Shades of ‘Blood Meridian’ in ‘Whiplash’

Whiplash-Teller+and+Simmons-Drums

“At a young age, said the judge, [children] should be put in a pit with wild dogs. They should be set to puzzle out from their proper clues the one of three doors that does not harbor wild lions” – Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian is the archetypal unfilmable novel. We might just be able to use sufficient visual effects to capture the horror of McCarthy’s blood-drenched text, but it is a book ‘made out of other books’ as the author himself would describe it; it is rooted in paper and vellum, full of self-conscious allusions to Melville, Milton, Homer, and the authors of the Old Testament. The cadence and register of the novel appears to be so prophetic and literary, at least where it does not use utter specificity in the lexis of craftsmen and artisans, that to adapt it to film would miss that textual history entirely.

Then again, there is a back door available, the one taken by Damien Chazelle; to distill the novel’s characters and themes into a new setting, one in which the skeleton is visible but a new skin is sewn onto the outside. Whiplash does just this.

JK Simmons’ veins quite rightly won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and they are an important part of his overall resemblance to the Judge. The Judge is ‘huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant’, both old and young, seemingly immortal, not subject to linear time, leading the narrator to speculate that he may not have been born but instead hatched from an ‘atavistic egg’. The film begins with Terence Fletcher looming at the door to Andrew Neiman’s practice room, dressed in his favourite wardrobe of head-to-toe black, and his superhuman powers of perception appear to be confirmed when Neiman tries to sneak a look into his practice room, only to find Fletcher staring right back at him. Both Holden and Fletcher cross the boundaries of human nature into forces of nature. Damien Chazelle mentioned in an interview that he specifically directed JK Simmons to go beyond the boundaries of how a human being would act. That jazz and the Western should share a mutual friend with romantic American mythologisation is a handy coincidence, so the (super)men take on board the history of a concentric cultural idioms, built upon layer-by-layer into a superficially pleasing narrative. Holden and Fletcher tease out our inclination to create these historical-cultural narratives without delving into the uncomfortable details, whether they are genocide or institutional abuse. Fletcher’s penchant for black clothing, tied with his supernatural aura, supports the interpretation of he and Holden as embodiments of evil in dualism/Gnosticism, the kind which has to be defeated through conscious will before it overwhelms you. Neiman is dressed all in white when he first encounters Fletcher and his clothing gets darker as the film progresses, with a brief reversion to pale when he encounters Fletcher at the latter’s seeming nadir. The lighting of the film reinforces this, as the rehearsal and performance spaces juxtapose bright foreground tones with a deeper darkness.

Whiplash’s director went to Harvard ‘expecting to concentrate on English’ and his appetite for reading seems evident in some allusions to Blood Meridian which appear too specific to be coincidencidental – both Neiman and the Kid lose their mothers at an early age (‘The mother dead these fourteen years’), and have fathers who are linked with failed writing – Neiman’s father practices it, while the Kid’s father is a ‘schoolmaster’  who ‘quotes from poets whose names are now lost’. In one of Fletcher’s characteristic drill sergeant style rants he humiliates Neiman by saying his mother ran off when she found out his father wasn’t ‘fucking Eugene O’Neill’. That outburst follows a moment where he and Neiman appear to have something of a heart to heart, with Fletcher drawing his charge closer into his confidence. It all proves to be a ruse though, and such emotional instability is practised by Holden, who, during the Glanton Gang’s sallies, picks up little children and puppies only to brutally murder them when his interest wanes.

