The Angry Video Game Nerd and Cory Arcangel Make Us See the World in 8-Bit
An afternoon spent trolling YouTube for my latest work time diversion can yield a cornucopia of options ranging from the merely silly to the blissfully nonsensical. If the sight of a quartet of men impressively humping an ottoman doesn't fill you with glee or a clip of Kermit the Frog viewing "Two Girls One Cup" fails to make your LOL, well, you just haven't arrived to the 21st Century yet. And if you don't know what "Two Girls One Cup" is, I'm sorry but you're in John McCain land. Seeking my fix of internet miscellany one lazy day, I clicked on a link called "The Angry Video Game Nerd." I was presented with a 20-something man in a white collared shirt, glasses and a pocketful of pens, critiquing the nearly two decade old Nintendo video game Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Perhaps "critiqued" is too soft a word for the expletive laced tirade that ensued; a blitzkrieg of intricate wordplay, mostly of the four lettered variety-F-Bombs dropping like a Tarantino film, metaphors rarely rising above the scatological. His delivery brazenly incensed one second and then comically blasé the next, I found myself hilariously giggling at the elaborate faux (at least I hope it's faux) import the Nerd was giving this inconsequential game from the Regan-era -- a title I remember owning briefly but quickly abandoning given its almost unplayable design and control. I hadn't thought of it in at least 12 years. I watched a few more of his movies, amused by his over-the-top personality and mephitic selection of bottom-of-the-barrel games for review. Inhabiting a male pre-pubescent fantasy, The Nerd has every square inch of his room festooned with video game and pop culture memorabilia, his bookshelves lined, not with literature, but every vintage video game ever made and the technologically obsolete hardware to play them on. It's hard to kick the impression that The Nerd still lives in his childhood home, his parents probably watching Jeopardy in the next room, mildly annoyed by the distant din. The only testimony to the passage of time is the conspicuous consumption of Rolling Rock beer -- "to take the pain away" -- and the aforementioned sailor's vocabulary. There's nary a whiff of sexuality despite a knowledge of reproductive anatomy worthy of a John Hopkins grad student. All sense of time comes to a standstill at this event horizon, maturity frozen at an age just before most boys have their first wet dream. Even the situation's obvious irony is kept in check; this is not an individual appropriating a persona for a "so-uncool-it's-cool" effect, the way denizens of Williamsburg don trucker hats. As Yoda would say, no hipster The Nerd be.
I hyperlinked to his homepage and discovered that The Nerd is not some fly-by-night YouTube trend but a full-blown internet phenomenon. The 9th most subscribed YouTube channel ever, The Nerd beat out the "Shoes!" music video creator Liam Kyle Sullivan (omigod Shoes!) and even Chris Cocker, he of "Leave Brittney Alone!" fame. Displaying a remarkable social mobility in the virtual world, The Angry Video Game Nerd uploads his newest videos exclusively on Gametrailers.com after being purchased by his more immediate parent company, ScrewAttack.com. It looks like there was money in them thar hills. What's going on here? Why does a series of foulmouthed excoriations about inconsequential pop culture detritus from the mid-80's warrant a large swath of the internet viewing public’s attention in a forum that is already deluged with content? How did this needle find its way out of the digital haystack? The answer is simple. As my generation comes of age, for the first time we are experiencing a phenomenon unique to our species and known since time immemorial: nostalgia. And what a heady brew it is.
