Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Best Films of the 00s

Because what's the point of having a blog if you can't make the occasional dumb list? Starting at the top, with the single best movie of the decade, which is....

Full Frontal: I've defended this at great length before, and I continue to think that this is the single best summation of The Way We Live Now, a funny, sharp, compassionate look at life inside the mediascape, with a visual palette that gets more interesting with every viewing. This movie always makes me feel like Martin Donavan in Surviving Desire---You don't think this is the best movie of the decade? Then watch it again. (Honorable mention to the deliberately slight but completely unique Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience---would that more major American directors were trying to make movies about real people in these unreal lives).

Werckmeister Harmonies: The cinematography, like the story, grounds itself so firmly in reality that it's able to transform into myth. The long takes, the focus on just getting from Point A to B, and the deep, sharp photography have been major influences this decade, and the performances are still riveting. Even Tarr hasn't caught lightning in a bottle like this since, but Werckmeister is probably the most genuinely magisterial movie we've had in a while.

Mulholland Drive: It's not Lynch's best because it's elliptical and beautiful, though it is. All his films are. It's his best because production circumstances forced Lynch to think through his story a lot more than he's used to, and the result is the rare Lynch movie that's more than the sum of its parts, where all the images and sounds cohere into a narrative that's at once scary and genuinely moving.

The Gleaners and I: Deceptively casual, this is one of the smartest of the current crop of docu-essays. Without pretension or ego, Varda bats around capitalist excess and cinema convention and like a master juggler, makes it look easy.

A Mighty Wind: In the commentary, even Christopher Guest seems a little surprised at just how moving this turned out to be. It starts as just another Guest-style parade of goofballs, but somehow turns into a touching portrait of aging---the way we form communities to keep out the cold, the way we end up at once just who we were at the start and also unrecognizable, and the way our best intentions fail us. That it does this while still being very funny is what makes it a masterpiece.

Up!: Any best-of-the-decade list has to contend with the massive achievement of Pixar, cranking out a long string of critical darlings that are also massive hits. It's a little early to say for sure, but Up! may be their best one yet, combining a thoughtful story with relentless visual inventiveness that never strays too far from character. It's the kind of animated film that makes all live-action films seem a little lacking in expressive resources.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy: We may never, as Lester Bangs says, agree on anything like we agreed on Elvis, but the LotR trilogy comes close. And just like the LotR books are a sort of compressed history of Middle Earth, so are the LotR films a compressed history of film. They deploy every special effects technique ever invented, from Meliés-style forced perspective to artificial-intelligence-driven CGI (with plenty of models, makeup, and mattes in between), and also makes use of every directing technique ever conceived, from the Griffith-esque battle scenes to contemporary digitally-controlled camera swoops. Like Joyce's Dubliners, If every other film was destroyed but these, you could still extract everything that had ever been.

Y Tu Mamá También: A strong reminder---as if we needed one---that the quality of the plot is only tangential to the quality of the film. In summary, it sounds like a perfectly average teen sex comedy, but the Nouvelle Vague-influenced technique turns it into a casually funny, honestly sad portrait of how relationships are inextricable from the social circumstances in which they form, a subject few movies even know how to approach.

The Man Who Wasn't There: Maybe the Coen's most complete statement about the relationship between crime and storytelling. There's plenty of jokes, but they don't overwhelm the sadness at the movie's heart, and the retro visuals are both arrestingly sharp and endlessly worthy of close analysis.

A Prarie Home Companion: Not just because Altman will be missed, though he will be. PHC stares unblinking into the void and doesn't bother with self-protective laughs or self-indulgent despair; it just shrugs, smiles, and keeps on singing. Maybe the culmination of Altman's echt-Midwestern no-big-deal sensibility, which so often produced masterpieces that don't take themselves too seriously.

Runners-up: Spirited Away, Donne Darko, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Grizzly Man, My Winnipeg, Spider (much more uncompromising than A History of Violence), The Incredibles, Lost In Translation, Waking Life, The Hurt Locker

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Paranormal Activity

What keeps Paranormal Activity from being quite as good as its obvious inspiration is a shortage of subtext. Blair Witch delivered plenty of shocks'n'scares, but what made it capital-A Art was its savvy analysis of mediation. "Nobody gets lost in America," Heather said, but the camera-obsessed characters find themselves more lost the more they look, and the final shot's multileveled attack on the act of viewing pulled the thematic threads together with sharp clarity.

Paranormal Activity doesn't go that deep, largely because its whole story is its central couple, and they're pretty generic---he's a cocky guy, she's a meek girl, and together they're just like every other couple we've ever seen in a horror movie. Some of the commenters at Jim Emerson's Scanners have actually had the most interesting points to make about the movie's themes----Jeffrey Simons noted the ways voyeurism becomes an element within the story, not just the way the story is told, and "Joseph" made the interesting suggestion that the whole movie is closer to Repulsion than Rosemary's Baby, a story about a woman lashing out rather than a woman persecuted.

[spoilers below the jump]

One aspect I haven't seen mentioned, though, is how the film plays with its own dog-that-didn't-bark: the young couple in the big new house... with no talk of children. But that's not to say children aren't a presence---at the other end of the hall from the bedroom there's a room we glimpse only in passing, with a big bed, and a giant teddy bear. That seems to be where the demon comes from in many of the scenes, and the stuffed animal suggests that it's the planned bedroom for the planned child, should Micah and Katie ever start filling this big house with something other than expensive toys.

More explicit, but more witty, is the way the couple's dynamics get affected by Katie's haunting---they start out affectionate, though a little out of joint with each other. But as the hauntings get worse, sleep deprivation becomes the defining element of their relationship, and much of the "negative energy" that feeds the demon is generated by their snapping under the pressures of exhaustion, like many a young couple with a new visitor making their nights into constant vigilance. Similarly, a major turning point of the film into full-on horror is when an invisible presence crawls into bed with them, as though the demon itself is a nightmare-prone toddler determined to enact Oedipal rage.

A terror at sexuality floats all through the movie, and not just because the locus of its horror is the couple's bedroom. Katie's haunting began with an apparition at her bed when she was eight, and her telling of the story, complete with helpless sister, could easily be read as a recovered memory of molestation. The signs of the demon---breathing on the neck, invasion of the bed, and grabbing of the leg---resemble the moves of an aggressive seducer (particularly when we see that the demon's ultimate goal is to be inside Katie). And every time Micah brags about setting up a camera in the bedroom, it's impossible not to think that he's planning to make an awesome sex tape once this whole demon thing blows over.

What keeps Paranormal Activity from greatness is that it never quite gets specific enough with any of this---the themes float through the film but don't really develop, and it's frequently disrupted by superfluous elements, like a completely pointless bloody cross (in a movie where no character shows the slightest religious inclination---Blatty wept!). Still, the material's charged, the directing is solid----the slightly dutch-angled shot of the bedroom, with the door and the hallway beyond it balanced by the visual weight of the bed, is an image film students should study carefully---and it's ultimately pretty goddamn scary. A good spook-show rather than great cinema, but still enough tension that I'll remember it for quite a while. And if nothing else, I'm still overjoyed that it whupped Saw VI.

