant. It’s why certain voters never accepted Obama as a Christian, no matter what they heard through his words or saw through his deeds, while those same voters do accept Trump as one…in spite of his words and deeds. In spite of their quality of the fruits they bring forth. In spite of their respective tendencies toward unifying and dividing.

I use these two as examples because they’re recent, of course; I’m not trying to make a grand point about Obama or about Trump specifically. But it is clear that in a general sense, much of the “true Christian” mindset extends to the political sphere. It’s not enough to disagree with somebody…it’s our obligation to vote against them.

As such, The Familiar is filled with conservative dogwhistles. We don’t see Sam lamenting the then-recent defeat of John McCain, but we do see his quaint, homey, conservative view of the world threatened by a woman who will literally serve as a demon’s surrogate.

In brief, she’s more liberal than he is.

She expresses feelings of acceptance. Of tolerance. Of peace. She’s sexually liberated. She’s made mistakes but doesn’t carry around her guilt. She seeks and discusses opposing viewpoints. Hell, at some point she even says she doesn’t see why people should own guns! That’s one step away from forcibly taking guns away from all true Americans!***

These aren’t bad things. These are the things that make her likable. And yet they are also the things that, in The Familiar, ultimately make her a monster who must be stopped.

The political aspect doesn’t take much digging to find. (In fact, it doesn’t take any; it’s right there on the surface and lacks only an explicit label.) Much like Katherine and Laura, Sam and Laura are defined by their opposition.

Katherine’s status as Madonna reinforces Laura’s as Whore, and vice versa. And Laura’s unwelcome intrusion into Sam’s rural, small-town, literally backwoods life serves as its own dichotomy. (She’s from, as though this says it all, “the city.”) They have opposing values, and in order for the film to be didactic at all, one set of those values has to conclusively be proven wrong.

That’s a dangerous and destructive mindset. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, it’s foolish to believe that we can’t accomplish more when unified than we can while divided. Hanon has the right to say whatever he likes — it’s his film, and, frankly, it’s not a half-bad one — but I do think The Familiar would work better, and be more focused, if it were entirely about a struggle for Sam’s spiritual state, and not about one worldview functioning as the path to Heaven with the other being a direct portal to Hell.

Toward the end of the film, Rallo possesses Laura and tells Sam that Laura only came to him in the first place because she was pregnant, and she wanted him to help her raise the child.

Of course, since this is a demon speaking, we don’t know if there’s any truth to it. (Wisely, Hanon doesn’t confirm it either way.) But it’s framed, obviously, as a terrible thing for Laura to do, and evidence of her status as Whore.

In reality, though, I’m not sure that it is. It’s not clear what specifically made Laura a valid receptacle for Rallo. It could be her sexuality. It could be her liberal bent. It could be her openness to hearing others out. (The line, one might suggest, should be drawn before hearing out actual demons from Hell.)

But the climactic placement of Rallo’s explanation in the film suggests that Laura’s intentions when running to Sam were evil, giving the demon something to latch onto. It even knocks Rallo for a loop when Sam says, “Okay, sure. I’ll raise the kid. Now what?”

Rallo has no answer. He really thought that was his ace in the hole.

We don’t know if Laura was really pregnant. But even if she was…and even if she wanted Sam to help raise the child…what’s the problem?

Granted, she didn’t tell him about the child, but maybe she was waiting. Maybe she wanted to get a sense of what Sam was like now — and what his life was like now — before foisting a child on him. Maybe she did come with the intention of swindling him into caring for the kid, but thought better of it when she realized she had actual feelings for him, and might be able to create a real family together. Or, hey, maybe the fact that she was being chased around by Satan Jr. made some other things slip her mind.

The fact is that this grand reveal is meant — based upon its structural context — to cement Laura as the bad person in need of redemption. This again in opposition to Sam, the good person who is standing up to a demon as proof that he’s been redeemed.

But it doesn’t make me like Laura any less. Much like the casting of Spencer herself, the character isn’t a believable demon. She’s too good. She’s too real. Her flaws don’t register as flaws.

As much as the movie wants me to judge her, it’s hard to ignore the fact that nearly everybody I know in life has done far worse than she has, often with worse motives…and yet they’re still people. I’m okay with them. I like them, and I want to see them grow and mature and succeed.

I can’t hate Laura. I can’t hate Sam. All I see are two flawed people that have a lot in common at their cores, yet who we’re supposed to view as diametric opposites. I don’t think that either of them is right, and I don’t think that either of them is wrong. I think they both have a lot to learn, but I honestly feel as though Laura is closer to learning it. If that makes me a conduit for evil, so be it. If I show up pregnant on your doorstep, feel free to throw me out.

I just can’t help but wonder if The Familiar would have been a better movie if it were about two people learning from each other, rather than a movie about one learning from the other…especially when the other is kind of a fuckup.

It didn’t have to be this way. There’s a lot The Familiar does right. But it also strikes a sour, divisive note. It reinforces the concept of a definitive right way and a definitive wrong way to live one’s life, but it doesn’t provide a compelling argument for it. It’s right because it’s right, and that’s that.

There’s a decent personal story buried here, and sometimes it’s not even buried too deeply. The Familiar is about a man facing his demons who eventually ends up facing a demon. That can work. It falters when it casts the first stone at Laura, who is far more of a redemptive force than the movie actually realizes.

I didn’t hate The Familiar. I can’t say I recommend it, either. But it’s stuck with me. It’s given me things to think about.

And, one day, when Laura Spencer is the star she deserves to be, it will serve as one Hell of a fascinating footnote.

—–
* If there’s not a church-oriented PR firm called Cross Promotion there can be no God.

** Of course, I’m speaking of organized Christianity. Any human being has a right to follow whatever teachings they like in their own way. The moment you structure it, though, the maintenance of that very structure becomes an additional concern.

