20 Questions: Matt Sainsbury

The Interactive Canvas

About a month ago I wrote about a project called The Interactive Canvas. At the time it was a Kickstarter hopeful, with author Matt Sainsbury (of Digitally Downloaded) hoping that people would pledge enough money for him to assemble the games industry interview collection of his dreams.

Typically Kickstarter success is measured in terms of funds: if you don’t meet your goal, you’ve failed. If you have met your goal, you’ve succeeded. If you’ve exceeded your goal, you turn cartwheels for several weeks straight.

In the case of The Interactive Canvas, however, success took quite a different form: Matt got the news that a traditional publisher was interested in his book, and he wouldn’t have to crowdfund it after all. The Kickstarter came down, and The Interactive Canvas was fast-tracked to becoming a reality. Hot on the heels of this good news, Matt Sainsbury sat down to graciously respond to my stream of nonsense.

1) In exactly 21 words, what is your intention with The Interactive Canvas?

To provide a definitive resource on the topic of art games, through interviews with some of the industry’s greatest creative minds.

(That was more restrictive than Twitter, you evil man!)

2) What’s the philosophy behind the book? What goes into selecting what you’ll cover, and how you’ll cover it?

The Interactive Canvas is taking my standard journalist process — interview, interview and interview some more — and building a book around it. It’s the people that make games that best know the creative process behind making games, so I do believe that letting them talk about themselves, their backgrounds and their approach to game design will be the best way to show the broader arts community that games are really no different to film or literature now.

As for how I select what to cover, I play dozens of games, sometimes in one week, so, while it would be impossible to cover every artistic game, I have played a very broad range of very artistic games. Securing interviews with the developers of those was my first priority.

3) If you could change one thing about the games industry, what would it be?

It needs greater input from women. The number of women who are game directors (ie: the top of the industry’s creativity) is small — certainly smaller than in any other creative industry. It would be truly great if this industry could move past the boy’s club, and the creative ideas of women could be given the same prominence as their male counterparts.

4) If you could change one thing about gaming community / fans, what would that be?

It would be really lovely of the gaming community could stop harassing game developers for their creative ideas. Mass Effect 3‘s ending and Dante’s “new look” in DMC are just two examples, but there are many more where, the moment a game developer does something that people don’t agree with or don’t understand, those same people take to Twitter, forums, Metacritic and more to harass and threaten harm to the developer. How can we have a creative industry for artists to work with when said artists have a good reason to be frightened to be creative?

5) You’ve referred to The Interactive Canvas as the first book in a series. In what ways would you like to see the series evolve as it progresses?

In my dreams this book will be an annual publication that will continue to track the development of the games industry as a creative medium through more interviews with more developers. I would be over the moon if, ten years down the track, people have access to ten editions of this book, and they can refer back to the first and second book to see the progress of the ideas and philosophy that drive game developers and the games they make.

6) You’ve traveled through time, and you’re handed a pre-release copy of Super Mario Bros. 3. It’s your job to change it in some way to make it better than the game we know today. What do you change? And don’t give me that “It’s already perfect” horsecrap.

I add Chocobos. Every game gets better with Chocobos.

7) What’s your favorite Bob Dylan song?

“One Headlight” by The Wallflowers. I’m the only person in the world that prefers Bob Dylan’s son’s music, but there you go.

8) You’ve got a lot of great interviewees lined up for The Interactive Canvas, but if you could rub a lamp and have any three people in the industry agree to an interview, who would you choose?

David Cage: I interviewed him once before and the guy thinks about games more deeply than anyone else I’ve ever met.

Shigeru Miyamoto: It’s impossible to discuss games on any meaningful level without considering the impact that this man has had on games.

Yuko Taro: People might not know this name, but this is the man that made Nier. Nier is pure art.

9) Discussions about video games seem to get heated rather more quickly than discussions about literature or even music. Why do you think that is?

Discussions about video games get heated quickly, but, more importantly, they get heated over the silliest of topics. “My console is better than your console,” or “I disagree with you so you’re stupid.” It’s quite childish really and I do think that the reason that literature and music have more interesting, civil conversations is because it’s possible to find places to have discussions on a mature level. With the games industry it’s impossible to avoid the immaturity.

10) What is the second best gaming system ever made?

The PlayStation 3. I like my consoles handheld so the fact that the PS3 isn’t portable is the only reason why the DS will always be the better console in my mind. Both consoles have a shedload of JRPGs on them, and this really is all I care about when determining the quality of a console.

11) Why Kickstarter? What sort of challenges did you face working with that platform?

Because Kickstarter was to be the only way I could raise the money to self-fund the publishing of the book. It’s a marketing nightmare to try and get people to support a Kickstarter campaign; I must have spent 15 hours a day working on that thing while it was live, but it worked — without the Kickstarter I would never have got the publisher.

12) Peach or Rosalina?

Peach is a hopeless character, so Rosalina.

13) While it’s debatable whether or not the Ouya failed, it’s obvious that it didn’t meet expectations. What do you think happened?

I think people had unrealistic expectations of Ouya. People saw that it raised a few million dollars via Kickstarter and overshot its target by a massive margin, but forgot to remember that a console like the Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo devices cost more than a few million dollars to make and support. Ouya was always going to be a “B-Grade” console. The fact people were disappointed by this just shows how little people understand about how the spreadsheet side of the industry works.

14) What classic novel deserves a video game adaptation?

The Big Sleep. But I worry that Activision would buy the rights and turn it into a linear FPS with a cover system and dog companion.

15) You describe The Interactive Canvas as a coffee table book. On a scale from 1 – 10, how offended would you be if somebody kept it on their kitchen table instead?

10. The Kitchen is where you put cook books. Does it look like I’m going to have a recipe for my world famous lemon tart in there? Actually, that’s not such a bad idea…

16) It’s a tired question. I don’t care. Are video games, today, as they currently stand, art?