Monday, August 17, 2009


So, for those following this blog on RSS: For a while now, I've been blogging over at A Fuzzy Day, with the intent of making this the space for longer pieces, and that the place for the tossed-off. I have since decided that this was a stupid idea.

So this blog is about to get a whole bunch of posts, imported from the other site---enjoy, and in the future, I'll stick to blogging here.

The Time-Traveler's Wife

Given its immense book sales, a movie of "The Time Traveler's Wife" was inevitable, despite its lack of climax, conflict, or drama. The book is actually a pretty good time, despite being chock-full of moments where characters must accommodate the demands of the plot by behaving like completely different, mostly brain-dead people, most prominently in the heroine's out-of-nowhere whining about wanting to be pregnant despite the high likelihood of "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex"-style complications. Though I suppose one could defend this sudden, senseless, self-destructive shift in attitude as quite realistic.

For those who don't know the plot: The book's about a guy who, like Billy Pilgrim, is permanently unstuck in time. Every couple of days, he's suddenly shot into the past for a few hours, but his journeys seem to center around a particular woman. He first appears to her when she's a little girl and he's a man in his thirties, which is about the age he remains for all the visits to her in childhood, as well as when he appears during her horny teenage years (fear not, he remains entirely gentlemanly). When she's in her mid-20s, he tells her that they're going to meet soon---that is, she's going to meet him in his actual linear life, and he won't know her yet. When they do meet, he's actually a few years younger than she is, and much more awkward than the older man she's known up until now. But love blooms, and they have some beautiful years together.

It's all very sweet, and not too badly written. But what really sells the book is its ruthlessly perfect wish-fulfillment fantasy. Not just the predestined love aspect, though that's certainly no small thing; no, it's the traveler who's a projection of a man too perfect to exist outside of fiction(which makes casting Eric Bana, who's played a lot of too-good-to-be-true men, appropriate, though how I'd love to see him in a remake of "Suspicion"). For the (largely female) readership, the time traveler is both the suave older man who won't fuck you no matter how hard you beg, and he's also the stumbling younger guy you can slyly seduce, and he's the sweet, bumbling hubby who you can mold into the aforementioned suave older man (and he'll happily go along with it, because you're trying to make him into the man he already is/was/will be). The fact that the heroine's actual father is barely-glimpsed and seemingly unlikable only further underscores the time traveler's role as simultaneous daddy and boytoy. And his chronological unreliability gives the story the vital "sisters must do it for themselves" aspect that any successful piece of female-oriented pop fiction needs.

Of course, such wish fulfillment is a vital part of all popular fiction---witness detective novels' endless procession of men who are tough, independent, hard-living, and seemingly irresistible to hot babes who conveniently disappear. But it's sort of rare to see a piece of popular women's fiction so eager to dive into genre devices (and sci-fi devices at that) in the interest of crafting a shamelessly perfect fantasy scenario. It has some of the glassy-eyed intensity of very specific fetish porn, the sense that you're reading something carefully crafted to fit perfectly in the keyhole in someone's brain.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Serial Mom

Flickr gallery for this piece here

I've always liked John Waters' movies without ever thinking he was a particularly good director. Which is fine---the amiable amateurism of his films is much of their appeal. But after massively enjoying Serial Mom, I'm starting to think that Waters, like Wagner, is better than he looks.

Because the thing is, Serial Mom is funny as hell---guffaw-out-loud-in-an-empty-living-room funny. But aside from a handful of quotable lines, the script isn't all that striking. Which has weirdly little impact on the movie's immense hilariousness. Most of the scenes have flatly functional dialogue---"Officer, we don't allow gum in this house." "Sorry, ma'am." ---- but through some strange alchemy, it plays like gangbusters.

That flat functionality is maybe the most defining characteristic of Waters as a filmmaker. Much of the fun of the Waters/Divine pairing was always the discordance of this loud, ferocious creature and the weirdly narcotized world that contained her. From his early films to the present, his compositions have a theatrical, frontal quality. Even at climactic moments, when the screen gets more angled and kinetic, the camera hangs back, arresting momentum.

This is, of course, exactly the opposite of what a director is supposed to do---"keep the audience immersed" is pretty much the filmmaker's first commandment. Serial Mom pays extensive tribute to goremeister Herschell Gordon Lewis, not least in its combination of luridly violent subject matter and bizarrely uninflected visual style. In Lewis, that was just the result of his mild-at-best technical competence---where a great (hell, good) director might have a villain terrify you through commanding movement of the frame, Lewis' baddies just lean into the lens and leer. But Waters has always idolized the accidental Brechtianism of crappy exploitation movies of the 50s and 60s, before ubiquitous film school degrees made even low-budget sleazefests blandly mediocre.

The damned thing is that in Waters' films, it works. The air of campy quotation turns every piece of set dressing into a giggle, and the foursquare framing makes a guy spitting out gum into a weird little gag that isn't really funny, except that it is. His proscenium-oriented direction is definitely distinctive; his auteurist cred is certainly triple-A. But more important, his storytelling voice is incredibly effective at his project of making the whole world look sublimely freaky, turning even the most normal behavior into a too-tight Halloween mask.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Judd Apatow

There's something of a running complaint that Judd Apatow presents a perniciously misogynist view of woman as unfun taskmasters of free-spirited men. The latest manifestation of this misreading is up at Slate's Double-X blog, because if there's one site guaranteed to always get the arts wrong, it's Slate.

It's an understandable misapprehension---Seth Rogen is a lot more fun than Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up (though Heigl seems to be building a solid comedy career out of being the new Margaret Dumont), and Steve Carell's pals in The 40-Year-Old Virgin get a lot more jokes than Catherine Keener. But it seems to fundamentally miss what Apatow's movies are about, which is the need to put away dudehood's childish things. Both Virgin and Knocked Up (and, from what I've heard, Funny People) hammer pretty obsessively on the necessity of putting down the bong and leaving the brahs behind in order to become a functioning adult.

This is, obviously, a pretty common theme in romantic comedy. What makes Apatow different is that he doesn't take the line seen in movies like The Hangover: "Being a dude is totally fun, but you gotta stop doing it 'cause chicks don't like it and dudes like chicks." Instead, Apatow is always very conscious, even when the boys are having their fun, of how hollow that fun is. All the guys in The 40 Year Old Virgin are gradually exposed as liars, hypocrites, and frauds. Even more pointed is the flophouse that Rogen inhabits in Knocked Up---for the first half-hour or so it looks like a great place to hang out, but it gradually seems increasingly purgatorial, culminating in the pinkeye outbreak that leaves everyone looking like zombie junkies. This is where so many of the Apatow-imitators fail---they try to shoehorn all the growing up into the finale, rather than leading us to its necessity.