*** Charlie warns Sam as follows: “Anybody that doesn’t like guns…gotta be something wrong with them.” Sure enough, she opens the portal to Hell. This is why we don’t tolerate dissent, people!

Moral Orel, "The Best Christmas Ever"

I’m mad. I’m frustrated. I’m frightened, I’m embarrassed, I’m appalled.

I’ve been waiting to speak. I’ve said almost nothing. I keep trying to get my thoughts together and, nope, I can’t process a fucking thing.

There’s no other way to say it. We made an awful choice, we’re fucking idiots, and we’re going to hurt a lot of people. We’ve given bigotry a platform, and we’ve emboldened it. Possibly we’ve cemented it. We’ve done everything we can to make this country extraordinarily dangerous to people who don’t look, act, or believe the way we’d like them to.

About a week ago my country voted. The popular vote may not have gone that way, but for all intents and purposes we came together to decide, as a nation, that we wanted to be ugly, hateful, discriminatory human beings.

Some people, I’m sure, voted for Trump because they trusted him on the economy, or something. That’s fine. I disagree with those people, and I think it says something that the three states with significant first-hand experience of his business practices (New York, New Jersey, and Nevada) all voted against him, but so be it. This is what the political process is for, after all. I believe one candidate will handle something better, and you believe the other candidate will. We put it to a vote. This is a good thing.

Others, though, voted with hate in their hearts. I’m not going to rattle off the sob stories I’ve seen on Facebook and elsewhere. Those are sad and unfortunate, but you’ve seen them. Maybe you doubt some of them. Maybe some of them are indeed worth doubting. I, frankly, don’t care, because my own friends are suffering from this.

A good friend of mine from New Jersey, who’s been openly gay as long as I’ve known him, was told “Gays gonna burn in Trump’s America” at the gas station. A bumper sticker probably gave him away. I guess he’d better start hiding who he is, then.

Another friend of mine was getting coffee with her young daughter, when a group of assholes kept saying in a singsong voice, “Filthy Muslims,” making her feel very uncomfortable. She’s not Muslim; she’s Indian. But, y’know, her skin is brown, so, who can blame them. She said that she was afraid at first that they’d do something to her, but then she realized the truth is worse: that this is just the world they live in now, and the one her daughter is going to grow up in. You know how I’d talk about social workers in the ALF reviews, and what they’re like in person? It’s largely because of her. She’s a social worker who makes next to no money and gives a lot of herself over to it. She one of the sweetest, most selfless human beings I’ve ever known. She works hard to make life easier for the less fortunate, and this is how she’ll be repaid by her country.

Somebody I know on Facebook posted on Election Day that he really hoped people would “respect the election process” by voting for the male candidate, even if they preferred Clinton. “It isn’t right to have a woman in that position. It was never intended for a woman to be given that much power.” I’m paraphrasing, necessarily. The specific words obviously don’t matter nearly as much as the sentiment, which I assure you is intact. He has a baby girl, by the way. She’ll be growing up in a house with at least one parent who will make it clear that she is only allowed to go so far in life.

I personally watched as an old woman and two jackoffs talked about a group of kids playing near where my girlfriend lives. Children. They may have been Indian, too, but they weren’t white, which I guess is the point now. The kids weren’t bothering anyone. One of the guys said, “Deport the little fuckers.” The old woman, with a venom I’m not sure I’ve ever heard before, said, “I can’t wait until they do.”

Children. Bothering nobody.

This their world, now.

A friend’s colleague was black and homosexual. I say was because he hung himself a couple of nights ago. I can only imagine what he’d been subjected to. What he’d been told. What people assured him his life was going to be like, and how awful it must have been that he decided he’d rather die.

These are only the things I know, and it’s only some of them. I don’t want this to become a list of atrocities. You’ve all seen them. You’ve scrolled past them. You’ll be scrolling for a good long time.

No.

What I want to say is that…

…I’m speechless. I have nothing to say. I’ve read some very intelligent, eloquent musings on this election from both sides. Intelligence and eloquence, though, don’t mean anything right now. Somebody is sharing some very well-written advice on Facebook, and somebody else is fearing for his life. Somebody is assuring us that things aren’t as bad as they seem, and somebody else is in a waking nightmare from which she cannot escape. This has been a divisive election. We’d be seeing a lot of the same issues right now had Hillary won. Trump is a problem, but he’s not the problem. The country is the problem. The seething nastiness that’s been bubbling beneath America’s surface is the problem. And that’s what I hate. I hate that America is as ugly and cruel as it is. All Trump really did is make us admit that we’re okay with being ugly and cruel.

And I hate that.

I don’t have words. I’m not happy. For a while I even considered cancelling the Xmas Bash. Not because I wanted to get out of any work. It’s almost completely edited and ready to go. I just…didn’t feel like being funny. I still don’t.

But…

I don’t know. I can’t change the world. I can’t even change one person’s mind. We are all where we are, and all we can do is try to bring some light to our own little corners of the darkness.

I’ll do what I can.

It might not be much. In fact, it won’t be. Period.

But it’s something. Especially now, with so much fear. Hosting a live comedy stream is one thing. Hosting one that benefits The Trevor Project is another. It’s a small gesture, but it’s one I’ve already been doing. Stopping it now, when a lot of LGBTQ+ youth may benefit from it the most, would be foolish.

So the show will go on.

Which brings us to…

Updates, for those who prefer to skip my political misery:

Come back here, to this very page, at 7:00 pm (Eastern) on December 17 to enjoy the livestream of the 4th Annual Noiseless Chatter Xmas Bash!!!! You can read the full announcement here. And while it’s by no means mandatory to do so, you can use this event page on Facebook to mark yourself as attending. That way the time zone calculation will happen automatically, and you’ll get reminded.