Yes. But people don’t treat games like art. They say “oh, games are art because look at how pretty they are,” completely misunderstand that a game’s graphics are not what makes it a work of art, and then go back to their arguments about how Call of Duty is better than Battlefield.

If games are to be legitimised as works of art in culture, then people need to start having discussions about games as art. This means philosophy. This means sociology, and psychology. This means feminism — without the writer then being targeted by threats of rape. Games will only truly be “art” when the conversations around games grows the heck up.

17) Your tastes seem to gravitate toward games with a traditionally Japanese flair. Why do you think that resonates more strongly with you than what you see in Western games? Or does it?

Japanese games tend to have a stronger grasp on the idea of “fun.” I look at Western games and I see two things absolutely dominate: sports games, and extremely violent games. The former is fine if you’re a fan of the sport, the latter is visceral. But where’s the oddball humour? The variety of experiences? The silly sexuality? The surrealism? The abstraction?

I generalise, of course, but the western games industry tends to take itself very seriously, while the Japanese games industry has Hidetaka Suehiro and Goichi Suda. And, somewhat ironically, because the likes of Suda are so off-the-wall and weirdly creative, his work has far more artistic merit than the Western developers that seem to be more interested in competing with Michael Bay.

18) If you could have complete creative control over a new game in any franchise, which would you choose? What would the game be like?

Not so much a franchise, I’d say, but rather a license – the Warhammer franchise has been done dreadfully for 15 years, or however long it’s been since Warhammer: Dark Omen was released. I would take that license and build a slow-paced strategy RTS that focuses heavily on the strategy side of things. You know, like how the actual tabletop game is.

19) Most disappointing game purchase or rental ever. Go.

Any modern game that has the words “Star Trek” on the cover. Seriously, how can developers mess up that franchise when they literally have decades of lore and an entire universe to play with? Mass Effect proved galactic character-based narratives can work in games. Star Trek developers have no excuse.

20) You’re trapped forever in any video game. Which is it?

Atelier Meruru: The Alchemist of Arland. Because Meruru.

BONUS: Say anything to our readers that you would like to say that hasn’t been covered above.

The best way to enjoy a good game is with a six pack or ten of beer.

I’d like to thank Matt for taking the time to answer my moderately-relevant questions. I’m sure that as publication dates are set I’ll be talking about it again, so keep an eye out here and on Digitally Downloaded.

ALF Reviews: “Wild Thing” (Season 1, Episode 18)

Now this is interesting. The syndication edit of “Wild Thing” is only 18 minutes long. Typically they’ve been about 22 or 23 minutes, which reflect maybe two or three minutes’ worth of trimmed material. As I’ve mentioned before in these reviews, I’m disappointed by that, but not largely concerned. While it’s fair enough to assume that we’re losing some decent lines and maybe a moment or two of plot clarification, I truly doubt it would make the show better. Even if we operate under the assumption that all of the stuff that got cut was good, that still leaves us with the fact that any given episode of ALF only had two or three minutes’ worth of good stuff, and that’s a pretty lousy ratio.

Here, though, it’s a bit trickier, as we’re losing six or seven minutes’ worth of material. That’s basically a full act. In fact, Hulu divides its programs up by “act” so that it can show its own commercials. “Wild Thing” has an act break at both credits sequences, and that’s it; the entire episode proper is unbroken. Something really strange happened here, but I couldn’t tell you what it is.

It’s also mislabeled on Hulu as episode 19, when it’s actually episode 18. This…made me panic. I was afraid I had skipped an episode somewhere and would have to go back and do it. It turns out it’s just a mistake on their end, but the experience taught me that there is nothing more terrifying to me than the prospect of a lost episode of ALF.

Anyway, none of that has anything to do with “Wild Thing,” which starts with ALF and Brian on the floor trying to read each other’s minds. Brian keeps thinking of a fork, ALF keeps guessing wrong, and Kate comes in so ALF puts on some X-Ray Specs and talks about how sexy her underwear is.

18-minutes, 22-minutes, 60-minutes…it doesn’t matter. ALF is still ALF.

ALF, "Wild Thing"

ALF assembles the family in the living room. He asks where Kate is and is told she’s in the shower, so he walks into the bathroom and throws the curtain aside to get her. This is the second pervy thing ALF’s done to Kate this episode, and it’s also the second thing he did at all in this episode. Why do the writers think ALF is at his best when he’s behaving like a sexual criminal?

He then walks over and hangs up on Lynn’s phone call. She gets upset but it’s not like she was talking to anyone. She can’t have been, since she just had it pressed against her head while she nodded silently. This means either Lynn, Andrea Elson or the entire writing staff of ALF didn’t know how phones work. I can’t even make an educated guess as to which it is. Any of that is plausible.

There is actually a decent joke here. ALF tells Lynn that she looks different, and she takes that as a compliment until ALF asks if she used to have a mustache. She explains that she looks different because she got her braces taken off, and ALF replies, “Yeah, but didn’t you used to have a mustache, too?”

It was a line obviously written in because Elson had her real-life braces removed, which is something I wouldn’t have noticed if they hadn’t drawn attention to it, but I appreciate the fact that they decided to address the change. I also appreciate the fact that they assigned the job of addressing the change to the One Good Writer.

It’s interesting that ALF gets a bigger laugh with something they had to quickly shoe-horn into the episode in order to address a real-life change in appearance than it does with the rest of the script that was presumably given more time and attention.

ALF, "Wild Thing"

ALF explains to the family — in the vaguest way possible, presumably because the writers don’t know where this is going either (if you don’t believe me, just scroll down to the final screengrab) — that he’s going to go bananas.

Why? Because this is March 1, and every 75 years, on March 2, all Melmacians go apeshit. Good to know that Melmac inexplicably went by the Gregorian calendar.

ALF announces that Willie better hurry the eff up and build him a cage, because all this jazz goes down at midnight.

