In normal times, I’d be writing about ten comics I read that I liked this year and haven’t written about yet. But it is, as is so often said, not normal times and I am not entirely sure what the new normal will be both here at the Cultural Gutter or in the broader world. The pandemic and an unfortunate but improving situation with my eye have messed everything up since last December. It has been hard to write and hard to read, unfortunately it has been especially hard to read comics. Though I have hope that soon reading will be less tiring and I will get back to all that business like before. This is a long way of saying that the list this year is mostly not comics, but there is a list. And so in the spirit of perseverance in shit times, I offer instead, “Some Things I liked in 2020,” comprising some of the things that have helped get me through.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Nintendo, 2020)
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a relaxing game with simple game mechanics and terrible chat. (Do shell out for online play. Don’t use the in-game chat. Find another means of talking with your pals while playing). The storyline, such as it is, is slight—you buy a deserted island package deal from entrepreneur, sketchy real estate developer and loan shark who is bad at loan sharking / debt peonage, Tom Nook. You complete tasks like building and furnishing your house, moving in a museum and shops, decorating your island and inviting animal villagers you meet to become citizens of your island nation in order to attract the attention of the famous K. K. Slider, musician and bon vivant. Once he plays a concert on your island, you can do even more with your island. The game reflects a lot on what the player brings to it, and I brought a lot of folk horror and a desire to interact with my villagers. Like playing with dolls or actions figures, you make whatever you want with whatever you can. And the game can be pretty revealing since it is made up of whatever the player brings to it. And I’m okay with that.
During quarantine, I started watching Animal Crossing: New Horizons streams while putting together jigsaw puzzles. I think I thought watching the videos would take the place of playing the game, but it didn’t. I wish I had started playing Animal Crossing sooner.
Animal Crossing has been an outlet for my creativity when my usual outlets, writing and drawing, have proven difficult. And even though I’m in a good situation, Animal Crossing provided some means of escape from my house during quarantine. But while being able to sit on a virtual beach listening to the virtual waves and peaceful music has been tremendously helpful, what I love about it is something I have never done before in any game—no matter how much I loved the game—playing with friends online. The multiplayer mechanics could be better, but right now, what a joy it is to see friends I cannot see in real life—even if it’s only everyone dressing up as Jack, the Czar of Halloween, and hitting each other with nets for a while. Getting the game is one of the best things I’ve done for my mental and emotional health this year.
Incidentally, you should read alex MacFadyen’s swell and much more in-depth piece on Animal Crossing: New Horizons here.
Jigsaw puzzles, esp Pomegranate jigsaw puzzles
Three or four years ago I remembered that I liked doing jigsaw puzzles and that there was nothing stopping me from doing them. So I bought a few and particularly liked doing them in the fall while watching horror movies. It’s a good excuse to look away when one needs to. I prefer puzzles that are reproductions of paintings or prints. I have a bunch of Edward Gorey and Tamara de Lempicka puzzles as well as ones depicting work by Gustav Klimt, Archibald Motley and Marc Chagall and a Heye puzzle depicting wiggly monsters. Puzzles are not only relaxing for me, they also help me look more closely at art. Putting together the puzzle slows down the action of looking at it, so I spend more time seeing the art.
While doing one depicting Edward Gorey’s “An Exhibition,” I finally picked up on Amedeo Modigliani‘s influence on Gorey, which had been kind of obscured for me by the influence of Victorian illustrative engravings and etchings.
I especially like Pomegranate puzzles. I like the thickness of the pieces, that the pieces come in a reusable ziploc bag, that there is relatively little puzzle dust as well as the array of art and artists available. Just beware Gorey’s “Frawgge Mfrg. Co.” There are so many frogs in so many pale hues…
Red Dead Redemption 2 (Rockstar, 2018)
I started playing Red Dead Redemption 2 before the pandemic, but continued into it both because it’s a good game and because, like Animal Crossing, it provided a sense of going someplace and being outdoors. Red Dead Redemption 2 is an open world Western that starts in 1899. You play Arthur Morgan, a member of Dutch Van Der Linde’s gang. Dutch has utopian dreams of finding a place where he and his gang can be “free,” but a heist went wrong and though the game’s world is vast and beautifully rendered, it’s also filled with bounty hunters and Pinkertons. And Dutch is getting vengeful. Sure, as I wrote here at the Gutter, I thought Dutch’s plan was dumb, and so rather than follow the game’s main storyline for now, I wandered off and play the game I wanted to play—the one where I pet horses, steal horses, work for dandy Algernon Wasp and draw animals in my journal as Arthur Morgan. I like a game that’s big enough to let you do your own thing for a while. And it’s easy to see how the game I created for myself in RDR2 led to my playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Dynamite arrows aside, they are pretty much the same game for me right now. Though I do love some dynamite arrows and stealing ne’er-do-wells’ horses to re-home, so I’m sure to get back to it, complete the story and feel sad at Arthur Morgan’s inevitable, sad end.
Hakaba is a linguistics student whose professor has sent him off to continue the professor’s research after said professor hurt his back. Which is an extremely academic set-up that delights me even as it turns out that the professor’s specialization is monster languages and Hakaba is being sent to study the languages of The Netherworld. I appreciate that Hakaba’s professor doesn’t die and that Hakaba doesn’t become the King of The Netherworld and there is not a war (so far) where Hakaba accepts his destiny as a Great Hero. Hakaba’s a grad student who has gone to do field work with werewolves, lizard, people, dragons, krakens, etcs, to learn their languages and try to understand them.
Plus, this bison-inflected minotaur is definitely one of my favorite things of 2020.