The Nintendo Entertainment System was released in America in 1985 and quickly became a staple of suburban households all across the country. Being the children of the Baby Boomers, we were a large demographic to market to, ready and willing to suck up our parents prosperity. No single consumer product defined our generation with such uniformity and ubiquity as did Nintendo; the company's mascot Mario becoming a pop culture icon rivaled only by that Grand Pooh-Bah of corporate-icon-as-children's-plaything, Mickey Mouse. While the Wii, Nintendo's newest "generation" console, sells itself as a video game system for all ages (I know childless investment bankers with one) and the Sony Playstation 3 and Microsoft's XBOX 360 appeal to tech-savvy young men with a hankering for big guns (of the virtual variety) and mega-hard drives, the Nintendo of the mid-80's was unquestionably a machine for children. With its primitive graphics and large catalog of remarkably similar games, often based on movie tie-ins geared to appeal to pre-adolescents (high schoolers had better things to do, like listening to Guns N’ Roses or dry-humping to the latest Friday the 13th sequel), the Nintendo Entertainment System was the invisible social glue of us boomer-babes. The games were a topic much discussed on playgrounds and jungle gyms with the fervor, though not the nomenclature, of The Angry Video Game Nerd himself. As we have aged, so has the technology we play with; the primitiveness of the 8-bit era transforming into the high-tech, polygon crunching, photo-realistic bad-assery common to video games today. The development of video games mirrors our own, and in the antiquated, pixilated style of the Nintendo titles we see a reflection of our unformed, immature selves. It's for this reason that I venture to guess that the generation which grew up in the nascent era of home video game consoles will have a deeper level of emotional investment in "gaming" than will the plugged in and logged on computer whiz kids of today, who, jaded by the sensorial pleasures of the slick new technologies available to them, will see video games as just another small module in the digital totality that makes up their lives.
Exploiting this soft-spot in the hearts of a generation of young people with the novel twist of reviewing the worst video games from our youth, The Nerd had an ace up his sleeve. Remembering Super Mario Bros. is hardly impressive, indeed most have probably thought of the crimson-clad plumber intermittingly as the years passed by. But Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest? Bugs Bunny's Birthday Blowout? The Power Glove?!? Those memories were stored away deep in the recesses of the mind alongside Count Duckula and memorial songs about the Challenger Explosion. This central gimmick, in addition to a strong comic persona and surprisingly professional production qualities for a one man operation, made the Nerd's shtick stick. He even has a deliciously catchy theme song by aspiring songwriter Kyle Justin. The tune spawned its own cottage industry of amateur musicians posting their, ahem, unique renditions of the song on YouTube. And, like all successes, The Nerd has his imitators: other likeminded 20-something males coasting on a nostalgia-high but sadly lacking any and all skill as filmmakers. The "Happy Video Game Nerd" (how original!) even appropriates Kyle’s theme song for himself, a low-brow move even in the ethically ambiguous YouTube universe.
The Angry Video Game Nerd is the creation of James Rolfe, a New Jersey (perfect!) filmmaker who maintains a website called Cinemassacre (get it?) where he posts his ultra-low budget movies alongside random tributes to his favorite films, vintage TV shows, animals, and whatever else suits his fancy. A sponge of all things pop-culture with a nod toward B-Level horror, Rolfe's adult interests are what one would expect of the "Nerd" post-gonad drop, though his selection of It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World as all time favorite film testifies to a surprising reverence for borscht-belt camp. His success as the Nerd has even parlayed him a new gig, sans character, as a film reviewer for, where else, Spike.com. But it is the Nerd persona that caught a Janus-headed pop-culture zeitgeist by the bullhorns. His new videos continue to bring him more and more levels of fame if not fortune. The market was ripe for someone to jog the memories of millions of young men who, perhaps feeling the strains of adult living for the first time in their lives, were looking for a momentary lapse into a rose-colored memory. Remembering the past is an escape, though a devastatingly chimerical one (see: completeworksTennessee Williams). But it's addicting nonetheless. That is what the Nerd offers: nostalgic escape, with a chuckle. It's right there in the opening lyric of his theme song: He's gonna take you back to the past…
Equally interested in our collective response to retro video games, but subverting our expectations at every turn, is multimedia artist Cory Arcangel. An über-hipster living in Brooklyn (natch!) Cory takes the art of computer hacking and makes it become, well, computer hacking Art. Not limited to videogames but always working in the digital realm, Cory has done projects technically sophisticated and others irreverent and simple, a favorite being the Google hack called “Doogle”-a website where no matter what one enters for their search the results are always about the 80's television program Doogie Howser M.D. But the work that has brought Arcangel his greatest acclaim is his rewiring of vintage video games.
