New on Desk #61 — The Art of Cinema

A good week for me writing-wise, but otherwise maybe not the most exciting. At least we had a rare movie club meeting with the guys, so I guess that’s the feature article now.

Movie club rides again

Our little movie club hasn’t actually had a viewing since newsletter #12, so almost a year ago. For new readers, a rundown on the premise: we get together with a few friends, and each brings a single movie (practically speaking, tells me what movie to bring). The viewing squad votes on the movies, and the one with the least opposition (and most support as a tie-breaker) wins. We watch the movie and discuss it a bit. The format is trying to capture a few specific virtues:

Reduce choice complexity: With just one movie candidate per participant and clear voting rules, we avoid spending an excessive amount of time chasing our tails about “what should we watch”. We can speculate about potential future watches well in advance, rather, and somebody has to actually want the movie enough to nominate it for it to get to the finals.

Focus on the classics: Because we’re “showing our favourite movies to each other” instead of watching the most recent hotness, the movie selection gets interestingly esoteric. Mostly it’s movies that we probably wouldn’t watch on our lonesome. You’ll see.

So anyway, we hadn’t gotten together in a while, but I still had our notes, so it was easy to reconstruct the situation. Sipi even proposed a new nomination for a movie to watch. The line-up and votes this time were as follows, I think:

The Producers (1967) ➕➕➕
Apocalypse Now (1979) ➖
Dangerous Liaisons (1989) ➕➕
Ferat Vampire (1982)
Krabat  (1978) waiting for a copy

As usual, this was some good simple fun. I spend so much time MCing social get-togethers on account of being the “GM guy” that simply watching a movie with friends is a nice change of pace. I hope we’ll get together for more films in the future.

The Producers

Sipi often has good ideas movie-wise; I understand none of us had seen this before for all that it’s a famous film. I like satire and I like musicals, and the movie has like 92% approval at Rotten Tomatoes, so it’s not a surprise that The Producers got Sipi a victory in the movie races once again.

I was surprised by how much crude, old-fashioned low-brow farce the movie involved. The first scene was particularly bad in this regard, the over-acting characters blustering at each other while explaining the movie’s premise in meticulous detail was pretty painful. I like farce in theory, but amateur theater bits that mainly involve characters shouting at each other aren’t it. It felt like watching a Korean soap opera. Good farce is about cleverly surprising the audience, and this was not it.

However, the same movie also had some very clever satirical scenes, starting with the subtle “romancing” between the main duo in the second scene. It was like watching two different movies, one about alcoholic hypochondriacs making funny faces and the other a study of social dynamics of show business. I particularly enjoyed the go-go girl secretary, the flamingly gay director, the hippie musical satire in the casting scene, and of course the eponymous Springtime for Hitler musical scene is basically worth the price of admission alone, for all that the movie randomly relapses into boring blather in between.

The committee was largely of like mind on this one. The movie was indisputably interesting for historical distance alone, but it had boring scenes and bad acting galore in between the good bits. One judge wanted to give a ‘4’, but the mean of opinions was a clear ⭐⭐⭐.

As an interesting after-thought, I also watched the 2005 remake of The Producers later in the week. I’d developed the theory that, considering the fun plot and problematic implementation of the original movie, a remake would have to be better. Also, it had Uma Thurman in a sexy role, so what’s not to like. Also also, unlike the original movie the remake is a musical through and through, which should be a bonus.

While the remake indeed does away with most of the annoying old-fashioned farce, it also drops some of the best satire of the original and adds unfortunate American musical conventions (e.g. detached and psychologically incredible romantic subplot). Can’t really recommend, particularly as the music numbers are run of the mill.

A weird detail is that while the original movie has some reputation for being crudely offensive, I found its time-worn satire about sexism and such mainly cute. The remake, on the other hand, comes off as mildly misogynist and homophobic. It’s subtle, but somehow I didn’t feel like laughing at the formulaic gay cliches paraded around in the topical song number. The original movie is funnier about it because it’s less gauche, and it doesn’t keep hammering at the director character’s gayness like it’s inherently funny. In the original movie the funny things are the character discomfort and the gay character’s unique personality, while in the remake the gays are funny because gayness is inherently ridiculous. The remake has like 300% of the gay joke quotient of the original, with the gayness elevated into a major plot point. The sex-pot secretary character is similarly taken from satiric support cast into a mean caricature of predatorial women in entertainment industry.

