All posts filed under: Entertainment

Splendid Triviality: Philosophy, Art, and Sport in a Time of Crisis

One of my philosophy professors in college remarked that philosophy flourishes in a time of decline or crisis. No, that doesn’t mean that philosophers all secretly pray for catastrophes. But it is true that darker times call for philosophical reflection and that philosophy, like the arts, might have something to offer the human spirit when things cease to make sense. A crisis certainly seems to bring out the worst in us, and it’s hard not to wonder if Hobbes was right about human nature. Certainly many of the headlines from the current crisis document the endless depths of human selfishness. The man in Tennessee who stockpiled 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer and sold them at exorbitant prices comes to mind. But we have also seen stories of courageous selflessness in the service of others, from healthcare workers risking their own lives to young people delivering food to the sequestered elderly. If you read the introduction to the Decameron, set in Italy during the 14th-century plague, it’s clear that, in Boccaccio’s estimation, the bad outweighed the …

Before ‘Groundhog Day’: The Time-Loop Novel that Started It All

On March 4th, the Ringer, a website that covers pop culture, featured an article entitled “We’re in a Time Loop of Time-Loop Movies.” Similar articles have appeared in many other pop-culture venues of late. Suddenly, time-loop stories seem to be everywhere. This month Hulu began streaming director Joe Carnahan’s new sci-fi action film Boss Level, the tale of a soldier in the near future who wakes up every morning only to relive the day of his death. Carnahan has described the film as “Groundhog Day as an action movie.” A few weeks before the release of Boss Level, Amazon Prime released director Ian Samuels’s film The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, which could be described as Groundhog Day as a teenage romance. Last July, Hulu released director Max Barbakow’s film Palm Springs, a time-loop story starring Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, and J.K. Simmons. The film is both a romance and an action film. It’s no surprise that time-loop stories seem suddenly relevant to many pop-culture consumers. Because of the coronavirus pandemic and the various quarantines …

With Theatres Shuttered, I Tried to Stage a ‘Zoom Play.’ (It Didn’t Work)

I have always been a playwright. When my grade-six teacher told us to compose our imaginary life stories, mine was called Autobiography of a Playwright. Even back then, I was writing skits and persuading the neighbourhood kids to perform in them. My inspiration (and this will tell you something about my age) was Bing Crosby in Going My Way—a priest who cajoled local juvenile delinquents into singing for the church choir. When I was eight or nine years old, I told my mother I was depressed. “I don’t have anything to look forward to,” I said. She suggested that my father set up a little stage in the basement—complete with a curtain. I was in heaven. As a young man, unfortunately, I watched the cinematic representations of stereotypical playwright characters morph from respected geniuses to laughable neurotics. In the 1950 drama All About Eve, playwright Lloyd Richards was portrayed as a typical pipe-smoking intellectual of the 1940s. Richards casually name-drops “Miller” and “Sherwood” (Arthur and Robert, respectively), situating himself in the context of the day’s …

The Hustler and the Queen

NOTE: This essay contains spoilers. The surprise success of the Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit has brought me a great deal of delight—I’m a longtime fan of both the novel and its author, Walter Tevis. Just this summer, I wrote an essay about all the great American popular novels I wish I’d written myself, and the first book I mentioned was Tevis’s 1959 masterpiece The Hustler. But while The Hustler may be Tevis’s best book, The Queen’s Gambit has always been my favorite. I’ve never been anything but an incompetent at the pool table, but for a brief shining hour I was a chess prodigy. In July of 1968, a few weeks before my 10th birthday, I competed in a state chess tournament at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, in my hometown of Portland, Oregon, and won the prize for Best Fourth-Grade Boy. This triumph—my first and only triumph at anything—survives online in the archives of Northwest Chess magazine. Usually when a high-profile film or TV series is adapted from the work of …

The Videogame That Takes Us Inside the Hell of a Nazi-Run World

For almost 20 years, Hearts of Iron has been a prominent franchise in the videogame genre known as “grand strategy.” In these games, players don’t command individual characters or armies, but whole nations or even civilizations. In Hearts of Iron, which is now up to its fourth iteration, players lead nations and navigate them through (often fictional) conflicts, alliances, economics crises, and intrigues before and after World War II, exploring alternative historical narratives. What’s more, Paradox Interactive, the developer of Hearts of Iron 4, designed the game in a way that allows gamers to create their own customized versions, often called “mods,” which take the game into radically different timelines. By one count, more than 20,000 mods are available for Hearts of Iron. These include some that fall into the category of “total conversion modifications”—mods that are so ambitious that they effectively create entirely new game systems. A notable example is The New Order: Last Days of Europe, a huge project that crowdsourced the efforts of hundreds of volunteer fans. Since its conception in 2014, …