I have a goal this year. I want us to hit $1,000 in donations. One thousand dollars of mental healthcare and emotional support for those who need it, in these unexpectedly difficult times. I think we can hit it. I’m confident we can.

Whatever we do, we’ve done well.

But I want to hit $1,000. And I really hope you will find it in your heart to help. (If you can’t find it in your wallet to help, though, never fear. You’re just as welcome as anyone else.)

Further, I had some other fun ideas for December. I think I’m going to do them.

There will be a Fiction into Film, which is actually just as valid for New Year’s as it is for Christmas. (Any guesses at to what it is?) I’ll probably post it between those two holidays, with an aim of producing a new article in the series every two months. I think that’s more doable than my original monthly goal.

There will also be an advent calendar feature that will run from December 1 – December 25. Every day I will post a new article about a different novel of my choosing. They won’t be long articles, but it’ll be a daily update, and when all is said and done I think the wordcount will add up nicely anyway, so you’ll have a lot to enjoy in the runup to Christmas.

I’ll only allow one book per author, and I’ll only cover novels. That means no collections, no poetry, no non-fiction, and so on. I have some ideas of the ones I’ll cover. You can probably guess a handful of them, but I think there will be some surprises as well, and it’ll be a great chance to see if any of them appeal to you. It’s always good to keep reading.

And if you have some great idea for what to call this feature, tell me, because I sure don’t.

Finally, I want to do another reader’s survey. We’re coming into a new year, we have this site’s most ambitious project well behind us, and I want to see where you’d like me to go next.

So get your thoughts together. I’ll post a link to the survey as soon as I have it.

Again, though…for now…

I’m struggling. I’m unhappy. I’m not creative. I don’t feel like being funny. I don’t feel like much of anything.

But I can get through this. We can get through this. Let’s just believe in ourselves, and in each other.

We’ll do the best we can.

We kind of have to.

Bad things are happening. We can’t stop them all. But we can create some good.

That’s something we can always do.

Nobody can take that away from us, and we shouldn’t take it away from ourselves.

Jim Wolf, United States Army Veteran

There’s been a video circulating over the past few days of a homeless veteran getting a makeover. I…am kind of surprised that I could type that sentence and then still need to follow it up with an explanation of why that’s absurd, manipulative and outright demeaning, but with 5.1 million views on YouTube and counting — and a constant presence in my social media streams — it seems that it really does need to be discussed.

So, please, if you haven’t already, add one more view to the video, and we’ll continue. Because as many times as I’ve seen this referred to as “inspiring” and “magical,” it’s really just offensive. And exploitative. And we should be embarrassed by it.

When I first came across the above video, it was spotlighted in this post. The title of that post assured me that the video would give me chills. That was kind of interesting since the thumbnail and description pretty much suggested they were just giving this guy a haircut, but I figured it was worth watching. After all, why would that give me chills?

Maybe at the end his little daughter that he hasn’t seen in years would come out and hug him, or something. That would still be manipulative, but it might also successfully provide “chills” so…okay.

But, nope. It’s a haircut. Oh, and they trim his beard and give him a tie.

Wow, chills. Except for the fact that I grew up in southern New Jersey, and “hairy guy trims his beard and puts on a tie” isn’t uncommon to anyone familiar with the concept of prom night.

So, fine. Chills or no chills, that’s not the point.

This is the point: as a culture — as a society…as a civilization — we’re already doing our damnedest to give every man, woman and child body image issues. All this video succeeds in doing is extending that particular neurosis to the homeless as well.

It’s sickening. And I realize that this requires further unpacking. So, hey, I’ve got some time. Do you?

Then let’s proceed.

The balance of content in the video is the giveaway. Or, rather, the clear imbalance. In a video that’s about two minutes and fifty seconds long, two minutes and twenty seconds are spent on the makeover. The assurance that the veteran Jim Wolf has turned his life around is relegated to two vague slides of text.

Ask yourself what’s more important, as far as the video is concerned. Is it the way he looks? Or is it the more positive direction his life has now taken? It’s not a matter of opinion; there’s a clear answer here. It comes down to the fact that he looked like a hobo, but has now been groomed and dressed up.

To me, it’s more important to know whether or not Jim Wolf left the studio to sleep in a gutter again that night. To the makers of the video, it’s more important to know whether or not he was wearing a tie when he did so. And that’s disgusting.

It comes down to more than just the amount of time the video spends on each, though: the execution is also telling, and more important when interpreting what’s happening here.

We start with an image of our subject, alongside a caption that reads “Jim Wolf, United States Army Veteran.”

That’s a name, and that’s a fact. That’s not a description.

Who is Jim? What’s his history? “Army Veteran” says precisely nothing. Did he serve overseas? Was he involved in any wars or conflicts? Where was he stationed? With whom did he serve? What years was he active? What was his role? What was his specialty?

Does any of that matter when determining whether or not to thank him for his service? Of course not. But it’s meant to illustrate just how vague a descriptor “United States Army Veteran” is. One veteran could have served in Vietnam and been the lone survivor of an ill-fated recon mission. One veteran could have served in Texas during a time of no conflict and filed paperwork all day.

I’m not suggesting that one is inherently better or worse than the other, but I am suggesting that the two human beings would have very different experience from each other. They’re both veterans. Fine. But that means nothing. As human beings, they’re worlds apart.

Of course, the video isn’t interested in treating Jim Wolf as a human being. When we aren’t even made privy to his years of service, there’s your giveaway that this isn’t about helping an individual; this is about the manipulation of the audience.

It’s also telling that Wolf doesn’t get any chance to speak. We don’t get to hear his story. I’m sure he has one, but the video is more interested in the fact that a disheveled man gets a haircut. What, exactly, is meant to be inspiring about this again?

