My recent research on the infamous genre/video-game film director Uwe Boll has raised some eyebrows, both professionally and personally. After all, am I not just a lowly East German film scholar, fighting “nobly” for a “lost” cinema? What the hell am I doing flirting with the worst director in the world, let alone evaluating his work on its own terms? Several people have asked me directly how I can be interested in a director whose slapdash aesthetic is modeled off the made-for-TV movie. The wheels of concern about me as a sane individual have started to turn. Boll has apparently become such a perfect “bad object” of cinema that one wonders why someone of intelligence would buy into his attention-getting schema.
Nevertheless, if you’re an intelligent person, you should see an Uwe Boll film. Here’s why:
(Note: Rather than embedding video, I invite you to explore the many links made available here to outside sources, textual and otherwise.)
1. Deflate the Dominant Discourse
Discourse, or the limits of what can be said about something, evolves quickly and un-reflexively in these shoot-from-the-hip days of Internet intercourse. The fact that such intercourse automatically creates a certain attention economy – where individuals seek intellectual/emotional shortcuts to processing the topic at hand and hence reinforce the discursive questions/answers already at the center of attention (i.e., why does Boll direct bad movies? does he hate video games?) – seems so obvious that is often ignored. When amusing and/or captivating memes (i.e., House of the Dead as the “worst zombie movie in history”, Boll financing his films with Nazi Gold) attract a sufficient audience and transform into whole memeplexes (i.e., Boll as worst director ever), the discourse inflates, hardens and ossifies around them. The memes become the message: no one cares what’s in the films, only that a certain privileged Internet demographic – white male American gamers and computer geeks between the ages of 14 and 30 – allocates enormous emotional and intellectual energy to the defamation of an artistic producer and his work. This demographic already spends a lot of money on video games and horror/sci-fi/action films, so their opinions and prejudices are valued and esteemed by the mainstream media in exchange for their prior expenditures. It’s a system that financially reinforces all parties – Boll gets buzz for his latest work, the haters get their desired attention and release – while generating intense, negative emotional by-products on all sides. The “Internet bashing” of Boll becomes a practice fully condoned by the same neo-liberal market forces that helped finance some of Boll’s films to begin with, and which Boll is now confronting as a rare self-financing filmmaker.
In exploring the Internet bashing as a phenomenon, Jan-Mathis Schnurr outlines the dominant discourse on Boll, identifying three “interpretive patterns” that are consistently reproduced online, namely Boll as Inept Director, Boll as Greedy Businessman, and Boll as Someone Who Does Not Understand Video Games. According to Schnurr:
The three interpretative patterns explain why video game adaptions are commonly viewed as a threat: as a threat to the sales of sequels of games adapted by Boll AG, as a threat to the market of video game to film adapations and as a threat to the users of a comment on YouTube itself, because his or her identity is strongly linked to the video game. Fans experience a botched adaption as a direct assault their personality, i.e. what they hold dear. This in turn causes the most extreme verbalizations of hatred toward Uwe Boll. Detailed fantasies of murder, torture, rape and other bodily harm prevail in the discourse about Uwe Boll on YouTube.
To this I will add the national and social dimensions of these interpretative patterns, namely the fact that Boll is German (meaning to the American male: likely a Nazi & certainly not a good filmmaker), a “character” who either speaks his mind or willingly provokes the wrath of his anti-fans, and an object of envy for a populace unable to otherwise gather together the resources necessary to make their own vision of what the video-game-as-film should look like (though times are a-changing on that front).
Such a discourse is ripe to be deflated by people who have something more constructive say – namely you. By actually watching the films and analyzing their content, you wrest control of the discourse from the underinformed masses on the Internet and stop letting them dictate your own opinions about these pop cultural artifacts. As Gilles Deleuze once said, “if you are caught in another’s dream, then you are lost.”
Time to wake up.
2. His Recent Work Has Improved
(Though the rest of my arguments lie in the shadow of the one above, they are no less legitimate.)
