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S2: I’m Marissa Martinelli, and this is the Slate Culture Gabfest Flying Puppet Baby Ed.. It’s Wednesday, August 25th, 2021. On today’s show, it’s sure to be one of the strangest movies you’ll see all year. Annette stars Adam Driver as a stand up comedian who marries an opera singer played by Marion Cotillard. If you think, well, that doesn’t sound so strange. Did I mention that their young daughter is played by a series of puppets? Buckle up for this one. Then The Pursuit of Love is a British miniseries about two cousins, one hopelessly romantic, the other hopelessly practical, figuring out what they want from their lives and the period in between World Wars. The series, written for the screen and directed by actress Emily Mortimer, debuted across the pond earlier this year and has now landed here in the States. We’ll discuss. And finally, how did a board game about birds shake up an 11 billion dollar industry? That’s right. We’re talking and playing Wingspan. Slate’s own Dan Coates will join us for that. But first, let’s say hello to my co-hosts. June Thomas is a senior managing producer and co-host of Slate’s working podcast. Hi, June.
S3: Hey, Marissa. I’m glad that the podcast Gods made it so that I could be here again with you today.
S2: So am I. Also with us is senior producer of Slate’s Decoder Ring podcast and former producer of this very show, Benjamin Frisch. Hi, Ben.
S1: Hey, Marissa. It is so glad to be back. I’m so glad that, you know, finally, the culture Gabfest fans are being heard. They’ve been saying, where’s Ben? Where’s Ben? We need him back. And so I’m finally here. Thank you, Cameron, for finally listening to the true voice of the fans. And I’m so excited to talk about this incredibly chill and normal movie with you.
S2: Hashtag Sathe Ben was not in vain. OK, let’s dive in. Yes, there’s a puppet, there’s a ghost. There’s a sex scene with singing in it. Annette is a new musical from director Leos Carax of Holy Motors fame with music and a story from the band Sparkes. It’s a very unusual film. I’m so sorry that Dana Stevens wasn’t able to make it for this episode. Hurricane Onry had other plans for her because I so need her to explain to me how I should feel about what I watched. And you and I’m relying on you to help me maybe in song.
S3: So may we start
S2: that tuneless melody that everyone is sort of singing in? Ben has left the chat.
S1: I’m not going to say sorry.
S2: That’s fair. Although I think that watching this movie should fill you with confidence about your singing abilities. It certainly fills me with confidence about mine. It’s interesting. This is a musical, but I don’t know about you guys. I could not sing any of the songs in tune if I wanted to. Even though I just watched the movie very recently. And that seems like a feature rather than a bug. So we have this movie about a couple, a stand up comedian and an opera singer who get together. And yet the movie seems almost determined to hold the audience at a distance.
S3: Well, there is one melody that’s a little bit memorable, which is the song that Henry and Anne, which is to say Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard sing together. And that is called. Well, let’s hear it and you’ll know the title.
S4: We. Love each
S5: other. So more.
S4: We love each other. We’re scarfing. This was. We love each other.
S5: No, if it’s half. Covid shock. COUNTERCURRENT.
S3: And all altogether, we owe so much.
S2: Oh, goodness.
S1: OK, so with this this movie is the craziest thing I’ve seen in a long time. And I, I mean, you just I think you just kind of have to get it out of the way. Right. Like there’s no way that you can discuss this movie without just acknowledging how strange it is in pretty much every way. The movie sort of begins with this like very meta song where they’re starting the movie. You see the band Sparks, you see the director, you see the actors, and they sort of march out into the streets of L.A. as the movie’s starting. It’s the overture.
S5: Yeah. They hope that it goes the way it’s supposed to go. They’re but they can’t let it show they’re underprepared.
S6: But that may be enough. The budget this large, but still it’s not enough.
S1: So it’s setting itself up as this like already a met a movie musical. And what was so curious to me is like there’s been a lot of medder movie musicals. And when you there’s a certain set of expectations, I think, that you have with them, that there’s going to be like multiple levels of reality where, you know, you’re going to have these sections that are more grounded and dialogue driven, and then you have these singing sections that are this heightened level of reality. And then there’s some correspondence between the two. And there is nothing like that in this movie at all. There is the sense of reality that this movie is has is so confusing in kind of a thrilling way. It’s just so remarkably strange and audacious. It’s everything that I ask movies to be. And yet I basically hated this.
S2: I have to say, I about 45 minutes in, was checking my watch, so to speak, because it really drags. It’s a long, long movie. And the early songs in particular, I mean, we just heard a sample of one of them where it’s very, very literal and it’s very repetitive and it’s telling us something that’s being communicated visually as well. And I have to say, I was ready to check out if I didn’t have to do this podcast with you guys. And I’m so glad I did not, because all of the bat shit stuff was yet to come. I mean, and I really think it picked up Omar in the second act. I don’t say it’s normal. I can’t attribute any sense to it. But I did eventually find myself sucked in.
S3: Oh, interesting. I mean, I agree that that it takes turns, that there are like not only do acts exist, but different kind of a different type of action that plays out in the different sections of the movie. But I preferred the beginning. And maybe it’s because like sparks were kind of big when I was young and paying attention, you know, to the charts in Britain. They were really big in Britain. And so maybe because of that association, I should say, that the male brothers who are Sparkes wrote this, that, you know, they’re credited as the the writers. And they so maybe because of that association, I was seeing it as kind of one very, very, very extended music video. Like it had that level of, hey, this is just something that is on screen while music is playing. It might make sense. It might not. It’s visual entertainment that hopefully has some connection to the song. But, you know, that’s optional. And so that’s kind of how it played out for me. And because of that and because those are things that are typically, you know, three to four minutes long, the length did kind of get me down. You know, there’s no way that this movie justifies it’s two hours, 20 minutes running time. It might it might be fine that 90 minutes, but two hours, 20 minutes, much too much.
