Meewella | Fragments

The Life of P

The COVID-19 Diaries V: The Year Inside

You have probably noticed the distinct lack of blog posts (or perhaps you haven’t — there have been some other significant things going on in the world); I have essentially managed four since the start of lockdown over a year ago, and nothing in the last five months. At the start it was easy to explain: I didn’t want to post positive platitudes that I barely believed, nor did I want to wallow self-indulgently in my own lockdown malaise when everyone was experiencing their own difficulties, whether living alone or in claustrophobic company. The real reason ran deeper: my focus was shot, and my thought processes had become so fragmented that the sheer effort required to compose more than a paragraph of coherent text at a time seemed impossible. So, what would I have said?

It’s April 2020 and the reduction in my meat intake over the last two years has almost entirely reversed only a month into lockdown. I had cut my meat in take by around 50% before the pandemic, primarily because of the hypocrisy of espousing environmental concern given the carbon footprint of a borderline carnivorous diet. Abandoning this was less a conscious choice than the ease of and desire for the comfortingly familiar. That, and take-away delivery. During the first lockdown I cooked almost entirely for myself. By the second lockdown, Deliveroo and Just Eat were regular features, with the dual middle class guilt of relying on someone else adopting the risk of infection outdoors whilst I remain home, and the disposing of armfuls of single-use food containers. But hey, I haven’t flown in two years so overall my carbon footprint is way down.

It’s May 2020 and I’ve been consuming a lot of TikTok. The target demographic may be younger than me but there are increasing numbers of older content creators. Most importantly, there’s plenty of creativity and – as far as social media goes – it’s far healthier than hours of doomscrolling through twitter or Instagram. For related reasons, I refuse to watch the Government’s perfidious press briefings on the pandemic: reading the news coverage dissecting it afterwards is probably more informative and certainly less draining on my mental health. Consumption is far easier than creation; I can’t write anything of significance (much as I want to contribute to the dialogue around structural racism), so digital illustrations have been my outlet, whether they are simply portraits or more meaningful. They may take a dozen hours to produce, but at least it can be done whilst binge-watching a TV series.

It’s June 2020 and I haven’t interacted in person with anyone who isn’t a grocery store clerk for two and a half months. It is definitely the lack of social — and physical — contact that I find the hardest. Being in the flat for around 9 days at a time between trips to restock the fridge is weird but has not left me feeling particularly caged as I can still journey into all manner of worlds through videogames and films. Meanwhile my hair is nearing a length one might consider “grown” rather than merely uncut. My goal is to avoid getting it cut until we reach the inevitable second lockdown, which should allow it to reach a length where I can tie it back neatly. This is the only time it is socially acceptable for me to grow out long hair in my line of work, so I may as well take advantage of it. A boar bristle brush and Moroccan Oil have been vital tools in taming the longer locks.

It’s July 2020 and my concentration is shot. I seem just about able to function for work, though working from home and living alone has blurred any distinction around the end of the work day. Which is not to say it’s bad — saving hours of commuting a week and never worrying about being late are serious benefits; the issue is more the general expectation that you’re contactable most of the time rather than when in the office. Plus there’s the matter of air conditioning. I want to write more, to engage with our shared experiences worldwide through this pandemic, but I can’t. QuickViews are about all I can manage. At least that means I’m still producing Content™. That’s important, right? I remember Content™ being important.

It’s August 2020 and I find myself helplessly torn between the desire to contribute to small businesses told that they can reopen and the personal conviction that the Eat Out to Help Out scheme is dangerously ill-conceived. I made a joke about it not applying to strip clubs which was uncouth but also probably the best thing I’ve written this year. It seems that there is a desperate desire for a return to normality shared by the entire population but the looming disaster of a worse collapse if we reopen too early is only recognised by half. That is not nearly enough.

It’s September 2020 and spending one day a week in the office (primarily to ensure I can provide a better training experience to my trainee) has finally reduced the extent to which the days and weeks merge entirely into one another. It’s a welcome change, even if it can’t last.

