Of all the Wordle-derived internet puzzles, Actorle has turned out to be my favourite. Unlike Heardle or Framed, which strongly depend on you really knowing the song or movie the puzzle is looking for, with no chances of simply guessing it, Actorle – much like the original Wordle – relies on a lot of context clues that can lead you to an answer, even if you don’t know every actor that ever lived. (To be honest, Actorle doesn’t even care about most actors that worked before 1975, so you don’t even have to know that many actors, anyway.)
If you have never played Actorle, the puzzle is looking for an actor every day. As hints, it provides you with a list of films the actor has appeared in, with Xs where the letters of the title should be. It also lists the genres of those movies and the average IMDB score. Once you guess an actor, it tells you how old that actor is and if the actor the puzzle is looking for is much or a little older or younger. It also reveals the titles of all the films the guessed actor has appeared in.
This means that the best way to solve Actorle is actually identifying one or more of the films in the list and then finding the actor that appeared in all of them. This might sound obvious, but it’s worth stating nevertheless.
So, what is the best way to identify the films? I mostly look at the IMDB scores first. Scores above 8 are often films that were either box office successes, won awards or became cult hits. In other words: These are the films you are most likely to know, so look at them first. (This has gotten more difficult since Actorle changed its listening criteria to be independent of IMDB scores, recently.)
The second thing I look at, are the genres. If you look at the genres across all the listed films, you will get a general sense of what kind of actor you are looking for. For a character actor, the list will mostly display tags like “drama”, “history” or “romance”. Typical mainstream actors of the 21st century will probably will have lots of “fantasy” and “science-fiction”, because those are used for all the franchise movies that dominate screens in our era. Keep an eye out for less frequent tags like “sport”, “war” or “horror”. There are often not that many films of these genres in a given year, which will make it easier to identify them.
Finally, look at the titles. More precisely, look at their punctuation. Especially if you’re looking for an actor who has appeared in some franchise movies, there will be colons, dashes and repeating patterns of Xs that make movies fairly easy to identify.
Once you are quite certain that you have identified at least one film in the list, have one last look at the year of the first film listed. This is probably the first major role the actor played. Most actors get their first major part somehere between the age of 18 and 25, so the release date of the first film in the list might clue you in on the age of the actor you are looking for.
Is the first-billed in the right age range? Then it’s probably them. It’s not unusual to solve Actorle on your first try. If you didn’t solve it, but you guessed at least one movie correctly, you should have enough clues to find the right answer within the next two tries. Good luck!
Alex Garland’s Annihilation just eked into my Top 10 for 2018, not least because of its idiosyncratic look. Reading the article about the film in Cinefex 159, I especially liked one section, in which VFX Supervisor Andrew Whitehurst talks about the serendipitous nature of the crystal trees that Lena (Natalie Portman) encounters on her way to the lighthouse:
“Originally, the objects on the beach were human-like sculptures based on reference the art department found of underwater divers with bubbles trailing behind them. The thought was to invert that image, creating blobby human forms of sand and salt crystals busting from the beach. The art department made a beautiful maquette, build gray bucks and placed them on the beach. We created digital versions (…) and started placing them into shots. (…) We had lidar data of Natalie walking through an evergreen forest, and raw data of the trees had created some visual artifacts. Wherever the lidar lost resolution in smaller leaves it took on a sculptural quality. Alex agreed the artifacts had a beauty to them, It also reminded us of a beautiful piece of reference photography from preproduction, where we had been photographing the characters entering the forest and the trees had contained thousands of spiders weaving webs. They almost felt like crystal trees. And so, instead of the beach shapes being made out of sand whe ended up making them out of crystal.”
Ever wonder how Marvel manages to deliver their movies on time despite tight schedules and 2.500+ effects shots? Executive producer Victoria Alonso explains:
We’ve had anywhere from 12 vendors to 24 vendors, which is madness. It’s a challenge, but when you have that many shots, you have to divide the work among many different teams. If we relied on one vendor, we would choke that vendor. And by having visual effects teams from around the world, in different time zones, we essentially get a 36-hour day. That extra time allows us to constantly feed the beast.
VFX Supervisor Jake Morrison goes into more detail in a different interview:
On Thor: Ragnarök we had 18 vendors, so our day would start with calls to Germany and then sweep right across the planet chasing the sun until we finished in Australia. The tools that have been built to allow for all this data to slosh around the world on a nightly basis are breathtaking.
I’ve become obsessed again with the trading card game Magic: The Gathering. One of the fascinating things about the game is the way it relays a story through and around its cards in what I think is a textbook example of transmedia storytelling.
Since I’ve not paid attention to the development of the game for over a decade, in which more than 10,000 new cards have been released, I was looking for a guide to lead me through the forest of lore, materials and fandom that has sprung up over this time. I found him in Jay Annelli, who is a “Vorthos Writer” for the site Gathering Magic and one of the hosts of The Vorthos Cast. He explained a lot of things to me I had not fully grasped so far, and he also put into perspective some of my gushing from my last article about the online communication of Magic‘s company Wizards of the Coast.
To make this interview interesting for folks who don’t play the game, I have tried to annotate Jay’s answers in italics where I thought necessary.
So I turn my back on Magic for just 17 years and when I come back, there is this whole community of people who call themselves Vorthoses. What is a Vorthos and what do they do?
