Issue #182: Delivering what it says on the label

What a week. I was on vacation and that was great. Really, that just meant I was in a slightly more scenic location and did a slightly smaller amount of work than usual. I didn’t actually have any time off. I’ve also been working on a class about television. Making sure everything is coherent and exciting for students, I’m trying out all kinds of new syllabus organization techniques. I have, however, had to also take a ton of screenshots and film clips in ways that might be suboptimal. I’m using VLC media player to take stills and record segments, which is fine, but recording in real time is kind of a bummer. And this is also not a good solution for streaming video. If you’re a lecturer (or an anybody) who has a great process for collecting these things from multiple kinds of video sources, please let me know.

I’ve also seen quite a few films in theaters over the last two weeks. On the 23rd of July, I actually saw three — Old (2021), Escape Room: Tournament of Champions (2021), and Snake Eyes (2021). The first two, I have a nice long essay about in the text of the letter. The final one, I can tell you about in a sentence: it was garbage. A definite skip.

Paranoid Reading When There’s Nothing To Read: Escape Room: Tournament of Champions & Old

There’s inherent intrigue to a film that renders bare the structural elements of cinema. Escape Room: Tournament of Champions (2021) is such a work, though it less “renders bare” and more “reduces to plot frivolities.” Tournament of Champions is a mediocre film with a low opinion of both the medium and its audience. It suggests, in the unfolding of its plot, that the interpretation of film is simply the assembly of clues, loose signifiers scattered throughout a work one brings together to make one particular “correct” meaning. It evokes the most destructive and thoughtless version of “paranoid reading,” as Zoey’s (Taylor Russell) therapist tells her at the beginning of the film, “you’re so deep in the game world you think everything in your life is a clue.” She then holds up three objects, “this is a clue,” her pen, “this is a clue,” her handbag, “and this is a clue,” a book on her desk — one that happens to be about free will. Of course, they are clues, to the “answer” of the plot’s unfolding and “clues,” symbols, related to the film’s ultimate point. This conflation between clues and symbols is paramount to what weakens Tournament as a film and renders it as paper thin as the backdrops of the rooms in which its heroes are repeatedly trapped.

It's interesting, then, that Tournament of Champions would release coincident with M. Night Shyamalan's Old (2021), a film with which it shares many structural similarities. Old, however, is a far less idiosyncratic film than Escape Room. It has no deconstructive ambitions and delivers precisely what it says on the label. Shyamalan demonstrates his mastery of form in Old but has little interest in interrogating that form, despite a self-critical flourish. That flourish is a critique of cinema itself rather than the plot-driven twisty-thriller genre.

The films make for striking contrast. Old keeps the proverbial man behind the curtain hidden, while Escape Room abandons the cinematic artifice one expects. Despite appearances, Old is more a sophisticated piece of cinematic machinery than work of art, but it works in the ways one expects cinema to work. Escape Room so nakedly exposes the mechanics of thriller storytelling that one would be hard pressed to argue it's accidental. It needs to do this, considering the plot's perfunctory nature. The film is intent on saying something and succeeds in doing so, while Old fails in this regard. But Old demonstrates formal mastery in a way Escape Room can't even fathom, with more than just great plotting to show for Shyamalan's hard work — also the precise cinematographic work of Mike Gioulakis. And while Escape Room is about a sadistic, underground reality TV show, Old seems to do a better job of offering commentary about our modern reality TV fixations — though this is relative praise.

What Escape Room sets out to say is both at the level of the film's symbolic logic and at the level of meta-critique. The latter mode is far more interesting, but there is something to be said about the former. Namely, the film raises questions about the status of free will and perception. One of the film's refrains, "if you didn't see it, it didn't happen," signals dimensions of the film's plot and broader critique. The film's cynicism extends to this level of expression, as protagonist Zoey is totally divested of any agential possibilities. She doesn't make any choices. The villainous Minos Corporation has made every decision for her. The idea of their utter mastery as a plot point dovetails with the fantasy of cinematic mastery the film buys into. Adam Robitel, a director who previously enjoyed some critical success with The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014), believes films are mysteries to be decoded rather than texts to be interpreted.