It’s October 2020 and we’re preparing for a second national lockdown. Only six weeks late. The fixed 2nd December end date is worrisome as I suspect Johnson is determined to reopen no matter the circumstances in order to enable several weeks of pre-Christmas shopping, even if it forces us straight back into an even longer lockdown. How some people still support these self-serving clowns is beyond me, with literally billions wasted on failed test and tracing and openly corrupt contract awards. Oh, and the dead, who are becoming almost a footnote.

It’s November 2020 and this lockdown has been far more bearable with weekly visits from my sister and nephew. When others reminisce nostalgically about the first lockdown, it is very clear they did not live alone before “social bubbles” were permitted.

It’s December 2020 and I hate being right. After a few pointless weeks out of lockdown, I will be spending Christmas alone, although I will get to see my sister’s family on Boxing Day. A care package from a partner at work filled with gin and old fashioneds definitely makes me feel appreciated. It’s better that it’s me rather than anyone else — after all, I have had to do it before, exactly ten years ago. Let’s hope Christmas 2030 fares better…

It’s January 2021 and my concentration is shot. Did I say that already? I have started world-building as a creative outlet, fleshing out an alternate version of London or fantasy kingdoms for use in roleplaying games. The advantage is that I can produce just a single card at a time and gradually build things out over weeks and months. I don’t know that I will actually run games using these worlds. Perhaps later I will write stories using these settings; for now, the act of creation is the goal in itself.

It’s February 2021 and I can feel myself starting to unravel with built-up stress from work and no way to blow off steam. I haven’t been drinking excessively at home (my overall intake has dropped rather than risen over the past year, the opposite of my expectation given that the flat is very well stocked with booze) and I don’t think it would help. My sleep cycle remains pretty broken. I have fully grown into the “lockdown Jesus” look.

It’s March 2021 and it has been the best (worst?) part of a year spent inside. The vaccination rollout provides a reason to be optimistic; the COVID variants appearing do not. It’s a good thing that Brexit was all about taking back control of our borders so that, a year into a literal global pandemic, naturally the Government is only now discussing the feasibility of closing the borders, the one thing any casual player of Plague, Inc. knows is incredibly effective for an island nation. It has been a long and exhausting year and yet, through the repetitive monotony, I struggle to recall much at all beyond the shared cultural touchstones like The Tiger King. Perhaps if I sat down and tried to diarise it…

It’s—

Recreating inside a photo I took outside just before the start of lockdown: in the London-set Watchdogs Legion (top) and the Outside World (bottom).

The COVID-19 Diaries IV: Good Morrow

I think we can all agree that the season finale of 2020 was rather underwhelming, offering little levity after a decidedly subdued Christmas Special as a result of last-minute cast and location changes. The vaccination storyline is the most promising going into 2021, and hints at a return to regular programming later in the year. My concern, however, is that many people have allowed themselves to fixate upon the end of 2020 as an end to problems that plagued it. 2020 may have been awful from the start, but the arbitrary marker of 1 January 2021 is not a hard reset, and the reality of continuing to deal with 2020’s issues is likely to be a hard realisation that crashes down later this month, consciously or otherwise. Please keep an eye on each other.

My camera remained holstered for most of the year (though I remain proud of the desolate London in Lockdown shoot in March) so there won’t be the usual lengthy photographic rundown of 2020. There are, however, a few things worth sharing.

Featured here is Makoto Shinkai’s 5 Centimetres Per Second.

The bulk of updates to the site have continued to be QuickViews, which grew by 43 new films in 2020. Whilst not inconsequential, that is around half the rate of the previous the two years. I had rather expected that lockdown would cause this number to rise rather than to fall. The best explanation I can provide is that my ability to concentrate has been greatly diminished by the tumultuous year and so I have probably been drawn more toward shorter television episodes that require a shorter attention span. I have noticed a similar shift in videogaming where, unusually, I am now more likely to indulge in familiar, repetitive gameplay (like Destiny or Assassin’s Creed) than seeking out fresh new experiences.

