Almodóvar’s Kika (1993) – Postmodern Comedy at its Best

February 13, 2013

The last couple of months have been quite stressful. Strangely enough, I have found the ultimate relief in early Almodóvar films.

Almodovar on the set of Kika

“Almodóvar?” you ask. “Isn’t that the director who makes those flamboyant, disturbing Spanish movies with Antonio Banderas or Penelope Cruz? How can those be stress relief?”

I respond to your rhetorical question with another one posed by A.O. Scott:

“Can there be such a thing as exuberant melancholy?”

No, seriously – Tony’s question is a valid one with regard to Almodóvar’s films. How can he make movies that breathe so well – that can be funny, disturbing and tragic all at the same time without resorting to recognizable clichés? Whether or not one buys into the auteur theory, Almodóvar has an unmistakable directorial signature that nevertheless produces a very different film every time. To quote Tony again, “[his] plots thicken and explode according to their own peculiar logic.” (Which is why I’m s0 excited about I’m So Excited.)

Kika

Kika is an uneven, postmodern, self-conscious mess with spectacular pacing and characterization. The film is about an upbeat protagonist in a vicious, cruel society full of the depraved and the depressed, much like in Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky (2008). It has all the trappings of a dark comedy, but Almodóvar (as with many of his early comedies) reaches for the bottom of the abyss.

SPOILERS FROM HERE ON DOWN

The titular protagonist is a make-up artist who gets involved in affairs with a voyeuristic photographer and his writer/serial killer father Nicholas. The apex of the film occurs when the voyeur son Ramón films from a distant apartment as Kika is raped three times by a randy prison escapee, all whilst Ramón’s father murders a woman in the bedroom upstairs. While any other film would frame this moment in the most misogynistic terms imaginable – emphasizing the voyeuristic affinities between the spectator and the three male perpetrators – Almodóvar manages to play the scene for laughs (i.e., the rapist convict lasts for a ridiculously long time), and our sympathies never stray from Kika and her companions.

And so I got to thinking about HBO comedies and all this long-form television that people so hungrily consume these days… and how all of it could be so much darker and sympathetic toward women, if only Almodóvar were at the helm. Discussions of Bertolt Brecht recall how good the director was at drawing connections between material conditions and the agency of those characters who must endure them. Almodóvar outclasses Brecht by finding endless labyrinths of desire within both the society and characters who maneuver within it, such that we are constantly transitioning between ironic and melodramatic registers in a fashion pleasurable to the astute viewer.

I don’t think it’s on Netflix (OK, it’s on Hulu Plus.) But it’s a gem worth seeking for its total reconfiguration of genre, expectation, and gendered expectations of narrative. An invasive-but-friendly brain massage.

In an age that continuously exalts novelty, I’m suddenly excited to re-watch all the titles from the 1980s and 90s that I seem to have curiously missed.


Up a Creek and Against All Odds – Blowback Role-Playing Game

February 16, 2011

Blowback Cover

As Giorgio Agamben establishes in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, human history can be summarized in terms of sovereign states separating citizens (with rights, privileges, protections) from “bare life” – mere human bodies excepted from the law and fully subject to the forces of the world arrayed against them.

Blowback by Elizabeth Shoemaker Sampat is a role-playing game that explores what happens when citizens with exemptions (i.e., government-backed operatives) suddenly become bare lives, which then threaten the mere citizens (i.e., the civilians) about whom they still care.  This “caring” transforms from a passive activity into an active, perilous dance.  As Sampat beautifully puts it:

All you have, all you are, is you. So you make nice with the few people who’ll have you, and rely on them more than you should – but if you’re too cold or uncaring, they’ll turn on you. And if you care too much, the people who are after you will exploit them to hurt you. And if you cared about them at all, you wouldn’t care about them even a little.

Sampat has framed the game as “heavily inspired by the American teleivision show Burn Notice and movies like the Bourne trilogy.”  Some reviews have mentioned the game overstates this influence a bit, but I appreciate that the game knows where it is coming from and proudly wears this badge on its shoulder.  The media that inspire the game are just a springboard, however, for a whole host of questions concerning our ability to function under stress – specifically the stressful conditions imposed by our would-be action movie – and what that does to our relationship to our environment, ourselves and, well, our relationships.