Noir City International Film Festival 2020 through AFI Silver
One thing quarantine has allowed me to do is to attend film festivals I haven’t been able to before now as they have moved to digital exhibition. I saw a goodly number of films at the online Noir City International festival this year. The ones that have stuck with me the most are Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid (1960), Román Viñoly Barreto’s El Vampiro Negro (1953), Henri Verneuil’s Any Number Can Win / Mélodie en sous-sol (1963), Robert Siodmak’s The Devil Strikes at Night / Nachts, wenn der Teufel kam (1957).
The Housemaid is a dark satire of aspiring class striving. It’s both sardonically noir and reminds me quite a bit of Spider Baby (1967)—or maybe more Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle (1962). A family tries to make ends meet and expand their house on a piano teacher’s salary and the extremely pregnant mother’s money from sewing. They hire a housemaid to help out and she is both poisonous and abused.
El Vampiro Negro is an intriguing re-working of Fritz Lang’s M (1931). At Noir City, the film was presented as “feminist” and I suppose there are arguments that it is, but it is definitely centered on the women affected by a serial killer in their community and the skeevy police inspector trying catch the killer.
Verneuil’s Any Number Can Win is cleanly shot heist movie starring Jean Rabin as the veteran thief out for one last score and Alain Delon as the young, ambitious and probably sociopathic thief who can fortunately fit on top of elevators and slink along the tops of buildings. After World War II, director Robert Siodmak (The Killers (1946), Criss Cross (1949), Son of Dracula (1943)) returned to German to make film. In The Devil Strikes at Night, he presents a serial killer against the back drop of the horror of fascism. Inspector Axel Kersten (Klaus Holm) pursues murderer Bruno Lüdke (Mario Adorf) while the SS has become interested in the case, believing that Lüdke can be used to prove their racist theories. It’s harrowing, painful and, unfortunately, timely.
The New York Asian Film Festival 2020
I have long wanted to attend NYAFF in person. And this year, while I couldn’t see the movies projected and visit friends in NYC, I could watch some films I would not be able to see otherwise. I watched Johnnie To’s sharply satirical, beautifully subversive, well-crafted mix of boxing, pop idol competitions and underworld shenanigans illustrating the Chinese Dream, Chasing Dream (2019) (CW: rape). And I watched Dayo Wong’s entertaining boxing/kung fu comedy, The Grand Grandmaster (2020).
But the two films that stood out for me this year were two Malaysian films: Emir Ezwan’s Soul / Roh (2019) and Areel Abu Bakar’s Geran / Grant (2019). Soul reminds me of movies like Hereditary, The Witch and a bit of Chung Mong-Ho’s 2013 movie, Soul. There’s something in the woods. And there’s something equally troubling in the house. A single mother raises her daughter and in the woods on the outskirts of a village. Her children bring a strange girl home and then things start to go wrong. Atmospheric, creepy and reminding us that we can be far more terrifying than spirits.
There’s nothing scary about Geran, except how hard it hits. So many kicks! So many punches! You will see a hijabi kick ass in the market! The plot is simple. Gangsters come to collect on a land grant covering a prodigal son’s (Fad Anuar) gambling debts. But his dad (Namron) is a silat instructor and everyone connected to him, except the comic relief (Taiyuddin Bakar), knows silat. And there’s a dash of Fast & Furious in it. Geran is enthusiastic and joyful about film-making.
Digital Screenings at Movie Theaters
You can see movies that aren’t even part of festivals or produced by major American studios online right now. A lot of indie films are being screened through independent theaters. I just saw King Hu’s beautiful Raining in the Mountain (1979) as part of the University of Wisconsin Cinematheque‘s programming. It’s a fun fantasy film with a heist at a Buddhist monastery as monks scheme to become the next abbot and thieves scheme to steal a priceless sutra. And via Cinema Detroit I’ve attended a Halloween screening of Häxan (1922) with live piano accompaniment, a screening and Zoom discussion of Emily Harris’ Carmilla (2019), a new adaptation of Sheridan LeFanu’s eponymous novella, and watched Diao Yinan’s neo-noir follow up to Black Coal Thin Ice, The Wild Goose Lake (2019) (CW: rape).
Both Carmilla and The Wild Goose Lake were supposed to be limited releases in North America, but were ultimately only available in an online format through local theaters and Film Movement. Theater get a portion of each ticket sale.
I have also been playing collaborative board games via Skype, particularly Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu and Horrified. Both games have a similar mechanic. You work alone—the games can be played solo—or together against the game and the game, if you’re unlucky, keeps getting harder. In Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu, occult investigators with a variety of special moves ranging from being able to take the bus anywhere (the reporter) to being so competent you get an extra move* (the doctor) to being able to move cultists and shoggoths on the board** (the occultist) attempt to seal gates between the world and prevent Cthulhu from awakening. But cultists keep spawning, shoggoths want to awaken the Old Ones, too, and there are more ways of losing than winning.
Horrified has similar game mechanics to Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu, but it’s more family friendly. In Horrified, your team attempts to stop rampaging monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein, the Bride, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon and the Invisible Man from causing trouble all over the board. Meanwhile, “villagers” like Dr. Cranley, Fritz and Maleva keep popping up because a monster rampage is a great time to check your experiment or go shopping. Stopping each monster requires a different solution, from education and cures to mini-games within the game and burning up all the hidden coffins. Horrified is also a nice-looking game requiring no dice, having been designed by the jigsaw puzzle company, Ravensburger. That’s right, it all comes back to puzzles this year.
*When the doctor goes nuts, he only has the same number of actions as a normal person.
**culminating in a move I like to call, “Come Here So I Can Hit You”
Carol Borden’s baleful Blood Eye turns to the world and the world feels dread. But then she is distracted by thoughts of other things she liked in 2020–like Jokerz candy bars, Decomposition notebooks, watching We’re Here (2020) with the Gutter’s own alex and watching strange Hallmark mysteries with the Gutter’s own Beth.