Well, I’ll tell you: the music and the editing. That’s what’s meant to inspire. Not the substance (because there is none), not Wolf’s story (because it actively prevents us from hearing it), and not the assurance that Wolf is going to be any better off (because…well, we’ll get to that).

The score builds and layers and rollicks toward triumph, and the time-lapse nature of the editing hurtles toward a grand reveal. It’s a bait and switch, and one borrowed from the most deliberately misleading film trailers. It wants to generate a certain feeling in us, but it’s a feeling that the material itself cannot provide. It’s the hollowest possible kind of “inspiration,” and it’s one that only works because it withholds the humanity.

What if Wolf spoke? Well, he probably wouldn’t sound like Ryan Gosling or Alec Baldwin so it’s not worth hearing him. After all, he might sound human. Or, worse, he might sound like the actual homeless guy that he is. You know…raspy and sick and probably a little upset that the country he served is now content to let him sleep outside on frigid nights. We can’t let that come across, otherwise the haircut might seem…oh…a little silly.

Wolf has a problem. That problem is the country he lives in. That problem is that country’s approach to dealing with the sick and the poor and the unemployed and the homeless.

That problem is emphatically not going to be solved by a haircut, a shave, and a necktie. And yet this makeover video wants you to come away feeling that it is solved that way. Because that’s easy. That’s visual. And, what’s more, it’s easy on the eye.

This constant whitewashing of our problems is the problem.

You don’t fix what’s wrong with your society through makeovers, through songs, or through speeches. You stand up and you say, “This is wrong. This is a problem. And we are going roll up our sleeves and we are going to fix this because if we see something is wrong and we don’t do that, then who are we?”

And then you know what we do?

We actually do that.

We don’t make a video about it.

We don’t circulate a link on Facebook.

We don’t wear a ribbon or put a sticker on our car.

We get. The fuck. To work.

And if we don’t do that…then who are we?

Of course, all of my points above are moot in the face of the fact that this Homeless Veteran Magic Haircut (patent pending) turned Jim Wolf’s life around.

Right?

…right?

Well, let’s look at all two of the unverifiable sentences that suggest that that’s the case. The first one reads, in its entirety, “Since filming, Jim has taken control of his life.”

Huh. Well, ya don’t say.

What does that mean exactly? What can that mean? The lengths to which the video goes to keep any specific information about Wolf away from us is almost frightening.

Forget Wolf for a moment. Do you have control of your life? Do I? Of course not. How could we? Life is full of curveballs and unexpected obstacles and problems that need to be overcome. What does it mean to “take control” of one’s life?

Does it mean you find employment? Find love? Manage to scrape together enough change to buy groceries? Live through the night? Get handed a blanket by a good Samaritan?

It’s different for everybody. Which is why it’s entirely meaningless. It’s a nice thing to hear, but it says, again, precisely nothing.

Jim Wolf is not a human being. At least, not in the eyes of this video. Jim Wolf is a homeless veteran, brought into a studio to be made a spectacle of. The filmmakers don’t care about him, and they didn’t. If they did, they’d know something about him. And therefore so would we. Instead, for all we know, he’s back on the streets.

Oh, but the second slide reads (again, in its entirety), “He is now scheduled to have his own housing and is attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for the first time ever.”

Well, that’s more specific. …kinda.

What does “scheduled to have his own housing” mean? It still sounds suspiciously like “nothing” to me. And does that mean he’s still sleeping on the streets? Couldn’t Degage Ministries — who so kindly pulled a homeless man off the streets to solicit donations and then released him back onto the streets — give him a place to stay? Maybe they did, but then why wouldn’t they say that?

After all, if their objective is to inspire me with this magical video, I can say conclusively that I’d be far more inspired by hearing that some ministry gave a homeless man food, clothing and shelter than I am by hearing that some ministry gave him a haircut and a pat on the back. And I’d hope to God that you would be, too.

There’s also a grammatical issue with the AA claim, as you can’t keep “attending” something “for the first time ever.” Due to that I’m not even sure what the truth is. Did he go once? Does he keep going? I think it’s the latter, but how would they know that? He can stop at any time. And even if he doesn’t, should this really be his priority when he still doesn’t have a place to live?

The video isn’t inspiring. The video is sickening. By taking a homeless man and framing a shave and a haircut as the solution to his problem, they’re robbing the problem of its bite. They’re making it something we need to worry less about. And, what’s more, it makes all those dirty, bearded homeless people look like they just don’t care. After all, if they really wanted to turn their lives around, they’d put on a tie. Just look what it did for old Jim Wolf!

Don’t circulate the video. Please. And if somebody you respect does, send them here. Or talk to them about it.

You’re not stupid if you looked at this and felt inspired. That’s what it was designed to make you feel.

But you shouldn’t feel inspired by anything that takes a serious, profound problem with the very core of the society in which you live, and presents it as trivial and easily overcome.

You’re better than that. And Jim Wolf, whoever he is, wherever he is, deserves better than that. The truly respectful thing to do for Wolf would be to treat him as a human being. This video decidedly does not.

Thank you for your service, Jim. And I’m sorry this happened to you.

Let me take you on a journey through the past, to a magical time in our great planet’s history. I’ll set the scene for you:

A bleary-eyed world disconnects from Facebook for two and a half hours in order to watch a film about Facebook. An animated show called The Simpsons celebrates 20 years on the air, eight and a half of which were worth watching. A young Jessica Simpson releases an album of warbling Christmas standards in the hopes that it will generate enough money that she can do her own holiday shopping. And America comes, at last, to the tragic realization that their new president isn’t a Magic Negro after all…but is rather, disappointingly, just an extremely intelligent leader with his nation’s best interests at heart.

