September 15, 2016
Moments of Uncertainty
Near the very beginning of Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 fantasy dreamscape of humanity and inhumanity, the title character's wife addresses the camera directly. She's staring right at us and asking us why we took her watch. We know, instinctively, that she can't be talking to us, that she must be arguing with someone unseen, but Tarkovsky holds the camera so long on her, and she looks so directly into the lens, that we slowly become unsettled, as if somehow she is meant to be talking to the viewer. It's a long take and the longer it goes on the more certain we are that she is talking to us; it's impossible to have someone look into your eyes for this long and not have that sense.
It's a strange moment in a movie filled with strange moments.
What I particularly like about this shot is how it sets up its echo near the end of the film -- very near the end of the film, perhaps exactly as far from the end as this early scene is from the beginning. We again see this woman, and she again talks directly to the camera. This time, she is speaking explicitly to the viewer. However, because we've been in this position before with this woman, we're guarding against Tarkovsky's tricks and we doubt that she's meant to be talking to us. We are unsettled in a different direction when after a bit of time it becomes abundantly clear that she is talking to the camera, to the audience. And this moment only works and unsettles us because of our bizarre encounter two and a half hours previously.
In a way, he's stripping us of a basic humanity, to engage with a person, to reciprocate the gaze she gives us. We too are changed by this visit to the Zone.
I love, love this film. This is just one moment that I love. It's such a masterful effect that I had to remark on it.
January 02, 2016
The Hateful Eight
Going to be spoiling this one too,a bit, as I will in most of my film writing this year; mostly I'm looking at the beginning. I won't necessarily feel the need to disclose this all the time, when I talk about older movies, but in new films I think I will.
The film-making is fantastic. The landscapes of the opening scenes are beautiful, and that beauty extends to the interior where much of the film takes place. The choices of camera placement and shot are wonderful. It makes me long for more opportunities to see more films in the 70mm format (as did The Master before it).
The acting is terrific, from Kurt Russell's channeling of John Wayne to Samuel L. Jackson's balding bounty hunter to Tim Roth's foppish hangman to Jennifer Jason Leigh's unrepentant criminal to Bruce Dern's old Southern general, sitting bitterly by the fire. Nearly every performance completely crackles just as that fireplace does.
The script is clever and taut and tense and replete with both the casual racial and gendered slurs we expect from Tarantino and also the falsely elevated almost Shakespearean speech of something like True Grit that makes a certain breed of Western stand apart. The cadences, the puffery, the storytelling that'll just bring you to the edge of your seat. The script has all of this.
And in the end, it's all in service of what feels like the most artful "fuck you" to an audience from a writer-director I've ever seen. I couldn't like this movie, even though I've managed to quite enjoy his last couple (and loved his earliest work), which have further extended the violence that has always been his hallmark.
This is really a shame for me. I can see what Tarantino is doing from the very opening moments. In a series of opening shots, we see a stagecoach tearing across a snow-covered landscape. It's all slopes, criss-crossing the wide frame and each other. For minutes, there isn't a single straight line: there's the bowed outward wood of the stagecoach doors, the curves of the horses' backs, the drooping reins, hell, even the fences through the woods are crooked, zigzagging as they poke through the piled snow. We come prepared for everything being false. In the literal opening shot, Tarantino even gives us a close-up of a Crucifix -- invoking Fellini both by having that be the first image we see after reading "The 8th Film from Quentin Tarantino" simultaneously calling bits of the opening to both La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2.
I'm a film nerd and boy howdy do I love this stuff. The image of a snowed over Christ carved out of an unvarnished and aging wood, suffering on a stone cross, amongst all of these images out of true point us directly in the direction of just how little traditional senses of morality or ethics are going to figure in this film. It's everywhere in these early scenes: in the wave of Russell's mustaches to the curved hem of Jackson's cape.
If only the story and the interactions between these characters weren't so ugly.
I mean, I realize, this is sort of the point. There's something of a corrective at work here, both in how ugly the West really was and not the mythological frontier of Western movies two generations ago, of just how deep a scar our nation's founding sin of slavery has left in us, and how powerfully it and the Civil War to attempt to end that sin drove us all apart. In a time where nationalism again is center-stage in America, with an election coming up, it's probably a good idea to shine some bright light in the corners of our national identity. Sadly, it sometimes feels like we haven't learned anything.
He establishes these as the themes; Jackson's Marquis Warren is able to enter the stagecoach with Kurt Russell's John Ruth in part on the strength of a letter from President Lincoln that Warren carries in his pocket. It's a totem, and it carries the power of a totem, and so naturally soon thereafter Leigh's character spits on it. No symbol is safe. The war is over, but it'll be a long time before the wounds are healed. If ever.
Leigh's Daisy Demorgue is the fulcrum on which the drama rests -- John Ruth is bringing her in for the bounty on her head, and it is a quirk of his that he prefers to bring in his bounties alive. Russell's old and weary John Wayne impersonation is spot-on; his populist motivation is that he likes to keep everyone employed, even the executioner. But having Demorgue chained to him for days is like putting a wolverine on a leash and constantly poking it with a stick. She bites back as often as she can, and he does what little he can to tame her, elbowing her in the face or throwing hot stew all over her.
They pick up another straggler and make their way for shelter, Minnie's Haberdashery, a sort of inn and store and home all in one, and with the blizzard hard on them they put away the horses and run a line out to the barn and the outhouse, before settling in for good to wait it out. And here they meet four more who will make up the rest of the Hateful Eight, and the drama and mystery will ratchet up considerably.
Although there's a bit of violence in the stagecoach, accompanied with both verbal and slapstick comedy, Tarantino really starts to unwind once he gathers all his characters together. Ruth knows right off that something isn't right, and he enlists Warren's help in keeping guns trained on the large single-room cabin's occupants. There have been enough doubts sowed along the way -- the missing Minnie and Sweet Dave, the normal proprietors, and the Mexican who is watching the place in the meantime. The mystery and tension are palpable -- just how is all this going to shake out?
What follows is where Tarantino loses me, tonally, and he never gets me back. Having deprived the occupants of their weapons, Warren puts one of his own close at hand to Bruce Dern's General Smithers, late of the Confederate Army, come out to Wyoming to try and find out what happened to his son. Warren hypnotically weaves a tale of that son's death, which I won't repeat, but whether it's even true isn't the point -- it's to goad Smithers into reaching for that gun so that Warren will be justified in shooting him.
The Intermission comes up right then and following it there are more revelations than one can count and a level of gore that wouldn't be out of place in an Evil Dead movie. Everyone is made out to be a snarling beast, and if it weren't clear how much Tarantino was relishing this I might have had a different reaction. In Inglourious Basterds, I could kind of get behind it, because the animating spirit seemed to be that Melanie Laurent figure in the smoke of her theater, getting her revenge on the evil men who had taken her family and the life that should have been hers. Art and film with its beautiful lies triumph there. In Django Unchained, I similarly could give way to the underlying animating force -- Django's love for his wife driving him to track her down and rescue her. Love conquers even the worst of what our country has had to offer.
Here? Here there's nothing but a sneering, laughing, mocking nihilism. Nothing: not law, not religion, not family, not even that greatest of Presidents, but nothing counters the beasts inside these characters. If Tarantino could have shown a little less glee while gazing into that abyss, I might have found more to like here amongst the beauty of its craft. It's the most wonderfully made movie I've ever hated. I guess that means it does what it says on the tin.
December 31, 2015
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Yup, I'm going to spoil it. If you haven't seen the film, I recommend you do so and come back to this later.
I've decided in 2016 to spend more time writing up the films I see, and I see a lot of them. In particular, my project is to spend some time familiarizing myself with the criticism of Pauline Kael, who is widely considered to be one of film criticism's best writers, even if people are often split on her opinions of the films themselves. Look for more about that in the near future.
It's perhaps fitting to start with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which is a sequel to the film I can first remember seeing. When I was six years old, my father took my four-year-old sister and I to see it in a theater just off the boardwalk of Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Somewhere in the middle, and somewhat anticlimactically, I nodded off, though I was awake again for the thrilling climax. I blame the sun and salt and being six.
It is, however, a film series that has been a part of my life more than most. I've seen the original trilogy many times, particularly Star Wars and Empire, and I worked for the better part of a decade making films in that same universe set in that long-ago far away galaxy. The first film was shown multiple times in my middle school, as a treat -- it wasn't cool to admit you loved it, but I was excited each and every time they showed it to us. I remember fondly introducing it to my kids about ten years ago, and wondering if I had started them too young when they weren't as captivated by the thrilling revelations of Empire as I was. My younger son surprised me a little over a year ago when he wanted to watch them again, and we spent three nights running rewatching old VHS tapes.
I joked on Twitter, before sitting down to write this, that The Force Awakens is the third best of the four films in the Star Wars series -- to a degree it's a stance I feel I can stand by. I saw The Phantom Menace with hundreds of other Star Wars fans and Lucas employees shortly before it debuted, in a beautiful theater in Corte Madera, California. I was not so hyperbolic to say that it ruined my childhood, though many fans angrily said that -- I still love those original films and feel deep nostalgia for my enjoyment of them as a child. It didn't ruin Star Wars for me in the least; but it did drain me of any interest in seeing more of what George Lucas had to say about that world. It was not, in my eyes, a Star Wars film at all -- squabbling about trade is boring when politicians do it and not at all improved by being blown up to enormous scale on a big screen.
It's strange, then, to think that my major complaint with this latest film is that is maybe a little bit too much Star Wars and not enough its own thing. After seeing it, I immediately remarked to my son that I looked forward to Rey carrying Luke Skywalker around in a backpack in the next film, because there are so many elements lifted from the original trilogy here that it would be an impossible task to list them all. I also told my father that they managed to squeeze an awful lot of Star Wars into it. It is more a remix than an original film; there is nothing wrong with that, and it certainly appeals to viewers, but it does make me rate those originals that much higher.
Some of the new elements are particularly welcome: a racially and gender diverse cast most of all, but second to that are the new heroes Rey and Finn, who carry great chemistry behind their interactions. Rey particularly carries the scenes in which she appears for her massive competence and confidence, showing up the former storm trooper -- storm troopers have never been known for their grace. We come to admire so much of what she can do that when she is finally confronted with something that truly overwhelms her, the audience feels the fear that leads to flight. I was perhaps a little disappointed by Oscar Isaac here -- I'm an enormous fan of his work, particularly in another science fiction film this year (the terrific Ex Machina, which I very highly recommend). His Poe Dameron is established as competent but although I found him charming, many of his scenes left me frankly a little bored in spite of myself, even the return to the trench run. I know we'll see more from him in future films, and I can only hope that I'll come to see him as something more than he appears here.
Where the film especially falls down is in its villains. Kylo Ren stands almost literally in the shadow of Darth Vader, or of his mask, and though we initially see him striking down Max von Sydow (himself a shadow of Alec Guinness's Kenobi), his tirades and rage show him to be not just a child but childish. He inspires so little of the awe I can still feel for a Darth Vader, whose calm and deep voice carry an authority Adam Driver simply can't match. He is altogether too whiny to believably carry the mantle -- everything he does seems to be the grasping of an angry and emo teen for respect from those around him. Similarly, Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux can't carry the bureaucratic menace that underlies a Grand Moff Tarkin, though he's clearly a stand-in for the same. And Snoke struck me as laughable as well -- a character who is so apparently uncertain of his power that he must project himself to be several times the size of his underlings. An idol who must present himself as that large must indeed have feet of clay.
I did appreciate, however, the inversion of the central conflict of the original three films -- here it is a son who has turned on his parents and all they represent, and Han's failed bid to redeem him has a kind of poignance for me, a father of two teen sons. In Jedi, I recognize how watching the pain of a child can overwhelm a parent; in The Force Awakens, I recognize how only a child can only rebel so strongly against a parent and how hard it can be for a parent to reach through that wall. Even if I found Kylo Ren a bit much, his cruelty in leading his father to believe in his potential for redemption is closely observed and struck home with me more than any other scene of his. If only Darth Vader could be so bold, only Kylo Ren could be so cruel. As a father, I could almost believe that Han knew at that moment what was in store for himself, and yet willingly supported his son anyway. It felt like one of a very few moments that were true unto themselves -- not just true to a previous installment of the franchise -- despite being surrounded by the trappings of the earlier films. (Han and Chewie are there, after all, to fulfill the same need as Obi-Wan in the original -- to disable a bit of tech in the Death Star to forward the story along.)
I have other minor quibbles: there's a bit of a comedic bit where Rey uses The Force to convince a Storm Trooper to release her, and then drop his gun on the way out. It comes right after her first fearful encounter with that mystical force that surrounds us and binds us and all that, and it seems really out of place as a result. Indeed, it comes right on the heels of a mental battle between her and Ren that made me wince with its silly back and forth of close-ups that wouldn't have been out of place in Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm. So, some wrong notes.
In the end, what I have to remind myself of is that this film is not really for me, and that's entirely okay. If I were six or 12 or even in my early twenties, I'm sure I'd love this film entirely and unreservedly. For someone encountering the series for the first time, it makes sense to include a scene to show just how evil the
Empire First Order is -- by blowing up some planets with their planet-sized cannon. It's the biggest Chekhov's gun yet, and so it would be a shame not to have it go off. All the echoes and retelling are entirely appropriate for a new generation of viewers. These are myths, and myths are made to be mixed up and retold in different forms.
When you take into consideration that this is fundamentally a film for children, the virtues I mention earlier -- about representation -- make this the absolute best film in the franchise. I've been hoping for films that offer positive role models to kids across the spectrum of race and gender, and this is a firm and definitive step forward. Sure, I've sort of grown out of this sort of thing. But its best audience will be encountering these myths for the first time, and it's to Abrams's and Disney's credit that more kids will be able to see themselves in the heroes. I can't really ask for more than that; it retreads the same mythology, mixing and matching the pieces into a slightly new pattern, but in this one way it strides ahead, and I'm plenty happy about that.
I look forward to the next film in part because it'll be helmed and written by Rian Johnson -- I've loved his films so far and think he is a genuinely fascinating filmmaker with his own things to say, though I would prefer that he work on something original. And I genuinely would like to see the ways in which Ridley and Boyega's characters grow -- they are exciting and interesting. I hope they aren't thrown again into a Star Wars blender simply to rehash stories we already know we love... but even if they do, if they keep making heroes that more kids can love and identify with, I can be happy with that.
May 14, 2013
Why Iron Man 3 Didn't Work for Me, and Why I Care
This post of necessity includes massive spoilers about Iron Man 3, so if you've not seen it yet and would prefer not to be spoiled, move along.
Yesterday I tweeted about how over time I've gotten more and more annoyed as I've thought on Iron Man 3¹:
The more I think about Iron Man 3, the angrier I get at the cynicism and lack of craft that produces a film so barren of ideas and humanity.— brett_douville (@brett_douville) May 13, 2013
A Few of Iron Man 3's Sins
What bothers me most of all about this movie is how unformed its ideas are. Every thought in this picture is undeveloped, serving only as the barest justification for more explosions and explosions and toy marketing.
Let's start with Stark's PTSD. Here's an interesting element, worthy of exploration: the ability or inability of a man's mind to cope with a universe enlarged by his own powers. In Iron Man's case, this is a wide, fantastical universe which contains gods and aliens, as he points out. This should neatly parallel the potential story of the PTSD of these soldiers returning home; after all, even ordinary soldiers can have difficulty managing the stress of having been granted new powers, through rigorous physical and military training, which opens up the universe of combat operations. There are interesting questions to at least speculate about here -- if Stark and some others can overcome these issues but others can't, why? Instead, the PTSD of Stark is used merely as a bit of early exposition to introduce his insomnia, for the big payoff of him having had time to build countless extra suits for the later brawl-for-it-all².
And let's talk for a moment about the super-soldiers who have come home with a dangerous case of overheating; here is a clear analogy to PTSD, but screenwriter/director Shane Black can't decide where he comes down on this question. A scene at Mann's Chinese Theater makes a clear suggestion that lack of willpower leads to these dangerous, exploding men³, showing a veteran with the shakes, sweaty and grasping like an addict. Yet later, Stark tells the grieving mother of an off-the-radar exploding Tennessee man that her son wasn't responsible and suggests that he's after the ones who were4. I'm not sure an intelligent filmgoer can let him have it both ways.
Oh, and hey, how about our main villain? He talks of being motivated by desperation, and after throwing Pepper Potts to her apparent death tells Stark he's trying to do the same thing for him. I'm not sure about Tony, but if my girlfriend were thrown to her death, "desperation" wouldn't be the first emotional response I'd have -- unless I were desperate for revenge, I'd think my first tentative emotional steps would be towards the stages of grief. I guess it's perhaps that Stark is in denial about her death that he just turns back with more one-liners about how she was already perfect; or perhaps, like the audience, he's already seen forward to the part where she regenerates these injuries because she's the latest lab rat for Pearce. Our villain also seems to think that the only possible market for his regenerating technology would be the super-soldiers he can make that spit fire... has he seriously not been paying attention to the $84 billion that pharmaceutical companies took home last year in the pursuit of health and well-being and the bottom line? Surely a transformative technology such as this has more than military application5.
I could go on, but I won't. It's really just too easy.
The film has its bright spots -- there's a bit of banter here and there between Paltrow and Downey Jr that's pretty decent, though nowhere near the level of the screwball comedies I've heard it compared to6. Her late destruction of an Iron Man suit by driving a fist through its chest is a welcome moment, too; it puts the exclamation point on her frustrations with seeing him so totally absorbed by his heroic role to the detriment of their relationship. The interaction between Stark and a young boy who gives him a bit of help isn't dreadful, though it mostly relies on Iron Man turning into Tony Snark7. Rebecca Hall, as an underling of the villain who slept with Tony in his earlier days turns in a good performance and has a nice deception going when she kidnaps Pepper Potts as the assault that destroys his house goes on; even that doesn't make a ton of sense to me, because she's clearly in mortal danger during this attack as much as the other two, but I'm reaching here for the good stuff.
Finally, there's a bit of tweaking the audience about how gullible we might be to mass media if properly produced, using Ben Kingsley as a stand-in for the Mandarin in one of the film's truly bright spots altogether, both in his acting and in the ideas it develops. There are clear analogies here to bin Laden in the faux-Mandarin's appearance and demands, while William Sadler looks and talks much like our own 43rd President. It almost entirely lampoons the excess of patriotic symbols in our response to terrible injuries to our country, but even here I wonder whether there's gravity or merely self-serving parody, given the rest of the film's sins.
You might ask me why I care
Part of why I care whether these films are any good is just plain selfish. I have two sons, a tween and a teen, so I'll be seeing movies like this for the foreseeable future -- I want to share with them my own love of film, and the summer blockbuster is a place where we can hopefully meet. But it's harder and harder every year, and so I turn to old greats of every genre via streaming and DVD; they've seen stuff going all the way back to Buster Keaton. But I still want to enjoy the communal, shared experience of going somewhere other than the living room to see a movie, as I did with my own father and family, and so we go. I also want these films to be better because I want them to be able to interested in carrying on this love to their own kids some day, should they have them.
But setting that aside, a co-worker of mine asked my today why I can't just turn off my brain when I sit down to watch these things. And I have two answers to that.
The first is that I expect more from mass media as a creator of mass media -- I work at a studio that tries to deliver a bigger-than-life experience that nonetheless attempts to connect with people on a personal level. And so I try and find a way in that works at a level beyond that of stringing together enough false gravitas to get the audience to the next big explosion or set piece. As the products get more expensive to build, we'll need to find a way to reach even bigger audiences, and I think that's going to have to mean that our art carries real heart.
But the second is that I've seen it done so well so often in the blockbusters I've loved. A great and memorable blockbuster not only offers us spectacle; it delivers material that can make us reflect on another level above the immediacy of spectacle on our own fragile human condition. Forty years after Jaws, we should have learned that the film continues to reach viewers not because of its great effects, and not because it's about a scary shark -- the film works because it's about a man who fears for his family and community, and his own apparent powerlessness to protect them. It also suggests a potential response, as that man bands with others who have specialized skills to help him do so.