The settings of the two works are vastly different – the West in its Wildest incarnation versus a smart New York music conservatory – but there is a structural overlap. The Kid and the Judge have their final meeting in a saloon bar years after the rest of the narrative; the Kid now more of a man. Fletcher and Neiman discuss the turns their lives have taken at a drinking den where Fletcher is performing with a house band. The Judge ends up as a performer at the bar following his literally unspeakable murder of the Kid (the narrator, for once, refuses to divulge the extent of the violence that takes place), as he strikes up a dance and joins in with the fiddle music. The chilling ending of Blood Meridian which describes the Judge as a ‘great favourite’ who is always ‘dancing, dancing’ puts the Judge in the position of artist, raising the question of whether art has a moral obligation – the Judge’s charisma and knowledge are undeniable, but are directed into horrific ends. There’s a similar dialogue at work in Whiplash. Neiman’s dream is to become the greatest jazz drummer of all time, but does that title mean anything if it rests at the top of a pyramid of abuse? Fletcher mentions offhandedly that Neiman’s former challenger for the drum seat, Tanner, has quit the conservatory to start a premed course. An offhand comment which strikes a powerful chord: which is more beneficial to the rest of humanity? Fletcher even comments towards the end of the film that ‘we are depriving the world’ by not allowing his teaching methods to facilitate the next creative genius. Here there is an overlap with another fine film from the last year, Birdman, the debate in which I discussed in another blog entry. Is there a line in the sand that can be drawn where art’s ability to inspire people becomes less important than the damage it causes to the people who produce it and those who know and love them? It’s a theme that Hollywood keeps revisiting and the deeper lying reasons for this are worth considering in more detail, should someone wish to take up the mantle.

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The bond forged between Fletcher and Neiman at the end of the film is made plain by the conductor stepping in to fix Neiman’s drum kit when it begins to topple over during his furious solo. This is a detail which has been neglected in most analyses of this now iconic final scene. Not only does it show Neiman’s dependence on Fletcher, but it highlights how he has internalised the attitude Fletcher presses onto him, the climax of bloody practice sessions where he has to dunk his hands in ice water – his drum kit is an outlet for a deeper sense of violence. Violence, is of course, the hallmark of McCarthy’s prose in Blood Meridian; Harold Bloom considers it one of the greatest American novels, but even as experienced a reader as he found the novel’s level of gratuitous bloodspilling unpalatable at first. It’s not just blood that’s spilled in Blood Meridian though; piss and spit and shit flow through the pages. What lifts Damien Chazelle’s film above its immediate peers is its recognition of the bodily trauma that goes into the practice which forges great musicians; there’s a wonderful sequence of quick cuts before Neiman’s first rehearsal with the elite band, where he sees the brass players launch a quick gozz onto the floor. The washes of yellows and oranges provided by the lights in that rehearsal space are almost Rembrandtesque, a nod to the institution of art as a whole and perhaps that artist’s turbulent personal life (which was, nevertheless, the provocation for some of his most breathtaking work, making him a fit companion for Fletcher and Riggan Thomson in Birdman).

I don’t believe in issuing a one-size-fits-all interpretation for anything, but anyone who thinks that the final scene represents a victory for Neiman, I urge you to watch again: observe how Neiman finally finds Fletcher’s ‘tempo’ as the conductor reduces him to one-two drum patterns like a wind-up toy soldier. When building him up to the appropriate speed, his hand trembles with shamanistic power, dancing in the ‘light and shadow’ of the stage as the Judge does, every inch the primordial spirit the film has hinted that he may be, just as Holden’s immortality is elaborated by the narrator in Blood Meridian’s pulsating conclusion.

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Birdman, or, The Unexpected Ignorance of Jimmy Fallon

In a publicity interview for Birdman, Ed Norton relates an instruction he received from the director Alejandro González Iñárritu: he shouldn’t try and play an artist, but create the sense of midlife malaise that could be felt by someone any profession. Birdman certainly works as a general fable, but it highlights a very pointed paradox currently at the centre of celebrity culture and cinema: do we want actors to be superheroes, who offer us an escape route from our anxieties, or do we feel more comfort in tracking their every movement through social media, and thinking that they are just like one of us? This is just the starting point for many debates which the film prompts regarding how identity is sculpted.

Since Christopher Nolan tore up the rulebook  and then painted the shreds deep black in his reboot of the Batman franchise, superhero  films have, at their best, examined the post- 9/11 climate astutely and thrown up difficult moral quandaries. In the main though, franchises are, by definition, based upon following a person or group of people who have been marked for greatness in some way, and then facilitating the (significantly sized) audience’s sympathies towards them. Alongside this, we have Jimmy Fallon as ringmaster to a showbiz circus where celebrities are encouraged to talk about the times that they did Normal Things, or coerced into doing Activities. The world wants to see Riggan Thompson reprise his role as Birdman, but they also want him to see him parade through Times Square in his underwear. How can two such opposing views coexist? It’s an intriguing question, and Birdman wants us to carefully consider the possible answer.

