What I’ve Been Watching in Quarantine

SyrmorOkay now follow me here for a moment, I swear I’m going somewhere. There’s this interview with Eduardo Coutinho, a Brazilian documentary maker and master of the interview, where he explains why, in his films, he doesn’t take the words of the interviewee and put them over other footage as a voiceover: “For me, ‘off’ [‘voz em off,’ voiceover] doesn’t interest me. If someone speaks ‘off’, they aren’t listened to, it’s worthless. If the guy that speaks and what they say is interesting and strong, what they say about their mother, their family, whatever—that’s enough for me. It’s in the voice, and someone may imagine what it is.”

When I first saw Syrmor’s VRchat interviews, I was reminded of Coutinho’s Edificio Master, a documentary consisting of interviews with residents of an apartment block in Copacabana—both because of the depth of emotion and vulnerability the interviewees displayed, and how they prove Coutinho’s point in that interview. When what the person is saying is interesting, cutaways are totally unnecessary, the raw footage of the interview is enough. The point is made even more dramatic in Syrmor’s interviews, because the raw footage is even more static than a talking head in a documentary, with simple, awkwardly articulated avatars standing in for the interviewees. And for all that, they’re still captivating, I still can’t tear my eyes away.

Screenshot from “guy in vr talks about his last girlfriend.”

Okay now’s about the time I should actually explain what these videos are, huh? Syrmor is a youtuber. His channel is made up almost entirely of videos of VRChatVRChat is a free massively multiplayer online game similar to Second Life. Although it’s programmed to work with VR, you don’t need a VR setup to use it. There are games within it, but you can also just use it to socialize, which is a large part of Syrmor’s videos—just talking to people. Sometimes friends, sometimes complete strangers, sometimes complete strangers who become friends. I don’t think I need to spell out why videos of people making meaningful connections, groups of friends who live miles apart, are incredibly heartening to watch right now.

Syrmor’s interviews range from very serious topics to goofy shenanigans, sometimes blended within the same video. This blend just makes them feel all the more genuine. Rather than undercutting the emotion of the interviewee, having a kermit the frog avatar with glitched out hands talk about getting bullied at school just draws you in closer to what they’re talking about. This isn’t a movie, it’s not a slick documentary with mood lighting and carefully bland music to tell the viewer how to feel, it’s real people opening up about their real lives. To a catman.

For something more serious I would recommend his video on the deaf community in VRChat; for something serious and comedic, there’s his live action video of his roommate “getting over a break up by eating Japanese minions curry at 3am”; and for something uhhhhhhhhhhhhhh there’s his video about VRChat erotica.

Jacob Geller Jacob Geller is a video essayist who mainly discusses video games and architecture. Sometimes separately, often together, and more often with a bunch of other stuff pulled in. It’s a refreshingly cross-disciplinary approach to games criticism, crossing unexpected disciplines but somehow always bringing them together powerfully. It’s easy enough to make videos like “This Video Game Reflects this Historical Event” or “How Does this Political Lens Inform our Understanding of this RPG?” But it’s much harder to tie together school shootings, architecture of academic institutions, and 3rd-person cover shooters—definitely harder to do it in a way that doesn’t come across as simple, strained, or cloyingly cutesy.

And Geller manages it! Again and again! Another quality of his videos which I love so much is how much he inserts himself into the videos—and maybe that helps sell these odd parallels, the fact that the videos aren’t out to factually prove a point, but are firmly rooted in the way Geller himself thinks about things, the experiences he has had playing video games. You can hear it in his voice, his enthusiasm, his bewilderment, his anger—rather than weakening his arguments, Geller’s display of emotion just make them hit that much harder. They’re genuine, they’re not the objective truth because what the hell is that and what place has it ever had in art criticism?

A final factor that I think is key in how potent his videos are, how strongly they held my attention and how firmly they’ve lodged in my memory, is how short they are. None are over thirty minutes (okay, one is 30:15, but the point stands.) Geller explains things succinctly, he chooses powerful, striking examples which can instantly demonstrate his idea. The scope of each video is incredibly specific, zeroing in on one aspect of a game, or finding the exact line where a specific kind of architecture and a specific kind of game intersect.

I would highly recommend “Museum Theft,” which is just uh wild, I mean if the opening of that video doesn’t grab you nothing will. “Rationalizing Brutality” is a very heavy but fascinating look at the history of the headshot (id est shooting someone in the head, not the thing you send with your resume), in games and in the American psyche in general. “Fear of Depths” is one of his latest videos, and if you have a fascination with caves, spelunking, descending deeper and deeper—a kind of simultaneous repulsion/fascination, most likely, as I do—then definitely check that one out.

