On my YouTube channel, I delved into the ending of Steven Knight’s Serenity, which is one of the batshit insane things I’ve ever watched. If you’re interested in a written version, check out Hoai-Tran Bui’s write-up over at Slashfilm.
[The following contains SPOILERS for Black Mirror: Bandersnatch]
About two decades ago, a much younger version of me saw an ad in the newspaper for a movie called Mr. Payback. The ad bragged that it was the first interactive movie ever devised. I asked my older cousin to take me to see it and shortly thereafter, we went to a Showcase Cinemas to check it out.
The plot of Mr. Payback (such as it was) centered around a cyborg named Mr. Payback who would use his special powers to get back at people for their sins. Every seat in the theater was outfitted with a controller and at key moments in the film, a set of three choices was presented to viewers. Whichever choice received more votes would be the one that the character on screen made, so button mashing was a must in order to get the outcome you were interested in.
At the time, I was dazzled by the technology, even though each “playthrough” of the film only lasted 20 minutes (and for a full price ticket, no less). I didn’t necessarily think that this would be the future of cinema (I wasn’t thinking in those terms back then), but I really appreciated the novelty of seeing movies and videogames collide in a big way.
Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that Mr. Payback was a terrible film with awful characters. The acting and writing were subpar and meanspirited (despite Back to the Future screenwriter Bob Gale being involved in the film’s creation). Its method of storytelling never caught on for a variety of reasons, but one truth remained clear: It’s hard enough to do a good job of telling a single narrative with only one ending.
In the intervening years, interactive storytelling has thrived, but mostly not in movie theaters. PC games with FMV (full-motion video) on CD Rom and the Sega CD gave way to incredibly ambitious stories like Red Dead Redemption 2, Mass Effect, and the games of David Cage. The most successful of these limited the total number of potential outcomes. Sure, there might be minor differences in dialogue, or in which characters survived, but most great games stuck with only a few endings (As a recent example, see the hugely successful Red Dead Redemption 2, where your “honor” level dictates how some of the later sequences play out, but limits the outcome to 3-4 distinct endings with minor variations).
There’s a limit to how satisfying an ending can be if you can get to it by dumb luck. The laws of physics (and production schedules) dictate that the more endings there are, the less time and energy can be invested in each one.
Which brings us to this week. Netflix released the latest entry in the Black Mirror franchise, an interactive film called Bandersnatch. The story is about a game developer played by Fionn Whitehead who desperately struggles to ship a game he’s working on, Bandersnatch, before a holiday deadline. Admittedly, the tech behind how Netflix made and executed this is impressive (although bafflingly, newer devices like Apple TV and Chromecast are unable to “play” Bandersnatch). But is the story any good?
Mirroring its branching structure, Bandersnatch is hugely ambitious, with threads splintering off the main storyline and increasingly widening its scope. Depending on which choices you make, there are philosophical ruminations about the nature of choice and free will, a stark depiction of burnout in the video game production process, a direct connection drawn between mental illness and creativity, and a protagonist who struggles with daddy issues and (dead) mommy issues. It’s all very Black Mirror-esque, but without any of the focus that make the commentary and satire land effectively in a regular episode of the show.
I found the experience of watching/playing Bandersnatch to be enormously frustrating. The film frequently presents you with two options without any sense of what outcome you’re even supposed to be interested in and which choice might lead you there. Am I supposed to want to drive the protagonist to the point of insanity, or am I supposed to want him to take a more healthy path? Should I nurture his relationship with his father or should I stoke the flames of familial discontent?
All of this would be fine if the endings were comparably interesting. However, not only do some choices lead to the film abruptly ending in an unsatisfying fashion, but Bandersnatch’s creators have already stated that there are certain endings that are “definitive,” with conventional credits to accompany them. By implication, many decisions lead you to “dead ends.” One of the endings even comments on how unsatisfying the outcome is (Note to filmmakers: Commenting on how bad an ending/joke/line of dialogue is doesn’t make it better). Thus, watching Bandersnatch is equivalent to being placed in a maze without an inkling of where the exit is, or if the exit is even a desirable destination.
