"Weird Shit’s Still Going Down: Notes From Mardi Gras in New Orleans, 2006" by Gabe Soria (Arthur No. 22, May 2006)

Originally published in Arthur No. 22 (May 2006)


Our tipsy author, right, with fellow revelers at the Rex Parade, Mardi Gras morning.

Weird Shit’s Still Going Down: Notes From Mardi Gras in New Orleans, 2006
By Gabe Soria

I’ve been in love with New Orleans since the day in May, 1993 when I first set foot on its soil. Since then, I’ve been a resident of the city three times and have gone back over and over when I wasn’t. Mardi Gras, for all its faults and gross public image, is important to New Orleans residents and expatriates alike, so when the chance came to visit my city for the first time after Katrina during Carnival, I jumped at it, but not without some second-guessing trepidation. What follows are rough impressions of my experience being back in town from Saturday, February 25 through Mardi Gras to March 1, Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the season of Lent…

Touching Down
Disembarking from the plane and already the Twilight Zone schisms from reality are apparent. This scene happens in the first couple minutes of the episode, the part right before the credits when the Rod Serling voice-over comes in and lets the viewing audience know that some crazy shit is about to go down. What’s Louis Armstrong International without its perpetually open souvenier stands and ersatz French Quarter bars? Too much like the Salt Lake City airport, that’s what. Outgoing passengers ain’t got nowhere to buy their last minute cans of Tony Chachere’s seasoning, authentic cookbooks or Hurricane mix. Incoming passengers don’t have anything, except for the baggage claim, and that is hardly a picnic. Everybody seems a bit hunted, a bit guilty.

Nothing makes you realize how much you’ve given up until someone’s taken away the lights, and the “Arriving Flights” underpass of Louis Armstrong International is a third world kick in the nuts: the absence of ambient light is palpable, and the illumination provided by taxis, shuttles and pick-up cars feels like interrogation by headlight. At the same time, though, it’s kinda eerily beautiful, as though everything is powered by steam and gaslight. We hear later that they’re still working to restore normal power. The airport of a major American city still doesn’t have full power six months after a disaster? What the fuck is going on here, I ask myself, resigning myself to joining the chorus of people asking that same question.

T-Shirt Slogans
The town is aswarm with bootleg political shirts, jockeying for space in Decatur Street tourists shops with your typical novelty T-shirts about states of tequila intoxication. Most of these shirts feature embattled mayor Ray Nagin in Photoshopped Willy Wonka drag, making some sort of sport about his now infamous Martin Luther King Day “Chocolate City” speech, possibly the biggest effect a George Clinton song’s ever had on the political scene. React how you want to the speech—reading a transcript in retrospect, it’s obvious to this writer at least that Mr. Nagin’s frustration with his black contemporaries left him feeling a bit loose at the mouth, but I ain’t mad at him—you can’t help but realize that there’s a little bit of smug racism at the core of the these shirt’s makers, that they finally feel justified at putting the screws to a black mayor who, admittedly, said some dumb-ass shit. But then I realize an important fact: I don’t think I’d ever really want to hang out with someone who wears their politics, left or right or straight up centrist, on their literal shirt-sleeve. I mean, I’m all for band t-shirt propaganda, but this? Nah. One T-shirt maker has gone the extra satire mile, though: for sale at the Circle Bar are “Ernie K-Doe for Mayor” tees, featuring the smiling face of the late and lamented Emperor of the Universe. Bumper stickers can be had, too. One drunken night, I find myself fervently wishing that K-Doe wins in a write in. In the storied history of corrupt Louisiana politics, the election of a deceased and much loved R&B singer has got to be an improvement.

Chased on a Bike
Weird shit’s still going down, though. On a perfectly fine afternoon, the wife and I mount bikes to ride down to a parade to meet a friend. Normally, yours truly is a bit more savvy about the safe routes to travel, but the hurricane-depleted lack of population has thrown me for a loop. Why not take a jaunt down a clear street a block closer to the river? The answer becomes clear when we make a left on Josephine Street towards St. Charles. A group of kids—12 to 14, black—are hanging out in front of a corner grocery/liquor store and begin shouting out warnings about how “Y’all don’t know where you ridin'”, etc., etc., and one kid’s bold enough to do a little mock run after the wife, who’s trailing behind on a too-small borrowed bike. The kid’s pursuit is half-assed, and he stops almost as soon as he starts, but it’s a neon-lights reminder that New Orleans is still a fucked-up place, race-wise.

