Thursday, October 21, 2010

Let Us Never Speak Of This Again (Cool World and Cosmic Wars)

Those who do not like Family Guy - and I confess that I include myself among their number - criticize it for replacing actual jokes and humor with contentless pop culture references. Although I find this critique stingingly accurate, I understand how a show could get to be like that. I'd like nothing more than to just shout "OMG COOL WORLD" and call it a blog entry. But then I'd risk disappointing you, my imagined interlocutor, and I should hate to do that. And anyway, dipping into the Cool World level of obscure cultural reference is a bit much. It basically gives us nothing to go on beyond "An on-the-rise Brad Pitt stars opposite an on-the-decline Kim Basinger in a movie that's about having sex with cartoons." Which, actually, when you put it that way, is a bit more to go on than I perhaps gave it credit for, yeah?

Somewhat alarmingly, I was aware of this movie when it came out in 1992. Which was, ummm... fifth grade. I'd only just had the vaguest outline of this "sex" thing explained to me in the context of my sister's imminent arrival. So a film about fucking cartoon characters was not set to be a part of my world view. Then, after a marketing campaign inexplicably carried out where I could see it, which probably meant full page ads in comic books, the movie flopped quietly into the void. I never saw it, was never going to any time soon, and, given that everybody hated it, am probably reasonably happy that way, although, to be fair, everybody hates The Fountain and Tideland as well, and those are two of my three favorite movies of 2006, a year that was actually alarmingly good for cinema. (The list is rounded out by The Prestige, a movie that would have been my favorite movie of the year in 2004, 2005, or 2007, which, actually, is true for other movies in 2006 as well)

As I consult the Psychochronography Standard Playbook, It suggests that the traditional move here is to the faithful and marvelous idea of secret histories. This is unhelpful for two reasons. First, there is no Psychochronography Standard Playbook - I'm making this up as I go along. Second, and perhaps more significantly, the resulting narrative, no doubt about an imagined sexual awakening I could have had, would require that the movie be good, which, as I said, it appears to have not been, given that Ralph Bakshi was, let's face it, never at his best when he was playing the sexual transgressiveness game (a tragic fact that forces us to admit that Wizards was him at his best).

No. This is not a secret history. This is something else. It is the phenomenon described by Slate when they recently looked at the 1990 Dick Tracy movie - the cultural event that never happened, or, more accurately, happened but was not an event. It is tempting to call it alternate history, but this too seems off. It is not that Cool World as a cultural event belongs to some alternate fork of the many worlds hypothesis. Cool World happened. It's just that its happening was not an event with visible repercussions. Those that showed up in the theater expecting a hurricane got a weak fluttering of butterfly wings.

I made reference above to the many worlds hypothesis. To better understand this, it's necessary, I am afraid, to provide a brief introduction to quantum mechanics - specifically the idea of wave function collapse. Wave function collapse occurs when a wave function, a description of all the possible states of a quantum object such as an electron - resolves itself into a single position via interaction with an observer. The big question is "how the bloody hell does this happen, and what does it mean that it happens?" One interpretation is the many worlds hypothesis - that in fact the wave function as a whole does not alter, but merely splits into multiple universes in which it resolved differently. Extrapolated from the quantum scale this leads to the science fiction conceit of the multiverse.

But there is a sister concept developed by Feynman - multiple histories. In this concept, it is not merely that a wave function collapse splits the timeline up into numerous alternate states. It is also true that any prior position that could have been true happened - that history is in fact the sum total of past events averaging together and canceling out in order to produce a single outcome. Doing similar violence to the carefully delineated scale of quantum mechanics, we can extrapolate another science fiction concept - this one frustratingly more ignored in contemporary art and media despite being every bit as cool, if not slightly cooler, than its better known brother.

Under the multiple histories interpretation, we can look at Cool World not as a failed cultural milestone but as a nexus of possibilities. Given that Cool World is both viewable as a landmark cultural event and as an entirely irrelevant movie, it can thus be assumed within this schema as being every possible movie and, as an event, every possible cultural landmark. In other words, perversely, because Cool World is an indeterminate oddity within the historical record, as opposed to something of significant weight that we might know about, we may imprint any significance we want upon it. It is in the exact middle ground where this is possible - enough of an event to plausibly situate itself in the historical record, but not enough of one to collapse history's wave function into some sort of discernible fact.

Oh, you wanted me to talk about the video game? Right, I forget sometimes that this blog is ostensibly about them. It might be easier if the game were playable. It's not. There's ammo scarcity, and then there's this game, which combines an almost Resident Evil-esque level of ammo scarcity with a beat-em-up's level of intensive enemy attacks. This is a good combination in exactly the same way that cheddar cheese and peppermint are, that is to say, a stellar example of taking two potentially good ideas and completely screwing them up.

