My Idea of Fun: Aaron Oldenburg’s Slow Cinema Video Games

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Skin, Saint, Aura: The St. Francis Missal

A shtick-y World War I video game masquerading as movie told through one long and uninterrupted take (that is, in reality, a series of long-ish takes fused together), Sam Mendes’ 1917 is supposed to make viewers feel as though they’re “in it.” But its fake-azz “single take” acrobatics are often distracting, dumb, and obvious. The “visceral” shorthand of a first-person shooter video game comes to the prestige picture, and for what?

Playing Aaron Oldenburg’s monotonic, dissociative video games about tripping, currently on display at the Hamilton Gallery as “Everyday Hallucinations & Videogame Landscapes,” I thought about the limits of 1917, which looks and feels like Call Of Duty and is about as insightful. Then I thought about how for a very long time, video games were declared not to be art by serious film critics and now, here we are in 2020 with many of them heaping praise on a movie that’s just a bad video game. If 1917, a video game, is a movie, then Oldenburg’s video games are movies.

Desert Mothers is a two-player game where, using an Xbox controller, you play as a character—a bald and naked humanoid meditating—sitting in the desert able to look up and down and all around and move your arms (you can’t get up and walk around) and catch a glimpse of your double, whose movement is similarly limited and right next to you, likely experiencing something totally different. Look down and your foot pokes out of the sand, look around and hey, there are some trees. Hit the “Y” button on the controller and your point of view changes and all you see are part of your hands and a sky. You’re somewhere else maybe—an on-DMT-like cutaway where for a moment you’ve popped your cloudy head in another dimension. Hit “Y” again and you’re back in the desert. Music that sounds like somebody lackadaisical strumming a guitar or blowing on a horn plays, and depending on what buttons you mash and how, it gets windy or stormy and the sky darkens. Squiggly lines, like stray hair on a film print, jaggedly dart across the screen—it is getting stormy or you’re entering a difficult trip, you decide.

Aaron Oldenburg, "Islid"
Aaron Oldenburg, "Thinning"

Islid presents a screen of digital noise slowly moving around—a bit like bacteria as seen through a microscope—with a few more distinct shapes moving faster behind it. You click the mouse. It changes colors. It all feels familiar though, Jungian, ancient or something. Thinning features a grid of 30 flickering images, some repeating, all intimate and quotidian (the back of someone’s head, a doorknob, a cat) and using a keyboard you move the images around and then whether you like it or not, it spreads the same image to some of the other squares. A rhythmic digital stutter soundtracks the game. Then, what seems like a puzzle game—a digital version of a Rubik’s cube perhaps—expands and you see more of the same images and a twisting train of them, with black around it and more and more and then, a Sopranos-style cut to black. And it starts over. I’m still not sure if I “won” or “lost” or was playing at all, which is the point.

It is getting stormy or you're entering a difficult trip, you decide.
Aaron Oldenburg, “Seer”

In Seer (KOR), a skeletal spine drifts around the frame, as an awful, sucking noise plays and you use a mouse to control where the spine goes, or maybe you control the frame around the spine—it’s a bit like the challenge of trying to keep moving your iPhone at a consistent pace when you take a panoramic photo. If the spine moves too far out of frame, the image multiplies, bigger and smaller patterns of black and white appear, and somehow you feel as though you’ve done something wrong because the shape looks as though it has exploded.

The description on the wall of Hamilton Gallery says this of Oldenburg’s work: “Subjects of his current series of games include states of hypnagogia, representation of the unique time and space of the chemical Salvinorin A. and group psychedelic and meditation encounters.” And playing these games conjures up the thrilling powerlessness of meditation or bugging out on shrooms or salvia. This is what intense introspection or moving through a trip or just plain going through life is like—you have the controller, you’re not sure exactly what the buttons do or what the point of any of it is, but you try and search and experiment and click around and it is pretty fun. And other times, you’re a little kid again, holding an unplugged controller and told that you’re really playing the game—that you’re in control, though you are not.



