Archive for December, 2010

Christmas Movie Recommendation – Remember the Night

Every time I watch Remember the Night, I am amazed.

It’s so unlike anything else Preston Sturges ever did, and the story goes that he was so furious with how director Mitchell Leisen butchered his script that he demanded to direct all his films. He would go on an unmatched streak of brilliant romantic comedies, blazing through Christmas in July, The Great McGinty, Miracle at Morgan’s Creek, Palm Beach Story, Sullivan’s Travels, and The Lady Eve all in just a few years. Then, as quickly as it had come, the streak would be over. Sturges would be an angry burnout after directing the disastrous football movie, and would leave behind just this handful of films that both define and defy the romantic comedies of the 30s and 40s.

I’ve watched this film once every year for as long as I can remember. Call it twenty times. I’ve come to the conclusion that either Sturges never understood what Leisen accomplished with Remember the Night, or he was just burning to direct and took issue with Remember only as a ploy. It is the best film Sturges helped make, although I would hesitate a long time before ranking Remember the Night, The Lady Eve, or Palm Beach Story. They are peers in excellence.

But Remember the Night stands apart, a strangely honest and heartfelt film from a writer, and later director, who made such self-conscious films. Sturges never stooped to meta-filmmaking preciousness, but he loved to rap his knuckles against the fourth wall. His characters weren’t real people but the caricatures of a brilliant cartoonist. He played with words and loved to share the fun he was having with his audience. His situations were absurd: card-sharks and con artists traveling on the same ocean liner as a renowned herpatologist / brewing fortune heir.

Remember the Night doesn’t have the same absurdist streak. It opens with Deputy DA John Sargent (Fred MacMurray) called to a trial on the day he is supposed to travel home from New York to his family’s farm in Indiana. He finds himself prosecuting Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck), a career criminal who is looking at her third conviction. Her lawyer plays on the jury’s Christmas spirit and bottomless credulity and is on the cusp of securing an acquittal, so Sargent holds the case over until the New Year. Feeling bad about having used a procedural trick to keep her in jail and deny her an acquittal, Sargent has a bondsman friend secure Lee’s release. Because she has no money and nowhere to stay, and because she’s from a small Indiana town not far from his family home, he agrees to drive her home for the holiday. The rest of the film is their week together before the trial resumes.

Sturges’ script is preoccupied with deeper questions than most of his other films. Sargent and Lee come from almost identical backgrounds and experiences. Yet one of them has become a successful attorney and the paragon of honesty and decency, and the other has become a small-time crook marking time until the state finally locks her up and throws away the key. Why did their paths diverge so starkly? How much responsibility does she bear for the way her life has gone, and how much credit can Sargent claim for what he’s accomplished?

One of the threads that runs through Sturges’ films is that virtue and decency are conditional, and judgment is perilous. At the start of the film, Sargent does not understand this. He thinks he lives in a world where things are roughly as they should be, and so he can’t make sense of Lee. She’s smart, kind, and in many ways honest. He cannot imagine how those virtues exist in a criminal, because he has deluded himself into thinking the world is a place of absolutes. Lee knows better. The film is a record of his education. She says, early in the film,  “Gee, you’re sweet. You never think of anything wrong, do you?”

He doesn’t, and that is what blinds him. As they head into Indiana to see her family, Lee tries to explain that she and her mother parted on very bad terms but Sargent’s response is simple: “Of course she’ll be glad to see you. She’s your mother.” Anyone could look at Lee’s face and know that it’s not that simple, but Sargent can’t because he just assumes that all mothers love and forgive their children.

The scene where he and Lee meet her mother is one of the all time great moments in American cinema, a sequence of prairie gothic that evokes the later Night of the Hunter. As Lee’s mother, a hard-faced woman straight out of a Dustbowl photograph, relentlessly tears into Lee for being a lifelong sneak and a liar, you can see the understanding that is finally striking John Sargent.

Lee had to leave home because, her mother explains, she stole “my mission money that I put by with the sweatuh mah brow.” Lee, almost sobbing, says, “I told you, I was going to pay it back.”

“But you never paid me back, didja? And ya never paid anyone else back, either.”

“How could I after you called me a thief in front of the whole town?”

We learn later that this is a mirror of an event that happened between Sargent and his mother. His mother later reminds him of the incident and asks if he remembers how bad he felt when he learned it was wrong, and how hard he worked to pay back the money he took. He says, “You made me understand.” She shakes her heads and whispers, “No, dear, it was love that made you understand.”

Lee’s family is the polar opposite of Sargent’s. Both poor Indiana farmers, Sargent grew up surrounded by love, security, and the sense of opportunity they afford. Lee was ground down by the hardness of country living and her mother’s unrelenting, self-righteous misery. Her mother was the grim prairie zealot, choosing to live in near misery and squalor but making a special point to set aside money for the church mission, while setting aside neither money nor affection for her child. Sargent comes from an idealized America where things are as they should be. What Sargent comes to understand is that while Lee might be guilty of many crimes, she is also a victim of crimes and circumstances for which the law affords no protection.

Playing Optimally

My latest article is up at Gamers with Jobs. It’s about cover-based shooters and how cover mechanics push shooters in a lot of bad directions. I used Mass Effect 2 and Red Dead Redemption to illustrate how cover usually goes wrong. But what’s been interesting to me is how many people have come back with a variation on what I call the Hocking defense: “If you’re bored, it’s because you’re boring.”

I call it the Hocking defense because of a remark he made at a talk I attended. One criticism a lot of people directed at the otherwise excellent Far Cry 2 was that it was repetitive. You could play just about every mission using the same three weapons, and one random encounter or mission tended to look a lot like another. Hocking laughed and, admitting he was going to come across like a jerk, said, “I think if you find Far Cry 2 repetitive, then you’re probably repetitive.”