If anything, the problem with Apatow's movies is their monomaniac focus on a heteronormative family as the only fulfilling life. Though Catherine Keener is a little funkier than most romance objects, there's a real lack of any kind of alternative culture in Apatow's world, and the preachy insistence on showing how anyone who doesn't end up well-scrubbed and properly paired is doomed to a life of chronic masturbation gets not-a-little grating. It's hard to imagine a current Apatow movie providing a moment of subculture pride like the first shot of Freaks & Geeks. Looking back on that show, it seems like it was Paul Feig who provided the identification with the underclass, while Apatow was the talent-spotter (and a helluva spotter, considering how many of the F&G crew ended up comedy stars).

Still, I can't much condemn Apatow for being about as limited in his perspective as almost every other romantic comedy ever made. If anything, much of the criticism of his films misses the extent to which he's simply rewriting classic screwball comedies with the gender roles reversed. Movies like Bringing Up Baby often revolved around a stuffy, career-obsessed male who's transformed by his meeting with a wacky, free-spirited female; if anything, the biggest difference is that the women of screwball comedies were required to change much less than Apatow's males.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Public Enemies

There's a taciturn quality to Michael Mann's Public Enemies that I'm sure he regards as a virtue. Mann's deep love of macho playacting (he's like Scorsese without Scorsese's critical detatchment from his big-dicked poseurs) certainly extends to his own direction, which is at once swoony and brisk. And there's some real virtue to it---his refusal to subject us to what-does-it-all-mean speechifying can be welcome.

It can also leave us sort of unclear on, well, what it all means. Public Enemies is good fun---the clothes are nice, the picture looks good (though some of the gun battles take on a weirdly interlaced, flat quality when the camera moves too much), and it's great fun to see a bunch of actors comport themselves in all those period jackets. But in the end, it's sort of unclear why Mann wanted to tell this story, what he expects us to take from it, what distinguishes this movie from any of the other versions of the tale. Mann obviously assumes we have a fair amount of foreknowledge of Dillinger's fate---every mention of the Biograph theater fairly thrums with foreboding---which makes it all the more important for him to make clear why he's bothering to tell it to us, and he just won't.

There's hints all over the place---sometimes he seems interested in the Heat-like battle of wits between Dillinger and FBI agent Melvin Purvis. Sometimes his attention is grabbed by the gap between Dillinger the celebrity and Dillinger the man, best articulated a scene where Dillinger goes unnoticed in a movie theater full of people searching for John Dillinger, largely because he's just a guy in a hat rather than a 15-foot-high mug shot. Sometimes it seems like the love story is what he wants to tell, signaled by the big music cues that come in whenever Dillinger and his best girl, Billie Frechette, are separated or reunited.

But every time a thematic thread is raised, it's soon dropped---nothing ever sinks in. Purvis is introduced unerringly shooting down Baby Face Nelson with a scoped rifle---as the Fuzzwife noted, Mann seems to be setting up a conflict between Dillinger as a tommy gun (inaccurate but deadly) and Purvis as a rifle (just one shot, but it's a good 'un). But Purvis' shooting skills never come up again, nor does his patience, nor does his accuracy. Dillinger's celebrity is frequently teased, but it never really resolves---Mann certainly doesn't even seize the opportunity to give us a shot of Dillinger dying in front of the movie theater, which would solidify that idea.

Even the love story doesn't really take over, not least because while Frechette gets a little speech about her boring life up until now, Mann's too disdainful of psychologizing to really let us see that as an aspect of her character. Marion Cotillard doesn't get to dig into Frechette as a thrill-seeker, or as a girl from the rez trapped in bad rez choices of bad rez men, or as a country mouse enjoying big-city sophistication---she's just a plot device, placed in the movie to wear clothes, take off clothes, look pretty, get slapped, and cry. Maybe a better actress could have found a way past Mann's disinterest, the way Christina Ricci did in Buffalo '66, but considering Mann's relentless drive to move ahead whether or not a character trait has been established, probably not.

For all Mann's meticulous shooting, the overall impression is one of sloppiness---it's like Mann glued a bunch of scripts together and started shooting without bothering to resolve it into a single draft. This rushed, ramshackle quality extends to the little things as well as the big, as Mann has a terribly bad habit of failing to introduce information until the last possible minute, not as a suspense trick, but because he simply seems to have forgotten what we need to know. An early example is in the scene when Dillinger comes to the coat check where Frechette's working, fights off a customer, and takes her away. Just before Frechette goes from turning him down to leaving with him, there's a moment when she looks at the other girl working the coat check, and that seems to change her mind. Maybe it's because she sees something in the other girl that she doesn't want to become, maybe it's because she sees the girl's admiration for this tough guy who so badly wants to be her boyfriend. But it's almost impossible for us to even think about the question, because we've literally had zero visual indication that there even is a second girl at the counter before the shot where Frechette looks at her---I don't have a disc here, but I don't believe the other girl is even visible in the wide shots.

Another small but telling example---what sends Dillinger to the Biograph Theater is the heat of the Chicago summer, and the Biograph's air conditioning. But one the day he decides to go, after a series of scenes of Dillinger setting up various plans, he comes into the house and, in one shot, runs his wrists under cold water and says "It sure is hot---let's go to the movies." It seems like Directing 101 to establish that it's hot beforehand, so that you don't have to cram cause and effect into a single, clumsy moment like that, but here again Mann seems to be shooting scenes with no awareness of where a scene is going, so he has to carry out this kind of clumsy shuffle whenever the plot demands a reason for action.

Similar directoral sloppiness besets the action scenes. When Purvis and his boys have Dillinger holed up in a rural hotel, there's a lengthy discussion of who's going to approach from the north, who from the south, and what the plan is for closing the exits. But Mann never gives us shots that would make clear which way is north, who's coming from where, or how the plan goes wrong. It's fine if he wants to sacrifice spatial clarity for visceral excitement---I'm not a purist about knowing who's standing where---but it's bizarre to do so after giving us so much setup discussion of the directional plan.

Public Enemies is a perfectly good time at the movies---I went to see Johnny Depp wear cool clothes and shoot guns, and it delivered. But while I don't mind its anemic moral vision, it's narrative messiness borders on real contempt for the audience. Taciturn silence looks great on a western lawman, but on a storyteller, it's more than a little irritating.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

You're Welcome, America

It's no fun to be a racial scold. And it feels pretty ridiculous when I've vociferously defended Resident Evil 5 from charges of racism---maybe more than it deserves. But among the many good things about the end of the Dubya regime, one benefit is that I'll no longer have to watch liberals wandering into genuinely icky minstrel-show territory.

