Man of Steel: A Thoughtful Film that Gets Superman Right

June 14, 2013

I have attempted to avoid spoilers in this review, but different people have different spoiler thresholds. Caveat emptor.

We all bring baggage of some kind into the art we experience, even if it’s not liking art or never having seen Mad Men because you’re lame. Sometimes it’s an intense identification with a character who’s celebrating his seventy-fifth birthday this year. But maybe you’re in the “don’t like ‘splosions” crowd or the “NO CHANGES!” confederacy or you really just like Batman uber alles. I get that. I’ve been some of those people.

I love Superman. As a kid, I wore Superman pajamas until they didn’t fit anymore, and continued for a while even after my feet burst

Christopher Reeve as Superman

Christopher Reeve as Superman

through the soles of the stocking part. I watched Christopher Reeve in Superman: The Movie as often as I could, and Terence Stamp was my idea of self-important rebel leaders before I knew what that really meant. I watched whatever the hell Superman III and IV were supposed to be, and they kind of freaked me out (III came out when I was 2, so I probably saw it for the first time when I was 4 or 5. At least one scene in that movie is *intense*). I watched Supergirl, and a not so successful Superboy TV show, and Lois & Clark, a dull show with some inspired performances.

My main takeaway from what I saw in Superman in films and television and a very few comics read in the supermarket while Mom was grocery shopping, is that if we have the chance, we should help people. Even when the bad guy is the one who needs help. Maybe, if you’re the only one who can help but that help may kill you, you still help. Even if it seems impossible, you still try, no matter the odds. Superman does everything, and anything, he can, to help people who need his help.

Superman made sense to me. He has amazing gifts, but he doesn’t use them for frivolity like financial gain or athletics. He uses his powers to make a decent living for himself as a normal guy, and to help other people who wouldn’t be helped if he weren’t there. To make a difference.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve established a more complex view of how Superman’s powers work and should be used, and as I’ve been reading up on the modern era of Superman comics these last few months, I’m glad to see that comic book writers think with greater complexity on these issues, too. Superman is still a good man, who uses his powers to help people, and sometimes entire civilizations. I’m on board with that. But he is also a man: he makes mistakes, and he lives in a world where sometimes, the morally correct choice isn’t between the good and the bad, it’s between the bad and the awful, or the bad and the vaguely worse. He can’t always solve problems by being faster, stronger, or smarter than the bad guys. Stories don’t always have happy endings. Like the real world. I’m happy with this version of Superman: I like the big blue Scout, but a man of his stature surely encounters issues more complex than whether to save a kitten from a tree.

As I entered Man of Steel, I was a man who wears the shield of El as a ring on his finger every day, with the experience of reading thousands of comic books and dozens of graphic novels and a few scholarly essays on the subject of my favorite hero. Can Man of Steel live up to the Superman I believe in, a man who saves the world by helping people, by using his abilities in a good cause, by fighting when there is no fight left in him, while still acknowledging that even the powers of a god can’t solve every problem in a clean, positive way?

Happily, it managed to meet and exceed those wishes, and I am very happy for its success. It is complex, has substantial arcs for each of its three leads (who I take to be Clark, Lois, and Zod), and gets Superman right: he’s a great man. Flawed, but still great. [Warning: there may be spoilers beyond this point. I tried to avoid them, but there are some plot details you might not want to know]

Read the rest of this entry »

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The Anti-Immersive Experience: WarioWare Smooth Moves (2007)

June 4, 2013

After co-editing the book Immersive Gameplay, it seems only appropriate that I kvetch a little about the word “immersion.” I’m not the first one to do so. Gamers often see it as their holy grail, just as “entertainment” was seen by earlier media consumers as some sort of objective. The functionality of the term is obvious: people want to distinguish the experience of being “immersed/entertained” within a given media environment versus the monotony of everyday life, with all its setbacks and drudgery.

