Sunday, October 10, 2021

Polybius (2017).

There's a kind of trick involved here.  I'm not talking about the gimmick at the heart of tonight's entry (at least not yet).  The problem I've got to find some way of addressing right now is that of public awareness.  It's an issue that both artists and critics have to deal with.  This goes double for anytime that a writer or filmmaker decides to take the plunge and create an artwork that is new or original, and therefore has no built-in pre-awareness to it.  In the case of the critic, what this means is that if there's this neat, old, antique piece of literature or cinema that you're a fan of, and yet the odds are even that few to no one else has ever heard about it, what that usually amounts to, in practice, is that you have to go out of your way a lot more on explaining just what the forgotten artwork is, what it does and where it came from, in addition to what should be just a simple task of explaining why you either like or dislike it.  With a familiar franchise like Star Trek or James Bond, this issue doesn't exist as much, because they are pieces of entertainment that most audiences are still familiar with.  If you then turn around and mention someone like Algernon Blackwood, or Frank Belknap Long, then most people have no choice except to wonder who in the hell you're even talking about.  That's when the real trouble begins.   

I think something very much like this problem is in play right now.  It explains why perhaps a bit of context is in order.  There's also a bit of irony thrown into the mix as well.  That's because in one sense, the artist I have to talk about can at least be considered something of a known quantity.  He's got a popular following on his own, and he is a contemporary show business personality, at least of a sort.  Confession time.  I'm not real sure just how far the influence of YouTube personalities, or internet celebrity is able to extend, and what kind of effect it has at the cultural level of popular awareness.  Going just by my own experiences, the whole phenomenon of YouTube filmmakers is, at best, a curious combination of vague ubiquity, combined with a free-floating sense of anonymity.  When you decide to click on a video link by guys like MattPat, or Markiplier, the results always maintain this curious sense of the familiar and the unknown combined.

On the one hand, there's always the possibility that you might just wind up enjoying their work, and become something like a casual, regular viewer; at least here and there, on occasion.  At the same time, even if this happens, it remains very hard to tell what kind of impact they are having on the media and audience landscape at large.  It's like you know you might be looking at something of importance, yet it's hard to tell just how far that importance extends.  For instance, not long ago, one YouTuber named Patrick Willems did a retrospective on Francis Ford Coppola that helped me re-evaluate the entire cinematic generation of which he was a part.  That was a viewing experience with an ultimately positive sort of outcome.  I guess its as a good an example I can give of the best possible results this collective endeavor can have on the audience.  At the same time, I seem to have been an outlier.

The fact is I'm not real sure how much of an audience awareness or impact this kind of endeavor is able to generate.  It can be considered a shame in a few cases, as people like David Rose, or In Praise of Shadows have proven themselves capable of making legit documentary features exclusive to the internet.  There may be a sense in which such efforts point the way toward at least a hopefully vital aspect of the future.  However, I'm not sure we've arrived there yet, or even whether or not the majority well ever take notice.  The whole thing seems to amount to a collective problem and/or conundrum.  How do you leave an impact, and barely get noticed in the process?  The whole thing sounds like a demented, self-canceling zen koan.  It's also a challenge that every YouTuber will have to struggle with, even a nominal trendsetter like James Rolfe.

As of this writing, his popularity fluctuates between 50 and 75%.  What that means, in practical terms, is that a sizable half of the audience has a pretty good idea of who he is.  At the same time, there's an equal yet opposite majority who've never even heard of the guy.  He got his start a while back, yet not too long ago, incredible as that may sound.  His breakout performance debut was in 2004, by appearing in a series of YouTube comedy sketches, under the persona of the Angry Video Game nerd.  Since that time he's managed to build up something of a reputation for himself.  The nature of his act is interesting for the way in which it combines two elements which seem commonplace now, yet which probably looked revolutionary back in the early 2010s.  What Rolfe does is take the idea of critiquing a piece of artwork, in his case a video game, and then fitting it into the formatting and performance of sketch and/or stand-up comedy.  The result was and (at least as of this writing) remains: The Nerd.  

He's this hyperactive, hard drinking, profanity laden man-child of a figure.  Someone whose whole existence is predicated on not having much of a life outside of hiding in a way in a roomful of grade-Z video games, and then torturing himself by playing and reviewing them for our viewing pleasure and pop cultural schadenfreude.  At least I think that's the gist of it, anyway.  The premise itself seems to be very basic, and yet its what Rolfe has been able to do with the format that seems complex.  His early videos where very crude, bargain basement affairs.  Usually each video consisted of Rolfe in the Nerd persona filming both himself and recorded consul footage of the game he was reviewing.  He would riff off various aspects about it that happen to piss him off.  This can range from poor graphic design, faulty control functionality, all the way to various, weird, in-game creative choices that just don't amount to much in the way of common sense.  Granted, since most of the old consul games were geared more toward gameplay rather than anything like an actual story, I'm not sure how much its worth it to get upset over.  It wouldn't be until later that developers found ways of incorporating actual narrative into the gaming experience.