Emmanuel Lubezki continues his Midas touch in this film, with his distinctive use of Steadicam and long takes central to the thematic package of the picture. The camera has to follow something, so it follows the characters. The viewer becomes a voyeur, because none of the characters in the film have any intimate space to retreat into with the camera always following them.

"A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing" © Fox Searchlight 2014.

“A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing” © Fox Searchlight 2014.

There is one shot in this film where that is suspended, and the viewer is instead forced to glimpse down an empty corridor for approximately ten seconds (it may be even shorter than that, but it felt like an eternity in the cinema). It creates an incongruously static space, as you are forced to consider just how many extended glimpses you have had of the characters on screen. In the deep field of the frame is something – I couldn’t make out exactly what – going on, but it’s tantalisingly too far out of sight to be perceived. It suggests hidden mysteries along the lines of Thompson’s possible supernatural powers, and also forces the viewer to try and engage their mind to think about what is happening, rather than having a succession of images imprinted upon their mind. Hidden in there is a comment on the sheer amount of information that is available to people in digital spaces, particularly as so much bandwidth is taken up by social media avatars. That one shot was one of the most understated yet powerful I’ve ever seen in a film, and the tension it created within the room is a testament to the experience of watching films with dozens of strangers, rather than on your own through Netflix.

The presence of the superhero in popular culture has helped bring to light the ‘hero syndrome’, whereby an individual deliberately commits acts, such as arson, so that they can become famous for saving people’s lives from the tragic event that they instigate. There are peripheral instances of this in the film aligned in parallel; the meteor that he summons with a click of his fingers during a flight of fantasy, and the stage light which he makes fall on the original actor whom Edward Norton’s character replaces.

Shiner is in his underwear here, foreshadowing Harrison's undressing. © Fox Searchlight 2014

Shiner is in his underwear here, foreshadowing Thompson’s undressing. © Fox Searchlight 2014

Here then, the superhero ideal is undercut with a subtle comment from Iñárritu: namely, that superheroes are only judged on a relative basis to the non-super. Thompson’s attempts to become an auteur/superhero hybrid require the manipulation and neglect of others, particularly his daughter. He does not ascend from a static base, but applies pressure downwards. The quest to obtain constructive powers necessitates destructive relationships with those around him. Another parallel in the film serves to highlight Thompson’s decline (rather than ascent): he is late to the first rehearsal shown in the film with all the bravado of a Hollywood export to Broadway, but his delay during the final preview is due to him having to endure being stripped naked in every sense on Times Square.

jimmy just like us

It’s Jimmy Fallon! He blew a date with Nicole Kidman! Like that time you blew a date with that girl! Crazy! © NBC Universal 2015.

All characters in the film are trapped within the web of showbusiness. The lines between their performances and their true selves are blurred to the point of personal veracity being completely unreliable. Almost every character lies. The principle of acting is transposed onto day-to-day life, as the intrusion into public lives dictated by social media is shown to be an auction-house for personas, instead of a reliable barometer for personalities. Here’s where Jimmy Fallon comes in. The guests on his show seem to be giving an account of themselves that is much more genuine than other chat shows, but it is still a question of persona, whether at work or play. The film posits that people exist with an arsenal of different personalities ready to be deployed on the right occasion. This split of personas, or constant reinforcement of performance, is rendered on screen by the technique of only showing a character’s reflection on screen as they talk to someone – the viewer can only see the reflected image, not the person actually speaking. The supposedly intimate space of the dressing room still leads to dispersion of identity.

Thompson’s life story, of trying to be a superhero on the Hollywood set and the Broadway stage (important to realise that his attempts to import his vision onto the Broadway stage is a form of self-indulgent heroism in its own right) leads him to have a fractious relationship with his family, particularly his daughter, played sensitively by Emma Stone. As well as the strange expectations of transcendence and groundedness which we desire from public figures (applicable to politics as well – Barack Obama is, or was to predominantly European commentators, a beacon of idealistic change but also a guy familiar with the streets) ,

I mean it was made by a street artist with stencils, for god's sake. 'Hope', Shepard Fairey, 2008.

I mean it was made by a street artist with stencils, for god’s sake. ‘Hope’, Shepard Fairey, 2008.

a superhero culture creates a debate that applies to life more generally. What is the currency of relationships? Are they formed from epic acts, or more banal interactions that exist largely to fill a vacuum? With Thompson’s daughter, the complete absence of the latter confirms that it is more important.