Farewell, Alex Trebek

On Friday, November 6th, between 1 and 2pm Pacific Daylight Time, I participated in an audition for the TV game-show Jeopardy!. Normally auditions are conducted in person at various regional locations around the US. As a Northern Californian, I should have been attending a live audition in San Francisco. But COVID and the quarantine have played havoc with everything this year, and the King of American Game-Shows is no exception. And so, along with eight other hopefuls, I was auditioned via a Zoom call from Southern California by John Barra, the show’s contestant producer. He informed us that, since the onset of the pandemic, roughly 237,000 people had applied online to be Jeopardy! contestants. The show selects about 400 contestants each year. This was in fact the second Zoom conference call in which I had participated with the producers of Jeopardy!. On September 2nd, I participated in a sort of pre-audition meet-and-greet with seven other potential contestants and a different producer, whose name I’ve forgotten. By the end of the November 6th audition, the nine …

A Reasoned Judgment and a Reputation in Ruins

Well, now it’s not just the word of British tabloid the Sun, it’s also the rather weightier opinion of Mr Justice Nicol: Johnny Depp is a wife-beater who assaulted Amber Heard on at least 12 separate occasions during their relationship. Like many others who have brought libel actions to clear their names, Depp has found that using the law to defend your reputation is a very expensive way of shattering it—in this case, probably beyond hope of repair. A lot of his fans don’t like it, of course. #JusticeforJohnny has been trending, along with out of context—or simply invented—quotations from the judgment. There have also been lurid suggestions that it was “corrupt” for Nicol J to sit on the case because he once co-wrote a book on media law with Geoffrey Robertson QC, whose wife was friendly with Jennifer Robinson, a barrister who had advised Heard. That ground of appeal, I can confidently predict, will get him nowhere. Nevertheless, dubious or false allegations of physical or sexual violence are by no means unheard of, whether …

What We Owe to ‘The Boys in the Band’—and Other Classics of Gay Film

Ryan’s Murphy’s new Netflix production of The Boys in the Band is a time capsule of gay life in New York City, 1968. A group of friends, all but one closeted, get together for a birthday party that makes Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf look like a strawberry social. Shame, guilt, fear, and self-loathing rip through a night of pills, alcohol, and panic attacks, ending with the lines, “Show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse,” and “If we could just not hate ourselves so much… If we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much.”  I was 18 when I saw the original production, alone, and 19 when I saw the 1970 film adaptation, also alone. I furtively entered and exited the theatre both times, terrified that someone I knew might see me at a show about gays. Would they wonder if I was gay, too? If they guessed, then what? I could end up like those characters, cast off by friends and family, no hope, …

Elder Millennial Metalheads: Our Shrinking World of Dark Thoughts and Bad Jobs

I was born in 1986, the year of release for the first movie I ever saw, David Cronenberg’s The Fly. I was raised in a middle-class, mixed-race family, in the suburbs of Riverside County, California, surrounded by heavy metal, violent cartoons, and children’s programming like Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark?—all of which warned me that the world I was entering was a wild, nasty place. I also grew up watching Married with Children, sitting on the couch with my father, emulating Al Bundy’s signature pose. Another message I got: Middle-class American life is a nightmare. It’s a vicious trap for suckers too stupid to be successful or too scared to be vagabonds. George Carlin, N.W.A., Black Flag. Everywhere I looked, it seemed all of the cool people had the same message. The American Dream is a sham. You’re better than that. Kurt Cobain, Tupac, Biggie, and River Phoenix showed a generation of suburban boys our nihilistic path. We were too clever for the assembly lines, too principled for Wall Street, too vulgar …

Why Is Funny? How America Lost Its Sense of Humor

If you grew up in Detroit in the ’70s, jokes were everywhere. Most of them were Polack jokes, which were so common that it wasn’t until middle school that I realized that not every joke had to involve a guy from Poland. Today, jokes have almost entirely disappeared from public contexts, and have become a discreet affair, reserved for trusted friends. Over my 15 years working at universities in the United States, I have never heard anyone tell a joke—not a corny pun or some stupid meme—but a real joke that actually made me laugh. You know, a funny one. Good jokes can be dangerous and the risk of getting in trouble is just too high. It might not be so bad if the prohibition against telling jokes and policing of humor was limited to scripted jokes but the problem seems to have bled into everyday social interactions. Last week, I was listening to my wife’s co-workers take turns reproaching all the selfish assholes walking around town without masks. I helpfully added that, although I …