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.

Some Words Uncharted 2 Made Me Eat

Honestly, I was prepared to be underwhelmed by Uncharted 2. After my first couple hours with the game, I even had a little piece written up about why corridor shooters leave me so cold. My first night of Uncharted 2 didn’t leave me impressed. It was as charming as ever, and the writing was sharper, but I just wasn’t interested in the gameplay. Before I could finish my post, however, Uncharted 2 confounded the conclusions I drew from its first first act. Still, I like what I wrote. It’s true in more cases than it’s not, and it’s worth recording how our views evolve. So I post my first impressions below, unredacted:

Jumping to the Wrong Conclusion

I spent my weekend playing Uncharted 2, as part of my ongoing effort to work through my console backlog. I was in the mood for charming violence and, really, there’s nothing like Uncharted for providing an onslaught of both. One minute Drake is playing with hand-puppets in a Turkish prison, the next he’s snapping one guard’s neck an instant before shooting twice in the back of the head.

Still, this is not and never will be my kind of game. The possibility to space is too claustrophobic, the guidance too heavy-handed, for me to feel involved in the way that I want. It’s not that I expect every game to be as open as STALKER, but I can’t abide corridors that are so narrow that I might as well not be playing, and that’s often where Uncharted places me.

Security gates are less effective when the release button is right next to it. In fairness, you really have to stretch to reach it.

Trekking through a jungle path wide enough for two Drakes to stand side-by-side, I scale a wall using some obvious handholds. Then I cross a river balancing on a log, except Drake never really seems in danger of losing his balance. Now I come to a guard who has his back turned to me. Another guard stands a few yards away, looking in another direction, also with his back turned. I take the game’s obvious invitation to stealth-kill the two men. Then I come to clearing with two lines of obvious cover. One for me, one for the bad guys who will pop up as soon as I hit the invisible tripwire. Now I cycle between the cover points, waiting for the mercenaries to stick their heads out of cover so I can kill them. Eventually, they’re all dead. Then it’s onto another narrow passage, which will end with another set of carefully set-up, idiot-proofed stealth kills.

I could turn up the difficulty, but higher difficulty won’t redesign the levels and encounters so that I face meaningful choices, or tests of skill. I might be a little more vulnerable in firefights, my enemies a little less, but it won’t be any more interesting than it is on “Hard”. The exciting story and action set-pieces that unfold on the screen get a little less exciting as the game’s limitations become clearer. Drake isn’t really in danger of falling. The next handhold is right there, or his off-balance animation will trigger and he’ll stand, twisting and turning, on the edge of a precipice from which he will never take a plummet. The guard won’t turn around. Other guards won’t hear his muffled scream, or come investigate his disappearance. The enemies won’t keep up a sustained cover-fire, pinning you in place while they flank.

I’m reminded of an old MST3K, where a woman was being chased by some kind of crocodile. Except they weren’t even in the same shot. It was just pictures of her running, screaming across a field, with insert shots of a crocodile scuttling through a swamp. Then the woman reached the safety of her friends. One of the robots said, “Wow! That was… not close at all, actually.”

If you’re going to sustain tension, you’ve got to mean it. If Nathan Drake is living by his wits, nearly dying a half-dozen times a minute, then I should at least feel a faint echo of the same. Nolan North can grunt and gasp all he wants: I’m sitting with my feet up on the couch, drinking an Old-Fashioned while shots fly over Drake’s head. What Uncharted 2 needs to do is throw an elbow. Let me know that it’s time to stop screwing around and start playing.

"I don't know, I just feel like nothing I do matters. Like I'm just waiting for the next cutscene to start."

When I was Garrett the Thief, I had to take time to get a feel for the landscape before I could start wiping out a regiment of guards. Execution and timing mattered, and if I didn’t do my job right, it turned into a huge bloody mess. When the bullets started to fly in F.E.A.R., I had to think fast and approach each gunbattle with some tactical acumen, or the weight of numbers and grenades would take me down in short order. That’s gaming as I knew it. The tightly scripted corridor shooter is tee-ball by comparison: “Way to hit that ball! Yaaaay, Slugger! Here’s your participation ribbon.”

On Second Thought…

After I wrote that, I played more of the game. Now the interesting thing about this is that I still stand by a lot of what I wrote. Hell, even as someone who completely converted to the cause of Uncharted 2, I still think a lot of my criticisms are completely valid. But what I didn’t know is that from the next chapter, “Urban Warfare”, until the end of the game, Uncharted 2 was about to annihilate my expectations. I’ll get into the reasons why in my next post.