In addition to his profanity laden comedic riffs, Rolfe would often try to add variety to his endeavors by creating any number of comedy sketches, and wrapping these around the main riffing segments of his videos.  This sort of thing could range from toilet level crudery, to some material that could be actually pretty clever.  I think the one that's destined to stick with viewers the most is the constant creativity Rolfe is able to either draw upon, or in some cases just plain make up out of seeming thin air whenever he allows to Nerd to give any and all shitty games a good and thorough verbal abusing.  There's not any one example of what I'm talking about right now that would stand as the pinnacle of things.  It's all so much of a piece that Rolfe is even willing to include his curse word poetry in the main theme song to his show.  It's one of those things where either a positive or negative reaction goes a long way to determining whether you're willing and able to go along with the kind of idea Rolfe has got going here.  Based on the following he's been able generate from it all, I'd have to say that audiences have been quite willing to go along for the ride, for the most part, anyway.

There's probably a lot more to say about Rolfe's style of humor, and the particular YouTube culture and format that's grown-up around it.  For the moment, however, I think it's more important to note that one of the interesting things about Rolfe is that it turns out he doesn't seem to be just a one-trick pony.  One gratifying surprise is to discover that the guy is something of a Horror movie buff.  He's not the sort whose knowledge can't go any further than the year 1978, either.  This is the sort of Terror Geek that actually knows who Vincent Price and Boris Karloff were.  No offense, yet that kind of pop culture knowledge is the rarest commodity in an era that by and large can't seem to realize that any real history existed before Spielberg made a film like E.T., and even that film seems in danger of falling through the cracks.  Rolfe, however, isn't one to forget.  Even when its a film that he can't quite get behind (and there have been times when I have to disagree with him on certain cinematic texts), you can tell his love for the genre as whole is what allows him to be able to have at least some kind of appreciation.

Nor does Rolfe's fandom for the Horrific stop at just mere appreciation.  It seems to be enough of an inspiration for him to try his own hand at the genre.  It's a subject he's even willing to talk about at length at, the site for the company he and his friends and family have formed just for this purpose, and of which the AVGN is just part of a greater, indie filmmaking whole.  It's on that site where you will find Rolfe sharing a lot about his love for the Horror genre, and how it has impacted him as an artist and movie maker.  Once you start to listen to him as he goes on, sometimes at eager and enthusiastic length, about a subject in which its obvious he cares passionately about, then perhaps it begins to make sense why one of his initial efforts as a film school graduate was a spin of on the Horror Mockumentary sub-genre.  In fact, you might say it's this love of Horror that is responsible for the topic of discussion today.

The Story.

The following is a public service announcement.  On Wednesday, Oct. 25th, 2017, a local filmmaker named James Rolfe began a series of video diaries detailing his explorations into a supposed urban legend of video game folklore.  Mr. Rolfe began by keeping a detailed record of his efforts, before seemingly vanishing without a trace.  The one item Mr. Rolfe seems to have left behind prior to his disappearance is one of his camcorders, complete with an accompanying video file.  The authorities, however, remain skeptical of file's content, and have even speculated the possibility of a hoax, or at the very least, some kind of prank.  Mr. Rolfe's friends and family, however, have requested that the contents of this file be posted online, in the hopes that some clue to his whereabouts (if any) might come to light.  The last known footage of Mr. Rolfe can be found here, in its entirety.  Viewer discretion is advised.

Revisiting an Old Format.

A while ago I had the opportunity to discuss a subject that seems to hover somewhere between remaining a hot button topic within the Horror community, or else its just made its way toward a slow, gradual acceptance as just another one of the bells and whistles of the format.  I'm talking, of course, about the Found Footage genre.  Our last look at this happened just over a year ago at the time of writing this post.  Now, for all intents and purposes, it looks like we're back.  You pretty much have Rolfe himself to thank for that.  The reason why is obvious if you ever decided to stop and click on the YouTube link above.  It's the director's choice for how he wound up telling his story.  Which sort of edges up towards the old, familiar topic about just how controversial the sub-genre remains, if at all, anymore.

For what it's worth, nothing about Rolfe's creative choice bothers me.  I still can't find my way towards any sort of logic that will allow me to lose sleep over the issue, no matter many knots others are willing to tie themselves up in about it.  I guess that makes me either lucky or cursed, depending on how you look at it.  There's just doesn't seem much I have to say about the style in and of itself, one way or another.  As far as I can tell, my operative principle for the whole thing goes as follows.  It's all just part of the toolkit.  It can be either a help or a hindrance, depending on what type of story is being told, or else just how the individual filmmaker decides to utilize it in the course of telling whatever story they have to work with.