Yes, it’s 2010. And no I did not use a time machine to get us here…I simply inserted a dollar into Steam and downloaded World Basketball Manager 2010, the absolute best 2010 simulator I have ever played.

World Basketball Manager 2010

I haven’t played it yet…I’m about to play it for the first time which is kind of the whole point of this series…but I don’t think I’ve played any other ones so I think that’s a fair assessment no matter how it goes. (And as always, click the images for full-size. It’s funnier that way, I hope.)

World Basketball Manager 2010

On booting up the game I am presented with an option to run it in windowed mode, which automatically makes it a better game than Vegas: Make it Snappy. I also have an option to choose my skin color. I’ll go with orange, so that nobody will be able to tell whether or not I’m holding the ball.

There’s also a tab called EXCLUDE TOURNAMENTS. When I click it I get a list of around 50 different countries with check-marks next to them. I guess I can deselect any of the nations against whose races I am so prejudiced that I can’t even bring myself to play a game of basketball with them.

I de-select China.

World Basketball Manager 2010

I told the game — explicitly told! — to play the intro movie, but I guess that was just a short, choppy animation for the Ice Hole developer logo, because I’m immediately dumped onto this title screen that leads me to believe the entire game was developed in Microsoft Paint.

I click NEW GAME and it asks me for a “game name.” It helpfully suggests the game name “New Game.”

I sure as heck can’t improve on perfection so New Game it is!

World Basketball Manager 2010

Except I can’t get the game to start. I press Enter and nothing happens.

I press other buttons and things do happen, yes, but the game starting isn’t one of them. I just mess up my extremely well-chosen game name with garbage characters.

I can’t get this game to start. At this rate I’ll never see 2010!

I’m clicking everything. Nothing’s happening. I’ve pressed every button. Nothing’s happening.

I can click CREDITS and read about all the wonderful people who made this title screen, but I can’t play the game.

Doing something I never thought I’d have to do, I navigate to the game’s section on the Steam forums to see if anyone was discussing how to get the fucking thing started.

What I find instead:

World Basketball Manager 2010

There are only two discussions, both of which are baffled by the awfulness of this game. This screengrab comes from the more active of the two threads. The other is titled, simply, “wat.”

I don’t know what to do. Everyone’s talking about how bad the game is, which I guess should make me at least somewhat happy that I can’t play it, but certainly they had to get further than the title screen in order to make that determination.

Right?

Maybe not. I’m stuck at the title screen and I’ve sure as cock made that determination.

World Basketball Manager 2010

I find the website for the game, in the hopes that there will be some instruction on how to START PLAYING THE THING. Nothing, but their FAQ is crawling with concerns about game-crashing issues and the answers to simple questions (such as how to activate and deactivate basic features) tend to be “install this patch to keep your computer from catching fire when you try to run this horse shit.” Promising.

BUT I STILL CAN’T PLAY IT.

I finally look for some footage of the thing on YouTube to see if anyone has actually successfully started the game. Sure enough when the guy in the video — whose disgust for this game is already palpable — types in the name of his game, a little CREATE button appears in the lower right.

What’s that? You don’t see that in the screen grab above?

Neither do I.

It was under the Windows task bar.

Yep. Great design, Ice Hole!

Of course it’s not their fault…how were they to know that literally everybody ever has their task bar locked to the bottom of their screen?

Everybody but me that is, because I now had to move mine to the right in order to make room for World Basketball Manager 2010. I expect that’s something you won’t hear many other people say today.

World Basketball Manager 2010

The game has helpfully auto-completed the appropriate fields with my personal information. Or its best guess, which is that I’m a middle-aged Indian man who coaches exactly as well as he psychologizes. He also somehow has a perfect 10 in youth, despite the fact that he’s five years away from being eligible for residency in a retirement home.

Already I’m irritated by the fact that I need to click to this window in order to type my commentary by moving my mouse to the RIGHT SIDE OF MY SCREEN WHEN IT SHOULD BE THE BOTTOM but it’s okay. It’s okay. I’m doing it for you. I need to keep doing it for you.

I name myself Philip Reed, 32, U.S.A. Don’t ask me where I got all that…it just sort of came to me. I leave all of my stats at 10 because that’s the maximum and why the hell wouldn’t I?

Even with the task bar moved I can’t see where I need to click, but if I move my cursor just off the bottom of the screen I can click whatever it is anyway.

Did I mention you can’t resize the window? This is truly stellar stuff, Ice Hole.

World Basketball Manager 2010

This grammatically-troublesome invitation is also the least inviting thing imaginable to me right now. Pairing it with a geography test isn’t helping to get me in the mood for fun. I don’t know where half these places are. (Okay, more like a quarter, but go along with it please.) Even less do I know / care about their historical basketball skills.

Fuck it, I’m already overthinking this. I’m picking Serbia.

World Basketball Manager 2010

Now shitting what.

And why is it August 19, 2009? I was specifically told I’d be enjoying some 2010-era basketball action, not this mid-to-late 2009 bullshit! Everyone knows basketball was a joke between August 17, 2009 and September 10, 2009!

I don’t know what to do.

I’ll click World News.

World Basketball Manager 2010

Hm. Slow news day I guess.

I click blindly through some menus with the vague hopelessness that precedes any upcoming basketball game, I guess, and try to pick a fight — that’s what they call it in sports, right? — with Canada.

I get this:

World Basketball Manager 2010

I don’t get this.

What does this mean.

What does any of this mean.

Are these basketball words?

I don’t understand basketball words.

Please just let me play some basketball please just let me play some basketball please for the love of Jesus on the cross just let me play some basketball.

I honestly don’t know how to start a game. I click through to my own team info and I see that I’ve already won some Olympic medals.

World Basketball Manager 2010

GO TEAM SERBIA!

