The Elemental Appeal of 'The Choking Game'

Mike Ward

A paean to the virtue of arrested development lurks at the core, here, which may be predictable. After all, we’re talking about a Lifetime original movie.

The Choking Game

Airtime: Saturday, 8pm ET
Cast: Freya Tingley, Perl Gilpin, Alex Steele, Ferron Guerreiro
Network: Lifetime
Director: Lane Shefter Bishop
Air date: 2014-07-26

There’s a reason that busybodies in law enforcement and popular culture have failed all these years to prevent people from chasing altered states of consciousness. It's because they're not looking for what those busybodies might guess, not enlightenment, but something close. They seek perspective.

To derange one’s mind is to shift the core of sentient experience, to live a fleeting time as a different sort of being in a different sort of world. Such achievement may not tell us anything about the nature of God or eternal existence (if there are such things), but it does tell us something about our ordinary lives, by giving us something to which to compare them.

This yearning for perspective is largely separate from any desire for emotional kicks or sexual gratification, which is why the efforts of buzz-scare films from Reefer Madness to the current title under consideration, The Choking Game, tend to be clumsy, and to fail. They take these desires to be cost-benefit calculations. If a dangerous activity that alters consciousness has a certain chance of making someone feel good, the reasoning goes, that same someone will be dissuaded from the activity if convinced there’s an equal or greater chance it could make him feel bad instead, or a minute possibility it could make him feel very, very bad indeed.

There’s more at stake than feeling good, though. There’s an elemental appeal to these activities, one less rational than visceral. Where a movie like Reefer Madness misses this point entirely, Choking Game -- premiering on Saturday, 26 July -- at least pays it lip service.

Taryn (Freya Tingley) is neither a bored degenerate nor a born-yesterday naïf readily corrupted by the peddlers of vice at her sprawling, impersonal suburban high school. She is instead an intelligent, well-adjusted young woman just at the age of majority, nursing a keen, sober awareness of her degraded surroundings. That’s just the trouble. When she squares off with popular Courtney (Ferron Guerreiro) in the girls' room and the latter asserts they enjoy an elevated status above the school’s “general population”, Taryn’s clever enough to get the metaphor.

Lacking the resources and artistry of, say, Gus van Sant's Elephant, The Choking Game has to make do with such explicit representation, but it does so well enough. The girls' school resembles a prison not only in its institutional particulars but also in its general uniformity. Many of their classmates have been shuffled from one community to another and found them all to be the same.

In the school bathroom, Taryn proffers aid to Nina (Alex Steele), a poised and captivating beauty who has crumpled in a heap on the filthy floor of a toilet stall. Unembarrassed, Nina explains she’s down there chasing a mysterious buzz, one like drugs or alcohol except it’s less social lubricant than spiritual exploration. We know right off this will pique Taryn’s interest.

There follows a long fact-finding second act -- an unnecessary one, as it turns out, since the movie’s title reveals the big secret -- and events lead Taryn and her new best friend to her bedroom together, her reluctant thumbs on Nina’s carotid and jugular. Nina passes out. She stays out long enough to provoke a rising wild panic in Taryn, who shrieks and shakes Nina’s limp body and finally fumbles her cell phone to call for an "ambo".

Lucky Nina, though comes to just in time, and does so with clouds in her eyes. Taryn just got her nearer than she’s ever been to whatever mystical state she’s pursuing with this ritual. “When you come close to the edge,” Nina explains, meaning the edge of control, possibly the edge of mortality, “you don’t care about all that crap anymore.” Meaning the crap of high-school politics, of youthful hormones, of living in the wasteland.

Taryn’s sold. Soon she’s passing out with the best of them, at both Nina’s hand and her own. At first this looks to be just another routine form of risky youth behavior. (Courtney, we later learn, is also a choking aficionado, though she’s doing it simply because everyone else is.)

It has a curious effect on Taryn, however. She appears, though it’s doubtful this is what the moviemakers intended, to be developing at a supernatural rate, as if she’d been whisked through a teleporter with a common housefly. Where she was previously submissive, now she starts making firm but reasonable demands for autonomy from her helicopter parents. (I think we’re meant to think she’s becoming volatile.) Where she once dressed inattentively, and as though still awaiting puberty, now she's paying careful regard to her personal appearance and presenting herself as a woman of maturity and self-esteem. (I think we’re meant to think her morals are becoming loose.)

Her grades sink, not due to the notorious neurological damage these practices are rumored to inflict, but because she now sees how arbitrary and execrable it is to assign incremental values of worth to human beings. (It’s pretty clear what we’re meant to think here.)

In tune with her sexuality for the first time, Taryn makes a passionate pass at longtime crush Ryder (Mitch Ainley). This sparks a fusillade of slut-shaming from the young man. He opines to the effect that, though he shares her desires, he’d prefer she kept them to herself, and complains about her new style of dress. What happened to the frumpy kid he’d loved in elementary school?

This unconsidered paean to the virtue of arrested development lurks at the ideological core of Choking Game, which may be predictable. After all, we’re talking about a Lifetime original movie, not an HBO documentary or a Richard-Linklaterian excursion into the veritable recesses of the adolescent mind.

Yet The Choking Game does passably well as high-school melodrama, especially considering its made-for-TV pedigree. It eludes many of the genre’s clichés, though it succumbs to just as many more: alpha femme Courtney seems beamed straight from an Asylum studios reimagining of Heathers, for instance. The childhood friend whom the suddenly worldly Taryn must abandon could have been lifted from Can’t Buy Me Love or Christine.

Once you’ve made peace with the fact that the film isn't going to be breaking new ground, these familiar pieces make it a little more fun to watch. Who doesn’t like to get out the list from time to time and follow along as a genre flick ticks all the boxes?

Still, those boxes limit how the movie can represent the choking game. About a million years ago I engaged in activities I’d be better off not describing, so I happen to know what the choking game is like. When the loss of consciousness is total (and there’s a trick to ensuring this the film is wise not to reveal), the sensation on coming to is that of waking up without having gone to sleep.

Because your short-term memory is affected, your now unfamiliar surroundings sink anew into your senses. It might be akin to being born, if one could do so not as an infant but as a fully grown adult. It might be like what a computer feels when it becomes self-aware.

Though the practice is prohibitively dangerous, this result, it must be acknowledged, reveals much about first-order existence that’s otherwise impossible to describe (as the efforts above suggest). At the same time, it’s also an extension of activities that are perfectly ordinary among the younger set, different more in quantity than in kind from rolling down a hill or twirling on a merry-go-round until you can’t tell up from down.

Such urges are only dangerous when the need to flee reality so as to better grasp it becomes too urgent. For this reason, the best course of action for busybodies is not to try to discourage escapism through brute-force propaganda, but to create communities and places of learning that adolescents won’t be quite so desperate to escape.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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