Ask The A.V. Club: July 5, 2007
What You Say About His Company Is What You Say About Society
This is the only old show that I haven't been able to track down as an adult. It was claymation (I mean it looked like actual clay; not just stop-motion animation), and it involved a boy and a man who traveled around in a big flying boat. It seems like there was some connection to Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer; it may have been in the title. I'm not sure if it was a show or movie; I saw it on TV sometime between 1985 and 1995. Any idea what it was called? Good luck!
Donna Bowman responds:
You're not alone, Chris. A lot of Gen-X and Y types saw The Adventures Of Mark Twain on television in some expurgated form or another. This claymation feature film was directed in 1985 (after years of laborious development) by the grand old man of the animation technique, Will Vinton—best known today for inventing the California Raisins.
It might sound like harmless old-timey family fun, but Adventures is an oddball science-fiction version of Twain's acerbic social commentary, not a theme-park ride down the Mississippi. The framing story involves Twain, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher flying around the solar system in a dirigible, searching for Halley's Comet. You'll recall that Twain was born the year the comet was discovered, and died when it returned on its next visit. In Vinton's fantasia, he wants to rendezvous with the dirty snowball so he can say goodbye at last to the stupid, self-destructive human race. The three fictional kids try to convince the cynical humorist that humanity is worth believing in. As they travel, they experience vignettes from many of Twain's works.
Some of the segments are kid-friendly fare, like a dramatization of "The Celebrated Jumping Frog Of Calaveras County." But others reproduce the biting satire and anti-religious polemic of "The Diary Of Adam And Eve" from Letters From The Earth (available on YouTube in segments) and "The Mysterious Stranger." The latter segment, in which the kids meet Satan and participate in creating, then destroying, a race of clay people on a Little Prince-style planetoid, has achieved minor cult fame for lurking in this innocuous-looking family cartoon like a poison pill.
Its disturbing effect was exacerbated because a severely-edited version often aired on cable television in the early '90s. Material that religious people might find unpalatable—specifically the "Mysterious Stranger" sequence—was cut, and the 86-minute movie now fit comfortably in an hourlong TV slot with plenty of time for commercial interruption. When the full-length film was released to home video, many young parents with fond memories of the expurgated version were in for some shocks. The film was never "banned from TV!!" as many websites and message boards hyperbolically claim, but it was a victim of hackjob editing, although probably more for expediency than for ideological purity.
A DVD version became available in early 2006 and is still in print. Although undoubtedly strange, The Adventures Of Mark Twain is a far better introduction to Twain's actual works and views than the sentimental kiddie stories about Tom Sawyer that most of us heard in our youth. Play it for your children someday and introduce them to some far-out ideas, not to mention a labor-intensive art form that's almost disappeared from view. And speaking of odd things to introduce your kids to…
Art Films Have The Right To Children
When I was a kid in the '80s, my mom went through a phase where she was really into foreign and independent cinema. Mostly I didn't watch them with her, but sometimes I only wished I hadn't. (I don't know what the appropriate age for a first viewing of Pink Flamingoes is, but I'm pretty sure I hadn't reached it.) Anyway, there was one that we watched that I'm pretty sure was Canadian. Or French. Or French-Canadian. It involved missionaries in North America during the 18th or 19th century trying to convert the indigenous people. It didn't go well for them. To the best of my memory, they were mostly just tolerated, but occasionally tortured and killed. There was one particular scene that's been sticking in my memory, in which one of them has his ear cut off by what I think was a sharpened clamshell. Any ideas?
One night in the early 1980s, my brothers, my Dad and I saw this movie. Judging by the lapels, it was filmed sometime in the mid-1970s. A secretary is instructed to drive across the country to meet her boss. Most of the journey is across desert. I think I remember her picking up a male hitchhiker. In one scene, they leave the car and have sex in the desert. All of a sudden, there are couples everywhere having sex in the desert. Finally, she gets to her destination, which is a house in the desert. This house is a raised, spacey-looking thing, with a lot of glass up front, and it's set against a rock face. Before she goes in, the house explodes. Then it explodes again. After this, the house explodes. The end. The consensus among my family was that we didn't know what the hell the movie was about. What was this movie? I'm not sure if I want to watch it again, or track down every copy and destroy them.
