Halley’s Comet is an pale splash of starmilk that flows across the sky every 75 years. Its frozen nucleus boils as it approaches the sun, shedding a tail of gas a hundred million kilometers long. I expect to only see it once. Some people will see it twice. All celestial phenomena are interesting, but Halley’s Comet is doubly so because it keeps coming back. It’s like a friend who can’t wait to see us again.
“Is there a point to this?” you ask, perceptive as always. Yes, there is. Reading it has brought you a few seconds closer to the Comet’s next appearance (which is 28 July 2061). Why stop now? Have some more. And one more. We’re in this together. I just have to keep typing and you just have to keep reading and Halley’s Comet will be back in the sky before we know it.
For a month at age 6, my favorite thing was called Shrek. For a month at age 11 my favorite thing was called Shrek. Like a comet, Shrek zipped in and out of view and then reappeared, years later.
But just as Halley’s Comet never comes back twice in the same form (it changes shape and albedo as it sublimates mass), Shrek didn’t come back in the same form. The first Shrek was a children’s picture book by William Steig. The second Shrek was an animated movie by Dreamworks.
Let’s talk about the book first.
It’s 26 pages of brutal, scabrous art, with thick lines that don’t quite join and colors selected with an eyedropper from plates of slime infections. It’s the first time I can recall reading a book and thinking that I could have personally drawn better pictures. Only later did I realize how hard “ugly” is, if you still want it to be fun and playful.
Published in 1990, Shrek! (note the exclamation point) was aimed at preschoolers – although words like “blithe” and “varlet” and “churlish” and “carmine” probably caused some adults to reach for the dictionary. I liked the author’s name. Stieg. All the children’s authors I grew up with seemed to have these wonderful, strange, evocative sounding names, usually beginning with S. Sendak. Stieg. Seuss. Shel. Stine. Names that made them sound like wizards atop high castles, summoning lightning. Surely no children’s author could have a boring name like “Bob”.
Shrek is an extremely ugly creature who walks around scaring people, animals, plants, monsters, and himself (when he sees his own face in the mirror). This isn’t a “YOU’RE not ugly, society is!” book. No, Shrek’s definitely ugly. In fact, he’s repulsive. Completely loathsome. And he smells so bad that plants and flowers literally bend out of his way. One of Thomas Aquinas’s arguments for God’s existence (Summa Theologiae 1:2:3) is that the concept of goodness entails the existence of a maximally good being, ie God. Biologist Richard Dawkins questioned this logic: the concept of “smelly” exists, does that mean there’s a supremely smelly being somewhere? But after reading Shrek!, I think Aquinas had a point. Maybe the titular character is that extremely smelly being.
After being kicked out of home by his parents, Shrek wanders the land, searching for his destiny. Is Shrek evil? Hard to say. Aside from one clearly bad deed (stealing a peasant’s lunch), most of his actions are morally neutral. He fights lots of people, but only because they started it, and he generally incapacitates enemies instead of killing them. He even gains the princess’s consent before kissing her. He has a nightmare about being hugged and cuddled by children, but haven’t we all?
(Update: Halley’s Comet draws closer. Or rather, further away. It’s complicated, see – it has to reach the far point of its orbit before it starts swinging back. A shortening of temporal distance requires an increase of astronomic distance. The universe is full of paradoxes.)
Stieg never “redeems” Shrek, never gives him a makeover, never transforms him into a handsome prince. Shrek is allowed to be who he is and look the way he looks, finding happiness at the end nonetheless. Many fairy stories (the Ugly Duckling, Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer) have a transactional quality to them. “You have flaws, but maybe someday they’ll disappear, or they’ll turn out to be really useful.”
But sometimes they don’t. Shrek! prepares kids for the fact that they might have to sail the seas of life in the face of adverse conditions – a truth that many books by adults aren’t willing to confront.
By the way, the book has zero passages describing Shrek as an ogre. He might just be an extremely ugly man. Is there a “nowhere in the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme does it say he’s an egg” thing going on where the public just decided by consensus that he’s an ogre? (Well, the back cover says he’s an ogre. But authors usually don’t write their back blurbs.)