The term ‘Vorthos’ only became part of the zeitgeist about 13 years ago. Back in 2005, Matt Cavotta began an article series called ‘Taste the Magic’. Around that time, Wizards had made public their psychographic profiles for Magic players: Timmy, Johnny, and Spike. Later that year, Matt published Snack Time with Vorthos, which introduced a new profile that wasn’t tied to a specific way to play the game, but instead was all about people who enjoyed the worldbuilding. People who like Magic’s lore, story, art, and flavor began calling themselves Vorthos. There were story fans before, but they didn’t have a unique name until then. Because almost all of Magic’s story was confined to novels at the time, only die-hard enthusiasts were really engaged in the Magic community. That all changed in the last few years, when short fiction started being published weekly to the web, and the cancellation of the novel line eventually led to the entire story being available for free on the Magic website. The Vorthos community has exploded since then, as it’s now more accessible than it has ever been. This is a pretty broad overview, as the community has had its ups and downs over the years as different storytelling models were tried.
Jay’s colleague Sam Keeper has recently published a three-part series of articles on “Gathering Magic” that explain how Wizards went from novels and comics only vaguely tied in to the release of new trading card sets, to closely linked novels and ebooks to short fiction written in-house and published online. It is well worth the read as a chronicle of trial and error. The most recent model that was in place when I re-entered the game last fall worked great for the story but took its toll on Wizards employees. For its next set, “Dominaria”, Wizards has kept the release model but hired a freelance writer again.
Magic is a phenomenal arena for transmedia storytelling. There are, of course, the cards themselves that tell a vague story through art and flavor text and card names, but there are also many other texts. Can you give me a quick breakdown of the sources you consult to assemble your knowledge of Magic’s worldbuilding and story?
I started out as a forum goer on MTG Salvation (MTGS), reading the latest story, but I was lucky enough to start during Magic’s soft reboot known as ‘The Mending’, which depowered planeswalkers from god-like beings.
Magic takes place on a potentially infinite number of fantastical planes. Since the cards represent spells and creatures to be summoned, the players assume the role of “planeswalkers”, able to collect and work magic from all over this multiverse. Accordingly, the first planeswalkers in the stories surrounding the game, were pretty much all-powerful. The depowering of planeswalkers through story event “The Mending” allowed Wizards to introduce Planeswalkers as relatable characters into the game and marketing. The first planeswalkers promoted this way were the Lorwyn Five, with each character representing one of the five colors of Magic.
I’ve been following this new crew from the start. The most helpful source of information I had at the time was MTGS’s associated Wiki which has a ton of information for a casual fan who wants to know more. But the wiki’s greatest weakness is that it’s written by fans, so it can often be misleading or outright false, especially when looking back at older lore. That I’ve also read basically everything story-related published since 2008 helps, too. I’ve compiled all the critical story sources into a Magic Storyline Resources thread over at MTGS.
With this many texts, written by a host of different people, how consistent is the continuity? How do people decide what’s canon and what’s not?
Continuity is fairly consistent, thanks to Wizards having a centralized creative team (or continuity manager) for most of the last two decades. The novels or short fiction are the final word in most cases for canon, followed closely by the cards themselves (art and flavor), although it’s important to remember with a visual medium not everything is going to be literal. With things like character bios, video games, marketing materials, etc., I generally relegate them to lower priority as it’s not clear who is writing them or even if the creative team had any input into them.
How did this evolve over time? Have there been many retcons? I noticed that even bizarre side projects like 90s videogames have apparently been integrated successfully into the narrative.
Most people don’t realize this, but almost the entirety of Magic’s current story is built on foundation of massive retcons. Magic’s story wasn’t developed in-house until about five years into the game’s life, and so when Wizards of the Coast took over, the policy was that all that old stuff is still canon, unless contradicted. And a bunch of it has been contradicted, from the nature of a planeswalker to the time frames that those events happen in. That old lore is generally referred to as pre-revisionist continuity.
Modern continuity has been much more streamlined, but that’s not to say there haven’t been continuity errors or the dreaded retcon since then. Magic Origins, a set released in 2015, retold the origin stories of the main characters and changed a number of details, but other than fairly minor details, there isn’t much that has been retconned out of existence in Magic. People make a bigger deal of retcons than is warranted, I think.
The 90’s video games are technically canon, but it’s unclear how much they’ll ever be referenced. The name of the new Card “Time of Ice” was taken from an in-universe work named in the Battlemage video game, though, and credit to Wizards for going deep on our first return to Dominaria in a decade.
Dominaria is the name of Magic‘s “home plane” where many of the early expansions were set. As Magic is coming up on its 25th anniversary this year, it is returning to the plane and catching up with the story and the history of the game there.
What’s the state of affairs now? I noticed that Wizards employees keep a good rapport with fans on social media. How would you describe the relationship between the canon givers and the Vorthos community?
It’s a mixed bag. The Creative Team has always tried very hard to engage with the community. Years ago that meant authors or members of the creative team posting on the story forums. Doug Beyer ran a popular blog on Tumblr called A Voice for Vorthos, which he’s hasn’t had much time for since Magic Origins. More recently, the best way to reach them is through Twitter. They’re always open to community feedback … but the mixed bag part is that the community can be very bad at giving constructive criticism.