Have you seen a recent Boll film? You will notice a psychological turn. 1968: Tunnel Rats (2008) is a war thriller set in Vietnam played out primarily in claustrophobic tunnel sequences. Stoic (2009) portrays out-of-control masculine aggression among prisoners. Darfur (2009) channels the ethical dilemmas of media coverage of our own modern-day genocide. Rampage (2010) depicts a soulless man taking on a soulless society. Gone are the cheap tricks and plot holes of House of the Dead or Alone in the Dark, replaced with an uncompromising brutality that promises an unsettling theater/home-viewing experience.
3. Can’t You Enjoy Something Ironically Anymore?
I have noticed that since the middle of last decade, our sense of irony has, like so many cognitive processes, become externalized. What do I mean by that? Well, like the notion of an external Internet discourse shaping and becoming our own “opinion” about a film, we have also delegated our own sense of irony to the filmmakers themselves, as well as to the worldwide self-identified ironic viewers of things. Quentin Tarantino, for example, makes ironic references to 1,001 different film sources in order to generate genuine pathos for the characters in the audience. Parodies, spin-offs, mash-ups that treat film from an ironic stance of engagement are now used as viral marketing to promote the original emotional intent of the film. And why does one need witty friends for snide remarks when you have RiffTrax available on your iPod? Film-viewing has become a bizarre, dehumanized, sacred ritual because of the necessary investment of time/money, such that acquaintances have chewed me out for laughing too self-indulgently at scenes not only in crap pop cultural films like Twilight, but also John Ford, M. Night Shyamalan and Agnés Varda films.
Uwe Boll (a great admirer of Ford and Shyamalan, by the way) is quite possibly best consumed from an ironic stance of engagement. Take the 6-7 page long backstory scrolling at the opening of Alone in the Dark, the “twice twice-dead” sequence from House of the Dead, or the completely nonsensical decision-making processes of Michael Madsen’s character in Bloodrayne (i.e., a seasoned vampire-hunter storming a castle full of vampires and dying simply because he has no strategy whatsoever) as examples. Rather than repulsion, these moments provoke genuine cineastic pleasure in me as a viewer, thanks to their extremity and utter confusion of symbols. If you are watching this material for the infusion of your favorite video-game characters with epic-level blockbuster pathos, you are in for a disappointment from the time you purchase your ticket.
Though irony is perhaps unhelpful as a world-problem-solving stance, it allows us the necessary intellectual distance from the emotional appeals made by all forms of media in order to evaluate it in terms of a wider context. And what have we replaced it with?
Desire for awe, I think.
4. Diversify Your Film Palette
In a world now governed by the NetFlix queue and the time-constrained engagement with as many “emotionally moving” fiction-spaces as we can handle, our tastes have become shaped and dictated by, well, our own tastes. If you say you “like” something these days, then you must be part of its demographic and buy into its values. Heaven forbid that we choose to play a program consisting of, for example, an Internet mash-up of Deep Throat, a short documentary on seagulls, Bloodrayne 2 and Antonioni’s Il deserto rosso in one (long) evening!
Omnivorous relativism, done correctly, can expand your cultural literacy by leaps and bounds.
Watch an art house film. Then watch a music video. Then watch Far Cry. Keep the elements distinct in your head, while reflecting on their commonalities.
5. Nihilistic Modernism
Uwe Boll, as a filmmaker independent of many of Hollywood and subsidy-driven mechanisms, is able to express precisely the position that is the abject of both: a bleak vision of the future with neither hope nor a means of salvation. This is not an original stance, but – with Boll – at least a crisply expressed one.
