August 4, 2020 ☼ Movies
From The Platform Master
After nearly seven years of radio-silence, the filmmakers of the long-gestating documentary The Platform Master uploaded “the full unreleased director’s cut and the only official edit of the documentary ever made” to YouTube with little fanfare. The documentary’s website has not, as of the writing of this, even been updated to indicate the film is in any way available.
For those of us who have been waiting on this film since it was first announced, I’m happy to tell you that you (likely) missed it, that the film is now available to watch in full here. With the release of the film, the directors also note, “This is as far as we got with in [sic] before we cancelled its release in 2012, planning to try a completely new edit that was just about Nick [Smith] and not about the flood.” Which immediately poses the question that the film circles: Who is Nick Smith?
Nick “Ulillillia” Smith was part of the cohort of mid-aughts internet micro-celebrity anti-heroes who rose to prominence due to non-normative aspects of their personalities that played well with the obtuse smarmy-ness and jeering attitudes of people who frequented sites like SomethingAwful and 4Chan. People like Ulillillia and were dubbed “lolcows”, people who often acted foolishly or with a certain eccentricity that made them subject to exploitation by onlookers for their amusement. In their most popular form, this often meant the circulation of videos and posts by non-normative people doing weird things. I’m thinking here of the prominence of the Numa Numa video and the lightsaber kid as well as the worship and jeering of people like Chris Chan.
Another vector though was the bad-faith indulging of people who presented or talked as eccentric “experts” or savants. It’s why a lot of the internet knows about TempleOS’s Terry Davis, and how we get the popularity of Nick “Ulillillia” Smith. It’s hard to say which aspect of Ulillillia truly gave rise to his popularity, because any one of them would be enough to build a reputation around. For one, he doesn’t walk up stairs. He’ll either walk around them or pull himself up by the handrail. He measures most amounts of time by seconds. He “degreases” his pizza and claims it’s how he lost a lot of weight (a fact debunked in the doc; his parents say that he was on a medicine that made him “wider than he was tall”. He stopped taking it and returned to normal weight around the time he started degreasing). He avoids not only looking in mirrors, but also avoids their “gaze” and is seen dodging them multiple times in the film.
He does all this with a straight face. With a of matter-of-factness that implies an independence from societal norms that the internet is more than happy to both cheer for and make fun of in equal measure.
Even with all this, Ulillillia is perhaps most known for his work and writing on a game called Platform Masters. It’s a game developed by himself, and meant to be an application of his ideas and thoughts on games that grew out of a religious, proto-speedrunning-like study of early platform games like Bubsy3D and Sonic the Hedgehog.
Platform Masters looks nothing like the polished products audiences were exposed to in the seminal documentary on independent game creation, Indie Game: The Movie. The beautiful, meditative art direction of Braid, the tightness of Super Meat Boy, the mindbending of Fez - all these things that catapulted the notion of “independent development” around the same time the The Platform Master was being made are nowhere to be found. The game looks rough. It looks more like a debug view from a prototype of some other game we’ll never get to see. And hence is an easy target for again, cheering and jeering.
A Screenshot from Platform Masters
But Ulillillia is unfazed, and is more than happy to talk about the game and all its inner workings to anyone on the internet who will listen. He even wrote a book inspired by the same obsession with numbers and exactness that drove him to develop his own game.
Knowing all this is important context to understanding why the film The Platform Master exists in the first place, and is also central to understanding how the film, crucially, stumbles, as it mentions almost none of this. In fact, the film, in its overt dodging of nearly all of the above, comes off ashamed of its own origin, its tail between its legs, ashamed to admit the reason the camera is in Minot, North Dakota at all is to indulge an audience who wants to see more of Nick “Ulillillia” Smith. To find more weirdness, more quotes, more eccentricity. More stuff to cheer and jeer at in equal measure.
When the filmmakers arrived in Minot to film Ulillillia, they wanted to extract some of this “weirdo-capital” that gave these early internet micro-celebrities their fame in the first place. They wanted to point a lens at Ulillillia and hope he could act according to the rubrics and ways of performing they had expected after interacting with him online and in the ways that the internet is comfortable with him performing.
As an aside, this is also incredibly problematic. It’s never directly addressed in the film, but it’s alluded to multiple times that Ulillillia is non-neurotypical. I, in no way, want to deprive Ulillillia the agency to make his own decisions, but I severely question the filmmakers motives in making a film with a person who may not be fully aware of the extent to which he is perceived online and how the making of this film will or won’t affect that. The filmmakers do claim on their site that they got consent from Ulillillia to film, but even on their site they infantilize him a bit by describing his behaviour as someone who “lives his life with the seriousness of a child at play”. To quote Heather Widows from her book Perfect Me as Jia Tolentino recently did, “Choice cannot make an unjust or exploitative practice or act somehow, magically, just or non-exploitative.”
But then, the flood. At the same time the filmmakers are planning to go to Minot to film Ulillillia, a river that runs through Minot experiences a massive flood and displaces a third of the town’s population. The filmmakers “questioned whether or not they would be able to go ahead with the shoot” but “[decided] to soldier on…just as the flood levels were peaking in Minot.”
