Tag Archives: Pattern Recognition

Nostalgia Bait Can Get Off My Lawn — “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers”

I’m working on an article about the evolution of cyberpunk and I found myself thinking about William Gibson’s shift from cyber noir into postcyberpunk. It happened with a novel called “Pattern Recognition”, and I bring it up because the protagonist Cayce is allergic to brands. She gets sick when she sees a logo. Marketing firms hire her because she has an eye for good design – the few logos that she can physically tolerate. She feels debilitated around places like Times Square, where the number of brands overwhelms the senses. “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers” would have seen her hunched over a garbage can.

Let’s get this out of the way first: most people like this movie. You might, too. My reaction to it appears to be clearly in the minority. If you like it, that’s awesome and I’m glad you do. I’m not going to super-focus on trashing it or anything. OK, maybe a line or two, but that’s it. I’ll go through what I don’t like, but for me, it opens up a far more interesting conversation about the increasing habit of brand packing such as in this or “Ready Player One”. I don’t take to it the way some do, and where that line of tolerance exists for different viewers is really interesting to me.

“Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers” was a series I loved as a kid. I was way too young to remember much when I watched it. My memory of it is really just brief impressions. I couldn’t name a specific scene if you asked, so I don’t have nostalgia for it as much as I have curiosity about what it can be.

The animated series followed chipmunks Chip and Dale, riffs on Indiana Jones and Magnum, P.I. They start a detective agency together and handle cases brought to them by other animals.

The new movie decides this is all a show the pair are cast in, and decades later the chipmunk actors who played those parts have gone their separate ways. It allows the film to tackle a world of human and animal actors – many of whom are 2D cartoons getting 3D surgery to appear in 3D-animated films. It’s very similar to “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” in terms of worldbuilding. Dale is still pursuing acting, so he’s gotten the 3D surgery, while Chip is content to work in insurance as the same old 2D version of himself.

They parted on bad terms, but the kidnapping of cartoon actors forces them to work together when their friend Monterey Jack (a mouse actor on “Rescue Rangers”) is kidnapped. The culprits are bootleggers, who redraw the kidnapped cartoon actors into similar but legally distinct characters they can then film in foreign knockoffs.

That’s clever, but “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers” always seems to stop at clever. There are few punchlines, just a lot of smart set-up. One scene involves police investigating the crime and telling Chip and Dale they’re at a dead end. It combines 2D, 3D, stop-motion, puppetry, and live-action to some stunning effect. Some of these are emulated through CG rather than being the actual medium, but the scene is a successful meld of influences nonetheless. The problem is that nothing happens in it. The stop-motion detective in charge tells them several times over that he can’t do anything, and then a live-action officer just names the next plot point so they can get to it.

This highlights some big problems in the film. The script is repetitive and feels like a rough draft of concepts that need to be fleshed out with more specific dialogue later. Even a kids film (although this is a pretty adult take on it in places) needs dialogue that at least pretends it’s not the same conversation you’ve heard in a thousand movies before.

All the live-action actors come off as extremely wooden. Bob Hoskins, Christopher Lloyd, and Joanna Cassidy were anything but un-emotive in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”. A hybrid animation like this is a brilliant excuse to choose certain emotional ranges for live-action characters and play them up. Although it’s a little bit different as a hybrid medium, take a look at any Muppets movie for another example of this approach. That’s completely missing here.

As for the animated characters, Chip and Dale were once a charmingly optimistic and playful odd couple. They’re just downright annoying here. John Mulaney’s fine voice-acting Chip, but Andy Samberg’s Dale comes off as Andy Samberg. He’s a great ensemble player when he has a Chelsea Peretti, Terry Crews, or Cristin Milioti to do the heavy lifting of everything else going on, but I have trouble with him as the central focus. He highlights moments in comedy rather than carrying them the whole way. That’s not a criticism; very few people can do that. It just means that I don’t think he’s used right at all here.