Noel Murray replies:
The latter question is a slam-dunk: It's Zabriskie Point, Michelangelo Antonioni's persistently divisive 1970 portrait of Southern California ennui. (As opposed to Blow-Up, his portrait of Swinging London ennui, or L'Avventura, his portrait of aristocratic Italian ennui, etc.) That final shot of the house exploding, scored to Pink Floyd (and visible here) is one of the most famous in all of art-cinema, and it frequently shows up in clip packages about the movies of that era—and certainly in montages about Antonioni.
The former movie, I've been poking around for clues about for a while now. Initially, I was convinced it was the celebrated 1971 Brazilian satire How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman, which certainly contains the kind of violence you describe. But now I'm thinking it's probably Black Robe. Bruce Bereford's film came out in 1991, perhaps too late to fit the parameters of your question, and it's fairly staid to boot. However, it does take place among the indigenous peoples of Canada, and judging from what I've read, it's got some pretty graphic violence.
Either way, I grouped these questions together because they're both partly about open-minded parents exposing their kids to unusual movies, which is a trend worth celebrating. One of the key steps on my personal road to cinephilia came when my mother took me to see Chariots Of Fire. I was 11 years old, and I was riveted. I watched the Oscars for the first time that year because I was rooting for Chariots, and when it won Best Picture, I cheered. After that, I started paying attention to what the "good" movies were supposed to be, which led to me reading movie reviews—and the rest is history. So while I can't say I approve of showing Pink Flamingoes to pre-teens, I'm still happy that my brother rented Blue Velvet and Blood Simple for me when I was only 14. In the abstract, the idea of kids in their early teens watching hard-R movies is appalling. But in my case—and many others, I'm sure—a good hard-R movie is a window onto a wider world.
Games People No Longer Play
We recently acquired a new intern here at The A.V. Club, and he informed us that he was interested in being a video-game historian at some point in the future, if he could figure out how to accomplish such a thing. We suggested, self-servingly, that the best possible entrée to the field would be to tackle some of our backlog of questions about obscure old video games. Much to our gleeful delight, he did. Welcome special guest intern Rowan Kaiser, who will be addressing your many video-game questions this week:
I remember an old first-person shooter in which the player character started off stuck in a haunted mansion. As the game continued, the player explored the mansion, teleported to other mansions, and even wound up in Hell for a while (Sheol in the game, I think). I seem to remember one of the antagonists being the god Baal, and several setpieces involving battling gods and demons. I seem to remember in-game FMV and recorded voice audio, which was noteworthy at the time. At the end of the game, it turns out that the player character is just a crazy person in an asylum, and the whole adventure was just a big delusional episode (or was it!?!), and the actor that played Baal is your psychiatrist or something. Can you help me figure out what game this is? I've been trying to remember its name since playing it about a decade ago.
You're almost certainly thinking of a 1997 PC game called Realms Of The Haunting. Here's the unofficial fan site. It starts in a haunted mansion in Cornwall, and sends the player to the realms of Sheol, Earth, Spirit, and Divine. The game's press release brags about 90 minutes of full-motion video. I can't make out whether there's a twist ending, but everything else matches.
I'll make it quick, because I am certain you get far too many of these… Game, played in the late '80s on a Tandy. May have been called Under The Root or Beneath The Root. Side-scrolling adventure game. Impossible to complete under the influence of cheap beer and pencil shavings. Lots of trees to navigate and puzzles.
There are a few historical games sites out there, such as mobygames or Home Of The Underdogs, that can point you in the right direction when you're so very, very close with a title. In this case, the game is called Below The Root. It was released for the Commodore in 1984, and possibly ported to the Tandy. It appears to have been an interesting, influential game, due to having multiple protagonists to choose from and a vast world to explore, both of which were rarities for such an early game.
