All the things that were unusual about the class made it attractive to the students. It was about popular culture, in the first place, and taught by a charismatic and expert professor. Andrew Sarris was a film critic for the Village Voice, a position he’d held long before he began lecturing at Columbia University, 17 years ago. Sarris was commonly associated with his 1962 essay, ‘Notes on the Auteur Theory’, regarding the critical position that the director was the primary author of a film. The essay had popularised the theory in America and earned Sarris a nemesis in The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael. Their rivalry had since dissolved but remained on the minds of a lecture hall of undergraduates.
In his lectures, Sarris would run film reels of clips from various movies to illustrate broader points about cinematography or storytelling. Such compilations were themselves a technical novelty (Sarris may have needed professional help to put them together) and invited students to immediately engage with the course. Sarris discussed how different films were related thematically, and what implications the cinema had on politics and the arts at large. At the close of each lecture, the enthused undergraduates barricaded Sarris with earnest questions, and one young student, impressed with the presentation and content of these lectures, decided he would have to tell his friend Michael Abbott all about them.
A graduate student in Columbia’s Theatre school, Michael Abbott, 23, had no official business attending an undergraduate film lecture, but upon his friend’s recommendation snuck into the hall with the enrolled students. Michael, too, was struck by Sarris’ methodology. He noted the professor’s use of immediately accessible cultural references that eased the students into more sophisticated and less accessible concepts; “challeng[ing] students with material that they didn’t even understand was challenging.” And he liked, more than anything, that this college professor believed popular culture was worthy of serious academic study.
He would have to come back here.
NEW YORK CITY, 1986-1987
Michael Abbott had arrived at Columbia a 22-year-old Theatre and English major from a small college in Indiana. He was adamant that he wanted to direct professionally, but being accepted by one of the most prestigious directing programs in the country was something of an inexplicable surprise. His interview had gone well, and he came equipped with a thorough resume, but he half-believed that the program staff simply liked the idea of having a “Midwestern, corn-fed boy in the mix.”
The staff were all active directors in the city and did not teach theatre exclusively. The majority of the assessment depended on a written thesis and the staging of one major production, and would lead to an apprenticeship under a director followed by a position in a theatre company. The program was limited to six students, a number that, it was made apparent at the outset, would eventually be reduced to be four. The eliminations were for logistical reasons, as the college couldn’t support six directors simultaneously staging plays, but to characterise the pursuit of a Master’s degree as an extended job interview did nothing to reduce the extant pressure.
Of the six, Michael was the only one straight from undergraduate school, or from as small a school as Indiana’s Wabash College, and being in his early 20s meant he was a good decade younger than the rest of the students. Nor was Michael well-travelled; if his peers were American then they had lived internationally, and the others were from cities like Beirut and Johannesburg.
Michael, furthermore, was as interested in film as he was in theatre, whereas the other students all seemed singularly focused on their area of study. But despite a deep appreciation of the cinema, he had not even heard of film theory until college, had never read Barthes and his critical readings of film or theatre had mostly been limited to their immediate entertainment value, or noting a standout performance. He admired the films of John Ford and the plays of Sam Shepard, two American artists who covered very American subjects that Michael was drawn to: explorations of the American mythos, the American west and the American identity. Michael worked with playwrights who wrote similar material, which earned him the sardonically-enunciated nickname “the American director” from the program head. Within the internationally cultured program, the westerns of John Wayne were decidedly Michael’s to keep.
In Michael's view, the six of them were a “pretty crazy group of people” to begin with, and the realities of the program stoked their ambitions. They were being trained to become professional directors, the staff stressed, not teachers, which was how many professional directors in the city did in fact support themselves. The program had no interest in academics, and having been forewarned that at least two of them “would not survive”, the students “got very, very single-minded about themselves.” Determined and career-driven, the other five rarely interacted with each other outside of the program and almost never with Michael. Their approaches were different, and because of his youth and relative inexperience, he felt, they didn’t respect him very much.
Even outside the directing program “pressure-cooker”, there was little release. “There was this demonic notion at Columbia,” says Michael, “that if you could survive this hell, you’d be better for it.” As he worked he was uncomfortably aware of a Svengali-like presences looming over his shoulder, or telling him to his face: “that was shit. That was stupid. That was not worth my time.” Michael had had a “lousy” public school education, didn’t think much of teachers and certainly no teacher had ever dealt with him like that or spoken to him in that way. They were focused on results, and their criticism cut deep. “I had, and still have,” says Michael, “a tendency to be kind of a worrier, to cling to outcomes and to need certain things to happen for me to be happy.” The program had put his self-worth on the table, and Michael was easily pushed to anxiety and doubt. “There were times,” he remarks with some bitterness, “when it was really no fun at all.” The sentiment likely extended beyond Michael; in a sobering episode, one of the women in the program killed herself.