Keaton and Stone's distant relationship is a refreshing antidote to patronising cliche. © Fox Searchlight 2014.

Keaton and Stone’s distant relationship is a refreshing antidote to patronising cliche. © Fox Searchlight 2014.

I have no discernable performing talent. I don’t act, I can’t play a musical instrument, and if my dancing could be summarised in one word, it would be ‘unnecessary’. Yet since the age of 14 I have harboured a fantasy that I will get up on a stage and perform something so intensely powerful and moving in front of all the people I know – in the curious way they can be organised together in a dream – that will completely overwhelm them, lay forward my personality in a super-comprehensible way and perhaps summarise what the whole world is about too. This is not how life works. Life is forged from miniature interactions. A friendship is composed of simply being there when the going is good, even if the conversation remains skipping along the surface. The last shot in the film will undoubtedly go down in cinema history as a head-scratcher for generations to come, but my feeling is that Sam is not looking at her father in flight, but rather the birds shown earlier in the scene; as someone who was left in the residual heat of her father’s Icarean trail, she is more appreciative of the small-scale wonders.  Dedicating yourself to mammoth artistic projects often divorces you from human society, which is paradoxically the inspiration and audience for such a project. Think about Carver’s manifold title – are the ‘we’ who talk about love and the ‘we’ who experience it one and the same? Can the artist be part of both groups?

Sam Harrison's threats of suicide are yet another parallel the film sets up - a suggestion that for all of the role play at work, it gravitates towards particular types.

Sam Thompson’s threats of suicide are yet another parallel the film sets up – a suggestion that for all of the role play at work, it gravitates towards particular types.

Staying on this theme, Antonio Sanchez’s soundtrack is constantly teasing the viewer who is expectant for some regular rhythm to emerge, when one never really does. It is like a constant clearing of the throat preparing for a symphonic release that will envelop the film and neatly wrap it in a bow to say: this is what this is, and this is what it is all about, but the reveal of the soundtrack’s diegetic origins keeps everything tethered to the film’s core.

Just as the soundtrack is trapped within the film, Thompson gets his wings clipped too. As much as Thompson’s opening night performance is feted, I can’t help but feel the film is playing a bit of a joke and suggesting that all he has done is quite literally cut his nose off to spite his face, caught between the two stools of reality and representation. Birdman posits so many different forms of identity that it is difficult to arrive at a meaningful conclusion. However, the film shows that art rises amidst such a backdrop because it is defined by representation, relying as it does on a sense of performance that outstrips the manipulation of identity through social networks. The conflict between Thompson’s ego and the artistic project he develops emphasises the need for art as a communal space, one where meaning emerges from a communication between artist and audience, rather than pandering to how we wish to be perceived.

The Imitation Game review: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

‘The Imitation Game’ is a marvellous phrase which this film applies to many fields – cryptography, relationships, and what is considered normal interaction for human beings. But the title is most applicable in terms of its generic occupancy. I feel like I’m at a tipping point because before I sat down to watch The Imitation Game on Sunday evening, I’d already seen it dozens of times.

All of the requisite ingredients of the character-led drama are here: a protagonist on the margins of society who rebels against the system, a love interest, a Muse who helps him discover himself, and an antagonist who eventually accepts grudging respect. The King’s Speech, A Beautiful Mind, Forrest Gump…it’s a familiar story. When the protagonist is taking on a project of sorts (inevitable if they work in a scientific field), then you can expect the appropriate ‘sudden revelation’ scene where everything fits together, and it gets an obligatory airing here. The Imitation Game gives an even more specific example of such well-worn ideas in the ‘disastrous interview scene’, which observant viewers may recognise from Good Will Hunting. This leads to an inevitable conundrum. These tropes are used by Hollywood broadly in line with its political sympathies – standing up for the disenfranchised, but it becomes more and more difficult to warm to those themes when they are repeated so much and no longer hold any individuality or originality.