While I was reading the evening headlines and mindlessly poring over Canada’s dayplanner, my team went out and won a shitload of medals and awards!

I’m tempted to just end this “playthrough” here (though it’s more of a read-through I guess…my earlier presumption that this game was developed in Paint has yet to be shaken) with the joke that I WON THE OLYMPICS GAME OVER but, in the course of blindly clicking around (which passes for strategy in World Basketball Manager 2010) I clicked on the date and found that you can advance to the next match day.

So I will do that, obviously, and give the game an actual chance. Let’s just advance to the next match day and…

World Basketball Manager 2010

What.

WHAT.

How did I go four days back in time? What the hell is World Basketball Manager 2010 trying to pull? It’s bringing me even further away from 2010!

Why on Earth did the game wind back the clock? I just wanted to jump to, I dunno, A DAY ON WHICH I COULD FUCKING DO SOMETHING but instead it brought me backward.

To a day on which basketball is still not happening.

Let me just take a look around here to confirm…hmm…yep…no basketball. No basketball. Just me standing in front of the map from Dr. Strangelove‘s war room, waiting for something, anything, to happen.

Look, I know this is a management game. I don’t expect to be slam dunking and free throwing and ball dribbling and penalty stroking and whatever the hell else athletes do. But doesn’t managing a team entail more than sitting around with a world atlas open in your lap, waiting for your team to win some things so you can read about them?

I can click through to different countries but all it lets me do is look to see what games they’re playing while I sit around, doing nothing, waiting to be invited to a game.

World Basketball Manager 2010

Look. It’s insulting. Everyone else in the world — literally! — is having so much fun, but all I get to do is sit around fantasizing about what it must be like to ACTUALLY DO THE JOB I DOWNLOADED THIS GAME TO DO.

I can click on the names of the teams, including the Baston Ciltics a-fuckin-har-har, but that still doesn’t let me challenge them. It just lets me check out their roster and peek into their bank accounts for some reason. I guess that would be really helpful in Identity Theft King 2010 but for now it’s just a further reminder that somebody out there is getting paid to do the thing I thought I’d also be doing. Why am I just clicking on meaningless words over and over, like I’m being forced to navigate some middle-schooler’s hypertext poetry project?

I give up on this thing. If you want to play World Ass-Sitter Nobody “2010” then be my guest. Maybe you’ll even get it to work.

But for both of our sakes, I hope you don’t.

And with that, I’m putting my task bar back at the bottom of my screen. Where God intended it to be, Ice Hole.

World Basketball Manager 2010
Released: April 21, 2010
Price on Steam: $0.99
Regular Price on Steam: $4.99
Price It Should Be on Steam: You should have your credit cards taken away if you attempt to buy this game through Steam.

Hello and welcome to a brand new series that I thought of just now, while writing this sentence, which is good, because if I hadn’t thought of one I’m not sure where I’d go with this.

This is $1 Adventures, wherein I spend one dollar on Steam, hoping to end up having an experience that’s worth far more than that. Say, $1.01. Steam is a digital distribution service that’s home to many great games, and sales are regular and plentiful. In fact, sales are so frequent that I end up downloading tons of games that I never even find time to play. Obviously, then, the best thing for me to do is start a series in which I download even more, focusing on games that are likely shit.

As far as rules go, that’s the only one: spend no more than a dollar. That may be the game’s normal price, that may be its sale price…it doesn’t matter. I’ll then play through the game and assess its actual worth, which is legally binding I think.

And where better to start than Las Vegas, where you can take such a small amount of money and turn it into something larger, and then even larger, and then a little smaller, and then you lose your house?

So let’s move forward and invest $1 in Vegas: Make It Big, a title which lends itself to hooker jokes so cheap even I wouldn’t make them.

The first thing we see when booting it up is that the game runs automatically in Windows 95. Maybe 98. Honestly, it’s been so long since I’ve seen a launch window like this that I’m already assuming it’s a Minesweeper clone. It’s the sort of thing you’d find on those 50,000 Most Wonderful Games Ever compilation CDs, where 25,000 of the games didn’t work, 24,999 didn’t tell you how to play them, and the last was some bootleg Tetris thing that totally wasn’t a ripoff because it used bugs instead of blocks or something, and which you’d play on Saturday night well into the next morning, eating Spaghetti-Os out of a can and crying.

Those were the days.

I click “configure” to see if I can run the game in a window and I can’t, which means taking screen shots will be that much harder. Not off to a good start, Las Vegas: Make It Hard. I also check the “ReadMe” file, which is indeed in txt format, just to remind me of how not-far I’ve come since middle school. Instead of teaching me how to play the game it warns me about “performance issues.” This should be great.

Ah, so it’s Windows 98 after all.

We get some title cards and then we’re dumped at an options screen that welcomes us to The Strip and invites us to watch an episode of King of the Hill.

Actually these are two different scenarios to choose from. In the first, you build a gambling empire in the heart of Las Vegas. In the second you drink too much and verbally abuse your fat son Bobby. I go with the first.

It’s Sim City, if Sim City sucked. For starters, we’re stuck in a mandatory tutorial. The game squawks and screams at me every time I click something, because I’m not clicking the one thing it’s squawking and screaming at me to click. Unlike Sim City I don’t get to build roads leading into the sea or chemical refineries next to elementary schools for the fun of it. No, instead I need to follow instructions so precise that I honestly don’t know why Vegas: Make it Salty doesn’t just build it for me and wake me up when it’s done.

There are a wealth of options and menus and suboptions and submenus and menuoptions and optionmenus, each with its own mess of unidentifiable commands embedded within, but I’m not allowed to play with them I guess. I just need to do what the game tells me to do. It’s like going to the actual Las Vegas, but you’re with your overbearing father who won’t even let you roll down the windows because it’s too loud out there.