What about the fans among themselves? Is it a large community? Are you working together or are there factions that emphasize different aspects of Vorthosdom? (Unlike in other fandoms, I have not found a lot of fans reshaping the fandom in their own image, through fanfic and other aspects of “participatory culture”, yet.)
The closest things to factions you’ll find in the Vorthos Community are where people prefer to interact. You’ve got Reddit, Twitter, Tumblr, MTGS and a host of smaller forums, various Discord servers. There was a pretty big divide in the fan base around Future Sight in 2007, when the Mending happened. There was a pretty big split in the fan base back then.
There are also groups that emphasize art, you’d want to follow someone like Mike Linnemann for art, and there are groups dedicated to buying, selling, and trading original magic art.
Since I sent the questions to Jay, I have also noticed that there is quite a cosplay community during Magic‘s weekend events.
In your podcast The Vorthos Cast you and your co-hosts Cary and Andrew analyze and reproduce Magic’s storytelling. What is your primary goal? To educate? Or just to talk about something you love?
I can’t speak to Andrew or Cary’s goals, but mine is to have fun while educating. It’s also much easier to talk about a topic than write about, and people have apparently been enjoying it.
The Vorthos Cast is still pretty new. How did you meet your co-hosts and what made you decide to start a podcast?
Andrew and Cary were the first people I started following seriously on Twitter. We became friends and eventually started chatting together as a group, I don’t know how long ago. We’ve talked about a podcast for a long time now, but it’s finally a possibility in our schedules.
The episodes are regularly linked to on the “Mothership”, the Wizards of the Coast website. How does that make you feel?
I’m glad our work is popular. Our friends over at the Loregoyfs podcast are an excellent resource as well, but we have different approaches.
Although the crew of The Vorthos Cast crack some jokes every now and again, it really feels more like an educational resource to help people keep up with the vast lore accumulated over the years. The Loregoyfs are generally more playful and silly, but of course listeners need a baseline knowledge of the lore to be in on the jokes.
How much work do you put into a typical episode, both in preparation and in production?
We actually do very little preparation. We might re-read something if it’s not familiar, but generally over the week between recording sessions we add to an agenda for us to talk about. We usually reserve about an hour and a half, because we talk before the episode proper. To edit the podcast usually takes 2-3 times as long, but as we’ve gotten better at editing and public speaking, it’s gotten easier. We actually did three practice podcasts to get our rhythm and rapport down before deciding to do our first ‘real’ podcast for Dominaria.
What does being a Vorthos mean for you, personally? Why is it fun to practice this sort of forensic fandom and where do you hope it will lead?
I don’t think there’s any special meaning to it other than being a fan. My son was born right around when the Magic Origins paradigm shift was happening, and there were a lot of new fans who wanted to know more about the plane Zendikar for Battle for Zendikar. Talking about lore has always been fun for me, it’s my favorite part of any content I consume, and I found I could do my writing in the times my son was napping. I didn’t have time for much in the way of Video Games anymore, so it was just kind of serendipity. I’m just hoping people continue to enjoy it for a while, I’m not really interested in a job at Wizards of the Coast, so I’m not looking to parlay this into employment.
What is something you don’t like about Magic’s worldbuilding and story at the moment?
Magic is in a state of transition right now, as they have brought on a Narrative Designer who is working with professional authors brought in from the outside. I’m not sure how that’s going to shake out just yet, so I’ll withhold judgment until I’ve seen.
Dominaria, the next expansion to be released, is promising to round up and reflect on 25 years of Magic history. Do you think they are doing a good job so far?
Definitely. Time Spiral block, the last one set on Dominaria in 2006/2007, was too full of in-references. By treating Dominaria as ‘history’ world, I think it’s a lot more accessible for fans new and old alike. And the references have been on point.
Very soon, Infinity War is promising to bring the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) together for one big fight. But do you remember what it was like when the idea of superheroes from several movies teaming up for a crossover event first became a reality? Film critic Matt Singer is currently rewatching all the MCU films and when he got to 2012’s The Avengers, he noticed something in his “What holds up” section:
The final 30 minutes of the film is one enormous multitiered set-piece. Even though The Avengers is the biggest Marvel film to date, I’m not sure its final battle, in and over the streets of New York City, has gotten the full credit its due. It is one of the great sustained pieces of cinematic action of the 21st century, weaving together the activities of six different Marvel heroes (…). You’re lucky if a movie has two or three iconic moments. The Avengers’ Battle of New York sequence has half a dozen all by itself (…).
Singer is right, of course. The “Battle of New York”, as it will be called in-universe after the events of The Avengers, is basically what started Marvel’s whole “third act problem”. While the MCU films that came before it all had characters battling single opponents in the final confrontation of the story, Avengers and its director Joss Whedon raised the stakes and introduced the concept of a group of characters fighting against an army of faceless goons with basically the whole world at risk.
So, why is the Battle of New York still so effective? That is what I want to show today. For the first time in years, I have dusted off my David Bordwell hat and actually analyzed a single cinematic sequence closely, instead of just looking at big picture stuff. I believe the sequence’s success boils down to two things: location and dramatic structure.
Set up the perimeter
Even though the Avengers are fighting for the fate of the world, their radius of action is actually pretty small. About 90 Percent of the Battle of New York take place within four blocks of New York City’s Grand Central Terminal and the MetLife Building, which is where Stark Tower is located in the movies. Instead of spreading the battle war zone across the whole city, Whedon reinforces again and again that it is in everybody’s best interest to contain the fighting to a few square miles to hurt as few civilians as possible. Whether it’s Captain America telling the police to set up a perimeter “all the way back to 39th street” or Iron Man quipping “I’m bringing the party to you”, viewers are constantly reminded that the fight is actually very controlled and centered on the main characters.