Why did he wait until now to tell the family about it? He only gives them a few hours’ notice that he’s going to embark on some hazily-defined rampage, but he knew this was coming for, oh, the past 74 years and 364 days or so. What’s more, he’s been here since August (as established by “Help Me, Rhonda”) which means he’s known the Tanners for seven months. Couldn’t this have been talked about any sooner?

ALF, "Wild Thing"

Willie apparently doesn’t know the difference between a “cage” and a “wooden box,” but that’s okay, because nobody remarks on it which means they don’t know either. Then again, he still doesn’t know what he’s supposed to be helping ALF prevent, so I can’t blame him too much for not being particular about it.

You’d think the episode would explain at some point what happens to ALF during this isolated bout of insanity, but it doesn’t. I thought this sort of artful dodging was building up to a reveal at the end that he becomes really nice for a day. Or lactates everywhere. I don’t know. Point is, I thought we’d find out something.

In this edit, though, we don’t. Maybe the longer edit made more sense of it. As of right now, I’m just assuming that this is ALF’s “Amok Time.” ALFmok Time? Anyway, what I’m trying to say is I’m disappointed that this episode doesn’t climax with his and Willie’s duel to the death.

ALF tells Willie not to release him under any circumstances, but then he says he has to use the restroom and Willie opens the box, which earns him a stern lecture from ALF. Willie apologies, locks him back in, and ALF tries the same trick, which earns the audience an incomparable line reading of “Forgaeeerrrrhhtt ittt” from Max Wright. Man, I’m not even through the first season and I’ve already gotten so used to Wright’s delivery that I barely even notice it anymore. I think that’s the first sign of dementia.

ALF then starts impersonating Lynn, Brian and Willie, but I don’t know how that’s supposed to be a trick since they’re all standing right there and obviously nobody would be fooled by it. It’s also strange that the lip synch is so terrible. They use actual lines from those actors, so all Fusco has to do is open and close the mouth on the puppet, but it barely matches up at all. I mean, I’m sure it’s more difficult to “match the flaps” when somebody else is talking than when you are, but shouldn’t a puppeteer at least be able to do a halfway decent job of it? It doesn’t even seem like he’s trying.

ALF, "Wild Thing"

That night Brian is walking around the house unsupervised, and since Willie and Kate both knew full well that ALF would be going berserk in a fragile wooden crate, this illustrates what fantastic parents they are. Seriously, do they even like their kids? They might not. The took the precaution of keeping ALF safe by boxing him up, but no precautions whatsoever to keep their kids safe?

ALF tricks Brian into opening the crate on the grounds that it’s already sunup in Melmac time. (Melmok Time?) So I guess this whole “I go nuts on March 2” thing really meant “I go nuts for six hours on March 2 while everyone’s asleep and wouldn’t notice anyway.”

Brian then gets locked in the cage, because he’s a fucking idiot. ALF doesn’t even try. He just says, “Can you check inside the cage?” So Brian does, and ALF closes the door. Check for what? There was no attempt made to justify this with even a flimsy explanation. There’s a script for Friends floating around the internet that was hand-written by an eight-year-old kid. It’s a thousand times more coherent than this.

ALF, "Wild Thing"

Also, ALF the unregistered sex criminal has now graduated to locking children in wooden crates. I just want to leave you with that thought.

ALF, "Wild Thing"

Willie, Kate and Lynn all enter the living room at sunup, and Brian screams for help. In the most ridiculous piece of sitcom blocking ever, these three idiots stand around wondering loudly about whether that’s Brian in the cage or ALF doing another impression…which is a valid question, but also one that could be resolved immediately by any of them stepping around to the front of the cage where Brian is clearly visible.

Of course, Brian could also move to one of the windows on the side, where he’d be visible to them, and he doesn’t do that. Speaking of which, I have no idea why he’s calling out through the front window in the first place when that’s not where his family is standing, so fuck it. He’s no better than they are. The whole Tanner clan deserves to be torn to shreds by a horny alien.

Eventually they do manage to step four inches to the side. They see that it does look like Brian, but they’re not convinced that it isn’t just ALF shape-shifting. Think about that for a moment. I’ll meet you when you’re done.

Good stuff, eh?

They ask Brian a bunch of questions to determine that it’s really him, and the one that convinces them is when he’s able to identify Kate’s maiden name as Halligan, which is correct. However, that’s also the one thing they ask that they already know ALF knows as well; he was channeling the ghost of Sparky Halligan only three episodes ago. So in order to determine that this is not the alien, they ask their son something that both he and the alien would know.

Good stuff, eh?

ALF, "Wild Thing"

Willie goes to check for ALF at the Ochmoneks’ house, because that’s where Lucky is staying, apparently. How did the Tanners convince them to take the cat for the night when they weren’t going anywhere? What was their cover story? If you took your cat to the neighbor’s house because you were away for the weekend, that makes sense. If you took your cat to the neighbor’s house just to get rid of it for the night, they’d think you were hosting an orgy.

Anyway, this is the first time we’ve seen Mrs. Ochmonek since the second episode, and she makes her triumphant return solely so that Willie can come over in the middle of the night and say, “I was hoping I could get Lucky,” which is an entendre so obvious even Three’s Company would turn up its nose at it.

Also, who out there is volunteering to do the ALF / Daft Punk mashup that the internet so desperately needs?

Mr. Ochmonek goes upstairs to get the cat, and Willie sees ALF behind Mrs. Ochmonek. I’m pretty sure this screengrab is an accurate representation of Max Wright’s crack hallucinations:

ALF, "Wild Thing"

Mr. Ochmonek can’t find the cat, and when he comes back downstairs there’s a noise in the kitchen, so the elders go to investigate. Meanwhile ALF comes out of a totally different room with a toaster oven, asks how long to preheat it before cooking a cat, then he laughs and leaves again.

The Ochmoneks come back, so Willie pretends he was the one laughing so loudly, and suddenly I’m convinced that the entire character of ALF really is one series-long crack hallucination.

ALF, "Wild Thing"

Every time Mr. and Mrs. O leave the room ALF appears, and then he disappears before they come back. Again, if this is what was left after cutting all but 18 minutes of this episode, I can’t imagine we’re missing much.

