Month: July 2014

Worst Best Picture: Is Gladiator Better or Worse Than Crash?

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Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 2000 winner Gladiator. Is it better than Crash?

Gladiator may be the only Best Picture winner that has absolutely nothing to say. There are worse movies, to be sure, but there aren’t any that attempt to do less. You probably saw it — we all saw it — but do you remember it? Is there even anything to remember?

I committed myself to rewatching every Best Picture winner for this project. I’ve seen some of them so many times that it doesn’t seem necessary — American Beauty and Annie Hall are among my favorite movies — but I want to give every single movie the same chance to be worse than Crash. I want all 86 movies to get the same treatment. As I see more and more of Hollywood’s most anointed, I am definitely noticing some trends.

People talk about “Oscar bait” a lot. People define the term differently, but they usually mean something that was clearly made just to win an Oscar. Maybe it’s the flash (The Last Emperor is an enormous movie, even if that’s all it is) and maybe it’s the message (The King’s Speech and Rain Man both take on challenging themes, though your mileage about if that is ‘bait’ or not will vary) but people think better of a movie that was clearly made just to tell a great story.

Gladiator was definitely not made to do that. Gladiator was made to put butts in seats. It’s a “popcorn movie” through-and-through. It’s the story of the Roman general Maximus (Russell Crowe) who is betrayed and cast into slavery by the murderous Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). Maximus has to get out of slavery by winning his freedom as a gladiator. If you haven’t seen it, well, you’re caught up.

There are other characters, but it’s really hard to call them that. No one exists for any reason other than to further Maximus’ stoic goodness or Commodus’ relentless evil. Both characters are dull cartoons of morality. There’s just about no attempt made to establish either of them, either. Just: Commodus is a bad guy and Maximus is a good guy. You know this because this is a story about the good guy. Characters are for movies that don’t have lions! Look at the lions!

To call Gladiator a stupid movie is to stop short of the truth. Nothing at all matters in this movie. What even is the moral? “Don’t be an unceasing asshole all the time?” or “Do try to be a good guy and don’t murder anyone unless they try to murder you with a trident first?” OK, got it. Real groundbreaking stuff here, Russell Crowe.

People are dismissive of Gladiator because it’s ambitious only in scope. It does feel like Rome. It feels “epic” at times. That said, it’s just not a movie about anything. If you want a story about a hero’s journey down to nothing and back up, you can watch any other movie. And you should.

The Best Part: The closest Gladiator comes to an interesting character is Proximo (Oliver Reed). He’s a former gladiator who now makes a living selling out current gladiators for fights. That should set him up for some interesting commentary on the duality of the sold sometimes becoming the sellers, but it doesn’t. Proximo does offer a little bit of complexity in that he can’t decide if he wants to help or not. That’s enough praise for this.

The Worst Part: Can I say everything? The worst part is that this won the same award The Godfather won. It’s not an interesting story and it offers no challenges along the way. The fact that the villain’s motivation is essentially “being evil” makes Gladiator a little less complicated morally than some Disney movies.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Gladiator isn’t a worse movie, but it’s certainly a less interesting one. I hate the message of Crash, but it has one. There’s nothing worth gleaning from Gladiator. It’s just a long series of events that offer no commentary on human existence. Crash is worse because it’s bad, but damned if Gladiator isn’t about as close to zero without going under as it gets.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind| Chicago

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Image: The Guardian

Postmodern Rapture – The Leftovers Episode Four – B.J. and the A.C.

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Colton Royle

Every week Colton Royle discusses the newest episode of HBO’s new show about a new kind of rapture, The Leftovers. You can also read our review of the book the show is based on.

Many spoilers ahead.

One of the valid questions to ask The Leftovers is, “Will the show’s symbolism and larger themes be applicable beyond itself?” Will the show keep its Lost style of supernatural answers close? Or will it turn into something new?

The manufactured 20 inch baby introduction to the disappearance of the baby Jesus in the nativity scene is an incredible and haunting display of the attempts to continue games of standard Mapleton living. From Jill’s remark to her father about replacing Jesus as “cheating,” to the Guilty Remnant cult leader writing “There is no family,” to Tommy talking at his phone at the bus stop begging for a reason to protect Christine for Wayne, establishes a key point that just because characters decide to hold it together, it doesn’t mean things will turn out sane. Laurie wants a divorce. Kevin’s recovery of Jesus was blocked by Matt’s replacement. Tommy receives an automated message. “What is the right answer to that question?” Kevin asks Nora in the school hallway. Answers are only shortcuts to more questions.