S1: It’s not always clear what’s real and what’s not. There’s this section. I was really curious about this because I texted a friend who had a different interpretation than me. But there’s this section in which my actually my favorite part of the whole movie is this press conference where all of these women are accusing Adam Driver’s character of of harassing them.
S5: Now. Over the similar story
S4: subjected to physical.
S2: Witnesses to his violence and his anger and anger.
S1: Musically, it was my favorite part of the movie, but it’s not clear if that section is real or not, because after it happens, you just see Marion Cotillard waking from a nap. And so it’s like, did this happen to this not happen? It’s never acknowledged again. And so that’s what’s so disarming about this movie. It’s just very hard to find something to hold on to. And then about halfway through, this puppet baby appears like this Christ like singing, flying puppet child. And you sort of start to dissociate a little bit. Yeah. Yeah.
S3: There’s another thing like that were a Henry Adam driver’s character, you know, gets he has a birthmark on his face that becomes, you know, kind of angrier, bigger extends. Does it mean something? We don’t know because there’s never indic any indication of what the author, what the director, the auteur intends like. I need some support. I need some indication, some guidance from a director. And writers like this was to freeform. It was like a game with no rules. I, I find that very frustrating. Marissa, this is
S2: what I’m hearing.
S3: This is where you come in and defend the movie.
S1: Did you like this, Marissa?
S2: I don’t I wouldn’t say like like is a strong word. I after all of the setup at the beginning and sort of the Anne terminable, you know, standup act that Adam Driver sings on stage, I was ready to check out. And then Annette came on the scene. This puppet who starts out as a baby but is is changed out for older looking puppets later on. And I just found there’s something so mesmerizing about this. If you’re afraid of puppets, this may not be the movie for you. Or maybe it is because that inauthenticity. And the whole movie’s tendency, there’s almost like a Greek chorus quality to the background singers, you see a lot of them over and over. They’re telling you what you’re seeing on screen. Often they’re telling you. What you should be taking away from the scene, and yet the movie is so reluctant to tell you what it all means, and I just find that refreshing in a way. I mean, it builds up to this incredible final scene where finally some of the artifice is dropped. And it really left me thinking about what the heck everything that preceded that scene was supposed to communicate to me for the rest of the night. And I think that’s what good cinema does.
S1: I will say to support Marissa a little bit. I am so glad that we were talking about this movie and not, you know, some superhero movie or whatever, like even though, as I said, I kind of hated this. I love talking about it. And I don’t know, maybe that should tell me that maybe I actually did. Kind of like this and get something out of it. It’s it really is exactly the kind of high budget movie that basically doesn’t get made anymore. And for that, maybe we should just be thankful because. I mean, just with the puppet, like it’s not like, you know, in Twilight when they have the like the René’s May baby that like kind of looks like a robot, but it’s like trying to be a real baby and trying to convince you it’s real baby. That’s not what’s happening here. Yeah. This is a puppet baby that explicitly looks like a stop motion character. Like like looks like the if you’ve seen Charlie Kaufman’s animal, Lisa. Right.
S3: It looks like Jesse, too.
S1: Yeah. They deliberately offensive looking. Yeah. And and there’s just something so audacious about the whole thing that you kind of can’t help but like I can’t help but respect this despite not liking it.
S2: Yeah. So there are many reasons to have a puppet in the film, right? It’s symbolic in a really obvious way.
S1: Oh, really? It’s symbolic that this puppet.
S2: Oh, huh. They love each other so much, Ben. No. I mean, she is, you know, a puppet in that her parents are using her in different ways. But also it’s practical. Right. Because it’s very hard to cast multiple babies and children in the role of a child actor. But really, it makes this the Floating singing puppet movie. And I think that’s the most important thing, right? If the worst crime a film can commit is be boring. Annette walks off scot free.
S3: Yeah. And yet it’s because of its excesses, which again, I think. Yeah, the more we talk, the more I’m admiring them, because it is kind of a reminder of what I mean. Dana said this in her review. You know that it it’s what it’s not you know, it’s not data driven. It wasn’t shaped by producers or by a survey. And what people who responded like. No, this was this clearly came out of three or four people said the director of the writers, Adam Driver, apparently, you know, had a had a production role in it. Like it is such a weird work of inside people’s heads that we just rarely see anymore. That I guess that is it is refreshing is just it also it was a bit boring still, despite everything that we’ve said, it it like it was too flat. I just needed like it to it to have some you know, it reminded me sometimes when when a when an actor directs a movie and they just want to give the actors lots of big monologues because that’s what they want in a movie. And so that’s what they. And so it just means that everything’s always shouting. This movie is like what is a director’s fantasy? And so I guess that the big set pieces and the big moments like they were they were just they were there for me, who’s looking for something else. The movie felt flat despite all its weirdness.
S1: So it’s really interesting, June, that you said like this feels like it’s the, you know, the vision of like four or five people. But in one of the pieces that we read in our research packet for this, the director actually talks about how the fact that this movie has these big stars in it and has money involved actually made it much more difficult for him. Like he’s almost he’s basically almost saying that there is something come from that the money involved in this movie was somehow compromising it, which when you watch it, you would never believe it. Right. I mean, this is about as blank check a movie is. Yeah. As I’ve seen in a long time. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And I would I would despite everything I’ve said, everyone should probably watch it. Right. Yeah. Yeah.
