Humanity at a Grave Marked Unknown

good bad ugly2

I finally understand why I adore this movie. I finally understand why I can watch a man run around a graveyard for a solid three minutes with absolutely no dialogue and be riveted.

When I often read about The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, I usually hear the fact that it takes place during the Civil War being referred to as the “backdrop” of the movie, and up until recently, I’d overlooked how critical of a component it was myself.

“I’ve never seen so many men wasted so badly,” says Blondie, The Man with No Name, Clint Eastwood’s character, as they observe the Confederate and Union battle at the bridge.

Throughout the entire movie, we experience the war from both ends. The horrible treatment of the opposition, the horrible treatment of ones’ own side,  the random senselessness of exploding shells that actually saves characters on occasion. This movie definitely echoes a sort of “war is waste; war is nonsense” sentiment.

Blondie actually serves as our (at times confusing) moral-thematic lens on the war.
“I’ve never seen so many men wasted so badly.”

Not just war, but greed is there too. It’s never explicitly stated, but both Angel Eyes and Tuco–the Bad and the Ugly respectively–are looking to get wealthy from that healthy sum of money located in the secret grave only Bill Carson knows. However, as shown throughout the entire movie, they just take anything they want from whomever they want anyway. This kind of renders being rich pointless (Tuco completely robs the gun store owner. Angel Eyes begins the movie eating the meal of the man he’s come to kill and is clearly stealing from the camp he’s disguised as a sergeant at).

Angel Eyes is forwarded as pure greed, since he doesn’t have the sympathetic backstory we receive for Tuco (“Where we came from, if one did not want to die of poverty, one either became a priest or a bandit.”). Still, their greed is pretty senseless either way, much like the war. Naturally, Blondie is after the money as well, but he’s never presented as greedy as much as “a realist”. His part in the shooting-the-hanging-Tuco-free scheme is hardly dastardly compared to absolutely everything else presented to the viewer.

But more so than “greed”, and more so than “war”, is “death”. War is killing men on both sides, those seeking Bill Carson’s treasure are killing men on both sides, both men are worried of the other killing the other, countless scenes of men suffering from wounds, dead bodies laying about, death, death, death.

A Million Graves
Just this image alone hits hard.

It really hits you. You spend so much time thinking about how everybody’s getting to what they want that you actually don’t give much thought to how much is lost along the way.

The money everyone seeks is buried in a soldier’s grave. When you get to the graveyard, there are so many dead soldiers that finding the grave is an absurd, epic feat. Pointless graves of men who died for near nothing. It’s a waste, and the nonsense reaches its thematic apex when the two protagonists (Tuco is as much a protagonist as he is a villain) blow up the bridge of the nearby battle, and then everyone (confused, frustrated, angry?) still fires on each other. It takes all night before the battlefield clears out and people stop killing. All of this heightens Tuco’s run through the graveyard. It’s what makes it an emotionally affecting three minutes rather than an awkward runabout.

Blondie is the Good here. He is the movie’s anti-hero moral compass, and the final standoff scene is completely under the control of his moral judgement. By the end of it, we actually find out that it was never really a standoff at all.

This is a gaze of judgement.
This is a gaze of judgement.

He overheard Tuco’s upbringing when Tuco spoke with his brother and actually takes pity on the ridiculous fellow (displayed by sharing a cigarette with him shortly after)–Tuco is simply the result of this Ugly world. An unfortunate man, but not an evil one–Blondie never gives him any more or any less than what he’s earned.

In contrast, shortly after being taken along with Angel Eyes, Blondie pretty much directly tells him and his men ‘I’m going to kill you’ when he counts them against the bullets in his gun. He overall disagrees with Angel Eyes’ existence.

Blondie tells the captain of the bridge battle to “keep his ears open”, gives that soldier one last smoke and a little warmth for the final moments of his life–Blondie is the Good because he has a sense of humanity. “Humanity” = “Good” here as much as “Clever” = “Good”.

You can pretty much see the halo above his eyes.
And you can pretty much see the halo above his angel eyes.

Being older now, I can pick up on all the nuances in the actor’s performances that convey all this, and how aware all in charge were of the details of their movie.