Watched some tv shows this week, too

Might as well say a few words about the other things I ended up watching this week. The first one was Stranger Things, an American horror mystery thriller tv series you probably know better than I do. I’d been intending to take a look “at some point” for a few years now, but never quite got around to it. Things changed when I accidentally learned that the series’s working title was “Montauk”. For those in the know on the conspiracy thriller genre that’s such a recognizable reference that I just had to take a look. It’s a genre that I rather like, I’d just never quite realized that Stranger Things is that — I’d understood it to be some kind of ’80s nostalgic urban fantasy thing.

After watching half of first season I’m a bit torn on what to think. On the one hand I like the genre a lot, and it’s not badly made, but on the other hand there’s a few things I’m not entirely enamored of:

Teen drama quotient: I know it’s difficult to make tv shows without a “something for everybody” approach, but all the teens and their love troubles could go take a long swim in the local reservoir for all I care. Not here for that, ‘k thnx.

Stephen King-itis: The show’s basically just three or four Stephen King novels stapled together. I know this is probably obvious to everybody, but I would kinda sorta like it if it wasn’t so obvious, or at least if it went further with the concepts and their implications. Feels like they’re exploiting King, it’s that close. As it is, you might as well just read It and Firestarter and maybe Tommyknockers just because. And should, too — classic King.

Craftsmanship without ambition: It’s well made, but just that. The pivot points are calculated and there is no dread in the creator’s touch. Madness does not dwell in this place, I got more scared by some SCP stories I read over the week. I imagine this to be a production issue; the same thing in some less commercial medium (a novel, maybe?) would perhaps be more authentic.

I’m writing this after five episodes, and odds are I’ll keep watching because I do really like the genre, and that means that even if I’m not entirely blown away, I’m still entertained. This must be what being a Star Trek fan feels like. There could be some mind-blowing plot twist or world-building bit waiting for reveal in the back end of the first season.

The other series I sampled this week was The Dukes of Hazzard, an American tv show from the late ’70s. I didn’t expect much except a look into the period aesthetics, but was pleasantly surprised to find that the series is actually pretty watchable! Adventure shows are a difficult genre for television on account of how scripting for tv is under-developed, but this series makes it work.

The premise of the show is that the Duke family are anti-authorian hillbillies in Hazzard County (in Georgia? — the second episode implies that Atlanta is close by), a place ruled by a fat evil plutocrat and a dimwitted corrupt sheriff. The show’s intro says it out loud: the Dukes are modern day Robin Hoods, fighting against the system, any system!

So what that amounts to in practice is a picaresque episodic adventure show with lots to offer. Consider the strong points:
Period drama — it’s 1979 industry exploiting Southern United States regional culture. An exotic milieu.
Slick plots — based on first two episodes the stories are are clever and quick-paced. Something about the comedy, perhaps, but your average adventure tv show is more plodding.
’70s realism — even a total cartoon exhibits all kinds of incidental realism, making the depiction quite flavourful!
Daisy Duke — fetching, and so are the other ladies in general. I have no complaints.

There’s also a lot of car chases, and they’re fine (with some clever portrayal tricks), but not the key selling point to my eyes. Clearly they were the big thing in the original context, though; the show presents itself a bit like if it was a western, except everywhere you’d expect a gun to resolve things it’s instead a car chase.

You’d expect a show about Confederacy-worshipping rednecks to be meaner, but apparently this is from the era when the party line was that the “heritage” was about patriotic pride rather than yearning for the slavocracy, so the Duke boys are at most mildly sexist. The show is actually surprisingly political in that it depicts its rural working class heroes as fighting against a system of injustice arising from big city plutocracy. Sort of pre-Nixon democrat populist message, if you will.

I’m constantly entertained by how, well, picaresque the show is: the Duke boys are ex-cons on probation from their prison sentence, and they frankly go gangsta in the finest Grand Theft Auto style on their enemies. They look like tv nice boys, act courteous, but drop a dime and suddenly they’re hijacking, kidnapping, pimping… Them being the good guys in the show is amusing.