The biggest issue by far is probably the most divisive one. “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers” has received a ton of praise for how many character brands it packs into its world. This is what reminds me of Cayce from “Pattern Recognition”. It all starts to feel less like worldbuilding and comedy, and more like an infomercial for unused discount brands.

When Ugly Sonic gets an early monologue about his plight in life, I had mixed thoughts. The human-like CG hedgehog originally advertised in the 2020 “Sonic the Hedgehog” movie was replaced with a more cartoonish version after fan backlash. The original design was no longer in the film, but survived as a meme. Yet his inclusion in this film struck me less as a nod to fans, and more as “we spent a lot of money on that original CG, let’s see if we can make a brand out of him”.

It doesn’t help that the joke centers on his human-like teeth, a major online criticism that resulted in his redesign. Ugly Sonic doesn’t make any jokes or participate in the creation of any joke; the joke is simply “remember that criticism you had once”. The content is just a quick game of Recognize the Memory. There’s a market for that out there, but I guess I’m really not part of it. What I find interesting going forward as we get more and more brand-packed films like this is where that separation occurs.

The opening of the novel “Ready Player One” lists the 1980s obsessions of a billionaire tech celebrity. Exhaustively. It even has footnotes about additional 80s details the initial list doesn’t cover. It’s grueling. It operates off of the idea that rote nostalgia is content, to the point where I found it unreadable. The book was a major hit.

I know I’m not totally alone in this reaction, though. “Space Jam: A New Legacy” was widely criticized in 2021 for being a laundry list of Warner Bros. brands shoved into a movie in the hope LeBron James’s presence might reignite interest in one of them. The difference appears to be where that line is for different viewers.

I don’t think most would disagree that “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is one of the most successful approaches to folding disparate sources together into one story. Sure, Miles Morales, Peter B. Parker, and Gwen Stacy live in similar enough universes, but Nicolas Cage’s Spider-Man Noir? Kimiko Glen’s mech-operating anime Peni Parker? Spider-Ham? It shouldn’t have worked in a thousand years, but instead…it was funny, endearing, and surprisingly meaningful.

Maybe that dictates where the line gets drawn. An early joke in the “Rescue Rangers” movie is that onetime mouse co-star Gadget has married fly costar Zipper. The pair have had 42 babies, half-mouse, half-fly. I didn’t watch the entire film in one sitting, and this joke is just one example why I initially turned it off. It felt mean-spirited to take a character known primarily as an inventor – even if it’s a cartoon, cartoons can still shape us, and it was probably my first mainstream exposure as a child to the idea that women should be scientific leaders – it certainly made the argument more forcefully than what mainstream content for adults was pushing in the 90s. Yet here she’s reduced to a mother pumping out 42 half-fly babies. That’s the joke. Look at a meaningful message in a kids show about the idea women should lead in STEM, now she’s pumping out 42 babies. I guess it’s hilarious if you’re on the Supreme Court.

The characters feel like throwing a thousand brands at the wall to see which might stick and become profitable, and the jokes feel randomly applied because they’re funny to some in a vaccuum, regardless of the spirit behind them, the context, or whether they fit a character. I found it unwatchable. The movie is a major hit.

Maybe this is my get-off-my-lawn moment; I just didn’t expect it to hit in my 30s. Also, I guess I’d need to own a lawn to tell people to get off it and, you know: housing prices.

I don’t think I have answers for where each of us draws the line between finding something to be an inspired collection of sources vs. a compilation of nostalgia-bait masquerading as whole content. I’m not saying I’m right about where that line is – the whole point is it’s different for each of us. We each have different tolerances for it.

I’m not like Cayce, I’m not skipping dinner out of the nausea of it, but I’m so wary of the brand fire sale that many of these films become. I’m wary of the door that opens up into normalizing movies as dumping grounds for as many brand relaunches as can be packed in. We complain about well-thought out reboots or reinterpretations of a single source, and why doesn’t Hollywood come up with anything original, while we take an hour-and-a-half to invite 40 one-note jokes to compete for our relaunch love. The tension of the movie becomes less about anything on-screen, and more about which disused brand will find its viral moment. Maybe it’ll launch a new streaming Ugly Sonic series.