Michael had little in common with the director students and admired how tightly-knit and low-drama the playwriting program seemed in comparison. Through chance encounters in a café on Amsterdam Avenue, he made friends with a group of students from the Journalism and Law schools with whom he shared a hobby that he never discussed with his theatre colleagues: video games. Whatever inspired their friendship (“These were people who weren’t dating on Saturday nights; we had time on our hands,” Michael notes wryly,) he was thankful for this small but easy-going community founded around their niche pastime. The topic of theatre never entered into their clique discussions, or the “gamer nights” they organised, and this break from academic pressures helped Michael to relax.
The years that Michael Abbott spent at Columbia coincided with the apex of the AIDS crisis. By 1986, more than 19,000 Americans had died from AIDS; a statistic which had received disproportionately minor attention from the news media and the federal government. Medical researchers marginalized the epidemic as an unglamorous minority’s disease; although it had also been discovered in heroin users, female partners of infected men and babies subject to infected blood transfusions. It was this, coupled with political and social discomfort in making the sexual habits of gay men the subject of national discourse had led to 19,000 preventable deaths, so argued a loose coalition of doctors, journalists and gay activists. The gay communities of New York City and San Francisco were the most visibly affected, and Michael, working in the theatre, had several gay friends who were convinced by and large that the Reagan administration was doing its best to ignore the crisis. Michael remembers the disparity between what the government “said America was and what we were living at the time in the city.”
It took the death of a film star, the 1960s romantic lead Rock Hudson, to propel AIDS into the national consciousness. A plurality of Americans, including members of Michael’s family, were shocked not just by Hudson’s death but that a gay man could be like Rock Hudson. Ryan White, a 13-year-old haemophiliac who had contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion, had been expelled from his high school, and his cause was taken up by celebrities like Michael Jackson and Elton John. White was from Michael’s home state of Indiana, a place that Michael began to see bore greater resemblance to Ronald Reagan’s vision of America than did New York City. He had had gay friends at home; only he didn’t know they were gay at the time. The idea of coming out in Indiana was different than it was in New York City, where Michael had quickly befriended a flamboyant student on the College Board.
Michael had grown up in a conservative Christian church whose ideology he found problematic when he reached college. He was concerned with the idea of monotheism, and challenged why exactly the things he was told were “evil” were indeed wrong. “I think in my case, I was so overwhelmed as a boy by a powerfully strong father, that somehow the notion of 'don’t do that, don’t try that, don’t say that', whatever, I become oddly attracted to those things. As an act of liberation.” Michael’s character was more inquisitive than contrarian, and amidst widespread anger and frustration, he became troubled by his repudiation of Christianity and whether he was replacing that spiritual vacancy with anything else.
New York City had politically activated Michael, a commencement he thought had already occurred at Wabash, but nothing had prepared him for the hopelessness and desperation embodied by his new friends. He would hear every week, if only from a friend of a friend, that someone new had died. He was witnessing politics and art motivated by anger for the first time. In the theatre, they struggled with how to respond to the disease and the crisis that threatened to define them. There was a debate between those who wanted to argue that if the public got to know homosexuals, then they would like them, and those who wanted to yell that while they would never be understood they would no longer be ignored. The prevailing rallying cry became “get on board or get out of our way.” Some chose to tune out the entire thing, less, Michael thinks, out of homophobia or prejudice, but because of how overwhelming everything was at once. Regardless, “the voice of the artists in New York was changing,” says Michael, “and everything seemed up for grabs at that time in the American theater as it related to the AIDS epidemic.”
Michael was concerned, and angry too, but he didn’t have a response. Artistically, he didn’t have experience writing about the contemporary political and moral conscience, nor was he gay, nor did he have AIDS. His strenuous academic career, furthermore, wouldn't allow him the time to volunteer as his friends had. Given a remarkable catalyst in American history, he wished he could have risen to the occasion with some artistic and personal statement; instead, he felt sorely disconnected.
In high school, Michael knew students whose parents wouldn’t let them play Dungeons & Dragons. The tabletop role-playing game had been stigmatised by religious conservatives as an object of the occult, powerfully and indivisibly affiliated with imagery of demons and witchcraft. It was not just the pastime of geeks, but of Satan. Legends persisted about D&D-addicted teenagers turning up dead in steam tunnels, and Patricia Pulling, whose gamer son committed suicide, would form the vocal watchdog group Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons (BADD).