We can look to others, too, and I'll offer two more, even though I could list dozens of blockbusters that have spoken to me. Whenever I ask whether a superhero film can ask deep questions, I think of The Incredibles, which remains my favorite superhero film; it points out that spending time in resentment for a lost past one can miss out on the real joys of the present8, and I wonder about my own ability to let go of the disappointments in my own past. When I think about even this writer/director, I think of Lethal Weapon, which offered not just a buddy movie, but a story of a man so overcome by grief that he abuses his position as a police officer to seek a means of legal suicide in the line of duty.
Although my immediate reaction to Iron Man 3 was negative, it wasn't helped by watching another film over the weekend. I won't dwell on it to much detail, but I watched a small Korean film about a hitman who has to arrange his deaths to look like accidents called Accident. In this film, which likely had less than a twentieth of IM3's budget, the filmmakers nonetheless use the set pieces as a way to advance the story of the planner of these killings, which astound in their elaborateness. Although far from a great or perfect film, it'll probably stay with me longer, because it poses questions about what sort of psychology a person would have to have to maintain the attention to detail these killings required, and how that same psychology might lead that person astray when a detail couldn't be accounted for. It's almost an update to Coppola's great The Conversation, and I know how the Hollywood version turns out, where it's Final Destination and it focuses almost exclusively on the set pieces and not at all on the human beings who bring them about.
In the end, the only metaphors Iron Man 3 could offer me were these: a suit of armor, flying about and rescuing people, with none the wiser that it was entirely empty; and of a hero with the energy at last completely removed from the center of his chest... where his heart should be.
I've been too busy to blog lately, but come back soon for posts about BioShock: Infinite, Tomb Raider, Papo y Yo, as well as more from my back catalog. Cheers.
¹My favorite response was from Mike Jungbluth, who noted:
@brett_douville That is its true power. It is a slow burning piece of coal for the hate furnace of anyone with self respect.— Michael Jungbluth (@lightbombmike) May 13, 2013
²The Filmspotting podcast neatly observed that the introduction of the variety of suits there seemed entirely there to justify the various toys which could thereby be sold, and remarked that they felt like they should be seeing them for sale in the lobby. It's hard to argue that. It recalled a conversation I overheard between two LucasArts colleagues years ago, when one complained that when he came out of Tarzan, there were plush toys and action figures being sold in the lobby. The other replied that this was to be expected from Disney, which was a marketing company, and that you couldn't be mad about it. The first retorted that he wanted to see a movie, not to participate in some sort of pitch for consumer goods. I found the latter the more sympathetic position.
³An idea followed up later in a video of the experiment which says that "failure to regulate" will bring dangerous consequences.
4 No doubt it's putting too much thought into this thing that Stark is able to get to this woman before the evil organization can, in another weak plot move that made little sense to me except to justify a mid-movie battle between super-soldiers and a suit-less Iron Man. I respect the idea that Tony Stark doesn't need the suit to come out on top... but it doesn't make sense to me that a villain who can dispatch helicopters to destroy a house somewhere on the coast of California without alerting any sort of Homeland Security response and put a phone number on the President's cell phone can't identify and quiet an experiment they'd rather people not know about.
5 For purposes of comparison, I've seen Halliburton having been reported to have earned $40 billion for the entirety of the war with Iraq. Pharma seems like a bigger bet, there, Mister Ineeda Market.
6 My favorite ever in this regard is probably His Girl Friday, but there are too many to count that rise well above the chemistry and wit demonstrated by these two.
7 Okay, I couldn't help myself.
8 Amongst other themes... but this is the one that spoke to me most at the time, as I dealt with my own issues with the past.
September 22, 2012
Moral Foundations Theory and "Footnote"
Note: this discussion most definitely contains major spoilers of the film in question; though primarily from the first half of the film. Caveat lector.
I've spent a couple of days out of work this week sick and caught up with a few movies, one of them the recent Israeli film Footnote, written and directed by Joseph Cedar.
It concerns two professors, a father and son, the latter of which is joining the Israeli Academy of Arts and Letters at the beginning of the film, apparently a great honor. But the father is clearly not happy; it's an honor that he himself hasn't received, and he shows in small ways his disapproval, clapping least, rising last for the ovation, sitting first, even walking home afterwards rather than riding with the rest of the large family in the car. He is established as a sort of outsider, but also one whose approval the son seeks.
In a scene labeled "The Best Day of Professor Shkolnik's Life," this father learns that he has received the Israeli Prize in Talmud Studies, a prize he has been nominated for at least twenty times but has never won. It has left him with sour grapes about the value and selection process of the prize. But now he's overjoyed, and celebrates in various ways.
Only one problem: an error by an assistant led to a call being made to the wrong Professor Shkolnik. This was a prize destined to be awarded to the son. The son learns this in a meeting with the three judges and the various government officials involved.
The son is irate but tells them they have to follow through with it; his father must receive the prize or he'll never speak to the son again. The head of the jury refuses to award the prize to the father on the basis of it being dishonest and unfair; the son berates the head judge and even gives him a shove. Eventually he yields, however, with two conditions: the son must write the judges' considerations² that the jury will sign, and the son must never again be nominated for the prize.
This builds tension in the viewer between two clearly ethical viewpoints: the loyalty of the son for the father (which is sorely tested at spots), and the inherent issue of fairness in denying for all time the son a prize which he has already in fact won. The rest of the film spends its time putting further stress on those two positions in ways I won't describe, but it's fair to say that by the end the viewer's tension over these two competing moral issues is ratcheted up as high as the director can manage.
What makes all of this work, and why the film has stuck with me over the last few days is that it's descriptive rather than prescriptive. I won't go into how this tension is resolved in the film, but it's fair to say that the director is attempting to present us with a situation in which these two ideals conflict without making a clear statement either way about how we should live. We are manipulated³ into a position where we can see both sides and more or less asked how we feel about how that should be resolved. In telling a very, very specific story about two particular characters, Cedar is asking us to examine how we balance these two moral foundations in our own lives.
(Another fine example of this sort of moral balance is Incendies, a Brazilian film that I watched earlier this year. In that case, the questions sneak up on you and explode all at once, so in some ways it shocks rather than describes. It's quite an experience and another film I'd highly recommend.)
It's a really effective method and one that I'd love to see more in videogames, rather than the crude "good/evil" scales that we've traditionally seen4. I understand the impetus to such scales -- we give players means to judge themselves as "heroic" or "bad as I wanna be" -- but those scales are ultimately pretty hollow because they don't elicit as much from the player's own understanding of morality5. And one lens to consider in writing situations which balance varying ideals against one another is to consider Moral Foundations Theory, which was described by Jonathan Haidt; I first encountered Haidt in an article in the New York Times Magazine a few years back.
I think that creating situations in which various foundations are in conflict is a much better way of eliciting deeper ethical thought in the player than designers telling us which way is "correct" in a given situation. And while I can remember these sorts of moral questions in opposition to one another occurring in Ultima games, of course, as the questions that would help determine your initial character choice and as the many virtues one pursues in the various Quests of the Avatar, they didn't carry through to the situations in the games, which typically had only one resolution to given conflicts. I'd rather conflicts where multiple resolutions were possible, but left the distinction of whether that was the "right" solution as a question for the player's own moral sense.
To do so, we need to construct highly specific situations that are sympathetic to the moral foundations underlying each side of a choice, and to resist assigning numbers to the resolution of those choices.
¹A title which obviously speaks to me, considering the name and frequent use of footnotes in this very blog.
²An official document describing why the father was selected.
³And I don't mean this in a dismissive nor derogatory way; all film manipulates us in one way or another. The director leaves things in, takes things out, chooses camera shots, elicits performance, etc, all in the service of manipulating the viewer to achieve a specific aesthetic effect. Manipulation is at the core of the art of direction.
4There are good counter-examples and fine writing will generally win over crude "good points" and "bad points" but even as late as 2012 there are still games which use such a crude scale.
5Though I did discuss an example which worked for me way back when I first started this blog.
July 06, 2011
Brief Notes on 'The Bicycle Thief'
Last week a group of us (@michelmcbride, @selmaleh, @melissa_mullen, and @lessthankyle) banded together for a Netflix party to watch Vittorio de Sica's 1948 classic, The Bicycle Thief. I made a few notes to set the film in its historic context, which I reproduce for you here.
'The Bicycle Thief' (also known as 'The Bicycle Thieves') came along at a particular point in Italy's cinematic history. Prior to and during the war, the Fascists invested heavily in cinema, developing a skilled group of craftsman as directors, screenwriters, and cinematographers in particular.
But the Fascist cinema was very different in kind from what would develop after the war in Italian neo-realism, of which 'The Bicycle Thief' is perhaps the finest example. Neo-realism was developed by a scriptwriter named Zavattini, who would work closely with de Sica on this and several other films. Neo-realism reacted to the films of the Fascists by turning away from heroic epic stories which reflected the cult of personality which began with Mussolini and carried on down, in favor of smaller stories about real people, set against real locations with ambient sound. The Bicycle Thief exemplifies these ideals, presenting a multi-layered story playing out with non-actors on the streets of Rome.
Italian neo-realism had a brief day in the sun, as it were, lasting no longer than a decade really. However, if you enjoy this film, here are a few others to consider: Rossellini's Obsession and Rome, Open City; de Sica's Umberto D.; and Visconti's The Earth Trembles.
I am currently vacationing in France but will return next week to view Jean-Luc Godard's 1960 classic, Breathless, schedule (and jet-laggedness) permitting. Just send a Twitter message my way Tuesday or so.
February 04, 2010
Last Night at Marienbad
The other evening I was watching a bizarre little Alain Resnais film, Last Year at Marienbad, which brought up echoes of L'Avventura as I watched it.¹ Although L'Avventura didn't connect with me in the same way, nonetheless, both films required a lot of investment.
But first, a little précis of the plot, if it can truly be said to have one. A man approaches a woman in a hotel, claiming to have met her the previous year at Fredricksbad, or Marienbad, or perhaps Zarlsberg. She claims that it cannot be true, and he weaves memories of the occasion to convince her. This and the rest of the film exists in a bit of a dream state where various scenes occur which may or may not have been part of that story, or might be happening after he approaches her at the start of the film. Many lines of dialogue are repeated in different contexts, or at times even in the same context. There are various bits from the New Wave: shooting day for night, cuts which break up time in weird ways, overdubbed narration (though not necessarily from the point of view of a particular character). A second man, who appears to be romantically involved with the woman in some way (possibly her husband), enters the fray as well, and appears in various reinterpretations of particular scenes.
The film demands the viewer to make associations between the characters, to consider potential interpretations, and to revise those interpretations as more information becomes available. It reminded me of nothing so much in games as puzzle games such as Drop 7 and Tetris, though with the added layer of narrative complexity, of a kind of semantics. In abstract puzzle games like the aforementioned, the player makes plans as he goes, interpreting the playing field in particular ways, and ultimately drastically changing his view of the playing field in response to unusual circumstances, such as the repeated appearance of a particular shape of block in Tetris, a series of the same number in Drop 7, or the uncovering of previously hidden information in Drop 7 which changes his approach.
But the film succeeded for me not entirely because of its form, but because of the way that form pulled in thoughts of my own romantic entanglements of the past, and even acted as a sort of catharsis. The form allowed me to emotionally allude to events in my own life, and gave it a much greater meaning than it might have otherwise. When the film was over I was exhausted, just completely drained. Thinking on it, I wondered if there were a way to make a game that layered this sort of narrative meaning atop an interactive puzzly core.
I will caution folks that this film is not for everyone, no more than L'Avventura is. Critics are sharply divided on it, and it indeed made a book containing the Worst 50 Films in the opinions of the authors, while other critics hail it as a masterpiece. It's the sort of film that inspires satire and parody -- when you see a fake SNL commercial in black and white with all the actors looking away from one another as they speak, this is likely the film that they are mocking. But in a certain frame of mind, the film is immensely successful at pulling out an emotional response that might be otherwise hard to achieve, because it doesn't fix on a particular story but a whole set of stories... exactly the sort of thing one expects games could be good at.
I have been working up a post about why I pursue certain types of obsessive collecting in games and eschew others, and I may get to finish that this weekend, so come on back.
¹I tried to convince myself that I had seen the film before, perhaps a year ago, at another location, and I'm not sure whether I succeeded or failed. Yes, this is an obscure joke related to the film. (back)
January 04, 2008
Of Herzog and Hercules
Jouko Ahola is not your typical actor. Ahola was a professional strongman in the late nineties, he's Finnish and holds world records in things like how far one can carry a car, which is something for which I didn't even know one could hold a world record¹. Needless to say, he's a bit on the built side, but not in a purely flashy sense. He looks strong, not merely toned or defined, but seriously strong. I gather he's retired from strongman competitions now and focusing more on his acting career, as far as that goes, but he still serves as a judge in strongest man competitions in Europe as well.
Hollywood knows exactly what to do with people like these, and I'd argue that so would the gaming industry, if we used live actors, but we'll get to that in a bit. Hollywood has had several folks like Ahola come along, but the most well-known is almost certainly Arnold Schwarzeneggar. As Arnold Strong, Schwarzeneggar played to type in his first film, Hercules in New York². He went off and did a few character roles in TV and in B movies, and also starred in a couple of bodybuilding-related movies, one a documentary. Beyond that, I suppose his English improved enough to give him an opportunity to be a star, so he returned five years later in Conan the Barbarian. You see the pattern. Lou Ferrigno was similar (though I gather a speech impediment limited his opportunities) and certainly since then there have been others.
Ahola's case was a bit different from the general Hollywood vein. He was cast in a movie by Werner Herzog, the iconoclastic German director of such famous films as Stroszek, Aguirre: Wrath of God, and Fitzcarraldo, amongst many others (e.g. the documentary Grizzly Man), this list primarily taken from those I've seen in the last couple of years. When Invincible turned up in my queue I remembered having added it primarily on the recommendation of Netflix, which suggests films for me based on patterns in the hundreds or thousands of films I've rated on their site. I knew pretty much nothing about it, except that it featured Tim Roth on the DVD cover art.
In the film, Ahola portrays a blacksmith's son who, by virtue of his immense strength, is recruited into the entertainment industry. This is all well and good except that Ahola lives in a Jewish shtetl in Poland and will be performing feats of strength disguised as an Aryan for Nazi party members early in their rise to power. The role is stunningly against type, and yet absolutely requires someone of immense build and strength to portray convincingly³. The character, Zishe Breitbart, goes on to attempt to unite the shtetls of Poland against the coming conflict based on a vision he has, and fails; how and why I won't reveal.
I'm certainly not going to claim that men of certain types should play against those types all of the time; indeed, if they did, I'd probably be writing a different article in which I ask if it wouldn't be refreshing for a strong man to occasionally play a barbarian or something. But it takes someone like Herzog to come along and take someone with huge physical gifts, such as Ahola, and find an entirely different kind of story to tell with him. Herzog is someone outside of the system, someone with a unique vision, and he is always telling stories about men like that.
I mention this in the blog because of course, we in the games industry more or less always play to type. Consider Kratos.
Let me say right off the bat that I loved the God of War games. Loved them both. I thought that the second improved on the first considerably, and that the storyline of each was wonderful4, though I also admit that the storyline of the second one is sticking with me less than the first. Great fun. A blast. Just like one of Schwarzeneggar's best movies -- packed with action, wall-to-wall fun. Kratos is clearly built from the ground up to be some kind of mythic superhero -- incomparably strong, muscles rippling as he moves, able to convincingly rip mythological beasts in half or limb from limb. It wouldn't work if he looked like Guybrush; form should follow function. Since our character-based games are primarily action games, our characters are built around that. This is certainly fair, and I'm not arguing against that. Kratos absolutely should look like the ultimate bad-ass, as the fiction which surrounds his game play requires it. Additionally, we are lucky in that we don't have to find actors to do these things; we get to build them and have them do whatever we want.
However, the tales we tell about characters as strong as Kratos are not the only tales we should be telling. I'd still like to see us have the potential to build games around physically strong characters that aren't simply there for the violence route. In Invincible, there's a kind of poignancy that develops because as physically strong as Zishe Breitbart is, dozens or hundreds of him couldn't have stopped the Nazi juggernaut that was to follow, and in fact, his greatest strengths originate in his love for his family, which is tenderly portrayed, and which ultimately leads to the downfall of Roth's character. In a way, Herzog is hinting that perhaps that kind of strength amongst the German population as a whole might have been enough to stop the horrors that were to follow, in a sort of cinematic echo of Martin Niemöller's famous poem, "First they came...". Zishe's strength is enough to open the door to get others to listen to him; his bulk is enough to make people take notice of him. His doomed heroism comes from the fact that he uses that notice to try to affect change, to mount a defense against what he sees is coming.
We build our characters to fill roles based on the stories we are trying to tell. It would be nice if, on occasion, we could find new functions for the forms we use again and again.
Here's hoping you'll soon see me in this space talking about Rod Humble's The Marriage.
¹If anyone can turn up information about what kind of car and such, I admit I'm curious. I can't find any pictures of him doing it, but it's listed on his official site. (back)
² Apparently, this is abysmal. I've never seen it, even knowing I was going to be writing this article, I didn't try and track it down. There are some lengths to which I will not go even for my blog :) (back)
³A little research turns up the fact that Ahola did all of his own lifts in the movie, which were prodigious. (back)
4Actually, I felt the first one had such great stuff in it that I even blogged about it. (back)
Several other thoughts occurred to me while I was writing this, and not all of them fit in cleanly (or diluted what I had to say). Here are a few of those thoughts:
- Characters are expensive. I realize that building and animating a character in this day and age is an expensive proposition. Modeling times are up, skeletons are more complex, and therefore building and animating takes longer and longer. Fewer people would play games that explored stories like that of Zishe Breitbart, just as fewer people have seen Invincible than have seen the Bourne movies. These are market facts. Any team looking to pursue something more fulfilling narratively would have to budget accordingly. As a player, I'm willing to let my mind fill in the gaps in the animation and modeling, if you give me a story which demands it of me, which could be a whole post all of its own.
- Narratology vs. ludology. I recently read over in Brenda Braithwaite's blog about her switch from narratology to ludology. And I've recently played Rod Humble's game, The Marriage, and will be posting about that separately. My feeling is that to get at deeper emotional issues through gameplay alone may be doomed for a long time to come; at the very least, some cultural signifiers may be required to put the player in the frame of mind to get your message. This is relevant to the discussion at hand because I remain primarily a "story guy" when it comes to games; I agree with Tadgh Kelly that fiction is important. I just want to see more fictions.
- An example of form. All of this above speaks particularly of one type of body; I'm working from a specific movie to talk about a particular type of body and how it's generally used or portrayed. That said, it's clear that developers have already taken this lesson to heart in one other area... Clearly the women in games are mainly designed as strippers, and yet fill any number of roles in our games.
- Herzog and Herakles. In thinking about this topic and digging into Herzog a little bit, I discovered that he made a short film at the very beginning of his career entitled Herakles. I point this out because I find it ironic; the title for this article was set long before I checked out all of Herzog's filmography. It's interesting too, in that the short film portrays bodybuilders alongside various shots of wreckage set in the modern day (with intertitles asking about the Herculean Labors). I haven't seen the film, so I can't comment on it directly, but I couldn't let that go unremarked.
August 13, 2007
Anecdotal Evidence Suggests Review Inflation Starts Young
So, yesterday I took the boys to see Underdog in the theater¹.
Afterwards, over dinner², we had a brief conversation about how the movies we've seen were. I asked them, on a scale of ten, what they thought of the movies we've seen this summer.
Wow. So, our three movies (that we've seen in the last few weeks) are averaging a staggering 9.71 on a ten point scale! Amazing! The quality of the Hollywood movie is apparently reaching new heights!