In Blowback, you play a mixture of Professionals and Civilians who have suddenly become interconnected by a botched mission.  While this premise appears incredibly specific, it appears to be to the spy genre what the dame-walks-into-the-private-eye’s-office trick is to film noir: Salt (2010),  Eye of the Needle (1981), The American (2010), The Replacement Killers (1998) — they’ve all got traces of the “botched job” trope.  The GM plays The Agency opposite them, whose role is to turn up the heat under the characters at strategic moments, all the while teasing us with details about the botched job.  The player-characters often find themselves caught between their past and present, with the future virtually unforeseeable (except as a repository for further anxiety).

The game system itself puts you into a fairly rigorous but easy-to-follow flowchart of action, with a lot riding on the tense web of relationships generated in the early part of play (this is an indie game, after all).  The dramaturgy of every session is structured by an individual Job — a man wants to be extracted from his company, a little girl hires you to track down the man who killed her father, whatever — that is further subdivided into the Analysis, Operation and Blowback phases.  Each offer you a chance to indulge in all the cliches of the spy genre while inventing your own:  Analysis is where you trick cameras and bribe informants, Operation is when your plan goes awry but generally alright, and Blowback is where you find out that it’s not okay for you to kidnap visiting state dignitaries and put them in your brother’s garage.  You get a certain number of overall actions, and legible flowcharts within each phase let you figure out the consequences of your decision-making/dice-rolling.  Game echoes of Cyberpunk or Shadowrun, where you assemble crack teams for jobs, mix with the television-relationship dynamics of games like Smallville or Primetime Adventure.  As Sampat was on the playtesting crew for Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World, her careful delineation of The Agency’s responsibilities in making the player-characters’ lives “not boring” remains in dialog with Baker’s game on many levels.  Unlike Apocalypse World, however, “opportunities should always seem like the result of what’s happening in the game, not a result of the roll.”  The game’s architecture insists that story remain queen of the realm.

The system and the book itself (printed in glossy full-color) aside, Blowback has some philosophical subtlety built into its design.  The bare life principle, for example, foregrounds the notion of human expendability in the face of modern systems of control and governance.  You as the player-character suddenly begin to take a good, hard look at your surroundings and ask yourself: what are my resources here in Great Falls, MT?  Who here can I trust?  Where does this podunk town fit into the great game?  Then you open your eyes and see it:  at least in the United States, the military-industrial complex surrounds us. It has hardened into a kind of invisible carapace that nevertheless locks us into untenable courses of action:  wars we cannot win in distant countries, mass-scale corruption, families dependent and vulnerable on the few industries that remain, guns sold over the counter to dubious people, and so forth.  And the beginning of heroic action against/within this complex comes from our interpersonal relations, that we ourselves might personally experience the consequences of violence and intrigue and try to spare others from the same.  Blowback thus co-opts the often corporate-fantasy-dominated spy genre for the purposes of exploring what happens when the insulation that keep our professional and personal lives apart is removed, when the ugly foundation of world power is exposed through a seemingly inconsequential “gray op.”

On the one hand, Blowback is all good guys, bad guys and explosions.  And on the other, it’s all instant pain, hope and social critique.  Honestly, what else are you looking for in a role-playing game?

And beyond that, can any of us – Pro or Civilian – survive being cut off?


“Magicians Don’t Exist” – The Illusionist (2010)

February 21, 2010

Though the “buzz” this year at the 60th Berlinale has been primarily reserved for films like Scorcese’s Shutter Island (2010) and Polanski’s The Ghost Writer (2010) (the latter of which just won the Silver Bear for Best Director tonight), a real gem outside of the buzz lay in the obscure reaches of the “Berlinale Special Gala” section, namely director Sylvain Chomet‘s latest 2D animated feature, the UK/French co-production The Illusionist (2010).

I saw the world premiere at the Kino International in Berlin on February 16, 2010 with Chomet in attendance.  It was quite excellent.

In case you want to skip to “what I think” of the film as a cultural consumer in shorter blurb form, here it is with complimentary quotation marks:

“A bittersweet and arguably timeless encounter between the theater of attractions and the television-centric post-war world.  Chomet has not so much created a hyperbolic version of our reality (as in Triplets of Belleville), but rather has created a living archive of Edinburgh ca. 1959 that troubles the boundaries of nostalgia.”

There you have it.  The rest, as they say, is details.