The most recent sample is Will Ferrell's one-man show: "You're Welcome America - A Final Night with George W Bush", which was shot for broadcast on HBO. For the most part, it's a fairly entertaining piece---though the jokes are mostly just recitations from the Harper's Index, Ferrell's Bush impression has always been eerily spot-on. It's not just the accent, though he does do a lovely job of nailing the way Bush's affected drawl slips and slides depending on his self-image. What Ferrell gets is Bush's belligerent confusion, the way his slitted eyes seemed to be looking equally for a brawl or an escape. No matter how much I hated the guy, I always felt a little bad for him too---deep down, he seemed to know how out of his depth he was, and much of his cowboy toughness was a transparent cover for his well-deserved insecurity.

All that's fine, and good, and pretty funny. The problematic part comes about halfway through, as Bush/Ferrell is going through his memories of the members of his cabinet (you already see where this is going, right?). There's fairly standard jokes about Wolfowitz, Rummy, and a pretty funny bit about tickling Richard Perle's jowls to make him giggle. But then he turns to Condoleeza Rice, and things get profoundly icky, as an African-American woman dressed up like Condi comes out and does a music-video lambada with Bush.

Allow me to proffer a suggestion to comedians who would like to not be racist assholes: If your gag involves an African-American woman doing a hoochie-mama dance, think twice. If your gag involves a powerful African-American woman being turned into a white man's sexual fantasy, think three times.

The worst part---what makes it not funny along with racist---is that the tired sex-mammy stereotype doesn't map onto Condi at all. What's striking about Condi is her icy hatred, the way she would always flash the stink-eye when she thought no one was looking. Building jokes around her evil-nun persona could be plenty funny, and you could even get some comedy gold out of the contrast between Bush thinking of her as a warm mammy, and her actual chilly deadliness---like everyone in the Bush administration, she seems to have specialized in carefully manipulating the dauphin.

But presenting her as a gyrating stripper doesn't map onto her as a person---it's simply the most available stereotype of a black woman under 50. That's what makes it racist as well as bad comedy; it's hard to believe a pro like Ferrell could come up with something both less funny and more egregious than the Right's ugly-Chelsa jokes, but he did.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars: Continued

So, I'm slightly less hyped about Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars now that I've, er, finished the entire game in a month of big, big bites; given the game's addictiveness and enjoyability, my complaints should probably be taken with enough salt to pay off a centurion legion. Chinatown Wars pays tribute to the old-school GTA games with its top-down view, but also with its fairly crappy third-person shooting controls, and the last stages of the game involve way too much of this mediocre shooting. GTA games are always strongest in their driving system (the Midnight Club experience really pays off in the series' strong car differentiation), and CW is no exception, so I wish they'd built more of the missions around unusual variations on driving, which the engine does really well, instead of on-foot shooting, which it does really badly.

That said, there's a moment near the end that makes me love the game all over again. SPOILERS AHEAD! if you don't want to see them, but...

When driving around the marvelously-rendered city of Chinatown Wars, you'll sometimes see a little icon indicating an optional side mission. I spotted one around the back of a building I was driving past, so I carefully backed the car up, drove through a narrow alley, and found myself in a standard GTA trash-strewn back lot. Walked up to the optional-mission-giver, a tiny little female sprite. Up pops the cutscene (a series of comic-book illustrations), in which the woman asks me if I "wanna have a good time".

Ah, it's a hooker! Well, hookers are a long-standing tradition in the GTA world, one that I've defended before as an important part of the series' satirical perspective. Now, everyone knows what happens to hookers in GTA games. But this time, said hooker *also* seems to know---just as you start to respond to her, she says (I'm paraphrasing from memory here) "Oh I know your type! Guys like you get me in the car, then shoot me to get your money back! Well we're not going to stand for it any more---get him, girls!"

At which point dozens of prostitutes charge you, Sin City-style, exacting vengeance for all their sisters cut down in previous GTA games. Auto-critique plus violence---that's the good stuff!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Bernstein Would Like to Take You Higher

I finally made it to a River2River event: Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra Plays The Music of Sly & The Family Stone. "Plays the music of" are generally words that strike ennui into the heart of music-lovers, signaling the presence of a---shudder---tribute band, all-too-often with and overenthusiastic singer and embarrassing outfits. And Bernstein is probably overenthusiastic, not infrequently pausing between songs for long, rambling stories about growing up Jewish, Woodstock, and utopian musical hopes. But in fairness, the show was the start of a tribute to Woodstock, and Sly & The Family Stone have been inspiring utopian hopes for a long time.

As part of a Woodstock tribute (seemingly sponsored by the makers of the film The Road To Woodstock, who were out in force passing out fliers to the urban grey-hairs who are pretty much dead center of that biopic's demographic targeting zone), the show focused on the music S&tFS played during their show-stealing performance at Yasgur's farm, which means the hits were well represented. It was a good choice, not least because those songs take very well to the big-band transfer---like the Mingus Big Band, Bernstein's group alternates between brainy deconstructions of a song's musical elements and a full-court press of syncopated volume.

Also on site were a succession of terrific, interesting singers, each determined to bring their own stamp to the classics. Highlights included Shilpa Ray's East Indian punk drone on "Everyday People", Martha Wainwright's god-abandoned gospel keening on "Que Sera Sera", and Dean Bowman busting out his deep-piped cerebral genius freak act all over "Sing a Simple Song". The great Bernie Worrell was on keyboard, and though his instrumental medleys leaned a little heavily towards the jokey, he's a player who's always instinctively understood the jangly jump of the Family Stone's keyboard lines---looking back, the synth that propels The Name of the Band Is Talking Heads sounds not unlike the hyperactive jangling on "I Want to Take You Higher".

Understandably, though, there wasn't much heard from the landmark album "There's a Riot Going On". While we did get the ballad "Family Affair", most of that strange, murky, grim album is pretty much the exact opposite of what you want to hear at an outdoor summer show. It says a lot about my musical tastes that "Riot" is my favorite S&tFS album---it reverses all the principles of funk music, replacing the propulsive crispness that defines the genre with a grim, lurching swirl. Again, the Talking Heads connection---"Riot" was the first album to realize that the tightness of funk tunes could become a prison, and the sound of the singer being buried alive in "Luv 'n' Haight" and "Poet" anticipates the vocalist's paranoid lurking all over "Fear of Music".

Also of note: This was my first time seeing a show at the Castle Clinton space, in Battery Park, and it's quite a charming little venue. It's an enclosed open-air space that seats about 250, and it's a hell of a lot better designed than the average outdoor stage. The ground is well raked, which means that the seats in the back still get good sightlines (better than the seats in front, actually), and although the volume was kept a little on the low side (perhaps out of consideration for the kind of audience drawn to a Tribute to Woodstock show), the enclosure held the sound in nicely. Looks nothing at all like a castle, but 'ey, dis is Amurrica!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Ding dong, the king is dead.

I hadn't wanted to write a Michael Jackson post. I mean, the man was one of the best dancers ever, and a helluva singer, and a spotty songwriter, and he sold a lot of records, and... y'know, whatever.