S2: Well, Annette opened the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. It’s now in theaters as well as streaming on Amazon Prime. OK, moving on. OK, now is the time in the show where we usually discuss business, Junn, what business do you have for me? Give me the business.
S3: Well, I only have one item of business this week, and that is to tell listeners about today’s Slate plus segment or slot plus segment. Once again, we’ll be answering a listener question. Linda wrote to us and said, hi, go to Gabfest for the Slate Plus segment. I’d love to hear your thoughts or recommendations on the best board game to play on a first date. Great question. Linda Anne is perfect since we’re already talking about the board game wingspan later in the show. So we’ll talk about some other games, possibly some romantic ones in today’s exclusive Slate plus segment. If you’re a Slate plus member and you have a question or a topic that would make a good Slate plus segment, feel free to email us at Culture Fest at Slate dot com. And if you’re not a Slate plus member, you can sign up today at Slate dot com slash culture. Plus, it’s only one dollar for your first month. And for that dollar, you’ll get ad free podcasts and lots of bonus content like our exclusive Slate plus segment in which, well, Ben might tell you his first strategy. So that’s some actionable information. You’ll also get to hear members only episodes of shows like One Year and Slow Burn and members get unlimited access to all the great writing on Slate dot com. You’ll never hit a paywall if you’re a Slate plus member. So do us a favor and support our work by signing up at Slate dot com slash culture plus. Again, that’s Slate dot com slash culture. Plus, thanks.
S2: Fanny Logan is educated, sensible and shy. Her cousin, Linda Radelet, is impulsive, intense and desperate to love and be loved, gorgeously shot and sprinkled with anachronisms. The period drama, the pursuit of love follows their very different approaches to life and romance. Emily Mortimer told Rolling Stone she first came across Nancy Mitfords 1945 novel, The Pursuit of Love as a teenager, as a lot of girls in England do. Mortimer adapts the story for the screen herself and appears in a small role as Fanny’s mother, who abandoned her as a child in favor of a series of whirlwind romances that never last earning her the nickname the Boulter. Here’s a clip between Lily James’s Linda and Emily Beecham’s fanny.
S4: As long as she thinks of a man, nobody objects to a woman thinking that’s what Virginia Woolf has to say. No one will object, because I only think about that. Maybe that’s because he educated properly, or maybe it’s because everything else is boring. What is it you actually want? I want to escape God and have fun and wear high heels and go to the cinema and have sex and be taught by a man and be tough. What do you want? Only about love. Oh, yes.
S2: June, I want to start with you, because I know that you have strong feelings about the book, that the series is based on the pursuit of love. What is your relationship to it? And did Mortimer do it justice?
S3: So I was one of those many young British women who loved the novel. I loved them at I’m obsessed with them like many Brits are. That many people are the world over, I guess. And the pursuit of love and love in a cold climate are they were just constant, just constant pleasure for me as a as a young person. And then in 1980, there was a British version, a TV version of the books. It was actually called Love in a Cold Climate, which is kind of the second in the series with some of the same characters, although it told both stories anyway. And that was just fantastic TV show, I hate to admit, but there are I believe all the episodes are available on YouTube. And in the 1980 version, the emphasis was on the adults. Judi Dench played Sady, who is Linda’s mother, who’s a character that almost I mean, she has lines, but she just kind of disappears in Emily Mortimer’s version.
S1: Oh, wow. I had no idea. She’s barely a character now.
S3: Yeah, exactly. So that was Judi Dench and Judi Dench, whose husband the late Michael Williams played Davy, who’s a fantastic character, who’s you know, he he’s got a bit more of a profile than Sady in this. And just that was a kind of a typical thing. The actresses who played Linda and Fanny in the 1980 version were kind of nobodies. They were fine. They did a good job. But the emphasis wasn’t on them. And this version, the 2021 version, really puts the emphasis on Fanny and Linda. They are absolutely you know, they’re the main characters. So much is on their shoulders and they are young people. You know, especially there’s there was a probably ill advised decision to have the main actresses play the characters from adolescence when they’re supposed to be, you know, 14, 15, all the way through till they’re, you know, married women with children. And it just doesn’t work because they’re not capable of that kind of range. And you just it just kind of we heard that sort of banal dialogue, which, you know, probably is in the book. But there is also the reason the books are so beloved. They’re hilarious. They’re full of great lines. They’re full of great concepts. They’re it’s it’s the kind of thing that that’s you know, I often hear my American, you know, my native born American colleagues kind of sharing lines from, I don’t know, clueless or something, whereas, you know, me and my friends would exchange lines from the Nancy Mitford novels and maybe from the 1980 TV version. And those great lines are still present. But they do get a bit lost in the kind of banalities of, you know, young women who have no education and don’t really have a lot of experience of the world. And so it’s too much to be on their shoulders because they don’t really have much to offer until they’ve had a bit more life. What did you guys make of this? I is such a beloved property, as they say. I’m really kind of I don’t know. I feel quite defensive of it. So I’m curious what you made of the pursuit of love.