In Rolfe's case, this choice of format does make a kind of sense.  The thing to understand about the guy is that he's essentially a combination of internet documentarian, and/or, nearly one-man stand-up comedy act for the digital age.  Most AVGN videos are just Rolfe placing himself up there on the camera's stage and making with the jokes and gags that his fans know and love him for.  It's a pretty basic setup as these things go, yet Rolfe has shown a developing craft in the way he's been able to handle his chosen format.  This combination of documentary technique and comedic persona all manage to gell together to the point that Rolfe is able to make his regular shtick come off as effortless whenever he can manage to fire on all cylinders.  The result is a technique that might not be entirely new, though perhaps it does represent a kind of advance in the format.  That's something I'll have to explain near the end.  Right now, it's enough to point out that what Rolfe has created (some might even argue that he's something of a pioneer in this regard) is a way of transcribing the Mockumentary format for a digital platform, and putting it to comedic effect on a regular basis.  It's the kind of thing that was probably inevitable on some level, once you stop and think it over.  It's just that Rolfe seems to have been first out of the gate.

All of this development, honing, and sharpening of his chosen design means that Rolfe is able to take this procedure and use it to make what amounts to a seamless transition into the format's more familiar realm of Found Footage Horror.  The switch from one set to the other is done so well that it almost comes away looking like the whole thing was done off-the-cuff, when the reality is that Rolfe probably wouldn't have been able to make his short film with as much skill as we have on display now, had he started it way back during his early years.  The perfection of a technique like that is all a matter of trial, error, and above all patience and a willingness to see whether you can even cut it or not.  Bear in mind, however, so far, all we've talked about here is just technique.  It stops short at being just that.  What really and always matters most, in the end, is whether or not Rolfe has an actual story to tell, and if he's any good at it.

Unexpected Strengths.  

A while ago, in another lifetime, Stephen King published a brief essay with the promising title of, "Turning the Thumbscrews on the Reader".  As a finished product, the essay is both promising and frustrating by turns.  What makes it valuable is that it does at least deliver on the promise of its title.  At the same time, the whole piece is so brief, when its obvious there was a great deal of space for King to cover, especially as a professional author addressing younger, neophyte writers out there who might have been looking for advice.  Aside from the question of struggling young talent, there is also the value that a more expanded version of this essay would have had for the critical perspective on stories in general.  What King is talking about in his title is one of the most necessary and precarious skills in the practice of Horror writing.  A good way to say it is that the ultimate task of anyone plying their trade in this genre is to make sure they can find ways of both catching and holding the reader's attention.

This is something like a major, all-purpose challenge, the kind of mandate that all writers operate under, regardless of genre.  However, the work of Horror seems to place a greater premium on the mandate than others.  That's because the concept of "thrilling" and/or "gut-churning suspense" is one of the natural in-built components for this kind of story.  The kind of effect that a classic Gothic tale always works toward is either Terror, Horror, or a Gross-Out.  Sometimes all three elements may be able to go together to form a complete whole.  It's what you get in works like It, or Night of the Living Dead.  Whereas a film like Psycho more on the first two to do its job.  What all this means in practice is that each Horror story, whether long or short, has got to find its own way of grabbing the audience by the throat and keeping a firm grip until its time for the credits to role.  It's not the most easy, or enviable of creative tasks for the artist.   The worst part is that it really does seem as if there are a myriad number of ways this can be done.  Nor is there much use in saying any one option is superior to another, or that its just a matter of fitting Terror Trope A into Slot B, like it was an all-purpose jigsaw puzzle.

If that was really the case, then its a fair bet the Horror genre would be less diverse, and more unified than it is in real life.  In some ways, you could even argue that this genre has it worse than all the others, as it takes a greater level of imaginative heavy lifting to get the story off the ground.  It's why I find it so frustrating that King didn't devote a great deal more space to discussing the topic in his essay.  Still, what insight he is able to provide turns out to be genuine, on the whole.  The best two cents can be found when it comes to holding the reader's attention.  "Move the reader," King advises, "but hurt the reader at the same time, because they can be the same thing (331-32)".  I think King's best insight here is that moving and hurting the reader can amount to the same literary effect.  It is just possible the author has helped make a distinction by creating a unity.  The unification of opposites in this case stems from the artist's ability to use our sympathy for the characters against us.  This is something King is good at when all the cylinders are firing.  In those moments, he can get at where we live as readers.  The best examples of this from his own works would have to be Bag of Bones, and 11/22/63.

That's not to say there cannot be other types of unifications in this genre.  There are other combinations that can work just as well.  This is something that Rolfe or guys like Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg are well aware of.  It's also something I've grown to understand.  If there's one thing I've learned in my years as a Horror fan, it's that even a goofball sense of the absurd has its place.  Horror and Comedy can mix well together as long as the writer stays on their toes.  The real problem is that I've also run into authors who too often confuse the bucket of blood for the real point of any story.  In that case, what happens is that special effects, or style, wind up taking precedent over substance.