But I'm finding myself indignant over all the "burn in hell, pedophile" posts. Granted, the serial incompetence of the L.A. prosecutor's office, which results in a string of celebrities walking out of the courtroom free, does little to reassure people that his acquittal was for real. But the fact is, the person who first made the accusation really does seem to have been a fraud out for the money, and those who know say nothing ever happened.

Jackson was a weirdo, no doubt about it, and I mostly agree with Chris Rock's "I wouldn't let Michael Jackson watch my kids on television"---not because he was a pedophile, but because he was a six-year-old. But the evidence really does point to Jackson being an entirely asexual child obsessive, who would be as horrified by the idea of sex with children as he was by the idea of sex with anyone. The crotch grabs of his adult career always seemed as performative---and phony---as the girl-pining of his childhood singles.

As a number of music writers have noted, the thing that always was bothersome about Jackson was that he was always a performer, never a revealer---his incredibly fluid body distracted from his shadowy face. If nothing else, his whole career has been a reminder that you don't actually need to feel emotions to communicate them in art---I don't believe the little boy singing had ever felt the things expressed by "I'll Be There" or "Never Can Say Goodbye", and he doesn't actually need to. But it's jarring to be reminded of that, especially in America's authenticity-obsessed music culture.

Maybe that's why the glee at his downfall in the 90s---people always resented that someone who attracted so much adoration gave so little of himself. Jackson's combination of hugeness and unrelatability made him a perfect hate object---he was famous enough that hating him felt like revenge, he was vulnerable enough that you felt like a big man, and he was distant enough that you never had to worry about an actual human being being hurt.

But god, it's ugly! Michael, Brittney, Lindsey---there's this terrible urge to crush children. And all of them were children, child stars sufficiently coddled that they would have been completely unprepared for the vitriol suddenly turned on them. I've actually known a child star or two, and they all confirmed that being a child singer is a bizarre combination of being shielded from anything real and being constantly provided with performance-enhancing substances and the occasional hooker. South Park, in one of their more insightful moments, accurately summed it up as some kind of pagan Corn King ritual, wherein a young 'un is made king for a year, then sacrificed. I don't know if Michael Jackson committed child abuse. But Epic Records *definitely* did.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

C'mon You Homosexual Demon

No post today. Not because I'm so lazy, but because I saw this, and got inspired to make... this:

There is no more. But there's seemingly no way to turn off that freakin' "Read more" in my template.

The Yakuza

Flickr gallery for this piece here

The Yakuza is not a lost classic of '70s cinema. Robert Towne was paid an awful lot for the script, which does do a nice job of using noir tropes as setups for chop-socky fight scenes, but it's lumpily-paced and frequently confusing, with hunks of exposition so ungainly that Lumet has no choice but to fade and dissolve his way through the speeches..

It's always fun to watch Robert Mitchum wisecrack with the guys and pine for the girl, and paunchy, puffy 70s Mitchum is just as much the ideal man than the young, beautiful Robert Mitchum---maybe more so. He and the able, charismatic Ken Takakura seem like they could get a really good rhythm going were Takakura not so visibly derailed by the English language---when acting in Japanese, he's as quick and smooth as in the fight scenes, but every time he has to speak English he drops his arms to his sides and twists his head like he's frozen at a desk. Their climactic fight scene, when they jointly kill several score bad guys, armed with Takaura's sword and Mitchum's Halo-like pistol & shotgun combo, is their one chance to get a good non-verbal relationship to happen, and it's squandered by the back-and-forth editing and uncreative framing.

But even though Pollack's visual direction is stolid, the visuals are still pretty thrilling, thanks in large part to Stephen Grimes' endlessly groovy production design. Grimes has a star-studded production design career, and he sinks his teeth into the scripts opportunities for campy japonaiserie, including a bright-blue boss' office with surrealist decor, and a sauna with inexplicable high-contrast red floor, equally inexplicable aquarium and even more inexplicable Porkysesque window to the girl's locker room. He has a great time filling the frame with artful patterns, or just a whole lotta brightly-colored Asiatic stuff, as well as finding some terrific city-of-the-future locations.

Director of Photography Kozo Okazaki also does a lot to keep the visuals exciting too, with great use of good ol' 70's Technicolor. The variety of rich, stylized hues are enough to make you weep for the candy colors that were to take over Hollywood filmmaking. I'll admit, this may be entirely personal, as despite being a child of the 80s, I feel that way about most films made between about 1968 and 1981---even the worst have a look that feels real in a way almost no color film would again, which may be one of the reasons 70s horror, no matter how crappily-made, has as unnerving authenticity.

Lumet's actual direction is really just workmanlike, with enough pans, dollies, and fades to feel properly professional, but most of the real visual magic is being worked by the production team. This is one of the nice things about having a full-crew sense of who makes a movie---even when the movie isn't much as a whole, there's still plenty of fine workmanship to admire, as well as some bizarre costume choices to, er, enjoy.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Over The Hedge

So the Wolverine game has prompted the usual round of "a licensed game that doesn't suck" or "licensed games always suck" talk. But allow me to put in a word for something even rarer than a licensed game that doesn't suck---a licensed game that doesn't suck on the Nintendo DS!

I know, this is hard to believe. Not even the world of cell phone games is so crammed with undercooked mediocrity as the DS movie game world, where developers with little time and less motivation crank out shameful crap on the assumption that it's all going to be bought by clueless moms who'll never play it anyway. The technical limits of the DS further encourage laziness on the part of developers---since your game isn't even going to look good enough to be on your studio's showreel, why bother making it anything other than an object in a box, the box being what sells anyway? My heart sinks a little every time I see my little brother-in-law's game collection---in the front, the first-party titles he saved his allowance for, in the back, the terrible Transformers and Disney games his mom bought him (and that he, bless his heart, it too polite to melt down).

Which is why Over the Hedge is such a stunner. It's not that it's such a fantastic game, but it's actually got a good concept going for it, and in the movie-game world, that's like getting an Audi from your office Secret Santa. It's not an original concept, but it's a great one-liner: Metal Gear Solid with raccoons. I can only imagine the design session where they looked at the plot of Over the Hedge---woodland creatures infiltrate suburban homes---and someone had the brilliant idea to apply the stealth-game template to the antics of nature's sneak thieves.

Though the game gets repetitive pretty quickly, it's executed with some impressive technical skill. I particularly liked the contrast between the top screens 3-D view, and the overhead view on the bottom, a use of the DS's unique properties that makes big console games seem... almost lacking. And you play as a number of non-raccoon-Americans, each with unique abilities.

But ultimately, this is a game made worthwhile by its idea---it's like the digital equivalent of a Warhol film, but shorter. The promise of the DS was always that its technical limitations would inspire developers to compete on the level of ideas, and this is one of the rare times where they did (and blew the console versions of the game out of the water, a definite first). I'd love to see more of this kind of meta-wit applied, not just to licensed games (interestingly enough, the other similar title I can think of was the very funny Simpsons game, another licensed title), but to all titles---sufficient in-jokey decadence can be a good way to stumble across originality, if only by making the unoriginal funny.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

You've given me hate when I know there is love

The thing is, I basically enjoy Roy Edroso's alicublog. It's relentless mockery of those with different beliefs than mine is kind of a guilty pleasure, but most conservative writers are so willfully ignorant, so deliberately crazy, and so cynically disingenuous that I just don't feel bad when they're treated with the same kind of contempt that they show for their readers.