In all, a good book: Roald Dahl for kids who aren’t old enough for the real Roald Dahl. It’s well worth reading (or re-reading) while you wait for Halley’s Comet. 28 July 2061. Are you excited? I know I am. Soon.
But we still have the movie to discuss.
In 2001, commercials for a film called Shrek began rolling out. Stieg’s book was a distant memory. None of my friends had read it.
When I saw the movie I was blown away. I’d never imagined anything so funny, clever, sophisticated. This was clearly and inarguably the greatest film ever made. I talked about it to everyone I could. I had the DVD, and spent hours playing with the special features (you could dub your voice over Eddie Murphy’s in the “I’m making waffles” scene). If you were my friend and hadn’t watched Shrek, I genuinely thought that there was something wrong with them.
I rewatched it in 2021, and it was worse than I’d thought. Far worse.
I hated almost every part of it now. The creepy plastic doll animations. The bad songs. The cheap pop culture obsessed “jokes”. The sanctimonius “don’t judge people based on appearances!” messaging interspersed with mean high school bully-style jokes about how the bad guy is short. Some computer animated films (Toy Story) have become timeless. Shrek has become ocular pollution: ugly and unfunny.
The movie is generally well-remembered. I wonder how many of these fond memories would survive a rewatch. I made Matrix ripoff scene before literally yelling in disgust. “How is this funny? You’re just…commenting on the existence of another movie!”
Some parts held up. The opening scene is fun and sells the movie well. There’s sharp writing at certain places (such as the Gingerbread Man sequence). The adult humor (“Lord Farquaad”) isn’t exactly funny but at least shows a creative team with some nerve and daring.
But nothing could save the movie from the cancerous pus-filled oozing blastoma sac of Eddie Murphy’s character. I laughed at the donkey as a kid. Not because he was saying anything funny (he spoke very quickly and most of it went over my head), but because he masterfully created the appearance of being funny. Eddie Murphy is a reminder of how much of humor is in the delivery. His cadence, vocal rhythms, confidence, are those of a comedian doing a tight five on national TV and nailing it.
But he’s saying nothing. He was like an air-guitarist who has such perfect moves that you don’t notice his hands are empty.
Donkey: [Chuckles] Can I say somethin’ to you? Listen, you was really, really somethin’ back there. Incredible! Yes, I was talkin’ to you. Can I tell you that you was great back there? Those guards! They thought they was all of that. Then you showed up, then bam! They was trippin’ over themselves like babies in the woods. That really made me feel good to see that. Man, it’s good to be free. But, uh, I don’t have any friends. And I’m not goin’ out there by myself. Hey, wait a minute! I got a great idea! I’ll stick with you. You’re a mean, green, fightin’ machine. Together we’ll scare the spit out of anybody that crosses us.
Donkey: Oh, wow! That was really scary. If you don’t mind me sayin’, if that don’t work, your breath certainly will get the job done, ’cause you definitely need some Tic Tacs or something, ’cause your breath stinks! Man, you almost burned the hair outta my nose, just like the time– [Mumbling] Then I ate some rotten berries. I had strong gases eking out of my butt that day.
Yep, that’s the awesome hilarity Eddie Murphy brings to the table.
This is clearly improv – a director sat Eddie Murphy in front of a mic and told him to go nuts, hoping for another Robin Williams’ Genie. But when the entire movie is littered with this sort of babble, it becomes grating, and then beyond grating. The big danger of having a character that irritates other characters is that this character will likely be irritating to the audience as well, and this happened here. The 2000s were boom years for black actors with a nails-on-chalkboard voices. Will Smith. Chris Tucker/Rock. Tyler Perry alone is persuasive evidence that William Tecumseh Sherman had the right idea to give them 40 acres and a mule, instead of 40 acres and a mic.
In all, not a good movie.
But there is a deeper level to all of this. A conspiracy, if you will. As soon as I read item 3 on this list, I heard the X Files theme playing in my head. Mostly because I cued up xfilestheme.mp3 at that precise moment.