What I’m left with is the question about why modern adventure tv shows can’t have so much substance to chew on. Usually when I watch a few episodes of one (I’m thinking of things like say Agents of Shield or whatever; I frankly don’t watch much in the genre, on account of it often being disappointing), they’re utterly mediocre from plots to casting to core appeal. The high concept isn’t the worst often enough, it’s just the execution that does nothing for me. Dukes of Hazzard at least has the grace of playing catchy country dance music every time an action scene happens, making for a jaunty atmosphere.

Monday: Coup de Main #36

We got started on the astral adventure that I speculated about a few weeks back! The basic conceit of the adventure is that Rhett the Cleric has been “spacelost” in the astral realm, and he’s trying to find his way home before nefarious forces sent by the Abyss come in and pick up a free Cleric. (The demon lords are generally keen on uninitiated freelance Clerics, as those can be suborned by force and made into abyssal Power generators. Nice people.)

The spacelostiness is both the concrete status of not really knowing the lay of the land, as well as the spiritual status of not knowing where in the Astral space Rhett’s “spot” happens to be. The issue is partly practical in terms of navigating the astral realm, and partly psychological in that to know where Rhett needs to go to find his way back into his body depends on determining who Rhett is. I freely admit that this is the “quantum ogre” situation of rpg theory in that where Rhet’s spot is depends very much on where the players determine it to be; astral space is wacky like that. It’s not just a simple matter of deciding that yeah, Rhett’s spiritual home happens to be exactly where we happen to be right now, but any exploration of Rhett’s personal history and psychology that the players engage in will certainly end up shifting the astral reality, effectively moving the location of the goal as Rhett comes to understand himself better. As things stand, I’ve managed to come to a preliminary conclusion on Rhett’s probable “spot”, but the players might surprise me yet and cause it to retroactively shift to a different location.

Fortunately Rhett is not alone. In this session the pro-Rhett party (to differentiate from Team Dragon, attempting to PvP Rhett for Chaotic Evil purposes) involved two other characters, too:
Prince Egon is an interesting fellow who I’ll be happy to work with more in the future should he survive. He’s a Dreamer (an Astral projection specialist class) and a prince of the Great Kingdom, kin to king Ivid V. Literally sent to aid Rhett by the divine agency of Pholtus of the Blinding Light.
Frida the teenage witch is the drug dealer who got Rhett into this jam in the first place. Being a nice girl, Frida decided to overdose herself as well and join Rhett in trying to get away from the astral space. Should be good for an inspiration for Frida; as a witch developing her magic relies rather heavily on that.

This being the big picture, the adventure involves three interleaved sets of concerns the players are working on concurrently:

  1. Avoid the dragon. The party actually has relatively solid divination on when the dragon might be showing up, and there’s been some attempts at muddying the trail and doing the general things you want to do when there’s an assassin on your tail.
  2. Follow the silver string. The party actually managed to clear Rhett’s silver string (the line connecting his soul to his body) with lucky dicing, so they kinda-sorta have a compass available and indicating a rought compass direction towards where I think Rhett’s spot is. The party knows not how far, and even the direction information can become confounding in the astral.
  3. Figure out the identity puzzle. While the party has been most concerned about the above two goals, they’ve done some preliminary exploration of Rhett’s identity as well. It could hold clues as to where they are in the astral space, and what it all means, and where Rhett’s spot might be. No major developments so far, but enough for me to actually preliminarily place the spot.

The actual travel through astral space relies on the basic concept of “region”: the astral traveler is at any given time inside a given region with a consistent local environment. A successful travel action takes the traveler to a neighboring region (randomly or a specific one, if you know where to go). Each region has their own discoverable content and random encounter sets. It’s basically hexcrawling, except near entirely lacking directionality, and every given hex having an unknown number of neighboring hexes.

The regions we’ve explored so far:
Snake Mountain — It’s a mountain with a snakey theme. Rather dream-like, and apparently somehow associated with arcane Suloise concerns. Any deeper symbology, or contents of the area, are a mystery so far.
Eastmark — It’s a seemingly ordinary human realm, not that different from Flanaess. The people of the area seem to consider the town of Yggsburg to be the regional capital.

Considering the scope of the astral realm, the party might end up spending a while wandering around. Depends on whether Team Dragon finds them and cuts the expedition short, I suppose.

Session #37 is scheduled for tomorrow, Monday 1.3., starting around 16:00 UTC. Feel free to stop by if you’re interested in trying the game out or simply seeing what it’s like.