2020 Oscar Shorts Animated. Fri-Sat: 1:00, 4:55, 9:35; Sun: 1:00, 4:55; Mon: 1:00, 4:55; Tues-Thurs: 1:00, 4:55, 9:35

2020 Oscar Shorts Live Action. Fri-Thurs: 2:50, 7:00

The Assistant (Kitty Green, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 1:05, 3:55, 6:50, 9:35; Sun: 1:05, 3:55, 6:50; Mon: 1:05, 3:55; Tues-Thurs: 1:05, 3:55, 6:50, 9:35

Revival: The Blue Angel (Josef Von Sternberg, German, 1930). Sat: 11:30 a.m.; Mon: 7:00; Thurs: 9:00

JoJo Rabbit (Taika Waititi, US, 2019). Fri: 1:00, 4:00, 7:00, 9:35; Sat: 1:00, 1:30, 4:00, 7:00, 9:35; Sun-Mon: 1:00, 4:00, 7:00; Tues-Thurs: 1:00, 4:00, 7:00, 9:35

Just Mercy (Destin Daniel Cretton, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 9:30; Tues-Thurs: 9:30

Little Women (Greta Gerwig, US, 2019). Fri-Thurs: 12:55, 3:50, 6:45

Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2019). Fri-Sat: 12:50, 3:45, 6:40, 9:30; Sun-Mon: 12:50, 3:45, 6:40; Tues-Wed: 12:50, 3:45, 6:40, 9:30; Thurs: 12:50, 3:45, 6:40


The Emperor’s New Groove (Mark Dindal, US, 2000). Thurs: 5:30


For Colored Girls (Tyler Perry, US, 2010). Tues: 2:00, Southeast Anchor Library

Home (Tim Johnson, US, 2015). Sat: 2:00, Pennsylvania Avenue Branch

The Lego Ninjago Movie (Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher, and Bob Logan, US, 2017). Tues: 3:30, Reisterstown Road Branch

Race (Stephen Hopkins, US, 2016). Thurs: 5:30, Waverly Branch

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, US, 2018). Thurs: 3:30, Reisterstown Road Branch

Shaun The Sheep Movie (Mark Burton & Richard Starzak, UK, 2015). Thurs: 5:00, Roland Park Branch


The Parkway is holding a series of feedback screenings this month. Go here for more information.

1917 (Sam Mendes, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 12:45, 4:00, 6:45, 9:30; Sun: 12:45, 4:45; Mon: 6:45, 9:15; Tues-Thurs: 9:15

2020 Oscar Documentary Shorts Program 1. Fri-Sat: 4:30; Sun: 12:45; Tues: 6:45; Thurs: 6:45

2020 Oscar Documentary Shorts Program 2. Fri-Sat: 6:45; Sun: 2:45; Wed: 6:45; Thurs: 9:00

Downhill (Nat Faxon and Jay Roach, US, 2020): Fri-Sat: 1:30, 4:30, 7:15, 9:30; Sun: 1:30, 4:30, 7:15; Mon-Thurs: 7:15, 9:30

Fantastic Fungi (Louie Schwartzberg, US, 2019). Fri: 1:00, 9:15; Sat: 1:00, 9:00; Sun: 7:30; Mon: 9:45; Tues: 9:00; Wed: 9:15; Thurs: 9:00

Matetwe (Kagiso Lediga, South Africa, 2017). Tues: 7:00 (free screening)

Sight Unseen: Duke and Battersby. Mon: 7:30

Sweaty Eyeballs Presents: Baltimore Showcase 2019 Reprise. Sun: 4:00


1917 (Sam Mendes, US, 2019). Fri-Sat: 12:50, 3:50, 6:50, 9:40; Sun: 12:50, 3:50, 6:50; Mon: 12:50, 3:50, 6:50; Tues-Thurs: 12:50, 3:50, 6:50, 9:40

Birds Of Prey (Cathy Yan, US, 2020). Fri-Sat: 12:45, 3:45, 6:45, 9:45; Sun: 12:45, 3:45, 6:45; Mon: 3:45, 6:45; Tues-Thurs: 12:45, 3:45, 6:45, 9:45

Revival: Doctor Zhivago (David Lean, UK, 1965). Wed: 7:30

Downhill (Nat Faxon and Jay Roach, US, 2020). Fri-Sat: 12:30, 2:35, 4:35, 7:05, 9:35; Sun-Mon: 12:30, 2:35, 4:35, 7:05; Tues: 12:30, 2:35, 4:35, 7:05, 9:35; Wed: 12:30, 2:35, 4:35, 9:35; Thurs: 12:30, 2:35, 4:35, 7:05, 9:35

Revival: Sleepless In Seattle (Nora Ephron, US, 1993). Mon: 1:00

Sonic The Hedgehog (Jeff Fowler, US, 2020). Fri-Sat: 1:00, 3:40, 7:00, 9:30; Sun-Mon: 1:00, 3:40, 7:00; Tues: 1:00, 3:40, 7:00, 9:30; Wed: 1:00, 3:40, 7:00; Thurs: 1:00, 3:40, 7:00, 9:30.

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