I can already hear some readers responding, saying, “Why are you complaining? That’s the whole point!” Indeed, one of the main themes of Bandersnatch is the idea of free will. We believe we are driving the decisions of the protagonist but, in fact, it’s the filmmaker that dictates the outcome. We can decline to get high, but our drink will be drugged. We can try to avoid talking about the memories of our mother, only to be forced into it later. The filmmakers want us to consider the possibility that free will is an illusion, and that the forces driving us may not be ones that we know, understand, or can control.
If indeed this is one of the purposes of Bandersnatch, then I can say that it makes its point, but not in a way that I found to be particularly entertaining or enjoyable. “I’m going to make this decisionmaking process enormously frustrating and constraining for you, so that you may understand the pointlessness of all your actual real-life decisions!” is not a pitch that excites me for something to consume. In fact, it’s actively off-putting (Side bar: For an example of this type of commentary done well, see The Stanley Parable).
That said, Bandersnatch is not without merit. Previous Black Mirror director David Slade does a great job nailing the period look and surreal feel of the story, and Whitehead’s performance is a chilling depiction of a descent into madness. Bandersnatch also wants the viewer to consider the concept of technological enslavement. If there’s one theme to take away from the previous season of Black Mirror, it’s that we should consider if/when the technology we use might ever “suffer” in a way that we might understand that term.
In one of the more effective and mind-bending storylines, the viewer is able to inform the protagonist that they are controlling him via Netflix, and attempt to explain what all that means to a character who only has knowledge of 1980s technology. It’s a great meta moment that makes you as the viewer reconsider your relationship to the entertainment you consume. After all, everything you watch is ostensibly there to serve your viewing needs.
My first playthrough of Bandersnatch was only 30-40 minutes long, as I quickly made a choice that led to the Bandersnatch game being released in a poor state. Conveniently, the game allows you to rewind to previous decisions and, in an interesting twist, previous playthroughs can often impact the outcome and nature of future ones. I ended up spending around 1.5-2 hours with Bandersnatch before I realized that I had seen most of what it had to offer, and exploring further would necessitate wasting time re-watching a lot of content I’d already seen. The stories and their outcomes just weren’t interesting enough for me to further engage.
Bandersnatch is a mile wide and an inch deep. How you choose to get to the bottom of it is pretty much immaterial.
Disclosure: I currently work for Amazon Prime Video. The opinions expressed here are solely mine and do not represent those of my organization or company.
Between my podcasts, my blog/newsletter, and my social feeds, I do a lot of reading online to keep up with what’s going on online. For years I’ve used apps like Pocket and Instapaper on iOS to save articles for later reading offline. I use both because it’s nice to have a backup of all the stuff I’m saving, and often if an article doesn’t format correctly in one app it looks fine in the other.
But recently, Pocket added a listening feature that’s made me use the app much more heavily. It uses Amazon Polly to create a listenable text-to-speech version of every article you’ve saved. This means you can now listen to saved articles instead of being forced to read them.
As a result, I’ve now been consuming articles at a much higher rate than before. There are many contexts where it’s easier and more acceptable to be listening to something rather than reading it, and this app makes things easier in those contexts.
As great as this is, there are a few things I wish they’d improve:
You can check out Pocket at getpocket.com.
Here’s a brief video on what I loved about Better Call Saul this season – specifically, the two conversations in the season finale that define the arc of the characters. It’s really impressive when a prequel can chart new territory from its predecessor, and I think the show has done just that.I wrote, filmed, and edited this video over the course of just a few hours on Saturday. I hope you find the insights to be worth your time. If not? S’all good, man.
I’ve been under the weather after my trip to Virginia, and the travel didn’t improve things (it turns out when you have sinus issues, you shouldn’t get into an aluminum tube with recirculating air hurtling across the country at 500 miles per hour!). But I hope to back to full functionality soon. In the meantime, here are some interesting links I’ve come across:
There are only a handful of movie podcasts that have been going concerns for more than 10 years, and Filmspotting is one of them. Not only are they one of the longest running, they are also one of the best. I remember when I first started podcasting, I held them up as the gold standard in my mind. I’ve always looked up to their eloquence, their slick production, and their ability to build community around moviegoing.