It's pitfall to be avoided, and one of the things James Rolfe has to be congratulated for is that he manages to deftly side-step this particular trap on his way to the finish line of his story.  What results is a curious and effective blend of the comedic and horrific.  This can all be seen in the way Rolfe sets up his scenario.  It starts out as what appears to be the typical format of his Video Game Nerd series, with the director even appearing in the usual white, buttoned shirt of the Nerd himself.  What sets it apart from the usual episode of this kind is that he plays everything in a deliberate, lower key.  The persona of the Nerd himself is a lot less intense and high-strung.  He's more relaxed and casual, while still maintaining the familiar sense of humor that he's associated with.  Nor is this all that much of a radical departure, as sometimes in a lot of his later seasons, including episodes that preceded this one, Rolfe has also employed this more calm, and laid back approach.  Whether or not the fans view this as a good thing will always have to come down to a question of personal mileage.  

For the purposes of this AVGN special, however, it's just what the doctor ordered.  There's very little choice in the matter, as well.  About the only way a setup like this can work is if the writer is first willing to ground everything in a sense of familiarity and normalcy.  Everything has to at least appear to be in its place to begin with, otherwise it lessens the contrast between the quotidian mundane and extraordinary supernatural.  A good way to think of these establishing moments of the Nerd just going about and doing his shtick is to view it as perhaps a necessary, and yet often overlooked component in helping to sell the more unbelievable elements once its time to bring them shambling out of the dark, and onto the stage.  This is what makes the opening sections so crucial.  It's precisely because there is nothing exceptional about it that helps the viewer slide into the story with relative ease.  It's basically the same kind of approach that Dickens took in laying out his Christmas Carol.  The readers is meant to keep in mind that Old Marley is dead to begin with, otherwise nothing that follows will seem effective

I don't know how well read Rolfe is, yet it's the same opening approach as the one used by Boz.  He presents himself as a normal YouTube persona regaling us with the contents of what amounts to an amazing example of modern American urban legend.  A myth like Polybius is interesting in that it could only have come about in a digital influenced age.  It's the result of new world tech clashing and sometimes even meshing with the old world fears and superstitions of ancient folklore.  Let me just say in passing that it has to be one of the most remarkable examples of a survival of old custom legends exerting an influence on the modern imagination.  The result is the by now familiar trope of the Ghost (or even, gulp!, something worse) in the Machine.  This is an element Rolfe seems to have an intuitive understanding of, the kind of seasoned handling that comes from an early immersion in the cinema and history of the Gothic.  This is what allows him to begin with what amounts to a short backstory description of the modern urban myth itself, before moving onto the proper fictional portrayal of it.

In doing this, Rolfe is also remaining true to the conventions of Horror in another way that I'm not sure casual viewers would be aware of.  In his study, Danse Macabre, one of the things Stephen King highlights as an effective component of a Horror story is that it's sometimes necessary to help establish what he refers to as a "provenance (283-4)" or history of the horror at the center of the narrative.  The two novels that King cites as best accomplishing this feat are The House Next Door, by Anne River Siddons, and Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House.  Rolfe himself appears to have just a passing, or casual familiarity with King's work, and yet what's interesting is that he seems to have discovered this bit of fictional necessity all on his own.  It's what allows him to begin his story by filling us in as the audience about just what kind of terror has most often been associated with the subject he's about to tackle.  Just like the doomed party of ghost hunters at the heart of Jackson's book, we are presented with a setup that slowly cues us in on what to expect as we head into the main act.

That part of the programme takes place once that camera is moved from the normal Nerd headquarters, and into an unfamiliar looking storehouse (actually the main set of another YouTube video game series, TNT Amusements).  This will become the main setting for the rest of the episode.  It's also the point at which the question of ratcheting up the tension on the viewer sort of becomes paramount.  This doesn't always have to be the case.  A feature-length film in the same genre, for instance, can afford to take more of its time, which can create the ever-popular sense of slow burn terror.  At just under 30 minutes of runtime, however, Rolfe has set himself a very short window of opportunity in which to deliver the necessary payoff.  We're not dealing with a novelisitic type piece such as Misery or The Dark Half.  Rolfe has set himself the the task of writing the cinematic equivalent of a Weird Tales short story.  That means the story has to deliver its main scares in a fairly quick amount of time.  So how does he fair?

Once the film switches to its main setting of a video arcade warehouse, or storage facility, the remainder of the film is broken down and segmented into five days.  These days are couched in the form of video diary entries, and this is how the rest of the story is delivered to us.  Nor do I think there is anything all that accidental about it.  It wouldn't surprise me to learn that this is the director's way of placing goalposts in front of him, as a reminder of how much time he's got, and how far he can ever be allowed to drag things out.  If he hasn't delivered the goods past a certain point, then its quite possibly a sign that his ambitions have outstripped his potential for artistic inspiration.  The five scene setup doesn't count as the inspiration itself.  Rather, it's more like the crucible in which the artist has to do all he can to find the right creative idea which will put just the right scare on his viewers.  That's a very daunting challenge, when you stop and think about it, and not all filmmakers out there are capable of hitting the target like they either should, or want to.  In this case, however, we're in good hands.  Rolfe is able to knock things clear out of the park.  Instead of acting as a limitation, the five scene setup serves to charge the director's imagination, and allow us a traditional storytelling structure that takes us by surprise.