¹Underdog was obviously not my first choice for myself, it was for them, and appeared vastly superior to Daddy Day Camp, which I've refused. I didn't have any Bergman at home when I came back, so instead I watched a German movie with Franka Potente, reteamed with the director of Run Lola Run. (It's not as good as RLR, but better than Underdog, anyway.) (back)
²Sundays have sort of turned into our dinner and a movie day -- often we'll grab a bite to eat afterwards. This time, we went to the "Café Rio Grande" nearby and I had frog's legs for the first time. A little chewy, but not bad tasting! (back)
July 31, 2007
The Blog is Black Today
We can only hope he's off playing chess somewhere.
July 30, 2007
The Long View
It is 46 minutes into The Station Agent when Finbar McBride, the main character, finally smiles, really smiles, in a genuine and unguarded way. This is slightly more than halfway through the film, and it's nearly another 6 minutes before anyone laughs.
(A small note: Previously, I've tended to put spoiler announcements near the top of my posts. I'm going to stop doing so; caveat lector.)
That smile is sublime. The movie opens up like an egg cracking into a frying pan, and starts to sizzle, starts to cook; up until then, the egg has been cradled along, protected, brought up close to room temperature so that everything is just right when it hits the pan. Six minutes later, he laughs. Breakfast is served.
Finbar McBride is a bit of an enigma. He's a dwarf who works in a hobbyist railroad specialty shop, and he has built up a wall around himself due to the way people often treat him, even unintentionally and always unthinkingly¹. He leads a fairly narrow life: he apparently has exactly one friend, and he has his job, and his hobby, which is railroads and trains, but pretty much nothing else. And when that one friend dies and leaves him a small ticket station beside a railway line East of Nowhere, New Jersey, it looks almost certain that he'll withdraw as completely as possible from the world and become a full-time hermit².
A couple of chance encounters, though, and quite a lot more time, and he begins to come out of his shell. Those sudden and poignant moments -- an unguarded smile, a laugh -- and the events which follow, and the audience's emotional connection with the characters, are only possible because of the slow, slow build-up, the establishment of the emotional landscape that Fin McBride has built for himself.
Compare this with a game, where we are constantly told that we need to push the big experience in the first five or ten minutes of play³.
Now, I know that's an oversimplification. Certainly, we don't really expect every game to have a literal "big experience" in the first few minutes of play. But certainly we expect that from our action games, our role-playing games, even our platformers, and er... our shooters, and ... hmmm. Maybe it's not too big an oversimplification, at least not in the types of games I generally play.
To be fair, there are a couple of exceptions that spring to mind (both of the Half-Life games, but particularly the second, where the sense of atmosphere generated by that walk through the train station is simply amazing, and in the opening cutscene of Metal Gear Solid). But these are comparatively rare and exceptional.
Fair enough: I can't think of many significant action movies that don't start off with a bang, that don't try to get the adrenaline going in the first ten minutes (and that stand up as action movies)4. I really think this is an underlying issue with respect to games and the types of experiences they can pull off. And I'm not just talking about character studies, or deeper emotions, or making the player cry (even though I touch on those in the blog all the time).
How about laughter?
Comedy takes time to set up -- having just seen This is Spinal Tap on the big screen again, I was reminded that while there are lots of throw-away lines in that movie, the lines that get the big laughs, and that you remember, all take a long time to set up. "But these go to eleven" comes after a couple of minutes of set-up, and that's certainly not the only example. We have a hard time doing this in games, not just because we abdicate some authorial control to the player but because we don't have the patience to set-up for the big payoff. Most of our jokes are short, referential, and forgettable. We who played them remember adventure games so fondly not because of the puzzles (though certainly folks will have their favorites), but because of the comedy -- the slower pace made for better jokes5.
A good counterexample to this would probably be The Simpsons Movie, which I saw yesterday with my boys. I laughed a lot in that movie, but primarily at one-liners that a) soared over my sons' heads (particularly one about the Kennedy compound, which had me in stitches, but which I would be hard-pressed to recall even now), or b) I forgot more-or-less immediately after I laughed at them. The one sight gag I can remember finding pretty funny only worked for me because of how it was set up; it involved some hoof-marks on the ceiling.
In any case, I have no prescription for this, particularly given the rising cost of developing games, except to encourage folks to take a long view. Hire that writer to tie the whole story arc together and maybe even inject some humor into the story, to be able to set up the payoff two levels away because he's got the longer view. Or maybe your producer can be keeping his eye on that. But find a way. Your audience will thank you, and you'll find you have more tools in your toolbox than you realized.
You can even leave those first ten minutes just the way they are, if you just find ways to tie bits of those first ten minutes together with stuff that happens 20 minutes later. This might be a way to make games that much more memorable, and to reach emotional areas we haven't found it easy to touch on...
See you back in this space soon, when we talk about Herzog and Hercules.
¹Full disclosure: It should be noted that there's also an awful moment where a cashier at a grocery store quite literally overlooks poor Finbar. I had nearly this same very moment when I worked as a grocery clerk myself one summer. I was doing something with the register (putting in a new roll of receipt paper? or maybe cleaning the scale, which was up above? I don't recall) when I caught out of the corner of my eye a child-sized someone throw a pack of cigarettes up on the belt. As I turned, I started to say "Are you sure you're old enough to..." when I saw that she was a little person, and cut myself off, apologizing. I believe it was the most awkward moment I ever had in that grocery store with a customer; there were some other interesting encounters, but nothing so cringeworthy as that one. In my defense, I only saw her peripherally, and I don't know that I've ever encountered another person of short stature in my life -- they are relatively uncommon. Anyway; I think the collage of short scenes of alienation and unthinking offense probably are enough to make most people aware of a way in which they themselves once regrettably treated someone a bit different, which strengthens the film.(back)
²This first half in particular is a bit like a Jarmusch movie, I'd say, though the cinematography lacks his directorial touch. (back)
³I actually did a couple of searches on the 'tubes for a particular blog post I had read on this very issue, but I couldn't find it again due to the immense number of hits on actual videos of the first ten minutes of play of various games. Which may well substantiate my point. (back)
4One notable exception might be the heist genre, but that has a very specific formula all its own, if you can even call them action movies (sometimes you can, sometimes you can't). (back)
5Even a game I can remember laughing a lot in comparatively recently, Psychonauts, fails the memory test -- I can't really remember any specific funny lines in that game, even though I know I laughed out loud frequently. That's because none of them took long enough to set-up to lodge them in my brain. (back)
April 20, 2006
Industry in Crisis
Picture this industry in crisis. New technologies have driven costs higher -- and developing for these competing technologies can be very expensive. The new technology has required new means of production, new specialized expertise and skills, and expensive new equipment. At the same time, producers have lost touch with what will connect to the mainstream and sell enough to justify the increased costs, relying increasingly on selling through formula and spectacle as a way to reach more customers. Finally, government censorship is waiting in the wings, looking for an opening to clean out the industry of undesirable elements. It's a crucial time, and it could conceivably go either way.
The game industry? Hell, no. I'm talking about Hollywood in the late 50s and early 60s.
In a lot of ways, that was a critical time for the American film industry. I was listening to the Game Developers' Rant at GDC a few weeks ago, and Chris Hecker drew a possible connection between games and either film or comic books. Comic books, of course, took a fairly limited approach for a long, long time, doing the same thing again and again, and it's only in the last fifteen years or so that it's started to branch out further in the mainstream aspect of the business¹. Chris was saying that we have a lot more tools in the toolbox than simple adolescent power fantasy. I agree with him. More on that later, let's get back to the film industry.
I've been taking a class in the history of narrative film, primarily addressing the post-war years and largely focusing on world cinema, rather than Hollywood. As an exercise, however, the professor had us pick an American film from a short list representing what was going on in the 1950s here in Hollywood -- I chose How to Marry a Millionaire, with Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Monroe², described as an exemplary comedy from the period.
Here's the crazy thing, though. It wasn't funny. Not really even a little bit.
Now, comedy is hard and maybe doesn't have a ton of longevity in a lot of cases as tastes change, but I was really struck by how singularly unfunny it was, with flat dialog and the sort of silly empty plot that makes Adam Sandler movies seem brilliant³
by comparison. Usually I can see what would have been funny, though, even if it's less funny now, and so I asked my professor about it. He said that what they were really selling was spectacle -- the idea of three single women sharing an apartment hunting for husbands, seeing Marilyn Monroe lying down on a bed, etc.
Selling spectacle over substance. That rings a little bit of a bell. So does taking a known quantity and trying to leverage it into some revenue with not a lot of extra work. Moving on.
The technology change I mentioned was really kind of two-fold: the move into color, but also the move into a wider format. There were several competing formats with their own strengths and weaknesses (most of which I can't remember off the top of my head), and each required different cameras for filming and different projectors in the theaters.
This certainly parallels the game industry quite a lot -- right now, we're looking at a transition for two systems going multicore, with greater storage capacities and a big push into HD display. Except now, it's not a couple of thousand theaters that need replacing, it's millions of TV sets that need to get the old heave-ho4, not to mention various new-wave DVD players and such. And the development costs grow substantially as well, trying to fill those new media, paralleling the similar increased camera costs and expertise required with the change to widescreen formats.
The other area where Hollywood was falling down was that it had no idea what was going to be a hit anymore. Sound of Music would be an enormous hit one year, and Dr. Dolittle a complete flop the next, despite a lot of similarities between those films in terms of form and genre. Even bankable stars weren't a guarantee -- Cleopatra nearly buried Twentieth Century Fox (much as New Line might have been buried if Peter Jackson's ship hadn't come in so well). Old formulas weren't guaranteed to work any more, lavish productions weren't enough to bring in the viewers, and Hollywood was stymied.
Folks who fail to note similarities with the game industry here should browse the bargain bins at their local game store a little more closely, or try to get their hands on the NPD stats every now and again.
I'm happy to note, however, that film survived all of this, even if Hollywood has been taking a bit of a hit in the last year or two, with ticket sales down5. One of the reasons film survived all of it, only to run into a crisis of another kind (maybe another post), was the growth of "non-Hollywood" films. There were two kinds of these.
The first were the films like Double Indemnity and other great noir films. These were originally shot as the B-reels -- the film you would stay and watch after the main feature was done -- and they often were written by embittered writers who had been blacklisted due to that government intervention I lightly touched upon above, HUAC and all that. These were groundbreaking films -- setting a visual look and almost auteurish feel in the sense of dealing grittily with particular themes (betrayal, lust, murder) that the mainstream pictures weren't touching with a ten foot pole.
The second were the international cinemas that were springing up all over after reconstruction from World War II, in Italy, France, Sweden, and Japan, to name a few. In some cases, these films were directly influenced by noir, particularly in France. It was the rise of the auteur, and of film's engagement with social (The Bicycle Thief) and philosophical (Rashomon, Bergman) questions.
What was great was that these films were successful, even finding an audience here in the States, an audience of literate filmgoers who were tired of feeling like they were being spoonfed movies by a committee somewhere. For example, France had an amazingly successful 1959, with The 400 Blows, Un Chien Andalou, and Breathless, which spawned an enormous investment of capital in France into filmmaking, since films in the New Wave style could be done much more cheaply than films in Hollywood. I won't say everything was a commercial success; but the French film industry wasn't a hit-driven business in the early 60s, it was a bastion of experimentation, lots of interesting films being made cheaply.
So, I guess all of this just makes me glad to see people trying to make in-roads with an indie aesthetic, or asking folks to consider making games that touch on the human condition, or trying to figure out how to draw in new markets, or to open up games to more player authorship. All of these were themes I heard this year at the GDC, alongside the mainline business.
The good news, is that it's a crisis that can be survived. We can conceive of moving away from a very hit-driven business, where lack of a hit for long enough will bury a company (Atari being just one recent example), and instead one which can identify markets and bring great product to them, even if those products have the interactive feel of "shaky-cam" to them, with lower production costs and perhaps shorter length. We can conceive of more of an auteur-driven business, with individuals trying to explore themes not typically seen in videogames, perhaps even touching on the human condition just a bit, as Jon Blow mentioned in his rant, and perhaps those will help us reach new markets and grab the center a little bit.
I'm so looking forward to what this industry can be if we become more like what happened with film, and less like what happened with comics.
¹There was, of course, a healthy underground comics movement before that, investigating other sorts of stories and approaches that could be taken with the medium, including R. Crumb and Harvey Pekar and certainlly lots of others. (back)
²I admit, I partially chose this movie because of Monroe. It was a little weird to have seen as many movies as I have and yet never have seen her in anything. I've since also seen The Seven-Year Itch which I liked somewhat more. I've been on a bit of a Billy Wilder kick lately, since seeing The Apartment (which I got because I had seen Double Indemnity in class). Since then I've also seen Irma La Douce and Sabrina and I have Some Like It Hot now. After that I'm probably done with Wilder for a while -- that seems to cover the greatest hits. Anyway.
³Okay, not that bad. But pretty damned bad. (back)
4Actually, I kind of wonder if there's a business or charitable effort in that; take the last gen's tech and TVs and distribute them to places that could use them, like kids' hospitals and stuff like that. You could hook up PS2s with the linux kit and have a nice little computer and display. But I digress. (back)
5This will likely make an updated format for theaters, such as digital projection, even harder to swallow. Good sales and marketing ("Having digital projection will bring in the marks!" or "You'll save on film costs!", both of which are probably bunk) may help with that, but it'll be interesting. (back)
December 03, 2005
Comparative Media: Prostitution
Over the last months I've had the opportunity to examine prostitution in a movie, a book, and a game, and I'd like to contrast the three.
The first portrayal was in Klute, directed by Alan Pakula and released in 1971, which makes it just as old as I am. Like me, the film moves a little slower than I'd like, is showing some wear and tear around the edges, and could probably use some trimming down, but there still are some decent bits. Jane Fonda's performance as Bree, the prostitute at the center of the mysterious disappearance of a small-town businessman who went missing in a visit to the big city, swept the major film awards for Best Actress in the year it came out, and it's still what holds the film together. We see her with Donald Sutherland (the titular gumshoe) in scenes filled with sexual tension -- she is frank, he is polite and not entirely naive, but certainly has a midwestern innocence about him.
Film, of course, is a primarily visual medium. There are a couple of interesting things about the direction and cinematography of the film which seem to be making statements about prostitution. The first is that many scenes are shot through windows -- the killer, before we are shown his identity¹, is frequently separated from Bree and Klute via a skylight window, watching them interact. We hear his heavy breathing and are reminded that in watching the tension in the scene, we are similar to the voyeur. I mention this because the technique of becoming a voyeur is relevant to the next medium, not so much to what I have to say about this one.
Enough about voyeurism: the other thing I saw a lot of in watching the film was that frequently Fonda/Bree was filmed against shadows which parallel her own figure or face, as if one of those Victorian portraits² has been enlarged and used to stencil the scene. This is set apart from Fonda enough that a wedge of light can be interposed in between her and her shadow. Writing that phrase, I think of Peter Pan and wonder if what Pakula was going for was to intimate that prostitutes are cut off permanently from their innocence, though I didn't think of the connection at the time. It might also be that Pakula is suggesting that Bree is dogged by the shadows of her life thus far everywhere she goes, that she always has the shadow-self lurking in the background.
It's immensely cool, from a visual perspective, that at the end of the film, the killer gets thrown through a window -- his body shadowed in the front and backlit by the window, unifying visual themes we've been seeing throughout the experience.
Pakula uses the visual language of film to explore some themes in prostitution; in another way, Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White³ explores (among other things) the first theme I discuss above, that of the voyeur to prostitution.
In a move that is very unusual, Faber's book is often narrated in the second person -- the reader is directly addressed as "you", and instructed to follow different characters around directly by the author/3rd-person omniscient narrator in this way. To paraphrase sections in the book, since I don't have a written copy handy, it's not uncommon to have the author say things like, "You've come to a decision -- should you follow so-and-so or stay here with our-original-focus? Don't worry, we'll return to our-focus later, let's watch what so-and-so will do next."
It's an interesting technique, no less because for much of the novel we are following a particular prostitute, her client (who becomes her sole client shortly after the opening of the novel -- indeed we never hear of her being with other clients except in flashbacks), and the wife of her client. We are reminded that as readers, we are voyeurs in much the way we are voyeurs in Pakula's film -- we are seeing scenes that we would ordinarily have no access to whatsoever.
There's much here about prostitution, as well. The novel is set in the Victorian era, a time when men held all social power4; prostitutes, while often seen as women who have fallen from grace, are more accurately described as women who have fought for survival amongst the treacherous social conditions of the time. Women, in the absence of men, had few options: work for an incredibly low wage doing back-breaking labor in a factory or sell themselves. It's not as stark as all that, but it might as well be.
The novel uses prostitution as a way to examine the interplay of two conflicting masculine desires -- the madonna and the whore, the wife/mother and the prostitute. In bringing in the reader almost as a participant, and certainly as a voyeur, via the use of second person techniques and description, the novel also asks readers to consider their own views on these desires, whatever the reader's gender. Certainly, it's not all that cut-and-dried, since a novel nearly 850 pages in length needs to spend a lot of time examining several themes from a lot of angles, but this is part of what's going on. In the end, we are left knowing that Faber's prostitutes have both mother and whore in them by the novel's final passages, and in a way, we are encouraged to view the former as the more important part of their natures.
This is the point in the essay where I start talking about the most well-known representation of prostitution in games -- that of the latest games in the Grand Theft Auto series.
The thing is, I don't have a lot to say; nor do the games. I've played the game enough to know what roles they fill; prostitutes in GTA are sources of health, they're sources of money, and they're mission objectives (as in the early mission to deliver some number of prostitutes to the Policeman's Ball). In other words, they are mostly reduced to mere mechanics, just pieces on the board.
This is perhaps appropriate to the character -- like Richard Stark's character Parker, the nameless protagonist of GTA3 may well see the prostitutes and all other things as merely steps on his way to something greater, rather than people with their own motivations and needs. Like that nameless protagonist, we're invited to see them the same way.
I rebel against this -- while I appreciate the freedom of the series and the design innovation it represents, I had a hard time with the play itself, and the theme. In fact, long before I had any need to visit a prostitute in-game to regain health, I had done the early Policeman's Ball mission, and it left me feeling kind of cold. It's not that other games (nor, indeed, other media) haven't treated cops as being as steeped in crime as the criminals themselves; it's more that I don't want to believe that of policemen generally -- I want to see them as people in difficult situations who are doing the best they can.
I guess what happens here is that there's a fundamental disconnect between me and the character I control, unlike that of a novel. Although The Crimson Petal and the White seeks to implicate me via its use of second person narration, the tension serves to remind me of my role as reader. In GTA, I'm repulsed because I don't want to view other people, even prostitutes, merely as means to an end5.
I've mentioned before that there are times when this disconnect is okay with me, when I can use facts about the character to drive me forward. But there really isn't any character in GTA3 that I control -- he doesn't have a voice, his face contains no detail, I don't even think he has a name. In the end, this means a game like GTA3 has nothing to say about prostitution, only about my status as a gamer, and that's what made me put down the controller. Sure, there was lots of freedom to do as I chose -- but in a vacuum in which I could learn little about myself, or explore themes of some kind, or examine anything at all but a vast boardgame.
The medium lends itself to this kind of mechanical view of its subjects; because games are about what the player can do, it's hard to find ways to make interesting or even remotely nuanced statements about anything, to explore themes. As I said in my last post, I believe we'll have to find a way to do so, or else perish.