The prejudice didn’t affect Michael much; he’d never been a big D&D player. Some of the video games he did play, however, bore that influence. The D&D and Lord of the Rings-derived Ultima games were typical of the role-playing genre at that time. Players would select a character who navigated a fantasy-fiction universe to defeat an all-powerful evil, fighting monsters and collecting equipment along the way. The three games in the series offered only slight variations on the theme, but had soared in popularity for the radical technological advances made with each instalment. Richard Garriott, 24, the Ultima designer and programmer, had self-published his first game, Akalabeth -- effectively an Ultima prototype – in high school, and sold it on the shelves of the ComputerLand store where he worked. By Ultima III, his success was such that he dropped out of college to make games professionally. Between the popularity of the series and its allegedly demonic lineage, Garriott and his company, Origin Systems, were an attractive target for Patricia Pulling-esque letter-writing campaigns that tagged his games as corruptive influences and Garriott personally as “the Satanic perverter [sic] of America’s youth”. Garriott didn’t quite see where the letters were coming from, but, out of interest, tried.
Garriott realised that the ostensible villains in his stories never demonstrated their villainy; the game would merely instruct players that certain characters were evil. These same scourges of the land were constrained to the game’s final levels, waiting for the hero to kill them. This same hero could loot, pillage and murder civilians free of conscience. If Ultima lacked moral nuance, it was largely the fault of technical limitation and video game convention, but nonetheless it gave the stories an ethically suspect cast.
The new Ultima, Garriott decided, would not be built around the hypothetical threat of a principal villain but the hero's capacity for altruism and inspiration. To finish the game, players would need to demonstrate proficiency in a series of virtues; compassion, humility, love. To ensure this theme was consistent with the game's mechanics, Garriott designed a system of consequences. Ultima players would still be able to commit any crime, but faced appropriate repercussions. While the game itself would not object if a player stole another character’s property, the relevant character now could. Ultima players took for granted that the ends justified the means; now, Garriott would challenge them on that assumption. As he programmed the game, Garriott kept his plan a secret for fear of alienating prospective role-players with idealistic talk of morality and justice. Better, it seemed, to first ease them in with the familiar Ultima concepts. Nor was Garriott particularly convinced that his experiment would work; that players would take kindly to admonishment.
Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar was published in September of 1985, and although Michael had lost interest in the Ultima series, over the subsequent months it overtook his gaming circle. All of his journalism and law friends were playing Ultima IV simultaneously and experiencing the same epiphany. Michael had never considered the video game much of an art form, and did not expect to be questioned on ethics, responsibility and relationships. “It wasn’t at all clear that a game could do that,” he says, “to put you in a relationship with these characters, characters that had a life inside of the game.”
It was a revelation, as they concluded in a series of impassioned and drunken conversations the likes of which they’d never had about games before. Michael recognised in Ultima IV the same tremendous dramatic potential already possessed by the theatre. A director, Michael associated role-playing with actors and stage plays rather than Dungeons & Dragons, but in this game he saw a possible future convergence. The concept of an avatar fascinated him to no end: it was a “vessel for really good writers to get hold of and do something amazing with,” like implicate the audience in an interactive morality play. “It was role-playing in my way of thinking and not the D&D way of thinking.”
To Michael Abbott, Ultima IV had opened the door for the video game industry, and he had every expectation that someone else would walk through it. Michael had a head for stories and drama, not programming, but he was convinced that in ten years, characters in video games would be so complex as to allow infinitely variable experiences and limitless interactions.
A German woman had been cut from the directing program for unclear reasons, which left Michael in the final line-up. He had been directing Sam Shepard one-act plays for assignment, and chose to have the male parts played by women. “These were absolutely fearless actresses,” he says, “who gave just unbelievable performances,” and it was the quality of his productions that was starting to win him the respect of his three remaining director peers.
Michael had a wealth of Sam Shepard material to choose from. Shepard, the 44-year-old playwright, had a knack for prolificacy, and could readily issue series of cogent one-act plays that touched on themes of national identity. Shepard's writing had earned a collection of off-Broadway awards, and his Buried Child, which articulated the disillusionment with American idealism through the ugly dissolution of a nuclear family, won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1979. The multitalented Shepard had picked up an Academy Award nomination for playing the pilot Chuck Yaeger in The Right Stuff and had collaborated with Patti Smith and Bob Dylan. “He had a particular vision that no one else had at that time,” says Michael. “You could see him maturing as a writer: he becomes more ambitious and writes larger plays. His scope broadens, and suddenly he’s writing about the American conscience post-Vietnam. He carries all that on his shoulders.”
Shepard was born and raised in Illinois, less than two hours from Michael's home, and the two Midwesterners now lived and worked in New York City. His plays had a Midwestern quality and represented a lifestyle Michael intuitively understood. Shepard, Michael points out, demonstrated an artistic preoccupation with a father who abandoned his children. “It’s hard for me not to feel deeply connected to those things because they’re so troubled and I think have a resonance with my own experiences.”