This, of course, had a big impact on production. No part of the battle was actually shot in New York. Most of the street scenes with the police and civilians were shot in Cleveland. The production also built part of the viaduct leading from Grand Central Terminal into Park Avenue, where Cap and Black Widow are doing most of the fighting, as a green screen set. But Industrial Light and Magic shot 275,000 images of the actual New York blocks where the fighting was going to take place and stitched them together to recreate the location of the fight in the computer.
What all this ultimately means, is that Whedon is able to situate us quite clearly in space, no matter how chaotic the fight gets, often opting for vertical instead of horizontal axes of action. He reinforces this several times during the sequence with characters turning around and returning to the hub of the battle. The most notable instance, of course, is the long shot that connects all the Avengers and their individual fights into a greater whole. Its trajectory can be precisely placed on a map: it goes up Park Avenue, two blocks down West 42nd Street, almost until the New York Public Library, and then takes a hard right turn to continue up 5th Avenue for another four blocks. This sort of spatial clarity is very rare for a modern blockbuster and it’s a big part of the effectiveness of the sequence.
The problem of many superhero fight sequences, especially those that involve many characters, is that they don’t really evolve. Characters fight, maybe they move from location to location, maybe there is a ticking clock or a maguffin quest that needs to be solved during the fight, but at some point the fight is simply over. For The Avengers, Whedon has famously said that he structured his fight into “five acts, with a prologue” on 15 pages of script so the previz team had something to work with. But this structure also gives the fight an evolution that pulls us along as viewers.
The classic five-act structure, as formulated by Gustav Freytag, divides a drama into five parts that, if you diagram them, form a sort of pyramid shape. The first act (exposition) serves as an introduction to the characters and the situation. The second act (rising action) then sees these characters get deep into a conflict, with the third act (climax) showing this conflict at its peak. Then follows a reversal of what we have learned so far (falling action) with the final act (denouement) resolving the conflict either in a hopeful or tragic way.
When you look closely at the Battle of New York, the stretch between minutes 102 and 130 of the movie’s runtime, it’s actually amazing how easily it falls apart and into this structure.
The prologue to the battle starts as soon as the portal opens after Iron Man’s time-buying dialogue scene with Loki. The first Chitauri enter through the portal and wreak havoc. People hide. Loki and Thor fight on top of Stark tower. Finally, the Quinjet crashes on Park Avenue. Now, everyone (except for Bruce Banner) is on the scene.
The real threat, the first of the Chitauri Leviathans, is introduced. Loki leaves Stark Tower and joins the Chitauri. Hawkeye, Black Widow and Cap are trying to decide what to do. Cap talks to the police and establishes the conflict (Civilians might get hurt), the location (set up a perimeter to 39th street) and the role of the Avengers in the fight. Bruce Banner finally shows up, hulks out and kills the first Leviathan with a single well-placed punch. It is now clear that the Avengers have a real chance of winning this battle, if they work together. This is reinforced by a triumphant fanfare of the Avengers theme in the score and the iconic shot of the team assembling in a circle (the header image for this post).
“Send the rest”, Loki snarls, and two more Leviathans come through the portal. Cap now lays out precisely what the goal of the upcoming fight is going to be, and which part every character is supposed to play:
Alright, listen up. Until we can close that portal, our priority’s containment. Barton, I want you on that roof, eyes on everything. Call out patterns and strays. Stark, you got the perimeter. Anything gets more than three blocks out, you turn it back or you turn it to ash. (…) Thor, you gotta try and bottleneck that portal. Slow ’em down. You got the lightning. Light the bastards up. You [Black Widow] and me, we stay here on the ground, keep the fighting here. And Hulk? Smash!
As viewers, we now know exactly what we should be looking out for. Moreover, Cap – who cannot fly, is not indestructible and has no other visible powers – has shown us what his role is: he is the leader the Avengers need if they want to work as a team. With the individual goals set, we see a few successful fights as the battle gets underway, but Cap ultimately has to see that his plan won’t work in the long run. Together with Black Widow, he redefines the goal: the portal must be closed. Black Widow takes off.
At this point of the battle, we get to see our heroes winning. It starts with the long shot mentioned earlier that shows the Avengers working together like a well-oiled machine. It also has the most moments of levity, with Hulk both punching Thor out of frame after they brought down another Leviathan and later giving Loki the headache of a lifetime in the “puny god” scene.
What’s more, Cap finally gets to rescue some civilians from a bank, like he wanted to do the whole time. And Erik Selvig finally wakes up and tells Natasha that he should be able to close the portal. “You know what?”, we’re saying to ourselves, “this might just work!”
Even Avengers have limited stamina. A series of shots shows the toll the battle is taking on our heroes. Iron Man crashes. Hawkeye is out of arrows and has to hide in a building. Hulk is under a constant fire from the Chitauri he can’t escape. Even Cap gets hit. But Whedon really turns the tables by introducing an outside threat nobody saw coming. Nick Fury’s council of secret world leaders wants to nuke New York and nobody can stop them. Not even Fury himself, not even with a bazooka. Now, the Avengers are in a bind. They might close the portal, but that won’t save Manhattan from nuclear destruction. What are they going to do?