2/3 of the Plot

I won’t spoil the film here too much, so I’ll describe the film in the classic “2/3 of the film” format embodied in so many trailers and film publicity:

Europe 1959: An aging illusionist finds diminishing audiences for his productions as he is supplanted by new forms of entertainment such as rock n’ roll.  When he travels to an obscure isle off Scotland celebrating the introduction of electricity (the very technology displacing his brand of entertainment), he gets to know the daughter of a local family.  The girl sneaks off with the illusionist, and winds up living with him in Edinburgh as he struggles to scrape together a living.  There they meet challenges that will test the bounds of their relationship…

Background

The script to this mostly silent film was originally written by French filmmaker Jacques Tati in 1956.  Chomet got the script in 2000 from Sophie Tatischeff, Tati’s daughter, and has been working on it with his team over the last decade.  There is some strong overlap between Tati’s biography and the content of the film, such that the illusionist in the film even resembles the famous director down to his minute movements.  The film had a budget of 10 million pounds, primarily provided by the French film company Pathé.

For an old-school animator, Chomet has a remarkable record of attracting banal controversies, from Nicolas De Crécy’s allegations of plagiarism regarding The Triplets of Belleville (2004), to his off-hand remarks after he moved to Edinburgh about how Scottish art schools insufficiently trained their animators, from the fraught development of a surrealist “Scottish Simpsons” TV show called The Clan to accusations by Jacques Tati’s grandson that The Illusionist writes Tati’s illegitimate daughter Helga out of the family history.  When placed next to each other, however, these “controversies” appear relatively tame and more the product of scandalization mechanisms within the modern media attention economy rather than missteps on the director’s part.  Nevertheless, Chomet bears a somewhat tarnished image within the international animation community, perhaps if only for completing The Illusionist nearly three years behind schedule and needing to export much of the cell animation on the project to presumably underpaid South Korean animators.

Why Magicians Don’t Exist

If you watch The Illusionist, however, you can actually see Chomet’s relationship with this “tarnish.”  The film is an allegory of the artist’s relation to indifferent socio-economic processes, an open-ended narrative about the cruelty of the system in which one must ply one’s trade.  In a fateful moment of the film, the illusionist writes the girl a note simply stating that “Magicians don’t exist.”  Chomet elaborated on this point in the discussion after the film:

“I’m not trying to say with this film that magic doesn’t exist.
Ask any animator and they can prove you wrong.  But Tatischeff
believes that magicians don’t exist – these people who can
constantly perform miracles for an expectant audience.”

I’m paraphrasing, of course, but the point rings true through the content of the film:  we see that people are somewhat impressed by the magic that the illusionist practices, despite the pathetic ambience of the music hall and his not having control over his rabbit in the hat, but no one can truly live off such tricks.  There is no magician trade; just schmucks who can make a few bucks off their magic.  I actually recall Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006) bearing a similar message, with Hugh Jackman’s character declaring that “the audience knows the truth: the world is simple. It’s miserable, solid all the way through.”  In an era when filmmakers can easily make a successful first film, but almost inevitably choke on hard financial realities when attempting to make their second film, Chomet’s portrait of the artist under capitalism is finely depicted.

There are some who might call The Illusionist nostalgic, but that would be their own misreading of the text.  The magician’s rabbit is hostile, the unwilling slave of the magician.  Every car that drives by is foregrounded on the soundtrack, a continuous reminder of the loudness of the consumer automobile age.  Computer animation effects are mixed in with the 2D cell animation (as Hayao Miyazaki did in Ponyo, for example) when more dramatically effective, soiling the work’s aesthetic “purity.”  The characters seem selfish and more than a little naive.  What we are seeing, rather than nostalgia, is the modernist confrontation between two parallel systems of entertainment capital, vaudeville/music halls vs. television/radio (and cell animation vs. CGI animation), neither morally superior but one supplanting the other nevertheless.  The film roots itself in the polemics of the 70s animated film The Mouse and His Child (1977), in which the Old meeting the New reveals the tragic flaws of both.  This is also not to forget similar overtones in Triplets:  the three vaudeville flappers leading impoverished existences in order to maintain careers as artists.

All that being said, the real magic of Chomet’s work will forever be sealed in his treatment of animals:  the persistently dog-like dog of Triplets has met its match in the persistently rabbit-like rabbit in The Illusionist.  Human beings may be like objects trapped in time and circumstance, but the animals preserve the spontaneity and personality that keeps us going to animated films.