Hocking’s view was that he’d created a game where there were dozens and dozens of ways to approach the same problem. Players had access to different weapon combinations and weapon types, an incredible fire and physics model, and a beautiful open world in which every battle was likely to be different. If your reaction to all that freedom was to do the same thing over and over again, that was on you.

If that Krogan ever managed to get close, I would have been in mild danger.

In the case of Mass Effect 2, the problem isn’t with the game, but with the way I played it. The argument goes that it is my fault for, first, picking the soldier class. The soldier only has access to guns, and the only opportunities to use biotic and tech powers come from her AI squadmates. Had I played a different class, I would have been less tied to cover, and been able to adopt more variable tactics. Second, nobody made me play every encounter the same way. I could have tried different strategies than the “stand in cover and shoot” tactic that saw me through most of the game.

Now, in Mass Effect 2, there are several reasons why I suspect changing classes or approaches will still leave every battle in the game feeling generic and boring. But I’m more interested in the widespread assumption that because other options are available to players, they should use them. The existence of these other options apparently makes boredom or repetition the fault of the player.

The argument seems a little churlish to me, because I don’t generally consider it my responsibility as the player to locate the fun and variety in some aspect of a game. Besides, if a game is not fun or appealing while I am playing it, that makes me less inclined to try alternate approaches. The games that I experiment with are the ones I loved while playing in whatever was my natural style for that game. That’s what gives me confidence that experimentation will be rewarded. Great games invite you to consider other options, and they often show them to you.

Bioshock 2: where crazy stuff is always about to happen

But the argument is also naive about the powerful draw of optimal play styles. If the same tactics work again and again, players will use them again and again. Even if they don’t want to, because it is a guaranteed way to pass the next challenge. In fact, it becomes a vicious circle. The optimal tactic works everywhere so players use it too much, their overuse of the tactic makes the game boring, their boredom and frustration makes them want to rush through the boring parts, so they use the optimal tactic.

Second, if the same one of two tactics work in every situation, there is a problem with the game. Optimal tactics should be situational, not universal. Is the sniper rifle turning every encounter into a shooting gallery? Take away long lines of sight. Is the assault rifle slaughtering everyone from cover? Have enemies that can close quickly and deal massive close-range damage, before the rifle can whittle them down. Or simply deny the player cover and force him to close and assault. There are so many ways to introduce and force variety that it’s hard to forgive a game, even an RPG-shooter, that lets you coast through using the same tricks.

There and Back

I bailed.

Rabbit and his family were going to be out of town through Thanksgiving, and MK was going to be putting twelve and sixteen hour workdays together. So it seemed like a good time to leave Boston and all my habits behind. Before I knew it I was back at Rabbit’s burrow in the Mass countryside.

It was like I stepped out of my life. I was enjoying an unfamiliar, complete solitude in a familiar and comfortable setting. At first, I was trying so hard to unwind that I was actually stressing out. I would be furious at myself if I wasn’t walking in the forest before lunch, or reading a book in the last of the afternoon light. But by the end of my second day, I was off-schedule and not looking back. I was sitting down to dinner and a movie at 11:30 at night. At 1 in the morning I was enjoying the juiciest clementines with the coldest, driest martini I could make.

I took a long, long walk in the woods one afternoon, wearing my heavy boots and warmest flannel. I walked until I was exhausted. Then I descended the hill into town, where I saw the lights burning in the window of the game store. Inside it was warm and snug, and I spent an hour browsing the inventory and chatting with the owner about the glory days of PC gaming and the delights of board gaming. I ended up buying War of the Ring and Hold the Line, a wargame of the American Revolution.

Walking the woods with MK and the Murdochs

Somewhere in all of this I started realizing that hours and hours were going by without checking Twitter, or even opening a web browser. I scarcely used my laptop at all. I was focused on whatever I was doing. I had no responsibilities and no distractions. Was it time for a game? Then that’s all there was in the world until I was bored with it. Then maybe it was time for a movie, or another game, or a chat with a friend on Skype. Or both.

I wrote, of course. Not as much as I intended, but that was all to the good. The lesson of Julian’s house was that I intend too much and enjoy too little. Finally, when it was time to bring MK out for Thanksgiving, I felt as light as a feather. I enjoyed every minute of the long drive in and out of the city, and we quickly started preparing for our little Thanksgiving celebration.

On Twitter, I could watch my friends enjoying or enduring familial gatherings. But for us, Thanksgiving was just a chance to try some ambitious new things in a big kitchen. We played and cooked and walked all we wanted. Then Julian and Jessica came home with the kids, and we spent another day or so doing more of the same with them. I lost an excruciatingly close game of War of the Ring to Julian, went on a long walk with him and the kids, had a blast doing an epic-length GWJ podcast (edited to be listenable-length), and finally had to leave. I was ready, and even eager to start making some changes to how I do things here in the city.

The classiest bird ever: butterflied, rubbed for two days, red wine and tangerine glaze

I’m back now, and have been for about a week. In some ways, at least. In others, I have yet to return. I’m still keeping life a bit quiet. It seems a little pointless to get back to full speed when I’ll be taking a train to the Midwest in under two weeks. I’ve got a couple assignments left to clear off my plate, and a few pieces whose status is a complete mystery to me, but after that life will kind of come to a halt while I’m on my holiday travels.

I’m also trying to put some lessons I learned these last few weeks into practice. Small stuff, but important stuff. My goal is to find a new balance and a new rhythm. Something a little closer to the quiet, relaxed productivity of my time in the country than the insignificant sound and fury that sometimes characterized my workdays here in Cambridge.