However, there are some serious supernatural points that are beginning to cause throwaway lines like, “Just like in your dream” that ruin such indelible images like the manufactured cadavers on the road. What is also a parallel to the manufactured babies is also right here in manufactured people. I mean, that’s a good enough metaphor, just stick with it. The naked fight scene that ends with “I know what’s inside you,” is laughable. It’s hard to believe it’s happening in general, much less with a man naked only from the waist down.

Some things are relatively certain, or we hope to be certain: Nora and Kevin will have sex, and it’s going to be cynical and great.

But there is an overarching symphony that suggests a conductor, so to speak, and it’s happening too soon. Or is it? Is it okay to have a show throw both beginning narratives of characters and divine underpinnings simultaneously?

Take Jill for example: while she is trying to avoid every choice of the sacred and the profane in cult joining or God or shooting Jesus with a nerf gun on fire, she is untouched narratively, and has little character beyond a simple dry teenager who is aggressive with her elbows on the field. But because of Tommy’s burden he becomes a Lancelot upholding his vow to Wayne and Christine, and in a sense he has accepted being damned. Is it okay for the divine to supplement characters?

While I say all this, The Leftovers does an excellent job of displaying memories as gray and muddled things. We assume that Tommy was Kevin’s only to realize Laurie had another relationship before. Doug really did cheat on Nora. Kevin cheated on his wife. Between Matt’s paper and the Guilty Remnant’s theft of photographs, they are hammering down that history is a fool’s errand.

Maybe The Leftovers is striving to measure the limits of what it means to be human, and as characters discover each other they come to understand that those limits are felt now more than ever. From Garvey’s family to the manger, being human is beyond broken.

Colton Royle is a reader of mostly American fiction and non-fiction. He is currently teaching in Fort Worth, Texas.

Image: Mashable

What I Did With My Summer Vacation: Louie

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Alex Russell

In What I Did With My Summer Vacation we explore shows you should catch up on during TV’s slowest season. This week: Louie, Louie, Louie, Louie.

FX just announced that Louie and Fargo are coming back with new seasons. This is great news for anyone that loves TV. You have roughly a year to prepare. Go watch all of Fargo, I already told you to do that last week. This week’s column is just an extension of the same argument I have with people every week: you have to watch Louie.

There is a ton of ink spilled over Louis CK every year. We’re certainly guilty of spilling ink sometimes at Reading at Recess (to the point where we specifically defended it) but overall, it’s just important to make an argument and to defend it. I don’t mind the thinkpieces about how Louie isn’t funny anymore. I think it’s definitely something worth discussing.

I’m not going to argue over if Louie is or isn’t a funny show. I’m going to tell you it’s a show that’s out to do something else. If you want jokes, Bob’s Burgers, Broad City, Inside Amy Schumer, and Review are all also coming back. Louie wants you to be uncomfortable.

This last season was hard to watch, but that’s what I want out of it. Louie made poor decisions as a protagonist. He approached feminism and body image and consent as topics, because those are the topics we’re talking about. I don’t think he always did so with as much grace as he could have. I do think he did it when no one else really was.

Right now Louis CK has the mic in pop culture. Your mom knows who he is and he’s the most popular stand up with your friend who has some actual cultural cred. His show isn’t wildly popular, but he’s the subject of thinkpieces (I hate that term and now I’ve used it twice, but it’s really all that works) because there’s something in his show that’s worth thinking about.

This last season was not my favorite season of Louie. I think Parker Posey’s character from season three will be my favorite part of my favorite show for a long time to come. My favorite moments in Louie have always felt to me like I wasn’t exactly sure what was being intended by them. What Louie is to me is not what Louie is to you. It’s not because I’m special; it’s because everyone is going to take away something else from that strange view of the world.

Louie isn’t very funny anymore. There are still great moments — this, the opening to the season with the garbage truck, is the hardest I’ve laughed in 2014 — but I don’t need to laugh at Louis CK on his show. I need him to take some risks. I need him to try to talk about delicate topics and not always do a great job. I need a full world that’s uncomfortable, like the couple next to you at the restaurant getting rude with the waiter. It’s awful, but that’s what actually happens when you go outside sometimes.