Shepard wrote about the American mythos, a subject covered almost antithetically by the films of the late John Ford. Both men wanted to examine the American West for what it really meant, and began from a position of general skepticism. “The Western mythos is all about dramas and fears,” says Michael. “Ford was still very sentimental about those parts of American history, sometimes unquestionably. Shepard, too, is deeply skeptical but poetically so. He's not an angry playwright.” Ford made westerns; genre films that didn’t share Shepard’s avant-garde credentials, but Michael treated them with equal seriousness. “When people say that a certain type of movie or a certain type of culture is not worth our time,” he says, “or is somehow less valuable, or low culture, or whatever, I find that I have this immediate feeling that – that’s wrong. I must defy that, somehow. Maybe they’re right, I don’t know.” Andrew Sarris’ talks on auteur theory had eliminated Michael’s lingering resistance that he might be reading too much into Ford, or Shepard, or anyone.
Michael had taken from Sarris that “if you track something carefully enough and deeply enough you can get at those things that artists seem compulsively determined to deal with.... I didn’t make those kinds of connections before he helped me think about that stuff.” In connecting one Ford film to another, Ford to Shepard, and film to theatre, then thematic patterns appeared. He was drawn to the recurring themes portrayed in Ford and Shepard: fathers and sons, masculinity and the solitary hero. Abstracting art to a personal level, Michael could ask himself why Shepard and Ford were inspired to write about fathers and sons, and why he had been compelled to detect those themes. How would his approach as a theatre student change, he wondered, if he incorporated ideas from film? If he studied art outside of a vacuum, and looked at film and theatre and life and politics and science and video games as one, connecting them all as though they were one conversation, then perhaps he would see something new. It made sense to the young Indiana director who had been determined to enter graduate school immediately because, leaving college with no particularly employable skills, he couldn’t face moving back home to an alcoholic stepfather. When the stepfather died of cancer shortly before the director left for New York, he felt relief that his mother did not have to deal with that situation alone.
At the Museum of Modern Art, Michael attended a screening of Straight Shooting, a silent 1917 John Ford western with Grafton Nunes, a member of the theatre faculty who would become his thesis adviser. Ford’s seventh film (of an ultimate 140) surprised Michael with its early confidence. When it was over, Michael turned to Nunes and asked him: “Has anyone ever focused on this kind of thing for their thesis?” They hadn’t, he replied, but it wouldn’t be impossible.
The thesis connected three versions of the solitary hero from John Ford films, each portrayed by a different actor. Although it would be assessed as his stage directing thesis, it had no specific theatre content or specific film content; it was a character study whose themes, Michael hoped, were universal. He wrote The Solitary Hero in the Films of John Ford in Barnard College, where he bargained for a space to start his thesis production; in the Museum of Modern Art, whose Ford collection he exhausted; in Indiana, whose state university held the Ford papers, and in New York where he first read the Tao Te Ching. He wrote it everywhere.
In October of 1999, the Visiting Artists Committee of Wabash College invited the film critic Molly Haskell to speak at the college. Haskell had written for numerous New York newspapers and magazines and most famously had authored From Reverence to Rape, the classic 1974 feminist film theory text on the portrayals of women in cinema. She was also the wife of Andrew Sarris, whose lectures Professor Michael Abbott had snuck into thirteen years prior. Michael admired Haskell’s writing, but nonetheless expected her to decline: Haskell, 60, didn’t accept many speaking engagements from what Michael could tell.
Haskell agreed. “She was very intrigued by our situation, I think,” says Michael, “as an all-male school, and with her work I think she was particularly eager to come to a place with an all-male culture and talk to them about gender.”
Michael had liked From Reverence to Rape and further appreciated that Haskell was not an ideologue: “a feminist that didn’t always buy the feminist line 100 per cent.” Haskell had written, sincerely, about the actor John Wayne, whose conservative politics and prototypically masculine screen persona were hardly dogmatically consistent with feminist ideology. “It was clear to me that she approaches ideas head on,” says Michael, “with whatever value they have to her at that moment.”
In welcoming Haskell to the Wabash campus, Michael turned the conversation to the subject of video games, something that the film critic knew nothing about. Michael told her about how games were becoming increasingly cinematic, how they were adopting editing and cinematography techniques from film, and plots and characters were ever more sophisticated. Games, in style and form, were approaching a version of the cinema, Michael told her, but with the distinguishing element of interactivity, and Haskell was interested in that. Michael wondered out loud where games would go in the future, and she wondered with him.