So it was an absolute delight when they invited me on this week to discuss two of my favorite topics: Crazy Rich Asians and podcasting. We all reflected back on 10+ years of doing this, and how it’s changed our view of the world. I hope you can check out the episode.
As part of the show, we each shared the top five things we’ve learned from podcasting (Filmspotting host Adam Kempenaar has been doing this for 13 years, Josh for 6, me for 10). Adam decided to give his list in the form of movie quotes, so I joined in on the fun. Below is my list in written form.
5. “Well, whatever you do, however terrible, however hurtful, it all makes sense, doesn’t it? In your head. You never meet anybody that thinks they’re a bad person.” -Tom Ripley, The Talented Mr. Ripley
Everyone is just out here trying to do their best and be a good person. But one thing I’ve noticed is that when people are enjoying your work over a long period of time, they tend not to vocalize their enjoyment to you on a regular basis, whereas people who don’t enjoy it tend to vocalize it frequently. This is intuitive and reasonable; most people who love TV shows, podcasts, advice columns, or other regular publications don’t write to them regularly to express their appreciation. When you’ve enjoyed something for a long time, you tend to start taking it for granted as a part of your life.
But as a creator, this can lead to a skewed perspective of whether/how people are actually enjoying your work. On a long enough timeline, negative messages can come in with a significant frequency in relation to positive messages. It’s important to remember that the vast majority of people consuming your work are the silent majority, still enjoying and valuing what you do. Typically, looking at things like download numbers and other forms of engagement will bear this out.
4. “I mean, I got everything I need right here with me. I got air in my lungs, a few blank sheets of paper. I mean, I love waking up in the morning not knowing what’s gonna happen or, who I’m gonna meet, where I’m gonna wind up. Just the other night I was sleeping under a bridge and now here I am on the grandest ship in the world having champagne with you fine people.” -Jack Dawson, Titanic.
This quote illustrates two points for me. Firstly, podcasting has been a huge blessing to my life. It’s allowed me to meet interesting filmmakers and fascinating people. It’s let me interview my heroes. In some ways, it was an entry point into my professional career. When you create something that people find valuable, you can never predict what the next steps in your life will hold.
The other notion this quote brings to mind is how in Titanic, there were many different classes of people on the same boat. Likewise, there are many different levels of success for podcasting. Most people probably think of the wildly successful ones (e.g. Adam Carolla, Marc Maron, etc.), or conjure more simple images of a few friends podcasting on a laptop for an audience of a dozen or so (AKA how I got my start). But there is a vast “middle class” of podcasters. These are podcasts are too large to quit, but too small to make a living off of. It can be challenging for people to wrap their head around this.
3. “I wish I knew how to quit you.” – Jack Twist, Brokeback Mountain.
Many podcasts are extremely delicate creations and survive only because they are labors of love. The ones that aren’t created by a media company or journalistic in nature (i.e. the ones that are podcasts like the ones I do) depend on two or more people being interested in a specific topic, and being willing to talk about that topic regularly and thoughtfully over the course of many years.
Typically these people have strong opinions and large personalities — otherwise the podcast wouldn’t be super interesting. And it can be difficult for strong personalities to continue wanting to interact with each other over a long period of time. Furthermore, minor things can disrupt this balance: a change in life circumstance, a move across the country, a new job, having a child.
When you hear a podcast that sounds professionally done, it can be tempting to assume that the people on it are professionals who earn a huge portion of their income from podcasting. More often than not, this isn’t the case, and an extremely specific set of circumstances is what allows the podcast to exist. Too many podcasts I’ve loved have vanished overnight (RIP Filmspotting SVU).
Podcasts are delicate things. Treasure them for as long as they’re around.
2. “Kelsey, in this terrifying world, all we have are the connections that we make.” -Bojack Horseman, Bojack Horseman.
The internet can be a fetid cesspool, but it’s also allowed me to make meaningful connections that I still treasure. Through my podcast work, I’ve met listeners who have become close friends, important collaborators, and just folks whose work brings value to my life. Many of these are relationships that will last me the foreseeable future. I wouldn’t trade them for anything.