Louie can be dark or light, depending on the episode and your personal temperament, but it is always something considering. Season four had big character development (and undevelopment, at times) but it can also be the story of learning how to talk to your kid about drugs. It’s a lumbering beast at this point, and I totally understand if you don’t like what you see. Just keep in mind that for some of us, that’s part of the point.

You can watch Louie on FX’s website or on Hulu. You can also read our recap series about season four where we tried to find larger life lessons in each episode.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Dating Naked: VH1’s New Reality Dating Show Mixes Dating and… Naked People

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Jonathan May

I watched the premiere of VH1’s Dating Naked over the weekend, and it was about as floppy as many of the blurred out genitals during the course of the dates. The premise is achingly simple: one girl and one guy meet and go on a naked date, and then a proper date with clothes. The next day, each go on a date with a different person (also naked), ending with each date being brought back to the house for subtle inspection by all parties. This happens one more time. So on the last night, there are three girls and three guys, usually all naked, in the pool. The spin isn’t terribly original, nor are any of the jokes made about nudity during the surprisingly endless 30 minutes.

The truly unfortunate part is that, in this episode in any case, the initial woman falls for the initial man much harder than he for her; I can’t tell if the show’s production was adept at finding the right obsessively emotional girl, or if they just picked one of many. The show makes the tacit statement that women are more emotionally needy than men, and through careful casting and a splash of alcohol, it achieves its effect. Men are cast as untamable lotharios, and women as needy vixens. What’s new?

But the initial pair doesn’t enter quite so jaded. Each speaks to the camera of looking for The One and finding someone who is genuine, but as soon as gorgeous naked bodies come into play, a lot of the emotional criteria fall by the way. By the end of the episode, the initial Adam and Eve pair must each pick one person whom they’d like to date later; they are free to pick each other as well. I won’t ruin the ending, but needless to say, the production of the show rests soundly on the scant bits of blur on otherwise completely naked, mostly attractive, Americans.

Like all reality dating shows, this focuses on minor bitchy dramas and sexual farces to keep it moving; it’s unclear how much is scripted and how much might actually be sincere, but it feels like sincerity is beside the point in a show where all the contestants are nude. It’s safe to say Dating Naked isn’t breaking any new ground, but it was still more interesting than any other dating show I’ve seen on television in the past few years. Though I doubt the show will create any kind of fandom, I’ll probably still be tuning in next week.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions

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Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.

The title of this article is Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions, but the book is actually the work of 32 different authors. Harlan Ellison serves as both contributor and editor. At the time, and in many ways still now, this was a New and Important book. Ellison put out a call for new, experimental, push-the-boundaries-of-the-genre type fiction, fiction that, due either to editorial opinion or censorship, could not get published in the contemporary market. What he collected is 33 stories, most of which are very good, a third of which are truly impressive, and a handful of which are kinda crappy. It is the distillation of a lot of ideas floating about in the heads of new SF writers at the time. In the 60s environment of general rebellion, experimentation, and radicalization, many SF writers wanted to push the limits of the form, aspire to the quality of general literature, and break with the aliens-and-robots standards of the past. While the ideas behind the movement had been circulating for a few years, Harlan Ellison gave them all a place to roost.

Harlan himself is a very interesting character. He is an important, genre-influencing author, with short stories like I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, which you can read here, and which is one of the most terrifying stories I’ve ever found. He also spent a lot of time writing SF for television, and his “City on the Edge of Forever” is one of the most highly acclaimed Star Trek: TOS episodes ever. His accomplishments as an author have been slightly overshadowed by his accomplishments as an editor and SF personality, but that is only because he edited such an important anthology and he has such a unique personality. One word to describe that personality would be abrasive, and I probably don’t have to tell you any more than that he has a section in his Wikipedia article entitled “Controversies and disputes,” and that it takes up nearly half his entry, for you to get an idea of just how abrasive. This is the man behind one of the most important science fiction books ever written.

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Harlan Ellison in the 80s. Possibly my favorite picture on Wikipedia. Why is there a pipe?