¹About the killer: because this is a film from the 1970s, we who have been watching movies in the three decades since are well versed in the stories that they tell, and we can pretty much identify him as soon as he comes on screen. In this way, it reminds me a little bit of how trite a movie like Play Misty for Me would seem to someone who has seen Fatal Attraction, but of course, Eastwood's film appeared in the same year as Klute -- his directorial debut. Connections like these are why I could peruse the IMDB for hours, left to my own devices. It's also why I have a Netflix queue which is nearly 400 items long...(back)
²Here, I'm afraid, I must show my ignorance. I asked a friend about the term via IM, but he didn't respond in time to make print. Basically, you know, one of those portraits where it's a profile of a head all in black against a white background.(back)
³Okay, this one I know. The title comes from the introductory line of a poem from Tennyson; what I don't have any sense of whatsoever is how the poem relates to the book. The poem is beautiful, but I am no great reader of poetry, and it's meaning to me is unclear. There are probably essays somewhere about stuff like that, for those who are interested, but I haven't run any down. I suspect that the use of color are substitutes for the reality of life (the crimson of blood, for example) contrasted against the purity of the feminine ideal of the time (the purity of white). (back)
4Here I am only reflecting the facts portrayed in the novel, and making no representations about their veracity, nor making any claims for or against any changes the modern era has or hasn't brought to this balance of power. In writing this footnote, in case you were wondering, I feel entirely like an academician. ;)(back)
5There you go, a perfectly good gamer ruined by the Golden Rule.(back)
November 21, 2005
The Source of Inspiration
I'm always rather interested in the source of inspiration, whether it be for films, books, or games, or really any creative endeavor. Finding Neverland explores the relationship between author J. M. Barrie and a widow and her sons. The film excellently portrays the invention of Peter Pan, attempting to visually capture the genesis of an idea, directly overlaying fantasy and reality using techniques similar to Big Fish, or a Terry Gilliam film. We see Barrie enjoying himself amongst children and feeling uncomfortable around adults (most notably, his wife), and we come to feel someone who seems out of touch with society's mores, while at the same time knowing that this same man will produce a work that has touched the lives of millions and millions over the last hundred or so years. We watch him watching boys jump about on their beds having a pillow fight, and see him make the leap to them being transported in flight. He portrays a pirate and they defeat him. And in these things we see the birth of a story we all know and love.
Learning about such sources of inspiration is wonderfully compelling to me, whether dramatized as in Neverland or in reality. I was similarly touched by seeing a feature on the Spirited Away disk which revealed the origin of the cleansing of the river spirit as a real event in Miyazaki's life. Apparently, Miyazaki and some neighbors had spent a Saturday cleaning the river near where they lived, including removing a rusted old bicycle from the muck, an object which appears from the muck-encrusted body of the river spirit in the film. It's a tender moment which is even further enriched by our knowledge of how it came to be; we share, for a moment, the eyes and mind of Miyazaki. Watching this scene is now enriched for me by an understanding of how it came to be -- I suspect I won't soon see another production of Peter Pan, but you can be assured that when I next view it I will be thinking about how such scenes came to be.
I feel the same way on learning a little bit about the genesis of Mario¹. Simple idea -- how about a guy who jumps around, against a background like the sky? But he's too big, so how about we shrink him, oh, and what if he could get big again? Talk about your happy accidents. From a simple idea and a very few fundamental mechanics a great game is born, and an industry is relaunched.
Sometimes the source of inspiration is pretty damned obvious... and you wish you had thought of it first. I've been playing a fair amount of Guitar Hero the last week or so, and the inspiration is so clearly that moment where you first rocked out on your air guitar. They took that great feeling, made a simple game of skill, and suddenly, a game where you come away feeling like a performer is born². Terrific stuff.
More commonly, I suspect, other games are the sources of our inspiration. I know that was the case of the Star Wars games I worked on for years. With Starfighter, we started off wanting to create a sim along the lines of TIE Fighter, and having seen Rogue Squadron and decided to switch to consoles, we tried to steer a more middle ground. Republic Commando was born from a tense few hours of playing Ghost Recon cooperatively, and wanting to achieve that same feel from a single-player game. Most of what we see on the shelves falls into this paradigm. I think it's a persuasive argument for designers to get out and do things other than playing games.
Sometimes, though, it's still just a bolt from the blue, whether it's a story or a game or a movie. Keita Takahashi, the man behind Katamari Damacy and its recent sequel³, describes the moment of inspiration as something "I just basically came up with". Ah, well, sometimes inspiration is too great to be tracked down.
Anyone out there care to share the inspirations for what they've done, or perhaps point me in the direction of some other great quotes? I love this stuff.
Well, join me next time for some discussion of disease transmission, sparked by Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. It should be up around Friday.
¹Full disclosure: Super Mario Bros. is one of those games I see played again and again -- by my sons, so it's often on my mind though I rarely get a chance to play it any more. And, of course, I'm a self-admitted Nintendo fanboy. I'd say self-confessed, but that would suggest I feel some sort of shame... (back)
²I'll come back to Guitar Hero in the not too distant future. (back)
³Both soon to be on my playlist... (back)
October 31, 2005
Homicide and Thoughts about Episodic Content
More than any other show, the Barry Levinson police procedural Homicide: Life on the Street made me wish I was a homicide detective, which is saying something. I've been watching cop shows nearly my whole life; the first one I can remember really getting into was Hill Street Blues, but that even postdates a fascination with earlier shows with a detective element, like Quincy, M.D. and The Rockford Files.
Now, the crazy thing is that I've no actual interest in most of the actual work having to do with being a Homicide detective, chasing down leads, investigating gory death scenes, seeing names in red and black on "the board". About the only thing I'd really like to know if I was any good at is putting suspects in "the box".
No, what really interested me about Homicide was the amount of time the detectives spent talking about what you could call "life issues": birth, death, love, hate, marriage, divorce, children, parents, justice, compassion, humility. Oh, and lots of murder, and the reasons why people murder, and the kinds of people who murder. It didn't treat crime romantically, it treated it frankly.
Ah, and the characters, paired off beautifully: the morally black-and-white Pembleton with the relativist Bayliss, conspiracy nut Munch with ordinary joe Bolander, soulful Lewis with "meatball" Crosetti, romantic Felton with pragmatist Howard.
Homicide, sweet Homicide. Over the last couple of years I've watched all seven seasons and the conclusive television movie that tied off the remaining loose ends. And when I finished it, I wanted to turn right around and start over.
I keep hearing about episodic content in games coming along the pike one of these days. In fact, putting "episodic content" and video games together into Google nets you around 13,000 hits, which isn't Halo numbers, but it's a start.
I used to think it was a little bit crazy, I admit; after all, a reasonable segment of our market largely won't bother with a game if they can rent it. On the other hand, every sale of a used game and every GameFly or Blockbuster rental is a lost bit of revenue to the industry; I hear that even Best Buy is getting into the act. With development costs for AAA titles skyrocketing, I think prices will rise a bit (as I've started to notice for next-gen), and these alternative channels will swell, leaving fewer consumers actually buying that first copy of the product that we actually make money on.
So it seems like a great way to go is episodic content through Steam-like services, where downloads and an active network connection work both ends of this problem. Download permits the developer to sell for less and make the same revenue (since the cost of goods is lower), and the active network connection limits the license to one user (or more accurately, one computer). There will be backlash, sure, but there were plenty of people signed up for Steam getting their Counterstrike: Source on before Half-Life 2 was available -- I think the right carrots will make it a viable approach.
There's a lot more involved in this issue, though. You can't really liken it to television, though that's the comparison I see every single time it's mentioned. It's not like television. Television is free; or at least, it was when episodic content arose on it. Even paying for it, you are paying for a staggering array of choices, something for everyone. Spend ten bucks a month on HBO and you're getting more than four episodes of The Sopranos, you're also getting Six Feet Under, Deadwood, and a bunch of movies, and probably some shows I'm not hip enough to know about but which are doubtless pretty decent. And it's pretty staggering to think about how many hours of content your fifty bucks for basic cable gets you -- granted, it has additional subsidies in the form of advertising, but if you use TiVo, you're basically getting far more than you could ever watch without commercial interruption.
MMOs are more like episodic content in this regard; at the very least, they are simply enormous amounts of content, which justifies to a degree their monthly fees. I think I could reasonably argue that my $15/month for WoW could go for at least four different characters who would rarely encounter the same content, at least up until a certain level.
Thus, MMOs are already very close to episodic content, though it's driven by my time alone. This is appealing, much as DVD collections of my favorite shows are appealing: I don't really see much point in watching television "live" anymore -- I'll just wait until the boxed set comes out. If the shows are good enough, they'll get put on DVD eventually, and I can watch them at my own pace, much like I'd play an MMO. These days, it seems like the last season gets put out a week or two before the next one starts. I imagine I could fill my Netflix queue just with those -- in fact, about 15% of my queue is shows right now, and that's before Deadwood Season Two or Six Feet Under Season Five is out.
Lately I've been playing Shadow of the Colossus, and playing it as if it were a series of episodes. Since I've been enjoying it tremendously (expect a blog post at some point), I've been attempting to stretch out the experience, slaying no more than a single Colossus per day.
I wonder if an episodic release for this game might have worked, if putting a couple of Colossi into each digital release might have generated more sales overall than whatever it's getting¹. While I certainly would have been interested in it, waiting impatiently for the next episode, it seems unlikely at this point that it would have been any more lucrative than the traditional channel. I can only hope that with more consoles connected to broadband in the next few years, there might be some channel to push this stuff through.
What's most appealing to me about episodic content, though, is the opportunity to find that new retail channel, which is where we differ so strongly from these other media. Television has syndication for its shows, and movies have DVD and video². Most games have a couple of weeks on the shelves and then their selling window is gone more or less forever. Episodic content, however, is a more persistent revenue stream that opens up the opportunity to deliver a premium package later on, with the first six or twelve episodes on a single CD or set of CDs. You can play it as it comes out now... or you can wait, pay a bit more for the nice collection, and play a whole bunch of them at once. There's a model which exactly parallels this and it's been kicked around the block for quite a while -- the serial novels such as Charles Dickens wrote³.
So, I guess it'll be pretty interesting to see what happens with the Steam channel, with the SiN episodes I've read a little bit about coming through there, and Aftermath and whatever other Half-Life 2 content they generate. It's not quite the same as HBO, since I'll be paying a fair penny for a relatively small amount of entertainment, but it's certainly a start.
¹Naturally, I hope it's getting quite a lot. Unfortunately, I suspect it's closer to Psychonauts numbers than, say, Halo numbers. Which is a shame, because I've experienced emotions playing this game that I've never experienced playing other games.(back)
²It's interesting to note, however, that television shows generally only hit syndication after they've passed something akin to a quality bar -- 150 or 200 shows -- whereas even Little Nicky got a DVD release. (back)
³And of course, Dickens wasn't the only one. But Dickens is a good place to take a look if you're interested in what sorts of tricks need to be employed to make episodic content work. One of them is, of course, the cliffhanger. Dickens didn't write the stories where someone was left literally hanging from a cliff, but he did have a good sense of where to end a chapter so that his audience would visit the newstand the following Saturday. (back)
September 22, 2005
In France in the early 1950s, film theorists founded a journal called Cahiers du Cinema¹; in it, they decried the current state of cinema and called for new types of film-making. Interestingly enough, many of the great films in the movement, which came to be known as Le Nouvelle Vague or "The New Wave", were film noirs. But they were different from Hollywood's version of the genre -- these were often moody, extremely character-driven pieces. They had the atmosphere in spades, but the stories they told and the characters they contained were extraordinary, and the film-making was a breath of fresh air.
Take Bob le Flambeur². Here you have a film about a small-time gambler and one-time crook who did a stretch in prison over a heist; but now he's well-known in certain circles (amongst criminals and policemen) because of his consummate style. He's old-school; there's a way you dress and comport yourself even when you're losing your last franc.
The key feature of the movement I want to take away at the moment is not, however, the films noir of the period nor the character-driven stories. What I want to examine a little further is the extraordinary devotion of the New Wave to mise-en-scene, which basically boils down to filming on location for every shot, no studios, no sound stages, using natural light and capturing long takes. Characters are placed in the very real locations that surround them, and events play out in these real locations.³
Jules Dassin's5 Night and the City is filled with such scenes, where Richard Widmark (playing an unsavory character we can't really like but nonetheless must see something of ourselves in) dashes through the streets of London, trying to save himself from his certain fate. Although both the movies I'm talking about are not classified as New Wave by the sites I read on the topic, I think they contain enough of the elements to be indicative, if not perfect examples of the form. I've also recently watched Jules and Jim, a classic of the movement, and much of what I have to say here could be extended to that film as well. And I also think that The Third Man has something to offer -- filmed on location in London, even though it was a Hollywood film, it also favored mise-en-scene and had a lot of resemblances to a film like Night and the City; I guess since The Third Man came out first, we have to assume that Dassin stole a little bit, but I suspect not given the short difference in time between the releases and the fact that Dassin was French, etc.
So, now that I've inundated you all with a bit of New Wave talk, I want to talk about another New Wave coming our way, this one rather literal.
In the last week or so, Nintendo unveiled its new controller -- finally, we get a look at something that really feels next gen to me, feels like a console I absolutely need to own. This is a New Wave I feel I can get behind.
No question, they could have shipped a controller like that as a peripheral for this generation, but then, of course, not everyone would have one (EyeToy, Jungle Beat bongos, PS2 network adapter...). They are essentially launching a new console entirely so that they can have an install base for their innovative control scheme. Remarkable.
What really encourages me about this is how, watching their promo videos, I felt that they were encouraging a new type of mise-en-scene. Watching a couple play tennis on the couch, hearing the Zelda sword swings and shield clangs as a guy swung his arm around, seeing the families playing party games and fishing together, reading about how intuitive Metroid Prime 2 felt with the new controls, I was just entranced. I must have watched that promo video 8 times in a row.
I felt like here was a great step forward in making me feel like I was part of the game, by making some of my physical movements replicated in the game -- call it me-en-scene. It's a new form of interaction. And while I'm sure some of the critics are right in that most of the games will be largely the same, I really don't even care; it's not like the other systems are offering anything radically different in terms of gameplay. Watching that teaser, I could see myself newly immersed in games like Eternal Darkness or Resident Evil n, imagine myself aiming the grappling hook in some new Zelda, swinging a virtual club in Toadstool Tour. All in one handy device.
I'm always reading about how Nintendo is for kids and all that, but honestly, it took quite a while for my kids to be able to play Mario Kart with me, and mostly because the controls were just a little too complex for them. We probably played six months before they could drive the karts all that well -- and they're still not really even close. I think this will be easier for them, and we'll be playing that many more games.
I'm completely looking forward to gaming's New Wave. It's the only console I can see picking up on the first day. I know that it won't have the library or the realism of the other consoles -- but it's the one that's going to offer me something really new on that first day, even if it's in the context of traditional genres. And that's just really great.
¹I am indebted to a very excellent article on GreenCine which helped me to collect some information about the French New Wave. Although I've picked up this information in bits and pieces over the years from film reviews and DVD commentaries, this two page article covered the subject in great detail.²Although usually translated as Bob the Gambler, I think a more literal translation would be something like Bob the Flamboyant One -- and this better captures the essence of his character, in a way. Bob gambles, to be sure, and it's an essential element of his character, but he manages to preserve an ever-present style at the same time, and this is lost when you merely consider him as a gambler. Note that Nick Nolte's version of the character doesn't carry nearly the same flair (nor carry the gambling to its natural conclusion) in the recent Hollywood remake "The Good Thief". Neil Jordan's remake is somewhat limited by its need for a happy ending; I'd rather a single Bob le Flambeur to a hundred Good Thieves.
³There are at least a couple of things to remark upon here: one is that the long take is still being practiced, almost effortlessly, by Quentin Tarantino -- the dialog between Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction about foot massages in the hallway before they encounter Brett and his hapless posse stretches out beyond belief, but feels completely unforced. There's a similar long take following Sofie Fatale in Kill Bill vol 1 down to the ladies' room where Beatrice lies in wait -- it doesn't feel quite as smooth but it really sets up the following moment well, when Beatrice calls out O-ren. (I've seen that movie four times now and writing this I'd love to watch that scene again.) Anyway, the other thing is that a similar practice made it into the manifesto of the Dogma 95 gang, though they took it even further to require that ambient audio be similarly recorded. I can recommend The Celebration, one of the early Dogma 95 films -- I was completely surprised by that movie, which is so remarkably rare as to be treasured. Strong stuff, though, be warned -- not graphic in terms of imagery, just strong themes.4
4It's probably worth noting at this point that in my text editor, the footnotes already are longer than the text at this point in the post. Ugh. My thinking on this topic isn't probably as clear as I'd like. But get me talking about Quentin Tarantino and I'm bound to go on for a while.
5At the time that I watched Topkapi, I had no idea that Dassin had made it -- nor should I have -- but I really loved the movie, and had known even that it included an homage to Rififi, which Dassin had also made (hrm, is it homage if you are making homage to yourself?). In any case, I searched it out on IMDB and it appears that there may be a Topkapi update in the form of a Thomas Crown sequel featuring Pierce Brosnan. For those of you who can read my more-than-latent snobbery into the films I watch, yes, I am in fact appalled.
August 25, 2005
Discussion: Two Plus One
Jules et Jim is a great little movie about the complications of friendship and romance, of the duties we owe one another and to our own happiness. The titular pair are great friends who meet in Paris, Jules an Austrian and Jim a Frenchman. They grow to be great friends, thoroughly understanding one another.
Soon, a woman enters the picture, Catherine, and her amazing resemblance to a statue they both admired in Greece strikes them both, and makes them realize that she is somehow different than their other girlfriends, which they have sometimes shared. Catherine is a free spirit, and as portrayed by Jeanne Moreau, she crackles with a frantic, radiant energy that must be seen to be understood. Both men fall for her, Jim perhaps the hardest, but Catherine chooses Jules, and Jim respects her choice and does not try to interfere.
It is at this point that the film gets a little strange, or perhaps, a little stranger; war intervenes, and Jules returns to Austria with Catherine now his wife. Time and the war pass quickly; each man worries for his friend and hopes that he will not meet him on the battlefield¹. They do not, both survive, and time marches on until one day Jim pays them a visit.
Jim encounters the couple, very unhappily married, with Jules still caring only for Catherine's happiness so long as she can be made to stay near to him, to still share in his life if she will not share his bed. She has had lovers, and soon takes Jim as a lover, with Jules' blessing, as they will live in the house, and no harm will come to Sabine, Jules' and Catherine's daughter, thereby.
There are other wrinkles, but by this point in the story I've told you enough to impart the film's strange flavor. At the time that I watched it, I was a little stymied, but like most great films, it sticks with you and grows a little bit in your mind; you recall its images and its subject, and it ends up making you think a bit about what two people who love each other owe to each other, and what concessions they should make for the other's happiness. In the case of Jules and Jim, there are three pairings -- the two men clearly love each other, and each of them loves Catherine. Where it gets interesting is when that third wheel is added to the mix².
It's funny, but I kind of feel the same way about Façade, the research project everyone's been talking about³. What's interesting about Façade, at least in theory, is that it does exactly what Jules and Jim does, but it puts the player in charge of exploring his relationships with these other characters.
It's not properly a game, unless you'd call it a role-playing game, with a heavy emphasis on the role. Players4 arrive at the home of Trip and Grace, a married couple who are clearly having a domestic dispute which is interrupted by the ringing of the bell (at a point of your choosing).
The simulation takes input through typing, as anything you type is something you say. This is, unfortunately, a rather clumsy interface, and even with my very high word-per-minute rate, I continually find myself just a beat behind in conversation, often cutting off one of the participants mid-sentence as I furiously pound out my words. That aspect is quite frustrating.
What really thrills me about it, though, is that I can approach it with my own role in mind. Am I to be the cad, who has always had the hots for Grace and now can make my move? Am I supportive of one character or the other? Am I uncomfortable? Interface issues aside, it aims to let me make these choices, and despite those flaws, it's still really interesting. Jules and Jim explored the interactions of two people and one other, and so does Façade.
I wondered over in Jamie's blog whether the implementors had done any filmed tests to see what worked for the experience and what didn't. Often in academics, you look to see what explanatory power your model has, and sometimes you take what you have and measure it against what people actually do5. I think it'd be really interesting to take some blind subjects and run this scenario with real people -- actually walk these blind subjects up to the door with exactly the information they get when playing the game, and let it unfold with a couple of actors.