I have been hosting a sporadic virtual movie night, dubbed COVIDeo Club, which provided a more social and structured way to force myself to carve out time for films. It is partially democratic, with films selected by a vote from a shortlist I circulate in advance. The highlight was The Peanut Butter Falcon which many of us might otherwise have missed.

Also, for those who may have missed access to Reeltime Harry Potter (due to a broken liveblog plugin that is no longer maintained), I have now formatted them by hand so that you can revisit them once more.

Georgina Hare painting
During the first lockdown, I commissioned this gorgeous painting from Georgina Hare and it now hangs above my bed. My nephew David is also a big fan.

As readers will know, many of my friends are artists and performers who have been particularly hard hit by lockdown. They are smart and adaptable, of course, but by far the best way to support artists is — ultimately — purchasing their services. I have tried to do so during lockdown, though I could probably do more.

A virtual Dalmore whisky tasting with drams supplied by The Whisky Exchange, and led over Zoom by Dalmore’s master blender, Richard Paterson.

Translating real world experiences to virtual platforms has been an inconsistent affair. A tasting, for example, loses any real sense of social interaction, but can still be fun for enthusiasts if you have an engaging speaker. Aside from regular D&D sessions led by Ben, which have become considerably more frequent without needing to align calendars so that we can be physically in the same place, my tabletop games have gone largely untouched over the past year, even as more arrive from Kickstarter campaigns I backed in 2018 and 2019, as if to taunt me. Playing a few online alongside Zoom calls has been fun, but there is definitely space for an online substitute with greater verisimilitude.

During the first lockdown I managed largely to avoid the Zoom quizzes that seemed to entertain and then infuriate. I did however end the year with a couple of virtual escape rooms with work (in lieu of a Christmas party, with riddles that played very much to my skillset) and with friends (on New Year’s Eve).

The length of my hair by Christmas. Also featured is Philip the Bird, one of several puppets I acquired to play with my nephew, both in person and over video calls.

Early during the first lockdown, I said that my goal was to avoid cutting my hair until the inevitable second lockdown in order to grow it out. It seems to be the one social acceptable time for me to experiment with long hair. It has certainly been a learning curve, particularly as I discovered my hair is extremely wavy at length (controlled with a boar bristle paddle brush and a Moroccan Oil lotion). My current intention is for it to reach shoulder length, though I don’t know how long it will last. Reviews have been largely positive…

Christmas 2020

Merry Christmas from Meewella.com

The COVID-19 Diaries III: Isolation Illustration

At the end of last year, I picked up Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S6 to replace my ailing Sony XPERIA Z4 Tablet. The Z4 had been perfect for me though poor sales meant Sony never released a successor, and the Tab S6 is the first tablet since to tick all my boxes. Samsung bundles the S-Pen stylus, which I expected to be an unnecessary addition for me, like the keyboard included with the Z4 which languished untouched in a drawer for years. Around the new year, I started playing around with a few sketching apps on the tablet. Little did I know that this would develop into a hobby perfectly suited to forthcoming social distancing, the timing being fortuitous for my sanity. The initial experiments were incredibly rough, but I found it therapeutic to have a new creative outlet at a point when I have been struggling for writing inspiration (hence the lack of new Shards). I settled on a technique of inking over photographs to highlight the details I wanted to capture, then using multiple layers for colouring and finally adding shadows and highlights for depth. After trying a few apps I settled on Adobe Illustrator Draw for its thicker strokes. And then it suddenly clicked. You will be able to find my illustrations as a new area of the Artist section of the site, divided into a few basic categories that will likely grow over time.

I began with portraits of individuals because using them for fleeting birthday wishes was an understated way to share what I produced as I improved. Shamini, who has been drawing D&D characters for some time, provided helpful mentoring as I found a style I liked, including the addition of stylised backgrounds from my own photography. That led to adapting a photograph from her birthday party (remember birthday parties?) into a fairytale witch. I discovered that slavish recreation of a photograph often resulted in an image that seemed less realistic because of unusual optics or angles in the underlying image. Influenced by my photography, my focus was originally on faces, with sparser detail on the rest of the image. You can see how that developed over time into the intricate detail in Tempest’s corset. It is incredibly time-consuming, but that’s arguably perfect for lockdown and I find the finely detailed work soothing. Meanwhile the drawing of Shep shortly after he died was my limited offering at a distance to his grieving family, as well as a tribute to a wonderfully good boy.