1. “Neither the flower nor the insect will ever understand the significance of their lovemaking. I mean, how could they know that because of their little dance the world lives? But it does. By simply doing what they’re designed to do, something large and magnificent happens.” -Jon Laroche, Adaptation.
In the past few weeks, I’ve received extremely moving emails from some of my listeners. I’ve heard from Andrew in Canada about how the podcast helped him through Stage 4 cancer. I’ve heard from Hiren who fought an auto-immune disease and found the podcast helped him stayed connected to the world of movies. And there’ve been many more over the course of the last decade.
None of this is what I could’ve possibly expected when I started the podcast. All of it is gratifying and humbling.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned from podcasting: Things you do that may have little to moderate significance for you may have enormous significance for other people. I don’t have any illusions about what I do when I podcast; it’s mostly just messing around on Skype with some really interesting folks who have great opinions about movies. But what has become clear is that even though it’s just a weekly quasi-obligation for me, other people can find a lot of value in it.
You can extend this lesson to other aspects of your own life. The things you do may not mean that much to you but can impact others in big ways. A kind word said to someone having a difficult day. An expression of gratitude for someone who’s done you a favor. A moment of silent sympathy for a friend in need. People value things in different ways. It’s incumbent upon us to respect that. That’s the biggest thing that I’ve learned over all these years.
It’s a weird thing to be an Asian American that’s tangentially involved in the media. I spend a lot of time commenting on art, but I see very little art that reflects my understanding or perspective of the world. Even worse is the feeling that when I have seen Asians or Asian Americans on screen, I’ve felt as though each one bears an immense (and unfair) burden of representing a whole group of people to its audience.
I’ve winced when Asian characters speak in broken English for comedic effect. I’ve cringed when Asians are exoticized and “othered.” I’ve died a little every time Asian men are presented exclusively as goofy and sexless.
I feel the desire to grab the audience, to shake them and explain, “We’re not all like that! This piece of art that’s shaping your perception of my people is incomplete!” It’s comical to say all of this but it’s also a comment on how little art there is out there that features Asians prominently (This list provides a solid overview of how Asians and Asian Americans have appeared in film over the course of the past century).
Then a movie like Crazy Rich Asians comes out. The characters on screen are beautiful and charming. The plot deals with aspects of immigrant life that feel deeply authentic. I’ve seen the film with audiences who have laughed and cried. There are many Asian characters on screen and they are silly and funny and elegant and stern and luminous. The Asian male characters are sexy and desirable. And for the first time in long while, I feel like there’s a movie out in theaters that can represent us.
I was pleased to have the opportunity to review AMC Theatres’ exciting new service, Stubs A-List. From my written review:
So is A-List worth it? I’d say yes under certain circumstances: 1) If you have a lot of AMC theaters around you, 2) If you’re happy with AMC’s movie selection generally, and 3) If you normally pay to see at least two movies per month. If this describes your situation then I’d say it’s a really solid option. Even better, since A-List is officially sanctioned by AMC, you don’t need to deal with a bunch of the annoying things that you have to deal with when it comes to MoviePass. You don’t need to “check in” to movie showings or take photos of movie stubs to prove that you went. You also don’t need to deal with things like surge pricing, which MoviePass recently announced. It’s just a much smoother process.
However, MoviePass also has a bunch of advantages. The biggest one is, of course, price. It’s $10 per month compared to A-List’s $20. Now, I’d argue that pricing creates a lot of problems for MoviePass. AMC has called it unsustainable, and I have a lot of questions as to whether MoviePass’s long-term business model is actually a viable one for them. But for that price, you can see movies at Landmark, Regal, and Cinemark — and often those theaters will have the high-quality, up-and-coming indie films that AMC won’t have.
I’m extremely lucky because I live in a place with a bunch of AMC Theatres and my AMC theatres show a huge range of movies from the latest Avengers to obscure foreign films. But if you only have one or a few AMC Theatres near you, then I can totally understand why A-List is not a good deal for you. But for me, A-List is a fantastic option and I think it will be for a lot of people.