I'd love to know how they might have changed their simulation in response. Would people ask "Well, wait a minute -- did I meet Trip first, or Grace first? How long have I known them?" How much more information would people want before they felt comfortable? In what ways would they connect with the characters that weren't reflected in their simulation -- longer hugs? Back rubbing? Peering attentively? Making faces? There's so much richness there, and I'm curious about how much of it you'd have to add in to feel like you had enough interface to emote properly?
Would speaking directly to it be enough, through a microphone? I don't know. But it'd be a start. I don't want to push more hard problems on them, but given the simulation, that kind of real-time interface is pretty desirable. Had they simply presented it as a text "adventure", the typing interface might have worked much better, though the results wouldn't have had the immediacy. Maybe playing it out as a text adventure and then playing it back as film might work.
So, I guess I think Façade is pretty important too. Like Jules and Jim, the more I think about it the more questions it makes me ask, the more it makes me think. That's a significant contribution.
¹Talk about your pronomial binding problems. Anyway, Jim worries for Jules, Jules for Jim, and neither wishes to meet the other in battle.
²Note: Wildly diverging metaphors!
³See site for links and quotes. I learned of it through Ernest Adams' write-up on GamaSutra.
4Interactors? Consumers? Experiencers? Participants? Since it's not really a game, it's not really proper to call us players. An experience which drives me to seek new terminology is often a good thing.
5Years ago when I worked in graphics research, I was co-author of a paper about generating speech and gesture for animated conversations, which still shows up in searches on my name. Anyway, one of the things I found interesting about the project was some of the errors we would get, and the ways it would fall into the uncanny valley (behaviorally speaking; visually speaking, the poly models were far below what we have today). The chief researcher, Justine Cassell, had done her graduate work in gesture, and behind her theories were some good indications of why we actually can mis-gesture. Fun stuff. While academia is really not for me, some of the intellectual questions it poses are still really interesting to me.
August 16, 2005
Gunslingers and Samurai
It's certainly been remarked before that there are a lot of similarities between samurai films and Westerns; indeed, some of the greatest Westerns were inspired by films by Kurosawa, including A Fistful of Dollars by Yojimbo and The Magnificent Seven by The Seven Samurai. (Sanjuro, which I recently watched, is itself a sequel of sorts to Yojimbo; another parallel can be drawn with the spiritual successor For A Few Dollars More.)
It's fairly obvious with even a little bit of thought why there should be such a close correspondence. After all, both genres deal with violent historical periods where life was fairly cheap. Both deal with time periods that are distant enough to be romanticized and yet not so distant as to be forgotten or undocumented. Both eras came to a close at about the same time, with the Meiji era in Japan beginning at roughly the same time as the West becoming more civilized². Both times deal with questions of honor and moral ambiguity, with hired guns and ronin facing off across moral lines. Both genres also point a bit to the souls of their cultures -- with Westerns portraying the lone individual surviving by his wit and skill, and samurai films portraying men bound by honor and code and tradition.
Both genres are also highly malleable; periods of great violence at an individual scale³ lend themselves to all sorts of investigations. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a single murder causes one man to lose his grip and become a bum, while another rides the coattails of the fame it grants him to become a Senator. This is similar to Twilight Samurai, where a single event causes a man to overcome his concerns about a marriage he would make for love. Both are capable of morality plays (for example, The Ox-Bow Incident4). Both have enjoyed cycles of popularity, with periods of reinvention and rejuvenation; in getting a television series in Deadwood, it's my hope that Westerns may get another here in the States.
But enough about similarities.
One of the things I find interesting as a gamer are the differences between the Japanese market and the American market, and one notable difference is that these two genres are reflected differently in the games made in their native countries. In short, while there are several games reflecting samurai culture in a given year (Dynasty Warriors, the Onimusha series, games like Way of the Samurai or Musashi Samurai Legend), Western videogames are comparatively rare. I can only think of a few, and even then, I need to stretch a ways back (Outlaws, Red Dead Revolver, er...).
Why is this? I'm not certain, but I think it's probably about the guns. Why play an action game with guns where the pistol only carries six shots and the machine gun has to be left in a fixed position? Also, a hip young friend of mine tells me that Westerns just aren't cool anymore. I certainly hope the film genre doesn't die out altogether, though Clint's gotten a little old to get out there riding horses, and I'm not aware of any other stars who could even revive the genre anymore.
Whereas gracefully wielding a katana is eternally cool, as Kill Bill points out.
In the end, I'm not even sure I want to know why. What I really want is a few more Western games, though preferably not ones that drag in other genres to try and make them cool. I have high hopes for NeverSoft's Gun, which comes out this fall.
¹I suppose I should change my category names to DVDs rather than Movies, since I don't want to add something about television. I'm not going to, even though I suppose I should. But for anyone who regularly reads it, read Movies as a broad category. :)
²The Meiji era (beginning 1867) was a time at which Japan began to modernize; by 1876, samurai were forbidden to carry their blades in public. By the early 1890s, most of the Western territories such as Montana or the Dakotas had gained statehood, and with it legitimacy and the rule of law.
³As opposed to the scale of warfare, I mean.
4There's another interesting point to be made about The Ox-Bow Incident, and that's that it was adapted from a play. I actually think there may be another interesting blog post about adapting films from plays and the problems that that caused film and television early on -- since we face some of the same problems with videogames. But that's for another time.
July 26, 2005
Discussion: Strangely Tender
I've seen a few movies about mental illness (or something like mental illness) lately, and then not long afterwards, I played Tim Schafer's most excellent game, Psychonauts. The reason why I'm blogging about the three titles you see above together¹ is because of the touching, almost sweet, way that they treat mental illness².
Originally I put these three pieces together with Jules and Jim, a French movie about two great friends who both fall in love with the same woman, who turns out to be the very definition of a femme fatale. But that movie treats its madness frankly, without pity or sentimentality, not even really passing judgement, just relating a tale. But that didn't fit, because these other three treat mental illness and disability in such a sensitive way, so I threw it out.
Elling is an odd little Norwegian movie that presents a pair of mentally disabled men who have been furloughed from institutional life and placed in an apartment together; the film shows their gradual adjustment to life outside of an institution. Neither of them are so debilitated that they require constant supervision, but on the other hand, neither of them could probably live entirely alone either. It's a quaint little film which tenderly and honestly portrays these strange characters, and we come to laugh with them in a way that doesn't feel exploitative. When Elling narrates about his unlikely success as a poet, he speaks in tones that come off as Romantic, and it's funny and it works because he's real, up there on the screen, and not some caricature.
In a similar vein, in Harvey, Jimmy Stewart portrays Elwood P. Dowd, a gentle man with a taste for drink and an invisible six foot rabbit for a friend. I relate this to the two others here because of the treatment of Dowd, who is sympathethic even while we wonder if he's completely crazy. We find humor in the situations here precisely because we've come to like Elwood, and because we similarly find his sister compelling, in her bewildered concern for her brother.
A lot of the reason I don't find movies like Me, Myself, and Irene or Dumb and Dumber4 all that funny is because they don't take any time to develop any empathy with their characters. They aren't, in fact, portrayals of characters at all -- but portrayals which put an illness forward as character, and then play that illness for laughs. I know it works for a lot of people; it just doesn't work for me.
Which brings me, at last, to the storytelling genius that is contained in Psychonauts. In the game, various characters are mentally ill, and part of your job as Raz is to attempt to heal them. From the inside.
This wouldn't have worked for me as well as it did were it not for the fact that the characters are presented in such a compelling way -- they, like Elling or Elwood, are not merely the sum of their ailments, but are instead believable characters who are afflicted. Treating the characters and the audience in this mature way leads to better and more memorable humor, in my opinion.
The conceit underlying the game's mechanics is that many of the characters in the game are damaged people, and that we can help them in some small way, help them to overcome the worst of their ailments and attempt to enter life again. They won't come out perfect, they'll still be decidedly odd, but they'll at least be able to function. And so, it's rewarding to finish the levels, because we've come to understand the characters through their neuroses.
Take Boyd as an example. When we first meet him, it's abundantly clear that there's something quite wrong with him. He's paranoid, but he has a job to do, and he's prepared to do it to the best of his ability, even if he doesn't entirely make sense. He's the watchman at the Asylum where Raz' friends have been taken (well, where their brains are... it's complicated).
When we enter his mind, we're inside a psychosis that is both rife with humor and tinged with sadness, like most of the minds we encounter in Psychonauts. There are men in trenchcoats everywhere, performing the jobs in the world, like repairing the roads or fixing telephone wiring. Cameras pop out of mailboxes. Objects in the world move closer. Every building is alike, inside and out, but viewed through a camera that is just slightly fish-eyed. For a while, we have an understanding of just how paralyzing it must be to exist this way, to see conspiracies everywhere. At the same time, the trenchcoat characters say the most outrageous things, all in monotone, and they make you laugh -- juxtaposed against this bizarre world, you have spy-like characters saying things like "Although I smell of excrement, you should respect me, because I provide a valuable service." And the trenchcoat men who stand-in for suburban housewives speak lines which are positively subversive ("My husband may not find me attractive sexually, but he still loves my pies.").
If it weren't for the extended time spent setting up these situations so that they are compelling and consistent, the payoff simply wouldn't be there.
I don't have anything surprising to say, I guess, but just need to remark that games are no different from other storytelling media when it comes to humor. Humor in each of these experiences grows out of character, and the humor is richer because the characters are.
¹Though it is likely that Psychonauts will get another detailed entry... when I get off my duff.
²In the case of Harvey it's not mental illness, properly, but some otherworldly thing. But it amounts to the same thing, in this case, because everyone around him believes him to be well, if not insane, surely eccentric.
³As it turns out, he's not, Harvey is a Pookah. It seems clear to me that Harvey is a predecessor of the rabbit in Donnie Darko, though that film doesn't adhere to any particular myth to pin this down precisely. I should probably listen to the audiotrack on the Director's Cut, but I admit I probably won't :)
4Dumb and Dumber isn't really all that different from Elling; it's a buddy picture of a pair of misfits. I probably would have walked out of D&D in the theater, though, I found it so... unfunny. More boring, really.
June 12, 2005
When I watched William Holden walk out on Faye Dunaway, dismissing her character in Network as being raised by television and therefore like television, both in attractiveness and in faults, I had to stop and think a little bit about what it might mean to be raised by videogames¹.
Other than pundits calling our entertainment murder simulators, and politicians using it for a hot-button topic of interest to parents, I don't hear a lot of folks entering into reasonable discussions on the topic².
Games have been with us for a long time; videogames, obviously, less so. I read recently that baseball may be a lot older than we think it to be (indeed, dating back to 14th century France), and I'm aware of reading some evolutionary theory research years ago that suggests that play was part of what enabled our evolutionary ancestors to improve their chances of survival.
In other words, play might just have helped make us human.
Television and books and movies and other forms of entertainment (and yes, even enrichment) lack direct interactivity. Absolutely, we bring something to the experience -- our own experiences mash up together with the author/actors/director/what-have-you, and we make judgements and interpret the material based on all of that. But only games allow us to engage in "do-this, that-happens, do-that, this-other-happens" in a way that allows us to take part in directing the experience.
I've questioned before whether we can match in depth what other media can provide, based on the need for our audience to bring that to us. But aside from that concern, I start to wonder if playing more games could actually make us more human, not less, not more cut-off from others, but actually learning better skills and socialization.
Socialization? In a videogame? Absolutely. I watch my sons play Mario Kart, and I see them learning how to have fun even when the contest is unbalanced -- Jordan, who has not had nearly as much success in contests since the first time, nonetheless seems to have a blast playing. In the bomb battles, he often races to see how fast he can pile up 5 bombs; in the balloon battles, he's still having fun, even trash-talking his brother. (This is a kid who is four, and yet the other night told me over a rollicking game of Trouble that "Daddy, you're going to pay, my friend." That "my friend" just cracked me up.)
Another area that I see a lot of socialization between them is in negotiation and persuasion. Each has the modes and characters he prefers; naturally, these don't always intersect. Luc will try to use persuasion to get the mode he wants to play, often making concessions -- "okay, let's play bomb battle for three games and then we can switch to balloon battle for three" -- and this is really great to see. When it becomes intractable, as it will with the under-7 set, there's an external authority who can be called on to help arbitrate a settlement that's fair to both parties.
Finally, though Kart promotes competition, it can also promote teamwork. Recently I got a third controller so the three of us could battle together, and naturally, it was easy for me to defeat the kids. They could tell if I was letting them win, so instead, I opted for another tactic: I drove like crazy, and only throttled back my game a little bit, and told them that the only way to take me down was to work together. Pretty soon, they were working together and cheering one another on whenever they could take a piece of me -- enough so that I could throttle my game back even further and let them think they were beating me hands-down³, just by working together.
Internet play gets tricky -- I don't currently connect my consoles to the Internet, and even if I did, I wouldn't let the kids play online. Anonymous play tends to bring out the worst in people -- the language you hear in these games is extraordinarily vulgar, and it'll be a long time before I'm interested in letting my kids play in that environment; indeed, it's a significant turn-off for me, too. That said, I'd also love to see more negotiation in the hands of the players; one thing that was great about the sandlot baseball games was that kids who couldn't get along with others could be easily and effectively shunned out of play. There's a fair amount of that available in the PC shooters I've played online, with the ability to vote off players and automatically rebalance teams and things like that, but not all that much in the console world as yet. These are the sorts of things that should make the transition from the couch to the online world.
Finally, part of what makes games great is that games are a safe arena in which we can make meaningful choices and fail, seeing the results. We can experiment in a way that can be difficult or dangerous in life. We can experience things that we couldn't otherwise experience. In doing these things, I think we open up for ourselves the possibility that we can make meaningful choices in life -- after all, we've trained ourselves to do so.
A pastime that teaches our kids socialization and helps them feel freer to make meaningful choices? Sign me up.
¹It's a good movie, by the way, and not at all dated. I expected it to be, and was pleasantly surprised. It's still quite funny and really topical, especially with the recent development of "reality TV".
²Though I was heartened by my father's response, after I wrote an email out to my family about how I felt about my profession. (It was after Columbine, and I wanted to talk a little bit about my feelings about the issue after much was made in the national media about the Doom "connection.") He said that in his view, "if it walks like a duck, and it talks like a duck, it's probably a duck" -- i.e. that ascribing some sort of causal power to something that walked and talked like a game was probably a little off-base.
³A note to friends with whom I've played Mario Kart before, don't think I've lost my edge. I can still blow the doors off of you. Often I give the kids a better shot at me by playing one-handed :)
June 04, 2005
Discussion: Robert Mitchum
Robert Mitchum carried with him to every picture he ever made his own iconography; Mitchum was practically short-hand for every noir character you ever saw. He had one of those perfect voices which carry with it all the expectations you might have of its subject matter, the sort of voice you hear when you read Chandler or Hammett. He had the haunted look, with his hooded heavy eyelids, and his slightly unruly hair. His face could bespeak nonchalance, or explode suddenly in rage.
Looking over his filmography, I'm amazed; no wonder this guy was an icon, he had a film career spanning more than 50 years leading right up to the year he died. Admittedly, I've only seen a few of them, and I know a lot of them aren't particularly good, and The Big Sleep falls into both categories. But you can see in the list, year after year, those pictures which kept up the image, usually two or three pictures to a year.
Which brings us to Astro City, which has been going about enlarging the context of superheroes for years. I started reading the Astro City graphic novel compilations a few years ago when a friend at LucasArts pointed them out to me, and I own a few of them. Originally, I was attracted due to the great covers by Alex Ross, whose Marvels I had read years before.
That's all just a preamble though to telling you that Robert Mitchum's iconic role is brought once more to live by Busiek & co. in The Tarnished Angel, which presents the evolution of the character in the end-notes. Looking at the cover, I thought, "Hey, that guy looks like Robert Mitchum, but in chrome" and sure enough, that's more or less what he is. The character of Mitchum¹ is reimagined as Steeljack, a recently released convict who just wants to get out of sight for his remaining years, but can't. It's worth reading.
One of the interesting things about games these days is just how much they cost and, of course, the next generation is going to make that even worse. One of the things Hollywood has going for it is that casting agents take direction from producers and directors to fill a particular role -- in the 40s, 50s and 60s, if you were looking for someone to fill a film noir lead, you'd probably get someone like Mitchum².
With the next generation costing so much, and the visual differences in console generations probably slimming in the coming years, I wonder if there isn't going to start to be room for independent contractors who build digital actors to be our main characters, our heroes, our villains, whatever. The most cost-efficient way to do this would be to build characters who could be leveraged across several titles, and maybe even customized a bit to fill particular roles. It doesn't seem like a huge stretch to me to have "Far Cry guy" also be "Bond villain henchman #1" or "True Crime" guy or maybe even dress him up in clothes with no apparent gravitational constraints to fit into a Final Fantasy. It wouldn't take many titles to have enough animation for the digital actor to fill a number of roles, with custom animations added by the house who know him best, and can keep the characterization stable.
I could see this sort of service covering even a little more ground. Obviously, in the digital realm we can apply "make-up" a little faster and easier -- the digital equivalent of Mickey Rourke wouldn't be sitting for an hour in a make-up artist's chair every morning for Sin City. And an independent contractor could even consider establishing long-term contracts with voice actors to keep the character consistent as well. It could become one-stop shopping for your character needs, and help keep costs down.
Granted, there'll still be lots of games, I hope, that come up with wacky characters that can't really see frequent use. There aren't too many characters from Psychonauts who would look right in anything but the game-equivalent of a David Lynch film. That said, I could imagine characters from Tim's earlier games getting another day in the sun, even if not in a sequel. Ben Throttle as the wheelman in a heist game? I could buy that.
¹If you don't feel like you have a handle on the sort of guy Mitchum was, I can thoroughly recommend Ebert's interviews with him. They're terrific, and the sort of interview you just can't find anymore in Hollywood, which has gone and packaged up all of its stars into neat little packages. Also, I enjoyed Mitchum in Out of the Past a few years back, which was a noir film I got to see on the big screen courtesy of the now-vanished Lark Theater in Larkspur, CA.
²With the rare exception of getting Fred MacMurray. If you've never seen Double Indemnity, you should.
May 31, 2005
Discussion: Classics You Love and Classics You... Appreciate
Watching them, I felt that Metropolis and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are two films that film buffs really should see, but in this case, my reactions were totally different. With the former, I found a lot to like; I was entranced by the spectacle, I was caught up in the story, I found myself really following what was going on in the emotions that the actors portrayed physically and with their expressions. With Caligari, however, I found myself cut off a bit -- partly because of some of the film-making techniques (especially the close-ups that illuminate only a circle in the center of the screen, Victorian portrait style), partially because of the pacing (which has the glacial pace also found in Lang's M), but largely because the characters seem mere caricatures¹ not enough to carry a whole film but only a short story. That said, the scenery is excellent, the set design is really wild and great and helped to set the tone in an incredible way.
While I was watching each of these, I was trying to think of games that I would recommend people play either to appreciate or to still enjoy. Having recently replayed through most of The Fool's Errand, I can agree with Tea Leaves' assessment -- this is a game that you can still really enjoy, that can still really grab you. That is, if you enjoy puzzles. I feel this way a bit about many of the old LucasArts' titles as well -- I think it's important for developers today to understand that part of our history, and with those games in particular it's not just eating your vegetables. In a lot of cases, the humor still holds up, even though the gameplay seems thin by today's standards.
One of the games that I think is hard to do more than simply appreciate in this day and age is actually Resident Evil, which I played in remake form on the Gamecube. Knowing as a I do how much people appreciate save anywhere these days, I nonetheless think it's worthwhile to know what you sacrifice when players can save anywhere -- and not only does RE have checkpoint saves, but it has
After watching Metropolis and thinking a little bit about the games that are still lovable and those that are to be appreciated, I was reminded of a pair of EGM articles in which they focus-tested classics like the original Zelda or Pac-Man. Really funny reading; but they've clearly taken kids with a lot of exposure to games already².