What is nihilistic modernism? Drawing from Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer as well as the likes of Oswald Spengler, the philosophy stems from a mid-19th to early 20th Century propensity to gaze through all ideology at the bleak, empty center of our existence on this Earth. My favorite description of this comes from Rudiger Safranski, who summarizes the three “affronts” to human megalomania:
“The cosmological affront: our world is one of countless spheres in infinite space, with a ‘mouldy film of living and knowing beings’ existing on it. The biological affront: man is an animal whose intelligence must compensate for a lack of instincts and for inadequate adaptation to the living world. The psychological affront: our conscious ego is not master in its own house.”
Rather than reassuring us with notions of God, social justice, technological progress or the unburdening of psychotrauma as salvation, Boll nowadays lets all the affronts hang open from beginning to end, providing violent spectacle as a near consolation for his uncompromising philosophical stance. By no means do his films create new sculpted desires for the viewer, as Slavoj Zizek claims movies do, but rather repel your desire even to watch another film afterward.
Films that don’t create cinephelia? Blasphemy!
6. Playground of Clichés
If you do not read into the films the same philosophical standpoint as above, fear not! You may still find a wealth about filmmaking contained within them. Most filmmakers are trying to tell the story they need to tell with attractive images and sounds, but under-budget. Boll is no different, but the clichés he deploys in order to reach that Spartan goal are reconfigured such that you either don’t know where the film is going or know it so far in advance as to be able to fast-forward to the sex and violence, which I consider to be a good thing.
Use the films as an opportunity for analysis of what “clichés” are. What Boll tends to do is to subvert the clichés, usually in an unsubtle fashion, such that the viewer thinks they are A) being subjected to clichés anyway, B) actually freed from the emotional pull of the cliché, and C) smarter than Boll. Take a close look at In the Name of the King, tell me how it compares to, say, Lord of the Rings, and then tell me how the latter isn’t cliché whereas the former is…
7. Internet Bashing
If nothing else, Boll’s films are incommensurate with the negative attention paid to them by tech-savvy Internet users. They are in many ways no more aesthetically awful than direct-to-video, made-for-TV schlock such as Bone Eater (2007) or Kaw (2007) made about the same time for a similar demographic. We just don’t take Jim Wynorski or Sheldon Wilson respectively to task for such schlock because they A) are North American and B) haven’t gone near a video game adaptation.
Thus we should look at the films – in light of the “Internet bashing” phenomenon – as somehow fulfilling an emotional need. Maybe based on the model of Orwell’s “Two Minutes of Hate” from 1984. Specifically video games elicit a strong emotional attachment when they are initially played, and somehow strong feelings of inadequacy arise when “bad” movies adapt their story worlds.
A topic for further analysis.
8. Build a Better Video Game Film
How many great video game films have you (honestly) seen in your lifetime? Are you willing to defend Super Mario Brothers: The Movie (1993) based on some criteria other than the irony or alternative cinephilic consumption I’ve outlined above? How about Doom (2005) or Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li (2009), both directed by Polish cameraman Andrzej Bartkowiak?
Video games already permeate our film aesthetic – just look at District 9 or the new Scott Pilgrim movie. The question is how to deliver a solid video-game film without gutting the components that fans are attached to, and there are no easy answers given the current state of the film industry.
But if Boll’s video game adaptations are examples of what not to do, then shouldn’t we discern what we do want from the video-game film from counter-examples? The best way to learn about cinema, after all, is to watch the worst films imaginable and take very good notes. If Boll’s films don’t teach us very much, then they aren’t exactly in the worst films imaginable category, now are they?
9. Understand the Material Insecurity underlying the Film Industry and, well, Capitalism
Ultimately what Boll’s filmmaking illustrates is the perpetual crisis in the film industry that goes unnoticed by most film consumers, and which the studios and film foundations endeavor to cover up. This is actually the subject of Uwe Boll’s June 24th talk at the HFF Konrad Wolf in Potsdam-Babelsberg – feature film financing outside of television and grant funding.
For more information about how Boll’s films relate to national politics and transnational money flows, read my article.
Otherwise, rent a film from this list and then have an opinion on the director.
You might be surprised by what you think.
-posted by guyintheblackhat