Las Vegas is supposed to be a world of magic, of enchantment, of gaudy approximations of enchantment and magic. It’s a place where dreams come true, and dreams are crushed. (Both, if your dream is to have your dream crushed.) But playing Vegas: Make ‘Em Laugh is like being bossed around by a crabby supervisor who keeps telling you exactly how you’re making the coffee wrong, but would rather stand in the corner with his arms crossed than help.

I eventually succeed in building my first hotel, which upsets my supervisor even more because I built it too far away from the sidewalk. Well forgive me for wanting to give my guests some exercise! There’s nothing I hate more than fat people clogging up my elevators, and that’s saying something because I hate an awful lot of everything. I figured I could discourage them from staying here by stranding my hotel in the middle of some scooter-unfriendly desert sand, but I guess not.

As penance I am forced to lay some pavement for the residents, so that they can get from the street to my hotel while bitching all the while that this walk is so long my god. It costs me another few hundred dollars to do that, and not one little pixel man thanks me for it.

Actually I just expected that the hotel would be larger. You know. Since it’s in the middle of fucking Las Vegas. Instead it’s barely the size of a small Arby’s and I had no idea how much space was going to be wasted. Oh well. At least I’ll definitely get all that lucrative wanted-to-stay-in-a-huge-city-but-couldn’t-stand-the-idea-of-an-appropriately-sized-hotel business. Ca-ching!

I’m asked to choose a theme for my hotel. I choose House of Zeus. My only other option was a gambling theme, which, let’s face it, is a cornered market. At least with House of Zeus I might be able to reel in some confused history teachers.

I don’t know what’s going on. I think the game is trying to scare me off by throwing irrelevant options and windows at me. The joke’s on it, though…I was scared off before I even booted it up.

It looks like it’s trying to both tell me how shitty a business man I am and sell me things like family portraits, sunglasses and a yacht. That’s not how salesmanship works, Vegas: Make It Soggy. You’re supposed to flatter me. Make me feel good about myself. Get me on your side and then move on to the okay okay I really want that yacht please please please let me give you all my money for a yacht.

But alas, the game won’t let me click anything. It’s as though Jesus has led me into the desert to offer me all this great stuff as a test, and I keep failing because I just nod and say “Yes please, that sounds wonderful.”

I’m told — in a way that doesn’t so much edify me as it does remind me that I sure was stupid not to know this in the first place — that I need to build a management office. I also learn how to zoom in so that I can take better screen shots, just as I’m losing interest in taking them.

The management office has some naked Greek people writhing all over each other as a motif, which I think does a great job of conveying my “no shit from anybody” management style. The default green and white checkerboard foundation also does a great job of conveying my “embarrassingly unprepared for this” entrepreneurial style.

I also tinted my upper windows, apparently, so you guys will just have to imagine for yourselves what kind of wild shenanigans I’m getting up to in my over-office penthouse on a vacant lot. (Tetris. Spaghetti-Os. Crying.)

I now have to build both a souvenir shop (because who would want to forget their visit to the world famous Hotel Inaccessibility?) and a maintenance shed. I learned my lesson from the hotel, so I’m saving on paving stones by building the souvenir shop right next to the street. That’ll make it easier for both customers and robbers, which proves that I don’t play favorites.

The maintenance shed goes right next to it, because that’s faster than scrolling, and look! It even comes with a little maintenance guy to stand out front and make the shoppers feel uncomfortable!

This is Brad. Or that’s what I’m calling him anyway, because I see a man drunk before 7 o’clock at night, wiping his nose on his sleeve and standing outside waiting for a stranger to talk to him, and I think “Brad.”

Brad serves a dual purpose, I’ll say. Since he’s so close to the souvenir shop, he can help with restocking duties and unclogging toilets. He’s not particularly strong so I can’t rely on him for security, but he’d probably stop more rapes than he’d cause so overall that keeps us on the positive side of the ledger.

I zoom out to get a better look at my misfit empire and…and…what’s this? Somebody checked into my hotel! That’s another $25 in my pocket like that!

Wait a minute…$25? Why the hell are my rates so low? I just spent several thousand dollars paving walkways to nowhere because you assholes are afraid of getting a little sand in your shoe and all you’re giving me for a night in my hotel is $25? That’s not even enough to feed Brad! And the labor board told me I really needed to start feeding Brad!

But the game doesn’t let me linger or even let me, you know, shake that fucker down for some more money which should totally be an option especially in Vegas. Instead it forces me to start placing all kinds of unnecessary crap on my property that I don’t want.

For starters, why do I have to build a movie theater? And why must that movie theater tower over the things I actually care about here, such as my hotel, and my precious sand? And how much will these movies cost anyway? Judging by the discount rates of my hotel I’d say you get to watch endless movies all night for a nickel. Maybe I’ll even shine your shoes.

Come on, Vegas: Keep It Greasy. I’m a better business man than you are…can’t we just skip this tutorial already? You’re forcing me into the role of theater mogul and I think I should have the right to put the breaks on this new career path.

I also need to build another maintenance shed, only this one is for maintaining the theater. Come on, I have Brad! This is his job! Do we really need a whole other building with a whole different name and a whole new even-shittier-looking appearance to drag down my own property values?

I put it immediately to the left of my cinema, so that I don’t have to pay for this guy to take a taxi to work or something. It even comes with a whole new creep to stand outside and accost women and children who were dumb enough to go to my theater alone.

I’m telling you right now if you’re reading this: I don’t know this man. I can’t seem to force him to leave my property. Until I can get rid of him please don’t go to my theater alone.

Anyway, that’s a hotel, a management office, two maintenance sheds, a souvenir shop, a movie theater, and six hundred trillion miles worth of paving stones. Not bad for a single day’s construction.