Douglas Rogers (the art director) found a place there that was a magnolia plantation where he did research to get the look of Shrek’s swamp just right. It was perfect and exactly what he had been looking for, for the film.
While there, though, he was in for quite the big surprise. And that surprise was an alligator, that unfortunately, ended up chasing him.
Once again, this crew’s dedication is something else. Though, I’m sure he wasn’t expecting the alligator to run at him.
All I can say is I hope he felt it was worth every bit of running from the alligator because that is a seriously scary situation to be in all for research for work.
An alligator. In a swamp. One that’s very defensive of Shrek’s legacy. Where have I seen this before?
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Binding is 10 years old. Aside from the parts that are 45 years old. And also aside from you, the player (I don’t know how old you are).
It’s a slick modern update of the top-down dungeon crawlers people played on mainframes and PLATO systems in the 70s. The classic “roguelike” (as such games were called) consists of an ASCII text world (with your character generally represented by an @), in which you explore dungeons, buy spells, and whack kobolds. They’re one of the oldest game genres and remain influential today – games as varied as Legend of Zelda and Ultima and Diablo could be considered postmodern roguelikes.
The genre’s appeal? Randomness. Early computers had limited data storage and it was actually easier to generate random worlds on the fly using BSP trees than it was to store level data. This also made the games heavily replayable – no two runs of Dungeon or Hack would ever play out the same way – and as Skinner’s 1950s work on operant conditioning demonstrates, randomness itself is addictive. What loot will the next monster spawn? Kill it and find out. Every single fight becomes like Christmas.
Binding is an ugly, degenerate roguelike at heart. You control Isaac, your mother has been commanded by God to sacrifice you, and so you hide from her in the basements beneath your house, which are full of monsters, weapons, health, and other items. If you play well, you gain power, uncover secrets, and perhaps turn the tables on your mom. If you play badly, your cat inherits your loot.
The game is both shallow and deep. While the gameplay loop is simple enough to describe in a sentence – keys open doors, bombs blow up obstacles, killing a boss lets you descend to the next level of the dungeon – the game has hundreds of different items, and it takes a while to learn what they all do. I recommend playing Binding with the Wiki open in another window so you can easily reference the thing you’re about to pick up. It’s often not the case that a pickup will be an unalloyed good – a lot of them have stings in the tail, such increasing your damage while reducing your bullet speed, or giving you extra firepower in exchange for one of your hearts. The game’s loot is also complex in how it interacts with itself. For example, the Cricket’s Body increases your weapon’s rate-of-fire, but this becomes useless if you also have Brimstone equipped, which replaces your weapon with a charge-up beam. A lot of stuff in Binding is situationally good, helping you in only one kind of fight.
Binding is unforgiving. A single wrong choice (such as wasting your last key on the wrong door) can cripple your run. Want to save? You can’t. Want to back out of a losing boss fight? You can’t. You generally don’t know what’s behind the next door – it could be six coins and a heart, or a mini-boss that will stomp your duodenum into the afterlife. This is a 2010 game designed with a 1980 mindset: the player must be abused so that he’ll become a man.
The game’s randomness can make it frustrating as well as interesting. It’s easy to get “RNG screwed” – if you only get useless and unhelpful items from the first couple of floors, soon you’ll be fighting high-level bosses using your starting weapon, which isn’t fun. And certain items seem pretty overpowered. The Unicorn’s Horn can be abused to insta-win every boss fight in the game, except for Gurdy and Mom. But that’s also part of the appeal, in a weird way. No matter how dire things look, at any moment you might get a god-tier loot drop.
The art style is cute and gross – very “kawaii-gore”. The sound effects are downright disgusting. I don’t know how long the developer spent recording the gurgles and splutters of dying bronchitis patients but hopefully he wiped down the microphone afterwards. The monsters are revolting slimeballs that look like the internal organs evolution mercifully doesn’t allow us to see. Binding has a mid-2000s flash quality (I was overwhelmed by nostalgia by the sight of the Newgrounds logo), and the art assets were clearly designed with an eye towards modding, allowing users to extend the game with their own monsters and items. This is another strength of the roguelikes, which were so basic and minimalistic that it was very easy to spin off a fork of one and turn it into whatever you wanted.