So what’s so great about this book he put together? It largely lives up to its ambitions, presenting stories that are highly experimental, that break social taboos, and that aspire to literary quality. “Evensong” explores a future where God is on the run from his chosen people, who have transcended his guidance, which would be controversial if published today, 47 years on. Larry Niven’s “The Jigsaw Man” is a horrifying portrait of a time when the incarcerated are cut into bits for their organs and body parts, thus conferring immortality on the unimprisoned. Philip K. Dick’s “Faith of our Fathers” explores a totalitarian world where the protagonist is dosed with anti-hallucinogens, and when he looks at the benevolent leader when sober, it isn’t human. In “Shall the Dust Praise Thee?” God shows up with his angels, all raring to blow their horns and start the Apocalypse, but all they see is dust and ashes. The angel responsible for turning the seas to blood can’t find the seas. Eventually, they find inscribed on the wall of a bunker, “We were here. Where were You?” In the amazingly named “If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?” the happiest and most productive planet in the galaxy is so healthy because it actively practices incest, which, even as a thought experiment, is highly uncomfortable to read. I could keep on listing and describing the great stories in this book. I made a list of about twelve of them, but it would be better for you to just read it for yourself.

As groundbreaking as this book is, it is not without problems. It is open-minded about sex, taboo, and stylistic experimentation, but it strongly maintains some taboos while transgressing others. One example of this is when, in a story about gambling, the protagonist Joe finds himself playing craps with someone sinister. Fine, games of chance against the devil that don’t go so well for the other player are ingrained in our storytelling tradition. The problem is, when Joe starts getting worried about it, he “[finds] himself wondering if he’d got into a game with a [racial slur], maybe a witchcraft-drenched Voodoo man whose white make-up was wearing off.” What? In addition to the slur being a problem, the author decided to use blackness as shorthand for the hidden, threatening Other. Before, it was a game between compatriots, and as it turns sinister, the main character wonders if maybe he’s not playing against someone of his own race. That’s fucked up. Another example of backwards thinking is in a story called “Ersatz,” which is a pretty standard future-war post-atomic apocalypse story. A soldier finds his way to a care station and starts eating and drinking a bunch of ersatz stuff, because with the world basically over, they can’t get the real thing. He eats a steak made of bark, smokes tobacco made of not tobacco. The post-apocalyptic world is not a nice place, and so far this story is pretty standard. The ending of the story is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever read. It turns out that, in addition to the other ersatz comforts, the woman that works at the care station and who had attracted the attention of the soldier (there were descriptions of curves) turns out to be wearing a wig and a stuffed bra, and surprise, she wasn’t born a woman. The reason this is the stupidest ending I’ve ever read is that the soldier’s response to this is hitting Eleanora (that’s her name) and running back out into the wasteland, without armor or weapons, to certain death. First off, really? A hardened soldier is so terrified of a penis that he runs in terror to certain death? Secondly, this is a really disgusting portrayal of trans women. This is a story about how everything humanity used to enjoy is fake. The big reveal was supposed to be, oh no! even sexytimes with women are now fake! What it really communicates is the author’s ignorance, and what it states is that trans women are fake women, which is actively reactionary, not ground-breaking. Let me quote part of the ending for you: “He struck the creature with all the strength in his fist, and it fell to the floor, weeping bitterly, its skirt hoisted high on the muscular, hairy legs.” So if you are surprised by a trans woman, who is a fake woman, the correct response is physical violence towards “the creature.” That is the moral of this disgusting little polyp of a story.

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A nice picture of a sea polyp, as you probably don’t want to see a picture of the type of polyp I have in mind.

The editor of this anthology also has problematic attitudes towards homosexuality. In one introduction to a story, he communicates that families with weak fathers often end up raising homosexual children. In another intro, he discusses the old aphorism that you should never meet the person behind the art you love, which, yes, but one of the examples he uses is “the writer of swashbuckling adventures [turns out to be] a pathetic little homosexual who still lives with his invalid mother.” What? Is Ellison implying that he is pathetic because he is gay? Is there something wrong with living with and caring for your sick mom? It’s just weird, and it’s an indication that, however progressive they were then (Ellison participated in the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery), you knock one piece of backwards, reactionary thought garbage down, and there’s more bullshit to take its place. There’s also a story, “Riders of the Purple Wage,” wherein a man’s girlfriend says yes, let’s have unprotected sex to have a baby. She changes her mind afterwards and goes to her bathroom to use spermicide. This future contraceptive method is a bottle of some sort that you can insert into the relevant orifice, push the relevant button, and spray the relevant area with spermicide. Since this is the future, one bottle is good for 40,000 sprays. The boyfriend (the fucking protagonist) becomes so enraged at this that he superglues the contraceptive bottle inside of his girlfriend and makes the button stuck, thus continuously and painfully injecting spermicide into her. I’m not sure if this was supposed to be comical or what, but it comes off as horrifying. Hi, you don’t want to do with your body what I want you to do with your body, I will therefore practice violence upon you and cause you great and humiliating physical harm.