In fact, this little incident is an anomaly. While statistics may not prove me right, the general impression one gets during Mardi Gras is of détente, peace. Sure, fratboys might get beaten down by cops along Bourbon Street after one Huge-Ass beer too many, but for the rank and file of the city, a “we’re all in this together and ain’t it fine” feeling pervades, usually. If you say “Happy Mardi Gras,” to anybody, they respond in kind, and mean it. But this little incident… well, they’re kids, so it doesn’t really mean much. It means that they’re acting like they think they’re supposed to act; it means that they actually think that their corner store is something to be protected; it means that they’ve learned that being young and black and aggressive can freak the fuck out of people going about their own business. Still, it’s days before I can stop picturing kicking the kid’s head in if he tried to touch the wife, and my subsequent murder at the hands of his numerous cronies. Yikes.

The 9th Ward Marching Band
Not that it needed saving by anybody, but the wife’s and my Mardi Gras is definitely given a soul-rousing boost by seeing the Mr. Qunitron-led 9th Ward Marching Band parade with the Krewe of Proteus on Lundi Gras night. For the uninitiated, Quintron and his wife Ms. Pussycat were and remain the owners and operators of the Spellcaster Lodge, a house/venue located on St. Claude Avenue in the 9th Ward. They’re both musicians, as well as puppeteers. Long time fixtures of the weird underground of New Orleans, they’re more like good spirit elementals rather than impeccably dressed scenesters, which they are as well. The 9th Ward Marching Band started as a loose-knit, almost renegade marching assemblage, but over the years they’ve gotten their weird act together, and while sharp and somewhat professional, they still make the squares nervous. While watching them march in their smart red and white outfits, playing “Rock me Like a Hurricane,” I notice that the crowd lining the parade route is going BANANAS for them. Everybody can feel that this ain’t no sarcastic, ironic hipster bulllshit—it’s true American weirdness and beauty at its finest. But you can also tell that they make some folks delightfully nervous. This can probably be best attributed to the bands in-between, resting music. When there’s a lull in their routine and things calm down, the 9WMB’s glockenspiel players start tapping out the theme from the slasher film “Halloween,” with the tubas coming in every now and then to deliver an ominous “bruuummmmmm.” It’s the film score equivalent of the fabled brown sound—you can tell by the looks on people’s faces that they recognize the minor key tune, and they like it, but don’t like it at the same time. It’s a brilliant moment, and I want to buy whoever thought of it a beer or ten.

The Dead Zone
The night of Lundi Gras finds the wife and I and our friends Judson and Courtney taking a shortcut on a drive downtown to hit a Quintron/Peaches show. The shortcut takes us through the area of town known and Mid-City, where Courtney lived previous to Katrina. Her new home features a handful of possessions salvaged from her house and cleaned of mold, but she’s basically begun anew. But driving through her old neighborhood… yikes. Once you get a few blocks off St. Charles, heading away from the river, a frightening change takes over the streets. They’re empty. They’re dark. Everything looks haunted and miserable. A few FEMA trailers are parked here and there, and on occasion someone seems to have managed to get a porch light working, but on the whole, it feels as if we’ve driven directly in a George Romero zombie flick. Any moment now I expect to see a shambling corpse slouch into the street, attempting to suck the brains out of our car’s passengers. No such thing happens, of course, but I am glad when we eventually make a right turn onto relatively populated, lighted Esplanade. The fact that a few moments earlier I was half-joking about wishing I was armed with a shotgun kinda makes me want to cry. I’ve NEVER wanted a gun in New Orleans, not even in my worse moments.