It feels even more galling in this instance, because there are moments where The Imitation Game points towards the film it could have been (though it may be editing/production which stifled it). The scenes where Hut 8 discuss the ethical implications of what happens when they break the code (spoiler alert) is truly powerful and thought-provoking. Indeed, the film explores ethics in general too much through the fulcrum of the awards season vehicle character-led drama. It often feels that its exploration is limited to what it reveals about the main character. The aforementioned scene feels too much like a tribute to Turning’s stern rationalism and ability to see beyond his peers, instead of a sustained exegesis of what on earth the morally correct thing is to do – the film wraps it up quite neatly in a bundle of relativistic twine.

I’m moving into the territory of talking about the film as I would have liked to have made it, rather than critiquing the vision of the director, but I truly think there are artistic gaps in this film that were ripe for developing. The protagonist is someone upon whose shoulders the world’s fate rests, making him an unusual companion to the superhero protagonists who have dominated Hollywood cinema in recent years.  Superhero comics are one of the foremost art forms at turning the marginalised in society into the stars of the show, but the ubiquity of their film adaptations in recent years has, unfortunately, injured that somewhat. In many ways it’s an overly exclusive position to take, but the sheer volume associated with those films (in viewers, sales, and number of films produced) means that as a blockbuster phenomenon, they have drifted somewhat from their ability to communicate the position of the outsider. As much as I don’t like The Imitation Game borrowing too much from genres and films which have preceded it, its subtle interaction with the superhero film gives back some of this power by focusing on a quiet man whose private life is deemed unnatural and punishable by the state.

As part of this hero’s responsibility, he has to become a master of a particular form of language, to understand communication better than anyone else. The irony is, of course, that as someone who is detached (whether by genius or something else) from ordinary human society, he finds it difficult to communicate with the people around him. This is addressed to some extent through the scene in which the code is finally cracked (and in the process giving an example of how ‘factionalisation’ can work in a film’s favour), as one of his colleagues reveals that the Germans slip up in their coding because they insert repeated personal messages. But the clue is not so much the message’s individuality but its predictability. If a German code operator repeats the name of his paramour enough times, does it remain love or does it become robotic? The other clues to the breaking – talking about the weather and saluting ‘Heil Hitler’ both show examples where human conversation has an ostensibly spontaneous impetus, but betrays something more systematic underneath. Alan’s domination of the film ensures that we always consider communication in terms of systems, and thus we are forced to re-evaluate some of our assumptions about it. It’s true that the film lays these clues out for us to consider, but so much of the dialogue in the film is about Alan discovering himself and being abused by the system, it isn’t really developed as an artistic whole. There is some attention paid to the social code of communication which Alan misses, but it’s a bit too cutesy, and usually diverted to Alan’s romantic life, or lack thereof. The film puts this at the centre of attention, when there is potential to make a real concerted artistic statement at the same time.

Something else is missed, another opportunity available with the central conceit: Turing was a man riddled by secrets. He could not reveal to anyone the extent of his wartime work, nor could he speak to anyone about his homosexuality. Keeping one secret was considered to be not just a legal obligation but an honourable practice, while the other was viewed with scorn. In the flashbacks for Sherborne school, for example, the note-passing is shown as a straightforward piece of character development. This is the recurrent problem with character-led drama, the overwhelming desire to sustain sympathy for the lead character and their relationships, to the extent that thought-provoking diversions, or adding an extra layer on top, are often missed. Or when Manchester’s finest are investigating him, any investigation into this binary of secrets is only done in order to provide the undercooked frame of Alan explaining his life, the things he has done beyond the comprehension of ordinary men, to a humble police officer from up ‘North. I wanted the film to explore the definition of secrecy a bit more, and the hypocrisy of being expected to preserve secrets on behalf of the very establishment that deemed his personal secret to be worthy of punishment.