Eventually they find Lucky, and ALF escapes on their riding mower. I know it sounds like I’m making this episode up in the throes of my own crack hallucination, but all this shit is really happening.


The lawnmower theft happens off camera, and then we cut to the Tanners hanging out in the shed, listening to police broadcasts and mapping ALF’s path of destruction through LA. All of his shenanigans happen off camera, pretty obviously for budget reasons, and that’s understandable. What’s not understandable is why they wrote an episode about a reign of alien terror if they couldn’t afford to shoot any of it.

I know I complained a few times (okay…every time) about the show never having ALF do anything alien, so I should be happy; this is a story about an alien, and probably the only one we’ve seen so far. Yet we still don’t get to see him doing anything alien, because the one alien thing they’ve ever decided to have him do can’t be filmed with anything less than the budget of a Michael Bay movie. Great planning.

Anyway, they draw on a map for a while and then we get this:

ALF, "Wild Thing"

This show can’t even stick Willie on a couch without it looking like the most ridiculous thing in the world.

Kate and Lynn return from their drive around the neighborhood, but they didn’t find ALF. That’s okay, though, because the episode’s ending and he turns up on his own. He returned to the Tanner house because he read Brian’s mind, or some shit, which isn’t so much the coming together of two plot threads as it is the writers reminding us that this episode had a beginning.

They have a heartfelt reunion in front of their wide-open front door, even though they know full well the police are actively scouring the city for the alien that left a path of destruction leading right to their house. Again, nobody thinks to step a few inches to the side.

ALF, "Wild Thing"

ALF quotes Yogi Bera, Plutarch, Proust and Shakespeare because even after it’s trimmed all to hell ALF is still padded like crazy.

The short scene before the credits is ALF further padding out the episode with yet more quotations, and then he and Willie go out to the shed and see a tiger.

ALF, "Wild Thing"

ALF kidnapped it from the zoo and then forgot about it. The fake audience of nobody who ever lived applauds in appreciation of the…uh…whatever this is.

Guys, “Wild Thing” was awful. This might actually be one of the worst. I’d like to say it was even worse than “Strangers in the Night,” but that wouldn’t be totally fair since for all I know a fuller edit would have done this one a lot of good. I doubt that, but…still. Benefit of the doubt and all.

I’m just glad it’s over. This one felt about 10 times as long as the clip show, even though that one ran almost a full hour. Oh well. Next week’s episode is called “Going Out of My Head Over You,” which sounds like a title that would have fit just as well here. Are we in for another double-header with the same plot? We can only hope!

Join us next week for that review, same Amok Time, same Amok Channel.

MELMAC FACTS: Every 75 years, all the inhabitants of Melmac mow the lawn and kidnap a tiger.

The Importance of Keeping Artist and Audience Separate

Flappy Bird

Some of you might have heard about Flappy Bird, a very simple iOS game that saw an unexpected spike in popularity over the course of the past week or so. If you’re not interested in that game, don’t worry; I’m not going to talk about it, beyond using it to provide some context.

What I am going to talk about is the importance of maintaining the distance between artist and audience, and that’s something that Flappy Bird unwittingly illustrated quite well.

The simple game wasn’t exactly a critical success, but it found a large and appreciative audience all at once. To play you’d tap the screen. That was really it, but the cumbersome nature of the titular bird meant that it was downright miraculous if you made it any further than a few seconds into the game before failing. One tap equals one flap, but the physics complicated things; avoiding obstacles meant maintaining steady flight, which was quite hard to do when your bird was front-loaded and tended toward a natural face-plant.

That was the game, but that’s not why I’m talking about it. Why I’m talking about it is the fact that its developer, Dong Nguyen, has removed it as of yesterday from the App Store. His reasoning was both vague and clear; the game turned his life into a nightmare. Or, rather, those who played the game turned his life into a nightmare.

The kinds of messages Nguyen was receiving through Twitter and other media were absolutely out of line, but they were nothing compared to what happened after he announced the unavailability of his game: his life was threatened, the lives of his family and loved ones were threatened, and many in addition to that threatened to kill themselves. Whatever you might think of Nguyen’s decision to remove it from the App Store, the subsequent behavior of those who ostensibly enjoyed his game retroactively justifies his move. Why should he worry about disappointing people who would threaten homicide upon a man they’d never met?

Presumably Nguyen had fun designing the game. Presumably he also made the decision to monetize it. (It was available as a free download, but ads were shown in game.) What happened was that the fun was over, and the threats to his life and those he cared about were not worth the money. His audience, in a very direct way, killed what they loved.

This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, and the Flappy Bird debacle is just the most recent instance. While there has always been some amount of interplay between artist and audience, for the most part this flowed in entirely one direction: downhill. The artist composes upon the mountaintop, the audience waits below.

Of course there wasn’t a perfect break between them. Artists still have (and have always had) families and friends. Agents, managers, publishers. There is always somebody around who will have a chance to provide their opinions and guidance to those doing the creating. But they made up a very small portion of the audience. They were necessary exceptions.

Now with Twitter, Facebook, email, forums, Reddit and the like, artists engage with fans much more directly. Rather than a handful of close friends, artists field feedback — and demands, and threats — from hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands of members of their audience constantly. It gets overwhelming, I’m positive, and when issues do arise, things are compounded by the fact that the audience member providing feedback has the option of remaining anonymous. The artist has no such luxury.

While that’s a topic worthy of discussion — it really is, though that discussion should probably be started by somebody other than myself — what really baffles me is why such a large number of people choose to employ this unprecedented level of communication for destructive purposes.

Why the threats? Why the insults? Why the demands? When artists came down from the mountaintop with their paintings, their sculptures, their novels, their poems, their double-albums in illustrated gatefolds, that’s all the audience got. They could enjoy it and appraise it at their own pace in their own way, and only in very rare exceptions would they have a one-on-one audience with the artist during which they could register their opinions.