The first scene, or diary entry (Day 1), acts like a continuation of the initial establishing moments of the film.  That sense of calm placidity, resting snug in a firm sense of the quotidian continues as before.  The first possible note of unease comes along when our intrepid gamer stumbles across an actual arcade box entitled Polybius, and plugging it in reveals a fully functioning game.  The trick with establishing moments like these always seems to come down to just one idea: subtlety.  It depends on what kind of tale you want to tell, however.  In Rolfe's case, he's decided to go with the low-key approach, and it's a creative choice that works for the material he's filming.  It's the same sort of minor note of discordance the reader will find waiting for them in films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where a barely audible off-note is introduced into the proceedings.  The discord itself never causes that big a splash, that's not its job.  What it has to do instead, is make the audience uneasy by hinting that it could be a sign that bad things might be starting to lurk in the shadows.  

If I'm making this all sound dull, then I apologize.  That's not the way Rolfe handles it at all.  On the contrary, the quick sense of dramatic economy Rolfe displays in this relatively quiet moment shows that he knows how to play this opening note like a pro.  Our first glimpse of the mute arcade cabinet is the discord note, and yet the laid back skepticism of the Nerd is what helps keep our feet anchored in a sense of calm reality.  Surely, the character muses, nothing really bad could happen.  It's just a game, right?  So a note of suspense has been introduced, and then dimmed to a soft flame.  What's key to note is that Rolfe is able to avoid a crucial mistake in these scenes.  He never writes to defuse the suspense, and knows enough to let it hover over the rest of the scene as a background menace.  Everything seems to be right, yet even now the audience should be harboring the idea that something's about to go wrong.

Scene two (Day 2) is where the note is allowed to intensify.  The Nerd goes from claiming the game ranges from mediocre to average, to claiming that he might have underestimated its quality.  It sounds strange, though nothing strictly out of the ordinary.  That comes when the Nerd regales us with a bit of trivia about how the game takes its name from an actual Classical Greek philosopher who invented the Polybius Square (a piece of info which does act as Chekhov's Gun for this story).  Nothing seems out of place until the Nerd loses his train of thought, and winds up repeating the tidbit about the historical Polybius almost verbatim, and then catching himself in the act.  It's a moment of disorientation which is used to skillfully take that initial note of unease, and then turn the volume up on it just a bit.  This is the practice Rolfe keeps up through the rest of the story.  He knows you can't just turn it up all the way, that would spoil the kind of story he wants to tell.  Instead, what he does from herein is to find the right ways of incrementally edging the volume dial up ever so imperceptibly, in small bits of reveal.

By Day or Scene 3, the note of discord is audible to the character, as well as the viewers, and this is where Rolfe finds interesting ways to modulate the note of terror in his film.  It's at this point that the sense of horror becomes palpable, and yet he never plays it as just one note.  Instead, he show's how he is able to have fun with the medium in a way that doesn't make the mistake of breaking up the necessary sense of dramatic tension.  Instead, Rolfe is able to combine the two elements seamlessly, creating moments where the audience can't tell whether to laugh or get seriously freaked out .  The prime example of this is when we see the Nerd struggling for his own sanity, and the way its played clearly has its humorous side.  Then Rolfe pulls the rug out from us by turning the terror volume up a bit by doing no more than rolling his eyes up to the back of his head.  It's done with such skill and editing that we can't being unsettled when it happens, and the laugh is dashed from out thoughts.  It's how Rolfe is able to achieve that unification of opposing tendencies as mentioned above.

It's the curious mixture of Humor and Horror that stands out to me the most, for some reason.  It's probably not all that surprising, either.  Despite his love for the genre of the grotesque, Rolfe is well aware that it was his ability for making people laugh that helped put him on the map.  Therefore its not too much of a surprise to see him wanting to utilize bits and pieces of it in the course of his short film.  This can be a risk in less experienced hands.  Films like Gremlins always walk a tightrope between gut-busting and stomach-churning.  Its a form of narrative tension that isn't always easy to maintain, and many efforts have fallen flat as a result.  Much like Joe Dante, however, Rolfe never manages to drop any of the fine China.  Instead, the humor keeps making a brief appearance, allowing the viewer to have a brief and welcome laugh amid the suspense, and then the story turns right around and grabs us once again by the jugular.  This is done with a skill that is surprising in its simplicity.  It ranges from nothing more complex than bumping into a blank arcade cabinet that we didn't even know was there, to the chilling scene where a grinning face appears briefly in the screen of a neighboring game box off to the left, and then vanishing before the character can get the barest glimpse of it.  I think Rolfe's strengths and skills as a Horror director tend to shine through most clearly in moments like this.