Mardi Gras Day (and on into the night)
Mardi Gras morning rolls around and all seems to be aback to normal in the city, at least for a few hours. Working on a few hours of sleep, the wife and I roll out of bed and into our costumes (I’m going as a jerk dressed in a jumpsuit and furry cap; the wife’s going the classy route by masquerading as a magical French schoolgirl). Walking over to St. Charles, we begin to see a parade of friends walk by; everybody seems to be well on their way to drunk before noon, but nobody’s got a mean buzz on. It’s all hugs, everywhere. Families lining the filthy parade route in their chairs and ladders look bleary-eyed and happy. When Rex starts to roll, you see people catching beads… and handing them to little old ladies and kids next to them. Everybody’s saying, “Hey, darlin’,” and “Excuse me,” and you’d be hard-pressed to spot your usual line of sweaty guys being led plastic-cuffed into a paddywagon (though I’m sure it’s happening somewhere—you can’t buck tradition in one year). The hours melt away—at one point, the wife and I are eating hamburgers with friends, the next, we’re at our home base eating red beans and rice cooked with a nice hamhock, the next, we’re being dropped off downtown. But by the time the Morning 40 Federation hits the stage at Checkpoint Charlie’s for their annual Mardi Gras night show, as the festival comes to its natural inevitable end, the feeling in the air is undeniably powerful, completely ecstatic. You can feel the desperate urge in the club to let loose, to raise one’s arms high above and scream. And as the Federation lurches into their first amplified ode to boozing and 9th Ward living, everybody in the room does exactly that. I’m grinning from ear to ear—it’s the feedback and the beer, most definitely—but it’s also the hope and love I’m seeing right now, that I’ve seen all weekend. Sure, folks are cynical and tired, but they still believe, much more so than I think anybody else in any city would or could, for they know that’s there’s an ineffable something to New Orleans, something that just can’t and won’t quit, ever.

"The sound of sweat, hallucination and revelation": Gabe Soria meets BELONG (2006)

HEAVY AIR
An Orchestra of Feedback and Humidity, Courtesy of New Orleans duo Belong

Text by Gabe Soria, illustration by Arik Moonhawk Roper

Originally published in Arthur No. 23 (June 2006)

There’s a ‘round-the-clock environmental buzz everywhere in New Orleans if you’ve got the ears to hear it. It’s a deep, almost sub-sonic, earth-drone that’s especially evident during the wicked days of summer. It’s in the awesome silence of the baking, deserted streets at noontime; it’s in the deafening biological volume of the wild, tropical greenery and of bugs reproducing insanely; it’s in the groaning of the cracked sidewalks, ancient houses and crumbling cemeteries; it’s in the LSD-like intoxication produced by the common cocktail of casual drinking crossed with 100 percent humidity and three-digit thermometer readings.

October Language, the stunning debut album from New Orleans drone guitar-duo Belong, is a de facto impressionistic field recording of the ineffable and beautiful noise that permeates the city. Miles away from the jazz, funk and bounce hip-hop that defines New Orleans music to the world at large, October Language still manages to be as genius an expression of the soul of the city as Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina,” Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up,” Dr. John’s ” Right Place, Wrong Time” or Irma Thomas’s “Ruler of My Heart.” It’s the sound of sweat, hallucination and revelation, and every cat who’s made it through a couple of New Orleans summers can dig that.

Belong is comprised of New Orleans natives Turk Dietrich, 28, and Mike Jones, 27. Dietrich—lanky and gregarious, possessor of the strange New Orleans accent that sounds strangely Southern and Brooklyn-esque at the same time—is the talker of the two. Both came back to New Orleans a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, and both plan on staying for the forseeable future. Both are the type of guys who you want to knock back beers with all night with in a smelly bar, fellas you’d want to have on your side in a fight. Having heard snatches of their brilliant debut scant days before a second trip to his old habitat of New Orleans inside a month [the last being a Mardi Gras visit detailed last issue], your correspondent made a few phone calls and tracked Belong down to a bustling coffeehouse on Magazine Street for a quick talk. Decompressing from a recent U.S. tour with Ariel Pink and preparing to embark on a European tour, the band was eager to jaw about video games, the peculiar habit of some New Orleans residents of beginning evenings out at midnight, and plans to attend work parties to help Ms. Antoinette K-Doe repair the fire damaged Mother-in-Law Lounge. We also managed to talk about music a bit…

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Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys' Bomb-Ass Matzoh Ball Soup

Originally published in Arthur No. 13 (Nov. 2004), available from the Arthur Store. Layout by W.T. Nelson.

Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys’ Bomb-Ass Matzoh Ball Soup
As told to Gabe Soria

Essential cookware:
one stock pot
one slightly smaller pot

Ingredients:

For the broth:
enough chicken bones to fill the stock pot
2 or 3 white onions, halved
bag of carrots, peeled and halved
parsnips (slightly less than the amount of carrots), halved
bunch of celery, halved
bunch of dill, coarsely chopped
salt and pepper

For the matzoh balls:
4 large eggs
1/2 cup club soda
2 to 3 tablespoons schmaltz (chicken fat) skimmed from the stock
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
1 cup of Manischewitz matzoh meal

I make this a lot because it’s awesome. I had it growing up. My dad would make it about once every two weeks, and he’d always make a gigantic pot using my grandma [complicated Polish name]’s recipe. [Arthur: How do you spell her name?] Beats me. [laughs] You try spelling that shit. I don’t even think that she can spell it. That’s why she changed her name to Annette. Annette Auerbach, my dad’s mother. She taught herself how to cook, making the most out of not-the-most.