Aside from the repugnant stance on some social issues, some of the stories are just not that great. There’s one that is told from the POV of a three-year-old as he thinks about how square his parents are. There’s another, “The Man Who Went to the Moon Twice,” wherein a kid in a small town lies about going to the moon and becomes a local sensation because everyone is too bored to check facts, and then he does it again as an old man because he is sad that no one cares about him (big twist: it’s noteworthy that he’s been to the moon as an old man because at that time, Mars is the main colony). The whole story is just really boring and saccharine. Also, one of the most celebrated stories in the anthology, “Riders of the Purple Wage,” of violence-against-women fame, gets credit all the time for being “Joycean.” Man, there are about two pages at the beginning of this story that are lyrically inventive and that require some exertion to figure out, and then it falls back into pretty standard narrative technique. Ulysses is “Joycean” because it is inexhaustibly inventive, and nearly every single chapter showcases a new, different, and innovative style. This guy writes confusingly for two pages and gets credited as “Joycean?” No.

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This man’s work was Joycean. Not sure anyone else’s ever was.

This book is rife with problems. Let me restate that. This book is not rife with problems, but whenever a problem rears its head, it’s a huge one. As a book that purports to be on the cutting-edge of social advancement and fearless in its striking down of taboos, the reactionary attitudes of some of these authors towards many aspects of social justice are highly incongruous. It might have been impressively open-minded for 1967, but not so much for 2014. You should still read it, though. One reason is that it is a monolith in the field of SF’s past and helped set the stylistic tone for a generation of writers. Another is that, as truly repugnant as some of these stories are, the grand majority of them are not, and the anthologized nature of it means that even if Henry Slesar writes like an asshole, you can still enjoy the weird, mind-bending visions of Lester del Rey or Philip K. Dick contained in the same book. In addition, it is important to read and understand even the repugnant stories, as their presence in a book lauded as taboo-breaking in the 1960s underline the nature of social progress – there is no finish line, and we must always move forward.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Video Games as Literature and The Novelist’s View of Work/Life Balance

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Alex Russell

If you’ve ever had to make a hard choice between work and the rest of your life, well, that’s normal. The Novelist is about what happens when you make the wrong one. Oh, and they’re all wrong.

You play The Novelist as a ghost that’s inhabiting a vacation house by the water. The Kaplans (Dan, Linda, and their son Tommy) are on vacation for the summer, and they each want something different out of the trip. Dan wants to finish his second book. Linda wants to work on her painting. Tommy wants to have a fun summer. You might say to yourself that those don’t sound like they’re at odds with each other, but in the world of The Novelist they are violently opposed to one another.

The game unfolds over a series of chapters all centered around important events in the summer. In one chapter, the Kaplan family has to deal with a funeral. In another, Linda has an art show in town. In another, Tommy has a friend over. They all start out as mundane pieces of a family’s life, but the game’s actual narrative is all in how you respond to them.

It’s an interesting choice that you’re not any of the characters. You influence decisions by wandering around the house during the day and observing each family member. Once you feel like you have a grasp on what everyone wants, you signal the family to go to sleep. Then you whisper your choice to the family while they sleep. Whatever you decide will play out in a cut scene, and the results will influence how everyone feels about everyone else (and themselves) in the days to come.

For example, I decided to focus on Linda’s happiness in my playthrough. On one day, I opted to have Dan spend a night talking with Linda instead of working on his novel or playing with Tommy. The next day, Linda felt better about her marriage, Dan felt worried about his book, and Tommy felt neglected by both parents. Me? I felt really sad for everyone.