In the final act of the Battle of New York, the film recenters the fight on the action of one person. Tony Stark, who has been accused of only thinking about himself most of the time, gets the chance to redeem himself through sacrifice. He catches the missile and transports it into the portal with everyone watching. The nuke explodes and conveniently kills all the Chitauri, who don’t seem to possess a will of their own. Now, Black Widow can close the portal. Tony falls, gets caught by the Hulk and lands on the exact same spot the fight started. “We won.” The final beat shows Loki waking up with the Avengers towering over him. Only after this does the film move on to the actual aftermath of the battle.
Notice how every act slightly shifts the goal of the overall fight. At first, it’s just the Leviathan, then it’s the containment of the battle, then it’s the closing of the portal, and finally it’s getting rid of the nuke, which also serves to end the fight as a whole. Every Avenger gets their chance to shine during this, whether it’s Hawkeye picking off Chitauri chasing Iron Man or Thor calling down lightning to the Chrysler building. However, the metanarrative, which is also the metanarrative of the whole film, stays the same throughout: Avengers. Together. Strong.
Tying all of these qualities together is something that many other superhero battles lack. The airport fight in Civil War is contained to one (rather boring) location and it twists and turns dramatically, but while it should be telling the story of the film in miniature (two factions of superheroes believing in different solutions to the same problem), it is hard to tell who is on which side and why. The final fight scene in Black Panther reinforces the central conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger, but it has to give everyone else something to do as well, so it spreads out the battle to several different locations and several distinct personal conflicts.
When we look to Infinity War, we can at least see that we have a central promising villain in Thanos. There is also a good chance that the metaplot will be similar to the one in The Avengers – heroes have to put aside their differences to vanquish a foe that’s more powerful than each of their factions. But already the trailer and title hint at an actual war, which means a battle fought simultaneously on several geographically separate fronts. So maybe, we will never get another Battle of New York. But now at least we know how it’s done.
NPR’s hit podcast Invisibilia about the “invisible forces that control human nature” has just completed its third season. The self-professed “concept album” of seven episodes released over four weeks dealt a lot with constructivist ideas. Do emotions, does reality just happen to us or do we make them first? While not as good as season 2, which seemed more politically relevant to me, season 3 again delivered some aha moments that got me thinking. It also repeated something it has been doing since the beginning, which I find both terribly annoying and journalistically questionable.
Invisibilia belongs to the school of storytelling podcasts made popular by This American Life. It strings together interviews and sound documents with explanatory narration to inform you about a topic and tell a compelling story a the same time. Different shows have different sonic profiles to support the storytelling, especially in their use of music and sound design. Radiolab, for example, often “visualises” (for lack of a better word) microscopic processes with synthesized sounds, making it easier to follow the explanation. Invisibilia‘s signature technique is to represent thoughts and feelings through single sentences from interviews and weave them into the narration whenever they become relevant again, like flashback images in a movie.
The sonic flashback
For example, the first episode of season three, Emotions, Part One, tells the story of a man, Tommy, traumatised by an accident he was involved in. The man recounts how he got out of his truck and approached the car he collided with. The driver is unconscious, the passenger, Miss Jones, is dazed. Tommy says: “Miss Jones says something about ‘the other child’ and I say ‘what other child’? That’s when I see Michaela’s arm, hanging there.” This is the original recording, but the phrase uttered by Tommy that describes the trauma is repeated throughout the episode as a shorthand for the whole image. For example:
Alix Spiegel: The day after the accident, after a tortured night in a motel room, Tommy’s trucking company put him on a plane to go home. He got in his seat, fastened his seatbelt. Would you like something to drink, sir?
Tommy: Her little arm, hanging out of the car.
I personally don’t like this “sonic flashback” technique. I find it clumsy and I just don’t like listening to it, but there is nothing badly wrong with it. It does, however, speak to the liberty Invisibilia takes with their recorded interviews, using phrases like these to illustrate thoughts and placing them in contexts where they were not originally uttered.
The show does the same with other, shorter phrases, and there, I find, it crosses a line of good journalism. It is customary in the storytelling format to summarise longer interview bits that contain explanations a bit too long for the format. You will normally hear the first few sentences of the explanation, and then the narrator will take over and summarise the rest. Radiolab or This American Life often even fade down the original tape and lets it play in the background, while the narration talks over it, saying something like: “John explains, that …”.
But Invisibilia goes one step further. It will summarise a bit of tape and then it will insert a sound bite that confirms the summary, something I want to call “unwarranted confirmation”. Take this example from the final episode, “True You”:
Mindy: And so in life he became polite and reserved and embarrassed, …
Lulu Miller: This is his wife, Mindy, …
Mindy: … I mean that in a good way.
Lulu Miller: … who says that wile Chad is six foot five, he will always try to appear smaller.
Mindy: Whenever we’re in a crowd, like, when we’re at a concert, he’s trying to get out of the way.
Lulu Miller: And then one day, in his mid-thirties, a very different side of him appeared.
Both the “Yeah” and the “Yes” are spliced into the narration from contexts we as listeners don’t know about. Chad was probably not interviewed at the same time as Mindy, but the producers see it necessary to insert his confirmation of Mindy’s statement about concerts by splicing in a “Yeah”. Well, maybe they asked him afterwards if the story was true and he actually did say “Yeah” and corroborated it.