The game draws inspiration from the Biblical tale of Abraham’s “akedah” (or binding) of his son for sacrifice. It seems to be the answer to the question “what did Isaac think of this? And suppose he resisted – what would have happened?” Although religious issues inform the game’s content somewhat, Binding mostly uses Judeo-Christian imagery the same way Hideoki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion does – as a repository of cool and interesting stuff.
The Binding of Isaac is probably one of those games you either play for five minutes or five years, with little middle ground. It’s definitely challenging and “deep”. There’s no shortage of stuff to do, or ways to do it. It’s an overall nice throwback to classic gaming, and Kryptonite for people who save-scum through every game.
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Le Camp des Saints is a 1970s anti-immigration novel that remains fresh and relevant largely thanks to the efforts of pro–immigration activists. Every few months a new op-ed appears somewhere, reminding us that this book exists and is racist. Like Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto, it’s hard to defend, easy to mock, a useful thing to associate with the opposition. Voltaire said “oh Lord, make my enemies ridiculous,” and Saints is so effective at making anti-immigrationists look ridiculous that it will probably never go out of print.
It depicts a dystopia. Overpopulation has turned the Third World into a simmering Malebolge of starvation and poverty. A sea of refugees threaten to overwhelm the West, while deluded liberal politicians dig holes in the walls. The crisis reaches a head when a large number of Indians (enabled by a weak, dissimulating “atheist philosopher” called Ballan) hijacks a fleet and sails for France. As the armada approaches, the government faces a choice: should the refugees be allowed in? The fleet packed enough food only for a one-way trip. They’ll die if turned away.
To state the obvious, the book is indeed bigoted. Raspail does not like foreigners. They’re described as “a mass of human flesh”, “a million flailing savages”, “a river of sperm”, “unbridled, menacing hordes”, “cholera-ridden and leprous wretches”, “columns of ants on the march”, a “numberless, miserable mass”, “a welter of dung and debauch”, and more. Tolkien didn’t write about orcs with such vituperation.
Saints might be the most splenetic book to achieve mainstream success in a hundred years. It’s written in squalling, thundering prose that seems shouted at the reader through a bullhorn. Characters are painted with one broad stroke, and usually never a second one. In the first few pages we meet our first straw-man of the pro-immigration left – a white college kid who has embraced Islam and atheism simultaneously (?), is helping the refugees make landfall so they can destroy French culture (?!) and who wants to rape his sister (?!?!?!). But first he’s going to smoke pot and shoot dope on the beach. This character astonished me: you normally don’t see such a caricature outside a Jack Chick scare tract.
Saints is a queasy and miserable nightmare. I doubt many finished it, and the ones who did probably didn’t immediately plan their next re-read. But it has an intensity to it, and once you adjust to the content, it’s strangely readable. Raspail has a “Nouveau French” prose style, equal parts classicist and camp (“there was no lack of clever folk, willing, from the start, to spread endless layers of verbal cream, spurting thick and unctuous from the udders of their minds”), that I found amusing. It’s a book written out of passion, not cynicism, and it doesn’t make apologies for itself.
And the moral issues Saints raises are interesting and important, however much you disagree with Raspail’s handling of them.
Race is a stalking horse for his true concern: overpopulation. The Indians aren’t bad because they’re Indians, they’re bad because there are too many of them. They reproduced to excess, used up all their country’s resources, and now want to take other countries down with them. This might seem a distinction without a difference, but it creates a covalence with many thinkers and intellectuals from the period, not all of whom were on the right.
Overpopulation was a topic of great concern in the 70s (and 80s, and 90s). The ghost of Thomas Malthus) began stirring and rattling chains. “The population is doubling every forty years! How will we feed, clothe and house them all? What happens to the environment? We’re going to be back in the bad old days: wars, famines, plagues, deforestation. Wouldn’t it be kinder for everyone if we could…*cough*…control the population somehow?”