But what relationship does this have to the event, if Cool World can, in our quantum understanding, still be called that? The video game tie-in is normally a pale echo of the event. But here Cool World does not have echoes - rather, Cool World is itself the echo, a causal echo instead of a consequential one. This is the problem with multiple histories - by their nature, they are inconsequential in understanding the present. They have no resonance as such because they are all, by necessity, antecedents to a definite present. If I embrace some other history, some great and wondrous Cool World, I do not change who I am - merely an apparently indifferent detail of how I got to this strange point.

Here, however, Cool World's utter crappiness as a game, as opposed to its mere disappointing underwhelmingness as a film, provides us some inadvertent benefit. While it is possible to extrapolate a wealth of possible cinematic/cultural events to account for the incommensurable gap left by the non-event of the film, the fizzling of the tie-in video game is not only no problem, but necessary. Tie-in video games are never good.

Should we observe the fleeting object of Cool World too closely, it will diminish on approach, resolving to some outcome that is necessarily less wondrous than the infinite tangle it is currently afforded. But the video game version allows us what amounts to another way through. By bathing in the paratext, we may encounter the multiplicity of the event without collapsing it. Cool World (the game), like ourselves, emerged from the myriad of histories that Cool World (the film) is. But unlike ourselves, its relationship to the film is necessary - the game has no option but to respond to the film even though it provides us with no information about the quality of the film.

The game, then, is a blank slate - a way to approach the film from the side, of sneaking up on it so we can stand in the aura of this tangle of multiplicity without collapsing it. Is this a useful or beneficial interpretation to take? I would argue that it is at least as useful, and probably rather moreso, than anything the game or likely the movie would give us in a more conventional approach. This approach, at least, offers some semblance of mystique, creates a point of irresolvable fascination and mystery. My approach, in other words, rescues the past from its own banality.

Cosmic Wars offers the opposite phenomenon. It is a Japanese game - one that should evade my supervision on the Nintendo Project, except that a translated version of it made it into my games folder, and it amuses me to talk about it so I will.

In these days of mod chips and Internet, the mystique of an import game is in many ways limited - mostly they're just advance releases of games that are irritatingly untranslated. This was not true in the NES days. While a mod/import scene existed, without the Internet to unite and guide it, it was a scattered, obscure scene based heavily on local connections. In those days, in other words, you needed a guy. (I am to understand that the situation was similar, by and large, to that faced by people trying to buy drugs, although I am spectacularly inept in this regard. But my sense remains that you can't really buy them on the Internet. Although I could be wrong, I suppose. Heck, for all I know, the way you find a dealer is to complain on your blog. I doubt it though.)

What was clear, however, was that the Japanese had games we didn't. For a long time the best known example of this was Super Mario Bros. 2, which finally saw a US release as The Lost Levels some time later. But others existed, of which Cosmic Wars was not one that I had heard of. A turn-based strategy game from Konami, Cosmic Wars is, apparently, a lost part of the Gradius series. No doubt of considerable interest to a niche of video game fandom, I, being neither a Gradius fan nor a particular turn-based strategy fan, had little problem putting it down after half an hour.

There are no multiple histories to be untangled about Cosmic Wars, largely because there is no history to be untangled in the first place. These sorts of games are defined by their absence in our history - by the fact that there is no data and no event where we want there to be one. They are inevitably imagined as brilliant games, in turns fascinatingly weird and captivatingly fun. They are usually hard - the legend of Super Mario Bros. 2 (which was not far from the truth) was that it was deemed too hard for Americans. But all of this is imagination.

I've played a few of these games over the years, and almost without exception, they're disappointing. The issue is not, I don't think, one of impossible expectations - as we'll discuss in a week or two when I hit Darkwing Duck, impossible expectations are not a huge problem. Rather, it is that these games are, from the moment they are first encountered, experienced as historical phenomena. It is not that an old game can never fascinate - I've been caught up in several games over the course of this project. But an old game, when it fascinates, does so because it comes from outside our experience - because it's a secret history. These long lost imports by and large cannot do this because they already fit into our histories by their absence. That is, they are in our experience as explicit blank spots, as opposed to inadvertent ones.

Just as Cool World's mystique collapses if its multiple histories are approached too closely, so does the mystique of these abysses collapse if we get to look inside. We were not meant to know secrets such as these. Our history is not for us, or at least not for our consumption as knowledge. It is something else. Something stranger. It is what brought us to this point, but is, from this point forward, strangely inessential given that we are at this point. From here, memory alone will suffice. History is a veil - alluring, entrancing, yes. But it is forbidden to look past it.

The question is whether that will stop us, and whether the results will always be as much of a letdown as they are here.

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