The first series of drawings I consciously produced as an ongoing set (after liking the result of the original image of Angie) is the “Isolation Series“. Created as the COVID-19 lockdown began in the UK, these were an attempt to capture the atmosphere of self-isolation. The loosely linked images feature pensive, lone individuals surrounded by a white void rather than a background. Each also contains certain objects in considerable detail as a focal point outside of the person themselves.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the most popular images I have shared are those linked to pop culture. I had an evocative photo I had taken of Dave from an unusual angle with a fish-eye lens. The white shirt and red tie were immediately reminiscent of Shaun of the Dead and his expression seemed to fit too. Netflix’s Tiger King show proved a welcome distraction to those in quarantine, and drawing tiger print provided an intricate, time-consuming distraction of its own. Lastly, photographs of cosplayers like kysplay allow the creation of stylised images that lie somewhere between the individual and the source material which inspired their look. Just don’t tell Harry Potter fans that to emulate Breath of the Wild’s towering ruins I actually used a photograph I’d taken of Hogwarts!

I am glad that people seem to be enjoying these, and it’s allowing me to go through some of my historic photographs to produce new images at a time when I cannot simply take my camera out. It’s also offering a new perspective on some images, as well as making me increasingly aware of certain interactions of light that will feed back into photography. Do let me know what you think, and which are your favourites.

The COVID-19 Diaries II: Discoveries

I have not been feeling sufficiently eloquent to capture much of what I have felt over the past few weeks. At a fundamental level, I have a felt a considerable amount of guilt over the fact that the transition to isolation has been largely painless for me. The fact I have a job capable of remote work is helpful of course, but more than this — as an introvert I draw energy from time in my own company and I have more than enough hobbies to fill the hours at home. My sympathy for extrovert colleagues having a harder time with the transition lessened when I realised that their discomfort is — to a considerable extent — emblematic of the fact the working world is generally designed around their preferences.

Can we stop pretending that we all have a huge amount of free time now? Those working from home have traded time commuting for a system in which individual tasks likely take longer due to technological or other limitations. Those who have lost work are industriously finding ways to supplement their income. Those with children are now supplying permanent childcare alongside their existing roles. And everyone is having to manage and maintain a single space for home and work that is suddenly occupied 24 hours a day. So if you haven’t picked up an esoteric new hobby, built a shed or reorganised your entire bookshelf like a friend on Facebook, that’s not a personal failure.

It’s easy to be cynical about the weekly applause for NHS workers and yet there was something immediately heartwarming about the widespread sound genuine support. No, it’s not a substitute for a decade of underfunding or for proper pay (and adequate PPE), but it is meaningful to those working long hours at high risk of infection. Everyone should be welcome to join in that gesture of appreciation. Those who voted for the Tories can certainly applaud but ought to feel guilty as they do so; those who still intend to vote for them should feel hypocrisy. That praise should be extended to all frontline workers of course: those keeping us fed and powered, and ensuring we don’t drown in our own filth. Despite the Government rhetoric, this is not wartime where sacrificing lives is essential. The NHS in particular should not have to be at risk when carrying out their lifesaving role, particularly when we had months of advance warning in which to build up stocks of necessary equipment. Coupling that with what appear to have been entirely untrue assurances about stockpiles of protective equipment is unacceptable and will only undermine what public trust remains.

Regent Street
Check out the full London in Lockdown photo album for more images of empty London.