But man, did the latest post piss me off! Mocking the pundits convinced that we can save Iran with Twitter is well and good. And mocking the pundits insisting that Obama needs to insert himself into Iran's election process is well-deserved. But when you just write off Iran as "a theocratic shithole going through a paroxysm", that's when I get off the bus. There's just something so ugly about casually dismissing an entire country, one which has produced some of the major artworks of the last fifteen years, as well as the last few thousand---it's lazy, it's parochial, and it's flat-out racist.

Not that any objections will be raised in the comments, of course. Some websites get even better in their comments section, but alicublog's comments make me wonder if I'm wrong to like the site at all---it's mostly just Two Minutes Hate, plus constant dittoheady bleatings of "what a great post, roy!" and royal court verbal mincing as everyone competes to come up with the funniest comparison of Jonah Goldberg to a tube of biscuit dough.

I probably shouldn't have bothered sticking my beak in---no one responds well to being told they're sounding like Mark Fuhrman (not even Mark Fuhrman!), and the cocooned posse at alicublog is about as likely to say "gosh, we are being dicks" as the readership at RedState. But it was still kind of astounding to see that when one suggests that some nominal sense of solidarity with an oppressed people trying to throw off their government might preclude dismissing their entire country, the response was a lot of carping about Iraq. Iraq is, of course, the opposite of the situation in Iran---a foreign power marching in to impose itself through warfare, rather than a bottom-up rebellion of the people.

It's not unlike the grim experience of reading the diaries of Roy's hero, H.L. Mencken, and seeing how easily contempt for the boobosie could turn into contempt for ignorant negros, filthy chinese, penny-pinching jews, and everyone else who wasn't H.L. Mencken. It demonstrates neatly the limits of the "I'm not a racist, I hate everybody equally" argument---a white guy turning his vast intellectual contempt on poor brown people is just plain different, because history is different, and a denial of that deserves the same respect as "why ain't there no White History Month?" arguments.

David Foster Wallace argued that the danger of television wasn't that people would believe its lies; it was that people would learn early on that they were always being lied to, and a sneer would become the only expression available. Over at alicublog, where they've gone from laughing at those with inflated pretensions of doing political good to laughing at the very concept of political good, it's like watching a baby turn into a wizened old bastard in high-speed timelapse. If the revolution in Iran fails, it'll be business as usual. But if it succeeds---and I'm still willing to hope it does---than the people now mocking Andrew Sullivan for doing more to aggregate information than any other westerner will... okay, not feel ashamed of themselves, because they're visibly incapable of shame, but at least be left behind at history's highway rest stop, where they will bitch about the bathrooms until a farmer shoots them.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars

Why is Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars so impossibly fun? There's a pretty substantial technical achievement in cramming a big, open, no-load city onto a DS cartridge. And the art design team deserves serious kudos for making areas of the city look and feel significantly different despite the tight constraints of a more or less 2-D design. But I'd say the basic system-level strength is that the minigames are fun.

For most hardcore gamers, the sweetest words are "Grand Theft Auto game", and the bitterest are "minigame collection", so it's a little blasphemous to say that's pretty much what GTA is. But it is---and that's always been its strength. In any GTA game, you spend a lot of time taking missions, most of which are just drive-here-shoot-him. But what's always most memorable are the missions that change the rules for a little while---the jetpack in San Andreas, or the sniper runs in Vice City. GTA IV didn't have as many rule-shifting missions, which is much of why GTA IV got---ulp!---a little dull in the middle.

GTA:CW tells you right up front that you won't just be driving and shooting when your character, upon arriving in America, is immediately kidnapped, and is stuck in a car that's dumped into the river. You quickly tap the windshield to bust your way out---nothing fancy, or even particularly entertaining, but a straightforward warning that you're going to have to keep your stylus handy. This would be a pretty serious strike against the game---holding the stylus while using the thumb-pad and buttons is kind of a pain in the ass. But it's justified by the number of times the game shifts context on you---forces you to twist wires quickly to steal a car, tap numbers to bypass a security system, twirl a Chinese dragon costume, and so on.

Combined with GTA's usual attention-deficit-disorder approach to level design---"now steal a car now drive to Hey! let's be a cabbie! drive to your destination and collect your Hey! Let's help this guy bug his wife's car! follow the car until it parks don't get spotted while you Hey! Let's buy some acid!"---these stylus-based minigames don't have to be very challenging to accomplish their basic goal, which is to keep you from ever settling into a unitary rhythm of play. Instead you're always a little surprised, never sure what you're going to be doing in the next 10 minutes.

That's why Chinatown Wars has me hunched until my neck snaps, while Far Cry 2 is languishing in my 360. Far Cry 2 has a lovely open world, a solid story, and some very nice mechanics. But it's all driving and shooting, and after playing for 2 hours, I felt like I had done pretty much everything I was going to do in the game and now just had to do it another hundred times. Besides a reasonable level of wit and some solid visuals, GTA remains the king of the unexpected mission parameter, and that will keep me playing to the end.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


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Francis Ford Coppola's Tetro really shouldn't be watchable at all. The story of crippled princelings setting things to right with love smacks of the fairy tale, which is fine, I guess, for opera, the form Tetro keeps throwing itself against. But the actual storytelling in the movie is kind of a mess---after an efficient first act, plot points get raised distractingly and connected obscurely, information about the characters is taken for granted, and the dialogue often thuds its ways through Big Themes and narrative repetition (the words "on the boat" are repeated like the cast has been assigned tongue twisters).

What makes it hold together is that the whole movie is so utterly, tongue-dryingly beautiful. The black and white---choke!---videography fills every shot with a range of shade and texture that I didn't think even HD video could pull off. The high-definition online trailers don't convey quite how stunning it is on the big screen; this, even more than Che, is the movie that convinces me that DV is ready to take over from film visually, not just economically. And the framing, replete with shadows, mirrors, and careful balancing of elements, pulses with compositional intelligence---nearly any still captures the movie's themes of doubleness, dominance, and foreignness better than all the family shouting matches.

The film's full of the things that make a film enjoyable long before it makes any sense---visual ravishment, eruptions of comedy and eroticism, and a sure-footed forward momentum. It also helps that all the performances are as good as in anything Coppola's ever directed (yes, including that)---he knows how to give actors enough stage business to keep their performances natural, and when to give them space to roll. It's no surprise that Maribel Verdu continues to be both an intelligent performer and spectacularly hot, but it's equally great to see Vincent Gallo do some of his most generous scene-work ever, as though he's finally ready to stop being a performer and become an actor. Some of the dirty jokes risk descending into late-Bertolucci satyriasis, but they're presented with such delight that it's impossible to stay mad.