First you gotta make the broth, which is key, and then you make the matzoh balls. For the broth, you gotta get nice chicken bones, enough to fill three quarters of the stock pot. For the bones, I go to Klein’s Market here in Akron and ask for soup bones. You put those in, and you put in chopped-up parsnips and carrots and white onions and celery. You fill the water right up to the top of the bones. Not above, not below. Bring it to a boil and then reduce it to a simmer. Let it simmer for at least an hour, keeping it covered except for a little sliver. Check it every once in a while, and after the broth has reduced a bunch, put in a big handful of dill. The key ingredient is dill. It’s what sets my grandma’s chicken broth apart.

Now get a smaller pot, one that will hold all the broth, and strain out the bones. Normally me and my dad will pick through the meat on the bones and eat that. Take some of the carrots, some of the celery and some of the parsnips and cut them up into bite-sized pieces and save them to put into the strained broth later. Then you add some salt and pepper to taste and you got a good broth. You can even put in a little bit more fresh dill.

While that’s simmering, you want to make the matzoh balls, because they have to be refrigerated. You take four eggs, a half cup of club soda, a few tablespoons—three or four, you kinda do it by feel—of chicken fat that you’ve skimmed from the broth, plus a couple of tablespoons of chopped up parsley (chop it up nice and fine), salt and fresh black pepper, and about a cup of matzoh meal. My grandma only uses Manischewitz. I’ve never had others. I know some people use Goodman’s.

Mix it all up with your hands. Put a little bit of the chicken fat on your hands, rub it in so that the dough doesn’t stick to your fingers, get it nice and mixed up, and form balls with it. Make ’em bigger than a golf ball but smaller than a tennis ball. Some people make gigantic matzoh balls and I just think that’s fucking stupid. That’s kinda like foot-long hot dogs. “They taste like shit, but they’re a foot long. Can you believe it?!”

Put the matzoh balls in the refrigerator. They’ve gotta sit there for at least twenty minutes, a half hour. And then just put ’em right in the broth to cook ’em. Bring the broth back up to a boil and throw the matzoh balls in. They cook in 20-25 minutes, covered. Don’t peek. You just gotta trust the matzoh. Have faith in the Manischewitz. You should have perfect matzoh balls; they should be floating at the top. And then you put in your vegetables that you’ve chopped and then you’ve got the bomb-ass soup. Some people add noodles, but my grandma never does. But that chicken meat that you pick off of the bones? Sometimes she’ll use that. It’s a bonus.

Will Oldham on his Double Chocolate Chess Pie, as told to Gabe Soria

Come On In My Kitchen (column)

This issue’s chef: WILL OLDHAM of Louisville, Kentucky
as told to Gabe Soria

dc666ph02

Originally published in Arthur No. 10 (April 2004)

I’ve been making different kinds of chess pie for most of my life; it’s like pecan pie without the pecans in it. I think vinegar pie is similar, and transparent pie is similar. It’s just slightly different proportions of the different ingredients and consistencies, otherwise it’s the same thing: the magic of sugar mixed with butter mixed with eggs thrown in a piecrust.

Will Oldham’s Double Chocolate Chess Pie

1/2 c. Butter
2 oz. Chocolate, unsweetened
1 c. Sugar
3 Eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 c. Crème de Cacao liqueur
2 tbs. All-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/8 tbsp. Salt
1 Pie shell
Vanilla ice cream or sweetened whipped cream (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a saucepan over low heat, melt butter and chocolate. Remove from heat. Blend in sugar, eggs, liqueur, flour, salt and vanilla extract into melted butter and chocolate. Beat until smooth. Pour into the pie shell. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until set. Cool on a wire rack for at least 30 minutes.