But for now? I’m still pondering what I wrote above. If I still chafe at how tightly Uncharted 2 occasionally holds your hand and constrains your actions, can that be squared with how completely I ended up buying into the experience? With how involved I became with the story and the action? Is a compromise possible between Uncharted 2′s exhilarating cinematic qualities and more open gameplay?

Rat at Rest

“Every time I come out here,” I tell Julian while the steaks sizzle on the grill, “I realize how crazy Boston makes me.”

“Well, but how much of a rat race are you really running?” he asks.

It’s a fair question. When I feel my spirits starting to sag, I remind myself that, reduced to its essence, my life only really requires that I play games, write, read, and cook. For most other people, that’s a vacation, and I don’t ever have the right to feel bad about it.

Except for the last couple months, I have felt bad about it, and then I realize what I’m feeling, and feel even worse about having those feelings in the first place. Which is how I came to be here in the middle of November, at the Rivendell that Julian has carved out of the backwoods of Massachusetts, fleeing what is starting to feel like the depression I fought in college.

If I were running the rat race, I’d have a respectable reason for feeling burned out or overwhelmed. I could blame my boss or my coworkers. I could resent the drudgery of office work, the early mornings and the late nights. I could vent to family and friends about how hard things are and they’d understand and sympathize, in a way they can’t with someone who is ultimately his own boss in a professionalized pursuit of pleasure. I could sympathize and forgive myself, because the fault could reside somewhere outside of me.

In Boston, I can’t escape accountability. I dwell on the things I haven’t gotten done, or haven’t done well enough, and I go into each day feeling like I need to catch up on weeks worth of work. My “to-do” list gets longer and less flexible, and I start putting in day after day of nonstop effort to catch up. Except I’m feeling frustrated and defeated, so everything gets harder as well.

Most of my friends have jobs, and they have lives. The two don’t perfectly overlap. But if you work for yourself, chasing a passion? You enjoy no such existential escape.  You chose to do something, you and your loved ones have made sacrifices so that you can do it, and now you’re tired? You need a day off? Too fucking bad. Get out of bed and get over to your desk and be creative. Or play a game for ten hours, like your life depended on it, because that’s the job. You wanted to play games? Fine, but you don’t get to choose anymore. Oh, and if you’re tired of looking after the house and baking and cooking all the time, maybe you ought to make more money so that you can occasionally afford a night out. The answer to every problems is always mercilessly simple: work harder.

There is no limit to what we can ask of ourselves. But there is, however reluctantly and shamefully we admit it, a limit to what we can accomplish. The reasons might not be obvious. You might have the time you need, and the opportunities. If you were just more efficient… but you’ll never be the machine in your own factory. You try to become that and you end up breaking your own spirit, with too much to do and no energy or confidence left to do it with. And it will look to all the world, yourself included, like laziness. Or indulgence.

Julian is skeptical that I need this break as badly as I say I do. I get it. I’m skeptical, too. But it doesn’t change the giddy sense of relief I feel.

Somewhere on the floor of my apartment is a bag with a laptop and a folio, gathering a thin layer of dust in some corner of the living room. Fully loaded the bag doesn’t weigh much more than seven or eight pounds. But as we stand here beneath clear, cold starlight, about to sit down to dinner with our friends and loved ones, I feel like I have left something much heavier behind.

Team Orders

Until the very last lap of the Brazilian GP, I expected Sebastian Vettel to let Mark Webber past for the victory. The idea that Red Bull would allow Fernando Alonso to maintain a significant lead heading into the season finale at Abu Dhabi was astonishing to someone who came of age watching Ferrari tossing victories at Michael Schumacher.

Red Bull did not hesitate to point out that difference. In an interview with an Austrian paper,  the head of Red Bull, Dietrich Mateschitz said:

Let the two drivers race and what will be will be. if Alonso wins we will have been unlucky. I predict a Hollywood ending. Worst case scenario we don’t become champion? We’ll do it next year. But our philosophy stays the same because this is sport and it must remain sport. We don’t manipulate things like Ferrari do.

Strong stuff. I suspect Mateschitz might even believe it. But he isn’t the guy running the team,  and I don’t think the truth is as cut-and-dry as Red Bull is trying to spin it.