I also wanted to share a few fragmented discoveries about the lockdown life:

  • I haven’t read a book for weeks. It took me the best part of two weeks to actually notice consciously. I knew that I had reduced my news consumption because I was keenly aware that the 24/7 COVID-19 news cycle wasn’t particularly healthy, boiled down to rising numbers and little context. However, I eventually realised that most of my reading time was allocated to my commute or my lunch break. I am yet to find a new rhythm.
  • If you are someone who cuts their own hair, you have suddenly jumped from having the least impressive to the most impressive hair in your friendship group. For the rest of us, I think the best approach is to lean into wild hair. However, keep a selection of hats readily available for videocalls — last week I even found an excuse to don a tricorn pirate hat.
  • Even if you don’t have a great home office setup, the quickest way to improve how you come across in videocalls is to raise the height of your webcam to eye level. Stack up some boxes and balance your laptop on them if that’s what it requires — no one can see what’s under your camera.
  • All the extra handwashing is drying out your hands. Hand cream helps but SLS-free hand wash may be a worthwhile investment.
  • It’s strange how swiftly one becomes used to empty skies even in a city like London, dense with flight paths. Now a lone set of contrails draw the eye as an alien mar again the sky.
  • Remember what I wrote about physical contact a year and a half ago? Increase that exponentially with each passing day.

The COVID-19 Diaries I: Clear Messaging

It is an unsettling time to be human. A pandemic on this scale was inevitable and yet the reality of the outbreak has provoked misplaced panic because many leaders’ reactions have been woefully inadequate and collectively we were psychologically unprepared. I have avoided writing about the Coronavirus outbreak until now. Given my lack of virology credentials, I did not want to pass on unverified information; go to The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine for best source of UK-centric medical information. Nor do I want to provide calming platitudes. Rather, as the UK moves into its second week of lockdown, I want to write about the way we react to this situation, and explore what we can learn from our time in isolation.

Uncertainty encourages humans to follow the actions of the herd for safety but — without applying critical thought — it results in a nonsensical shortage of toilet roll (in Australia, bulk buying made some sense since they import a substantial volume from China where supplies were at risk of disruption; in the UK we have plenty of paper mills producing our own, so copying the Australian reaction achieved nothing more than voluntarily disrupting our own supply chain). It is easy to blame others for acting selfishly, but strong leadership should be quelling such actions through clear and transparent messaging.

Instead, the UK Government (whose main achievement continues to be that at least it is not the US Government) chose to delay taking action despite the clear consequences in Italy, justifying this to the public on the basis of “acquiring herd immunity”, without really addressing the fact that uncontrolled spreading would place an impossible burden on the healthcare system. Whilst herd immunity might be the outcome of a large swathe of population contracting the virus, it is only something we actively court through administering vaccines which, notably, don’t require a substantial number of people becoming seriously ill and requiring hospitalisation. This plan reeks of a Dominic Cummings policy that runs counter to conventional wisdom and sounds a bit smart until subjected to any rigorous scrutiny. As a result, when social distancing measures were belatedly introduced, it is little wonder that many people were sceptical and flouted the recommendations, requiring firmer controls. For Johnson to shirk any responsibility by acting like a disappointed parent when announcing the lockdown was deeply disingenuous. This is, after all, the same man who bragged about shaking hands with infected patients and has now tested positive for the virus.

London Abandoned: Jubilee Bridge
Note: this photograph was taken prior to the official lockdown in London, adopting social distancing guidelines and avoiding public transport.

A week into lockdown, messaging has improved although much of the “Stay Home” mantra is being propagated through social media from sources other than the Government. Supermarkets are imposing measures to limit numbers inside stores and, as a Brit, it was pleasing to see a queue outside in which people automatically adopted the recommended 2m distancing without any discussion required — even in a crisis, if there is one thing we can do, it is to form an orderly queue.

Meanwhile, if you want to know what strong Government messaging from the start looks like, I hope you have had the chance to experience Vietnam’s genuinely excellent “viral” sensation:

Christmas 2019

Merry Christmas from meewella.com

Like Clockwork

Malcolm McDowell Q&A

When I first saw Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, I was immediately enthralled by this subversive gem so ahead of its time in 1971 that it still feels modern today. The opportunity to see it return to the big screen was an easy draw, particularly as it turned out Malcolm McDowell would be in town to discuss the film. I wrote after my first viewing that, “The dark satire relies on making McDowell’s electric performance relatable which is no small feat.” I was fascinated to hear more about how Alex DeLarge came about.