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The choices are tough because each choice is also the lack of two other choices. It’s intended to simulate life — if you go out tonight and drink with your friends you don’t get anything done at home, etc — but it’s brutal nonetheless. You know Dan has to finish his novel over the summer, but every single choice of “write” instead of “play with your son” or “talk to your wife” drives him away from his family emotionally. Any choice to not do exactly what the family’s young son wants makes him miserable. I guess that’s realistic to a degree, but it’s too much sometimes. As another example, if you choose to have Dan not play with Tommy and a toy car outside, Tommy leaves the car in the rain and it gets ruined. What is sadder than a lonely child’s ruined toy?

I didn’t side with Tommy very often. My version of Tommy drew angry crayon drawings of his father neglecting him. My version of Linda, who was happy with her art career but unhappy with her husband, never seemed to get exactly what she wanted. My version of Dan was a wreck. Your milage may vary, but it’s hard to imagine any set of choices resulting in true happiness for these people.

It’s certainly true that any choice means you’re eliminating others, but it needn’t be this stark. I don’t want to give away any of the endings, but by only siding with Tommy a handful of times I essentially ruined the kid. It had a really damaging effect on me; I was actually saddened that I had failed this digital child. In that sense I have to say that the narrative (or the narrative in my playthrough) really works. The feelings are real, they’re not “video game feelings.”

The Novelist is a little repetitive – the gameplay isn’t worth mentioning at all, it’s even less of a traditional “game” than Gone Home – and it’s frustrating at times. The challenge of keeping all three people happy is a kind of story-based The Sims; every mood bar is depleting at the same rate, and you’ve gotta keep them all happy to win. I don’t know that I “won” The Novelist, but the mental image of that car in the mud is going to stick with me for a long time.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Tough Questions: What’s the Longest You’ve Ever Stayed Up in a Row and Why?

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Every week we ask everyone who hangs out around here to answer a tough question. This week:

What’s the longest you’ve ever stayed up in a row and why?

Rules are simple: go to sleep. Well, don’t, actually. You remember that episode of The Adventures of Pete & Pete where the kids tried to stay up so long that they went back in time? This is basically the same thing, really. Most people have pulled one all-nighter, but have you pulled two in a row? Or more? Are you dead right now because you’ve been up for two weeks?

Alex Russell

I used to go two or three days without sleep in a row all the time. I hated sleep as a teenager; I used to be worried I was missing something cool whenever I went to sleep. I now know that an infomercial for a hot plate doesn’t count as “something cool” but that kind of wisdom comes with time. My longest stretch was in grad school when I went more than three full nights without sleep. I had to finish a particularly complicated project and I hadn’t had time to read everything I wanted to before starting it. The final night involved a four pack of Red Bull, a box of off-brand NoDoz from the gas station, and a crying jag on a staircase at 7 a.m. when I couldn’t figure out what a book about nationalism and farming was trying to say. All-nighters for education are really stupid, and I’ve forgotten almost everything about that final night other than how manic I was.

Jonathan May

I, like most Americans since the advent of Netflix, am prone to binge-watching TV shows online. Reality competition shows like Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model are my jam, and I’ve seen every episode of both. But I was recently (like two weeks ago) introduced to So You Think You Can Dance, which falls safely in line with my main TV binge interests. I’m on day three of no sleep as I compose this. I’ve watched more people laugh and cry and dance in the past few days than probably the rest of my life combined. Needless to say, I feel really weird, both physically and emotionally. Also, I’ve become almost uncannily able to predict the winner once they announce the top 20 dancers. I have one episode left, and I’ll definitely watch it as soon as I get home. As was often said in our high school, “You can sleep when you’re dead.”

Brent Hopkins

The longest I have stayed up in one sitting was around 60 hours and that was due to traveling. I was flying from Korea to Hawaii to visit my cousins and had two insanely long layovers in China and Japan. I couldn’t sleep on the flights because the seats were so tiny and by the time I arrived in Hawaii it was 9 a.m. and there was no way I could sleep then. I kinda went through a daze of delirium but my sleep schedule was on point once I woke up the next day.

