It’s real as far as I can see
Visualizing the past, from the present
A month ago I was playing a video game and found myself struck by an unexpected feeling of awe. My character, a haggard samurai clothed in a crimson tunic, wandered onto an islet in the center of a lake. He took a seat on a rock at the base of a colossal tree, and turned his gaze toward a golden-leaved forest in the distance. The game prompted the samurai to look around, and observe the landscape: the sun reflecting off the lake, the light shining through the trees, the fog hanging over the water.
At this point, the game asked me to compose a haiku. After mulling over a selection of lines — final result: “A golden temple / Darkness fades in brilliant light / Ever unbending” — I was rewarded with an equippable colored headband.
The games I and many people play fall into two categories: the ones where you defeat enemies by way of fighting them (Bloodborne, Final Fantasy VII Remake, Spider-Man) and the ones where you reflect on things by way of problem-solving (Firewatch, The Witness, Flower). Ghost of Tsushima, an open-world adventure game that came out a few months ago, is possibly the biggest budget production I’ve played that explicitly implores the player to do both. Your character, a samurai named Jin Sakai seeking to expunge an invading Mongol force from his native island of Tsushima, acquires numerous skills on his revenge quest; I have, conservatively, stabbed and sliced and bow-and-arrowed somewhere between 500 and 1,000 faceless warriors and bandits. But the game also asks you to explicitly consider the beauty of a feudal Japan rendered in breathtaking detail: fields of blue and white flowers, the magic hour washing over a grassy plain, a mountaintop offering an unclouded view of the world, and beyond. As I wrote above, at several points in the game you can come across these isolated points of stunning natural splendor, and sit down to write a poem inspired by the sights.
Most likely I’d be less affected were it not for the current circumstances, which have forcibly barricaded many of us for the majority of days stretching back to mid-March. In particular I’ve been living in Brooklyn, where the COVID-19 rates felt apocalyptic and harrowing in the first few weeks, prompting non-essential workers and those with the luxury of working from home to stick inside except for exercise and grocery runs. The summer brought outdoor dining, but basting in the humidity in order to eat a quesadilla did not sound ideal (to say nothing of the ethics of eating out), and park hangs were naturally capped by the need to use the bathroom and purchase more alcohol. God bless the perverts content with pissing under cover of darkness, but the sense of degradation escalates around round two or three.
There was walking around for the hell of it but masked strolling to nowhere in particular, given the widespread shuttering of places to where one used to idly wander in free-mouthed times, did not always inspire joy. I try to avoid misanthropy, especially the type that goes viral, but the sight of more than a few people clustered together without masks would reliably trigger feelings of disdain and/or angst about the societal capacity to collectively get through this. If not in New York, where the ambulances raced all night and the bodies were stacked into freezer trucks, then where? I didn’t get out of the city until a couple of weeks ago, when my girlfriend and I visited a friend who recently moved an hour north, and finally enjoyed the kind of nature views that, for nearly six months, I’ve only found in visual mediums like movies and television and, yes, video games.
At first glance, the graphical arms race of modern video gaming seems to have its natural limits; even the most impressively rendered digital human being still looks like a digital human being, and everybody knows about the uncanny valley effect that makes such 1:1 animations more eerie than compelling. But it’s the natural world beyond the characters you control and fight that looks more realistic with every new generation: sunlight, smoke, grass, clouds, mountains, dirt, puddles, rain. Video games will never make sex look natural or realistic, despite the desires of the horned-up gamer masses, but an in-game sunset increasingly approaches the real thing. That’s scary, if you worry about our future morphing into some Ready Player One-type dystopia where all formerly human experiences are instead seen and felt in a virtual landscape. In the present, it’s been a balm.
An attendant experience of wandering around an impressively realized fake-feudal Japan is to idly and momentarily wonder what wandering around actual-feudal Japan might have been like. Probably pretty shitty, unless you were a lord or a nobleman. But I’ve been thinking more about the human experience of living in a time and place other than the present, which is consistently dreary and depressing in ways that don’t require enumeration. Life throughout history has always been dreary and depressing for someone, but consciously considering the differences allows me to better appreciate how far we’ve come and/or regressed.