Intransparent and condescending
The second example is worse. “One day, a very different side of him appeared” is not a statement that needs affirmation or denial. It is simply a justified assertion, an observation made by the storyteller. Why does Chad need to say “Yes” afterwards? It sounds like the producers are getting his blessing for what they just said, even though 1) what they said does not need a blessing and 2) we don’t know what context the blessing comes from. It could be any “Yes” from hours of tape. We have no idea what it originally pertained to.
Invisibila will do this all the time. They insert “Yes”, “Yeah”, “No”, “That’s right”, “Uh-huh” and other short phrases into their narration to confirm their own statements in a way that’s both non-transparent and often unnecessary. It’s like a sonic tic the show has been cultivating since its very first episode. And while it seems to be something Alix Spiegel, Hanna Rosin and their producers employ to shape the show’s profile, it’s also journalistically questionable and condescending in exactly the way NPR is often accused of being, degrading interview subjects to deliver sound bites for the self-aggrandisement of a manipulative storyteller.
How much of the bigger Marvel Universe are you weaving in?
[Screenwriter/Co-Creator Christopher] McFeely: We can’t help but weave in the Marvel Universe. We’ve been at this for a few years now. All of our reference points are within the universe. We need a scientist character. We didn’t go very far to come up with Anton Vanko, just as a very small part scientist character. If you know what he is, or what he goes on to be, that’s interesting. If not, he’s the Russian scientist.
[Screenwriter/Co-Creator Stephen] Markus: Also, working in the past where you already know the future — obviously, we saw ninety-something old Peggy — there are references being made, whether you do them on purpose or not. We know Hydra eventually took over S.H.I.E.L.D. When somebody says something hopeful about the future in Agent Carter, that is going to be tinged with the fact we know the future didn’t work out that well. There are plenty of little indicators of the future going forward, and the legacy of both the S.S.R. and Howard’s technology that will have ramifications later.
It’s almost like the M. Night Shyamalan curse, though. Viewers always expect some crazy twist in his movies. With Marvel, people anticipate all these tie-ins to other projects.
McFeely: I suppose it has the red box on the front. It’s a Marvel project, so they are going to expect something. But we’ve really tried to make the best show, about an interesting character in a world where there are some glowing objects and where a superhero has died.
Markus: We are also slightly freed up from that interconnection by the period. On “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Captain America and Iron Man and everybody are running around in that same world and same time period. They could theoretically show up at the door. There’s nobody around during “Agent Carter.” You can’t have an end-of-the-credits tag where Nick Fury shows up and talks to Peggy. He hasn’t been conceived yet. We’re a little cocooned.
– from an Interview at Comicbookresources.com
You start out imitating your heroes, and the way you fuck up becomes your style. – attributed to Elvis Costello by Too Many Cooks creator Chris Kelly in “Entertainment Weekly“
I have heard tons of supposedly inspiring quotes about “finding your voice” for writers and other creatives, but this is the most brilliant way anyone has ever put it. I could, however, not verify if Costello is really the source. Take it as apocryphal.
Paul Wolinski explicitly told me he likes doing interviews. After our twenty minutes of sitting together in a dressing room, he walked me back to the backstage area of their show in Wiesbaden and I asked him a question I didn’t think of while my recorder was running. Does he actually think it’s a good thing for a musician to think too much about the music they’re making? I liked his answer. He said it’s really not a good idea to do it while you are writing the music, but it’s quite healthy to reflect on what you did after the fact, which is why he likes giving interviews.
It’s probably also why 65daysoftsatic’s interviews are always worth reading or listening to. For an instrumental band, Paul and his co-founding bandmate Joe Shrewsbury have a lot of interesting things to say, and they talk about their music and the dozen or so years of their career with disarming honesty. Of the two, Paul is probably the McCartney to Shrewsbury’s Lennon, if you really want to search for these dichotomies in every band. Where Joe, somewhat reluctantly it seems, takes a scowling center stage at 65daysofstatic’s shows, Paul is the quietly smiling guy with no beard and less unruly hair on his left, bent over a keyboard and apparently really sinking into the music.
I wanted to interview Paul ever since I bought his solo record “Labyrinths” in 2011, a synthesizer-infused trip through 1980s video games, 1970s science fiction movies and their respective scores. When 65daysofstatic released a new soundtrack to the science fiction classic Silent Running a year later, I wanted to interview him even more. There was a throughline I sensed about the music he was involved with, and I wanted to quiz him about it, especially after I saw what he likes to read.
If you have never heard 65daysofstatic’s music, you probably should give it a spin before (or while) reading the interview. The albums of the Sheffielders sound quite different from each other, but they all share an impressive melange of post rock guitar dramatics, powerful syncopated drumbeats and glitchy electronic fiddlings that is hard to put into any one box. They released a free, career-spanning mixtape called “The Last Dance” on SoundCloud in 2012, which is a good place to start.
What is it that interests you about science fiction?