In an early project, Arcangel drew his line in the sand unequivocally. Hogan's Alley was a classic Nintendo "shooter" where, using the "zapper" accessory, the player gunned down various thugs and gangsters, all the while avoiding innocents and bystanders within a crudely depicted urban environment. Arcangel reprogrammed this game into "I Shot Andy Warhol." Players now target an 8-bit avatar of the mop topped pop-art guru. In place of innocent bystanders, The Pope, Flava Flav, and Col. Sanders were inserted. Though he claims he chose Andy Warhol because the Hogan’s Alley bonus round involved shooting down flying soup cans, it's hard not to see the decision as a way for Arcangel to place himself squarely in the larger meta-narrative of pop art. While the Hogan's Alley idea is a tad gimmicky, the execution is skillful and impressive. Not merely "recreating" the game, the artist physically rewires the old 8-bit cartridge and reprograms it, a feat I didn't know possible before I saw Arcangel's work. An egalitarian in methodology, Arcangel documents his methods online, encouraging anyone to try their hand at hacking. He often gives lectures, to enthusiastic crowds, on the subtler points of Nintendo espionage. He himself is an unlikely computer expert. Trained in classical guitar at Oberlin, Arcangel studied computer programming out of the fear that upon graduating he would have no skills useful in the real world. He turned his technical training into a hobby and eventually became a landmark figure in the new world of "digital artists."
Arcangel's most famous and widely seen work is called Super Mario Clouds, a hack of the classic Super Mario Bros. game. Arcangel removes everything from the program except slowly rolling clouds against a baby-blue sky. Projected large, the effect is tranquil, amusing and vaguely psychedelic -- just watching it you can feel the opiate release. For the dot.com generation, the experience is also unsettlingly familiar -- those clouds and us go way back. For eons, children looked into the sky to see clouds. We looked into our television screens.
The piece was shown at the 2004 Whitney Biennial and caused a sensation. His work was also on display in Breaking and Entering: Art and the Video Game at the PaceWildenstein gallery in Manhattan -- where I first discovered him. At that show he juxtaposed his serene Clouds with the alternate projection of an image from Mig-29 Fighter, a Cold-War inspired Nintendo title. A cartoon Soviet jet perpetually soaring higher and higher into the sky opposite the Mario clouds makes for a sardonically ironic image. He has many other works based on videogames. Re-mixing Atari and Commodore 64 sounds into a techno album on LP or slowing down Tetris to a crawl, Arcangel is always playing (with all the fun that that term implies) with our old memories, reprogramming them into conceptual art. But without question his most ambitious and successful work has to be Super Mario Movie.
Collaborating with the art collective “Paper Rad” -- a group with an epilepsy inducing webpage and an aesthetic palette garish enough to make the art director of the Speed Racer movie nauseous -- Arcangel reprogrammed a Super Mario Bros. cartridge into a fifteen minute movie. Opening with an over-the-hill title character alone and isolated on a singular floating block in an ocean of sky blue, Mario resembles more a denizen of a Beckett play than a children's icon. Eventually falling though phalanxes of menacing, grinning clouds, Mario journeys across a nightmarish landscape of swirling colors and floating 1up mushrooms only to end up at a demonic rave, an event where the slowest and most psychedelic round of Pong ever played disintegrates whatever internal logic the old plumber had left. Interspersed with Saul Bass-esque sequences of hard geometry and elliptical title cards that only barely make any kind of sense, the whole movie feels like the “Beyond The Infinite” sequence from 2001 as redone by Takashi Murakami. Choreographed to a pulsating and relentless techno score of bleeps and blats, Super Mario Movie is the nightmare children had falling asleep after hours of non-stop Mario Brother-ing. It reminds you just how out there the images in the original game were -- just what kind of mushroom is Mario eating anyway? Super Mario Bros. as interactive surrealist masterpiece? The thought crossed my mind more than once watching Arcangel's film. Simply put: It's a trip.
The final image in Super Mario Movie is instantly recognizable: we see the opening shot of the original game Super Mario Bros: the eponymous hero stands, small and weak but anxious to begin his, which is to say our, journey. Finishing Cory Arcangel's movie I am tempted to paraphrase T.S. Elliot: Whether it is The Angry Video Game Nerd's lowbrow comic nostalgia or Cory Arcangel's conceptual re-evaluations, looking back at the video games of our childhood we can now as adults come to know them, and what they meant to us, for the first time.
Diamond in the Rough is a weekly celebration of all those terrific entertainment possibilities being ignored by other media outlets.