S1: So I had no experience at all with this story, with the series totally coming in cold. And I mean, I think it’s probably worth watching just for the costumes, which are totally fabulous by far my favorite part of this thing. I think some of the reviews that we read in our research, I think sort of got at some things that were bothering me about it, about, you know, so it’s based on these these two women who were sort of best friends, but also diametrically opposed to one another. And they’re sort of treated more as types than characters. Like I it’s I sort of struggled while I was watching them, the series, to not sort of descend into the language of mental illness. Yeah. Yeah. It almost feels like somebody went through the diagnostic criteria of borderline personality disorder in the DSM and then wrote this character, Linda, based on that, like it is, it is absolutely a character type. And I think the the actor actually does a pretty fine job of embodying it. But in a weird way, this show is like a little is so reluctant to touch. The third rail, it there’s all of this subtext about abuse and trauma, but it’s like the father in this story is like sometimes he’s incredibly dark and menacing and other times he’s kind of this impotent clown. And it’s like, why aren’t they lesbians to like this is all of this subtext that doesn’t pay off in. I guess that’s what I found frustrating, there’s something really holding this this back.
S3: You know, I’m steeped in this book. I’ve read the book several times. I watched the 1980 series multiple times. And I’d never really thought of Linda as being maybe bipolar, as you said, you know, borderline personality disorder. I’d never thought of her as having, you know, some issues of that kind. She was just a person who was very romantic. And this really did make me think of her condition as being maybe something more chemical. And that I’m not sure is a good thing or a bad thing. But I definitely had that same thought. And for me, it was for the first time. Marissa, what did you think?
S2: I didn’t mind so much. And it’s true. A lot of the negative reviews really honed in on the idea of these two women as types, but that’s text within the movie. Yeah. You know, there’s an examination of these two different lifestyles, and you really see as much as Lindas, sort of the wild child. And she has a series of romances, most of which end badly. There is an envy that Fannie has for her life and that you have so much more in common. But it does seem to be a little bit getting lost. I mean, when Linda has her first child. She basically says she despises the child and everyone is appalled by that. But then later we see Fanni basically leave her baby sitting on the street so that she can scale a building and it’s played for laughs and she starts screaming at the baby like you’re embarrassing. Yeah, because the baby starts crying like they’re not as different as they seem on the surface. And that seems to me to be the point. Yeah, I do agree that a lot of how you receive this series will depend on your feelings about Lily James, who has this really built a career on exactly these types of roles. Right. The impulsive, rebellious, bucking against the norms of whatever time period she’s dropped into. And it’s almost always, you know, pre World War Two. In her case, characters. And she played it on Downton Abbey. She was Natasha in War and Peace. Mm hmm. But I find her endlessly charming. And so I think that sold the character to me in a way that the writing perhaps did not.
S3: I even though you’re right, Marissa, that she always seems to play or she always seems to be cast as historical characters, particularly in, you know, the the period between the two world wars of the 20th century. But I never quite find her convincing to me, you know, because Emily Mortimer’s version puts so much emphasis and gives so much screen time to Fanny and Linda and doesn’t really create that much that many other characters for us to grab hold of. I found her like she just couldn’t quite, you know, convince me that she was so fascinating because I agree. Like the thing that is so that always grabs me about this scenario is that we all no matter how amazing we are, we always all have a friend who is just more colorful, more interesting, more unpredictable, somebody who’s more beloved, maybe, and just that feeling of of kind of envy, but also admiration, knowing that that person probably has some envy of a viewer, more boring qualities. That’s just such a great scenario. But I just didn’t quite I didn’t quite pay off for me this time. Maybe I think because it was so dependent on this period like you have to do, you have to understand that there is so much tragedy that we might be kind of you have to kind of feel that subtext of tragedy. If the period was more established, if we weren’t hearing songs from the 70s or the 2000s, maybe we would have more understanding of this period. But I didn’t feel that tragedy quite as strongly as as I feel you need to to really kind of get the the satire.
S2: Hmm. Speaking of anachronisms, why did we think of Andrew Scott sleazebags one time hot priest as Lord Merlin?
S3: I loved him. What did you think, Ben?
S1: Yeah, I also thought he was great, but he was sort of also, it seems sort of introduced as though he’s going to be sort of the main sort of romance of the story. I wonder if it’s that way in the book. In an earlier version, too. But then he’s just not he’s this sort of I think it’s fair to say, kind of IFOP like I mean, there’s some there’s definitely I mean, maybe a little bit more text than subtext that he’s, you know, a gay man.
S2: He dies, his pigeons think. Yeah. As the kids say,
S1: the anachronistic touch that that I thought was the sort of the most out of place was the music. Yes. This story uses a lot of contemporary music. There’s New Order and Joan Armatrading. Yeah, that feels a little bit. I don’t know, these are kind of I don’t know if are standards or clichés now, but it seems a little pulled from like Marie Antoinette, the Sofia Coppola movie, where it’s just like something dramatic happens. And then suddenly there’s a needle drop of a contemporary song from or from the 80s or whatever. And it just felt kind of a little bit trying and out of place. Like, what did you guys think? It seems like some people didn’t hate that as much as I did, though.
S3: It felt too on the nose to me. And I just I didn’t get why it was you know, I don’t want to just keep hearing those, you know, those same jazz songs. I appreciated that. You know, she didn’t just do what everybody does for this period. But I also it it didn’t contribute for me.
S2: I didn’t mind it so much. I at the end of the day, I’ll always be happy to watch a good looking period piece with a nice soundtrack and lots of pretty people.
S1: Hmm. And this was made during the pandemic, which I think is pretty impressive. Yeah. You I would not have guessed that. Hadn’t had I not known, because there’s it’s fairly restrained cast wise. But, you know, there are party scenes and other stuff. And yeah, I agree.