There’s a place in Louisville called Homemade Ice Cream and Pies Kitchen that makes a really insane chocolate chess pie, and that might be where I first had it, ‘cause it opened when I was a teenager. [In Louisville] there’s also Derby Pie, which is pecan pie with bourbon and chocolate chips in it, but that’s not a full-on chocolate experience. In Birmingham, Alabama there used to be a place by the airport called BJ’s on the Runway and they made the best pies ever. They had a chocolate meringue pie, and the chocolate was… it was like a black hole. You got sucked into the whole thing and you didn’t come out until the pie was gone. It was six or seven inches high, with this meringue. Amazing pie. I think that that was when I realized what the possibilities were in a chocolate pie.

[I make chess pie] probably three times a year, ‘cause sometimes it’s easier to go to Homemade Ice Cream and Pies Kitchen to get a slice. I’ll make it for a recording session and we’ll just eat it over the course of the session. You get the rewards all along the way. It helps the music stay psyched. This

is nice, though, because it has this Crème de Cacao, and that’s a very good liqueur. I like it. I can have a scoop of vanilla ice cream with whiskey poured over it. It’s good. In Italy they call it an “Apogato”, which means drowned man, and you can have it with your choice of liquor. Sometimes sweet potato pie with a little bit of bourbon or rum cooked into it can be really delicious.

Chess pie and sweet potato pie are two things widely available in varying recipes all across Louisville. It’s a very exciting place for pie. There’s a bakery in Louisville called Plehn’s Bakery that makes a caramel ice cream, and the caramel ice cream from there mixed with the chocolate chess pie from Homemade Ice Cream and Pies Kitchen is… it’s beyond description. When you take a bite of it, it’s like… how you know… it helps you recognize how omnipotent and indescribable God is. Because this food, you know, goes beyond, and obviously God, you know, God would go beyond anything a Pope could tell you, or an imam could say about, or rabbis, you know? They can pretend that they can tell you about God, but it’s way fucking beyond their comprehension, no matter how many books they read or how much they whip their back or do whatever they do. It’s the same thing with the pies when you realize that the way things work is way beyond anything you could comprehend. We can put [the ingredients] together, but we can’t explain why, when you put them together, why they do what they do.

"Shadow of the Colossus" reviewed by Gabe Soria (2005)

Originally published in Arthur No. 19 (Nov 02005)

“Twilight of the Gods” by Gabe Soria

Shadow of the Colossus
(Sony)
PlayStation 2

“Nor is it to be thought that man is either the oldest or the last of earth’s masters, or that the common bulk of life and substances walks alone. The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be… They walk serene and primal… They walk unseen and foul in lonely places where the Words have been spoken and the Rites howled through at their Seasons. The wind gibbers with Their voices, and the earth mutters with Their consciousness. They bend the forest and crush the city, yet may not forest or city behold the hand that smites…. Man rules now where They ruled once; They shall soon rule where man rules now. After summer is winter, and after winter summer. They wait patient and potent, for here shall They reign again.” — from “The Dunwich Horror” by H.P. Lovecraft

It begins in an ancient temple, or a temple that certainly looks antediluvian, deserted except for a young man who lays upon the floor, insensate. He wakes slowly. Dressed in raggedy homespun, he looks like an androgynous gutterpunk, circa 960 A.D. The temple is wide and long, bounded on both sides by columns hewn from rock. At one end of the temple, on a stone bier at the top of a short flight of steps, lays a young woman, sleeping a deathless fairy-tale sleep. Or dead, perhaps, awaiting burial. Indistinct voices speaking no known language can be heard, faintly when you (as the young man) approach her, and though nothing is clear, your purpose seems obvious and instinctual: wake the girl, somehow. Her resting place is at the end of the temple open to the vast countryside, and the light that comes from the outside is hazy and autumnal, golden.

You are, inevitably, armed. Your arsenal includes, and will only ever include, a plain sword and bow and arrow. The sword is, of course, magic: when you hold it aloft in the sunlight, it seems to collect the light, grabbing sunbeams from the air and focusing them into a bright beacon. You discover that if you experiment with turning in certain directions, the formerly disparate and scattered beams tend to form into a focused, single beam. The only other living thing in the temple is a horse, which allows you to mount it. Being no dummy in the ways of video games’ enchanted objects, you decide to aim your horse in the direction the beams collect. Your trip is untroubled. The verdant but quietly desolate and melancholy countryside seems to number only you and your horse as living inhabitants. The scent carried on the wind would be, if you could smell anything, narcotic and mournful, an opiate of burning, fallen leaves and other dying things.