Yeah, I get it. The “immersion” is that thing you’re paying money for, right? Never mind Jesper Juul’s recent essay The Art of Failure, which depicts just how much we rely on failing and negative emotion to engage us with media such as video games in the first place. Never mind how games consistently play with the boundaries between meta-level and narrative thinking. Consumers fervently believe that game designers are creating responsible playgrounds in which they can lose themselves. Said consumers often don’t realize they’re in the hands of perverse madmen and madwomen, who are incentivizing strange behavior… such as sitting in front of a screen for nine hours on a nice day. Let’s face it: we gamers are usually the subs in a dom/sub relationship, and our presumed “immersion” in a game usually relies on how good that sub position feels. Oh. Yes.

But there’s one game in particular that makes our gamer subbiness self-evident, that offers a Brechtian moment of truly alienating game activity, that maintains consciousness of gaming’s postmodern and metacognitive impulses.

Of course, I’m talking about WarioWare Smooth Moves (2007) for the Nintendo Wii.

_-WarioWare-Smooth-Moves-Wii-_

Perhaps the total antithesis to a game like Journey (2012), WarioWare Smooth Moves is an anti-immersive experience of the first order. The game consists of over 200 mini-games, each of which require the player to hold the WiiMote in a different, silly fashion. As the player marches through the levels, the tempo of the music and gameplay increases until the player is forced to drop out. This level-based acceleration might be no different from any old coin-op arcade game set-up, but each mini-game is so radically different on an aesthetic level that half the gameplay involves the mere successful assimilation of each new game environment and its surreal contents.

Take a look:

The game has been pitched in many circles as a “crazy party game” or “wack Japanese game,”  but I think it’s more than that. In highlighting the general ADD quality of the videogame environment, its materiality (through the game’s continuous citation of previous Nintendo products and characters), and its almost pointless interaction cues, it is impossible to play WarioWare Smooth Moves without also remaining acutely aware of the fact that this Wii machine in front of you is demanding that you do things. The music is annoying, and nevertheless the player finds oneself dancing to it. The WiiMote moves are deliberately silly and presented ironically, and yet the player must perform them on cue and in under 5 seconds. The visuals make absolutely no sense – even to the Japanese – and yet their druggy surrealism forms a core component of our interaction with the game (similar to the analog game Dixit). As Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) deconstructs the melodrama by way of demonstrating its excesses, so too does WarioWare Smooth Moves offer a mini-game experience so thoroughly excessive as to render the term “game” meaningless. Instead, the player is reacting to a series of disconnected stimuli in an empirical hell only Ernst Mach could have conceived (or WarioWare Smooth Moves creator Goro Abe, for that matter). Abe permits the player to stare into the architecture of game incentives by way of a pointillist archive of mini-games with their own ludic flavors. Each mini-game issues its own command: “Drink!” “Rotate!” “Defend!” “Sort!” But only when the player pauses to observe what bizarre situation the game has presented can he/she coherently carry out this “verb” with the WiiMote.

Our goals as game players and designers should reach beyond “immersion” to that cognitive space beyond the placation of our senses. The new cyber-modernity demands its own forms of alienation, and new cult classics such as WarioWare Smooth Moves have stepped up to the plate. No longer dismissing such programs as “crazy” and “Japanese,” the discerning gamer can now see how the game itself thinks. There, one finds not immersion, but truly new and unusual territory to explore.


You Need to Read My Struggle: Volume 1 A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard

June 3, 2013

Book recommendation: My Struggle, Book One

Continuing with my intermittent attempts to blog about the best books I read this year, today I am recommending the first volume of the English-language edition of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s colossal work My Struggle. Yeah, you read that correctly. My struggle. It sounds worse in Norwegian: Min kamp.

Ouch. No, I assure you, the title is not what you’re thinking. 

What is there for me to write, though, other than “go read it?” I feel it might be somewhat within the spirit of the novel to torture you with a hundreds-or-thousands-words-long blog post first. Briefly, the book is the first of a six-volume series concerning Knausgaard’s first forty-odd years of life; the first volume, called A Death in the Family concerns both Knausgaard’s youth and the later death of his father.

But bear with me. Even as the popular media seems to regard with suspicion the institution of books that are difficult and devoid of sparkly vampire romance, I, at least, still strongly believe in the value of those nearly-intractable books that one must work at in order to understand.