An even more interesting piece of trivia: It's based on the Green-Sky trilogy of young adult-fantasy books by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. The game's extensive Wikipedia entry claims that it was the author's attempt to clarify some missteps in the ending of her trilogy. (Don't hold your breath for a Sopranos video game to do the same.)
If you're identifying video games, maybe you can help me figure out one I've tried finding myself before and failed. My brother had one of the last Amiga computers and gave it to me when he moved on to a newer machine, and he also gave me all the games he had for it. One of my favorites was a side-scrolling shooter where you played a mech that somehow got teleported back to Germany in the '40s. The whole game was shooting Nazis with a giant walking robot. I thought it was made by Psygnosis, but I've found lists online of every Amiga game they made, and it didn't seem to be any of the ones listed.
The game is Walker, released for Amiga in 1993. It is indeed a Psygnosis game, so your online lists must have been sadly incomplete.
Back in the mid-'90s when many people accessed the Internet only through Prodigy, there was a strange Oregon Trail or King's Quest-style game in which you, um, wandered around. I don't remember the reason you wandered around, or what happened to you while you did. I just remember waiting impatiently for each new screen to load just so I could click immediately to another screen. At some point, you encountered a hut on fowl's legs, which I recognized as a bit of Russian folklore that inspired a painting which inspired a movement in Mussorgsky's "Pictures At An Exhibition." (I was a band nerd, and I discovered "Pictures At An Exhibition" right around the same time.) What was that game called, and do you remember what the point of it was?
What you're describing sounds suspiciously like Quest For Glory I: So You Want To Be A Hero, also known as Hero's Quest before copyright difficulties forced a name change. As the game title may suggest, it was one of the many Sierra adventures based on the King's Quest model, though this was arguably the most interesting due to its relatively seamless integration of adventure and RPG elements. This is one of my all-time favorites, so I'm picking it out entirely from memory: the Baba Yaga chicken-leg hut was almost impossible to forget, and the game did feature fairly non-scripted exploration through a forest of roughly 40 screens, many of which didn't offer things to do directly.
I don't know how accessible the game would have been via Prodigy in the early '90s (especially legally)—it was a retail game—but there may have been a downloadable demo of either the original Hero's Quest, or the remake from a few years later, which featured better graphics and a mouse-driven interface. The screenshot here is from the remake, since it was more likely to be on Prodigy at that time.
My colleague and I have a pressing question, and I truly believe you may be our only hope of solving it. We have searched in vain for the title of a text-based baseball computer simulation that came out sometime in the 1980s. It literally had zero graphics, and every action (pitching, hitting) occurred via pressing the space bar, with the AI (seemingly randomly) determining what the end result was. This was a fairly in-depth game, as one had the option of playing as almost any team from every baseball season from the previous 100 years. For example, you could match the 1927 Yankees against the 1954 Cleveland Indians. You also had the ability to create your own team and your own players, well before that particular feature became standard a decade later in every sports video game.
But truly, the most magnificent aspect of the game was the complete and utter lack of any graphical element. Literally the only onscreen visuals were white text against a black background. You will truly be our heroes for life if you can find out what the name of this game is, and if you do, whether it is available for purchase or download somewhere.
Larry and Dave
This one is difficult to pinpoint exactly, as there were many text-based baseball games, and the newness of the video-game medium back in the '80s meant that the powers that be didn't notice when licenses were freely taken. One potential option is Radio Baseball, a text-based game released in 1986 by Electronic Arts, which seemed to use the space bar as a mechanism for game progression, and contained historical teams. This screenshot is in color, but depending on the computer you played it on, it might have been black and white on your system.
There are some other ASCII or text-based games, like Major League Manager or Diamond Dreams Baseball, which could also be what you're looking for, but Radio Baseball seems the most likely choice. But if you guys are interested in this style of game as much as the nostalgia, the text-based sports-management sim is still a thriving genre. The most popular modern version of these games is called Out Of The Park Baseball, and it offers a thriving online community with regular updates.
Next week: Popcorn in films, books about Brits, and more. Send your questions to email@example.com.