That was a good thing, because their opinions didn’t matter. Artists unappreciated in their time have gone on to become legends, precisely because they did not take advice. They worked the way they must work; that is to say, they remained true to themselves, and to their vision. They weren’t wrong to shut out the world…they were absolutely right, because it’s very often the world that has some catching up to do.

Now very few artists could achieve any kind of following at all without some kind of public presence, and a public presence today carries with it availability. Artists shouldn’t be personal entertainers, and yet we insist that they are. We don’t want to wait, we don’t want to be teased, and we don’t want to be disappointed. We hold artists personally accountable, and when we disagree with something, we tear them to shreds. It’s still the world that has the catching up to do, but we’re quick to destroy, and by the time we do catch up, that entire universe of artistic potential has been crushed or derailed.

Even when we do like something we tend toward destruction. Quentin Tarantino recently shelved The Hateful Eight, which was to have been his next movie project, because somebody saw it fit to leak the script. Not because they hated it…but because they could. We seek, and we destroy. We take a level of direct openness and transparency with our favorite artists that fans generations ago would have killed for, and we use it to kill anyway.

I do think there’s a debate to be had upon the merits of engaging with an audience. Certainly in some cases it seems to have worked out well…the DMX / George Zimmerman fight cancellation being a recent example of public outcry seeming to have turned a despicable publicity stunt into a rare moment of humble apology. There’s also The Venture Bros., whose pair of writers not only monitor online discussion but have openly spoken about ditching plotlines and resolutions that fans saw coming. While this level of organic response frustrates me, the fact is that the show is great, and for all we know it never would have achieved the highs that it has had the writers stuck to their original (apparently easily guessable) plans. Then, of course, there’s Ezra Pound, whose edits could well be the only reason we know T.S. Eliot today.

But, overall, I find it hard to believe that it’s constructive, or conducive to creating great art. Fans don’t know what they want; fans are fickle and reactionary on the whole. For everyone who quietly appreciates, fifty loudly rage.

Why? There’s certainly an awful lot of art that I don’t enjoy, and a lot of artists I make a point of avoiding, but I wouldn’t see the benefit in attacking them, in obstructing their plans, or of vocally detracting. The world is large. The world is varied. If an artist makes a choice you don’t agree with, the odds are good that there’s another artist making the opposite choice that you do agree with. There’s enough out there. It is no artist’s responsibility to appease his or her audience, regardless of what the modern culture of constant interconnectivity seems to suggest; it’s the audience’s job to follow the artists that they enjoy.

In the past, if an artist read negative reviews of his or her work and got upset, the onus was at least partially upon the artists. After all, you don’t need to read those. You can, but you realize you’re making a choice to do so.

Now it’s different. An artist wakes up to more messages from strangers than he or she does to messages from friends. That’s a scary imbalance, and it’s something I wouldn’t know how to address. Online, accessible socialization is increasingly mandatory for up-and-comers. Without it, how could you amass a fanbase today? But with it, won’t it get pretty tiresome trying to do the art you love when thousands of people you’ve never met are insisting you’re doing it wrong?

We lost Flappy Bird. To many people, that will mean nothing, and that’s okay. But that’s only one example; there’s no telling how much else we’ve lost, are losing, and will continue to lose by insistently stifling creativity. The Hateful Eight. Fez II. Whatever phantom episodes of The Venture Bros. never made it to production. All those unmade seasons of Chappelle’s Show. All those concerts Ryan Adams walked out of rather than deal with hecklers. That inconceivably long initial draft of The Waste Land.

Art is the one thing that makes this world tolerable. Well, that and love. Some would argue — and I’d be one — that they’re very similar concepts, and they’re both easy to destroy in the same way.

Let them be. If you don’t like it, move along to something you do like. Killing it gets you nowhere, and it just leaves the quiet, contemplative fans that much poorer for the loss.



I actually finished reading 1Q84 a few weeks ago. I could have sat down to write my third and final piece on on the book (you can read the previous two here and here) the day I finished, because there was certainly enough in that final volume to discuss, but for some reason I didn’t. I laid down. I let it gestate. I’d spent about a month with the book and 1,100 pages or so…another few weeks couldn’t hurt.

And they didn’t hurt, but neither did they clarify. I’m not complaining. 1Q84 is a masterpiece of indefinite postponement. It raises questions and funnels you toward answers, but never actually reaches them and constantly raises more along the way. 1Q84 initiates a kind of game between the reader and the book…the reader wants to keep composure and locate solutions, and the book wants to baffle continuously without ever making that bafflement felt. That’s 1Q84‘s real achievement; you never know just how lost you truly are.

This game escalates in the final volume with the addition of a third focal character to the rotation. While the first two volumes alternated chapters centered on the mercenary Aomame and the writer Tengo, volume three promotes a minor character to center stage, and slots his own chapters right between them. This is Ushikawa, and it’s no coincidence that in a long novel full of twisting questions and evasive answers that the final volume gives Uskikawa a chance to shine; after all, he is a private detective.

By opening the volume with Ushikawa and allowing us to follow him along on his investigation, it feels as though this is where the plot threads will be tied up. It makes sense. Two volumes of meandering, compulsive setup that results in a brilliantly unsolveable mess…followed by our introduction to the one man who can clear all of this up, solve the connections, and pace around the room on the final page delivering a long monologue that explains for us everything we just saw.

I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that doesn’t happen.

The third volume, though, does contain my only two genuine complaints about the book…and one might be tied into the other, though it’s impossible for me to know. For starters, it’s the translation.

There was something “off” about volume three that I couldn’t place for about a hundred pages. Then I took a look at the end notes — coincidentally — and found what is probably my answer: one person translated the first two volumes into English, and another translated the third. This was disappointing, because the trade-off was a noticeable step down. The sentences felt clunkier and more padded. The atmosphere was smothered with unnecessary words and clumsy metaphors. The book, all of a sudden, felt like it was being written by a different writer. It wasn’t…but it was being translated by a different translator.