And that’s why I think you should read My Struggle. The one-sentence summary, which is by necessity vapid, would describe this work as a six-volume attempt to describe, in almost excruciating detail, his own struggle: with his consciousness, mostly, though also with his family, self, society, etc. There is also an implicit struggle, that of the reader with the text and him or herself, which I’ll discuss later. 

The six-volume series, of which volume two came out in English in early May, has been compared to both Proust and Hitler, which is actually really impressive if you think about it. However, the similarities are obviously superficial. First, the title is, obviously, deliberately provocative and has otherwise nothing in common with Hitler’s prison memoir.  Second, while Proust’s and Knausgaard’s projects are about the – forgive me – struggle to depict the vagaries of consciousness, Knausgaard has little in common with Proust other than the fact that both are European writers whom very few would categorize as minimalists.  

Much has been made in the media of the “Faustian bargain” Knausgaard allegedly struck by depicting in unsparing detail his family. Reviewers, I have noticed, seem obsessed with either pigeonholing the book into the category of overly long, abstruse European books (and this is the only gee-shucks-it’s-long comment I’ll make: it is awfully hard to pigeonhole a 3500-page work into anything) or into the category of autobiography. I feel this reductive assessment does the book something of a disservice. Instead, I’ll do it a disservice all my own!

One of the strengths of Knausgaard’s writing, I believe, lies not on its sheer breadth or depth, but in how by amassing detail on this scale, Knausgaard seems to make his episodic narrative seem effortless. Superficially, it may seem as though the book is an overstuffed exercise in shameful excess, yet considering the authorial choices Knausgaard made regarding what to include – a cat stretching, his own extremely detailed tossing and turning – the book begins to feel almost cinematic. That is, not in the way so much recent fiction has  – by this I mean fiction evoking the cinema, if not cynically with a book deal in mind in terms of pacing, character descriptions, etc., but a fiction that takes its storytelling conventions from cinema more than from the tradition of the written word. But with Knausgaard, that which would otherwise seem a haphazard jungle of detail becomes part of an elegant and strategically-planned opus.

 Instead, My Struggle seems to evoke a dreamy aesthetic evocative of Rohmer or Fassbinder in its lingering, unforgiving gaze, an aesthetic with an inverted time-content curve. The book is far more Jeanne Dielman* than Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I enjoyed so much of My Struggle, but when I started thinking of it as a cinematic book in the style of “European” cinema, I felt something click. So much of the pleasure of the novel resides in being inside someone’s deeply uncomfortable mind and in looking until it becomes uncomfortable. This framework made me feel like I “got” what it was Knausgaard was trying to do.

Much has been made of the affinities the book shares with our culture of oversharing and reality television. We accept now with relatively little fuss the exhaustive celebrity pabulum that passes for news in this culture, and with only the slightest bit of derision do we welcome new trends in social networking and surveillance. Much of asserting one’s identity within a certain socio-cultural class these days seems to revolve around emphasizing one’s non-participation in these phenomena. One could then make an argument about taste politics here: what makes My Struggle interesting is its engagement – as a piece of “high-brow” literature – with the dynamic that functions as an engine of “low-brow” culture (i.e., reality television). In that sense, the title could refer to the struggle felt by the typical overeducated, socially conscious, insufferably liberal reader (i.e., myself). Here one could return to the NYTimes piece linked earlier, of which I’m not a fan (although that is a shambolic rant for another day). How can a reasonably aware, socially and politically conscious, pseudo-intellectual reader struggle with reconciling the basest human tendencies of voyeurism in an oversaturated media culture and attempting to – in a bowdlerization of this very blog’s tagline – nourish one’s mind with challenging literature?

Obviously, my solution to this struggle was to write a less elegantly-planned-but-similarly-overlong blog post. 

I think it could then be said that My Struggle transcends these taste cultures (which themselves might be cultures of social class) in a very subtly confrontational way, and for that reason, I consider it essential reading. But don’t take my words for it. 

Have you read My Struggle (Vol. 1)? If so, what did you think?

(For a full list of everything I’ve read this year, and to be social networking friends, see Goodreads).

* “Plot keywords: meat loaf.” I LOL-IRL’ed