Angel Eyes is worried during the final standoff (he’s the only one that visibly gulps), and Tuco, always being Tuco, is so confused that he doesn’t know what to think, but both shoot the Bad, but Tuco, being sloppy and whatnot, doesn’t even realize that Blondie has everything taken care of for him due to the empty gun. (Since the viewer is typically confused or surprised, Tuco is actually the easiest character to empathize with. Which is probably a large part of what endears people to him.)

This isn’t a movie that “just happens”. It comes from a lot of people involved understanding the “why” in “what” they’re doing. It being initially universally panned by critics due to being a “genre” piece is kind of comforting. Despite how panned genre fiction was during my creative writing undergrad experience, against my natural desire to write it, I think something like this speaks strongly:

Don't be worried that they won't think it's "art". Just make it... and feel free to make people laugh too.
Don’t be worried that they won’t think it’s “art”.

You’re not going to live forever; make whatever you want, and just do it well.

Where All the Voodoo Children are Born

cre·ate verb \krē-ˈāt, ˈkrē-ˌ\

Definition of CREATE

transitive verb

1 : to bring into existence <God created the heaven and the earth — Genesis 1:1(Authorized Version)>

I wish I was never taught that creation is essentially pulling things out of ether. It was specifically a part of my religious upbringing, but I probably would’ve been organically trained into this mindset anyhow. I should think of this as more American culture’s fault, or maybe I can straight up blame Mr. Webster himself.

But, then again, maybe I should just stop looking for someone to blame. The religious don’t necessarily need to discard their Father, but I do think the artist should be looking to different channels for artistic parenting; human beings can’t conceive from nothing. We deconstruct, abstract, and make clay of what we understand and experience, then we mush stuff up, recompile, craft, and mold–we reconstruct.

It might be stronger and, perhaps, more farsighted to think of creativity as transformation.

You gotta love Gypsy Eyes in order to write about them.

Those “crazy noises” during Jimi Hendrix’s famous rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner are fighter jets buzzing overhead and planes dropping bombs. A little research and voilà: he spent a few years in the military–that solo, that interpretation of the song came from somewhere (That also might reveal what got people so riled up about it back in the day: “National Anthem or War Song?”). Absorbing something and then transforming its presentation, ordering, and perspective doesn’t just make music fantastic: it’s the core of what the idea of music is.

The pace of a beat–or the perceived pace of a beat–is relative to the human experience, human footsteps, the human concept of speed (Nobody can run as fast as DragonForce, right? And it’s rare we ever do anything as slow as Sigur Rós). This is metaphor.

There’s no New Crobuzon without planet Earth.

Dostoyevsky wrote of Russian politics, Hemingway wrote of bullfighting and war, China Mièville writes with inspiration from his days of Dungeons and Dragons–it’s important to be honest and open to our sources of energy. To embrace, absorb, and understand them.

Given that, writer’s block could be considered a sort of false disease; it might have a great deal to do with a failing understanding of what it means to be creative. That classic image of a writer curled over his desk in isolation: “you toil and toil yet can not produce! Oh woe is me!”–you can’t put out if you don’t take in, and you can’t take in if you only put out. You need to go outside.

Hemingway was a journalist before becoming a novelist. Dostoyevsky ran in political circles and even went to prison for it. China Mièville is never shy about his sources of inspiration. His favorite pastimes come up in nearly every interview, and the man actually ran for parliament.

Video games aren’t exempt from this either. Super Mario is the classic knight in shining armor story: Mario’s the knight, and Yoshi is his steed; he goes to fight the dragon Bowser and save the Princess Peach. This is Super Mario’s foundation, but, I mean, look at it. When you open yourself up to soak in just a little bit more, when you hold yourself back just a little bit less, that core foundation becomes something more: you get a game about a guy who walks on clouds and travels through pipes because you like manga and pass sewage systems on the way to work.

It takes absorbent and free minds to make flying via a raccoon tail seem unquestionable. It takes adventurers, it takes listeners, it takes people who aren’t going to question how they got there until they get there, people who only look back in order to figure out how to go forward. It takes creatives.

Redefining the galaxy.
Redefine the galaxy.