And that’s the problem. While reading 1Q84 and enjoying it, I was always thinking about how much of the story I wasn’t getting. I don’t mean “understanding,” but actually receiving. Certain words and turns of phrase wouldn’t survive a direct translation, so we need to trust our middleman to provide the closest possible approximation of Murakami’s meaning, and no matter how close you get, it won’t be the same. That’s okay…that’s simply the price I have to pay for not being able to read the novel in the original Japanese. I know I’ll be getting a lesser shade, but I trust that it will be a shade worth getting on its own.

Then volume three kicks in, and with the introduction of a new character — in a line of work and with a point of view very different from our previous two protagonists — I have no way of knowing if the perceivable difference in the narrative is due to the substitution in translator or a deliberate choice on Murakami’s part; a shift in tone meant to evoke more clumsily written detective stories, or to comment on how different the world looks and feels when all of a sudden we’re experiencing it through someone else’s perspective.

I don’t know. And that’s bothersome. Because there’s a big difference between recalibrating your distance from that source text and being in the hands of a single author who deliberately dims the light and removes your level of comfort.

My second issue is more a structural one, as in the previous volumes all of Aomame’s chapters centered — front to back — on Aomame. All of Tengo’s likewise centered on Tengo. In this volume, one chapter deviates from its central character to present a scene from somebody else’s point of view, and I personally don’t believe it either worked or was necessary. Again, perhaps this is a translation issue. Maybe it didn’t happen in the original text, or maybe it did happen but was handled much better. Either way, in my edition, it felt like an unfortunate, too-visible blemish on what had for so long been a sleek, perfect surface.

Volume three is absolutely Ushikawa’s story, as much as volume one was Tengo’s (in which he rewrote the manuscript that set the entire plot into motion) and volume two was Aomame’s (in which she murders a cult leader). It takes a while before it becomes clear why Ushikawa is important to the overall story, as opposed to why he’s investigating it, or what he might be able to tell us, but it weaves together beautifully, with some surprisingly deep emotions running along the way.

One thing that worried me earlier on about 1Q84 was that its supernatural elements might outweigh the human drama. It wouldn’t be a problem in itself if they did, but the fact that the human drama felt so sincere made it a little frightening that we’d lose it in favor of razzle-dazzle. When Tengo’s father, for instance, hints that there’s something he can’t tell his son, Tengo assumes that they are not really related. It’s a fair assumption, but the text doesn’t buy into that explanation, which led me to believe that we’d be provided some other-worldly solution that would detract from the pathos of their tormented relationship.

In the end, however — I’m again avoiding spoilers — it doesn’t matter whether the answer was human or superhuman, because whatever the reason, these are two people, hurt and damaged by their relationship to each other, and the details of that relationship become less important in the face of the palpable emotional fallout. Tengo might be at the bedside of his dying father for one reason, but what’s important is what goes through their minds — both of their minds — while he’s there. The incredible gives way to the agonizingly credible, rather than the other way around.

And there’s a scene in which one character, in his final moments, finds his thoughts turning to a dog he once had. He didn’t like the dog. There were no feelings of affection between them at all. And as his consciousness spirals away forever, this is what he remembers. He doesn’t know why. He’ll never have a chance to make sense of it. The question is raised, but as it is raised it’s already too late to answer it. The moment ends, as they all do.

I mentioned in my first post that a few folks tried to get me to read something other than 1Q84 as my introduction to Murakami. I’ll never know if this was the best first experience of the man, because it’s the only first experience I will have.

But I will say this: 1Q84 was alternately thought-provoking, challenging, warming and horrifying. What it left inside of me will be gestating for a long time. Perhaps forever. I may never know what’s growing in there, what it looks like, or even what it’s for. Who cares?

I love the feeling of setting a novel down and realizing that it’s probably always going to rank as one of my favorites. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, you know it. As sure as there are two moons in the sky, you know it.

ALF Reviews: “Border Song” (Season 1, Episode 17)

Quick note: be sure to check out my awesome new banner on the ALF review archive page. Super fan Dylan Savageau did the art for me. And by that I mean he’s super and also a fan, not that he’s a super fan of mine. In fact I don’t even think he likes me.

I think we should all take a moment to give thanks for a few things. For starters, after this episode I will only have to review seven more in season one. Rumor has it that season two sees an improvement in quality, and that would certainly be welcome. It’s also where I started watching as a kid, I think, so that should be interesting.

Secondly, let’s all give thanks that the Kate Sr. trilogy is over. Technically it was over last week, but since she appeared in some clips I wasn’t quite comfortable enough to assume she was gone. But now that I’ve seen “Border Song,” I can safely say she won’t be bothering us for a while. (20 minutes, anyway…but I’ll take what I can get.)

And finally, let’s express some very deep gratitude for the return of the One Good Writer. Yes, I was starting to wonder if I’d hallucinated him, because it feels like it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to compliment this show on a genuinely good line or gag. “Border Song,” however, hits the ground running as far as that goes.

It opens with ALF and Kate in the kitchen, and ALF tells her to add “manure” to her grocery list. She asks him why, and he says, “So you won’t forget it.”

That’s funny enough, but they actually build upon it for a second good joke: Kate asks him more directly why he needs manure, and he replies that it’s for his carrots. She says, “Use butter, like everyone else.”

God, I’ve missed you, OGW. Of course (does this really even need saying at this point?) the rest of “Border Song” isn’t quite up to the silly standard set by the opening scene. It has a few more moments of decency, and after the Kate Sr. trilogy it feels like a positive masterpiece, but this is still ALF. And it’s an episode about the alien befriending a young immigrant. So…you pretty much know it’s all going to come crashing down sooner rather than later.

ALF, "Border Song"

After the opening credits we join Willie, clumsily sounding his way through basic Spanish with the help of a book. He’s on the phone trying to reach a man named Fredo Mancilla, and he identifies himself as working for Social Services.