-posted by guyintheblackhat


Attention: JT365 Photo Project

December 16, 2009

Today, Jeremy Tolbert (friend of many of us here at the Buffet) started his JT365 project. He intends to take and post a picture every day for a year. If you somehow foolishly failed to check out his Dr. Roundbottom project back when I first linked to it, you may have been unaware that Mr. Tolbert can do amazing things with a camera. Now you have another chance to discover this!

Today’s picture is an an almost eerily futuristic look at a grain silo. Go look.

See? Isn’t it neat?

A note about Jeremy’s photos. One of the commenters on his regular blog noted that his photos often look “tweaked.” Jeremy’s response was interesting to me, because I think most of us who just point-and-shoot don’t often think about the art of photography:

Well, yeah, they’re HDR. That’s kind of the point. I don’t believe in taking photographs, I believe in making them. I can understand your point of view, of course, but what I do isn’t documentary-style photography.

I am personally of the opinion that this makes his stuff all the more interesting, because it’s certainly not anything I can do with a camera. I look forward to the coming year.

-Dana


The Top Eleven Old Skool Video Games in No Particular Order

July 29, 2009

In this Gilded Age of the motion-controlled Wii, the Internet-friendly X-Box 360, the mega-military hardware of the Playstation 3, the guitar and drum controllers, the upcoming Project Natal motion-capture controllers and all the rest, I find it somehow refreshing to delve into the “classics” on emulation (without needing to pay a cent by the way!)  See anything you haven’t played?  Now’s the time to become more gamer-literate!

1. Rampage (1986)Lizzie passive-aggressively clings to the building she destroys

Play George (a.k.a. King-Kong), Lizzie (a.k.a. Godzilla), or Ralph (um… Fenris or Amarok?) as they destroy major metropolitan areas and eat human beings while being shot at by military forces.  I distinctly recall first learning of the existence of cities such as Duluth and Toledo through this game, as well as the lesson that most U.S. cities look pretty much the same when they’re being kicked to the ground by giant monsters.  Requiring almost no brainpower, yet fulfilling a deep-seated wish to be in control over the destruction of one’s own civilization, Rampage will remain a pick-up game for all ages for years to come.

2. X-Men – The Arcade Game (1992)

Back when I was growing up, the malls still had thriving video-game arcades with an assortment of quarter-eaters to waste my disposable income.  The best of these was a 6-player, 2-screen beat-em-up extravaganza starring none other than Cyclops, Wolverine, Colossus, Storm, Nightcrawler and Dazzler.  Few people might understand the joy of being one of 6 pre-pubescent boys crowding around a set of sweaty joysticks and beating the living tar out of a giant pile of mooks that come at you on-screen.  I’ll be this one would still make money in any surviving arcades today.  Not too many 6-player games came after this one, after all…

3. Full Throttle (1995)

“You know what would look good on your nose?”

“What?”  *nose ring grabbed and slammed down on the bar*

“The bar. Now don’t mess around with me.”

Probably one of the best animated adventure games released for the PC, Full Throttle showcases the best of LucasArts’ SCUMM engine while offering a meaty array of bad jokes and crazy biker action (including a climax involving a chase between a bike, a semi and a wing-less cargo plane).  I find I can just sit someone down at the computer and play through it in about 2.5 hours… the length of a solid, well-made animated movie.

4. Maelstrom (1993)

Ambrosia Software certainly didn’t invent Asteroids – the 1979 Golden Age game that served as part of Atari’s main stable of games – but they certainly brought it into the 90s for the Macintosh user.  Chock full of Simpsons, Beatles and other pop cultural references in its soundtrack and brightly colored, 3-D-looking sprites, this game plays like a hyperactive stepchild who found the meth supply… in space.  Now if only they were to option this for a movie!

5. Maniac Mansion (1987)

Not to spend this whole blog singing LucasArts’ praises, but they did produce some damn fine adventure games.  A group of hapless teenagers are off to save their cheeleader friend Sandy from a sentient evil meteor and the weird family it has corrupted in a mansion filled with surprises.  Maniac Mansion adopts much of the crazy object-based logic puzzles inherent to the genre (“So I need to grab the faucet handle in the garage to turn on the shower to move the corpse to find the number I can call Nurse Edna with so I can get her out of the room so another kid can get up to the telescope and steal her money while they’re at it.”) but it self-referentially mocks its own silly set of errands often enough.  You can stick the hamster in the microwave in some versions!