In a way, I feel like I’ve seen this movie before:

You can watch “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers” on Disney+.

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“Tropico” — Lana Del Rey’s Old Testament, part three

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A few days ago, three writers sat down on Skype and had a conversation about singer Lana Del Rey’s Tropico, a short film that riffs on the Bible. Watch Tropico here.

In Part One, we talked about Lana Del Rey’s “Body Electric” and our culture’s treatment of celebrity as religion. In Part Two, we talked about Walt Whitman, Lana Del Rey’s “Gods and Monsters,” and what might be our forms of worship and sin in such a religion.

We stopped at Lana Del Rey’s inclusion of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” which takes place as she and several strippers arrive at a party for businessmen. As things get going, Shaun Ross bursts in with his gang, and robs them blind to “Howl.”

Vanessa: “Howl” is a call to throw out the old system. It’s a call for revolt. She knows what Shaun Ross is about to do. She’s not victimized here, she’s taking something back from that system. At the end of “Gods and Monsters,” he’s eating the apple like there’s no tomorrow. We cut to her during the robbery looking straight at us.

Gabe: So she’s in on it, that was my takeaway, too. She throws away one of the wallets during the John Wayne monologue later. It doesn’t make sense if she isn’t.

Vanessa: They don’t get to the rapture at the end without throwing out the old system. They have to take action against it.

Gabe: Cause the expected reading would be that the robbery is just a further descent into sin.

Cleopatra: That’s what I think.

Vanessa: Mary sings along to “Gods and Monsters.” John Wayne cocks his rifle right before.

Cleopatra: But Mary cries afterward.

Vanessa: At their sin or what they’re forced to do to overcome their punishment? It goes, “And so, from being created in his likeness to being banished for wanting to be too much like him, we were cast out, and the Garden of Eden transformed into the Garden of Evil.” It says the system’s got to be kicked over.

Gabe: Jesus doesn’t look too happy. You keep saying the system. What system?

Vanessa: Celebrity as religion. Everything’s celebritized now – your Izzy Black article – Wall Street bankers are the new gangster film, and The Godfather and Goodfellas are movies about worshiping the criminals who normalize it. In The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese doesn’t judge the piece of shit. He overwhelms you with him.

Cleopatra: So she’s saying reject criminals by being a criminal?

Vanessa: You don’t have to like it.

Cleopatra: People in those movies end up dead and arrested.

Gabe: Not all of them.

Vanessa: Yeah, but they’re gods until then. They’re treated as the ultimate realization of the American dream – people who start out small and buck the system to end up the new tyrants.

Gabe: Cycles of oligarchy. And a lot of times, it’s the peons who get killed and arrested, while the kingpins keep on rolling.

Cleopatra: But then it’s endorsing exactly what it’s criticizing.

Vanessa: Don’t take the mugging scene literally. It’s a call to change things. It’s not a call to go out and rob people.

Tropico lost faith

Gabe: Did you notice in that scene, in the hotel room where they give the party, that celebrities are looking down on the whole thing from the paintings on the walls?

Vanessa: No.

Gabe: It’s a constant throughline. You know, I’ve been raring to talk about William Gibson ever since we hit on the celebrity-as-religion idea. He’s the novelist who wrote Neuromancer and had a big hand in inventing cyberpunk as a genre. One of my big papers my last year of college was about what I called neo-feudalism, how corporation-states are making nations obsolete and essentially turning them into vassals. Point is, Gibson gave up writing cyberpunk because he said the dystopian future he had envisioned wasn’t nearly as bad as the real state of things. He had two novels post-cyberpunk that really struck my imagination. The first is Pattern Recognition. He envisions a film that gets released in clips randomly online. People can’t tell if the actors are real or CG. People can’t decide what it’s about. People can’t track down who made it. A trend analyst is hired to track its maker down, and there’s some action and espionage because it’s Gibson, but I swear to god, it plays as a brief history of the contemplation of God.

Cleopatra: I read it; I liked it.