The beams of light lead you to a cliff face that, if it could, would drop to its knees and beg you to climb it, so you do after a bit of trial and error experimentation, driven by a strange sense of purpose and obligation to the sleeping girl, feeling that at the top of this cliff, something awaits. This is important, you think. And then you are there at the top of the cliff, and it is there that you finally see it: standing at least one hundred feet tall, the minotaur-thing strides back forth across the length of a small valley. It doesn’t drip blood from its fangs, snatch cows from a fleeing herd and toss them into its mouth like popcorn, or even open its mouth to spray great gouts of fire at an unfortunately located village. It simply walks back and forth carrying a great club, looking as if it was born equally of stone, metal and flesh, possessing the ground it strides as befitting a godlike force of nature, and you know, with a heavy heart, that your task is to use your basic tools of war to achieve the impossible: the destruction of this beautiful behemoth before you. The first part of the destruction is an academic puzzle: how do you scale such a thing and find its weaknesses? And once you find its weaknesses, how do you humble it and then slay it? And once you do this impossible thing, you know that you cannot rest, and that the girl sleeping in the temple cannot wake, until you find the other towering creatures, Colossi, titans, Old Ones, whatever they are, and destroy their terrible beauty as well.

And that’s it. There’s no expository dialogue explaining the plot in the comically serious jargon as common as air in the videogame world. There’s no attempt to set your Quixote-esque pursuit of the ever-larger and ever more fancifully rendered Colossi in the rigid frame of good versus evil or right versus wrong, as the conventional wisdom of storytelling demands. You simply are, and your quest simply is. It is, quite simply, an extraordinarily exhilarating and confoundingly beautiful experience. And this is a videogame, for pete’s sake: a heavy, heavy videogame full of weird wonder, atavistic dread and thrillingly bizarre, avant-garde leanings.

In fact, at times Shadow of the Colossus feels more like an epic-length stoner rock record than a videogame. While playing the game I begin to eagerly riff on the experience, translating it to other media. I imagine buying a quadruple album called Shadow of the Colossus (self-titled, of course); a concept album where each track tries to convey the awe and reverence inspired by titanic, pre-historic godlike creatures; an album where each side-long track is number-named, from “Colossus I” to “Colossus XVI” (these plain titles are necessary, as the Colossi’s real names cannot be pronounced by mere humans); an album that sounds like a trio of back-of-the-van genius longhairs trying to express their herb-induced visions of some sort of mythworld with beautifully droning guitar, quaking bass and slooooowwwww thudding Hammer-of-the-Gods drumming. And, in fact, you can drop needle on Earth’s Hex, or the Melvins’ Lysol, or Sleep’s Dopesmoker, or any number of heavier rock records while you’re playing Shadow of the Colossus and it works like the old Dark Side of the Moon/Wizard of Oz thing. That’s what this game feels like.

For some reason, Shadow of the Colossus summons—for me, at least—false memories of fantasy head films that never came to be, works along the order of the infamous abortive Dali/Disney “Destino” project, or Jodorowsky’s never-was adaptation of Dune. Dig this pitch: revered stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen (all apologies to the great man for using his name in sorta vain) makes a pilgrimage to Italy in 1969 after catching a quadruple-bill of Sergio Leone’s westerns. The screening has inspired a vision: this director is the guy to helm a near-plotless monster movie Ray’s conceived over some recent sleepless nights, nights he’s spent sketching pictures and carving clay maquettes of creatures that look like they come straight out of the nightmares of a zookeeper of Greek myths. The resulting non-existent film—shot in the desolate Almerian landscape and starring a baby-faced Kurt Russell as the nameless boy giantkiller and renamed Shadow of the Colossus after its original title, Clash of the Titans, is ditched—is four hours long, will be dismissed as fraudulent, pseudo-deep sub-Tolkien claptrap by critics and kept in perpetual circulation on the midnight cult revival circuit for decades to come. Collaborators Ennio Morricone and Jimi Hendrix are surprise nominees for a 1971 Academy Award for Best Score but, unsurprisingly, lose. Copies of the ultra-rare soundtrack are highly sought after by crate diggers and heads worldwide.