DeLarger than life

As a young Shakespearean stage actor, McDowell claims not to have felt intimidated by Kubrick despite his reputation and success. Rather, he saw the project as a collaboration. That is quite something for an actor who has only just entered the world of film with If…., an allegorical story about revolution at an English private school. That first feature, perhaps because of its anarchic sensibilities, led directly to his selection for A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick’s widow recently recalled that the director had screened the film at home, repeating McDowell’s first scene five times, before turning to her and saying, “we’ve found our Alex.”

“Stanley wasn’t interested in the actor’s problem at all,” McDowell explains of the struggle to find a way to perform Alex. That became liberating, giving him the confidence to improvise — particularly with physicality, such as Alex’s exaggerated chewing whilst confined to a hospital bed, which emerged largely as a reaction to Kubrick’s evident boredom with the scene’s dialogue. The actor summarises his brief as being to “play a rapist murderer who people like”. The fact Alex has some culture in his love for Beethoven helped but ultimately McDowell imbued him with a love for life, something that one has to admire on some level. Yet that is what drew such ire from many audiences, the New York Times calling Kubrick a fascist for making Alex likeable.

Alex DeLarge

Although the film makers played for humour, it didn’t take shape until they started filming. By modern standards the black comedy is self-evident, but McDowell recalls a New York audience watching in complete silence, whilst London offered only the occasional laugh — such was its uniqueness at the time. The home invasion sequence in particular could not have been done naturalistically, McDowell considers, “It would kill the film.” They spent five days shooting nothing, trying to work out how to create it. Kubrick eventually asked whether McDowell could dance, in response to which he launched into a spirited rendition of Singing in the Rain, replete with timed kicks. Kubrick was crying with laughter and, as McDowell tells it, immediately jumped into his car and drove home to purchase the rights to the song; it took them a further seven days to film the scene

Asked whether it was difficult to shoot the Ludovico technique, in which Alex is forced to watch a deluge of horrific footage with his eyes clamped open with ophthalmic forceps, McDowell responds enigmatically, “But I am Alex. If Alex is feeling pain then so was Malcolm,” before admitting candidly, “It was fucking horrible.” His eyes were anaesthetised for the shoot, meaning that he did not realise he had badly scratched his corneas until it wore off as he was driving home, in the worst pain he has ever felt. And then there were the reshoots…

The Ludovico Technique

Myth conceived notions

It is easy to forget that the film existed before punk, with a look that perhaps began to usher it in. The fashion was as improvisational as the acting, using cricket whites that McDowell had in his car, a protector that Kubrick suggested he wear on the outside as a codpiece, and a bowler as “a fuck you to the city”. The fake eyelashes began as a gag gift McDowell purchased for Kubrick, but after some experimentation they found the asymmetrical look of a single eye was suitably sinister.

McDowell recalls Anthony Burgess’ reason for writing the book, whilst noting in the same breath that the man was a pathological liar, making it impossible to know what was true. The story is that a Welsh doctor had told Burgess he had only nine months to live. Wanting to provide for his wife, Burgess rushed to write five books in that time. As publication approached and he was still alive, he realised he could not release them all simultaneously under his own name, so used pseudonyms instead. At the time he also worked as a newspaper literary critic and, as the books were not in his own name, they landed on his desk. He gave himself glowing reviews, before being fired once found out.

Addressing the mythology around the film’s limited availability in the UK until after Kubrick’s death, McDowell explains that A Clockwork Orange was never actually banned. A year after its release, as a result of several crimes allegedly copying elements of the movie, Kubrick and his family began receiving threats. Kubrick decided to withdraw the film from the UK market, a decision respected by the distributor until after his death. Invariably the lack of availability meant that people wanted it more.

He describes Kubrick as having paranoid tendencies, recalling visiting him at home to find the man sat by a stereo, intently listening to something through headphones. He silenced McDowell, who waited expectantly, imagining that he was probably listening to Beethoven for inspiration. Eventually Kubrick removed the cans and shook his head, “Another near miss at Heathrow.” He had been listening to air traffic control.