So, what are the games out there you'd have a hard time recommending, except to gain an appreciation? MAME stuff? Maybe one of the games I've mentioned here? Let's hear 'em.
¹As I write that last bit, I realize that they should be caricatures, given the end of the film. Hrm. Maybe I'm judging it too harshly, but while watching it, I just didn't feel engaged. It actually feels like a much better film now that I reflect upon it, but I couldn't get that while I was actually in the midst of it.
²I sometimes wonder whether my own kids are missing out on something coming to gaming in our era of beautiful graphics. I started out with text adventures played over a 200 baud connection -- the modem was two foam cups into which the phone fitted. It unlocked my imagination and arguably made me a game developer. But all this is a subject for another post.
May 20, 2005
Discussion: Bottle Rocket
Lately, everything is coming up Psychonauts. I've already started thinking about what I want to write about the game, which will probably fill several posts. Before I get started on that, though, let me touch briefly on this early Wes Anderson movie.
I'm actually a fan of Wes Anderson, having seen everything he's done except for his most recent movie, which I think has just recently come out on DVD. Although I wasn't a huge fan of Tenenbaums, I'm generally a fan of his work and Bottle Rocket was no exception.
Bottle Rocket described the interaction between a few slightly off-kilter characters in their quest to become genuine heist-pullers¹. Their leader is Dignan, a young man with a dream and no sense of reality. Like many of Anderson's movies, it's a difficult movie to describe and in some ways hard to recommend to anyone but your equally off-kilter friends. I really liked it.
I guess what I'm noticing at the moment is that I'm drawn to the quirky these days. While I can appreciate the fun of a lot of different games, the ones that really draw me in are the ones that aren't necessarily the big sellers (though to be fair, some of them are).
The latest and greatest case in point is Psychonauts. As I mentioned, I'm going to be writing this up quite a bit more, but I want to go ahead and say to everyone: Get out there and buy this game! It deserves your support, not only because it's different, but because it's great!
This isn't like one of those quirky movies that I think would be good for more people to see -- it's a great game that people claim they've been crying for. "Oh, it's all licenses and sequels, yawn", and yet, the sequel to the execrable Champions of Norrath sold about as many copies last month, and that was a game that ranked more than 10% lower than the 90%-ranked Psychonauts and came out four months ago².
I've been playing Tim Schafer's games for as long as he's been making them. I can only hope that, like Wes Anderson, he'll get to keep doing them. You can help! Please help!
¹Side note: this is exactly the sort of fake hyphenated word which you can create in English and makes sense, but which I expect has an actual term in German.
²Yes, I have used nearly every form of emphasis in this post.
May 04, 2005
Discussion: Sin City
I was actually pretty excited about Sin City, but when I actually sat down to watch it, I found it insipid and weak. Basically, my thoughts about this movie were similar to my thoughts on Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. It was so stylized that any bit of interesting content had more or less been polished away. It was entirely about image.
I've read that Rodriguez borrowed so heavily from Frank Miller's comic books in terms of framing and shot selection that he gave Miller attribution as co-director (and even left the Director's Guild over their refusal to recognize Miller as co-director). For me, most of what really annoyed me about the movie was how much it looked like the director had taken a panel by panel approach to directing a comic book -- but the intervening film frames didn't work cohesively with that. It was a little bit like watching the first Spiderman movie in that respect, where he would be fighting and you'd have these great iconic poses, and then a bunch of what looked like backyard wrestling¹.
What's interesting to me about this is how I feel like I can respond, internally, to Roger Ebert's remarks about the movie, which he gave four stars. When he says, "This isn't an adaptation of a comic book, it's like a comic book brought to life and pumped with steroids," I feel like I can respond, "Yes, it's so pumped with steroids it hardly feels like it can move at all. The movie feels like it's about to have a heart attack."
I rarely feel this way about game criticism; at least, not the mainstream game criticism that would be akin to Roger Ebert, with his television show and his large weekly readership. Take Grand Theft Auto III, a game which I didn't particularly enjoy. Then read the reviews; I took Gamespot as an example, which gave the game an equivalent of four stars, 9.6 out of 10².
I'm not going to quote line after line, but basically the format is this; I re-read the review before posting to make sure my recollections were correct. There are two types of paragraph in the review.
- "Feature X is really fun." Facts about Feature X.
- Facts about Feature Y or Outline of Story Element Z (really just facts in a different form, yet without the cursory topic sentence).
There's so little to work with here. You can say, "I didn't find that fun" but other than that, there's no dialog at all.
There's been a bit of talk lately about the New Game Journalism. The problem I find with New Game Journalism is that we don't really have any old-fashioned criticism to stack it up against. I rather like reading some of this new stuff, but without the good old-fashioned sort of criticism it falls a little flat for me. It's like a conversation between an avant-gardist and a bicycle pump; entertaining for a little while, but a bit one-sided.
One thing that I found really positive about Sin City is the look, which for the most part I found very captivating³, and almost enough to carry the movie on its own terms. It reminded me a lot of Sky Captain in its attention to a certain type of aesthetic, this time inspired by the two-color comic books from which it came.
I had been beginning to get a little disappointed with the "realistic look" games are having all around us these days. After a superbly charming Wind Waker aesthetic, the fine folks at Zelda HQ are turning around and giving us their realistic look. Prince of Persia took a wonderfully fantastic look and then drenched it in black and brown, making it look more like Quake and at the same time draining out a lot of the visual life I loved so much in The Sands of Time.
But then, just when I'm getting all disappointed in how games seem to be visually normalizing to a bleak, boring universe, along comes Psychonauts!, which breathes new life into character and level aesthetics. There are some folks who aren't afraid to have asymmetric characters nor to use the whole color palette!
I'd love to see more of this. In an industry which can bring to life our wildest dreams, why do we limit ourselves increasingly to nightmares?
¹For the perfect example, watch the scene where he fights the Goblin on the balcony. Note too, of course, that the scenes in which he actually is more or less acting as a backyard wrestler are more or less exempt from this criticism.
²Which, don't get me started. Film criticism's 7 or 8 distinctions about how good a movie is are more than enough. Can the average player distinguish between a 9.6 game and a 9.7 game? If not, what's the value in that? I've always preferred OPM's five discs. It's great, it's good, or it's not really worth your trouble.
³One thing I didn't care for was the portrayal of blood spatters, which looked a lot like paintball paint to me, or perhaps latex paint. It was everywhere, in great globs that just didn't look right. It may be accurate to the comic book, but it felt really jarring with the rest of the hard-boiled visual style.
April 20, 2005
Discussion: Porco Rosso
Although I think it's no where near as good as Spirited Away or Totoro or even Kiki, I nonetheless thoroughly enjoyed Porco Rosso, which is one of Miyazaki's earlier films. It has that same slightly askew look on life of all Miyazaki's work -- ensconced in marvelously beautiful scenes and settings. This time, we are in a sun-drenched Mediterranean, in the 1930s, and we're in a sort of parallel universe where there are a huge number of barnstorming planes flying around the sea, with air pirates and a huge Italian air police force.
Did I mention the main character is a humanoid pig? Ah, only from the mind of Miyazaki.
The thing I most thought of while watching this was how much I'd like to go back and play Crimson Skies, probably on the Xbox¹. The PC version had a ton of charm, and since I did a couple of space/flight action games for LucasArts a few years back, I've played a few of these. I played only a few missions on the PC², and loved the atmosphere, the alternate universe... the swashbuckling feel of the game.
It's really rare that I watch a movie and think of a specific game that I ought to go out and play afterwards (licensed games excepted), so I feel practically obligated to do so. Of course, many of the movies I watch don't have a clear game that's related to them, but I guess that's what I get a chance to lament about here in the blog ;)
Anyone else out there in the ether have a game that a movie inspired them to play -- assuming it's not the game based on the movie?
¹It's worth noting that I think the critical mass is there now where I feel like I've got to get an Xbox. Psychonauts put it over the top for me this week, with Jade Empire pushing me up the hill last week. Not that I remotely have time for another console in my life.
²Via a borrowed copy that I felt I should return, since I was already starting to crunch on SWRC.
April 18, 2005
Discussion: The Devil's Backbone
After I saw Hellboy last year and enjoyed it so much, a friend recommended Guillermo Del Toro's earlier work, The Devil's Backbone. I didn't really know what the movie was about, except that it had some crazy looking cover, and I was really pleasantly surprised -- it's a great ghost story, not at all what I was expecting.
The movie is about secrets, as many ghost stories are. After all, what keeps ghosts behind but secrets about how they died? Along comes a hero, and that hero figures out the story behind the ghost, and everything turns out okay. In fact, one of the more popular ghost stories to make it into the movies in recent times -- The Ring -- plays on our expectations that once the secrets are known, the story is over; then it turns that expectation on its head¹.
One thing that struck me while watching is that the effect that a two hour movie can achieve with a single ghost. Games throw tons and tons of things at us, repetitively, and obsessively, but ghost and horror stories just tease us with a single or a few elements.
I'm certainly not saying games are bad in this respect, just different. After all, Resident Evil's hooks were in me long before Lisa showed up -- and then they bit in and really drew blood. Lisa anchored the story in a sudden and clear way; before her appearance the game was starting to drift a bit, it felt ungrounded².
But I'm wondering what kind of game could be made with a single, compelling otherworldly character.
The closest game I can think of that I've played in recent memory didn't set that character as the antagonist at all. Ico worked for me largely because I was compelled to protect Yorda due to how well she was characterized. There were lots of enemies around that I had to protect her from, but I think they were unnecessary. For me, the experience would have been complete if I could have scared them off merely by my presence, if just being near her could save her -- I found the combat rather uninteresting. The management of the distance between me and Yorda would have been that much more tight. It could have sustained me throughout a game of Ico's length, with its lush, oil-painterly settings and exploration. It would have been even more pure, and probably would have sold even fewer copies.
Experimentation to see what can be achieved along these lines is expensive, though. One of the things I've been thinking about lately is how much the expense of everything is holding us back, in certain ways.
For example, there was a recent discussion of MMO 'permadeath' online -- I only read the blurb that showed up in the RSS feed of slashdot games, not the whole article, I just haven't got around to it yet³. And I was thinking that it would be a really cool experiment to see what developed in that space; after all, you can create new things sometimes by taking away, and who knows what might develop? I can imagine an economy of resurrection developing, with priests wielding huge power which might drive politics in the game.
It's interesting to me that one of the few places outside of games I've encountered MMOs -- in a description in Tad Williams' Otherland series4 -- involved a boy who had built up a true hero inside the game he played, a graphics extravaganza set in a fairly traditional fantasy space. The boy got distracted while playing for a moment, and the game killed him, and that was the end of Thorgar or whatever his name was, and it rocked the world.
Our MMOs don't have heroes like that. It's like Brad Bird's message in The Incredibles: if everyone is special, no one is. If everyone can be 60th level just by putting in the time, where are the heroes?
Well, I've ranged from ghost stories and survival horror, to MMOs, 3200 page behemoth fantasy fiction, and Pixar now. Time for bed. I'll be coming back to these issues again, though. They're still rattling around.
¹To good effect. I didn't care for The Ring overall, but I really liked the ending, from the bits when they were in the well until the denouement.
²There was also a glorious scare moment when Lisa first appeared of "wtf was that?" with which I regaled Nathan, who had recommended the game to me. It got me good and gave me an appreciation for what the genre could do. I don't think I've ever had moments of sheer terror from movies (since I was young that is), like I had at certain spots of RE. Movies have worn out the capability to really scare me; they telegraph everything too much these days.
³There is so much stuff I want to do in a given day, and I end up getting only to some of it. For example, I'm reading The Fortress of Solitude right now, and I keep trying to get in at least half an hour a day, but even that's not really enough, I'd like it to be an hour. So there goes an hour, and things like articles referenced from slashdot just have to wait.
4Yes, Mom & Dad, I still read popcorn science fiction and fantasy every now and again...
April 16, 2005
Elephant was extraordinarily compelling to me, while at the same time so horrible to contemplate. An ordinary day in an ordinary school, with a tension so thick in the viewer that you feel like something might just snap, because Elephant is a fictionalization of Columbine.
Van Sant, the writer-director, makes some interesting choices. The kids he employs as actors are all unknowns, and they all portray kids with their own names. They seem like ordinary kids, even those who portray the analogues to Harris and Klebold. They all look wonderfully alive, just doing the things that kids do.
When it came right down to it, the most significant exception I could take with the movie was the portrayal of the videogame they liked to play. You'll have to see the movie for yourself to see the blandness of what they were playing -- there was apparently no game there at all, just an endless succession of people walking across a blank space, who you could kill with different weapons. If these were the games we had available to us, we wouldn't play any more¹.
It's not to say that Van Sant blames the games at all, not really. Van Sant has said that if you do anything obsessively, it's bound to influence your behavior, even if it's something apparently simple like solitaire. But he hasn't, to my knowledge, tried to draw a causal link between the games they played and the killings.
Although I think the title is supposed to refer to the parable of the blind men and the elephant², I kept thinking about it as "the elephant in the room". I don't believe that videogames cause real-world violence; but to me, the fact that so many people apparently do is the elephant in the room. I'm not sure how we'll ever connect with those people, and I think there's quite a lot of them.
The other thing it got me thinking about was a GamaSutra question of the week which asked whether game developers have a moral obligation to teach values in their games.
My answer is no, of course, it has to be no. I believe in a fair amount of freedom in this regard, just as I believe in the freedom of the first amendment. I was surprised, actually, just glancing over the responses³ how many came in for and against -- they had plenty of people saying we have a moral responsibility.
What I will say, however, is that I think it might be to the moral benefit of game developers to examine the issue closely, to examine how we present moral choices in the games we make. In a lot of cases, it might be to benefit of the games as well. I'm not advocating for game developers to push a particular morality on me, but I wouldn't mind seeing games which present moral quandaries. Games where the designers have spent significant time thinking about those quandaries themselves will likely present them in the most interesting ways, and thus, likely be of moral benefit to the developers who spend time pondering them.
I came across one such issue in Neverwinter Nights: a woman gave me a quest to find out what had happened to her daughter or something. While I don't remember the specifics of the quest, what I remember is coming back to that woman and having the option to tell the truth about the grisly death of her daughter, even though it might be extremely harmful to her, or to lie to her and tell her that her daughter had gone far far away, but that she was alive and well.
I had to stop and think a moment: would I rather someone lied to me, if I had no way to verify the truth? Would I rather believe a falsehood and be happy, or to live with the truth, which was horrible?
I chose to tell her the truth; I figured that we can believe what we want to believe even in the face of the truth, and she could still believe a lie if she preferred, but that I took away her moral agency in lying to her. It wasn't a huge moral quandary, but it did make me stop and think for a moment, and I appreciated that. It's a rare thing, and I hope the designer responsible for that felt some pride at the moral quandary he presented, at least, to me. It happens too rarely.
Of course, the nice thing about video games is that you can go back to a save point a few minutes back and find out what happens if you make a different choice. So I did.
¹I looked into this a bit, btw. Van Sant was going to use Doom but couldn't get the rights to use it, though he didn't say why in the interview I consulted. If it's because id blocked him, I can both understand why they might not want to and still feel a little disappointed in them.
²Each man feels a different part of the elephant and thus each comes up with a different explanation of what they're finding.
³I'm holding off reading them until I've finished this entry.
April 13, 2005
Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru, which roughly translates as "To Live", is a wonderful movie about a man who discovers he has cancer and makes a great effort to overcome the bureaucracy in which he serves by any means that he can and do something good for the world in the time he has left. He determines to build a playground, to bring the civil service to bear on converting a flooded area in the midst of a working-class neighborhood into an area with grass, swingsets, and monkey bars. It's a humble little story, which reminds me in its scope a little of something like The Bicycle Thief.
Unlike other simple tales, this one is told in a really interesting way, which is primarily what concerns me here. At the beginning, Watanabe learns that he is ill¹, and it causes him to stop and take stock. He tries to tell his son, but he cannot; he and his son do not have a relationship in which such sharing is possible. He would tell his wife, and perhaps does -- he spends time burning incense before her shrine, for he is a widower.
Then, after a chance encounter with a young woman from his office whom he previously considered brash, he latches on to her, trying to get at the heart of what makes her so joyously alive. When he was her boss, he found her a nuisance -- always laughing and carrying on, telling slightly off-color jokes and never taking anything very seriously. Now that he is dying, he has a desperate wish to live a little, but he doesn't know how, and he spends time in her company just trying to understand how.
When finally she tires of him, he is crushed, he finally returns to work, and we assume he will just go on plodding until he keels over at his desk. But suddenly, he gets a fire in his eyes and we soon know what he plans.
It is at this point that Kurosawa does something remarkable -- he moves ahead in time to the funeral of this man, where people reminisce about what happened next. We get a fractured series of flashbacks which collapse the remaining months of Watanabe's life. In fact, we only see how he lived through the lens of his death, and the effect he had on people around him. The effect is initially jarring, but it so perfectly fits the film, the culture, and solves a technical problem for Kurosawa: how to present six months of what would mostly be drudgery in a quick way that nonetheless conveys an essential thread, and doesn't even feel all that fractured². We immediately adjust to how the story is now being told, after a momentary confusion about where the film will go next, now that our protagonist is dead.
It's a profound way of telling a story, and upon reflection, it made me think that something like this should appear in a game. It sort of has, already, and there may be games of which I'm unaware that employ such a strategy -- if there are, please educate me. It makes me think most of the structure of the story of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time which was so enormously charming. But that wasn't quite exactly it -- there was simply a wonderfully ornate frame around a more conventional story in PoP.
We constantly play games in which we move in time in leaps and jumps; why not a story in which we know the outcome and yet are driven to play the good bits by the formal structure of the story? I don't want to play Ikiru's story, per se. I just think that this sort of storytelling is entirely possible in our medium and would address certain problems that we encounter or might encounter.
The other thing it reminded me was of my idea for how to present save games. Many years ago, there was a radio program named Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. Dollar was an insurance investigator who tracked down thefts and such. What was interesting was that the story was constantly moved forward by entries in his expense account. It might go something like this:
Dollar: Entry #5: 50¢, for a cup of coffee.
Joe Blow looked ragged when I met him at the Ten-Spot Café on the corner of Five and Dime. I knew he knew something, so I came right to the point.
In other words, the story was constantly helped along by setting the stage for what was going to happen next with entries from Dollar's final report. It was simple and completely effective, and it kept you up to date if you happened to miss the 15 minutes the night before. (In the interests of full disclosure, I wasn't alive when this was on the radio, and I've only heard complete episodes strung together. But I can still appreciate the format and what it allowed them to do.)
One problem I'd love to see solved with something like this would be keeping me up-to-date on my games. You see, it often takes me months to get all the way through a game -- I have a lot of other interests³ and I have kids, and a long commute, etc. So, it's not uncommon for me to come back to a game having not picked it up in a while and say, "What the hell was I doing?" At times like this I may stumble for a while, or I may simply hit GameFAQs and skim until I find something more familiar.
What I'd really love is for a game to load up and then, if I haven't played in a while, find an in-context mechanism to remind me what I was doing. "I checked the local newspaper -- but there weren't any messages in the personals for me. Looks like I'm on my own to find the kingpin. Damn." or "My dreams were feverish, an image of the hilt of my sword glowing with a hunger for the blood of the Xvarts. I must find that tribe and eliminate each of them for what they did to my..."
I'm a part of the audience that is getting older. I have other things I want from games, but some simple things could make my experience much more enjoyable, and hopefully, by extension, make it easier for people who don't have tons of time to devote to it to enjoy some of our games.
¹It's more accurate to say that he deduces it from the specific form of the misinformation that he's given. It's a strange little scene that can't really be adequately explained. Apparently it is rude in Japan to tell someone that they are dying.
²The man was a master. I knew this. But I've seen several of his films over the past year and I've gone and added several more to my queue on the basis of this latest one.
³Including spending an hour a few times a week writing in this blog...