Andrew Findlay

I have never missed more than one full night’s sleep. I had one prepared about the time I stayed up all night at a friend’s bachelor party. He broke his arm, and I had to drive his car home for him hungover on no sleep, but most of the time when I miss sleep, the word “party” is not involved, so I selected something more representative. I intake media at an alarming rate. School let out in late June, and I have already used that time to read five novels. With video games, I actually play fairly rarely. I can go weeks without turning on my console, but that is because when I do, the game consumes me. This is not a problem often, as the majority of games clock in around 15-20 hours, which translates to just one to two days where all my waking moments are spent playing. But Skyrim, oh Skyrim. It does not end. Ever. The first weekend I got it, I started playing on Friday, stayed up all night, brewed coffee continuously, and did not shut down the machine until late on Saturday. By that time, I had entered an altered state of consciousness. At one point, I had to go buy eye drops because my corneas were sticky from being constantly open. Not my proudest moment, but there it is.

Gardner Mounce

I can’t function without sleep. I never saw pulling an all-nighter in college as a rite of passage like some people do, and I’ve never stayed up for more than one night. I hate the idea of not sleeping at the end of the day. I stayed up all night at a birthday party and was the one who kept suggesting that we all go to sleep. And I stayed up all night for my bachelor party, and probably was the one who ended up suggesting that we all go to sleep.

Worst Best Picture: Is Chicago Better or Worse Than Crash?

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Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 2002 winner Chicago. Is it better than Crash?

When I mention this project to people they always have the same general response. People always mention the movie they think is the worst Oscar winner ever. Usually it’s Crash. Sometimes it’s not.

When someone says a different movie, I desperately want to see it. I don’t have a plan for if something is worse than Crash, but I want to have to figure that out. I want one of the other 85 movies between Wings and 12 Years a Slave to be so bad that I have to retitle this whole damn thing. So far, through roughly a third of them, nothing has really approached it.

The closest so far is probably The Artist. I don’t have a great case to make there, I just thought it was obsessed with the wrong parts of itself. I thought it was somehow both indulgent and uninteresting. I didn’t love Shakespeare in Love, either, but neither movie was so odious that I could justify hate like I have hate for Crash.

All of this is to say that people told me that Chicago had a chance to dethrone the king of the list. When I heard that, I got excited. I wanted to see a musical that had a shot at being worse than the sledgehammer-gentle message of Crash that “everyone is bad, forever.”

There are a handful of musicals that have won Best Picture over the years. They’re mostly iconic films like My Fair Lady and West Side Story. Some of them are oddities like Gigiwhich BuzzFeed called the worst Best Picture winner of all time in their listGigi is strange, to be sure, but it’s not terrible. It’s actually pretty fun, which is what I assume people mostly want out of a musical.

Chicago is also supposed to be fun, and I was definitely surprised to find that I really enjoyed it. The songs are catchy and the dancing is flashy and it has Taye Diggs. Are you going to tell me you hate Taye Diggs?

The thing is, I don’t really have a lot to say about Chicago, because I went in with some weird expectations. I expected a movie that was “big” and “loud” in obnoxious ways, but I got something charming and refreshing. Chicago “worked” on me. There’s no love story to get in the way and there’s no real development, but it’s fun. It’s a bunch of songs and visuals that combine to form something mostly worth looking at. I think that’s all a musical is supposed to be, right?

The Best Part: A lot of the reviews for Chicago talk about the dancing being largely smoke and mirrors. I’m not a sharp enough dance critic (let no one tell you otherwise!) to know, but it seemed pretty great to me. I do not generally like movies like Chicago, but the “Cell Block Tango” performance was pretty excellent.

The Worst Part: I’m not in love with the ending. I don’t think it’s really a spoiler to say how a musical ends, but it just feels really haphazardly tied up. You can’t fault this version for how the actual story of Chicago ends, but “the smooth guy is smooth, the putz is a putz, and everyone else is whatever” isn’t exactly dynamic.

Is It Better or Worse than CrashI’ve recently decided I need to go back and rewatch Crash, because I’m running out of extremely specific complaints about my subject matter. Both movies have a cynical view of the world, but again, Chicago has more subtlety about its cynicism despite having a scene where a guy controls characters with strings. Crash deserves to be raked over the coals for a lot of faults, but none more than how obvious it is.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind|

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Song of the Summer? Tove Lo’s Stay High (Habits Remix)