Honestly, I'm glad that Tetro doesn't bother to solve its narrative problems. There's something liberating about seeing a film at once so aesthetically accomplished, so obviously personal, and so blithely not giving a fuck whether you're following along. What Coppola wants is to move you, and a good Catholic boy knows that the best way to do that is to dazzle the eyeballs right out of your skull.

Coppola, like Tetro's title character, is an artist who's been tormented by both the success and the failure of his art---under the huffing and puffing of his 90s films, you could feel his yearning to sit like Harry Caul, peacefully playing saxophone amidst the wreckage of his career. The story's strange elisions---the way themes are abruptly yanked into play, the way plot points get taken for granted, even the characters' somnambulistic tendency to seemingly forget the explosions that happened in the previous scene---don't seem like failures of craft so much as the inarguable, inscrutable decisions of an individual language. Even the movie's oddest narrative jump---how Bennie goes from wanting to be saved by Tetro, to wanting revenge on Tetro, to wanting to save Tetro---seems in retrospect like a perfectly accurate depiction of the family, where love and punishment often twine together too closely to ever be put in sequence.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Christ, now Twitter's good for something?

It's astounding how fast Twitter has gone from being a digital frisbee, good mostly for one-liners and embarrassment, to a central tool of a people's uprising, of such importance that it could legitimately change the course of human events if it goes down for 90 minutes (and anyone reading this on June 16, write in now and tell them not to freakin' do that!).

What brought Twitter from Ashton Kutcher to Herbert Morrison wasn't so much the service as the technology on which it piggybacks. Someday our phones may all be browsers and our wishes all horses, but right now the most ubiquitous tool for global communication is the cheap-ass cell phone. By allowing for easy sending and receiving via a technology with far more market penetration than smartphones (once again proving that smart is the antonym of ubiquitous), Twitter first became a handy way to tell the dudes that you were gonna be at the quad, and then became the best means for those dodging bullets in Tehran to tell the world what's going on.

Even if the media wasn't so pathetically dropping the ball on coverage, Twitter would still be the best way to find out what's happening right now. Not the best tool for understanding what's going on in Iran---there's no way to know what tweets are just rumor-mongering or disinformation, especially in the absence of visuals---but certainly the best way for those on the scene to do live reporting, and for those interested to see that reporting.

That is not to say that the current GOP Twitterspoogefest isn't as completely stupid as most every idea that comes from the GOP. Twitter is very good for realtime organizing, but the Republican party doesn't need organizing in the sense of "get 1,000 people to meet in the middle of Grozny", they need organizing like "let's get a party leader who's neither a clown, a fraud, or a sociopath." They also need a more compelling message than the one they've got, which they won't find at under 140 characters---that's plenty of space for their current message, but then, that's the problem.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Girlfriend Experience

I liked Bubble, Soderbergh's previous digital improv experiment, a helluva lot, largely because it got the white working-class speech I grew up with better than any movie I've ever seen. The Girlfriend Experience is a very different milieu, and a much more sharply satiric experience. Where Bubble was immersed in its characters' unmoored, dead-end lives, TGfE keeps its distance, both narratively and visually (nearly every shot of Christine puts some object between us and her).

It's very hard to identify with anyone in the film, but I'm okay with that, and I'm hugely irritated by how many critics seem to regard that as a fatal flaw, writing as though Modernism never happened (although the NY Post's description of it as "a stag movie as conceived by the editors of the Financial Times" is actually pretty apt). It's all the more depressing considering that many of those same critics know to pay homage to directors like Resnais and Antonioni, even as they refuse to consider a contemporary American with similar objectives.

As usual, a lot of my thoughts come out best commenting on other sites. At Amy's Robot, Amy mostly liked the film, but we disagree about Grey's performance. And I have a lot to say about Lauren Wissot's review at The House Next Door; Wissot manages to combine Pauline Kael's unpleasant sense of aesthetic entitlement with the smugness of a San Francisco sex activist, then tops it off with Armond White's defensive laziness, but I always have fun getting peeved with her.

Like A Faceful of Seawater

As Hannibal used to say, "I love it when a plan comes together."

The executive-pay restrictions on the bank bailout money seem to have done exactly what they were supposed to do---not so much keep bankers from getting big bonuses on the taxpayer's dime (though that's nice too), but rather to make them really, really *want* to pay the money back. It seems like the Obama team learned one big lesson from the S&L bailout: rich people hate repaying loans.

So the money lets everyone ride out the real-estate valuation crisis, and then gets paid back promptly, with a little profit on top. More loans should work out this well! Rightie outlets are saying the banks were healthy all along, and only took the money because the government forced them, but considering that Hot Air's list of poor, oppressed institutions being forced to play sick for nanny includes epically-dysfunctional Citigroup, I would take those claims with enough salt to preserve beef. Their complaints that the Treasury is holding onto warrants for bank stock---in effect, engaging in stock speculation---strikes me as a feature, not a bug. Instead of just giving away money, the government gets the money back when things calm down; poetically, they get it back thanks to the health of the banks they saved. Again, this is in pleasant contrast to the S&L bailout, where the banks simply collapsed, costing the government truckloads of FDIC money which was pure loss, never, like my hairline, to return.

If conservatives took deficits as seriously as they say they do, they'd regard this as a great success, but then they'd also be cursing Reagan and praising Clinton and we'd all be wearing shoes on our heads and taking bears to church, so... nevermind.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

David Byrne at Prospect Park

David Byrne's free Brooklyn show, playing the music of the Byrne/Eno collaborations, was a great Brooklyn event, even if the music was only so-so. Old David Byrne is inevitably not young David Byrne, and the need to co-ordinate with a big band and a lot of backup singers only added to his tendency to give the songs a mannered delivery, fussy and calculatedly antic where the original versions sounded genuinely strangled.

But it was still a great evening, not least because of the sheer fall-of-Saigon crowd---the pre-show line started at the 11th street bandshell, extended back to the 15th street entrance, then wrapped around twice. At least twice, that is---I never did manage to find the end of the line. Marty Markowitz, Brooklyn's elected mascot, gave his typical dem, dese, 'n' dose opening speech, which was charming as always (I hope he doesn't really have any power, but he's totally delightful as the political equivalent of Mr. Met).

I wasn't thrilled with the singing, or The David Byrne Modern Dancers (not their actual designation), who boogied around in loose modern-dance-wear while executing what mostly struck me as filler choreography. But it was delightful when Byrne danced along, and any opinion I have must be filtered through the fact that I could only see them in occasional 2-second increments between the heads of everyone else way out beyond the bandshell fence.