Malcolm McDowell Q&A

By the time the film was withdrawn, McDowell had moved to the USA, though he was disappointed that its cultural impact would not be experienced in the UK. American students embraced A Clockwork Orange for its style as well as the statement hidden beneath about freedom of choice. Although McDowell feels Burgess made things difficult for the audience by using an immoral man who makes bad choices, his own anti-establishment feelings ring out loudly in response to the film’s alternative of State control, “We know what happens when the State gets involved in anything. It’s a complete fuck up.” Here, its particular cruelty lay in stripping Alex of his pleasures, not just the antisocial ones but his love of music.

In closing, McDowell praises Kubrick’s genius as a film maker and waxed lyrical about 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film I consider overrated despite its visual majesty. McDowell highlights its propulsion of science fiction beyond contemporary cardboard sets, describing it as the best cinematic experience one can have on the big screen. In fact, I do not disagree at all with his final assessment: “I don’t know what it’s about. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s 45 minutes before anyone speaks. But it’s genius.”

Unplayer One: Gris

Unplayer One is a recurring feature exploring games in way that should appeal to those who enjoy art irrespective of the medium.  Unlike other review posts, these are likely to contain major spoilers so, if you have any intention of playing the game in question, please do so before reading.

Gris title screen

People often describe despair as an all-consuming black hole. Whilst that may be its crushing final act, for many people I suspect grey is a more appropriate colour than black. Rather than an oppressive force, it has a tendency to drain away the colour from the world, so that it loses its joy, its allure, and its meaning. Gris wordlessly explores this concept, following a strong-willed woman standing against the fears, doubts and depression that plague her mind.

“I slipped into a state beyond my usual grief and restlessness and anxiety and despair — one of not feeling anything at all. And when I felt nothing I became almost nostalgic for the grief; at least when you felt pain you knew you were still alive. I had tried to fight this, forcing myself into life and noise. I had gone, on my own, to a few of the new music halls, always sitting near the front, right in the heart of the noise and laughter, and I laughed or sang along, trying to feel some of the joy that filled the room. But I was immune.”

Matt Haig, How to Stop Time

At a basic level, Gris is a 2D platformer in which progression is marked by restoring colours, one at a time, to an initially greyscale world. It is rendered as a flat cartoon against a layered, parallax scrolling background with swirling inks. The beautiful world is striking in both its initial stark simplicity and its colourfully detailed ultimate form. More impressive, however, is the inner struggle communicated solely through its mechanics.

Gris screenshot - running from grief

The eponymous protagonist awakes in the palm of a crumbling statue that acts as a clear analogue to her own eroded sense of self. Gris tries to sing out but chokes up, the statue’s hand crumbling and dropping her to the earth below. She trudges through a grey world, hunched body language conveying her emotional state. She is buffeted by winds that rise and dwindle, forcing her to hide behind structures to avoid being blown backward, undoing her progress.

“There are many fools, Sorwa, men who conceive hearts in simple terms, absolute terms. They are insensible to the war within, so they scoff at it, they puff out their chests and they pretend. When fear and despair overcome them, as they must overcome us all, they have not the wind to think… and so they break.”

King Harweel, The Judging Eye (R. Scott Bakker)

After a time she gains the ability to turn herself into a squared off, stone block. This cartoonish power serves not only to allow Gris to explore further by breaking through cracked floors when falling from a height, but the additional weight allows her to withstand strong winds without needing extrinsic cover. The metaphor for resilience is clear: Gris is learning to become more robust. You are not saving this woman; she is saving herself. The wind then shifts from an oppressive challenge to an enabling experience as Gris begins to use vertical gusts of wind to access new areas, previously out of reach.

Gris screenshot - forest

There is a button that, throughout the game, does nothing but cause Gris to exhale in a plaintive sigh. The sound design is real and touching, as pointless as this feature seems to be. However, once Gris has recovered the world’s colour, the same button unexpectedly serves an entirely new purpose as that sigh is replaced by song. We realise that this button has always represented her voice: muted and weak at first, but now rediscovered and liberated. With this discovery, her voice restores life to the world, causing trees to grow and flourish, carrying her higher.