It’s a compelling problem to have, and one that, while devastating, is also the sort of once-in-a-lifetime natural disaster that could make for good documentary storytelling. And the filmmakers lean into this. For them, the flood acts as a narrative device they can hinge on to try and wash their hands clean of any bad-faith motive they have. They frequently point the camera at Minot’s residents and let them speak in truisms about The Way America Is and What It Takes To Bring People together, hoping that these feel-good statements serve as some kind of alternative to their own questionable presence in the town.
Minot Flood, from The Platform Master
What the filming of the flood in Minot ends up unintentionally doing for the film is that, instead of humanizing the whole situation, it provides deeper lens and pivot point into looking at the actual subject of the film, Ulillillia. Despite the flood, Minot’s residents represent a notion of normalcy and conformity. There’s even a sense of victory and enhanced community through collective struggle. People talk about communal living going on while the town is being cleaned up and people moving from house to house to help each other out. One of the interviewees excitedly states “there were no deaths in Minot!” All this occurs, while Ulillillia and his family exist essentially outside of the flood and have little to no part in it. Ulillillia even makes the comment multiple times that, “I’m virtually unaffected [by the flood] besides transportation”. He’s very open about the fact he “doesn’t have any friends and doesn’t know where anyone lives”, so his whole world - his family, his dogs, his town - are fine. It’s established here that he lives, in part, outside of the typical order of his own local community.
The flood then provides a lifeline that filmmakers can rely on to both keep in frame the idea of normalcy and, in part, what Ulillillia and his life are not, but also as something they can escape to when their film feels a little too close to Ulillillia for comfort. To make the film wholly about Ulillillia would be exploitative in the worst ways, simply giving in to this cynical amusement that drives people to watch Ulillillia perform. So the flood, in it’s total destruction and reconfiguring of normalcy, redirects the course of the film, acting as a metaphorical baptism for the filmmakers themselves and works to make their look at Ulillillia move, even if just a little bit, from characterization and fascination to an actual examination and exploration of personhood.
It’s dispiriting then to know that, per the description of the released video on YouTube, the filmmakers are working on “planning to try a completely new edit that was just about Nick and not about the flood.” It’s a giving in to that cynical desire, to once again reduce Ulillillia to his distorted online characterization that belies nuance or understanding, a fiction that lets people easily pull out the weird things he says to quote and memeify. The internet doesn’t want to see the complexity of Ulillillia as a person in a context, but as a person who they can presume they already know and is hence easier to understand, digest, and conform. (Aug 2020 Update - this cut is now available here)
Even as I watched the film I felt this. I was the only person who showed up to the screening of the film, and sat, in the relatively loud barcade Wonderville, and stared at Ulillillia for a few hours. The makeshift screen the film was projected onto had subtle vertical folds in the material, which meant that the face of Ulillillia often distorted in front of my eyes. His features would smear along the side of fabric as his image traveled from one peak of the fabric to the other, calling into my own biases about the “image” of Ulillillia, the filmmakers “idea” of Ulillillia, and Ulillillia himself.
Screening of The Platform Master at Wonderville
What is given to us now though, is a documentary that seems split, though equally balanced, between the filmmaker’s reckoning with their own hubris and their direct access to Ulillillia’s id. As the filmmakers continue to try and absolve themselves with footage of the flood, Ulillillia is given near free reign to cut his own path through the film and talk about what does or does not actually matter to him. His list of things like degreasing, mirror avoidance, etc. are revealed (despite strange asides where Ulillillia delivers, likely as directed by the filmmakers, a “weird thing he does” directly to the camera as if in a narration) to be only aspects of his life, not the totalizing, defining forces the medium of the internet lets us assume they are and hence fixate upon. They do not seem to command much of a hold on his own perception of himself or his surroundings.
Who Ulillillia actually is becomes much more slippery to pin down. In the films total duration (an admittedly overlong hour and forty minutes), the filmmakers fail to pin him down. Known touchpoints like the internet are only delivered in passing reference, meaning the source of his fame and the impetus for the documentary are nearly dismissed out-of-hand and set aside before the film even gets started. Without these touch points, it’s easy to watch the film in a daze, as both you and the filmmakers try to understand and learn from the person we’re watching on the screen.
Ulillillia in a Field, from The Platform Master
One way to interpret this is that he never actually talks about the way he is internet-famous in “real” life. Presumably, we can soon verify this, as the filmmakers remarked in the description of the documentary that they “are going to release that Ulillillia-only re-edit that one of the producers is working on, and eventually, the raw footage.” But what I think is more the case is that Ulillillia dismisses or doesn’t address a lot of his internet fame because he simply doesn’t care about it in the way the filmmakers and all the people jeering at the sidelines want him to.
Ulillillia, instead of being defined by his known rigid eccentricities, is an incredibly free spirit; his rigidness and adherence to his own principles give him a monk-like aura of kindness and grace that commands respect and simply reflects any bad faith motives back on his own antagonists. It calls to mind what Jaron Lanier talks about in his book Ten Arguments for Deleting All Your Social Media Accounts Right Now when he describes the internet’s fascination with cats in part because they are a species that is fiercely independent in the face of modernity. Ulillillia, like a lot of the aforementioned early-internet stars and lolcows, projects this same sort of independence, this freedom for the mores of society and ways of confirming. We look at them as liberated but feel the need to jeer at them to make up for our own insecurities in realizing we’ve bent ourselves to fit a framework that only now, after the revealing of an alternative, do we become aware of.