More interesting, though, is the subversion of any coherent storytelling logic and the absolutely inconsequential nature of the events of the film. For instance, the film ends with Zoey's unaware imprisonment in an ongoing game she believes herself to have escaped — think Michael Douglas in The Game (1997). Instead of working its way out of this inside/outside deadlock, the film is content to end things with the preceding events rendered inert. As for twists and turns, they're really anything but. On the one hand, yes, any thriller has to seed enough detail for viewers to guess something about its conclusion. This is sometimes problematic when fictional characters are supposed to be preternaturally brilliant but are flummoxed by a mystery the audience can easily solve — though this is more often the problem of cable television than cinema. In Escape Room, though, the events that are positioned structurally as "twists" are so painfully obvious and clear that there seems to be no attempt whatsoever to hide them from the audience. When a notable character from the first film who was presumed dead reappears in Tournament of Champions' penultimate act, it might be more confusing to the average viewer why the characters are surprised by it than how or why it happened.

These facts are features, not bugs, of what ends up being an interesting, if extraordinarily cynical, piece of cinematic art. For Tournament of Champions, there's no symbol that's not also a clue, no irrelevant detail that isn't a signal to what will happen next. But all of the details are part of some grander scheme of irrelevancy. As the structure is repeated within the events of the film as the characters are doing what cultural critics do, scrambling through symbols and trying to interpret them, it demonstrates an even greater point that the film misses. To dismiss film criticism with this reductive viewpoint, that it is simply the mechanistic process of discovering one fundamental truth from various symbols, one would have to create a structure where the outcome, what one discovers, isn't irrelevant in and of itself. But because these are fundamentally locked room mysteries within a greater locked room mystery, all the details and clues the characters (and viewers) assemble could be easily exchanged for any other. Like the MacGuffin, the mysteries tell a story, but they are just one possible expression of how the film's critique could be made. And to make meaning out of the whole affair is an artistic act rather than one of discovery. Escape Room acknowledges this interchangeability of its plot even if it doesn't mean to. Zoey points out that, unlike in the previous film, the rooms aren't tailored to each participant to force them to re-experience the most traumatic event in their lives, but rather they simply tell a particular story about someone else — the daughter of a character who doesn't appear until the final act. Once she escapes, what she finds are a network of interconnected shipping containers (like storyboards) that have housed these complex dioramic escape rooms. Easy to shift, transport, and replace.

Old, then, is hardly a nexus of interconnected shipping containers but rather a complex architectural wonder. Despite the irony of the film having relatively little beneath the surface, there is a beneath the surface Shyamalan is content to leave hidden, unlike Adam Robitel's approach with Tournament of Champions. Robitel's film disavows symbolic meaning but is rich with it, whereas Shyamalan's film signals its shallow truisms of valuing one's time on Earth and the end not justifying the means. Despite this, introspection is hardly Shyamalan's strong suit. So when he himself arrives in the role of a shuttle driver to take his performers to the beach where they will be physically and psychologically tormented for the length of the film, one wonders if the commentary about the relationship between directors and actors is a little too on-the-nose. By the time viewers see Shyamalan is, in fact, the man behind the camera filming the rapidly aging beachgoers on behalf of a corrupt pharmaceutical company, it is clear that this commentary is way too on-the-nose. But rendering his characters as the cast of some twisted reality show analogue adds some texture to what's otherwise a simplistic film behind a complex plot. In the final twist, when the agent behind the character's tropical imprisonment is revealed to be the aforementioned pharmaceutical company, corruption is paired with ostensibly benevolent motives of expediting human trials for medication, getting a lifetime's worth of data over twenty-four hours. Shyamalan's joyful watching, though, puts the lie to that motivation. The sadistic jouissance of the company's employees is part of what morally compromises them. After all, Gustaf Hammarsten's character seems to relish in sending an unpleasant and combative family to the 'private beach' more than Gael García Bernal and Bicky Krieps' Cappa family.