Gabe: And then he wrote Spook Country, in which people start to create pieces of art – and some are subtle and great and some are looming and garish – but as long as you can log onto the server, you can put on glasses and see L.A. as re-imagined by, essentially, modders. You can hop onto one server and walk around the city, really physically walk around, and see great sculptures coming out of the water, or you can hop onto a different server and walk around the city and see celebrities in the exact spot in which they died – and it anticipated Oculus Rift and Google Glass and all these other innovations in how we’re about to start looking at the world, but it was also about this way in which we start to use celebrity in these artificial niche cultures to create alternate visual languages and knowledge bases to understand the world. It reminds me of a sort of return to our most basic Animist religions, where belief was based on a mountain having a certain meaning and a river having a certain spirit, and those meanings and spirits translated something important about a culture. And suddenly, we have these thousands of little niche languages, many of them becoming visually based so that we’re beginning to talk in themes and we give a movie a certain meaning or a piece of fashion a certain spirit – not literally, but effectually – and those meanings, well they translate something important onto the next collector, onto the next translator. You see it on Flickr and Tumblr and all these users who become popular cultural translators – and not just translators, I think as critics we can aspire to be those translators – but the meta-collectors of art who are creating those meanings. I posted an article on cyberpunk a few months ago that began to touch on that.

Vanessa: It sounds like Minecraft. People went through and just recreated all of Denmark on a set of servers, and anyone can log into it and make any changes they want, but it’s only up for so long.

Gabe: And then it’s gone?

Vanessa: And then it’s gone.

Gabe: Like a video game sand mandala.

Vanessa: It’s a crude version of what you’re talking about, but it lets people create landscapes, virtual landscapes that carry their own meaning. Right now, it’s for games, but….

Gabe: It’s creating a language, it’s creating a grammar that we’ll pull into tomorrow. The things they did in movies and TV for the first few decades created the same grammar we use today. And maybe visually it’s crude, and Gibson described his version as pretty crude, but conceptually, has anyone ever been able to do anything like that before? I mean, it’s funny, we have all this power taken away and taken away from us, and ideas banned, and people arrested, yet we keep on finding new ways to communicate and organize and translate ideas. And I don’t know, it may be really depressing to be just about anybody these days, but the tools we have to organize and effect change – we’ve never had anything like it before, we just need to figure out how to take those things and apply the history of art and resistance and governance to be able to take full advantage of them, to mature them into even greater usefulness and give them even more presence. And then you get the abolition of net neutrality trying to ruin it, but that’s a whole other tangent. What I’m saying about Lana Del Rey is that, what Spook Country posed as our attribution of cultural meaning onto celebrity as a tool of resistance and subtle change, as something that almost threatens to be the exact counter to neo-feudalism, a sort of visual language of ideas you have to develop fluency in to understand, is already there in Tropico.

Vanessa: Can you put a link in where people can contact their Congresspeople and tell them to keep net neutrality alive? Because everything you just described is gone if companies get to own the Internet.

Gabe: Yes. So I’m with Vanessa. I don’t think there’s a reason to include “Howl” there unless you’re saying things have to change, and we need to take charge, and that what gets us back to “America, Why I Love Her” and gets Lana Del Rey and Shaun Ross to the rapture at the end – they’ve clearly escaped that “Entrance to the Underworld,” that “Paradise lost” through their actions, she’s holding the gun and showing off the results of the money.

Vanessa: Mary’s not praying afterward for their sins, Mary’s praying for their salvation from John Wayne’s punishment, for extraction from a land of “Gods and Monsters” to someplace better.

Gabe: To the kinder God of the New Testament, perhaps?

Cleopatra: Maybe. But then is she saying to embrace celebrity and wealth as salvation? She becomes the new kingpin?

Gabe: But she uses it to extract herself, to change the equation, to leave that land and return to nature and to come closer to that ideal of herself she can never quite reach, to return to Whitman and that Mitchum poem, which was written for John Wayne – and I swear, I never thought I’d cry at a John Wayne monologue.