Earlier this week my girlfriend and I watched Smithereens, the 1982 Susan Seidelman movie set in the waning days of New York punk, where a teen named Wren scuzzes about the city trying to make a dent in the music scene. She crosses paths with Paul, a handsome and earnest transplant from Montana who’s nonetheless too naive to be of real interest, and doggedly pursues a once-big shot named Eric, played by an upsettingly charismatic Richard Hell. New York looks like shit, and punk is nearly dead (Wren and Eric spend most of the movie trying to get to Los Angeles), and an atmosphere of hopelessness suffuses the entire film.
Smithereens is vibrant and charming and uncomfortably realistic, because it was shot on location and featured amateur actors (Richard Hell seems to essentially play himself, or someone he may have known). It almost comes off like a period piece of what someone in 2020 would think 1982 New York punk was like, a period of time that I can only experience via reanimation and homage. I’ve lived in New York on-and-off since 2009, and full-time since 2012, but for as long as I’ve been in the city, the arts underground has felt like a conscious continuation of the cooler-than-cool downtown scene valorized in however many books, films, documentaries, longform articles, podcasts, etc. There’s plenty of value but I suppose if you were being cynical you’d say that a lot of the involved people are living out an idea of what’s supposed to be cool, as has been passed down to them over the decades. New York is too expensive for genuine transgression, anyways; even the authentically hip are, in some way, funded by bankers or trust funds or whatever.
It’s probably always been that way, though at least rent used to be much cheaper. But in Smithereens we see the real deal, dancing to herky-jerk new wave bands at downtown clubs (most of which are gone, thanks to Giuliani) and living out of vans located in construction sites and slow-dancing at downtown dive bars (most of which are also gone, thanks to Bloomberg). Most of the real deals are also assholes, and Smithereens is one of those unsentimental films where nearly nobody comes off well, where every relationship is governed by some merciless transactional calculus that amounts to ruin, in the end. It’s recognizable, but it’s also so far away, so I couldn’t help thinking throughout about living in 1982 New York, were I translocated there at the age of 21.
I don’t mean in the sense of “who would I have worked for” or “where would I have lived,” but how that world would’ve shaped my thoughts and actions. How would I have thought about the so-called waning New York punk scene or where to get drunk and dance on a Friday night or Ronald Reagan being the president (which goes unmentioned in the film, though Wren does rob a yuppie) or the emerging AIDS crisis? It’s sometimes easy for me to forget that while myself and my generation see this (or any other era, in any other place) as history, for thousands of people it was just a period of time they lived through and survived, and formal history is not always the best framework for understanding that.
Last year I read The Gentrification of the Mind, Sarah Schulman’s exhilarating and essential memoir about AIDS in ’80s New York, where early on she very frankly discloses her biases: “This book is really a personal intellectual history of what I have observed, experienced, and come to understand. It is not a scholarly or academic book.” Throughout she occasionally makes claims that a historian might quibble with (certainly a pedant would), it doesn’t exactly matter. She has to record a past that’s at ongoing risk of being rewritten and misinterpreted — which could happen to anyone at any time — so that we can properly remember.
Every day the news or some existential crisis about what the new portends slams and carries me out to sea; in no way do I believe the human brain has intellectually or emotionally evolved to keep up with the truly endless deluge of contemporary events to potentially be aware of, in our upsettingly well-informed era. Certainly I understand the urgency of keeping up, but for me it’s just not always possible. So my imagination turns across space and time, to wonder what it was like then and there, how people felt and how they got through it. It’s not just a matter of fomenting empathy, but a way of dynamiting the barriers — historical, generational, societal, and so forth — that typically straitjacket us into neat little categories, and prod us to look out for ourselves. I don’t want to make boomer jokes, or zoomer jokes, or whatever. I want to think about how we got here, and how to make it different.