It is the rediscovery of her voice that allows Gris finally to combat the formless, inky blackness that has been pursuing her. Her earlier attempts at passive evasion merely to survive now become a defiant challenge. This antagonist adopts at times the more stereotypical mental health motifs of a huge black bird, squawking angrily, and a giant face capable of swallowing Gris whole. When this finally happens, Gris finds herself ascending a tower to escape a rising ocean of toxic black sludge. As Gris sings, her statue self reforms and, moments before Gris succumbs to the rising tide, the statue sings back. This song banishes the creature and the sea of despair.

“Most things fail with age. Our hands and backs stiffen. Our eyes dim. Skin roughens and our beauty fades. The only exception is the voice. Properly cared for, a voice does nothing but grow sweeter with age and constant use.”

Patrick Rothfuss, The Wise Man’s Fear

The transition from a sigh to a song represents, to me, a shift from a sense of despair to one of hope. Gris’ ability once more to hope forges positive changes in the world around her. However, finding her voice is not itself the end of the game. It is a tool, and it needs to be taken actively out into the world and shared in order for it to change. Hoping for change is not an excuse not to act. Hope is a reason for not ceasing to act through despair.

Gris screenshot - aural glow

Granting Forgiveness

Richard E. Grant is, in conversation, as affably charming as you might expect, garrulously spilling forth anecdotes but always to praise others rather than himself. He was visibly excited yet humbly grateful at his Academy Award nomination earlier in the day, for the performance that had just been screened in Can You Ever Forgive Me? He describes the project’s success, for which he has already received twenty-odd awards, as the culmination of many pieces falling into place. He was drawn to it by scriptwriter Jeff Whitty (who wrote Avenue Q) and director Marielle Heller (for Diary of a Teenage Girl). His only concern was whether this would be a vehicle for Melissa McCarthy’s comedy, fears that were allayed over a two-hour planning lunch with her (there was otherwise no rehearsal before filming began).

Richard E. Grant being interviewed after a screening of Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Grant realised McCarthy had not seen Withnail and I when she complimented with some surprise his ability to act drunk. Whilst he acknowledges comparison between the performances is inevitable “when you play two alcoholics in period coats”, he is glad that the roles were thirty years apart and was not consciously channelling anything of Withnail. That may come as a slightly surprise given that he plays Portland-born Jack Hock as English, but this was a directorial choice rather than his own (in fact an earlier, failed incarnation of the project had Chris O’Dowd cast in the role).

Having come off what he described as the “Testostoworld” (coming soon to theatres) of Logan‘s massive, male-dominated set, he loved the intimacy of a small picture with rarely more than three people conversing in a scene and predominantly female crew. That is not to say he dislikes working on big movies: he is enthusiastic about appearing in Star Wars at the end of the year, although he perhaps misread the room a little when looking for excitement at JJ Abrams directing.

Richard E. Grant

When asked what convinces him to take on a role, Grant prefaces his response by noting with self-deprecation that he appeared in Spice World: The Movie. Like the plethora of British talent to appear in the film, he was instructed to take the role by a family member, as his daughter wanted to meet the Spice Girls. I wonder how many others are, like him, finding on the flip-side that it now opens doors with younger talent like Lena Dunham who wrote him into Girls because of that movie.

He reminisced about acting alongside Daniel Day-Lewis in The Age of Innocence, joking that he prostrated himself in thanks that the legendary actor had turned down the role of Withnail, thus providing Grant with a career. After the first day, however, Day-Lewis blanked him on set, and it took Michelle Pfeiffer to explain that the method actor would continue this throughout shooting since their characters disliked one another. He finally broke character on Grant’s final day of shooting to envelop him in a hug and tell him it had been an honour working together. Which understandably, after weeks of being ignored, simply felt surreal.

I could not say unequivocally whether Jack Hock is Grant’s best performance, but when a long-serving character actor finally receives that elusive recognition, it is hard not to root for him to win.

« Older posts

"Luck is the residue of design."

(CC) BY-NC 2004-2021 Priyan Meewella

Up ↑