Remembering Friend and Author Philip J Reed August 09 2022
This week, we are grieving the unexpected death of our friend, Philip J Reed, whose book on Resident Evil we published in 2020.
Philip had such a natural conversational writing style, and could find depth in even the most shallow-seeming subject. He loved exploring B-movies, junk TV, and deeply flawed video games. Even when he made fun of the worst of what pop culture had to offer, the jokes never seethed at their subject, but rather pivoted toward the universal, marveling at the combination genius/hack that lives in us all: Isn’t it funny that we’re like this? Aren’t our failures so fascinating and revealing?
Philip wrote regularly for many years on his blog, Noiseless Chatter, often creating critical dares for himself like, “I’m going to play and discuss every level of every Mega Man game,” or, “I’m going write a ten-essay scene-by-scene breakdown of The Life Aquatic,” and then, unlike most of us, he actually completed those projects. (A sad sticking point for some of us is how close Philip came to completing his longrunning episode-by-episode series on Better Call Saul, passing away with just a few episodes to go.)
In the most famous/infamous essay series on his blog, Philip unpacked each and every episode (and numerous spinoffs) of the awful sitcom ALF. “I started the project as a way to write about a topic I didn’t have to take seriously,” Philip wrote when Gabe asked him about it in an interview ahead of Resident Evil’s release. “It’s ALF, for crying out loud. Within a few weeks, I was taking it seriously. I started using ALF as a springboard to talk about literature, music, and movies. And religion. And politics. And basic human decency.”
It’s no wonder Philip saw a kindred soul in Nathan Rabin, another of our great America junk mystics who can report back from the biggest flop with the deepest insight, or that when it came time to find someone to write a foreword to his book, Philip tapped none other than the great B-horror king Lloyd Kaufman.
When we asked Philip what Resident Evil and Kaufman’s work had in common, Philip cited “their willingness to just go for it.” He continued, “You can play Resident Evil or watch a Troma film, and in either case you see artists barreling toward their vision without hesitation. Sometimes it works great, other times you can see where the end product might have benefited from a more deliberate approach, but the fact is that you wouldn’t have gotten those particular moments of greatness if you hadn’t been barreling in the first place. It’s a big gamble to just let yourself fly with artistic abandon, because if it lands it lands brilliantly and if it doesn’t, it falls very flat.”
Though we don’t think he intended to, Philip was also distilling what is so great about his own writing. He gave himself permission to take big swings, confidently barreling forward toward moments of greatness, trusting he could always go back and cut whatever wasn’t working.
Philip’s deep kindness shines both in his Resident Evil book and in the thousands of unpublished words exchanged about it. Throughout the entirety of our iterative research and editing, we got to know Philip through two years of ongoing, open conversation across Gmail and Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and text messages that veered through all the spheres of low and high culture (but mostly low), peppered with so much good humor and fun and friendship. There are dozens upon dozens of emails and hundreds more messages of our ongoing work conversation, full of misdirects, red herrings, jokes, tangents, anxieties about publishing and life in general, all leading toward bringing his manuscript to life.
Gabe has fond memories of working with Philip (always remotely, unfortunately) on his book from the coworking space he used to rent in the Larchmont Village neighborhood of Los Angeles, and of how excited Philip was to watch a great book emerge better and better with each subsequent draft.
For his part, Mike best remembers the detective work that went into the book. Mike worked with Philip to track down an obscure early dub of the Hayao Miyazaki film Porco Rosso, the version shown on Japanese Airlines that featured Resident Evil’s voice actor Barry Gjerde. In our attempts to contact Gjerde, who had been wary of writers making him the butt of their jokes about Resident Evil’s laughably poor dialogue, Mike and Philip hunted through an obscure Norwegian genealogy website to find his living relatives as potential contacts. Philip eventually found a less creepy way to get in touch with Gjerde, and was able to include him in the book in a way that not only respected the constraints on the actor’s performance but also celebrated his work and craft.
Philip was pleased with how his Resident Evil book turned out, and how much it connected with readers and reviewers. People noticed, for example, the care that he put into showcasing the way fixed-cam early PlayStation games allowed for attention to film-like direction and composition, and the achievement of finding and interviewing the English-language voice and live-action casts.
For some readers, though, it was the book’s open-heartedness that stood out most. The book begins and ends with Philip reflecting on his own difficult childhood, and the friends he’d eventually make a clean break from, but who also introduced him to the horror genre as both an art form and a coping mechanism. Philip writes in the book’s final chapter, “It’s nice to focus on monsters you know aren’t real, to distract yourself from the real ones for a little while, from the ones you can’t blast into a pile of smoked meat. It feels good to prove to yourself that you can survive. To remind yourself that you’ve survived already.”
For Philip, art was an essential vehicle for coping, growth, and survival. Philip once had plans to start his own series of short books about “how creative works shape lives” in which Philip was to write his own book about how Mystery Science Theater 3000 shaped his own young life: “It’s seen me through some of the darkest stretches of my life, and it’s bolstered me through some of my most creative.” (We’d read the hell out of that book.)
When explaining the publishing project, Philip wrote that while “we share a lot of opinions,” we “often have trouble articulating the psychological, emotional, visceral response we have to those rare pieces of media that shape who we are, that reconfigure our world views, that begin with us seeing life in one way and end with us never seeing anything the same way again.”
And while that particular project did not come to pass, Philip offered feedback and encouragement to countless friends and colleagues. Philip generously offered Gabe feedback on his Majora’s Mask book, and then did the same for Sebastian Deken’s book on Final Fantasy VI. Philip wrote for the love of the game, and for the joy of connecting with others. For Philip, reading/writing and connecting with others was so often one and the same. Those intertwined passions brought him deeper into our Boss Fight crew, and cemented our friendship with him.
And Philip was our friend, even though we never met in person and rarely spoke on the phone. Our most frequent synchronous contact was tiny flashing dots on messenger apps and when we could watch him livestream holiday specials of shitty Christmas movies for charity. In a strange digital age, this is a familiar kind of friendship for us, but the death of a friend in this era is fundamentally weird. We don’t have the rituals to mark his passing. We don’t have the tools to shape our grief. We don’t have photographs of us together or voice messages from him. Just so very many words on digital paper.
We can’t reread them all. We won’t delete them either. They will subsume into a cosmic digital radiation that a future culture writer will one day discover. They will write perhaps one day on Better Call Saul, or The Life Aquatic, or even ALF, will find a clue that opens up a window into Philip’s expansive writing, incisive criticism, and generous heart, will memorialize him for a new audience of inspired weirdos, and compel them to create something strange, and sad, and lovely.
Philip used to fundraise for The Trevor Project, a charity providing mental health resources and free crisis prevention for LGBTQ youth. If you’d like to make a donation in his name, you can do so here.