One other area where I feel the film misses a trick is in making a comment about communication, and the interception thereof, in the immediate aftermath of Edward Snowden’s revelations of the NSA’s monitoring program. The film is simply too ready to hold up the decoding of ENIGMA as a necessary and virtuous quest, central to the war effort, with little investigation beyond the moving scene where its statistical brutality is momentarily laid bare. The back and forth between English and German communications, constantly monitoring each other, is not mined for its potential psychological effects, it’s all really a bit of a joke. Of course, given that most of the messages are banal and mechanic as I mentioned earlier, it would be unfair to expect something akin to the vicariousness of surveillance in The Lives of Others. Nor is it my expectation that films have an obligation to make a political comment. But they do have a psychological impetus. The film is set at a pivotal moment, where widespread real-time covert engagement with human communication begins in earnest. The debate waiting to emerge from the shadows is whether a film like The Imitation Game should really try to be all of these things; whether it is too much to ask, whether it limits the enjoyment of the film, the ability to sympathise with Alan’s plight. I disagree. The film’s funnelling towards a character-driven drama, whenever it happened, left me cold. Some redemption in this regard is given by the character of Mingus, played with cruel, manipulative brilliance by Mark Strong, who steals every scene he is in. Under Strong’s influence, Mingus rises from simple antagonist (represented in the curmudgeonly establishment type by Charles Dance) to become a floating shadow, whose presence demonstrates to Turing that the house always wins. Turing by contrast is (and I hold this to be an inconsistency with the scripting rather than the acting) an unstable character, alternating between wisecracking oddball who won’t play ball, cripplingly shy wallflower, and misunderstood loner. It is as if the essences of many types of Hollywood anti-hero flow through him at once, but cancel each other out.

How do you make a subtle point about surveillance without being accused of making a cheap political shot by pretentious bloggers such as me? No doubt, it is a difficult balance to strike. But the solution I hypothesised was to conduct more of a post-mortem on exactly what Bletchley Park’s work laid the foundation of. It only had to consist of a sidelong quizzical glance, where the film momentarily cocks its head and asks ‘and how much do we think it’s necessary?’ The film’s makers put in all the steps until the final one, demonstrating how vital ENIGMA’s work was at its historical moment, but then backed away from the overhanging question, of whether a dividing line can ever be drawn between intelligence acting on the behalf of the public and the individual’s rights to privacy – given Alan’s own unique private life, it could have been very potent indeed.

But of course, most people are watching and talking about this film because it represents another step on the ladder to stardom ascended by Benedict Cumberbatch. I wasn’t as wowed by his performance as most commentators, but the role that he inhabits is a testament to how he is reshaping classical British acting. Roger Friedman’s review described him as a natural heir to Sir Laurence Olivier and this is right, but Cumberbatch has done some redesigning of the crown upon inheriting it. Olivier’s career was a sequence of stiff upper lip characters: Henry V, Hugh Dowding, Crassus – even Zeus – whereas Cumberbatch has taken the same English tradition and channelled it into portraying society’s freaks and oddballs, instilling them with a dignity that lifts them out of physical disability (Stephen Hawking), sociopathy (Sherlock) and the judgement of society as a whole (Alan Turing). Of course this reflects deeper lying changes in society, but it still needs someone to act it out. So long as he continues to be the best candidate to fulfil these roles, then he will be one of the most important actors working.

How Disney prepared me for a life of pain and misery

Looking back, there’s one thing in particular I don’t understand about the 1990s. Well, there are plenty of things I find weird about that decade, weird being a very 90s word in its own right – the obsession with aliens, the ubiquitous curtained hair, the mysterious ‘zig-a-zig-ah’  – but most of those can, with the benefit of hindsight, be assigned some sort of cultural genesis now that they have retreated into history and are no longer caught up in giddy spontaneity. The UFOs have packed up and gone home. The curtains have been drawn. But what I can’t comprehend is how Disney were content to publish their films, where a boy loves a girl oh but there’s a bad guy and some trauma you’ve got to work through and sometimes you’ve got to learn what’s inside you really counts and everything turns up rosy when you defeat the cynical power grabbers like Hades and Scar and Gaston and Quallo, alongside the game adaptations of those films, which teach you that life is an unrelenting procession of pain and failure.