S3: Especially in a kind of a scenario where you need to have dances, where you need to have exchanges with other people. Yeah, they did a good job of that. And I you know, I did like Andrew Scott typically that, you know, that role is was actually meant to be an older person or someone who looks his age the way that Andrew Scott doesn’t. But it’s sort of a bohemian type who also has some grounding and understands that love is not quite enough, which is a message that Linda hears over and over, but rejects every time she hears it. But I did think that he was he was awfully good in the role and certainly was more charismatic than than typically Lord Merlin comes across.
S2: All right. Well, if you’re a Lily James fan like me, you can find the pursuit of love streaming on Amazon Prime. When Wingspan was released in 2019, it was an instant hit, but a surprising one. The tabletop game in which players create their own personal bird sanctuaries by playing cards hand painted beautifully with different kinds of birds, pay food tokens, collect eggs and build flocks. It’s no monopoly. Joining us is Dan Coates, a writer and editor at Slate and the author of How to be a Family, among others. He also wrote a cover story for Slate about Wingspans success and spoke to its creator, Elizabeth Hargrave. Dan, thank you for letting us drag you away from your book. Leave to talk about Wingspan.
S6: Always happy to talk about birds.
S2: Tell us a little bit about what led you to this game. Are you a bird guy?
S6: I’m not a bird guy at all. And that was one reason why I was so surprised at how much I ended up loving Wingspan. I am a game guy. You know, I have two teen girls and we are always looking for things that we can do with them. And so we’re always on the on the hunt for new games. And this game came across my radar, I think, thanks to a piece by Noel Murray, who writes for Slate about game some times. And I liked that. It was it seemed a little more cooperative than competitive. I liked how beautiful it was. The cover of the game is printed with this beautiful painting of a scissor tailed flycatcher, a bird I don’t know anything about, but which is absolutely gorgeous. And I was also intrigued by how successful this game had been right out of the gate, even though it was from a first time game designer, a woman who had never designed a board game before, even though it isn’t about castles or trains or expanding the reach of your imperium over medieval Europe, it was just about seeing and looking at and collecting birds. And it turned out to be a huge hit in my family, as it has been a huge hit and lots of families around the country during the pandemic.
S3: Dan, I’m really curious about that kind of act of playing a game together that you do as a family. I don’t want to get us too far away from Wingspan, but it does feel relevant because Ben Marissa and I played Wingspan yesterday, and I you know, I don’t have much experience of games. And I felt like I was behind. And there were certain things I just never grasped because I’m not used to playing games. And I’m just kind of curious about why you play games, kind of do you have to kind of talk your kids into it? Why you you prioritize that as a family?
S6: I really like it as a way to assemble us all in one place and to have us all focused on the same task. You know, I think in some families that task is some kind of crafting or hobby or thing that you build together or thing that you create together. But in our family, this has been the easiest way to sort of get us all in one place and engaged in some. Parallel activity, and, you know, sometimes the games are very competitive when we play cards or or, you know, some other games, the the action in the family is about our individual competition with each other, and that’s a certain kind of fun. And then with this game, what I had to adapt to was a different kind of game, fun, where it resembled something a little more like crafting, where we were all creating a little thing in front of us and comparing and talking to each other about the things we were we were creating in this case, we were creating these little wildlife refuges full of birds. And the competition aspect of it was was dampened. And for me, you know, I’m a competitive dad guy. I often really like, you know, beating my kids at cards or being beaten by them and and howling in agony as that happens. And so this was a little bit more meditative. And so I think for one of our kids, it was more alluring because she doesn’t love competition. For one of our kids, it was a little more boring than other games we play because she likes things that are a little more fast paced. But I think everyone in our family enjoys that specific moment of being in one place and all focusing on one thing. You know, in the last year and a half, we’ve had plenty of together time. We’ve also had a lot of time in our separate rooms, in our separate places. Doing our things and coming together in like a physical actors is pretty nice, even though it’s only fair, maybe especially because it’s only for 45 minutes.
S1: Dan, I wanted to ask you about something in your profile that I thought was really interesting, which is you sort of know that there aren’t a lot of games, board games out there that aren’t kind of based in medieval fantasy. And that one of the things about Wingspan that makes it really unique is that it’s just like about birds and it doesn’t have castles or dragons or whatever. And it made me realize that every single sort of like, quote, nerd board game that I had ever played with. Absolutely. Is like about monsters or is about building castles or taking territory of some kind. And I wonder if you could just speak to how you think that just the theme of the game like sort of has played into its success.