Bernal's Guy Cappa, an actuary, serves as the switch point between the calculatory logic of the pharmaceutical company and the careful consideration one must engage in when constructing a plot that reveals just enough, but not too much. In a repeated curiosity of the script, Cappa repeatedly rattles off statistics about various kinds of injuries — the frequency of people hitting their heads on coffee tables, the statistical likelihood of several dead bodies in one place with unrelated causes of death, things like that. It's the same sort of thinking that underwrites a pharmaceutical company stranding sick families on a beach that expedites their aging to fast-track human trials. There's also something to be said about the shared anxiety between Old and Escape Room of a mysterious corporation masterminding the suffering of others. Above everything else, this critique is the most substantive thing Old offers. Humans, according to Shyamalan, aren't just interchangeable numbers to feed into equations and return certain outcomes. In this way, Old valorizes art and artistic expression even if it mostly fails to deliver it. Shyamalan gives viewers very little to interpret, but he clearly hopes they engage in the act of interpretation, unlike Robitel which rejects the enterprise altogether.

Tournament of Champions and Old are truly remarkable foils, both ostensible failures when measured against their self-evident cinematic goals but worthwhile films nonetheless. Old delivers a paradigmatic plot-driven thriller with minimal subtext. Tournament of Champions can hardly be said to contain any thrills, but engages with the genre in a way that is immensely thought-provoking. It supports the thesis that those most hostile to art and artistic interpretation end up producing some of the most remarkable. While both works may be critical flops, undersell their intrigue at your peril.

The Deviant Blade of Oda Nobunaga: “Tenka no tame, Nobunaga no tame”

There are certain world historical events that take on a mythic quality. Their stories are told and retold, refracted through the lenses of many authors and storytellers. The reigns of Richard II (1377-1399), Henry IV (1399-1413), and Henry V (1413-1422) for instance. Or the end of the Han Dynasty and the Three Kingdoms era of China (169-280).

One of the methods by which these events are transformed into something other than lines in a textbook is time. But there are even examples, such as World War II (1939-1945), that are rendered mythical as they are taking place.

Another such example is the Incident at Honnōji (1582) where de-facto ruler of Japan Oda Nobunaga is killed by rebel Mitsuhide Akechi. Mitsuhide, up until that point, was one of Oda’s most trusted confidants and loyal retainers. At least, that’s how the stories tell it. Samurai Warriors 5 (2021), the latest in the series from Koei Tecmo, focuses on the rise of Nobunaga and his relationship with Mitsuhide. Learning important lessons from the immensely successful Samurai Warriors: Spirit of Sanada (2016), 5 takes much of what was unique about the spin-off and turns it into the mainline series’ standard fare. Because of the hyper-focus on one part of Japan’s Sengoku era (1467-1615), many popular characters are left out of the game for the first time. But it’s a reasonable trade-off for players who get a focused, Shakespearean plot about these two men, Oda and Mitsuhide, rather than a wide ranging survey of the period jumping from battle to battle without much concern for following one historical narrative or another.

Samurai Warriors 5 also ratchets up the historical detail — but it also takes significant liberties with Nobunaga’s life. After quelling the insurrection of his brother Nobuyuki in 1557, the game depicts Nobunaga sending Nobuyuki’s daughter away with retainer Toshiie Maeda instead of killing her. She returns as the clearly fictional character Mitsuki, having grown up with the Kōga ninja. While Nobuyuki had three sons, there’s no record of him having any daughters. And Toshiie’s absence from Nobunaga’s service over the period of the game where he’s trying to find a place for Nobuyuki’s daughter was, in fact, a result of a temporary banishment. Toshiie killed an attendant that was rude to Nobunaga and subsequently participated in the Battle of Okehazama (1560) as a rōnin supporting Nobunaga to return to his good graces.