Like any good story of this sort, however, the terror has to come to a point.  And the final station that Rolfe is able to arrive proves to be something of a knockout.  Without going into spoilers at all here, let's just say that even after repeated viewings, that's an ending that still manages to deliver a welcome, final jump scare, the kind that really manages to live up to that much-abused term's best reputation.  I think the key reason it continues to work so well, however, is because of what I can only describe as the director's more or less intuitive grasp of the material.  Rolfe seems to be aware on some level that a good build-up can sometimes be the Horror story's best friend.  What this means in practice is that Rolfe had to find some way of making the content of each of his remaining five scenes count in such a way that it lines up one moment of dread on top of another before lighting the final fuse of metaphorical TNT and ending things with a bang.  What makes it all the more admirable is how Rolfe manages to play everything in an effective low key, one that knows you don't have to sacrifice quality for shock value, or dispense with a good element of suspense into the bargain.

I think the only other thing to mention on this score is the way Rolfe approaches the Polybius myth itself.  What he does is take a modern day trope, and find what amounts to a decent enough approach to the material.  It deviates from the main account in certain ways, yet it works well enough for his purposes.  Where most accounts of the urban legend couch it in terms reminiscent of this kind of Big Brother is Watching, hold-over ethos from the 1960s, Rolfe seems more content to find his own way into the myth.  To his credit, he doesn't ignore the folklore of the game that's been established prior to his film.  Instead, he incorporates it all into the film, then uses the lore as an neat jumping off point for his own individual addition to the mythos.  The funny thing is how that last choice of word might be a bit more apt than usual.  The way Rolfe let's his story play out winds up ending on a note that is a lot more supernatural than in any iteration of the legend I've seen before.  In fact, by the time we reach the closing credits, the game itself seems less a product of government conspiracy, and more something akin to the otherworldly parasite of John Carpenter's The Thing.

I'm willing to bet Rolfe has taken us even further afield.  There are two standout instances of what I mean, here.  The first is when the Nerd makes reference to "the Ferryman on the River Styx".  The second comes a scene or two before that, when the real terror is ushered on-stage for the first time.  The Nerd tells us of how it feels as if his senses are being heightened on some imperceptible level.  The character cites how he can here the sound of a Pac Man machine, humming to itself an entire room away.  "I can here the rats, scurrying through the walls," he tells us.  "I can hear colors....I can hear the colors"!  Those are the kind of lines that might mean nothing to the average viewer.  To any die-hard fan of the genre, however, it might be enough to give one pause, and wonder if the director is any kind of fan of the old, Weird Tales Circle of Horror writers?  I  merely ask because the trope of Rats in the Walls and the idea of the sounds of colors, or even the idea of a supernatural element to "Colours", in general, is enough to suggest that Rolfe has decided to edge the whole proceedings well into the domain of Lovecraft Country.

This is all just supposition, bear in mind.  Rolfe is a smart enough writer to know that sometimes the best artistic fear is the one that comes from a sense of the unknown.  And he's willing to play that final note ambiguity to the hilt, leaving us as an audience with more questions than answers.  Yet it's also what makes a film like this kind of wonderful.  Again, this is another strategy that doesn't always work in the Horror tale's favor.  Rolfe, once more, however, shows he has the skill to know when to spell things out, and when to leave us hanging and craving more.  When done right, this is a creative choice which can act as the perfect icing on the cake.  It's a clue that there might be more layers to the story than we are being shown, and hence that the artist has been lucky enough to tap into a real creative idea.  Rolfe has, in other words, found a genuine ore vein of inspiration.  It leaves me with a somewhat loaded dice question, in a way.

Conclusion: A Surprising, and Gratifying Display of Skill and Story.        

I haven't seen Rolfe's short film discussed at any great length in terms of the sort of the in-depth critical analysis like that kind I've at least tried to give it here.  To be fair, I think you don't have to go too far to find the explanation for this.  The number of reasons for the relative neglect can be traced to roughly three factors: it's still a new commodity, the nature of the artist's chosen platform is less than ideal, and it's difficult to separate the artistry of the short from the kind of fame Rolfe has garnered for himself over the years.  James released his video efforts in 2017.  In some ways that seems like a lifetime ago, yet the fundamental truth is that it just means the film is less than six years old.  In human terms, this little project is still barely out of its pre-school years.  That means we all might just have to wait a bit longer for it to get out of kindergarten in order for most people to even start processing the story with any kind of proper critical lens focused on it.  This could also be less simple than it sounds.

Here's one of the sad facts I've learned about YouTube over the years.  It is just possible for a lot a promising young talent to put their voices out there using this streaming service, only to see their hard work and effort more or less get swallowed and drowned in an anonymous sea of digital video bullshit.  In the strictest sense, I guess you could say there's nothing really all that new about it.  You could, for instance, try and make the case that tons of voices out there never got their chance to be heard, even back before anyone ever conceived the idea of such things like an internet.  My reply would a not-so-fast note of caution, coupled with the advice that's it's probably a good idea to go back and take a look at the history of pre-net analogue show business.  Some old guy with the funny name of Newton Minnow once referred to all that stuff as a vast wasteland.  The funny thing is how time has a way of revealing things that people back then were just too close to notice.  One thing I've found out is there's usually a reason why shows like Andy Griffith and the The Twilight Zone keep hanging around, while shows like Cop Rock and My Mother, the Car can only be enjoyed on the MST3K level.