Alright, alright, I know that the games were produced in the model of arcade games, and were therefore completely unforgiving in their difficulty level and readiness to tell you GAME OVER. Moreover, the difficulty level was only reflected in the number of lives you were given, as opposed to actually making the game easier. The only difference was the number of occasions you were granted to subject yourself to more toil and pain, which is more of a curse than a blessing. The design of these games seemed deliberately calculated in order to make you fail, or at least make you suffer pain at every opportunity. Aladdin and Simba – protagonists of the two best adaptations – seemed incapable of even jumping without running into something that would chip away at their microscopic health meter. Even jumping on the lowest grunt enemy required some sort of sacrificial offering to appease the Disney gods. In the case of Aladdin, this was further complicated by trying to avoid fire and swords. In fact, Aladdin was great for the particular situation which seems much less common in platforming games now – missing the absolute precision needed for making a particular jump, and ending in a place – spikes or a bed of flaming coals usually – where the sole contribution you could make as a player was to accelerate your character’s death; trying all sorts of tactics, jumping up and down, running around, before staying in one spot and sobbing. In some games (the Sonic the Hedgehog series was a persistent offender) I’d let that slide, but in a *Disney* game?! At an impressionable age young players are introduced to one of life’s important lessons: sometimes you’re powerlessly trapped in a situation without any hope of escape. You’re going to die anyway, so why not speed up proceedings? That’s it, life’s terrible, and you may as well just kill yourself. But buy a Mickey Mouse novelty straw before you do so.

As a point of reference, I can say without any hesitation that the first level of Aladdin is harder than 95% of missions in Grand Theft Auto 4.

In the first level of Aladdin, you will get pots, swords and fire thrown at you - sometimes all at once.

In the first level of Aladdin, you will get pots, swords and fire thrown at you – sometimes all at once.

I’m sorry, did you say ‘tutorial level’? There’s no stabilisers on this bicycle. Or you can go back even further to the intro movie – in The Lion King, this takes the form of Timon, lit up against a black background, hands held up in despair like something out of Goya’s worst nightmares, portentously intoning: “It starts”.

Timon knew better. He tried to warn us.

Timon knew better. He tried to warn us.

This is despite the fact that the game was produced and marketed for children, whereas GTA 4 sold so many copies that each person on earth actually has three versions of the game, with one of them buried underground and fed with water and nutrients so it can be harvested come spring. Heck, even when the games would attempt to give you some kind of reward or bonus, events would take another sick twist. Between levels of The Lion King is the minigame ‘Bug Toss’.

Bug Toss. Don't think I ever cleared single digits on this.

Bug Toss. Don’t think I ever cleared single digits on this.

Seems generous enough – you get a respite from Simba’s interactive Bildungsroman to segue into the comic relief of Timon and Pumbaa, but what you get instead is a sadistic exercise. The game is randomised, so there is no pattern you can unlock to try and improve your skills at catching the bugs; if the second bug is going too quickly and you’re on the other side of the screen, you’ve had it. Which brings us to another lesson that these games can inspire to a young generation: the platform levels are difficult, but you know that with enough dedication you can be the best and overcome anything! Luckily at Disney we know better, so we give you these mini-games to show you that life is completely random and meaningless, and you end up being shat upon from a great height. Let’s take a look at one level in particular – the next one in The Lion King – to understand in greater detail just how our childhood idealism was crushed.

WARNING: the following YouTube video will cause post-traumatic recollections to anyone who owned The Lion King on the Mega Drive.

They say that leaving school at 14 to begin manual labour was ‘character forming’, and that kids these days live a pampered existence. They couldn’t be further from the truth. I repeatedly subjected myself to this torture as an extra-curricular exercise. The original scene from the film which inspired this level isn’t entirely innocent either. I don’t know about everyone else, but I was intimidated by the really polychromatic scenes in cartoons, overwhelming pscychedelia that they were. But the game took intimidation to a whole new level. The level doesn’t even start innocuously – it gives you the instruction ‘roar at monkeys’, without specifying that it is the pink monkeys you need to roar it. This simple oversight cost me about a week in poorly invested time. The jump sequence over the giraffes is complicated by the strange mechanisms of jumping in the game, where even thinking about the possibility of breathing on one of the arrow buttons means Simba will lurch uncontrollably in mid-air. The first monkey sequence is simple enough, once you realise the colour coding at work.  After that is a bizarre section with an ostrich. I have to say before I stick the knife in, that you should credit the developers for their originality in inserting so many different mechanisms into a film tie-in, but simultaneously curse them for coming up with the most varied instruments of torture. Prompted by a floating arrow, you soon realise you have to either jump or duck to avoid the incoming obstacle, although one of them (which I assume is a baby rhino) looks a lot like a pig. Its impassive obstinacy, causing Simba to die if he gets within a certain distance of it, is perhaps the best advertisement for vegetarianism Disney ever made. The sight of that lurid pink pig/rhino/elephant/whatever, striking down the precocious lion as if with laser vision, makes you look at old Ham in a new light. The mechanics are easy enough to pick up, though the exact rhythm needed for the ‘double jump’ over pig and branch combo requires syncopation barely possessed by the most skilled jazz musicians. Still, your reward for that is your first checkpoint of the level!