This is why your Infowars-obsessed dad keeps finding quotes by “elites” such as Ted Turner about reducing the population. It’s also the reason The Camp of the Saints was published by a mainstream press and read by academics, instead of “published” by a neo-Nazi farmstead with a hand-cranked printing press and “read” by the prosecution at the author’s own hate speech trial.
“There’s too many people, and lots of them will have to die,” absolutely wasn’t a fringe viewpoint fifty years ago, and Raspail’s hymn had many voices in the choir, although most of them knew to hide their views in liberal language.
In 1968, Paul Erlich wrote The Population Bomb, full of cheery asides like “the battle to feed all of humanity is over”, and “hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” The book sold hundreds of thousands of copies and got its author on NBC’s “Tonight Show” and Johnny Carson. In 1995 Lester R. Brown wrote a book called Who Will Feed China? (making China sound like the monster in Little Shop of Horrors, mindlessly and ravenously eating), complete with a photo of sad-looking Chinese kids on the cover. Radical leftist Pentti Linkola spent decades recommending drastic population reductions by coercive means, as seen in his famous “lifeboat ethics” metaphor.
“What to do, when a ship carrying a hundred passengers suddenly capsizes and there is only one lifeboat? When the lifeboat is full, those who hate life will try to load it with more people and sink the lot. Those who love and respect life will take the ship’s axe and sever the extra hands that cling to the sides.”
Note that these brutal “sever the extra hands” solutions were always directed at brown people. White people used far more of the planet’s resources, but somehow it was always the mother in Senegal with 7 kids dooming the world. It’s an uncomfortable legacy that the left has spent a lot of time grappling with since (Google “eco-fascism” for more), and if you want to throw tomatoes at Raspail, save a few ripe ones for the 70s environmentalist movement, too.
But how the years condemn. Here’s Raspail’s introduction.
I HAD WANTED TO WRITE a lengthy preface to explain my position and show that this is no wild-eyed dream; that even if the specific action, symbolic as it is, may seem farfetched, the fact remains that we are inevitably heading for something of the sort. We need only glance at the awesome population figures predicted for the year 2000, i.e., twenty-eight years from now: seven billion people, only nine hundred million of whom will be white.
We arrived at this world twenty years ago. We never arrived at all. Raspail’s vision of the future didn’t come to pass, because something happened that he didn’t expect: the Third World began rising out of poverty. Happily, the choice between saving the poor and saving ourselves never occurred. We can do both. The game is survival is not always zero-sum.
But I’m interested in the moral quandary Raspail poses. First, let’s grant his scenario. A million Indians are waiting to enter France. If they, they’ll destroy Western civilization (in the same sense that Spanish invasion of the new world “destroyed” the Meso-American civilizations). Don’t ask questions. This is the choice. What’s the correct thing to do?
I think the refugees should still be allowed in.
First, we have to be pragmatic. If Western civilization can be overwhelmed by a million people on ramshackle boats, then it was weak and wouldn’t have lasted long anyway. It might as well help some people before it dies.
Second, killing a million people is bad. And although the death of Western civilization might be worse, you’re weighing a certain bad at probability 1 (a million people will definitely die if we sink the ships), vs a maybe-bad at probability <1. How sure are we that Western civilization will be destroyed? We might have misunderstood the situation. It might be that Western civilization passes without mass suffering. The two evils aren’t equivalent. Throwing a brick blindly into a crowded shopping mall isn’t the same as throwing it in a remote wilderness, just because you might hit people in both cases.
Comparisons between Third World immigrants and Spanish conquistadors can only take us so far. Spain didn’t wipe out the Meso-American empires by flooding them with sheer numbers of Spaniards. They wiped them out with a superior technology base (steel, firearms, horses), as well as germs that the natives had no resistance to. This isn’t the case with refugees. They’re limited in their ability to cause harm. This isn’t to say there aren’t issues associated with immigration, but it’s not the same set of issues raised by an invading army or a superplague.
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