6. Super Bomberman (1993)

Many nights I slept not a wink because of this Super Nintendo game’s excellence.  In Battle Mode, 4 players have two minutes to be the last one alive in a grid filled with bombs laid by you and your fellow players going off every which way.  A 30-second looping soundtrack amplifies the tension in ways you wouldn’t believe.  Most of its sequels are actually not as good as this original, a fact for which I cannot account.

7. Cyborg Justice (1993)

1993 must’ve been a good year for video games in my mind… This Sega Genesis beat-em-up features a combination of excellent sprite graphics and over-the-top ultra-violence (i.e., you can rip off an opponent’s arm and use it as your own).  You’re a cyborg and you’re seeking, well, justice!  It’s too bad that Sega was never able to keep up with the other franchises – their game design was always above-par.

8. Return to Zork (1993)

’93 also saw Activision’s great adventure game release Return to Zork, which pre-dated Myst by several months and involved a much more interactive environment than said game.  In any given room, you can do like 50 things involving various objects you’ve picked up, etc.  What I really enjoy about this is the Neil Gaiman-esque dark fairy tale plot and the video-captured actors whom you can all kill if you get frustrated (and then you’re told by a guy in a funny coat that you can’t complete the game!)

9. XCom (1993)

Speaking of 1993, there was a turn-based strategy game for the PC produced by MicroProse that knocked our socks off.  In XCom, aliens have invaded Earth and you’re part of a worldwide task force sent to kick their ass.  The game features a sophisticated tactical engine copied by games like Fallout and later games like Freedom Force.  I watched fellow college students piss away whole semesters on this thing…

10. Marathon (1994)

So you’ve played Halo, right?  Let’s call it “Marathon 4” and be done with it.  Marathon brought all kinds of innovation to the first-person shooter table:  network multi-player, a flexible map and sprite editor, and an intricate plotline of an almost literary quality.  You play a marine dispatched to a multi-generational colony ship that is under alien attack and has multiple AIs also vying for control of your activities.  We used to haul computers over to each other’s houses just for the opportunity to kill each other on maps we had created.

11. Hunt the Wumpus (1973)

The scariest game ever. You’re hunting a goddamn wumpus with these crooked arrows, and if you miss, it’ll come and eat you.  It fills your screen with its awful face.  I played this on my Commodore back when I was like 6, only to discover that the labyrinth is a cruel place.  The psychological environment of this deceptively simple game still gets me every time.

In summary, 1993 may have been a pivotal year in game development history – self-conscious, impressively addictive games made their appearance around that time.  But at least in 2009, we can still revisit all of these classics! After all, all our culture is nostalgia.


History Needs More Dinosaurs

November 14, 2008

Via my fabulous friend Jeremy Tolbert, I received the following most awesome link:

Roadside Attraction: The Alternative History Theme Park Where Dinosaurs Fought in the Civil War

As the article says:

Most speculative fiction surrounding the American Civil War imagines how the world would be different had the Confederacy won its independence. But roadside attraction creator Mark Cline has imagined an entirely different kind of Civil War science fiction. His fiberglass creations tell the tale of a group of Union soldiers who discover a lost valley of dinosaurs in Virginia and plot to use them as weapons against the South.

You absolutely must click over there to see all the fantastic photos of the recreated dino vs. soldier battles. As you may notice in the first photo, things don’t appear to have gone exactly as the Yankees had planned. Given that I live in North Carolina and the museum is in Virginia, I’m definitely starting to feel the need to take a road trip.

What other ideas can you think of for alternative history theme parks you’d like to see?

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You Can Wear It Again, Part 2: Cover Her Face

August 21, 2008

It was a very proper wedding. The bride was elegantly dressed – the two bridesmaids were duly inferior – her father gave her away – her mother stood with salts in her hand, expecting to be agitated – her aunt tried to cry – and the service was impressively read by Dr. Grant.

– Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

Trying to trace the history of bridesmaids and the beginning of their existence is about as easy as tracing any other wedding tradition; between frustratingly unsourced statements and a tendency towards misty assertions like “For thousands of years, brides have …” when what’s really meant is “Every wedding I’ve heard of had this” it’s hard to say anything with complete confidence that it can’t be contradicted. The same is true of wedding veils; people obviously wore them, and still wear them, but there are gaps in the history which can’t be easily filled in. Interestingly, one of the few things about which we can be fairly certain is this: bridesmaids and bridal veils were originally intended to serve the same function, which was to protect the bride above all else.

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