Wow! So now we finally know where Willie works. We still don’t know quite what his job is, but hey, it’s a start.

I have to admit, though, I was pretty surprised that Willie is a social worker. To be honest, I thought I was playing dumb for a while about what he did for a living. Sure, the show never told us, but I thought it would have been safe to conclude that he was some kind of engineer for the state. That seemed to be suggested by his interest in science and space, his twice-alluded-to crazy inventions, and the fact that he has no social skills whatsoever. But, here we are, watching Willie try to figure out what to do with a lost Mexican child. I have to admit, I did not see that coming.

I’m guessing that this job is meant to redeem Willie a bit for the audience. Instead of being this gawky authoritarian, we’re supposed to reconsider him as an empathetic hero by day, toiling at a low paying job because it allows him to make life a little better for those who need it most.

If he’s in social work, though, in Los Angeles of all places, how is it possible that he doesn’t know any Spanish? You’d think that would be a pretty crucial thing to know in that field. And did nobody at Social Services ever bother to learn Spanish? You’d think at least one of them might know at least a few basic words and phrases, but I guess not, because if that were the case I don’t know why they’d turn this kid over to Willie, who can’t speak a lick of it.

There’s a scene where his secretary or something complains about having to work late because of this kid, but in another bid to soften Willie, the writers have him stand up to her and insist that they stay as long as it takes to help him. That sounds great, right?

Well, it is, as long as you don’t pay attention to what he actually says: “He’s alone, he’s frightened, he doesn’t speak any English, and if I’m going to put him alone on a bus back to Mexico I want to make sure there’s going to be someone there to meet him.”

There’s no laughter. The show doesn’t consider this a dark joke. Willie’s noble goal is to stick a kid on a bus alone with no money, no food, and no knowledge of the language, hoping he gets deported safely and becomes somebody else’s problem. So much for empathy.

ALF, "Border Song"

Brian comes into the kitchen after harvesting ALF’s vegetables, a responsibility which fell to him because ALF is a puppet and can’t leave the seat.

Speaking of which, where’s the midget been? The absence of the One Good Writer was certainly felt, but the midget in the ALF suit has been quietly missing for a while. Come back, midget in the ALF suit!

There’s another good joke here when Kate refers to the brown lumps that ALF grew as looking like really good yams. Lynn corrects her and says they’re eggplants. ALF, annoyed, cries, “They’re corn!”

I like this. As a hobby of the week for ALF, having a vegetable garden is a pretty solid one. It gives him something to do, is something he could believably handle without leaving the property, and it ties into the fact that the Mexican boy’s father was a farmer. It’s not the most graceful way to combine two plots, but at least they are being combined.

It’s also a very Roger kind of thing to get obsessed with, and in fact there was actually an episode of American Dad! that saw Roger operating a plantation in the back yard, with children as his slaves. It’s just a coincidence,* I’m positive, but it’s a pretty fun one.

ALF complains that his veggies won’t grow because Bob Barker keeps digging them up. Bob Barker is the Ochmoneks’ dog, who was given that name simply so that the neighbors could have hilarious misunderstandings about it, such as this one. Eventually they clear it up and establish that it isn’t a world-famous game show host digging up the crops…it’s a Chihuahua.

A Chihuahua. Not that they’re overdoing it on the Mexican stuff, of course. The rest of the episode is very sensitive and careful to avoid stereotyping. That’s especially true of the scene in which the Mexican kid gets everyone drunk on tequila, teaches them how to properly roll burritos, and infects them all with his really lousy work ethic.

ALF, "Border Song"

As crappy as the writing in this exchange is, the scene does have an uncharacteristic degree of life to it. ALF suggests murdering the Chihuahua with a gardening claw, and then when Kate says no he suggests quicksand, and mimes the dog sinking into the ground.

It’s a nice bit of physical comedy and it allows for some of Fusco’s sillier puppeteering skills to come through. I like it. Of course, what it really does is remind me how infrequently we get physical comedy like this.

It’s bizarre, now that I think about it. ALF is a puppet. That should lead to a lot of creative possibilities that you couldn’t do with a human character. But so far we’ve only ever seen ALF doing things a human actor could do. He sits around, plays the piano, knocks shit over…at that point, why even have a puppet?

The ALF set was a legendary hotbed of frustration and stress, and that was largely due to the fact that the show was so complicated to shoot. In order to allow ALF to move around, the set was built with a series of trenches and trap doors, and the actors had to be careful not to fall into one and break their spine as they walked around delivering their own lines. What’s more, if any line was fumbled or a prop failed to function, everything had to be reset and the whole ordeal repeated. Due to this, episodes of ALF took something like ten times as long to shoot as the average sitcom.

But with that taken as a given, it’s even odder that all we ever see ALF do is sit in a chair and spout shitty jokes. If you’re going to put your actors and floor staff through hell, at least make it worth their while. Have them navigating these ridiculous conditions for a purpose…don’t just do it so that a puppet can sit at a table like any other actor could. What a waste of time.

It’s strange. Imagine The Muppets without physical comedy and puppet-only set-pieces. Sure, maybe they’d still be funny, but what would have been the point? Jim Henson didn’t spend a life designing and refining and working with these things so that they could sit around a dinner table…he explored the possibilities of his medium. Fusco, for some reason, resists doing anything with the puppet, and when we get a lively exception in a moment like this, that becomes positively maddening.

ALF, "Border Song"

Anyway, the phone rings, and it’s Willie. He tells ALF to put Kate on, and ALF delivers my favorite joke in the episode: “Hey Kate! I’m the King of France.”

You probably think I’m being sarcastic, but I really do like that. I’m disappointed that they cranked up the fake audience laughter so quickly after ALF delivers the line, because it really should hang there for a few seconds before the joke sets in, but that’s more the fault of the editors than the writers. I like this.

ALF then hangs up on Willie, and Max Wright makes the face you see above at the telephone / his career trajectory.