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Vanessa: It’s everyone’s way of returning to nature. To steal everything out from under the old system. Lana Del Rey gets a baptism back into it.

Cleopatra: So it’s Fight Club.

Gabe: It kind of is, isn’t it? It shares a lot of the same messages, although Fight Club takes on materialism where this, I think, is a much deeper contemplation on religion, celebrity, and resistance.

Cleopatra: Deeper than Fight Club?

Gabe: That would be an absolutely useless argument to have. I’d say they’re very complementary, and seeing one probably makes you understand the other better.

Vanessa: Yes, it’s deeper than Fight Club.

Gabe: The rapture scene takes place to “Bel Air,” which isn’t really about the place so much as Lana Del Rey’s character coming into her own. I think the “Bel Air” reference is something personal to the song.

Vanessa: It’s the last song on Paradise, isn’t it?

Gabe: It is the last song on the EP, yes.

Vanessa: I’ve been thinking about it as her double dissolving. It kind of wanders away into the sunset, you know.

Cleopatra: The film breaks down at the end. The skips and artifacts.

Gabe: Right, there are some skips in the visual and the audio develops background static. As they’re lifted up into the air, the entire video turns to black-and-white fuzz. Combined with Vanessa’s reading – her double dissolves, and the very method of communication that necessitates her double – the film itself – that dissolves, too. What do you think that signifies?

Vanessa: Celebrity is surpassed. If it’s something that’s really only visual.

Gabe: It’s the rapture for celebrity-as-religion?

Cleopatra: Maybe it says we’re all raised up in the end. If we all get 15 minutes, celebrity becomes obsolete.

Gabe: I handn’t thought of it that way.

Vanessa: It moves beyond the need for religion. I thought her throwing the pearls away looks a lot like throwing rosary beads away. Not like she’s throwing religion away, but that pearls are the rosary beads of celebrity, so she’s throwing that away.

Gabe: And then it all goes to fuzz, and the mode of communicating celebrity is done.

Cleopatra: Cue “Where Is My Mind?”

Vanessa: So our rapture is losing the double we create for ourselves.

Gabe: Or is it throwing out the system that idealizes the double? Gibson might say the meaning we assign to doubles is an evolution of language and religion itself.

Vanessa: Yeah, that’s why you’re on Facebook so much and I can’t stand it.

Gabe: They both have the same goals, the same message. She does use her double, as a stripper, to be able to revolt, and Shaun Ross uses a mask. They have to play the roles in order to take advantage of them.

Vanessa: Stop making points. We’re done.

Gabe: I think it’s too big a problem for Lana Del Rey or William Gibson or Fight Club to solve on their own. But all together-

Cleopatra: With our powers combined!

Gabe: That’s right, we’re going to end this with a Captain Planet reference.

Vanessa: If it works with the theme.

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A brief message from Gabe
Thank you so much for reading this series. It’s an experiment and we’re all glad it’s resonated with others so far.

We all agreed that Tropico has an incredible amount to say about celebrity-as-religion, about socio-economics, about the false exaggerations we create of ourselves in a world of social media, about activism, and about the role of artists in shoving culture forward when governments become too stagnant to do so. Some of the most peaceful and effective coups in history are the artistic ones. We may disagree on certain other messages, but we all left thinking Tropico packs more meaning into its 27 minutes than most movies can into two hours. It’s absolutely worth picking apart and analyzing, and carrying forward as a movie that’s symbolic of this very crucial moment in our history, that can both speak on it and react to it.

We never thought that was a possibility when we first sat down to watch it. We thought we’d be one-upping each other’s jokes about this crazy, ridiculous video Lana Del Rey did. But this film took us all apart, it made us each weep at different points, and it spoke to something incredibly complicated, so universal and so timely that it became deeply personal for each of us. This isn’t just a good film or a great one, it’s an important one that knows what it’s doing, what message it wants to send, and can resonate with you for weeks after if you give it a chance. Thank you for reading. This won’t be the last thing we have to say about music videos or about the work of Lana Del Rey.