The point here is that far from Rolfe being just another victim of the competitive jungle of showbiz, it really does seem as if the YouTube platform often has a way of managing to throw an extra monkey wrench into the works.  It is just possible to make some money from your efforts on the platform, however whether this amounts to an actual living wage can vary from one case to the next.  It also doesn't help to notice that sometimes YouTube has a nasty habit of feeding the trolls a lot more than others.  This goes not just for its infamous comments section, yet also extends to the favoring of less than ideal personalities like Felix Kjellberg and Doug Walker.  In such cases, what we're dealing is neither critical commentary, nor comedy, but rather trolling disguised as an amalgamation of both.  The worst part about it is that there really doesn't seem to be any inherent motivation for the platform to clean up its act, not even on, or perhaps precisely because of the monetary level.  There is the creeping sense that YouTube's whole performance model grants an unfortunate advantage to a disturbing social phenomenon.  In that sense, Rolfe could be playing with a deck stacked against him.

The final point is like the icing on the cake.  I said way back at the start that Rolfe's popularity hovers somewhere at the 50 percent mark.  That means half the country has no choice except to ask who the hell am I even talking about?  The other, meanwhile, will typically have to respond with something like, "Oh yeah, the AVGN.  What about him"?  That seems to be about as far as the majority can go in terms of popular knowledge and awareness.  Rolfe is known best for his persona, rather than any one effort or attempt at art on his part.  He's regarded as one of the court jesters of the digital medium, and that's about as far as most folks can take it.  It's disconcerting for those moments of recognition necessary whenever someone is able to spot a glimmer of talent in the proceedings, yet it remains the handicap all such commentary on his is going to have to operate under in the foreseeable future.

None of this, however, should be allowed to detract from the success James is able to forge in the course this very surprising sleeper hit of his.  The only real downside I can find is how easy it will be for the whole thing to get lost in the shuffle.  The silver lining in it all might be that perhaps it doesn't always have to stay that way.  I asked a moment ago why Rolfe never felt the need to devote himself to the cinema of Horror full time.  It's clear that's where his major artistic passion seems to lie.  So it kind of begs the question of why not just put pedal to the meddle and let out the throttle by doing what you obviously enjoy?  No one gets hurt by it, and most important of all, there is a genuine sense of necessary talent onboard.  I think it's also possible to figure out just why we haven't seen Rolfe take up the mantle of Horror director yet.  It may even be possible to point at certain hints that things "might" change in the future.

I'm not real sure how lucrative the Arts tend to be as a career choice.  Yeah, you got guys like Spielberg living in mansions and driving porches.  What's the other common denominator going on here?  If you answered that guys like him or Scorsese are more an exception, rather than a rule, then congratulations, you've just realized one of the biggest ironies in showbiz.  Even worldwide success is never a guarantee of anything.  That's why it makes more sense to view filmmaking as a very eccentric form of a working stiff's job, or like the pinnacle of the gig economy.  They've got a saying in Hollywood that you're only as good as your next picture.  Well in the case of guys like Rolfe it's a lot more like whatever helps pay the bills is the real priority.  That means whatever sells best, the one product your audience keep flocking, that is what you need to keep a trained eye focus on.  For newcomers, the rule of thumb seems to be to stay focused on the main selling point, looking neither to the right, nor left.  If you play your cards right, and the dice more or less roll your way, and you've got a sizeable nest tucked away somewhere, then maybe you can devote whatever spare time you can manage to that sideline passion project that you're so hung up on, for some reason.

Otherwise, the best advice for YouTube entertainers is to just keep your head down and focus on getting that all-important add revenue flowing, whatever it takes.  It's the reason all the merch advertising on tends to put most of its focus on the Angry Video Game Nerd, and less on sideshows like Monster Madness.  It's kind of a shame, yet it's also the name of the game.  And to Rolfe's credit, he knows it, and sticks with it like a pro, even if his heart is elsewhere.  It's the best explanation I've got for why he has yet to emerge as a new and latent talent in the Gothic field.  The possible good news is that this might not have to be the case for much longer.  If you hang around YouTube long enough, you begin to pick up hints about what or who's hot or not.  For the longest time, Rolfe's efforts on the platform seemed to occupy the same high level of shelf space.  There have been signs, recently, that things might be changing.  You're seeing a lot of videos about the decline of Cinemassacre, and a lot of others on YouTube are starting to level criticisms of Rolfe's content.