ALF, "Border Song"

The next scene begins with ALF sitting naked on the couch with Brian, drinking a beer. This was a great show for families, and it helped millions of children worldwide see that there was nothing wrong with the occasional game of Secret Tickles.

Willie comes home and shoos ALF into the kitchen, because he brought the Mexican boy back with him. When the kid walks through the door the fake audience that doesn’t exist is so moved that they vocalize their pity.

What a depressing job it must have been to edit audience reactions into ALF. It was up to you to pretend somebody gave a shit about what was happening on this worthless show.

ALF, "Border Song"

The boy is introduced as Luis Mancilla, and of course there has to be a joke about how fuckable Lynn is. Yes, the ALF writers’ room must have been such a pleasant, welcoming environment.

I also love that in any given screengrab from this show, every character looks miserable. Just putting that out there.

Then there’s this really weird conversation about Lynn’s school photo. She says it makes her look like “the village idiot,” but Kate says it doesn’t, and the whole thing just goes on and out without building to any sort of punchline, so they’re obviously just padding things out at this point. I’ll never get tired of pointing out how much the writers need to reach for something to tell a story about, and then when they have it they can’t think of anything to do with it.

Luis goes to the bathroom and Willie tells the family that he felt so bad for the kid that he had to take him home. So Willie is not only a social worker in LA that doesn’t know any Spanish, but he also doesn’t see anything wrong with taking lost children home without telling anybody. I’m pretty sure ALF is a show about a family of undiagnosed psychopaths.

ALF, "Border Song"

Anyway, because it’s this show, ALF pops up in the kitchen window, spills beer everywhere, and then licks it up.

Oh well. It was nice to hear from the One Good Writer again, however briefly.

That night Luis gets up to flee the Tanner house, instantly making him the most intelligent character this show has ever given us. It’s a little odd, though, that for all his overwhelming compassion toward the boy, Willie not only made him sleep on the couch, but didn’t give him any bed clothes. Poor Luis had to sleep in a buttoned workshirt, jeans, and even his sneakers. Awesome social work, Willie.

Instead of leaving through the door that he’s sleeping literally four feet away from, Luis winds through the house to the back door that he somehow knew was there, and exits through ALF’s vegetable garden.

Of course, since it’s a garden Luis immediately starts toiling in it, because he’s Mexican. Then when he needs some tools he knocks a whole bunch of shit over, because he’s clumsy and Mexican.

ALF, "Border Song"

ALF hears the disturbance and assumes it’s Bob Barker, so he comes out with the intention of beating the small animal to death. Have I mentioned what a fantastic show this was for families?

Luis sees him and is understandably terrified, but ALF calms him down by speaking to him in Spanish. He introduces himself, says that he’s friendly, and explains that he came from space. I assume he’s not worried about disclosing this fact to a stranger because despite it being established in the first episode as top secret information that nobody could be told under any circumstance, Luis is Mexican and nobody will ever care what he says.

ALF then puts Luis to work in his garden, which is how they bond. Obviously.

ALF, "Border Song"

The next day at work Willie is bitching out his secretary again, and then his boss comes in. I spent a lot of time trying to remember where I’ve seen this guy before, and I finally realized he played the doctor on Get a Life. Looking him up on IMDB I see that his name is Earl Boen, and not only has he had an awesome career (and played a shit-ton of doctors), but he voiced LeChuck in the Secret of Monkey Island video games. This guy is officially awesome.

Boen is actually really good here. He doesn’t get to do much, but he hates Willie and delivers his lines without making funny faces for the camera, so by the standards of this show that should qualify him for an Emmy. This might be the first ALF character that I’ve ever wanted to see again.

Anyway, Willie gets in trouble for taking a kid home with him last night without telling anyone. You’d think that would be a major strike against Willie keeping his job since it’s, you know, a pretty heinous crime and everything. But instead he’s just told not to do it again. In the world of ALF, every arm of the government operates on the honor system.

ALF, "Border Song"

Willie comes home that night with news that he’s located Luis’s father. However he’s also uncovered some additional facts: his father lives in Riverside, not Mexico, and he works at a carpet factory. Fredo Mancilla has been worried sick about Luis, who, it is revealed, can speak English perfectly well.

It turns out he just wanted to go back to Mexico so he could have a better life, and it sure is interesting to see that Sean Hannity got his start writing for ALF.

Fortunately the alien is here to solve everything. He tells Luis to go live with his dad and shut the fuck up about wanting to be happier. These sage words inspire the boy, and he agrees to stay in America. He also promises to visit ALF sometime.

I won’t be holding my breath.

ALF, "Border Song"

That was a pretty awful episode, but the final little scene before the credits does end things on a high note. Willie walks in on ALF playing video games, and asks what game it is. When he’s told it’s Space Invaders, he asks, “What do they do? Crash into your garage? Eat all your food? Dig up your yard?” And ALF replies, “You’re in a mood!”

It’s…actually really funny. This episode had a good four or five genuine laughs, which I’m pretty sure doubles the total number of genuine laughs I’ve had all season. Yeah, there’s some other crap in this scene about ALF ruining the gardening tools and the fact that he cultivates earthworms now, but this video game joke — filtering our “idea” of aliens through the eyes of an actual alien — is funny, and there’s even an additional joke about their mindless attack patterns being “exactly why the Martians are extinct.”

There’s potential in this show. There really is. There’s a talented puppeteer, a ripe central premise, good jokes sprinkled here in there, and limitless possibilities.

Instead of leaning on any of those things, though, the show is content to introduce and dispose of new characters weekly, inventing pointless conflicts that fizzle out because that’s easier than writing a real resolution. I’m still not convinced that anyone in the family is a character, and the laziness of the writing staff carries loud and clear through the bored performances of the actors.

ALF is the kind of show that nobody remembers for what it was, but everyone remembers for what they would have liked it to be. From what I’ve heard, season two narrows that gap somewhat. But we’re not out of the woods yet.

* ALF does at one point suggest planting cotton, but I’m sure that wasn’t a deliberate slavery joke.