April 10, 2005
Discussion: American Splendors
When I read the American Splendor anthology, I found myself getting thoroughly curious about the film version. After all, here was a collection of what? vignettes? short fiction? ruminations? from a single author and a hodge-podge of illustrators. The stories, such as they are, are remarkably episodic, not really lending themselves to a particular logical thread from which a movie could be constructed. So I moved the movie up near the top of the queue and popped it in the day it arrived.
"Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff", says Harvey as he excitedly describes his ideas for a comic book to his friend R. Crumb, progenitor of the underground comix movement which started in the 70s. And so it is. From the moment I read the first story in the anthology, in which Harvey discusses his discovery of a second and then a third "Harvey Pekar" in the Cleveland phone book, I was hooked. Here was a guy who was taking ordinary events and presenting himself as a character, fairly wide open for everyone to see.
The film is no less interesting. Harvey Pekar himself appears in it, as narrator and as a subject of interviews, and of archival footage¹. We're introduced to some of his "characters," who are real people -- the portrayal of Toby in the comics and on-screen seems too strange to be true, until the real Toby is introduced discussing the categories of "genuine Jelly Bellies" and we realize that art is no match for life where strangeness is concerned.
The movie, the comic, both are uncategorifiable. Both are biographical, sure, but not really biography or autobiography. They have a sense of real-time flow about them -- even when events from the 70s are juxtaposed with events from the 90s. Like life, these are pretty complex works.
Yes, life is pretty complex; lately I feel more and more like videogames can't capture that, and yet, I want them to, I want this entertainment that I love to have a deeper dimension. I want games, in all their seriousness, their serious play², to evolve into something that can teach me more than the muscle memorization needed to beat the Emperor Ing in the Sky Temple in Metroid Prime: Echoes³.
It's like when I was young and read tons of science fiction and fantasy books, and then grew up and now read classics and literary fiction, I want that next step to come from my games, but I just don't feel that level of complexity coming.
Sure, I think that part of it is that our industry is young. But movies were tackling difficult subjects almost straight off the bat, once all the "look, we can watch someone sneeze" experimentation was done with. In our era of more, better, faster, you'd think we'd get to more interesting, better investigation, faster than other industries that have preceded us.
I wonder sometimes if the paucity of ponderance of real and interesting questions is due to the very nature of our medium. Our strength is our interactivity -- it's what distinguishes us. But it's also a tough weakness, because something that can deliver a powerful experience in our medium demands someone capable of participating in or even generating a powerful experience.
I don't know what to do about it -- you can't come here and expect answers to all of life's persistent questions -- but when I think about the power of these other media to involve me and make me grow, and contrast that with a medium in which I am even more actively taking part, I end up thinking that games should be able to deliver far more than they are. I came into this industry thinking about how important it was to be a part of the beginnings of this exciting new medium, to help explore its potential. I'm seven years in and haven't really had that opportunity. I've been playing even longer -- and the games, with a few exceptions, aren't hugely different from what I played on the Apple II and early PCs, though they are definitely prettier.
I don't want to sit and bemoan our industry; far from it, as I still take a lot of pleasure from it, and I don't think it has to be defended as an art form -- it already is. I also think there are a lot of factors here. After all, anyone who can afford a couple of legal pads and a pen can write a novel. It doesn't cost that much to get into film anymore. Even a person who can't draw can manage to produce a series of comic books, as Pekar demonstrates (and incidentally, as he inspires me to do). But game development at high production quality is "pretty complex stuff" too -- and expensive as all hell.
Modding starts to address this question. So does The Sims (hey, google "Sims Stories" and you'll see what I mean). I can tell from reading a few of these that they are important to the people who are writing them, that they have a lot invested. And so, maybe there's some potential there. In the case of modding, though, there's a huge bar for entry -- technical know-how, ability to glean what you need from the web, tools that don't often work as advertised. And in The Sims it's clear that the depth of interaction is pretty limited -- what they've decided to model and not model implicitly places limitations on the play space. I don't want to spend time making sure they get to the bathroom and don't set their houses on fire. (Aside from people like A. M. Holmes and Michel Houellebecq, you're not likely to find much of that in "serious" literature.)
This post has probably gone on long enough, and yet I'm still nowhere near knowing what to do about this; in fact, I'm finding myself thinking about all sorts of other things with regards to this issue. (E.g., in role-playing games we are sometimes able to involve players in more powerful stories -- but at the cost of interactivity, and through the medium of film -- what to do about that? If we treat games only as wish-fulfillment, can they ever be a medium for growth? Should I go out and hustle up a copy of the Sims, even though I have concerns about all this other stuff?) So, I'll leave it for now, and I'll be coming back to it. After all, I love this medium.
¹Indeed, the film contains a masterstroke moment of film-making in which Paul Giamatti (as Harvey) leaves the backstage ready room of Late Night with David Letterman. The camera tracks what we figure to be his movement, mostly tracking across a blank wall, until it catches the TV monitor in the corner of the room... where Harvey Pekar walks out. If the rest of the movie had been bad (and it wasn't), it thorougly would have been redeemed by this one moment.
²Thank you, Daniel Hillis, for your impassioned speech at GDC on our behalf a few years ago.
³For non-gamers -- yes, that's a real example from a real game. And yes, I feel a little ridiculous describing it.
April 09, 2005
Discussion: Stalag 17
Stalag 17 is a really interesting movie: the protagonist is actually not all that likeable, though we come to identify with him a bit when he is wrongly accused of spying for the Germans in the World War II prison camp that is the film's setting¹.
William Holden's character, Sargent Sefton, is constantly on the make. He's like the titular character in King Rat, always looking for advantage, trying to make his stay in a prison camp a bit more comfortable. The other men hate him for it. We get to dislike him early on, too: in the first scene, he bets against two men who are trying to escape, taking cigarettes from all the men in the barracks. When the machine gunfire starts, and then is silenced, we wish for him to give them back, to forgive the bets. But he sticks to his guns.
Escape from World War II POW camps (or things like WWII POW camps) have been covered before in the videogame medium. But something like what goes on throughout this movie, the maneuvering and posturing, the trying to figure out who's the bad guy -- well, that really hasn't. I hope that there was a little something like that in The Thing, but I don't remember anything from the reviews -- if anyone can help out with a little factual checking on that, I'd love to know.
Lately, writing and thinking about videogames, I feel like I should go back and pick up a copy of The Sims, since it seems like these sorts of things would be something you could explore inside of that game. But I really just want to explore social aspects of interaction under extreme circumstances -- I don't want to babysit Sims filling their needs going to the bathroom and playing pinball. Interpersonal interaction is the subject of some pretty great fiction and film -- why don't we ever see it in games? Too boring? Medium too likely to sink into the uncanny valley when portraying that? Lack of cojones on the parts of big publishers?
I don't have any obvious answers. I've seen pastiches of it used as a means to an end -- for example, how you stand with regards to factions in the Mercenaries game published by my former employer. In some role-playing games, the choices you make may prune or expand dialog trees later on, or change the endings you might see. But there's such a richness of material here and we've barely touched on it, or used it so lightly that it is meaningless.
Stalag 17 presents some conundrums to me as a game developer, questions I'm going to keep thinking about: Can we make a game in which we control a character who we dislike but can come to understand and maybe have a little grudging respect for?² Can we explore the complexities of interpersonal interaction and make it interesting and fun -- even if that means it's to a different market than our usual hardcore fans?
¹It's interesting to note that this movie was the basis for the later television series Hogan's Heroes, and we can definitely see that in the juxtaposition of some humor with the more common concerns of captured soldiers, food, adequate shelter, and also the escapes and escape attempts (when something is really on the line). Of course, there's also Sargent Shulz.
²Know any? I'm interested to hear about games that do this, especially if it was intentional.
March 28, 2005
Discussion: Band of Brothers
Band of Brothers is a fantastic miniseries about the real soldiers who made up the 101st Airborne, who got dumped all over Normandy on D-Day, who fought the Battle of the Bulge, who took Hitler's Eagle's Nest. These were extraordinary men. This is an extraordinary series. But then, you probably already know that, since I'm probably among the last of the folks my age who hadn't yet seen it. Karen and I started watching it while we still lived in California, and finished up a few weeks ago.
Band of Brothers gave me a new appreciation for just how horrible war is. It's something I think we tend to forget as we storm the beaches again and again and again in games like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor.
The thing is, I'd like to have a better understanding of the sacrifices of these extraordinary (and at the same time, ordinary) men; I'd like to know and understand the bond they feel for one another. I'd like the games I play to be less a reflection of the television shows and movies, and more an investigation into the deep, scarring, and yes, even exhilarating emotions of real combat.
It's not that it doesn't happen at all. There was a moment in Call of Duty, near the beginning, where I was pouring through a French village, fighting off German soldiers coming from what felt like all sides. My whole unit pushed forward, and I ducked into some sort of shed or something, with a window. I was taking my bearings, preparing to dash out again, when a head popped up in the window -- and so, I shot it. For a short moment, I was genuinely pained, for the face that popped up in that window was one of my own mates; I had shot one of my own men, hitting him before the green text that identified him as friendly faded in. And then, he popped up again and moved on.
For that one moment, before the illusion was shattered, I felt the tiniest fraction of emotions that men in combat must have felt every day, maybe every hour or minute at times. It was frightening, compelling, overwhelming, and it was exactly what I wanted from the game. The rest of it I could have done without, really, most of it has completely faded away -- if not for the historical grounding of the game, I'd have forgotten it altogether, except for that one moment.
It's not the only time I've ever had that sort of connection with a game, that brief glimpse of something better. One other compelling moment was in Baldur's Gate, five years ago or so. I was moving along the main story arc and there was some side quest to get some artifact¹ or other from this bear cave. The bear cave was situated behind a tribe of Xvarts², and I started moving up through them to get what I wanted. Naturally, this caused them all to turn on me, to mob after my little band of four or five, and we started in to slaughter.
That's when one of them, perhaps the chieftain, cried out, "Why do you come and kill us? How have we harmed you?" or something similar.
Something about the timing and writing totally hit home with me (not enough to make me remember the line verbatim, but still). Here I was, mass murdering my way through a village of critters that hadn't really done me any harm. And it really bothered me, for a moment, the game paused -- until the gamer took over and I moved on through, looking at it as a barrier and a goal.
What bothered me about it was not so much the killing -- I mean, really, a bunch of blue critters that are composed of only so many bits -- but the fact that I had no other options. I'm pretty sure I had dumped a bunch of points into charisma and the like; I'm one of those rpg weirdos who tries out the boundaries of what your characters can be³. I like to have options. And in this case, I had none. What caused the moment to lose its impact so quickly was that the apparent lack of choice -- spurning side quests is a sure way to end up without the ability to finish the game (which happened to me anyway in that one), and there was simply no other way through.
I guess what I'm getting at is that games are able to provoke in me the strong emotional and moral responses that I'd really like them to provoke -- they are just too rare and entirely too fragile. They happen, there is a moment of real connection, and then they fade away quicker than you can say "blueberry pancakes". Well, not that fast, but pretty fast. Whereas a film or book, where nominally I have even less investment, can pull the strings like crazy.
I'm not sure what to do about this, but I felt like Half-Life 2 was doing a much better job. It's time for me to go back and figure out why, now.
¹No doubt, something really trivial like a +1 sword, which is something you need early on and they make you work for it.
²Yeah, I know. How do you even pronounce that? I think I have to turn in my geek tokens on this one, I had never heard of them, and I played D&D for years.
³A word to the wise: Don't play Neverwinter Nights as a bard unless you also take as your main weapon a one-handed sword or perhaps a mace or dagger, and not a rapier. Trust me.
March 23, 2005
Review: Ed Wood
There are two reasons to see Ed Wood, and three if you're generally a fan of Tim Burton. I'm generally a fan, but lately Burton hasn't had a lot to offer me so I haven't been as interested¹. Still, he's in that category of someone whose movies I'm more likely to see than not, because I feel like the auteur of Edward Scissorhands and Pee Wee and Beetle Juice is likely to come up with something I'll enjoy. Big Fish is another I need to see, it's in the queue.
Anyway, other than a Burton fetish, there are two reasons to see Ed Wood. The first of these is the amazingly compelling portrait of Bela Lugosi by Martin Landau, who deservedly won a Best Supporting Actor for his work here. This is a performance of amazing subtlety, and incredibly accurate to at least my memories of Lugosi and his work. He plays this old actor knowingly -- this is an old man who desperately needs attention and money and heroin, and is willing to do whatever he needs to do to get those. Often, I think, he substitutes the heroin for the attention and even adulation he's really seeking. Landau captures all of this, and gives us a picture of what it must be like to be an actor, to be capable of nothing else because acting defines who you are, and to be unable to pursue that any longer, due to age, infirmity, and yes, addiction. He's a needy, greedy, but also sympathetic and likable old man.
The other reason to see this film is for the interplay of the motives of a young man who clearly deeply admires Lugosi and was perhaps even inspired by him, and who also seeks to make films (and therefore money) from exploiting this very same man. That sounds more callous, I think, than it really appears on screen, but it's clearly there, it's clearly an undertone. Even as Wood films Lugosi for the last time, you feel both halves of this -- Wood is simultaneously exultant that he is able to provide this final adulation for the old man, and already thinking of what he can do with the footage. The man's body is barely cold before he's planning "Bela Lugosi's last picture" -- and we know at the same time that his passing is difficult for Wood.
It's a complex relationship, and really compelling to watch. But it leads me to the single one thing that makes me reluctant to recommend this movie: the sheer goofiness of Ed Wood, Jr.
I don't know a thing about Ed Wood that I didn't see in this movie. I suspect that it's a rare moviegoer who knew all that much about him before the movie was made. So why, why must he be so true to his original character -- he was simply too goofy to be believed, so I have to assume that this was how the man actually was. I came away thinking I was watching (at least in part) a Burton fairy tale, which didn't fit with the rest of the film, the more compelling bits. It left me puzzled at the choices Burton had made in making the film. It left me a bit soured.
Overall, I'd give it a cautious recommendation. The bits that are good are really, really good -- the flaws, however, are with the main character, which are naturally pervasive.
**½ (out of four)
¹I mean, Planet of the Apes. Good God. What was he thinking?
March 14, 2005
Review: Ripley's Game
I watched Ripley's Game a little over a week ago; I was piqued in interest by Roger Ebert's answer to a Movie Answer man question about a year ago.
Now, I've only read one of the Ripley books, the first -- and I thoroughly loved it. I also could see a lot in the portrayal by John Malkovich -- though Matt Damon's rather featureless approach to the role seemed much better suited to the actual character when he played opposite Jude Law and Gwynneth Paltrow a few years back¹. While the other film featured a delicate counterpoint of the sun-washed life of Ripley's victim and the dreary gray life of Ripley himself, this film offers no such interesting contrasts, visually speaking. Malkovich plays the character in an understated way -- this is appropriate -- but you don't feel the seething otherness which seeks out the light as I did with Damon's portrayal.
The film gets off to a very good start, however. A secretly dying man who insults Ripley (in an well-filmed and awkward scene in the man's home) is set up by Ripley to become a murderer for hire. An extreme scenario, to be sure, but not entirely unbelievable here, knowing what we know about the perversions of Ripley's character, the way he can be slighted by a word and wreak his vengeance. Ripley manipulates him well, plays off on his fears for what he leaves behind for his family, and all behind intermediaries, only to show up at the scene of a murder. This introductory first half really captures the soul of the film, and I was really excited for the second half.
The last half, however, doesn't fare nearly so well. It becomes a sort of action pic, though still a bit understated. Ripley and the man, now somewhat friendly, perhaps due to an understanding each now has of the other, prepare to fend off an attack from Russian mobsters. It is itself a bizarre counterpoint to the earlier insinuations and manipulations of Ripley's character -- and even if it's true to the original novel², it jars here, and grates on the nerves. Why the sudden testosterone? Is it there just to drive us to the simple finale? If so, it didn't work for me. I was puzzled -- I wanted more of the first half of the movie, not this guileless simple plot.
The first half of the film left me expecting a lot more from the second half -- and the second half failed to deliver. I can appreciate the structure of the film, but it was hard to be enthralled by it. I almost wished the film had simply ended shortly after Ripley appeared on the train -- just before he told his "victim" why he had done what he had. With Ripley, the mystery and otherness is always better. Keeping us guessing is what keeps him interesting.
**½ (out of four)
¹In fact, if you want to see a better film with both of them than Sky Captain, this is it.
²I've no idea; I've always wanted to read the others but haven't yet got round to it.
February 24, 2005
Review: The Man Who Laughs
Warning: review of a silent film ahead!
The Man Who Laughs is a really terrific film, almost entirely because of the performance of the starring actor, Conrad Veidt. The film, based on a novel by Victor Hugo, is a pretty predictable affair -- you don't go into this one for the plot, which is Dickensian¹ in scope.
Just to give you a brief taste of it, the story basically tells us about the young heir to a peerage who is kidnapped by King James the Second and given to a group of gypsies via his jester (who has the unlikely name of Barkilphedro). In any case, a gypsy surgeon alters the boy in some way, producing on him a mouth that is impossible to close, leaving him constantly grinning. He makes his way from the coast where he is abandoned by the gypsies, finds a baby en route, and ends up at a "philosopher's" hovel. The philosopher, Ursus, takes him in and raises both children.
We move forward into Elizabeth's reign. Barkilphedro is still around, the Duchy owed to the young man Gwynplaine is in the hands of a pretty young woman, and Gwynplaine and the infant girl Dea (blind since birth) have grown. Gwynplaine acts in plays written by Ursus -- but mostly, he acts as an attraction much in the way freak shows did. He is "The Man Who Laughs", owing to his disfigurement.
We know where all of this is going, for the most part. Gwynplaine will come under some sort of temptation, will find his love to be true, may or may not regain his place in society, Barkilphedro will get his, all of this is known by anyone who has ever read anything from this era. Part Pagliacci, part Great Expectations.
What is truly extraordinary is Veidt's performance. I was completely taken in by his amazing grimace². At a few points in the film, I even slowed down the playback, single-framing it to see if I could count how many teeth were exposed -- 12 on the top. If you take your fingers and draw your lips back far enough to be able to see 12 teeth up there, you'll know what kind of pain Veidt must have been in to put forth this performance. I'm sure his face was contorted via some sort of metal contraption, like Lon Chaney used in The Phantom of the Opera, but the amount of expression Veidt nonetheless manages to convey with eyes and manner is simply awe-inspiring.
He has several nervous tics, befitting his character -- the most significant is to constantly bring his hand or arm up near his mouth, to cover it a bit or entirely, like a man who lives constantly in shame for what he is. Although I frequently wondered if someone with his mouth constantly open could have survived childhood in the 17th century, I was willing to suspend disbelief if only to fully enjoy Veidt's performance.
There are other items of interest here as well, things that I was surprised to see. The first was a very short bit of nudity -- the usurping Duchess' posterior was briefly revealed as she rose from her bath. I thoroughly didn't expect that -- but of course, it wasn't really until the 1950s that a prudish eye was turned towards American cinema. Another is the striking number of seriously ugly actors -- almost every supporting character is fairly hideous, with enormous noses, weak chins, frazzled hair, dirt, and every other kind of blemish one could imagine. Having been raised on Hollywood's reality, it was really something to see a time when not every woman on camera was a starlet, when not every man looked like someone who might someday be a leading man -- sure, that's an oversimplification, but you know what I mean.
If you like silent films and haven't seen this, you should³. If you love great performances of subtlety and grace, Veidt's is one to watch. Ignore the flaws (for example, the almost graceless portrayal of a blind woman, for which I blame both Mary Philbin and the director), and concentrate on what this man could achieve without speech. It's something to behold.
***½ (out of four)
A little note about how I happened upon this film: I added this to the queue based on Roger Ebert's Great Movies review. I don't remember now what he had to say about it; there are probably bits of film history and stuff that I don't recall from it. I don't always agree with Ebert (see my review of Sky Captain and contrast it with his), but everyone's got to have a starting point.