S6: I think it’s been instrumental to its success. I mean, in fact, it was instrumental to its creation. You know, Elizabeth Hargrave, who is the woman who created Wingspan, told me that she really loved playing, you know, all these sort of new Newar euro style games, meaning games like Settlers of Catan or Tickets A Ride or the Castles of Burgundy, these games that have sprung up in the last 20 years or so that are meant for adults and are more complex than your monopoly’s or your saris or the things that we all played as kids. And she really liked the mechanics of those games. She liked the way that they were puzzles that she had to solve. But, you know, as she said, she didn’t care about trains and she didn’t care about castles and burgundy and she didn’t care about any of that crap. And so she found herself frustrated that there were not games that were just about a subject she was interested in. And she’s an avid birder. Her husband is an avid birder that, you know, she has a life list of like 700 some birds, which I’m led to believe is quite a few of my life lessons for birds. But so she thought, well, what if I just made a game about bird watching? And so that was the genesis of the game. And I think the success of it has a lot to do with this totally different world that the game explores. First of all, it’s brought in a lot of people to gaming who had not previously the game simply because they were interested in birds or more broadly in nature, that that all of a sudden there’s this game that is about something that is directly relevant to their everyday lives where maybe other games weren’t. It’s also brought a lot of people in to the gaming world who had felt previously excluded, most particularly women. And that’s something I explore a lot in the piece. And, you know, it’s easy to get very gender essentialist when you’re talking about. Well, boys like these games and girls like these. But Hargrave, you know, likes to cite a lot of actual research about about the experiences in playing a game that are overall more appealing to women and the experiences that are more appealing to men and cooperative gameplay as opposed to directly competitive game play, a game that is connected to their everyday life as opposed to something that’s about a fantasy world. In general, those are things that often appeal to women as game players. And so a lot of women are coming into Wingspan. And having that be their entree into this larger world of tabletop gaming that, you know, has so exploded over the last 20 years, and and even more than that, I just think it’s. In this particular couple of years, it has been very nice, you know, even as we’ve seen particular parts of human civilization feel like they’re collapsing and humans interaction with nature feel like it’s unavoidably horrible. I think it’s been very nice for many people. It certainly has been very nice for me to have this little recreational corner in which I am interfacing with the natural world in a constructive and beautiful way. And it has led me as it I think has led many people out into that world to start looking at birds and paying more attention to what they’re doing and to do stupid little things like installing a bird feeder in our backyard and starting a life list, which is now up to four birds and things like that.
S1: Have you played this electronically? I’m I’m much more of a video gamer than I’m a board gamer. And we played this sort of over a kind of tabletop simulator, which in retrospect was probably not the best way to play. But I’m curious, have have you done like remote board gaming with people? And what was your experience?
S6: I’ve done very little tabletop simulation of the type that you guys did, Wingspan. It does have an app version, like it’s there’s an iOS version, there’s an Android version, and it’s available on switch. The switch version is apparently really nice. I have played the iOS version. In fact, I played a lot on my phone. Shockingly, it’s it’s actually quite easy to use, even though your phone screen is tiny. They have done a very elegant job of collecting all the information together and presenting it in ways that you can still decipher it. But I don’t I don’t play against humans. I play against bots when I’m on the train or sitting around trying to kill 25 minutes. So the the UI is great and the experiences intuitive. But I definitely that is scratching a different itch than sitting around a table and playing with people that scratching the like the little video gaming, competing against robots. It’s not the community togetherness, cooperation. It’s that it scratches when you play it in person.
S2: Arjun and Ben and I played in this sort of strange virtual environment where you could literally pick up pieces as though it was imitating the physics of the real world. But a little bit I was craving being able to hold all of these tiny little eggs and these if painted cards. And one day I was surprised by because we’d never played before, is that, you know, when you go into the game, the rules seem so dense. Yes. And we for a good half hour were like, we’re never going to learn this. And by the second round, we had developed a rhythm very quickly and we got the hang of it. That’s not easy to do.
S6: No, it’s very difficult. I mean, the rules are pretty complicated. It’s meant to be a game in which each round the systems that you build on your board get more and more complicated as they generate more action and points for you. And that requires like a fairly complex set of rules. But. I think you guys probably didn’t get the benefit of this playing on this tabletop gaming simulator. The physical game has this very handy introductory setup in which it literally is a little bag with a couple of instruction cards, with very simple instructions, and then actual bird cards that each one of the players take. And it basically hold your hand and walks you through the first four moves of a sample game. It tells you, play this card here. Here’s how you do it. Here’s what it means. And at the end of those four moves, you basically have have seen every single thing that the game can do. And that is how we learn. And that ended up being the perfect sort of introductory session to give us the basics so that we didn’t feel lost for a whole game trying to figure out what the hell was going on.
S3: Dan, you have just made me feel, well, like a moron, because I actually bought the game we were going to play in person. And in the end, the the the gods of podcasting made that not be possible. But I actually do have the physical books. My partner, who has never played games, has never been interested in games, but loves birds, really wanted to play. So we took everything out and it was overwhelming like we started you know, we’re a little bit fooled, I think, by your piece that made it seem a little more. I think it’s easier if you’re used, if you played, you know, the Castles of Catan and the settlers of Burgundy and all those things. But, you know, I saw that little bag and I didn’t know what it was. And I figured, OK, well, that that will be for like an expansion or something or like I feel stupid. But. But I do think, given that it appeals to a different kind of person, that it is a different type of of of goal that you’re that you’re invested in. I wish that were a little clearer, because I you know, I’m not sure if I hadn’t had this appointment to play with with people who I already know and like very much. I’m not sure I would have I think we might have kind of gone. Oh, and you know, but I have to say, because it is 2021, I went to YouTube. We watched some people playing and that also helped.
S6: Yeah, I will say that a nearly any game this complicated definitely benefits from having a person in the group who’s willing to be like the sacrificial rules. Lambe, the person is willing to wade into everything and read the rulebook, like play the little sample if they have it. And then who’s good at explaining rules to other people? If ideally you have a person in your family or a group of friends or whoever is going to play this, who’s willing to do that? Because that always definitely helps.
S2: June is just mad that I played my great horned owl.
S6: Oh, great bird. Great. Lots of points.
S3: That was another thing, though, where, again, I don’t play these games. I wasn’t even aware of the points. And it felt like in retrospect, that was, again, the smartest move.
S2: And, you know, I think we actually have a little bit of audio of us playing the game. Let’s hear it. We do. All right. I’m going to play a bird and cackle loudly because it’s a great bird. Literally, it is the great horned owl. Eight point
S3: nine points.