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Jonathan May

Tove Lo – “Stay High (Habits Remix)”
Universal

In my quest to find the ultimate 2014 summer song, I’d finally hit rock bottom, breaking down and asking my high school students for the answers. They found this curious displacement of roles hilarious, further cementing that though I’m “the cool teacher,” this doesn’t save me from being hopelessly out of touch. Their pitiable glances produced a somber list of just three songs. I’d already reviewed “Fancy” by Iggy Azalea. And after rejecting the horror that is the band 5 Seconds of Summer, I launched into the final song on the list: “Stay High” by Tove Lo. I was touched the tragic fragility of the song and video, and I believe they work seamlessly as expressions of one another, twined around the main idea: that people escape, through almost any means necessary, the pain of a broken heart. The video chooses mainly alcohol as the visual metaphor to approximate the lyrical content; of course, any substance could have stood in here. The camera follows, closely and in front, the gorgeous young Swede as a stand-in for any loveburnt soul; combined with lyrics like “can’t go home alone again/need someone to numb the pain” and “try all the time/to keep you off my mind,” an obsessive quality takes hold. The video makes use of time distortion to accentuate the endless feeling that being heartbroken gives, the cycles of destructive routine that appear to give order. While the lyrics aren’t terribly complex, they achieve the stark beauty of truth, and that is their strength. The sonic makeup of the song isn’t incredibly varied either, yet its insistence on returning to the same loops and beats hearkens to the thematic idea that we circle obsessively around our own idea of love. And sometimes it becomes impossible to escape. While this song isn’t one to jam at the poolside, its hypnotic qualities lend it that summer-night dance feel, something to slink to as the humid night draws dark over the moon.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com

Postmodern Rapture – The Leftovers Episode Three – Two Boats and a Helicopter

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Colton Royle

Every week Colton Royle discusses the newest episode of HBO’s new show about a new kind of rapture, The Leftovers. You can also read our review of the book the show is based on.

Many spoilers ahead.

The Leftovers stares religion in the face with the new episode focusing entirely on Matt Jamison, Mapleton’s minister, as he pushes the line between madness and divine power that arises as a theme once again. Where the previous two episodes have felt frayed at the edges and had us viewers grabbing for a metaphorical bucket dropping into a well, here was an episode that felt tight, feverish, and much more indicative thematically.

Matt Jamison preaching to a near empty church was an interesting and unexpected turn when you consider how much emphasis is placed on the rapture in Christian doctrine, and this brings up a theme of the episode which to me was ambiguity in suffering. I mean here is a guy who lost his congregation and now he’s gonna lose his church, and he can’t get the money from his sister and he eventually does get the money but he almost gets mugged and THEN he gets hit with a rock and misses the deadline and his wife is…I mean WTF, I don’t even know if I have a heart left after all these emotional stab wounds straight to it.

Three arrivals of the pigeons in key locations and colors for a massive gambling success only to have him miss the deadline to buy his church back by three days establishes the point Nora (his sister!?) makes that even with all the “good news,” or even divine help, does it make the situation of life, life in the modern world, any better? To me, The Leftovers is starting to make some massive questions very concrete in this episode, and even the varied tones in which they depicted Matt, from beautiful and serene during the baptism scene, to his eventual nightmare in the hospital and his jagged anger in chiaroscuro lighting, leads us to question each of these characters in multiple settings. It’s not simply binary; it’s not just this and that, but rather a polyphony of reactions.

All this I say, yet when the Guilty Remnants buy Matt’s church, it builds a rage in Jamison that is building all through Mapleton that is very much an “us and them” story. Will it turn violent for the cult? Tethered to all this melancholy and hysteria is this building desire from the citizens for all of post-departed life to mean something more, and with that comes “responsibility” and “retribution” and “redemption” and a bunch of other five dollar words to say that these people want it to matter. So while The Leftovers builds ambiguity and uncertainty, it also meddles with characters who are trying to push against it. Case in point, when asked “what denomination?” in reference to casino chips and Matt (the minister) replies, “does it matter?” we start nodding and going, “okay now I get it.”

This is interesting. It’s interesting to me because at the heart of it is storytelling in general and what television takes for granted in particular and the friction between plot development and real life coming to a head could lead to some super interesting and way too academic analyses (see previous 507 words).

But really this episode was gripping and really hurt and had some more reveals (“Roy, you deserve this” –K.G.) that will make you butt-bump up and down on the couch and clap. You want to see other people (not just us) try and make sense of life in erratic and strange ways? Follow follow follow follow…

Colton Royle is a reader of mostly American fiction and non-fiction. He is currently teaching in Fort Worth, Texas.