And the band had a great funky sound---they truly killed it on "I Zimbra"---and it was amazing to be reminded of just how many hits the Byrne/Eno collaboration produced, including "Once In A Lifetime", "Life During Wartime", and the big encore number, "Burning Down the House". My Life In The Bush of Ghosts remains the most ridiculously ahead-of-its-time record ever, and it's always neat to hear Byrne doing those songs live and singing all the samples, which turns them from collages into surprisingly cohesive songs.

That said, it was a shame that the carefully-planned show didn't give Byrne a chance to note, during the chorus of "Life During Wartime" that nowadays there ain't no Mudd Club nor CBGB. The Mudd Club was an early casualty---the Talking Heads were still playing "Wartime" on the road when it was gone. But while CBGB outlasted most of the bands that played there, the lyrics referencing it em-past-ened the music as surely as all the grade-school kids brought to the show by their parents.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Resident Evil 5

Oh Resident Evil 5, why you gotta make me hit you? I understand that in Japan, there just isn't the sort of racial sensitivity common in the US (at least, not regarding people of African descent---I don't know how they deal with their legacy of brutality to Chinese and Koreans). But some of the recent leaks from Resident Evil 5 confirm that the game is, if not the interactive Birth of a Nation some feared, at least a bath in some ugly stereotypical oogedy-boogedy.

And that makes me sad. Not just because, like, racism is bad, but because I had really hoped for RE5 to be good.

Africa is a great setting for a Resident Evil game, or any kind of zombie story. Areas like the Congo have been torn apart for a decade by armed groups that operate somewhere between an army, a cult, and a Buffy-style gang-on-PCP---much of the climate of almost incomprehensible atrocity in Africa's civil wars is due to the heavy use of drugs to get its militias revved-up, not to mention extensive recruitment of children (child-level reasoning skills + heavy drugs + social pressure = bayonet rape as lifestyle). It's a level of brutality and hive-mind evil that's hard to wrap one's head around, and that's exactly where literature of the fantastic can step in and make us capable of at least looking it in the face. Using zombies as the stand-in for the large-scale Manson families ripping across the continent is a terrific metaphor, especially when you have the series' Umbrella Corporation acting as a stand-in for the colonialist history that got Africa into this mess in the first place. Done right, this could have been the most cogent use of horror as parable since Dawn of the Dead, or at least Ginger Snaps.

Which is why its so disappointing that the design team seems content with King Kong style bushwa. This is a touchy subject, and in order to get it right, you have to go in armed with perceptiveness and original thinking, exactly the things that prejudice and stereotyping make impossible. When you start throwing around images of natives in grass skirts, I start thinking you're not engaging with contemporary Africa at all, just throwing around a images from Tintin comics, and the story's whole reason for existing crumbles right quick.

But even if RE5 does turn out to be just as bad as we all feared, I hope someone takes up the challenge again. American sensitivity towards racial stereotypes is really not a bad thing much of the time; we're a country that's trying to overcome some ugly habits, and a certain amount of awkward self-monitoring seems a small price to pay for that. But video games, like animation, are a medium that thrives on caricature. And the (entirely valid) sensitivity towards caricatures of people of color often results in simple locking-out of black, Latino, or Asian characters in games, as designers think "What with the stylized art direction we're using, do these African-American characters end up looking too much like R. Crumb characters? Ahhh fuck it, just make 'em white guys---then no one will complain."

So far, interestingly, the only games that seem to be really taking the problem head-on are games adapted from other licenses, like Afro Samurai, the Def Jam games, and Fifty Cent: Blood on the Sand, which are the gaming equivalent of blaxploitation flicks---unapologetically lowbrow, but at least offering some kind of representation. Gaming's still a long way from sensitive representation of anybody, much less historically underrepresented groups, so I think gaming's Citizen Kane will have to happen long before its She's Gotta Have It.


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Friday, March 13, 2009

Splinter Cell: Double Agent

Well that was *terrible*!

When the fourth game in a previously solid series goes so terribly awry, it's tempting to imagine all kinds of scenarios that might explain what the hell happened---Ham-handed corporate interference? Breakdown in production process? Designer going through a nasty, highly distracting divorce?

Sure, this is the first Splinter Cell game for the 360, and there's bound to be some production tangles created by the hardware transition. But the problems here aren't technological at all---they're strictly design problems. And it's hard to understand how the company that got the previous Splinter Cell game so right could get this one so wrong.

I only got through three levels before turning the game off. But in all of them, the level design was disastrously bad, every time. The basic problem is that every step of the way, it was almost impossible to determine what your goal is. And for a stealth game, which is fundamentally a puzzle game wrapped up in a realistic skin, that's a fatal blow. The basic dynamic of a good stealth game is: Step 1: Survey situation; determine goal and obstacle. Step 2: Come up with a clever way to get to goal. But if you can't figure out where the goal is, as I couldn't over and over, you're left to wander around aimlessly, shooting guards and looking for buttons, and then you're just playing a slow-paced Unreal Tournament mod.

What makes it really sad for me is that I've really loved previous games in the Splinter Cell series. The highlighyt has always been the genuinely physical interaction with the controller, in which you have to push the sticks v-e-r-r-r-r-y gently---long before the Wii, this was a great way of analogizing avatar action through player action, as your digital delicacy translated to the character's delicate movment. Combined with the series' excellent visual design and strong, albeit Clancily Red-baiting storytelling, the series provided some of the most immersive playtime I had with my Xbox.

But this time around, everything's a muddle. The controls are still fine---screwing those up would take an act of deliberate sabatoge. But the art design is way too enthusiastic about throwing more objects on screen, with no consideration for whether those objects make clear what you should be doing, further compounding the problem of level layouts that make it impossible to get into the groove of gameplay because you're constantly wondering what the hell the designers want you to do here, instead of focusing on the mission.

And most surprisingly for a Tom Clancey series game, the storytelling is a disaster. I mean, I know that Clancey doesn't really oversee the writing process in any substantive way, but previous games have had solid pulpy plotting. And the basic idea of Double Agent---Sam Fischer, traumatized by the accidental death of his daughter, goes undercover to infiltrate a militia group---is a perfectly fine adventure story. But Double Agent gets its storytelling autistically wrong every step of the way. The cutscenes highlight irrelevant details, but skim over important facts; information is parceled out in all the wrong ways, with important things skimmed over or dropped in the middle of scenes focused elsewhere; there's completely arbitrary shifting between cutscene and in-game storytelling; and even the basic rules of the universe, like who's got the walkie-talkie, never get settled. It's as though someone wrote a decent video game story, then applied William Burroughs' cut-up technique to it---it's hard to imagine that anyone who's ever described anything to anyone could get the basics of narrative so consistently wrong.

And actually, I sort of doubt they did. The sheer every-step incompetence of DA suggests a game that was subject to some kind of crazy rushed revision process, with things being shoehorned into the story and the design at many last minutes. I can't even blame the design team exactly, when it's clear from the game that something went profoundly wrong in the production process. That doesn't mean it's worth playing, of course---oh christ no!---but I just can't hate 'em.