Your reward is a series of absurdly difficult jumps along the pendulums of rhino tails, a feat made more difficult by the aforementioned propensity for Simba to move around in mid-air like a toddler that has had their mashed potatoes spiked with Red Bull. The game does a good job at trying to mollify ‘death’ as the Pokemon series does most of the time, by suggesting it’s a faint, and that Simba just needs a good rest. The finality of ending up in the drink is hard to dismiss, though. If you manage to overcome the tails (and make quite a hard jump over the giraffe), you get a second round on the ostrich, but this time without the benevolence of the golden arrow, which has clearly fucked off in disappointment at your previous efforts. This makes the process so much harder than it seems. You start seeing imaginary branches and pigs everywhere, mixing your jumps and your ducks, and coming to view the double jump as a personal nemesis. Oh, and then they throw in a pig/rhino that comes much sooner than you anticipated, rushing towards you with all the anger felt by its precursors that were processed into bacon and sausages. Then, oh then, comes the real monkey test.

The painful doubling of monkey roaring and ostrich dodging in this level is truly cruel, allowing you to think you’ve mastered a dynamic, only to see it return in much more unforgiving form. It’s a handy fable of life that Disney are communicating to us – sure, you can work hard to get good at what you do, but sooner or later it’s going to come back in a form you can’t defeat, so you’d better walk off into the sea with stones in your pockets. It goes without saying that the second monkey tableaux is hard as nails, but I’d forgotten how difficult landing the jumps could be on those birds’ nests – Simba’s famous tetchiness meant that all too often you’d land the jump but because your fingers had the composure of a crack addict, you’d add an unnecessary poke to the side and you’d get to start all over again. The fact that you have to then go back over water to begin the process again – when for the most part you’re unsure if you’ve even done the right thing – is absolutely heinous. There seems to be many permutations of monkeys possible – and quite a few illusory dead-ends, one of them has to be roared at twice for god’s sake – that, once again, drowning seems like the natural termination, to watch the number of lives decrease and jack it all in.

The Mega Drive from which these cartridges held their reign of terror was the only true family I console I ever used. It belonged to my older sister, via a school friend of hers, and my other sister and I would join her for gaming sessions. But not for multiplayer; we’d gather round to repeatedly throw ourselves at a brick wall. My older sister’s friend was the only person who was good enough to make any progress on the games, and when she did crack through a level, we rejoiced like fanatics. There was one Saturday morning where she managed to go through about three levels consecutively that we’d never even seen before – an event so dramatic, I was sent down like the envoy of a successful raiding party to my parents. They failed to appreciate the significance of what we achieved, probably distracted some quaintly 90s activities: Mum throwing away an empty carton of Golden Grahams, Dad setting up some outdoor furniture.

Disney must have learnt something over time, though: I can’t close this without giving a shout out to what may be the most perfect mini-game ever made. The catchily titled The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride Gamebreak contained 4 beautifully designed nuggets of fun, but one of them had all that and a heap of originality to boot; ‘Paddle Bash’.

Paddle Bash: A hidden gem that may stay buried forever, as it really doesn't like running on 64-bit systems.

Paddle Bash: A hidden gem that may stay buried forever, as it really doesn’t like running on 64-bit systems.

A combination of Pong and Breakout, the power-ups and power-downs were impeccably balanced, the two dynamics at play always kept the game interesting, and the ‘easy’ difficulty setting (well, ‘kitten’) actually meant something. I’ve never been able to find a copy that can work on Windows 7 and beyond, so if anyone has the foggiest in how to direct me, please get in touch. If we can work out a method, then I would recommend it to young and old. It’s a real shame that video games can suffer so much from technological obsolescence, as one of the leading lights in its field can become unusable within 10 years. Even out-of-print books can at least be bought for a premium.

Are the early Disney games great though? Goodness me, yes. Or at least the first half of all them is, that’s as far as I’ve ever got. Someone will have to tell me if they stay good in the second.