Sunday, December 19, 2010

Now I Have a Blog Entry, Ho, Ho, Ho (Dick Tracy and Die Hard)

The NES is not a cultural event, but is rather cultural scenery. It was not until late in the lifecycle of the NES, and, coincidentally, late in the alphabet that video gaming attained the status of event. For most of the NES's lifespan, cultural events happened elsewhere. Specifically, in the movies. We've talked obliquely about this before, but today we have two games based on movies, so it is perhaps time to delve back in more detail.

The first is Dick Tracy, a movie-as-non-event that I talked about before, and that Keith Phipps has already explored in exquisite detail. It's an interesting question - what if you threw a massive cultural event and nothing happened? I remember the fervor of Dick Tracy - the mass of advertised rogues, all of them looking fascinatingly devilish, the iconic yellow jacket... I was excited for the movie. And then it fizzled, in no small part because, as I remember with some vividness, the movie was pretty awful. I watched it having little to no idea what was going on. (The same was true, to be fair, of the first two Batman movies, which have aged, to my mind, extremely well, in particular the delightfully insane Batman Returns.)

I call this project a psychochronography. I suppose this is as good a time as any to define the term. I coined it from the existent psychogeography, an artistic movement generally associated with England. Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell is probably the best-known example, but the work of Iain Sinclair deserves major underlining as well. Psychogeography is a sort of gonzo history focused through the specific lens of geography. The simplest example is probably Iain Sinclair's book London Orbital, in which he walks the M25 around London, describing the experiences and relating them to the broader history of the places and the development of the idea of London. Other examples include Alan Moore's spoken word piece The Highbury Working, in which he focuses on a small segment of London and uses an extended narrative of its history to try to resuscitate its identity and culture. From Hell takes a different spin on it, offering a psychogeography of Victorian England as a whole, thus relating the idea more heavily to time, though the graphic novel's most obviously psychogeographic segment comes when Gull takes a tour of London to uncover an extended network of occult symbols.

By psychochronography, I mean the application of this process of interweaving memory and history to the material remnants of history. That is, I seek to create a map of the metaphors that were underlying my own life. In truth such a map is inconceivable - for one, personal history is not fixed in a convenient spatial frame. This is why I rejected the more obvious psychochronology - because chronology suggests a successful ordering into a timeline. I am not making a timeline any more than Iain Sinclair was making a physical map in London Orbital. Psychogeography is not psychocartography.

But something must be fixed and ordered to allow the narrative to progress. Psychogeography creates this by wandering the backroads, taking walking tours of areas more often accessed by cars, and, generally speaking, transgressing the normal lines of transit through a space. I produce the same effect by  ordering my musings along the the line of alphabetical order of Nintendo Games. No matter how you handle this problem, however, you eventually encounter a landmark.

Dick Tracy is, however, an odd landmark - an example of ruins. The frame of the event is still there. Even some of its major contents, most notably the film itself, which can readily be watched. One might think that is the whole of the landmark, or at least its major content, but to do so is to misunderstand the focus of psychochronography. The event is not defined primarily by its actual history, but by its role in memory. Hence it is the period of anticipation - the period where I believed, with all my heart, that Dick Tracy was the coolest thing ever - that is most relevant to this project.

Or, more accurately, it is the way in which subsequent touring of this cultural space uncovers previously inaccessible knowledge about my own experience. Having little to no idea who anyone in the film other than Madonna was, I did not appreciate the insane array of talent who wasted their time in this movie. Nor did I have proper respect for the Dick Tracy comic, an absurd piece of over the top violence that had its zenith, where zenith is defined as "weirdest point," in the 1960s when it became a bizarre piece of science fiction about people on the moon. (I am, as usual, not making this up)

Nowadays, when relatively arcane and mediocre properties such as Tron, Marmaduke, Land of the Lost, Yogi Bear, Speed Racer, and Get Smart are mined for movies despite the paucity of anyone who actually gives a damn about them, it is easy to overlook the strangeness of this method of cultural event creation, in which what is essentially a hazy half-memory is imbued with bizarre importance and sold off as a cultural treasure whose revival thus qualifies as an event. That this is, at best, utter nonsense is beside the point.

To sustain this illusion, however, it is necessary to mobilize the larger engine of culture in order to make it appear that the unloved property is, in fact, major. Hence the flood of action figures, happy meals, behind the scenes specials, and other such nonsenses, including video games. Where this becomes relevant to my (and I'll happily stipulate that they are insane) interests is this - does the existence of false nostalgia (a term I lovingly steal from this article) corrupt the project? With these quagmires of artificial history and myth laid throughout the relevant territory, does this invalidate the project, allowing the mythos of my past to be overwritten by commercialized treacle? 

Judging from the game, it's a soberingly bad threat. Dick Tracy, as a game, makes one long for the movie. Awkward detective action, the game plays like the worst stereotypes of movie licensed video games - a slapped together piece of shovelware. Created without thought or effort, the game is the epitome of false nostalgia - existing only to delude the player into thinking some other activity (watching the movie in this case) would be a source of pleasure. False nostalgia thrives on this - the deferring of pleasure and fun into some other part of the culture. We watch I Love the 80s to wax nostalgic about movies that we have no nostalgia for in order to build up the illusion of nostalgia for the purposes of being made to buy something new, but at every turn the actual object of pleasure is displaced - the fun is somewhere else. Dreadful practice. To be avoided at all costs. 

As a game, Die Hard is no better - a potentially neat idea marred by the fact that nobody actually took any time to make the game. There's a good game to be done this way - slowly infiltrating a building and systematically taking out terrorists. It's just that, you know, it wasn't done that way. It was done half-assedly. But there is one significant difference between Die Hard and Dick Tracy as video games - Dick Tracy came out in 1990, the same year as the movie. Die Hard came out in 1991, three years after the film in question, and a year after it's sequel.

It is separated, then, from the cultural event. And, furthermore, it's tough not to call Die Hard a cultural event, given that it was actually a good movie that people remember fondly, as opposed to Dick Tracy. This is the first lesson of this territory, then - that even though there is false nostalgia, that does not remove the genuine possibility of this landscape. Indeed, false nostalgia amounts to little more than psychochronography done maliciously - the remapping of memory and history not to produce insight, but to produce money, and generally not for you. 

One solution to this dilemma is simply to be pickier - to, when confronted with crap games like Dick Tracy that exist as part of a pseudo-event, or, for that matter, crap games like Die Hard that are just pale references to an event, toss them out and seek myth elsewhere. Certainly I could do that, and have a much more focused blog with reliable quality. But that's cheating.

No. Instead, let's go Modernist. The full Ezra Pound. Make it new. Make it weird. Make it interesting. Because usually, the culture is. I mean, look at Dick Tracy - a sublimely overinflated cultural event built around a comic that saw its best days, and, for that matter, its weirdest days ages past. Or Die Hard, its strange merging of Bruce Willis, then better known as a comic actor, with the tropes of 80s action films that it itself is the exemplar of.

Be it resolved, then. Skip the boring bits. In fact, let's codify this. Sandifer's razor. The scruffier counterpart of Occam's Razor. Given the choice among equally plausible hypotheses, pick the most interesting one.

This is the only possible salvation from bad 80s action movie video game spinoffs. 


  1. Ugh.... I remember playing the Dick Tracy game as a kid... I was not too impressed.

  2. Hey this is really cool post!! Came across this page looking for Occam's Razor. Really loved your original research over psychochronography. Pretty cool word too.
    ~ A new fan :)