²It suddenly occurs to me that Veidt may have been the prototype for The Joker. I'm actually kind of curious to watch the first Batman movie again to see if Nicholson was aware of this film.
³Don't let Netflix' poor description fool you -- this is not a horror movie in the slightest.
February 22, 2005
Review: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
I was really looking forward to seeing Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow in the theaters several months ago when it first ran, but with crunch time¹ and general life craziness, I never made it out to the theaters. It's too bad, because this movie would have been very effective on a big screen.
Sky Captain basically tries to answer the question: "How far can a movie composed entirely of archetypal characters go?" The answer: pretty far, as long as the visuals are really strong, but not all the way. Since they're so strong, let's discuss those first.
There's been a lot of talk about the effects for this movie -- with the exception of the characters and items with which they directly interact (primarily hand-held props), the entire film was digitally composited together. It looks fabulous -- there's a level of detail here that really evokes films of the 30s and 40s; not too much detail, but just enough. It reminds me a lot of Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy, which achieved its overall aesthetic vision by using only primary colors and leaving out needless detail². Here the aesthetic is achieved by using a high dynamic range in the lighting -- light is just spilling all over the place, and all of it has been softened, giving the film a beautiful, glowy look.
But that's most of what the film has to offer. The characters are a collection of archetypes -- our intrepid hero, still bearing a bit of feeling for our heroine, the wise-cracking reporter who still has a heart under that exterior. Her editor, the older man who worries for his young charge as a father figure. His sidekick, an engineer who can make all sorts of nifty gadgets. The other love interest, not really enough to provide a foil, but enough to get our heroine looking wistful. Only rarely do these characters let a little bit more shine through -- and those moments are precious. Too precious, because they are simply too few.
The plot -- well, the plot is recycled from any number of science fiction's "Golden Era" novels and comic books, a fact to which they visually allude in any number of instances. It's cute -- up to a point. But after a while I felt like they were just waving the lack of anything significantly new in my face.
Those gripes aside, there's a charm here -- the idea of an enormous rocket ship which nonetheless has an enormous and entirely useless³ statue inside, well, that's just not something you expect to see anymore. It speaks of a bygone era, when the style in which you did something added much to its substance. It would be well had the film listened to the whole of that: this is a film which tries to carry itself entirely on its style, and it's not enough.
**½ (out of four)
¹Soon to bear fruit. SWRC hits shelves late next week, from what I hear.
²E.g. a marquee for a shoe shop simply reads "Shoes". I imagine Dick Tracy drinks "Beer", chews "Gum", and fires a "Pistol".
³Indeed, counterproductive, given its weight...
February 15, 2005
Review: The Castle of Cagliostro
Well, I thought I had seen everything available by Hayao Miyazaki. Sure, I've been waiting for the new release of Nausicaa and the DVD release of Crimson Pig, but those just haven't been easy to come by until now. As it turns out, I actually had seen everything, sort of, except that I sort of hadn't either. Confusing, I know, but bear with me a bit.
The Castle of Cagliostro features an adventure in the life of Lupin the Third, master thief, who was not too long ago making a series appearance on Adult Swim and appeared in a videogame last year. Like the shows, it's basically a heist -- though longer and a bit more involved, and with a sort of love story thrown into the bargain, a damsel in distress, a bit of a twist at the end, and some of Lupin's own history. It's not hugely different from other heist movies, but then, it doesn't have to be and we don't expect it to be.
I sat down to watch the movie after it turned up on Jamie's list of favorites via Netflix. I was intrigued, and I looked into it further -- I'm always on the lookout for some Japanese animation that might not be entirely boring -- and discovered that here was a film by Miyazaki that I'd somehow missed. But in the opening few minutes of the film, I was completely confused -- I had very clearly seen this movie before, with the two main characters vaulting over roadblock sawhorses at the very beginning. It was very, very familiar -- beyond déja vu -- but at the same time I was very certain I hadn't even heard of the film before. And Japanese animation was hard to come by in New Hampshire 25 years ago when this came out originally.
I started the film again, desperate to trigger a memory -- my memory is generally quite good for this sort of thing, and so I was genuinely baffled -- and my fingers started to twitch¹. And then it clicked -- I hadn't seen the movie before, I had played it!
Back in the early 80s, I was a devotee of laser disc games -- I was really intrigued by the great visuals of those games, even if the gameplay itself was thin². There were a few of them that I played, Dragon's Lair, of course, but also Badlands, Space Ace. And of course, Cliff Hanger.
Cliff Hanger turns out to have been bits and pieces cut from this movie. I never made it that far into the game -- I never seemed to have enough quarters, and this one was 50¢ a pop to boot -- so now, 20 years later, I get to see how it all turned out for Cliff. Or Lupin. Whatever.
For those familiar with Miyazaki's work, there's a lot of little nuggets here to be pleased with -- not fully developed yet, to be sure, but there nonetheless. There's the humor and physical comedy, appropriate to both the character and the genre, but also the scenes of serenity and touching sweetness which I think are really Miyazaki's gift and hallmark³. For fans, it's worth seeing just for that. While it certainly doesn't rise to the greatness of some of his later work (especially Totoro and Spirited Away), it is slightly better than others in its genre, and well worth a look for fans of Japanese animation.
*** (out of four)
¹Actually, rather more times than were necessary -- and I thought stretching gameplay was a relatively new phenomenon!
²No thinner, to my mind, than most Contra games, with their maddening memorization of a series of moves which must be exactly executed.
³It's always wonderful to me when my sons can really enjoy a movie like My Neighbor Totoro -- it tells me that they are still quite innocent at heart. They love the original Winnie the Pooh movie, too. I find both of these movies touching, and not in some simple, sickeningly precious sort of way, either.
February 09, 2005
Review: Young Frankenstein
I want to love Young Frankenstein; in fact, I want to love many of Mel Brooks' movies. The idea of films in the manner of celebrated genres that nostalgically use the tropes of vaudeville humor appeals to me.
The problem is, they just don't make me laugh. I mean, I watch one, and I see what's supposed to be funny, but it's just not in me to laugh at it. This reminds me also of movies like Best in Show or A Mighty Wind: intellectually, I'm watching them thinking, "that was actually pretty funny", but I'm not actually laughing.
I mean, take Marty Feldman: one look at the guy, and I should be heaving out great guffaws. He just has that kind of face. Couple that with a roving hunch on his back and some good punchlines, and you'd think I'd be rolling on the floor.
After seeing Gene Wilder the other night in Bonnie & Clyde, I had a hankering for more of Gene Wilder¹. (As it turns out, I got more of two Genes, as Gene Hackman also had a small role in Young Frankenstein.) And while I got some enjoyment out of Gene Wilder as the grandson of the mad Dr. Frankenstein, there were only a couple of places where I even chuckled.
Everything was there -- the timing, the jokes, the off-kilter story -- and yet, it just didn't do it for me. It wasn't bad comedy, it just didn't connect with me.
** (out of four)
¹Call me strange. I don't know why. I just felt like seeing more of Gene Wilder. He has this sort of wide-eyed innocence about him, like he's not sure why misfortune befalls him, and he sort of makes his way through it, befuddled.
February 05, 2005
Review: Bonnie and Clyde
Bonnie and Clyde... were killers! What I thoroughly enjoyed about this movie was the frank way in which the anti-heroes were portrayed. In fact, I daresay that if this movie hadn't been made, a movie like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid couldn't have been made (or at least, not so soon after this one); nor for that matter, could we have had Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, for different reasons entirely.
Bonnie and Clyde came out in 1967, in a year when different sorts of movies were out -- it's good to see this one in context, to understand how different it really was. In the Heat of the Night won Best Picture¹; Newman played in Cool Hand Luke; The Graduate opened to acclaim and launched the career of previously unknown New York stage player, Dustin Hoffman; Spencer Tracy died in June, and with him, a certain kind of movie that Hollywood just can't make any more.
Before this movie, violence wasn't candidly displayed in films, not really. It was in long shots, with flashes indicating gunfire. Or you'd see Cagney with a tommy-gun in his hands, spraying bullets at off-screen assailants. What you absolutely wouldn't see was a man getting shot in the face, his upper body in full frame, blood spurting from his features as he fell off the car he was holding onto -- the Barrow gang's getaway car.
And yet, we still feel a certain kind of empathy for the gang, which is really the film's brilliance; we know they're not latter-day Robin Hoods, but we also know that they live in a time and place of great poverty, brought home by a touching scene near the end of the film when a wounded Bonnie and Clyde are driven through an Okie camp. We feel for Bonnie, who loves Clyde desperately even though he can't achieve intimacy -- a risky role for the handsome young Warren Beatty -- and we feel for Clyde, with his brazenness, his charisma, his foolhardiness and his own errant quest for the American Dream. These are people who looked for the easy way to Easy Street -- and discovered the consequences.
I don't know much about the film's historical accuracy -- except for a few things I took the time to dig up on the internet. In particular, there are a few points in the film where pictures are being taken -- Clyde's brother Buck² has a camera -- which you can actually still find on the 'net today. The few pictures they are shown taking are eerily accurate to the real photos. Also, I know that they died in much the way the picture describes -- itself a very violent series of images.
I really enjoyed this movie, and I'm glad for what it gave to Hollywood, while at the same time sorry a bit for the innocence it took away. The innocence would have faded soon enough, I'm sure, so I guess I'll have to be glad it was this film that hastened it on its way. Better a great film than a poor one.
***½ (out of four)
¹Deservedly -- a great film, holds up pretty well even now.
²Superbly played by Gene Hackman -- himself a virtual unknown before this film.
January 30, 2005
Review: Capturing the Friedmans
In 1988 two men, a father and a son, were accused of and pled guilty to hundreds of counts of very heinous crimes. Both went to prison; one died there, and the other was released quite some time later. These are the facts that we can agree upon; the truth beyond these facts, even as to the guilt of the charged, is unclear.
Capturing the Friedmans is an extraordinary documentary because it seeks to make us challenge our assumptions about what our judicial process can deliver. We come away from the film completely uncertain about anything but the base facts as I've outlined them above. We are uncertain about the people who took and are taking part of this drama -- is Elaine Friedman really the harridan she is made out to be by her sons, or is she perhaps a woman who knows more than she says, or is she a woman who broke under the very real strain of having a husband and son accused of child molestation? Is Dave Friedman a son who was hoodwinked by his belief in his father as a hero, or is he a man who knows the truth and has been doggedly pursuing it these many years? Who was Arnold Friedman? Who is Jesse Freidman, really? Were these men guilty of the crimes to which they pled guilt, or were they targets of mass hysteria¹? These are truths we can't know -- all we can have is the facts as we know them.
I think I've been wrongly calibrated to think of our justice system as being about getting to the bottom of things, getting to the truth of the matter². After all, isn't that what we see week-in, week-out on Law & Order and its various spawn? Sure, Sam Waterston plays all sorts of tricks to win, but don't they ultimately get to the truth? Aren't we surprised on those rare occasions that he is hoodwinked?
It's a sobering thought, to consider that we don't really ever know the truth of the matter when it comes to what went on before the matter came into the courthouse. What goes on in the courthouse we document in myriad ways -- we stenograph, we draw pictures, we can even film in there these days -- but as to what came before, what brought us there, we can't really know. Fiction has told us this -- but isn't documentary about the truth?
The materials that capture this story range from the ordinary and familiar -- photographs, post facto interviews -- to the extraordinary and yet still familiar -- home video captured by the family during the preparation for trial. I don't know that I would want to do that if ever I found myself or my loved ones in this sort of situation; yet, I am glad that this family did.
These are the facts as we know them: In 1988 two men, a father and a son, were accused of and pled guilty to hundreds of counts of very heinous crimes. Both went to prison; one died there, and the other was released quite some time later. I thank Director Andrew Jarecki for reminding me that the rest can only be supposition and guesswork.
***½ (out of four)
¹I admit, I am aware that mass hysteria ruined a few perfectly normal daycare centers in the early 80s, when a rash of concern that satanic rituals were being practiced there overcame common sense and decency. There were a number of people improperly incarcerated in those cases -- this we know.
²Not entirely, I admit. Last year, I watched the documentary Deadline when it aired in its entirety on televison.
January 29, 2005
Review: Nine Queens
Every heist movie has its equivalent to the romantic comedy "meet-cute" -- that moment when a mark meets up with the con man who will be his ultimate undoing. The "meet-cute" here is truly excellent when you first watch it, it completely draws you in and establishes the framework of the movie you think you're about to see. But ultimately unsatisfying when you reflect back on it, having watched the whole film -- the "meet-cute" doesn't seem like it fits anymore. It's as if you suspend belief in one way, when the movie really needs you to have suspended belief in another way, without telling you.
I didn't like that about the movie, but other than that, the tale was well-told. As with any heist movie, you're waiting for the shoe to drop. You're on tenterhooks waiting to see how the mark will be separated from his money; you read more into characters and situations than are there on the screen. It's skillfully done, and no wonder someone wanted to remake it, but it doesn't ascend to Mamet's level of genius.
The performances are very good, at least, in translation. This is an Argentinian film, so I was reading subtitles while watching. Gastón Pauls, a fresh-faced and honest-looking crook, is thoroughly convincing as the apprentice to Ricardo Darín's equally appropriate master con-man. The interplay between the two men is the best part of the film, like a buddy movie but where the buddies don't trust each other at all.
It's rare that a movie can pull the wool over my eyes -- I knew who was Kaiser Sozei in the first fifteen minutes of The Usual Suspects¹ -- but then, I don't think that this was achieved honestly in this case. And that just left a bad taste in my mouth.
**½ (out of four)
¹Admittedly, not by name -- his name wasn't revealed until some time later -- but I knew who was doing all that killing revealed in the opening scenes.
January 26, 2005
Review: Throne of Blood
Over the past few years, the Criterion Collection has been quietly reissuing restored DVDs of (mostly foreign) classics; I had the pleasure of taking in their Rashomon and Ran last year, and I intend to watch Ikiru and Les Enfants du Paradis as well some time this year. The remastering in this case is pretty good -- I imagine it's difficult to find really clean copies of forty-some-odd-year-old movies, so I forgive them the rare stutter or bit of dirt. Overall, it's very clear, and the subtitling is solid.
Now, to the film itself. This is Akira Kurosawa's Macbeth, just as Ran is his King Lear. The staging, cinematography, and overall direction of this black-and-white samurai adaptation is wonderful. Consider in particular the slightly off-kilter filming of a mad Toshiro Mifune when he encounters a ghost. Kurosawa was a master.
All of the elements of Shakespeare's original play are here, though made appropriate to the time and place (and dropping the iambic pentameter, of course¹). I was particularly surprised to see the "moving forest" towards the end of the movie -- the filming here was particularly interesting, allowing us to see through Mifune's restricted viewpoint, before later revealing what's really going on. Terrific stuff.
Mifune's performance is extraordinarily expressive -- he carries himself as we imagine a samurai might, and his face is drawn out in amazing grimaces that make us think of some sort of primitive masks, fierce revelations of his bottom teeth, or long, drawn out snarls. A lot of the filming of his character is at mid- or far- distance, typically taking in more than half of his body, and the way he clearly conveys his emotions in that framing is truly remarkable, and not something you see much in modern Hollywood cinema, with its constant close-ups. You feel his shock when his friend's head is brought to him -- and yet, you still feel the ambiguity that perhaps he knew it was coming. A great, great performance.
Also of special note, though she has relatively few lines, is the portrayal of the Lady Macbeth character by Isuzu Yamada. It's been a long time since I've seen Yojimbo, the only other movie I've seen in which she appears. Here she plays the role very subtly, and yet she really puts across the scheming nature of the character. Even not understanding Japanese, the intonation in her words comes across well, and you feel that she is filled with greed and ambition, but doesn't want to display those emotions to baldly in front of her husband.
All in all, a superb film from a superb director and cast.
**** (out of four)
¹Although, I confess it might be interesting to subtitle it using the lines from the play. Some would necessarily be left out, and the names are changed, but it might be an interesting experiment. It hews closely to the original.
January 25, 2005
Review: Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence
Writer-director Mamoru Oshii returns to the world and ideas of his 1995 Ghost in the Shell with a new tale which picks up at some point perhaps not too long after the original.¹
The most compelling aspect of this new film is not the story, nor really the animation, but instead some very interesting environmental artwork by the production house, Production I.G. Best known here in the States for their recent work in Volume 1 of Kill Bill², they present a few environments here which really stuck with me. The cyborg forensics room was presented in a very stark white almost bleaching out all detail of the room, really accentuating the apparent chill in the air -- indeed, it caused me to shiver. The other truly compelling environment was that of a hacker's home-cum-castle, with an ethereal shifting moat and a series of surprising (if repetitive) occurrences within. I imagine these were adapted from the manga upon which the film is based, but they really pull it off.
The story contains the same sort of pseudo-philosophical questions involved in the last one, directed at what becomes of humanity when humans become more machine than flesh. Wrap those questions together with a plot which could have easily been dispensed with in far less time, and a number of obscure quotations by the characters, and you get a mix which for some people will be quite heady. At times, however, I felt myself identifying with the young cop constantly asking, "Can we get back down to business?"
The overall approach taken in the movie appears to be a mix of 3D, for some of the environment and particularly for some particle effects which I find hard to imagine being hand-drawn, and traditional cell techniques for everything else, particularly the characters. The ways in which the two are melded are frequently to good effect, but can be jarring -- at times, the perspective on the characters and the speed at which they appear to be moving does not match the environment they are in. I'm not sure that this isn't intentional, but it was at times quite distracting.
Overall, I confess to missing the main character from the first movie, whose partner takes the lead in this one. She was both more compelling and more fun to watch than her hulking partner.
One final note on the subtitles. I flipped through the various subtitling modes but could not find one which included only the dialog, and not things like "[gunshot]" or "[noise of crowd]". These were completely unnecessary and marred the experience, occurring as they would at random times. What were they thinking?
**½ (out of four)
¹Note: I haven't seen any of the recently released (on DVD) series, Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex, which may put to rest some questions.
²Apparently they also did some work in last year's Gamecube RPG, Tales of Symphonia, though I've not played that.
January 24, 2005
Review: The Perfect Storm
Wolfgang Petersen's achievement in this film is stunning: to take a thoroughly engaging, harrowing, short little book and turn it into an overlong, boring, and ultimately unfulfilling movie.
It's not that any single element shouldn't add up -- the performances are actually not too bad. George Clooney, who I confess to have underestimating some years ago¹, turns in a solid performance as the doomed Andrea Gail's captain. Mark Wahlburg does well enough as a doomed crew member, and the interactions of other members of the crew are well done. Other elements that were particularly strong in the book are the descriptions of the storm's intensity and the size of waves -- ably represented by the special effects -- and the plight of the modern small fisherman, more on which in a minute.
The performances of those left on land fare less well than their seagoing counterparts -- Diane Lane makes the most of what little material she's given, but there's not much beyond the cliché to work with, nor for any of the others left behind. Indeed, most of what happens on shore could have been left on the cutting room floor to overall better effect. By the time we get to the final moments of the Gail's crew, which should be thrilling and terrifying, we're worn out and unable to engage our imaginations.
The film does touch a bit on the plight of the modern fisherman, squeezed by two consequences of overfishing: market prices being driven lower, and the need to steam further out to find enough fish worth bringing home. Partly representing the greed in this conflict, Michael Ironside feels entirely like a cardboard cutout in playing the boat's owner -- his talents as a generally stable character actor feel feeble in this film.
In the end, the most thrilling tale the movie has to tell is not about the events on the Andrea Gail, but instead on a little sailboat called the Mistral, which found itself in the midst of a horrible storm and required the Coast Guard's aid. It may be because we actually know what happened to these people, or because of the heroic actions mounted by one helicopter rescue crew to save them, but in the end their story is more satisfying, even though we know far less about the characters. And that's a shame.
** (out of four)
¹I.e., back in the days of "One Fine Day", "The Peacemaker", and, of course, the execrable "Batman and Robin".