Well, to begin with, I suppose, when I was a teenager, I used to love reading all kinds of sci-fi books and I think it was just about the pure escapism, really, and the geeky side of me. And I really loved the cyberpunky stuff, people like Neal Stephenson. Bruce Sterling, I was a big fan of. Just that kind of tech, Blade Runner sort of sci-fi. I never really got into Star Trek or anything like that. But the dark stuff, I really enjoyed it. These days, I don’t know. I tried to step away from it in my twenties, because I had this sort of weird … not that it was a guilty pleasure, but I started reading Naomi Klein and people like that and thought: fuck, I need to learn what’s going on in the real world. So I put all that aside for a while and stopped reading it and following it in the same way that I did as a teenager for quite a long time. It’s only in the past few years where I’ve just kind of allowed myself to enjoy it. I think it’s really interesting these days how the reality has overtaken what sci-fi used to be good at.
People like William Gibson have said that they don’t write sci-fi anymore.
Yeah, and Bruce Sterling does these talks and these essays. I think he said something along the lines of “This is a better form for me now than trying to write novels. Deconstructing the present gives more of a clue of what I’m trying to get across than inventing any number of sci-fi worlds.”
I’ve always had the feeling that 65daysofstatic’s music also was about going into the future. Your first album, even in its title was about leaving something behind, “The Fall of Math”, and going to new places. Is that what you are trying to do?
Well, it was always about trying to find a new sound, I suppose, or be original. We’ve always been of the opinion that there’s already more than enough bands and more than enough music. You don’t really need any more. There’s more than you could hope to listen to in your lifetime. Excellent stuff. So, if you’re gonna be that self-indulgent to be in a band, if you’re driven to it anyway, then at the very least, you really need to try and do something useful. Try and be relevant to the world as you exist in it right now. Because there’s plenty of stuff covering the way it used to be, so you need to react to what’s really happening and try to articulate it. We always used to be like that. The last record we approached a little differently in one respect, just because as far a electronic music goes, it does feel like it’s plateaued a little bit, in terms of what’s possible. I just heard the new Aphex Twin album for the first time, today. It’s excellent, amazingly excellent, but it doesn’t sound new in the sense of it being unheard or unthought of music. If you listened to Aphex Twin twenty years ago, it was like nothing that had ever come before it, it was incredible, but it’s getting harder and harder to recreate that in music, I think. I sort of don’t think you can anymore.
You’ve used a science fiction metaphor for that as well, once. You said that, in the solar system, you can still find lots of places where you haven’t been, but you know where everything is.
Yeah, it’s one thing to have mapped a place, but it’s a completely different thing to have fully explored it.
So is that what you were doing with your most recent record, “Wild Light”?
To a point. All of this deconstruction of it comes afterwards, to tell you the truth. We didn’t sit in a room and wrote charts about the ideas behind the record, we just sort of made it and then worked out what we were doing afterwards. In hindsight, even when we did [2010 album] “We Were Exploding Anyway” – in our heads, it was this thing that could be proper pop music in the way that The Prodigy are pop music or The Cure are pop music, but still interesting and different and us. We pushed that as hard as we could and I really stand by that record, I’m proud of it, but it didn’t turn out like that at all. It was still pretty obscure. Maybe not for us, but relative to what we were aiming for. I think it opened with a song that starts in 17/8 or something, it’s crazy. But there was this striving to push forward, somehow, that was the agenda of that record. With “Wild Light”, we didn’t have that. It wasn’t about being lazy at all, it was just more about trying to be really good. Following the songs, whatever they happened to be. Don’t worry if it was something that we had done before or an idea that was a bit predictable in some ways. It was more about almost daring to not hide behind this sort of complexity, but strip everything back to the basics. We didn’t care, if it sounded original. Whatever that word meant, we just wrote until we felt it was good.
In general, this year, you found yourself at the other end of the spectrum, you looked back ten years to your first record and played it as a whole. And also, I think, with your solo record you channeled a lot of people that have been there before you. How do you feel about that? If you’re usually someone who tries to find new places to go and now you’re looking back, going to old places and revisiting them.
For the solo record, it was no masterplan that I was doing. It was just a bunch of material that I had started writing during the “Exploding” process, but that didn’t fit with 65. I just allowed myself to have some fun, I suppose, and not worry if things sounded a bit cheesy or generic in one way or another. I put it together and quite liked it. I have a hard time listening to it now. I find it hard to imagine that it was the kind of stuff I wanted to write. Not that I dislike it, I just find it hard to match me now with me then. I don’t know why. But it was cool and I’m glad I did it. 65 was always more important, but it was nice to do the sci-fi thing, because Caspar Newbolt, who has been the 65 artist for four or five years now, maybe a bit longer – he shares a lot of the same sci-fi landmarks and moments in time that I do. He had a spectrum computer when he was a kid and had all the sci-fi books with the brilliant covers that were evoked in the artwork. The Polinski record was the only thing I made where the artwork was finished before the music, so that actually influenced it. This wasn’t really your question, though.
Nevermind. It’s interesting.
So, that was just a little bracketed thing and it was cool. Doing the “Fall of Math” stuff was very different, because it feels like such a long time ago for us and we still play a lot of those songs live anyway, regularly, every night. And the ones that we don’t play fell away from the live show for a reason, because they didn’t translate as live songs very well. We were a little bit ambivalent about the anniversary thing for a long time. Monotreme records wanted to use it as a reason to finally put out a vinyl, which we thought was a really nice idea, because who doesn’t like vinyl? At some point the anniversary shows were suggested and we were a bit reluctant to do them.
Because you don’t want to be part of a heritage music industry?