S2: Yeah. That June. Did you not know the birds have point.
S3: Oops. Oops.
S2: Generally stealing my.
S3: I’ll just look at it this way.
S1: Its scientific name is buboes.
S2: Virginia’s a wonder. It looks mad.
S6: At the end, June, did you have a beautiful collection of birds?
S3: I had some birds and they were cute. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t sad. It’s all I just like, oh, and again, like next time around, I’ll get it. But I think people who had played this kind of game just had this intuitive sense, well, there are going to be some points like that’s kind of the point here.
S6: They did probably pick up on that aspect.
S3: Yeah, exactly. You know why those numbers were written on the cards? To me, it was just like it’s just more information.
S2: All right. Well, the game is wingspan. The story is how a board game about birds became a surprise blockbuster. And the man is Dan Coats. We’ll post a link to Dan’s cover story on our show page, what you can find at Slate dot com slash culture fest. Dan, thanks so much for coming on the show.
S1: Oh, thank you, Dan.
S3: Thank you, Dan.
S2: All right, it’s time for Endorsement’s June. What would you like to endorse this week?
S3: Oh, since it seems that many Americans have not enjoyed Nancy Mitfords books, I must encourage everyone to read the pursuit of love and love in a cold climate. But that’s not all. I just want to make my recommendation or my endorsement be a General Mitfords writing, because, of course, my favorite Mitford was Jessica Mitford, who came to America, became a communist, wrote some amazingly funny, but also very, you know, great works of advocacy. I really recommend Hons Anne Rebels, which is her version of her childhood with in that crazy situation, but also a collection of her muckraking poison Penmanship. And then there’s also a great biography of her called Irrepressible The Life and Times of Jessica Mitford by Leslie Brody, who wrote the great biography of Luis Fitzhugh. Sometimes you have to lie. The letter came out in 2020, irrepressible as an earlier book. But it’s just I mean, the Mitfords, there’s a reason there are so many books about them. They’re fascinating for all. All it’s terrible about them. There’s also something fascinating and funny and sad and romantic about them, not the Hitler bits. But yeah, I definitely just recommend books about the Mitfords Anne by the Mitfords.
S2: Having seen the pursuit of love. Now, I’m really interested because it seems like there are some autobiographical details.
S3: There are so many. So many.
S2: All right, Ben, what’s your endorsement?
S1: So I have to um, because I can’t help myself. The first is usually when I’m on the show, I tend to recommend to some electronic music for our listeners. And what I got today is this is probably my favorite record of the year so far. It’s credited to Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphonic Orchestra. The London Symphony Orchestra. Sorry. And Floating Points is this really fascinating sort of jazz musician who sort of started out as a making sort of jazz influenced house music about 15 years ago and sort of his evolved in his approach. And I think this is the best thing he’s ever made. It’s a collaboration with the saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra. And it’s nine movements long, 45 minutes. And it’s it’s just a perfect record. It kind of recalls sort of minimalism and jazz. It’s called Promises. Please go listen to it. It’s it’s really, I think, very, very special. And then in to just endorse a game, sort of in the tradition of Wingspan, I guess I’m going to endorse a video game, but a video game that’s sort of based more on tabletop principles, which is the role playing game disco Elysium, which is a really fascinating role playing game where you play as a detective in a sort of fantasy world, but it’s a sort of very familiar fantasy world. You’re playing a detective trying to solve a murder, but there’s no combat. All of the skill checks happen with between various aspects of your personality, which you can choose, which ones to basically level up and not. And it’s just it’s one of the most fascinating, engaging narrative games I’ve ever played. And it’s now basically available on almost every platform you played on your PC or Mac or on a switch or a PlayStation. It’s an absolutely fantastic game. Go play it.
S2: That is a ringing endorsement, my endorsement this week. Well, I have an endorsement and I have an anti endorsement. The anti endorsement is a column in The Washington Post by Gene Weingarten that got him a lot of well-deserved flak. Basically, he listed a bunch of foods he does not enjoy, including anchovies, Butchie’s and bafflingly all of Indian cuisine.
S1: Actually, I cannot believe that they let. That be published?
S3: It’s almost like they wanted him to get a lot of flack, isn’t it?
S2: Yeah. The column actually had to issue a formal correction because it’s not only offensive, but it’s also says many wrong things about Indian food like that. It consistently of curry. And he seems to think Curry is a single spice. Anyway, I certainly don’t recommend that column, but it did get me thinking and sent me to go back to read a classic New Yorker piece from a few years ago by Anne Fadiman. Our science saved me from pretending to love wine, which is really terrific. It’s actually an excerpt from her memoir, The Wine Lover’s Daughter. But this particular passage, it starts off as an essay about how she doesn’t care for wine, which her father loved. And it turns into a fascinating investigation into the science of taste and why certain people hate cilantro or cloves or kimchi. And she calls up scientists and she tries to count the little bumps on her tongue. And it takes the same principle of there are foods I don’t like, and it applies scientific and a curious lens to it rather than just writing off an entire culture’s cuisine.
S3: Well, dunam. Hmm.
S2: Well done, Anne. June, thanks so much for coming on the show.
S3: Thank you for having me.
S2: And Ben, we’re glad the fan campaign has finally been rewarded and we were able to have you back.
S1: You’re welcome.