What this tells me is that things are starting to shift on the platform in general.  The public's taste is starting to undergo a quiet and often common form of change.  One of the upshot's for me in all this is that it there seems to be less of a demand for the sketch comedy influenced format where the pretense of telling jokes is disguised as a movie review.  The joke itself seems to be wearing thin, in other words.  The novelty of the comedy performance itself appears to be on the wane, and now more audiences are clamoring once again for some actual critical commentary.  This helps explain why I've seen some members of the old guard trying to be a part of that change.  I can recall, for instance, one vlogger saying how in the old days, people would be content with him just providing a summary of a film, with a few crude jokes at its expense spliced in here and there.  Times have changed, however, is what he more or less said, and now people expect you to go further than that.  I can only hope this is true, as the one thing that's been missing on YouTube is a cogent sense of critical aesthetic insight.  I also kind of have to wish a lot of these guys luck, because as an English Major, I sort of know just how tough it can be to try and get as correct a reading as possible on any given text out there.  Turns out it's never as easy as it seems, and yes, it requires a lot of hard work.

This might just be a problem that Rolfe will be able to more or less sidestep, however.  If my guess is correct, and his real interest lies in the direction, and area known as the Horror genre, then it means that when or if the vlogger paradigm really does begin to shift, then if he plays his cards right, he might just be able to parlay his experience and resources into making the kind of films he loves.  It's a long shot, and I don't have a clue what the future holds in store.  However, what I do know is that these neat little side projects like Polybius can act as able demonstrations of a latent talent waiting to be tapped in the right way.  If I had to offer any criticisms, then it would mostly have to focus on two elements.  The first is in finding a proper sense of balance for the two tendencies of his imagination.  The second would be to emphasize a proper focus on the strengths and limitations of the artist.

As I've said before, Rolfe is a Horror fan with a decent enough knack for humor.  That gives audiences an artistic strain made up of two component parts.  Furthermore, these aspects each form a polar opposite to one another.  This is not at all to suggest that Horror and Humor can't go together.  If that were the case, then no one would even be capable of cementing a film like Shaun of the Dead as a certified classic.  The real challenge in the matter seems to lie elsewhere.  What filmmakers like Rolfe need to keep in mind is just how to best utilize these twin strands of his imaginative thinking when it comes to any possible artistic execution in the future.  His work in this film shows it can be done, and if I had to take a guess, then it's possible one of his strengths might be of the Sam Raimi lite variety.

That sounds about right, and all well and good.  The only thing to add there is he also needs be aware of those times when he might have to sacrifice the humor for the sake of the main effect of the poetry of fear.  Horror is a genre that ultimately relies on going for the jugular, and then twisting the knife further.  It's possible to use humor and irony to pull off this effect, and Rolfe has the capability for it.  I just wish I had more to go on, because even with a humorous element in place, the Tale of Terror is most interested in sending an uncanny shudder through the audience.  It's the kind of effect that often transcends irony in some way, and I wonder if Rolfe knows that?  At the same time, it could be that I'm elevating the artistic emotion of fear towards too great a height.  Who knows.  This is the sort of minefield that I think Rolfe just ought to keep in mind as a filmmaker.

As for his strengths and weaknesses, the biggest one I'm aware of is his desire to let the funnyman take over for the Horror aficionado a bit too much.  I'm not talking about this film, now.  There are other examples of the director's work where it's clear that his tongue is planted too firmly in cheek for the audience to take any of what's going on seriously.  This cane be seen on display best in The Angry Video Game Nerd Movie, which is just a joke fest strung together to create the flimsiest of plots about a bad film licensed game.  The whole thing devolves into a Kaiju tribute battle where everything is solved by a pair of novelty joke glasses for some reason.  That's a pretty good example of the kind of thing I believe Rolfe will have to learn to, maybe not cut out entirely.  Perhaps a better way of putting it is that he'd better figure out when to hold back on the laughs a bit, and learn to trust his own instincts and skills for delivering the frights in such a way where he can trust himself enough.  That way he won't constantly feel the need to fallback on comedy the moment his own personal confidence in his efforts begins to waver.  With any luck, he might just be able to find his own voice within the Horror genre.

Bare in mind, all this is pure supposition.  I haven't got a clue what Rolfe would like to do with his career right now.  All I know is that there was one moment out of all the rest when it became sort of obvious that he had the makings in him of a pretty decent low-budget Horror director.  It's a talent that seems a combination of both luck of the draw, combined with the positive, early imprinting of the genre itself.  Therefore it just seems natural enough that he should probably explore further in the field, and see what it has to offer him.  More important, perhaps it would help him to discover if he has anything to offer to the Horror genre itself.  Whatever the case, a film like Polybius, no matter how short, is the kind of film that manages to stand on its own two legs, and give more than a fair showing.  It's a genuine, latter day Gothic story, one that is able to demonstrate a capable working knowledge of artistic fear.  It's because of this, and all of the above, that I have to give it a hardy recommendation, and wish it's director the best of luck.

No comments:

Post a Comment