The game also depicts the death of Lady Nō, Nobunaga’s wife, saving him from the bullets of Saika mercenaries after the Battle of Kanegasaki (1570). Her death is meant to make Nobunaga’s merciless conquering a little more sympathetic, but the historical fact is that Nō lived at least until the Incident at Honnōji and perhaps beyond it. Nobunaga’s antipathy toward the Saika was not a result of them killing someone close to him, but rather their loyalties during the Ishiyama Hongan-ji War (1570-1580).

All of this is to say the history and the myth are both fully on display in Samurai Warriors 5. The game’s writers clearly wanted something more authentic and detailed than their previous numbered games, but also needed to make some interesting choices to tell the story they wanted to tell and communicate something about the characters. The choice to make Nobunaga a protagonist through his entire campaign, for instance, means that he must have resonant qualities for players. But Nobunaga is clearly exceptional for ways that are beyond the capacity of the game to account for.

The game passes over some of Nobunaga's truly remarkable qualities. For instance, prior to the Battle of Okehazama, he sang to his army from the Noh play "Atsumori," "When we consider man's fifty years in this world, they are like a passing dream. We have life but once." Regarding the battle's outcome, Samurai Warriors 5 and the historical record are aligned. Nobunaga would surprise attack the forces of the dominant regional daimyō Yoshimoto Imagawa and, in turn, forge an alliance with Dōsan Saitō. But if Samurai Warriors is to be believed, Nobunaga would go on to disavow his unconventional tactics here. In an apocryphal conversation with Ieyasu Tokugawa, he tells the young daimyō surprise attacks are for weaklings and to "only pick battles you are sure to win." Nobunaga's sentiment here, fictional or otherwise, is indicative of the proliferation of Chinese philosophy in Japanese culture at the time. It's Sun Tzu who says, "Therefore a victorious army first wins and then seeks battle; a defeated army first battles and then seeks victory."

But, in many ways, Nobunaga's philosophical and emphatically secular viewpoint flew in the face of Japanese convention. Though Buddhism was a powerful cultural force in Japan, Nobunaga was an atheist. So hostile to religion was he that he attacked Mount Hiei in 1571, massacring the monks and setting fire to the temple. Samurai Warriors 5 depicts this unflinchingly, though totally removes Nobunaga's antipathy toward religion and suggests its the outcome of Mount Hiei's warrior monks siding with the Azai-Asakura allied forces (a pair of daimyō opposed to Nobunaga). Ultimately, the historical jury is still out on the essential motivating factors, though there's arguments to be made that either or both were why Nobunaga immolated Mount Hiei.

Nobunaga would also war with the Jōdo Shinshū sect in the Ishiyama Hongan-ji War, the same war in which the Saika mercenaries incurred his ire. He was a deeply idiosyncratic man, known for his catchphrase "tenka no tame, Nobunaga no tame" — "for the realm, for Nobunaga." A strange declaration to be sure, for someone who lit the land of Japan aflame so often. His fondness for fire was matched by his fondness for firearms, one of the most early adopters of matchlock tanegashima guns.

For such a larger than life character, there is no definitive literary or fictional representation of him. No Henry V. Instead, we are left with many competing versions of the man ranging from dynamic self-sacrificing hero to sinister villain. Part of this has to do with, as I've said, time. After all, Nobunaga's death in 1582 wasn't all that long ago.

If there's any question as to the significance of the Oda to Japanese history, one need only reflect on the Tokugawa shogunate ruling a united Japan from 1603 to 1868. Another apocryphal story between Ieyasu and Nobunaga involves Ieyasu's reaction to Nobunaga's death. Ieyasu may have considered suicide after Nobunaga's death — an act which would have changed the course of history profoundly. Nobunaga's influence on Ieyasu, for better or for worse, was profound.

As for Samurai Warriors 5, it's equal parts compelling story and history lesson. It's another one of many versions of Oda Nobunaga and Mitsuhide Akechi, a pair of unusual men who have altered our world immensely. The game has high-dramatic ambitions, but it's no Shakespeare or "Atsumori." But we get enough of a sense of these historical figures that this work is a cut above competition, telling us something new about something old.

Weekly Reading List

This is what I’ve got for you this week.

Until next time.