And all of the above, at least as far as I understand at this point, is the source of the Voodoo. It’s what we need to do to watch the sunrise from the bottom of the sea. And as long as I think like this, I never seem to become stuck, more like:

“I’m not quite yet where I want to be, but getting there is fantastic, and hey, here’s everything I’ve found along the way. There’s more coming, and it’s only going to get better. I hope everyone’s having a good time.”

From NiGHTS to Waking Dreams

Title Screen

Let’s say you hop on NiGHTS into Dreams… like I did on that Best Buy demo back in 1996–much like Sonic the Hedgehog, it was the kind of game that could catch my eye across the store–just the screen moved unlike any other game on display. Though, at a glance (and honestly, even after completing it), it’s easy to not fully realize the game’s deeply resonant underlying narrative, an experiential story–you feel it, and while playing the HD re-release, I’m beginning to realize that’s what has created such an intense fan following over these years.

The very first time you play the game, it’ll be pretty disorienting. The camera swoops down on a mirror-flipped fantasy landscape. A tiny arrow points your child towards a jeweled, gazebo-looking thing.


Well, it's not like I have anything else I can do...
If someone sees this and does not get naturally curious, they must not be human…

You follow the arrow, but get assaulted by colorful, flying, Cirque-du-Soleil-inspired creatures who steal what look like gems from you. After your sudden, awkward loss, you continue to follow the arrow until you reach your destination. Upon entering it, you take on the form of some sort of airborne jester held within it,  and couldn’t possibly anything but curious at this point.

This all happens so quickly that it might not even register consciously. Subconsciously, though, this is an incredible hook: internally, you have to ask: ‘Where am I?” “I did what I was supposed to do, clearly, but I was interrupted–something was taken from me. That was mine…” “They were jewels, so they must be precious…” “Creatures flew away with my precious something… and now I can fly. I must be able to get them back. . .”

The following is never explained in detail in-game, but it is “felt”: these creatures, these nightmarens, actually stole four of your five Ideya’s: Purity, Wisdom, Hope, and Intelligence, but they could not steal your Courage. And you navigate your Dreams as NiGHTS, the Nightmaren you become when you enter the Ideya Palace, to recover these fragments of your scattered psyche. You endeavor in your understanding of the Dreams/levels, and grow alongside your character’s courage as you grow in your wisdom that will allow you to defeat Wizeman, your ultimate villain, together.

Even the levels
Even the level subtitles detail your growth: the IDEAL, the POSSIBILITY, the CONFUSION, the GROWTH: seeing what you could be, and journeying your troubled mind to achieve it.

After endeavoring through three levels, you reach the final Dream, and you’re unable to reach the Ideya Palace this time; you attempt to enter, but you are thrown away and find that NiGHTS itself is, in fact, trapped in that palace. Now you, stranded on a platform on your lonesome, without that which you’ve always relied on, see that same little arrow pointing you to the open sky. If you don’t take this leap of faith, you’ll be trapped within this Dream. If you do take the leap, you fly. You’ve reached the climax of your journey: you no longer need NiGHTS to go into your into Dreams; you can do this as your waking yourself. Your ability to conquer your struggles is, in fact, something you’ve had all along.


You actually get the help of the other playable child for your rescue of NiGHTS... That ties into a Twin Seeds, duality, Jungian male-female theme that would really merit its own article.
You actually get the help of the other playable child for your rescue of NiGHTS, which opens up a whole new can of themes… that currently elude my skill to explain. I need to read more Jung…

You free NiGHTS. You enter the final confrontation, and now you, fused again as NiGHTS, but with the knowledge that you are one-in-the-same, deliver the final blow to Wizeman. You have grown in your wisdom and are, in fact, now wise enough/experienced enough to overcome that which tormented you.


With six hands I could read three books at a time! Surely I'd be wize!
He must’ve used his many hands to read many books…


Then, even with that out of the way, the continued score attack portion of the game still plays into the metaphor. The course-based level design and linking combo system unravel layers of depth in repeat plays to create a sensation that other media can’t: “I’m still not sure I’ve actually discovered everything here”.  It makes the game something that you never truly feel finished with, something you can’t stop thinking about–that combination of exploration, discovery, achievement, and metaphorical wholeness makes it impossible to mentally let go. Even score being determined by letter grades and points may seem to fall outside of the compelling metaphor, but the cutscenes of the children’s personal struggles (that depict them being judged in an audition and achieving the higher score in basketball) successfully tie even the game’s ranking system into the metaphor.