Not bad…but not enough! The game now informs me that in addition to disappointing my parents, wasting money on a worthless literature degree and regularly throwing my vote away, my near-vacant lot in the middle of the slummiest slums of Las Vegas isn’t “beautiful” enough.

The game even overlays a filter showing me, scientifically, exactly how not-beautiful my investment property really is. It’s the video game equivalent of someone not only lecturing you on how you should take better care of your money, but actually producing photocopied bank statements to definitively prove that you are incapable of taking care of yourself.

So it tells me to plant a tree. And I plant a tree.

And damned if this isn’t suddenly the most beautiful patch of desolate earth in Vegas. I even check the overlay again, and, sure enough, the tree is radiating green pixels that — as in real life — symbolize beauty.

Man this tree is just gorgeous. I even kept it away from Brad and that sex offender who lives next to the theater, because it’s a beauty that I simply couldn’t bear to see corrupted.

Also I don’t want them grabbing free coconuts or anything. Those guys are robbing me blind!

At long last, after so much waiting, nearly one full day after I came to Vegas with nothing in my pocket but hundreds of thousands of dollars and a screaming tutorial, I build a casino.

I think I’ve got the perfect name for it, too: Casino Casino Casino. It’s like Circus Circus, but with Casino instead of Circus, and three of them rather than two.

I predict big things for Casino Casino Casino. And by that I mean I predict I’ll never visit it again once I shut this game off. Good news, Casino Casino Casino…you won’t have management breathing down your neck.

I’m noticing a man in the lower right of that picture, walking along The Strip and daydreaming about wooden chairs. I wonder what kind of simulation he goes home and plays at night.

I’m invited into my own casino, which is pretty nice, considering that neither Brad nor the sex offender ever invited me inside, and the souvenir shop didn’t even let me browse my own selection of walnuts with googly eyes that say I WENT NUTS IN VEGAS.

My excitement is short-lived, however, as they just want to make me decorate the place. That might normally be fun, but then they start teaching me about how to maintain the machines and unload the money and all that crap.

Why am I doing this stuff myself? I only install one slot machine because as soon as I install it I’m assailed with windows trying to teach me about all the various things I’ll need to do in order to keep the thing operational.

Isn’t that why I have a staff? Donald Trump doesn’t have to get down on his knees and recalibrate spinwheels. He doesn’t have to vacuum the rugs and pick the green M&M’s out of Tony Orlando’s candy bowl. No, he has other people do that for him, so he can stand on top of a skyscraper shouting about Sharia law and birth certificates. That’s what I want to be doing!

Perhaps — and, really, just stay with me here — I should have hired a staff before I opened four disparate places of business. Perhaps — and, yes, I know I’m new here but I think I might have some insight — these places would run so much better if I wasn’t running them all myself, simultaneously, with no help. Perhaps — and I really do hope I’m not overstepping any boundaries here — an entire massive gambling vacation resort needs more than two maintenance guys who never leave the shed and a CEO who dutifully scrubs every toilet with his own loving touch.

Why oh why am I now in charge of emptying slot machines? Aren’t I supposed to be managing the company? Can’t somebody else sell chewing gum or do I have to man the concession desk myself, too?

Anyway, welcome to the floor of Casino Casino Casino. I’m already overworked to Hell and back so I’ve limited myself to a slot machine, a black jack table, and a security guard.

This should work well, I think. It’s no frills, I know, but I’m not much one for frills anyway, and with the security guard I have at least one extra set of hands to help keep the place running. I know that that’s not his job, strictly speaking, but if I’m washing sheets and singing lullabies to Brad then maybe Officer Hardass here can pitch in a bit as well.

THEN AGAIN MAYBE NOT:

Come on now! I need to move this bastard’s legs as well? Can these people not do anything without me?

The asshole I hired sees a crime — in a casino that has a whole two gambling stations — and I need to come in and bend his knees for him so that he can go investigate?

This is getting ridiculous. Who knew the workforce in Las Vegas was this unmotivated? These are the laziest people on Earth. Do I need to keep checking on him to make sure he didn’t drink too much liquid on the job? What if he did? Would I have to walk him step by step to the bathroom, undo his belt, and squeeze him until urine comes out?

For crying out loud, man, I shouldn’t need to carry you back and forth across the casino floor. I know the economy is tough, but it’s not so tough that I need to hire invalids as my security guards and maintenance men.

I can’t spend all day babysitting him in here. I need to get back outside. Somebody might be vandalizing the tree!

I’m not doing it. If you want to move across the casino floor, you can move yourself across the casino floor.

Needless to say I move Officer Useless across the casino floor. It requires me to click a series of very precise icons in such an unintuitive way that I think it would be easier to just slice his legs open and tug on the muscles myself.

He makes it halfway across the floor before giving up — which, to be fair, coincides exactly with me giving up — and stands with his arms crossed, splashing green light everywhere which now represents security. So, well done. I’ve secured this empty patch of the casino which somehow manages not to encompass either of the two areas where security might be necessary.

One of my lone, confused patrons walks over to an unused raised platform, surveys the emptiness around him and inside of himself, and frowns.

I know the feeling, sad man. I too came to Vegas seeking something larger. I too ended up in an empty casino that really shouldn’t be open to the public until it’s actually stocked and staffed. I too had a dollar in my pocket, and hoped against hope that it would lead me to something bigger.

Here you go, friend. These are the keys to Casino Casino Casino. It’s yours now. And I won’t be coming back again. I’m leaving Las Vegas. Like Nicolas Cage. But with the sense to know when to quit.

Vegas: Make It Big
Released: Dec. 21, 2006
Price on Steam: $0.99
Regular Price on Steam: $4.99
Price It Should Be on Steam: -$25, in honor of my first and only guest at the House of Zeus

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