Tuesday: Coup in Sunndi #10

The face-to-face Coup session started with the players telling me that they’d like to have some dungeon crawl, pretty plz. Last session had been more of a maneuvering one, and I’d prepared to follow up on that with the royal inquisition, but needs must: the Prince tasked captain Bootsie and company with catching some demon cultists for a show trial, which would presumably help appease the inquisition when they finally arrive.

There is some anti-governmental evil cult activity in the principality, and captain Bootsie had a bit of a hint on a particular location; out of an interest in expediency I riffled through my carry-on selection of adventures and realized that I had a classic piece with me that nobody at the table had seen before: Dyson’s Delve would serve once more, this time as a cult hideout. We spent a considerable number of sessions in the Delve in ’12 or so, but near everybody from the group at the time has left town, so I was free to do a whimsical revisit. The Delve is absolute classic form dungeon crawl stuff, so exactly what the players were in the mood for here.

The party discovered the primary entrance to the Delve in a straightforward manner and got to work without too much flourish. As befits a classic D&D dungeon formula, the challenge starts with goblins. True to form, their pet ferret promptly castrated a player character with a critical hit, but generally speaking the adventurers had no difficulty dominating the goblins: the expedition involved a half dozen player characters and as many henchmen of the Sriracha Mamelukes, led by the capable captain Bootsie, so they were able to descend fast and decisively.

However, an overconfidence problem crept in as the party delved deeper. The captain kept a firm eye on the route of retreat, ultimately allocating as much as 30% of their total strength to route guard as the main party descended to the 2nd level. So the party kept shrinking in penny packets even as they kept handily beating the goblins. Finally the reverse came in the form of a goblin barracks room alerted by earlier retreats: the 8 goblins in total were low-HP runts and generally unprepared for battle, but they had nowhere to escape as the adventurers cornered them in their room.

The tragedy that struck the party here was that captain Bootsie overconfidently pushed first into the goblin barrack, spearheading an assault. The fighting was intense and the Mamelukes forced their way through the narrow doorway one by one, with Bootsie himself battling as many as five goblins at a time. As a properly armored 2nd level fighter Bootsie was a hard target, but the goblins rolled well and amazingly felled the party leader!

The fight turned into a bitter battle to the knife as the goblins maintained their last stand and the adventurers tried to rescue their fallen leader. A temporary retreat allowed the adventurers to gather their picket forces for a second push, and they did ultimately conquer, but by then it was already too late for Bootsie.

The party had so many casualties at this point that evacuating from the dungeon was a tense task in itself. The injuries also slowed the party down so much that they could not retreat very far from the dangerous dungeon on foot. While waiting for the logistics train (the party had a wagon and more soldiers in the neighboring hex) to come fetch them, the sad remnants of the party were ambushed by a dozen goblins; the tribe had amassed its strength for an immediate retaliation! It was near offensive to the memory of the brave captain Bootsie when his four remaining soldiers spanked the goblins, with just two escaping back into their hole. Why couldn’t the adventurers have had that sort of dicing luck earlier…

The Sriracha Mamelukes soon formulated an eulogy to their adored captain, I’ll translate the beautiful piece that I kept crafting over the latter half of the session:

His was a noble hardwood trunk, our captain — yet felled too soon, all too soon! He was akin to an anchor to his men, adrift on the seas of fate, an anchor floating aimlessly on account of how wood does not sink.

With the party returning to the principality one royal guard captain short, we may conclude that the campaign suffered a grave blow for seemingly little reason here, well showcasing the utter nihilism of the game. Captain Bootsie was one of the primary cadre of characters, long-serving (since the 1st session, in fact) and already at 2nd level. The cadre is important in that they’re the ones who drag lower-level characters after them, so thinning it out like this is much more of a setback than losing one of the lesser characters. With Bootsie dead, the Sunndi cadre now consists of just Cultist and Warlock.

State of the Productive Facilities

Doing pretty good! I wrote just ~800 words of Muster this week, so no great strides, but it’s early days on that yet; it’ll get quicker. The important part is that I have a regular and reasonably distraction-free schedule. As it was, I actually spent one long day this week running a stone milling machine instead of writing, so I’ll surely do even better if next week doesn’t feature that kind of extra fun time.

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