Adam Pally and Ben Schwartz’s Episode of The Late Late Show — Near the beginning of 2015 comedian Adam Pally was asked to guest host The Late Late Show, a late night CBS talk show, and he brought along his old UCB pal Ben Schwartz to co-host with him. Some guests were lined up, but then a blizzard hit New York City and the planned guests had to cancel and be replaced at the last minute, ending up with Martellus Bennet, Eric Andre, and Jane Kaczmarek.

So why am I including this? Well for a start it’s funny, Schwartz’s needling of Pally is hilarious, and seeing these very improvisational comedians, seeing Eric Andre on this CBS talk show only makes it funnier. But the episode also has this bizarre energy that resonates so much with the experience of quarantine. When I first saw a clip from it, I thought it had been recorded during quarantine. Adam and Ben are seated miles apart in this cavernous studio, there’s no audience because of the blizzard, one of the guests is interviewed via video call, everything feels so quiet and empty and just a bit off. Knowing how it feels to suddenly have to alter plans and go forward under suboptimal conditions, knowing how last-minute and suboptimal the production of this show was, and seeing Pally and Schwartz charge ahead and make each other laugh anyway—it’s a cool thing to watch, and the show is all the more entertaining for it.

DoNotEat DoNotEat is a youtuber whose videos mostly revolve around Cities: Skylines, a city-building/city simulator game. His main series, “Franklin” follows the progress of a fictionalized version of Philadelphia, from around the time of European colonization onward. As the city develops, each episode focuses on some new urban phenomenon brought about by that development, or by major historical events. One episode, for example, focuses on trains, another on organized labor, another on the city water supply. Sometimes these topics feel less connected to the city of Franklin, at least in a demonstrable, visual way, at which point the videos become more just Talking About Stuff with Video Game Footage in the Background, which is regrettable—though even in those DoNotEat will usually insert some relevant photos, maps, diagrams, and so on.

At their best, his videos bring a solid knowledge of urbanism and civil engineering together with clear in-game demonstrations of the principals he’s discussing, using Cities: Skylines to flesh out narratives of how these things happen in the real world. His urban freeways video (part of another series, “Power, Politics, and Planning”) is a fantastic example of this, taking meticulous care to show all the individual lives effected by the “slum clearance” done to make way for an urban freeway, and how that freeway destroys the community.

He also has terrific deadpan humor which hooked me right away, and has had me laughing harder than I ever do at youtube videos.

I’d recommend the Franklin series in its entirety (it’s still ongoing, and he’s only just in the 1800s), or, like I said, the urban freeways episode of PPP. He also has a podcast about engineering disasters, if that’s your thing.

The Ambiguity ProgramLast but by no means least, The Ambiguity Program is a show curated by Evan Dahm (illustrator, webcomicker, one of my all time favorite narrative artists), hosted on his Twitch channel every Sunday at 9pm est. He just started doing it during the US lockdown, and it has become a fixture in my life, something I look forward to every weekend.

Screenshot of an interstitial moment during the Easter Sunday Ambiguity Program.

The show is made up of obscure, often out-of-print animations that Dahm has collected over the years, or new ones he’s just discovered. It’s stuff you’ve probably never seen, or if you did it was when you were a kid, on some weird VHS from the library. The criteria for something to be played isn’t necessarily that it be brilliant, or funny, or beautiful, but that it have something worth seeing in it. Maybe its overall sensibility, maybe one glorious musical number, maybe an innovative coloring technique. Often the flaws and idiosyncrasies of the animations are as fascinating as their triumphs. Each broadcast is an adventure, a trip through a wonderful surreal museum, leading up to a feature-length animation.

There’s a great sense of community too, watching these videos with the chat running, reacting to odd dialogue or gorgeous art, hearing Dahm’s voice between videos saying “Wasn’t that great?” Yes, it was, it is. Each Sunday, I come away with at least one animation that sticks with me, that I know I’ll go back to. There’s no archives of the streams so nothing to recommend, you just gotta watch it live! This Sunday’s program should be good, with the feature-length animation being Mr. Bug Goes to Town, a film from the studio that made Betty Boop and Popeye, which bankrupted them and is now very difficult to get a copy of. For almost as long as he’s been running Ambiguity Program, Dahm has been talking about trying to find a high-quality copy, and he’s finally got one. See you on Sunday!

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