Of course Shadow of the Colossus is not a wished-for eight-sided album, or a phony cult monster movie. It is what it is, and that is a videogame. But it’s not without precedent. Shadow of the Colossus shares its strange DNA with Ico, a game released four years ago for the PlayStation 2 and which was produced by the same Sony Japan design team led by chief designer Fumito Ueda. Ico begins almost as a rote exercise in videogame princess saving before taking a turn for the weird, ethereal and lush. Taking place entirely within the walls of an enormous, labyrinthine castle, the titular hero of Ico was a boy exiled to the structure, possibly cast out from his society due to his unusual deformity: a pair of horns growing from his head. Also trapped in the bleak and quiet castle is a girl who is beset by malefactors that are more shadow than substance who hunger to take her away. Instead of the inevitable quest to find something, your mission is to protect, avoid and puzzle out the mysteries of the Rube Goldberg-goes-cyclopean castle. As with Shadow of the Colossus, the prevaling mood is not one of gung-ho snicker-snack dragon slaying, but one of melancholic, lonely duty. Inevitably, Ico did not sell well enough to be classified as a commercial success by the bean counters. No matter, though. It’s justly considered a masterpiece of the form, and its aesthetic successor carries its banner forward.

Take, for instance, the enemies in Shadow of the Colossus, the Colossi themselves. They are great, shuddersome, shambling things that seem to have walked straight out of the twilight of the collective unconscious, the eternal realms of dream and folklore. Their physical appearance suggests they’ve sprung from the pages of a medieval grimoire, a sketchbook menagerie of ancient beasts kept by a mad court magician and deemed heretical. And I call the Colossi “enemies” loosely, as a means to an end, using basic videogame nomenclature; never once playing the game do you actually sense that the creatures you are trying to slay are, actually, things that truly bear any malevolent intent towards you. To call them enemies would be like a seaman calling a typhoon-born wave an enemy, or a hunter lost in the woods cursing a snowstorm as a foe. Forces of nature are, quite literally, bigger than that. Bigger than name-calling. Bigger than real anger. They can be deadly, no doubt, but to waste breath and energy making an enemy of something so alien is worse than pointless. It’s as if the Colossi themselves are calling to you, beckoning you, willingly attracting the agent of their downfall to their doorsteps. And though they resist you and your sword and your arrow as surely as you would resist the persistent attentions of a wasp, there’s a sense of the inexorability of fate and history in all of this. If you do not succeed, there will be another hero on another quest, and they are surely doomed to pass from physical presence into the stuff of memory and legend. It’s not a question of “if”, it’s a question of when.

Case in point: a common design conceit in game controls is to assign a button on the game controller to target whatever thing you’re fighting against; press the button and your attention is directed unwaveringly upon the thing you wish to kill, or bounce a coconut off the head of, or whatever. Shadow of the Colossus has such a button, but the function it serves is telling in language used to describe it. Upon your first sighting of a Colossus, a helpful hint pops up on the screen that instructs you to press a button to “Gaze at the Colossus.” Ha! Not “Target the Colossus” but “Gaze at the Colossus”. You are, of course, aware that your ultimate goal is the humbling of this towering creature, but the game’s designers can’t help but remind you, however subtly, that the things you are pitted against are not only worthy of reverence, but demand worship as well. The fact that such a gesture has been included in the game, that you can’t kill a god without fixedly looking at it and considering all that it is, is nothing short of mad, poetic genius.

There are no other adversaries. Unlike most videogames, time is not wasted pitting you against repetitive onslaughts of minor imps and demons. The only other real adversary is the entropic loneliness that accompanies you as you embark on increasingly longer journeys on your horse and confront more elaborate environmental obstacles on your way to your next encounter with a Colossus—the lack of other breathing creatures on these rides is effectively oppressive and gloomy, as if the land itself were conspiring to break your spirit and turn you from your quest. Go home, the windy sound effects seem to whisper. Go home, sit by the fire, grow old and die warm and safe. Forget this fool’s errand. You don’t heed the wind, of course, but…

As of this writing, I’m still trying to finish Shadow of the Colossus, to reach the final Colossus and try to take in its vastness, but part of me never, ever wants to get within spitting distance of the oncoming end. Part of me wants to stop short of dispatching my final rival, cease waging this one-man Ragnarok and end the game on an ambivalent note. I’d like to find a rock outcropping somewhere, fix the bulk of the last Colossus in the sight of my adventuring proxy, and just gaze, gaze, gaze, but I know that I won’t. I will gaze at the last Colossus for a good long while and then, because I have no choice, seek out a way to bring it low. And when that happens, even though I will be flush with the thrill of accomplishment, I don’t think I’ll be able to feel entirely happy.

Originally published in Arthur No. 19 (Nov 02005)