The podium at the Brazilian Grand Prix, after Red Bull took the Constructors' Championship. (image from F1 Fanatic.co.uk)

As I discussed earlier this season, Red Bull’s team politics have been disastrous. Vettel was clearly the team’s number one driver, and Red Bull took some clear steps to favor him. Unfortunately, Vettel lost his position through disastrous misjudgments and Webber became a major championship contender. After Red Bull alienated Webber at Silverstone, and he replied by jamming Vettel at the start and then going on to a convincing victor, Red Bull had to stop favoring Vettel. There was no longer a plausible argument for explaining why he would get preferential treatment. Now, having been burned in their attempts to make Vettel into Michael Schumacher and Mark Webber into Rubens Barrichello, they’re forced to sit on their hands while these two drivers run the risk of throwing away the driver’s championship. But let’s be clear what happened: Vettel was shown far greater respect at Red Bull, and that translated into material aid at Silverstone. When Vettel squandered his advantages and Webber moved to the front, the team stopped favoring anybody. Heads Vettel wins, tails Webber loses.

On the other hand, if Red Bull are sincere about their desire to let the championship be decided on the track, then it really does make for an impressive contrast with Ferrari, who maneuvered Fernando Alonso into this position by forcing Felipe Massa to yield the lead at Germany. Next week, three drivers have a credible shot at the championship. Had Alonso not been allowed past Massa, the drama would be even greater, with the three contenders all locked within a few points of one another.

The longer I watch F1, the less of a Ferrari fan I am. In retrospect, I feel horrible about how Barrichello’s was wasted at Ferrari, and how shockingly little gratitude he was shown  for his driving. If he had been allowed to challenge Schumacher behind the wheel of a Ferrari, I suspect Schumacher’s championship count might be slightly reduced. Now they’re doing the same thing to Felipe Massa, who fought his way into the number one spot at Ferrari by out-driving the temperamental Kimi Raikkonen only to have it taken away when Ferrari anointed Fernando Alonso as their primary.

But if Ferrari wins the driver’s championship by having manipulated results, and Red Bull loses it by having their drivers battling until the end, then Ferrari’s example becomes harmful to the entire sport. As long as one team is pushing one driver to the front of the standings, others will feel pressure to do the same. That’s a disaster when you have a field this strong: Webber and Vettel at Red Bull, Hamilton and Button at McLaren, Alonso and Massa at Ferrari, and Rosberg and Schumacher at Mercedes (and God help us if Kubica gets a tough opponent over at Renault). This is the best F1 lineup in 20 years, and Ferrari cheats everyone if they force teams to push one driver.

Am I a hypocrite in this matter? Certainly. I never complained when Schumacher was getting the same treatment at Ferrari. But it looked better on Schumacher. He was breaking records, drove like a master, and was completely barefaced about his willingness to break rules if it was to his advantage. But now, with a less dominant car and a less charismatic driver, Ferrari’s politics don’t look as good.

Neither does Schumacher, to be quite honest. The same antics that were almost endearing from a championship leader seem petty and irresponsible from a driver hobbling around the middle of the pack like Schumacher is right now. His conduct toward Rubens is beneath contempt, for instance.

F1 has changed. In Schumacher’s era, it was plucky Ferrari against the icy, machine-like McLaren team under Ron Dennis. Nobody else really mattered that much. The championship was always between two drivers, and it seemed fair for each team to rally behind its champion. But nowadays, Ferrari, Red Bull, McLaren, and Renault are all operating credible programs, and running some great drivers. In this environment, it’s simply less acceptable for a team to push one driver forward.

As we head into the last race, I’ll be pulling for Mark Webber. By all accounts, he’s a class act. Admittedly, he has only himself to blame for his current predicament. He drives too aggressively and squandered his lead through mistakes. On the other hand, Vettel is even less admirable. His mistakes have been jaw-droppingly bad, and his conduct is off-putting in the extreme. When things are going well, he is all smiles and good humor. When things aren’t going well, he’s a hazard to other drivers and a waste for his team.

Alonso… well, he had one win handed to him. His demeanor behind the wheel is annoying. He seems personally offended whenever someone does not yield position to him. But he is also a great driver who overcame a deficient car and some bad luck to get to the front of the pack. He is a two-time champion already and, if he adds a third to his count, it would be impossible to argue he doesn’t deserve it.