S2: Welcome, everyone. You can find links to some of the things we talked about today on our show page. That’s at Slate dot com slash culture fest. And you can email us at Culture Fest at Slate dot com. Our intro music is by the composer Nick Brittelle. Our production assistant is Cleo 11. Our producer is Cameron Drewes. I’m Marissa Martinelli. Thanks for listening. Hello and welcome to the slot, please, section of the Slate culture Gabfest. Today we’re answering another listener question. You guys have such good questions. Linda wrote to us and said, High culture Gabfest for the Slate Plus segment. I’d love to hear your thoughts or recommendations on the best board game to play on a first date. Linda, are you spying on us? Did you know we would be talking about Wingspan this week? Well, either way, we thought this would be an appropriate question, although I’m not sure I’d recommend Wingspan for a first date. What do you guys think? There’s a lot of figuring things out.
S3: Yeah, that would be a real test.
S1: So I have a very specific first date philosophy that I, I think I read about in an interview with John Waters, where what John Warner’s would do on a first date. He’d bring somebody back to his house and he would force them to watch the film Boom with an exclamation point to 1968 movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. And it’s absolutely terrible. But Elizabeth Taylor, just like wears these fabulous headdresses all around it. It’s just sort of a classic camp film. And I guess the idea is like, if you can if you can watch that and come to appreciate it, that it’s like, OK, you’re a you can stay. And so I feel like I’ve tried to adapt that for modern times. And I’ll show somebody something like Showgirls, for example. But I think the board game equivalent to this would not actually be a board board game, but would be Mario party. Have either of you ever played Mario Party? No, it’s a truly evil game. It’s a it’s like a virtual board game featuring Mario and his friends. It’s ruined a lot of friendships, I think. But if you could if you could play a round of Mario party with me and have a decent time, then I think you get to stay.
S3: You know, I feel like you’re being rude just by saying Mario’s first name only. Can you give his full name, please?
S2: It’s Mario. Mario.
S1: Yes, it is Mario. Mario.
S2: They’re the Mario Brothers. Therefore, it must be Mario, Mario and Luigi Mario.
S1: He’s also known as Red Luigi. And then Luigi is also known as Green Mario.
S3: Thank you for that. I just I just don’t want to be dissing Mario. Mario, so thank you. Thank you for that context.
S1: Yeah, thank you for the respect.
S2: It’s funny, Ben, I outsource this question to the board game expert in my life. She’s actually a play tester for facade games, meaning she plays their games to work out any kinks. And they have some fun ones. They’re all based around particular cities and historical periods. They have one set and Tailem, they have a pirate one set in Tortuga. She suggested two different strategies, one of which was very similar to your endurance test. You know, do you want a competitive game to spice things up and maybe find out if they’re a sore loser? Do you want to see, like, how much they can take and whether you can get along? And then the alternative that she brought up was, you know, do you want to do a co-op game to see how well you work together? I don’t know if I would recommend this specific game for a first date, but I think it’s a great icebreaker for small groups. And that’s marrying Mr. Darcy, which is a card game based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. You don’t have to be a Jane Austen fan to appreciate the game. The premise is pretty simple. You play as a heroine from Pride and Prejudice and you want to make the best possible match for yourself and rack up the most points which you do by collecting cards, representing all of the qualities a suitor is looking for in a way. So which beauty, friendliness and reputation. And there are different suitors in the game you can pursue. And they have different requirements like Mr. Wickham being very shallow, won’t propose to you unless you have money. Mr. Collins is a bore. But if you’re playing as Charlotte Lucas, that might be a good match for you. And I can get very competitive if you’re playing as two characters who are going after the same guy. You can sabotage your rivals. It’s so much fun. Wow. Wow, what about you, June?
S3: So I’m pretty confident I have never played a board game on any date, much less a first date. But, you know, I think as long as I played the game before, as we established when we were playing Wingspan, I don’t have the fastest learning sort of pace for a new game. And I wouldn’t want to look like an idiot with a new person like I would not only am I trying to get a sense of them, but I want to, you know, put my best foot forward. So as long as I’d played it before, I think I wouldn’t really mind because I would be using it the way that you’re kind of playtest suggest suggested. I just want to I want to see. Are they patient? Are they competitive? Are they kind? So, you know, I would just play something that I liked so that I could kind of get a get a sense of their personality. And my favorite board games, I have to admit, I’m not really sure these qualify as board games, but I really like dominoes. I guess that’s not a board game. Triumph knows. Maybe that is a board game. But my favorite game of all time, the thing that I would have like given up my career to go pro to play is Yahtzee. Yahtzee is the greatest game. I have an unbeatable strategy and I might play Yahtzee with them and just kind of see, you know, to see are they smart enough for me, basically?
S2: Well, Gene, you are definitely selling yourself short because I had a blast playing wingspans.
S3: Oh, thank you. Thank you. That was fun. So we do it again right now. You know, we’ve we’ve kind of done the show pretty quickly. You want to grab half an hour and play Wingspan.
S2: I don’t know if we can squeeze that into half an hour. Yeah.
S3: No, really? That was one thing. Dan was a bit. I think he underestimated how long it takes to play. Like I think that would take a couple of hours to play.
S1: Okay. But so much of it for us was just trying to pick up those stupid little,
S3: you know, the keys
S2: so much for us was just getting on table topia.
S3: Yeah. Yeah. It’s it’s right.
S2: Yeah. I think I think we developed a good rhythm. And I suspect if we were to try to play right now, we would have a much smoother experience. Probably would.
S2: OK, that’s it for this week’s Slate Plus segment. Thank you, Linda, for your question. And thank you. Slate plus members for supporting our work. We really appreciate it.