That’s one reason. We certainly didn’t want it to seem like we have reached a stage where we do these looking back shows. I still absolutely think that “Wild Light” is our strongest material and we still feel like we ought to be an ongoing concern. Even if that’s not the truth, it’s what we’re aiming for. But biggest of all was: we’re so proud of our live show and everything we’ve done over the past decade has made us learn how significantly different the two disciplines are – writing/recording and then performing. Different songs work in different ways and by the time we go to “Wild Light”, we were developing our songs in parallel, we’d have the album version and we’d have the live version and they wouldn’t necessarily be the same, but they played to the strengths of the form. That’s what it’s all about. Use the form you have chosen, find what’s essential in it and concentrate on that. Having done all of that with “Wild Light” and being so pleased with the results, with the record and the live show – to then have to go back and think about the best way to perform songs that we wrote ten years ago and force them into the live template was a bit strange. Part of us wanted to rework them entirely, but that would have gone against the point of doing it in the first place, because it wouldn’t have sounded like doing the record then. We would have ripped them to shreds. So there were lots of conversations of that nature. Eventually we took the gamble, because Monotreme thought it was a good idea and our management thought it was a good idea.
Did you enjoy it in the end?
Yes, in the end. I don’t think it’s as strong as our normal live show, I have to say that. And we did insist on doing two sets, “The Fall of Math” and then the second full set, which we mostly just played “Wild Light” stuff on. Hopefully to show people, who were big fans of “The Fall of Math” but haven’t necessarily been paying attention to what we’ve been doing since, reminding them that we’ve got all this new stuff too. It was good, the crowd made us realize that we probably think too hard about these things sometimes and that it’s okay, every now and then, to just sort of pause and celebrate a thing that meant a lot to a bunch of people. That was really nice. Even the songs that we never play live anymore – they were weird. Certainly on stage it felt very disjointed to be playing them in that particular order, but it clearly worked, as far as the show went.
If you’re doing two sets like that, you’re also marrying something old to something new in a way … like you did with Silent Running. (we both chuckle at my lame attempt to create a segue) Is that comparable in any way?
Maybe as a metaphor. The processes couldn’t be further apart. I think we do that anyway in our normal show, which flows a lot better, because you can mix and match. I’ve never actually gone to a show, where a band plays a whole record.
I don’t like them, really, because I like to be surprised.
Yeah, exactly. But clearly people do, so, you know …
But do you think we are ever going to see a version of Silent Running with the music? It’s just been released on Blu-ray, so that would have been an opportunity.
No. Recently, we weren’t even allowed to do a live show. There was a really cool venue in England, which would have been perfect to do it. They wanted us to do it. And Universal or maybe it wasn’t even Universal but somebody with the Power said: Actually, no, it’s getting re-released on Blu-ray soon, so it would be inappropriate to have it showing with some other soundtrack. Back when we first did it, we somehow found the e-mail of director Douglas Trumbull and e-mailed him to let him know we’re doing it.
Sound’s great. Because he’s a real geek as well, right?
I think so, yeah. And we got a reply, which was amazing. The reply basically said: “Go for it. That sounds great. I’ve got no control over anything that happens with that film.”
It’s a shame.
Yeah. On the scale of the movie industry, we’re just completely anonymous. They wouldn’t make any money by reissuing Silent Running with our soundtrack.
Are you still involved with the video game “No Man’s Sky”? Can you tell me anything about that?
I cannot. (he grins) I can tell you that they did this trailer, about a year ago now, for some big games conferences and they used “Debutante” and then they used “PX3” for another trailer. It just exploded in the games world and it’s really exciting to be associated with that on that basic level.
Did that register with you at all? Did people actually buy some music?
I don’t know if they bought the music. I don’t think many people do that anymore, but there is a regular stream of people on Twitter or Facebook constantly going “Thanks to Hello Games for introducing me to 65daysofstatic, these guys are great”. That’s trickling in. And it’s really good to be associated with that as a thing, because it’s not a world I follow particularly closely, but everything I’ve seen about that game – as soon as they contacted us about using the music for the trailer, they sent some screenshots through. I went: Ah, that looks like those sci-fi book covers I read as a teenager, and everything I’ve heard them talk about is that they don’t just want to do another shooting game. It’s all about exploring the universe. So I said: Okay. That sounds like something that’s nice for 65 to be associated with.
Thanks a lot for taking the time.
65daysoftsatic’s latest album is called “Wild Light” and was released last year. Buy it here or check out the single “Prisms“. Monotreme Records re-released their 2004 debut “The Fall of Math” in early 2014. It’s also still available. Paul occasionally blogs on his website.
But in terms of the film critic landscape, it’s just weird that these people get into these arguments. There’s all this weird drama. Like, people are talking about being afraid to say bad things about “Boyhood?” Who the fuck is afraid to say bad things about “Boyhood?” Who gives a shit? People say, “We need a culture that embraces dissent.” It’s not dissent! Dissent is… (impersonates old Russian Grandmother) “Dissent is when you’re living in Soviet Russia and you’re put under house arrest!” Big fucking deal, you have a different opinion. We don’t have to embrace different opinions, it’s called arguing. It’s what we do. “Oh, poor me, I’m the only person who didn’t like ‘Boyhood.’” Just get the fuck off the cross, man, we need the wood.
– Glenn Kenny, Film Critic, interviewed by Greg Cwik for “Criticwire“,
probably inspired by Kenneth Turan