This game forever remains in the back of your mind, because it effectively is the human mind, what triggers dreams and creativity, what they’re for. It’s a fantastic emulation of our world, our lives, the concept of endeavoring through struggle and growing into wisdom as a human being. Resonant, engaging, and lingering, just like any good art should be–you can pen metaphors, and clearly, you can code them as well.

We do good work. Well worth a bow.
We do good work, sir/ma’am. Well worth a bow.

The Dostoyevsky Genre


The best Dostoyevsky novels are hardly labyrinthine. Sure, the psychoanalysis-before-textbook-psychoanalysis existed is fantastic, deep, and complex—they’re high-concept books, but Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov seem to resonate with people for far simpler reasons. Those two books have his simplest core plots (despite the grand size of Karamazov), and the way the narratives plays out is really a great deal of “fun”. Everything else is simply crafted on top of this quality foundation. That’s the difference between a term paper on desperation versus a novel about it.

The core, the spine, the “focal-center” of both aforementioned stories is that they’re murder mysteries, whodunnits before whodunnits existed. Now, while I haven’t managed to reach a sufficient understanding of why Brothers Karamazov is so affecting (it’s truly just a 1,000+ page “the butler did it” story), I’m feeling somewhat confident in my assessment of Crime and Punishment, which kinda has the same model flipped on its head; C&P succeeds due to its excellent handling of a whodunnit where we know whodunnit.


In third-person omniscient (which I believe was a brand new idea at the time), we watch C&P’s hero, our murderer Raskolnikov, toil. We watch him deliberate. We watch him narrowly escape the desire to turn himself in over and over again.

Dosty doesn’t just craft the book well, but has selected an entire scenario and situation that lends itself to absolutely nothing but suspense beginning to end. Regardless of whatever insightful conversation may be going on, Raskolnikov’s hidden guilt can only bring us to our ending in a handful of ways: escape or admission.


While we do know whodunnit, we begin to realize we don’t fully know who he is, and during this time, we learn a lot more about our murderer by watching him struggle beneath pressure (as it’s hard to be anyone but your honest self when under so much stress—one of the reasons why conflict is integral in storytelling). His virtue in light of his guilt, his desperation bundled with his confusion: meaty storytelling delivered with a side of veggies.

This got skipped over in a lot of my lessons: The Conceptual McGuffin, the similarities between the cursed “genre fiction” and prestigious “literature”; we’re chasing the conceptual carrot of Raskolnikov’s release from his guilt.

The natural empathy of the novel is what’s used to create the push. Rasky’s misery is our dangling carrot, and Rasky’s misery is what Crime and Punishment “is”. A simple, effective, and still unique core.


I’ll always remember my experience with Crime and Punishment for the grand insight it gave me into the human mind, and for the things Dosty gets me to think about. I’ll also always see it like this: “I picked up this novel called Crime and Punishment. It was pretty cool. It gripped me beginning to end—a page-turning and fatiguing sort of gripping, but a page-turning one nonetheless. It was fun, which is often forgotten when attempting to craft something of ‘great worth and merit’.” This goes for all media, and all things I or anybody else creates. Art is best when it’s entertaining and engaging, but when pulling from the proper channels, it ends up that way by default.

Saving Every Green Hill You Possibly Can

This screen used to mean I was going to do nothing else for at least two straight hours.

I think Sonic the Hedgehog is fantastic—still.

And I’m surprised I can still say that despite all these years of suffering as Sonic stumbled his way into the world of 3D gaming (I played Sonic Heroes for an unfortunate 60 hours… and so many other things I shouldn’t have done…). I watched him struggle to find his footing in transition between a momentum-based platformer, where your character was more like a pinball, to one where he is essentially a race car.

Anyhow, I’ve finally came to realize something that, I suppose, was very obvious to some other people: Sonic the Hedgehog was never really about saving the world. Continue reading “Saving Every Green Hill You Possibly Can”