Ulillillia’s Dad Rubs Ulillillia’s Head, from The Platform Master
This monk-like-ness of Ulillillia, in light of this revelation, also gives the film a pseudo-spiritual dimension. After their metaphorical baptism by the flood in Minot, the filmmakers follow Ulillillia around with an ambling lens as he roams through the North Dakotan countryside and subjects himself and his body to a certain ways of being or aspirational states, trying to get at a certain feeling or idea he wants to chase (sometimes motivated by his own dreams). It’s as if Jesus is being filmed by his disciples as he wanders through Jerusalem and the audience stands by and watches as he teaches us how to be. He’s even prone to some prophecy, musing on a future with autonomous vehicles and the effects of climate change long before their rise in the public consciousness.
His own willingness and dedication to chasing experience and understanding is why not only the internet, but Ulillillia’s game and other pre-supposed passions take such a back seat in the film that they may as well be considered left in the driveway before the car even left the house. He simply does not care about his game in the way we expect an “indie” developer to care about their game. It complicates the notion that AAA Software described in their talk Unlearning - Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Hive Mind where “the indie game dev is internalising the industry”. He doesn’t care about some nebulous idea of success or fame or fortune or even presumably care about releasing his game. When asked about his dreams and where he wants to live, the only thing he longs for is good public transportation and to “live somewhere not near an Ocean because climate change is causing the Oceans to rise”. He wants for nearly nothing except to live a good life, a fact that, as far as we can tell, is something he’s already doing.
It’s a poetic moment in the film then, faced with this philosophical opposition to the traditional ways of being “indie”, when, after rummaging around in what looks like a retainer lake, we see Ulillillia hold up a dead fish. My heart leapt for joy in this moment - what an impossibly perfect, quotidian metaphor.
I’m recalling the semi-famous scene in Indie Game: The Movie where Phil Fish is filmed underwater, and the only thing he can think about is his game. You see it on his face, his total inability to engage with the current moment, of being submerged in clean water in what looks like a nice pool, and instead occupies his mind with thoughts elsewhere. Of success, fame, fortune, failure, his dreams, and how he is going to get that done.
Phil Fish in a pool, from Indie Game: The Movie
Ulillillia instead wades into water literally marked as unsafe due to its tendency to induce “swimmers itch”, narrowly misses getting hit by a jetski, swims around in the water for a bit, and holds up a dead fish for the camera as if to say “look what Fish has died out here and look at me who holds his body. Who lives the better life? What passions matter?”
Ulillillia holds a dead fish, from The Platform Master
His work on his game, his eccentricity, are totally ancillary to his life despite our willingness (or even need) to project their meaning onto him. Even as recent as 2018, seven years after the documentary was made, Ulillilliawas filmed being asked about if he was ever going to buy a new console (he mainly plays retro systems like the NES/SNES/Genesis) and Ulillillia replies “Once I moved to Florida, why play videogames when I can just throw myself in the ocean or something because it’s so much fun being in that wet stuff.”
The whole impetus that video is the idea that Ulillillia cares about videogames. And when posed with the question of his presumed interest, Ulillillia simply replies that he’d probably rather swim in an ocean.
This notion of immersion, of being underwater, of being immersed (like a “good” videogame is supposed to do) is what makes the parallel of the flood in the film such a compelling metaphor. Despite being “virtually unaffected” by the flood, Ulillillia seeks to saturate his experience and senses in other ways. Games are definitely part of that (though their influence on him is already seen declining), but he also seeks literal full body immersion in mud, meditates inside a wheat field, and finishes a can of minute maid lemonade in one breath.
Ulillillia submerges himself in a garbage bin full of mud, from The Platform Master
At the very end of the film he goes on a flight and is shown recording out of the window of the airplane. We never know if Ulillillia watches any of the footage he takes (or if he watches any of his own videos), but just like his own interest in subjecting his physical body to saturation, he’s also prone to recording visual and auditory moments of stimulation. Throughout the film he films fireworks, boats, loud planes, etc. The Ulillillia Archive on YouTube shows similar recordings, of trips to other states and vacations, but with clips that frequently have to do with movement or transit - we’re in a plane taking off, in a car on a road, on a boat, etc. Above all things he seeks that saturated experience and ways of being immersed.
Even now, as the spectre of the “what the internet wants from Ulillillia” looms over the film in the form of a “no flood version,” we, as well as the filmmakers, are given a fleeting glance of who Nick “Ulillillia” Smith is. Aspects of this film will still be (and have already been) extracted and posted on Ulillillia fan boards and pages, adding more quotes and weird habits to a nicely formatted table, but what this film gives us all is a glance past that. It breaks down the barriers of an HTML document, of an image, of a post, and gives us a peek at a life brimming with curiosity and passion that can’t be constrained by any of the ways we had come to expect it to be defined by.